Snapchat Terrorism: Liberty and Security in Britain

British police
Armed British police on patrol at the St. Pancras International railway station in London. Source: The Times/Fiona Hamilton

When two gunmen stormed the central Paris office of Charlie Hebdo in early January, and slaughtered the magazine’s most prominent cartoonists, Europe stood still in shock. Across the English Channel and a mere 2 hour 15 minute journey away by train, policemen poured into sensitive sites across London, visibly increasing their presence in the British capital. Similar scenes occurred a month later, when a gunman targeted a synagogue and a cultural center hosting a controversial cartoonist in Copenhagen, killing two people.

London has not suffered a major terrorist attack since July 7th 2005, when 56 people died in suicide bombings on a bus and in the London Underground — but the threat of a terrorist attack striking at the heart of Great Britain has not receded. Since August 2014, the British government’s international terrorism threat level has been rated severe, meaning that an attack is considered “highly likely.” Furthermore, since 2005, 40 major terror plots were foiled by security officials. More recently, in late February, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab called for attacks on London’s Westfield shopping centers, among Europe’s largest, and Oxford Street, the capital’s most famous shopping street. To make matters worse, officials estimate that about 600 British citizens have gone to fight for the Islamic State in Syria.

With a general election coming up on May 7th, the current Conservative-led coalition government has responded to the terror threat with heavy-handed policies that have wide implications beyond the assurance of public security. In May 2014, it passed a bill that expanded its powers to strip the citizenship of terror suspects even if they do not hold dual nationality, rendering them stateless. This creates grave civil rights issues, as it is virtually impossible to obtain any official document without proof of citizenship. Ostensibly designed to prevent British jihadists from returning to the UK and carrying out terror attacks, the law gives the home secretary, the British equivalent of the Secretary of Homeland Security, wide powers of discretion in deciding what reasons warrant such a drastic move.

However, the citizenship removal bill allows for revoking citizenship only if the home secretary believes that the individual is “seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom.” This power must be reviewed every three years by legal experts appointed by the government, who will publish a report on their findings. Suspects may appeal the decision, although legal appeals can last for years and are difficult to maintain if the suspect is marooned abroad, or worse, stateless.

Additionally, Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed a new surveillance bill that would give intelligence services more power to eavesdrop on the public’s communications by obliging telephone and internet providers to retain user’s records of activity but not the messages themselves. One of the quirkier provisions included is the decryption of popular messaging services, such as Whatsapp, iMessage, and even Snapchat. While the prospect of terrorists organizing an attack through the use of selfies may sound amusing, the issue with the proposal is that these messages are encrypted – meaning that they could be banned altogether. While other countries, notably China, prohibit their citizens from using popular messaging applications, it is difficult to imagine such a policy existing in the United Kingdom.

Before the departure of three London schoolgirls for the battlefields of Syria in February, the economy and the state of the National Health Service (NHS) dominated the election debate. In the weeks since, security featured more prominently. David Cameron’s original plan to hand more power to the intelligence services was blocked in 2012 by his Liberal Democrat coalition partners. But with the coalition government’s term coming to an end this year, the future of security legislation in Great Britain is uncertain.

Despite being ahead by only 1 percent in recent polls, the opposition Labour Party is likely to be able to establish a government, although most likely not by itself. Similarly, a Conservative victory would be hampered by the need to either form a coalition with a smaller party or form an unstable minority government.

All scenarios promise instability, especially in the realm of security policy. Other than the Conservative push for strengthened surveillance powers, the other parties have thus far offered few solutions. Labour supports the reintroduction of de-radicalization programs that relocate suspects from their hometowns to other parts of the country, a policy also backed by Cameron and the Liberal Democrats. As internet radicalization of young Muslim Britons has grown, the security debate has shifted to a row over freedom of speech on university campuses. The Conservatives favor requiring universities to implement stricter strategies against speech which incites violence in order to combat radicalization, whereas Labour and the Liberal Democrats oppose the proposal on the grounds that violent ideology can only be defeated through legitimate debate. The civil war in Syria has tilted the nation’s desire between true freedom and absolute security towards the latter.

The danger that an innocent person could have their citizenship revoked is small, and the potential benefits to security are significant, but there are too few checks on the home secretary’s powers to revoke citizenship. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 37 individuals were deprived of British nationality in the period 2013-2014, all of whom held dual citizenship. While several of these individuals were proven terrorists, at least one, Mahdi Hashi, had his citizenship revoked on dubious grounds. He was subject to illegal rendition by the U.S. and was jailed in Djibouti before he was moved to a secret facility in Manhattan, where he is still being held in solitary confinement.

The perpetrators of the Paris attacks had fought against American troops in Iraq but remained “dormant” for years after their return before they assaulted the offices of Charlie Hebdo. If the British government can ensure that such individuals cannot repatriate, they can more effectively monitor radicalized individuals already in the country and prevent attacks from happening. Britain’s prospective leaders must propose an amendment to the current policy that maintains its protective nature but ensures that the government cannot abuse its power. A potential solution could be the temporary suspension of an individual’s right to enter the UK or leave the country while a court deliberates on the government’s motion to revoke their citizenship.

On the other hand, proposing to ban encrypted messaging services is an unreasonable proposal in a democratic society that prizes its freedoms, and only serves to alienate the public from supporting the government’s campaign to protect the country from terror threats. Similarly, while university administrators should cooperate with the authorities, freedom of speech at institutions of higher learning must be defended from the government’s overprotective zeal.

Whatever the outcome of the election in May, it promises to be a messy situation. None of the parties have a coherent security strategy, bar the Conservatives and their troublingly overbearing policy prescriptions. Whoever settles into No. 10 Downing Street – and whoever they must work with in Westminster – will have to face a growing threat from “homegrown” terrorism amid a fragmented political landscape and the possibility of further British military intervention against the Islamic State.

Since 2005, the government has kept the United Kingdom exceptionally safe from terrorist attacks. If this is to continue, then the country’s leaders must propose and implement concrete security measures that fight terror and maintain citizens’ rights without unnecessarily curtailing them. As for Snapchat, don’t worry, you’ll still be allowed to take selfies on your next trip to London – probably.