Open for debate

June 2, 2016

I wish to address five misconceptions in Ron Iphofen’s feature “Safety is more important than privacy” (28 April):

1. Human rights concerns hobble anti-terrorist surveillance
There is no evidence that recent terrorist attacks could have been prevented were it not for “privacy-related ‘obstacles’”. Intelligence and security agencies have considerable surveillance capabilities, but the challenge lies in selecting on whom to target their resources and in communicating across agencies and borders.

2. Technology will fix the problem for us
Technologies that could spot individuals wearing only one glove would likely drown security agencies with a huge number of false positives. Terrorists are adaptable, and it’s unlikely that such an indicator would work in the future.

3. The Snowden revelations made terrorists more aware of surveillance
Osama bin Laden stopped using his satellite phone in 1998 and relied on couriers, and nine years before Edward Snowden’s revelations, Al Qaeda published a 152-page document on US intelligence agencies. At the same time, many jihadists post comments on social media and use mobile phones from which intelligence agencies can collect metadata.

4. Encryption signifies that human rights concerns have trumped security concerns
The Apple v FBI case was sparked by an FBI agent mistakenly locking an iPhone. Encryption is used not only for individuals’ privacy but also to protect financial transactions. Besides, the US National Security Agency employs 40,000 people dedicated to finding new ways of intercepting electronic communications, and they adapt as old techniques fail. There are increasing opportunities for them ranging from our mobile devices to the Internet of Things.

5. Human rights campaigns are a threat to appropriate levels of surveillance
Intelligence and security agencies seem to belatedly accept that they should have begun this debate earlier as their work in a democratic society is based on informed public consent and a proper legal footing. Activists and journalists are a vital part of the checks and balances in a democratic society: we wouldn’t know of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstration Squad without them. A key issue with surveillance is proportionality. I think most people would agree that working undercover for so long that several SDS officers had children with activists just to gain advance information about a few demonstrations is wholly disproportionate.

David Harper
Reader in clinical psychology
University of East London


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