As some governments seem to intensify surveillance for the sake of counter-terrorism, the real threat to Europe is widespread violations of civil liberties
The Jan. 7 terrorist attack at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly magazine best known for publishing a controversial drawing of Prophet Muhammad in February 2006, triggered a massive response around the globe with millions, including world leaders, participating in solidarity marches. Ever since the assault, public debate in Europe and elsewhere has focused on freedom of expression while others, including Pope Francis, have maintained that there ought to be certain limits to such entitlements. A crucial meeting that took place in Washington last week, however, hints that certain governments are keen on exploiting the freedom of expression debate in order to intensify surveillance efforts.
U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron held a joint press conference at the White House on Friday, Jan. 16 to discuss a range of issues including the pressing issue of national security after the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the ever-growing risk of foreign fighters among Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) ranks returning home. Ahead of the meeting, U.K. media outlets, including the Daily Mail, reported that the British government would pressure the Obama administration to "crack down on Internet giants" suggesting that tech giants such as Google and Facebook have "a moral responsibility" to inform on suspicious accounts. What specifically would render any given online profile more suspicious than others and to what lengths governments would go in order to safeguard the constitutional rights of their citizens, of course, represent two crucial questions that remain unanswered – at least officially.
This particular item on the meeting agenda understandably predated the Charlie Hebdo attacks as the two governments announced the establishment of a new joint cybersecurity unit between law enforcement agencies and intelligence organizations in the wake of North Korea's Sony hacks, not Mr. Cameron's claim that "social media and the Internet is the primary way in which these terrorist organizations are communicating." In response to the British proposal to strong-arm tech companies, Obama assumed a more moderate approach by saying that "we shouldn't feel as if ... suddenly everything should be done by the wayside."
Obviously, the administration's public stance on the issue reflects the broader controversy that has surrounded the NSA since Edward Snowden, a former CIA systems administrator and a defense contractor with Dell, revealed thousands of classified documents demonstrating the extent of government surveillance on U.S. citizens and foreign nationals alike. And yes, most of us would rather see a U.S. president weighing the pros and cons before calling shots on key issues rather than jumping to conclusions. Judging from the way in which public debate has so rapidly consumed the freedom of expression argument and immediately replaced the original theme with the need for additional security measures and, therefore, surveillance for the sake of counter-terrorism, our friends in Europe must be ringing the alarm bells. The real threat to the European continent, after all, is not religious extremism, but widespread violations of civil liberties.