January 09, 2015 | Pam Cowburn

The response to the Charlie Hebdo murders is not more untargeted surveillance

It is still too early to say what could and couldn't have been done to prevent the murder of 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris on Wednesday


We know that the Hebdo offices were already a target, having been firebombed in 2011, over the publication of a caricature of the prophet Mohammed. We know that the suspects Cherif and Said Kouachi were already known to the security services. We know that France, like the UK has powers to surveill its citizens and, unlike the UK, also has ID cards and an armed police force. But none of this prevented the murder of those 12 people. Despite this, the Head of MI5, Andrew Parker, has indicated that our security services need more powers to prevent similar attacks occuring in the UK.

Not only were the Hebdo murders a horrifying and brutal act, they were also an attack on freedom of speech. The public and private responses of sadness, anger and solidarity, have rightly included calls to defy the terrorists by protecting the very rights and freedoms, that they have attacked.

In the aftermath of such a horrific attack, it may be tempting to see government demands for more powers as the lesser of two evils. As the writer Dan Hodges put it, 'If one way of stopping obscenities like today is providing the security services a bit more access to our e-mails, we must give it to them.'

But as noted above, France's already extensive surveillance powers were not enough to prevent these attacks. While it may be tempting to acquiese to government demands, we don't protect our civil liberties by limiting them further. Mass surveillance treats us all as suspects, reverses the presumption of innocence and has a chilling effect on free speech.

Since Edward Snowden brought our attention to the blanket surveillance of our communications by the security services, there have been repeated calls for powers to scrutinise our personal communications. In the wake of public concern over privacy, the Director of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan took the unprecedented step of speaking publicly about surveillance last November, when he called for more co-operation from tech companies in the fight against terrorism.

Andrew Parker has said that GCHQ's powers are 'patchy' and implies that new legislative powers are needed. ORG has long argued that both RIPA and DRIPA need to be repealed and replaced with a clear legal framework. We do not dispute that surveillance is needed to tackle terrorism and other serious crimes. But in a democracy, surveillance must be targeted, limited and authorised by the courts, if our liberties are to be upheld. The police and security services cannot and should not know everything at all times in a liberal democracy. As the editor of Charlie Hebdo, Stéphane Charbonnier said, 'I prefer to die standing than living on my knees'.

Similarly, the UK cannot claim to defend free speech when surveillance legislation is being used to access the communications of journalists or close down the speech of 'non-violent extremists.

As I write this, two sieges related to the Hebdo murders are taking place in France. It is reported that hostages have been taken and more people may be dead. This is not the time for a kneejerk reaction that will undermine our rights to privacy and free speech. We (still) need the frank public debate about surveillance that has been denied us since the Snowden revelations began. We need to talk about how we deal with hate speech without limiting free speech. And most of all, we need to talk about how we promote a tolerant and open society that integrates the marginalised people that terrorism aims to radicalise.