Tech & Rights

#MeAndMyRights: Mass Surveillance Is Like a Chocolate Teapot

Why? Because it's useless and it's dangerous. Only traditional methods of gathering intelligence have helped security services stop terrorism. Mass surveillance, which doesn't produce results, is draining resources away from tools that actually work.

by Israel Butler

All the available evidence shows that when security services have managed to catch a genuine terrorist suspect, it's never been thanks to evidence gathered through mass surveillance. Instead, it's based on evidence from traditional methods of gathering information. These tried and tested tools include police investigations, targeted surveillance of suspects, information from informants or tip-offs from friends, relatives or members of the community that a suspect belonged to.

Read previous episodes of the #MeAndMyRights series

Similarly, research shows that it wasn't the lack of mass surveillance that prevented security services from intervening to stop the vast majority of terrorist attacks in the West since 2001. It's hard to find an attack where security services didn't actually already know some or all of the perpetrators beforehand. Security services weren't able to stop these perpetrators because they were not watching them closely at the time they carried out their attacks. Why not? There are usually three reasons, and none of them is the lack of mass surveillance. First, because the security services did not have the resources to watch all the suspects they would like to. So they have to prioritise. And sometimes, they get the prioritisation wrong. Second, because they ignored tip-offs about particular suspects they received from other governments’ security services. Third, because the security services were not good at sharing information with or acting on information from their own departments and other government services. What this shows is that mass surveillance is not part of the answer to terrorism. Rather, security services need to be better resourced and better organised. That would allow them to keep an eye on more known suspects and to cooperate properly with other authorities.

Mass surveillance is dangerous because it requires money for the equipment and staff to analyse and investigate the information, and yet it produces no results. The money and staff going into mass surveillance could be going into improving traditional forms of investigation that do actually make us safer. As well as this, mass surveillance is producing a lot of irrelevant information that distracts investigators from the genuine threats that they already know about.

Read previous episodes of the #MeAndMyRights series

There were some attacks during 2016 and 2017, for example the attack carried out with a lorry in Nice and several ‘lone wolf’ attacks in the USA and Germany, where the people involved were not already known to security services for a connection with terrorism or violent extremism. Usually, these people were known to other authorities, however – either for criminal activity and/or for mental health problems. Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, has warned that mental health problems, rather than a genuine ideological commitment to violent extremism, is a key factor behind ‘lone wolf’ attacks. Again, mass surveillance is not the right solution to deal with these kinds of attackers: why collect a huge pool of information from the general public when perpetrators tend to be individuals who have already come into contact with the authorities? Rather, it seems more sensible for governments to make sure: first, that they are providing proper care and support to individuals with mental health problems who might be vulnerable to being influenced to act violently; second, that they prevent people from being turned to violent extremism while in prison.

If you’d like more in-depth information or would like to follow up on the evidence and studies we refer to, you can take a look at our full report ‘Security through Human Rights’ here.

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