Why political solidarity at the Paris Hebdo rally has become the most dangerous threat ever to privacy


 By Simon Davies

Anyone concerned about the future of privacy protection should take careful note of the fallout from the Charlie Hebdo shootings in France. The rapid chain of events in the days since then has triggered a domino effect of intrusive proposals and inflammatory rhetoric that could imperil the right to privacy for decades to come.

Of more immediate concern, the show of unity by world leaders at the Hebdo rally in Paris could very swiftly induce the 21st century’s most comprehensive global assault on personal liberties.

For the sake of context, it’s worth taking a moment to ask precisely why (and how) all those national leaders spontaneously appeared on the streets of Paris at the Hebdo rally. This is a critically important question, especially because media has almost universally bought the simplistic line that these leaders randomly came together in a show of unity for free speech and brotherhood.

A unified political front has possibly inflamed internal division within Europe

A unified political front has possibly inflamed internal division within Europe

I find this view implausible. Heads of state rarely converge in the cause of basic liberties – unless it’s as a pretext for conflict (consider the global hysteria of the Thatcher-Reagan led War on Drugs in the 1980’s).

Leaders converge even less frequently in the name of freedom of speech – an issue on which most of those political tsars at the Paris rally have an appalling track record. And yet, in an unprecedented display of irony, more than forty of them suddenly appeared in that sensational photo-op near the front line of the rally.

I say “more than forty” because – remarkably – a definitive list of those leaders isn’t readily discoverable. Few people in mainstream media view such a tally as relevant (other than the much-cited A-list of Hollande, Merkel, Cameron and Netanyahu).

Indeed it took a London School of Economics student, Daniel Wickham, to point out on Twitter the hypocrisy of France linking arms with the leaders of Egypt, Algeria, Russia, Tunisia et al in the name of freedom of speech.

Still, the mood of the Paris event was unity – and woe betide anyone who sullied that fantasy moment. After all, the rally – and its generic conclave of world leaders – didn’t merely represent a new accord; it also symbolised hope for the progress of democracy and rights. At least, such was the celebratory tone of most speeches.

But, returning to my original point, why and how did this happen? And why at this moment in history?

Protesters in Somalia: unimpressed by the unification message

Protesters in Somalia: unimpressed by the unification message

It is possible that an informal new axis is being formed, ostensibly on the basis of protection of free expression and peace, but in reality motivated by the need for a show of greater unity in the “war” on terror.

A much less reported security summit involving those national leaders had immediately preceded the rally. Another will follow next month in Washington DC. What all this activity indicates to me is that security agencies worldwide have agreed that the terror problem is likely to escalate. Or, at least, it will become more random, uncertain and politically volatile and sensitive.

If the motivation of the Paris alliance was indeed to forge a new axis on the terror front (‘security through unity’), it’s already serving that mission. Before the dust had even settled from the rally, a string of world leaders had begun talking up the need for greater security and reduced privacy.

One consequence of the unity front in Paris is that police and security services – many of which are already unaccountable and out of control – will have licence to push the limits of acceptable conduct. This may accelerate the trend to urban militarisation and universal surveillance.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron immediately proposed measures to limit the use of encryption while the Australian Attorney General used the Paris events as justification for greater powers for police and security services. Meanwhile, attempts by Denmark to reintroduce data retention were bolstered while tightened security measures were being talked up in the Netherlands and Austria. A string of political leaders from Canada to India have announced tougher security measures.

Italy, for example, plans to introduce a spectrum of new provisions granting more wide-ranging powers to police while in Belgium, the army crawls the streets while Ministers of defense and internal affairs are investigating a legislative amendment to allow the extension of wiretapping provisions to include incitement. Spain has introduced invasive and racist new security controls while the US contemplates a range of intrusive measures

Police activity in suburbia appears increasingly common, with high profile operations being conducted against people who express subversive views. In Antwerp, police have raided several homes and arrested people alleged to have been spreading “hate messages on social media”.

One consequence of the unity front in Paris is that police and security services – many of which are already unaccountable and out of control – will have licence to push the limits of acceptable conduct. This may accelerate the trend to urban militarisation and universal surveillance.

IBT has observed that the Paris attacks have created a profound effect on Europe’s political dynamics:

Across Europe, far-right and center-right parties are using the terrorist murders to make the case that their countries must crack down on immigration and get tougher on terrorism. Such rhetoric could also prompt leftist parties in Europe to harden their stance on civil liberties amid attacks from the right about being soft on security as several countries head to the polls this year

Writing in the EU Observer, political philosopher Bleri Lleshi went further, expressing concern that Europe is heading for a crisis of fear:

Looking at the profile of Greece’s Golden Dawn voters or supporters of the anti-immigrant anti-EU UKip, it appears that such parties are gaining popularity among socially excluded people.

And thereby hangs the tail. One obvious fallout from any unified position by governments is the risk of triggering conflict with those who feel displaced or isolated by the consensus. In the case of the Paris axis, a counter rally of 25,000 people took to the streets in Dresden the following week to oppose the “Islamisation” of Europe. This rally was roundly condemned by political leaders – a united front that, again, could nurture further hostility, isolation and possibly extremist action – and not from Islamic terrorists. This vicious cycle will benefit no-one.

The unified front in Paris was clearly aimed at sending a message of solidarity against those who would aim to destroy peace and freedom. The risk of this gambit is that millions more people will feel anger and frustration as the screws tighten furiously on their nationalist or racist agendas. This shouldn’t imply any support for nationalist or racist movements; meremy a declaration that all political strategies have consequences. I suspect security services fear that this chain of repercussions could set neighbourhood against neighbourhood.

There isn’t any easy answer, but what is absolutely beyond doubt is that the solution will not be found in a scorched-earth policy to destroy our dwindling freedoms.