A new dark age for security services

In light of Volkswagen’s emissions scandal and Edward Snowden’s further releases, the general public may be suffering from leak-fatigue. This is understandable when everyday there is a new controversy about someone important doing something they shouldn’t have done. After all, it’s hard to maintain shock on a daily basis.

But the recent Edward Snowden leaks are worth paying attention to, not least because they seriously damage our national security. The latest revelations shed light on recent undercover techniques Government Communications Headquarters has been using.

To any libertarian, these new leaks are just another example of government agencies encroaching on our civil liberties in a global conspiracy scheme akin to Enemy of the State. But without a serious surveillance toolkit, how exactly do we discover and prevent terrorists, paedophiles and serious criminals from conducting their elicit activities?

Security services’ arsenal of ‘secret’ weapons to challenge criminals is decreasing rapidly in response to continually evolving threats.

Classic reconnaissance techniques, such as integration into at risk communities through officers on the ground, are notoriously fraught and time-consuming.

To be fully accepted into these groups, social anthropologist Michelle Stewart emphasises the need for long-term community ties, which may take decades to build.

One answer is to train local members to become informants, but this comes with its own set of problems and security services are naturally worried about the potentially conflicting loyalties informants may develop.

With traditional methods of surveillance remaining difficult, the rise of new technologies also provides its own unique trials to contend with. The Tor web browser and underground dark-web communities it facilitates has only added further pressure, with time and labour-intensive integration consuming available resources.

However, government agencies are increasingly struggling to obtain data from even more brazen forms of communication among the social media giants.

The striking down of the Safe Harbor agreement this week by the European Court of Justice means that EU citizens data will not be readily handed over to the US firms running these websites. In time-sensitive cases, the length taken to receive court orders approving data releases may be the difference between preventing or witnessing a crime.
Security analysts are already predicting that this new leak will not be ignored and appropriate measures to reduce their effectiveness are likely to be taken, creating a short-term security black hole.

You may be wondering why this is troubling. Surely this is a victory for privacy and the ‘common people against an oppressive government’? For a moment, cast your minds back to pre-9/11 life. Security services were woefully unprepared with archaic tools and little awareness of the scale of activities being coordinated.

Almost 3,000 people died that day and thousands more lives were changed. Skip forward to 7/7 and despite the warnings provided by past atrocities, security services remained chronically understaffed, over-stretched and struggling to keep up with the continued threats they faced.

52 people died and over 700 were injured during that morning’s events alone. If Edward Snowden’s leaks have shown us anything, it’s that our security industry has finally started to catch up with those who wish to harm us.

Nevertheless, the continued release of key information threatens to undo these improvements, pushing us back into the dark ages of this technological arms race with dire consequences ensuing. So fight off the shackles of leak-fatigue and regardless of your view-point, take heed of these latest disclosures.

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