Barcelona’s Deadly Reality: Do we have to choose between personal liberties and security?

Barcelona

Last Week, the young British-Australian boy, Julian Cadman, was confirmed dead from Thursday evening’s attacks in Barcelona. This brings the death count up to 14, with over 100 people – including his mother – remaining injured. While our thoughts are prayers remain with the families of all those who have been injured and killed during the course of the attacks in Spain, our next duty is to learn from the attack, and adapt our security services to prevent this tragedy from occurring again.

Around the world, including in Australia, leaders have unveiled their new strategies to prevent outbreaks of terror. This becomes especially important as we consider that any vehicle can now be construed as a weapon of mass destruction, making almost every adult a possible terror suspect.

This is also a very necessary conversation to have given the attacks are unlikely to stop anytime soon.

Daesh (or Islamic State as they prefer to be known, though as they continue to lose their foothold on physical territory in the Middle East, calling themselves a ‘state’ seems a bit far-fetched) is being forced out of its stolen territories by the battering ram of Coalition and Russian forces. Its soldiers are dying, Syrian and Iraqi citizens are returning to their homes in former Daesh strongholds (like Raqqa), and the group’s soldiers are fleeing the scenes of their horrific crimes in droves.

It is this last element that is particularly worrying.

Firstly, because many of Daesh’s soldiers were not native Syrians or Iraqis – they were foreign fighters. In other words, they’re going home to countries like the UK, US, Australia or Russia. They may also be masquerading as asylum seekers in order to gain access to European countries like Spain, Italy and Greece, with significant refugee camps along their ports. Their physical presence is an ongoing security threat, and tracking down these individuals and curtailing their movements is of vital importance to every security agency around the world.

The other reason this homecoming of the prodigal terrorists is concerning, is that Daesh is a group that thrives off its media presence. Its fighters often returned from battle at the front (or beheadings in town squares), to recruit more soldiers or Jihadi Brides over social media. Reports of propagandised media statements on fighters’ Twitter, Facebook, and Skype accounts, as well as their recruitment endeavours have been documented by investigative journalists, including this one from France. So, losing ground means they’re fighting less. Fighting less means they have more time to get down to the business of recruiting disenfranchised (and frankly psychopathic) individuals who are able and willing to commit violent attacks in the name of their cause. This brings up the probability of further attacks against civilian populations in heavily concentrated areas in cities just like Barcelona. This is a real threat, which cannot go ignored.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Turnbull announced a plan to bring in cement bollards across areas of heavy foot traffic in major Australian cities. While this might help to prevent acts like those witnessed in Spain this weekend, or at Burke Street earlier this year (or North Carolina last week), it is one small – albeit necessary – security measure, which will take time to materialise. After all, nothing happens quickly when governments have to hire contractors to build things.

This will hopefully be accompanied by increased and vigilant security in other public areas of note: sports stadia, concert venues, train stations, museums, etc. Part of that might include bringing in the stringent measures in use at international airports to these locations.

However, these measures will achieve little in the realm that I believe Daesh will relegate itself to: the internet.

Ultimately, governance does not stretch to the strange depths of internet. Communications have evolved – a bomb maker from the group might be able to sit in a cave in northern Pakistan and through a good wifi connection, live-steam a lesson in explosive-making. Presumably, anyone accessing this information is fairly likely to attempt to coordinate an attack in a public location in their own homes – the ‘home-grown terrorist’.

The solution our security agencies seem to have come up with to this cyber conundrum is mass data harvesting and storage. This came under special scrutiny in 2013 when Edward Snowden revealed the data gathering practices of the National Security Agency (NSA). Since then, the US and Australia have individually passed more laws to allow security agencies greater access to individual citizens’ data and metadata about their online presence. Increasingly, corporations like Facebook and Twitter are also cooperating with Governments in a bid to reduce criminal activity on their programs – we’ve seen evidence of this not only in counter-terrorism, but also in unravelling international child pornography rings.

At the same time, there is an argument from civil liberty advocates to end these data gathering exercises. By and large, because a core element of our rights in western democracies is the right to due process – including the right to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise in a court of law. Gathering data on everyone, according to these advocates, is a complete reversal of that principle and assumes every one of us might be a terrorist.

Increasingly, it also becomes a concern as we recall incidents of government and corporate servers being fairly easily hacked by foreign powers – we cannot be assured our data is secure at any given moment, because in Australia at least, our technology is woefully unprepared to counter a hack from more sophisticated technologies – including from the Chinese government’s hacking department.

Another argument I’ve heard against the mass data gathering is that while you may trust your own country not to use your personal information against you under the order in which you live, that order is subject to change at any moment (even without outside influence as in the case of foreign hacking). For example, if you were a Jew living in the Weimar Republic in say 1930, you’d trust your government with the knowledge that you were a Jew. However, a scant few years later the same data would be bestowed upon Hitler and his Nazis and we all know how that ended up.

Ultimately, this is a debate which could go on for ever. And with good reason, both sides on this issue have valid concerns that must be addressed as we move forward and security continues to become a major concern (as does data gathering, particularly as it is unlikely to stop). Public discussion about this will become key and I urge everyone to consider the balance of security vs personal sovereignty very carefully.

For myself, I know exactly where I stand on this issue. I have a little cousin two years younger than Julian, whom I love very much. I have friends and family to whom I am rather attached. I grew up in a country that shares a border with Pakistan – one which is no stranger to violence or terror in part because of it, and there are people close to me who have come quite close to being victims of terror incidents, and who have become nothing more than statistics after a terrorist attack. To me, security is paramount. And it justifies virtually any action necessary to preserve it. Am I being hysterical? Very possibly. Do I overestimate the reach of global terror, while undervaluing the necessity for personal liberties in this instance? Arguably very much so. At the end of the day, does it matter to me if it makes my cousin one iota safer? Not even slightly.

A Oberoi

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