The Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner, Nils Muižnieks, has slammed the raft of new mass surveillance counter-terrorism measures spreading across Europe in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen.
With particular reference to UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposals to ban encryption and grant security services unregulated access to all digital communications, Muižnieks bluntly stated: “little has been learned from the Snowden affair about the danger to human rights.”
Muižnieks, a political scientist from Latvia, has submitted a report to the Council of Europe’s 47-member committee of ministers in which he argues that democratic EU governments must exercise caution over adopting new anti-terrorist legislation. He strongly advocates democratic oversight of the security services, which he says is currently “woefully inadequate” in much of Europe.
He states in the report: “The aftermath of the Paris attacks has … seen a broader debate about counter-terrorism in France and Europe. Some proposals – giving security services unfettered access to digital communications, banning encryption, etc. – suggest that little has been learned from the Snowden affair about the dangers to human rights, especially the right to privacy, of mass surveillance.”
Muižnieks’ intervention comes at a time when European interior ministers are prioritising the construction of an EU-wide agreement to create a passenger name data base for all travellers flying in and out of Europe and to compel internet companies to remove material promoting terrorism or extremism.
The danger of course is that legislative measures targeting clear and present dangers in the present could subsequently be misused to ban content that governments simply disapprove of – the meaning of “extremism” could all-too-easily morph when present threats recede.
The warning also coincides with a summit in Washington, in which UK Home Secretary Theresa May joins Barack Obama to discuss international and domestic measures to prevent violent extremists from radicalising, recruiting or inspiring others to commit acts of violence. The summit will include discussion of measures to increase information-sharing aimed at stemming the flow of foreign fighters to and from Iraq and Syria. The use of social media by extremists and terrorists to radicalise the vulnerable will also be discussed.
The danger, Muižnieks appears to be suggesting, is enacting privacy-violating laws in atmosphere of panic which will long outlive their original context.