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UK faces balancing act of civil liberties and security after terror violence

Western governments are widely expected to intensify surveillance measures in the fight against global terrorism, reigniting the age-old debate of balancing civil liberties and national security.

The U.K., in particular, could ramp up monitoring of suspected radicals following three separate terror attacks in as many months — Prime Minister Theresa May listed a four-point plan to combat extremism after the militant group known as Islamic State, or ISIS, claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack in central London that killed 7 and wounded 48 people.

Among May's four strategies is "to make sure the policy and security services have all the powers they need" — a statement widely interpreted to mean stricter laws that could hit civil rights and democratic principles.

May was set to chair a meeting of the government's emergency security committee on Monday morning, according to a spokeswoman.

Strategists now anticipate greater monitoring of suspected extremists — officials have identified around 3,000 people in the U.K. who are suspected of posing an imminent threat, according to local media.

"The number of potential attackers is overwhelming authorities' ability to monitor and assess them all. It really does call for a deeper understanding of profiles of people involved in these attacks," said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at Stratfor. "The community as a whole needs to get better at forecasting who will be conducting these attacks."

He predicted an uptick in the number of global attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The U.K. already has one of the world's best intelligence services, so allocating more resources to surveillance and reconnaissance is one of the few options left, said Colin Clarke, political scientist at RAND.

Police officers cross Southwark Bridge after an incident near London Bridge in London, Britain June 4, 2017.
Neil Hall | Reuters
Police officers cross Southwark Bridge after an incident near London Bridge in London, Britain June 4, 2017.

That could involve monitoring phone calls and internet activities as well as limiting individual movements. But the key concern is that greater government scrutiny could impinge on privacy rights and unfairly target ethnic minority groups through blanket restrictions. Increased surveillance could hit the U.K. budget given the amount of potentially radicalized people, Clarke warned.

Britain hasn't taken too kindly to such regulations in the past. When former Prime Minister Tony Blair's administration proposed holding terrorist suspects for 90 days without charge, parliament shot down the idea amid worries over the potential impact on habeas corpus.

"If May gets a good majority in the forthcoming election and if Brexit goes though, things will get tougher," said John Browne, senior economic consultant at Euro Pacific Capital.

"May will tighten up severely," he continued, noting the prospect of tighter immigration controls, deportation of known radicals as well as control orders such as tagging suspects.

Some experts maintain that reduced freedoms are necessary amid high-level security threats.

"If we have our freedoms curtailed because of terrorism, the terrorists have won anyways. But if terrorism is actually impacting our freedoms, we need to do something about it," said Chris Hunter, a retired major of the British Armed Forces.

People are worried about their civil liberties and their data being monitored, but surveillance measures will only be focused on risky individuals, not normal people, Hunter claimed, adding that May's counter-terror strategy was "bang on the money."

"It's the first time in the 25 years I've worked in counter-terrorism that I've heard one of our leaders be succinct about how we approach this."