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A Case for—and Against—Surveillance

A new French surveillance law might help authorities locate the terrorists behind the Charlie Hebdo attack. But it might also rob innocent civilians of their privacy rights.
(Photo: andersdenkend/Flickr)

(Photo: andersdenkend/Flickr)

Paris is on high alert as French authorities continue to hunt for two brothers suspected to be involved in Wednesday’s attack against the offices of Charlie Hebdo, which left 12 dead.

A broad new French surveillance law that went into effect on January 1 was originally seen as controversial after it quietly passed in late 2013. The law allows investigators access to individual’s mobile phones, Internet addresses, usernames, bank statements, and other personal data with the approval of an official from the National Commission for the Control of Security Interceptions, rather than a judge.

The Wall Street Journalexplains:

Aimed at speeding approval of surveillance requests, the law has raised hackles among privacy advocates and technology executives in part because it sidesteps judicial review. But intelligence and law-enforcement officials say the new rules bolster their vital ability to gather and connect digital bread crumbs from various sources to help them zero in on a target.

It’s not uncommon for lawmakers to modify established privacy protections in response to terrorist attacks, and France has had more than a few in recent years. The 9/11 attack is considered a critical event that brought about a broadening of police surveillance and search authority in the United States. That increased access to data streams like traffic cameras, satellite images, and mobile phone data can speed up high-stakes pursuits like the manhunt that followed the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the current investigation in France.

It's an unfortunate but necessary question: What’s at stake when, in the wake of these terrible events, the balance between safety and privacy shifts?

A paper published in Surveillance & Society in 2007 argues that since the scales have tipped in favor of police and other investigators, civilians have experienced diminished individual privacy that directly impacts several facets of civil life. The authors explain that police surveillance practices can influence the public’s perception of risk, which can, in turn, lead to heightened anxieties, avoidance of public spaces, and increased suspicion of others:

All together, expanding police surveillance activities have impacted civil life. Albeit framed in legal practices, these surveillance methods have affected the fragile balance between official authority and civil liberty. And they have exerted an influence on aspects of public life by raising the potential for alterations in public risk perception, anxiety, or personal decision making about public activities.

As lawmakers in France and around the globe react to emerging terrorism threats and new technologies, there will no doubt continue to be unforeseen consequences for the privacy of civilians.