The Paris Attacks and How the Tech World Reacted
On the evening of the 13th of November, 2015, a series of terrorist attacks hit Paris, France, killing about 130 people and wounding hundreds more. It was devastating not only in the number of people it killed and wounded, but also for the sheer chaos it created because of the coordinated and near simultaneous nature of the attacks.
As it is with these things now, the attacks in Paris were known across the world almost instantaneously. Through the news and social media, everything that was publicly known about the attacks was spread across the globe in minutes. Sympathy, support and messages of condolences were headed the way of Paris from every corner of the world. Everyone, from Obama to that random guy with a Facebook account had something to say about Paris.
It is the nature of the beast. In the late nineties to early 2000, everyone talked about how the world was becoming a ‘Global Village’ because of technology. The term is pretty much redundant now. The Internet has turned the world, not into a village, but a giant high school where we are all concerned about Katie having a baby and whether Tom is straight (see what I did there?).
While the Internet is mostly concerned about Kardashians and cats, things like the Paris attacks can shock people out of their liquid-crystal-lethargy and into showing esprit de corps.
This can be a good thing. Sometimes.
Typically, public responses to terror attacks would be from those involved in politics, relief and social workers, news agencies and the intelligence community. But now, with everything so publicised, people and institutions must also be seen to respond. And the tech industry, occupying so much media space, must be seen to respond as well. Cynicism aside, tech giants have a vast amount of weight behind them to actually effectively respond to issues around the world.
In some ways they did.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Facebook activated a relatively new tool called Safety Check. The tool allows Facebook users in a disaster area to check in as ‘safe’. The tool then notifies their Facebook connections that they were safe. I first came across this feature when Facebook notified me that my friends in Nepal were safe after the Nepalese earthquake. Immediately following the attacks, Google too, joined in, offering free calls to France via Hangouts.
It wasn’t just the tech companies either. Messages of support for Parisians filled Twitter, Facebook users overlaid their profile pictures with the French flag, and French artist Jean Jullien’s drawing of the Eiffel Tower superimposed on a peace sign spread on Instagram and all over the Internet. Later, on the 19th of November, the Foo Fighters released their new EP, Saint Cecilia, free of charge on Google Play and their website in honour and remembrance of the victims of the Paris attacks.
“To all who were affected by the atrocities in Paris, loved ones and friends, our hearts go out to you and your families. We will return and celebrate life and love with you once again someday with our music. As it should be done.” Dave Grohl
Not all responses to the Paris attack were so gentle. Days after the attacks, ISIS became the target of one of the world’s biggest vigilante anti-terrorism campaigns. In a YouTube video, a person wearing a Guy Fawkes mask publicly declared war on ISIS, promising that “Anonymous from all over the world will hunt you down.” ISIS had already been a favored target for Anonymous groups, with #OpISIS kicking off in January, but the Paris attacks drove much more attention to the cause. By Monday, Pastebin was filled with more campaigns, including #OpExposeIsis, #OpIceIsis and #OpPrayForParis, filling up the site’s Trending page for days afterwards.
It is not all a bed of roses and keyboard ninjas.
The efforts of Anonymous may actually serve to cause more confusion instead of making things easier. According to The Verge, “the (Anonymous) campaigns have been successful: the secure-messaging app Telegram reported blocking 78 ISIS-related channels this week, and a group called CntrlSec says it’s contributing to the suspension of more than 72,000 Twitter accounts since they began their campaign in January.”
But, “each Twitter account brought down by #OpISIS is one that can’t be used as a lead for groups like Ghost Security, and brigading ISIS websites makes it far harder for investigators to slip in unnoticed. For most intelligence officers, ISIS’s online presence is a potential goldmine of information on the group’s larger tactics — a goldmine that’s potentially threatened by online activists’ recent campaigns.”
The other problem with the media and the Internet is that things are so moved by sentiment. A day before the Paris attacks, bombings in Beirut killed 43 and injured 239. There weren’t any Facebook safety checks or profile picture changes then. Facebook’s response to why it didn’t activate Safety Check is pretty indicative of how we deal with social issues. “During an ongoing crisis, like war or epidemic, Safety Check in its current form is not that useful for people: because there isn’t a clear start or end point and, unfortunately, it’s impossible to know when someone is truly ‘safe.'”
We tend to ignore places that suffer the longest, when these are the places that need us the most. We tend to look closer to home, to things that are familiar, and ignore places that are worse off because we have no connection with them.
The other obvious consequence of terror attacks is, of course, fear.
Fear can make people very irrational. Of course it doesn’t help if some people are not very rational to begin with. US presidential candidate Donald Trump wanted to call Bill Gates about closing “that Internet”.
In the same way that the Internet was used to send messages of support and love, it can also be a source of fear and uncertainty. ISIS uses Twitter accounts, websites, and Telegram groups to organise its campaigns. This fuels paranoia for those who were scared and uncertain in the first place.
Earlier this year, France passed a sweeping surveillance law that gave the government the right to monitor calls and emails of suspects without the need for authorisation by a judge. They could also collect metadata and the browsing habits of millions of people in the country. The law also allows government agents to plant bugs in suspects’ homes and key-loggers on their computers.
In with fear, out with privacy.
The politicians don’t really know what they want either. They are just floundering around, like bulls in a china shop trying to kill a fly. There is no plan. They just want to hit everything and hope something goes right.
CIA Director, John Brennan, spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “.. the rapid advance of information technology has given rise to an entirely new and wide-open domain for human interaction and progress: the cyber realm. As an intelligence officer, much of my job involves dealing with the unintended consequences of the cyber revolution. For as much as it brings the world together, it also serves the purpose of those who wish us harm. Of greatest concern, the cyber realm gives small groups and even individuals the potential to inflict damage on a scale previously restricted to nation-states. And while states are largely rational actors subject to deterrence, the same does not apply to terrorists and criminals.
“And a crucial point to bear in mind is that about 85 percent of the World Wide Web’s critical infrastructure is held by the private sector. This is a privately owned and operated environment in which the rules remain uncertain at best.”
Investigators still don’t know how the attacks were planned, either. Some thought attacks were planned through the Playstation 4 network, though they have since backed down from that (watch out, Candy Crush, you may be next). In fact, given that the attackers lived near each other, technology might not have been used at all. Brennan just doesn’t seem to understand the nature of the Internet. Privacy is a fundamental right. Giving up your freedom for a perception of security is not very smart at all.
Lucky, some people have a clue. “These [Paris] attacks are reprehensible,” said Harley Geiger, senior counsel and advocacy director at the Centre for Democracy & Technology, in an interview with The Verge. “The debate about government-mandated cybersecurity vulnerabilities in this country has been going on for many years, and the dangers of a government-mandated backdoor into encryption have not changed simply because we’ve had these reprehensible attacks.”
It’s not all fear and tunnel vision however.
Mark Zuckerberg has strongly fought against the anti-immigrant rubbish that Trump is spouting. In a Facebook post, he expressed his support to the Muslim community and how he would fight for their rights and create a safe environment for them. Zuckerberg, along with other Silicon Valley executives, created a political action committee called FWD.us and launched a campaign against deporting undocumented immigrants.
Technology has made the world a smaller place. We are all a bunch of people stuck in an elevator, breathing each other’s fumes, trying to survive the trip. Whoever makes the loudest noise tends to get the most attention. But we need to be smart about this. The only way we survive is by working together and being considerate to one another. We have so many tools and there is so much opportunity to lend a helping hand; we just need to open our eyes. We can all make a positive impact, even in the smallest of ways.
Towards the end of November, Brussels was locked down as Belgian police searched for suspected terrorists planning an imminent attack. The police asked Internet users not to tweet anything about the operation for fear that suspects would get tipped off. So instead, users flooded the #BrusselsLockdown hashtag with pictures of their cats, and positivity.
— TineEeckhout (@TineEeckhout) November 22, 2015
Belgian officials thanked the Internet once the raid was over.
I guess it all does come down to cats in the end.
“Non-violence demands creativity.” -Mairead Maguire