The Scorpion Stare

I have written over the years about the encroaching surveillance state, the spread of CCTV and the increasing use of drones in our skies.  When the North East of England introduced talking CCTV cameras that could bark orders at passing pedestrians in 2008, I thought that we were fast approaching the reductio ad absurdum point – and indeed this subject has raised a wry laugh from audiences around the world ever since.

Recently I have been reading with dismay a slew of articles about the increasing corporatisation of the surveillance state.  First I stumbled across a piece describing Facebook’s latest innovation, Facedeal: cameras planted in shops and bars that will use the facial recognition and tagging abilities of FB to recognise you as a valued customer and offer you a discount, simply because you have signed up to this Big Brother app on Facebook.

Add this to the fact that Facebook is probably, well, an open book for to the entire US security apparatus, and you can see the potential abuse of this system.  We shall effectively be bribed to allow ourselves to be spied on.

Facedeal is being trialed in the US.  Some European countries, most notably Germany, have already stated that data recognition technology used even just for photo “tagging” is or could be deemed illegal. Germany specifically has regulations that allow Internet users control over their data. They are not going to like Facedeal.

Secondly, it was reported today that Google had patented intelligent image recognition technology.  Combine this capability with Googles Earth and Street, and we are potentially looking at a truly panopticon society.  The Germans are really not going to like that. (Nor indeed will certain of the French, including the man who earlier this year tried to sue Google after being photographed having a pee in his own front garden).

Thirdly, Boeing has triumphantly launched the concept of the drone swarm, operating with a hive mentality and upping the capabilities of military surveillance exponentially, while taking much of the risk out of any operation.

And finally, the Wikileaks story about TrapWire. This first emerged as yet another bonkers American scheme, where the footage from CCTV street cameras was being mainlined into the security apparatus. Subsequently, it has emerged via Wikileaks that Trapwire is also being used in other western countries, including the UK.

Not only can the securocrats watch you, they too are installing face recognition software that can identify you. While this may not yet be as accurate as the spies might wish, TrapWire has also installed predictive software that apparently can assess whether you are acting, loitering or walking in a suspicious manner.  So you could pre-emptively be assessed to be about to commit a crime or an act of terrorism and, no doubt, appropriately and pre-emptively “dealt with”.

All of which must be so reassuring to protest groups such as Occupy, which have been subject to massive CCTV surveillance in NYC and which have been labelled a “terrorist/extremist threat” in the City of London.

At the risk of sounding alarmist, we now all know what “being dealt with” in this era of anti-activist SWAT teams, drone strikes and kill lists can potentially entail.

So where does this leave us as concerned citizens?  It strikes me that we are being catapulted into some sci-fi dystopia beyond even Orwell’s wildest imaginings.  Any fan of modern thrillers and sci-fi will be familiar with the concept of integrated super-computers that can watch our every move via CCTV.

The latter is what TrapWire et al are working towards.  These new technologies remind me of a story line from a wonderful series of books called the The Laundry Files by Charles Stross.  These novels are a perfect of merging of Len Deighton’s laconic spy fiction, a la Harry Palmer, with the geek universe and beyond. And, at the risk of a spoiler, one of the story lines envisages a centralised and weaponised CCTV system, mainlining into the secret services, that can be turned on UK citizens if the balloon goes up. This system is codenamed the “Scorpion Stare”.

Sounds far-fetched? Well The Laundry Files are a rollicking good read, but do bear in mind not only that our CCTV systems may be centralised courtesy of TrapWire, but also that various law enforcement agencies in the UK are using micro-drones to spy on protesters, and that they have reportedly enquired if these drones could be weaponised…..

So it all depends on how you define the balloon, I suppose.

Published in The Huffington Post UK, 3 September 2012

Interview about Iran on The Real News Network

Following on from the article former CIA analyst, Ray McGovern, and I co-authored last month about the possible “fixing” of intelligence around Iran, here is a subsequent interview we did for The Real News Network:

The Assange Witch Hunt

Published in The Huffington Post UK, 17 August 2012

A storm of diplomatic sound and fury has broken over Ecuador’s decision to grant political asylum to Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange. The UK government has threatened to breach all diplomatic protocol and international law and go into the embassy to arrest Assange.

The UK justifies this by citing the 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act, a law apparently put in place following the 1984 shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher from the Libyan Embassy in London.  The murder resulted in an 11-day siege, and the embassy staff eventually being expelled from the country.  Nobody has yet been brought to justice for this murder.

It is hard to equate the gravity of the crime that brought about the 1987 legislation – the murder of a policewoman – with Assange’s situation.  Despite the screaming headlines, let us not forget that he is merely wanted for questioning in Sweden. Nevertheless, the UK is prepared to overturn all diplomatic protocol and create a dangerous international precedent to “get their man”, despite there being a clear lack of justification under the terms of the ’87 Act.

Many people in the western media remain puzzled about Assange’s fear of being held captive in the Swedish legal system. But can we really trust Swedish justice when it has been flag­rantly politi­cised and manip­u­lated in the Assange case, as has been repeatedly well doc­u­mented. Indeed, the Swedish justice sys­tem has the highest rate per cap­ita of cases taken to the ECtHR for flout­ing Art­icle 6 — the right to a fair trial.

If Assange were extra­dited merely for ques­tion­ing by police — he has yet to be even charged with any crime in Sweden — there is a strong risk that the Swedes will just shove him straight on the next plane to the US under the legal terms of a “tem­por­ary sur­render”. And in the US, a secret Grand Jury has been con­vened in Vir­ginia to find a law — any law — with which to pro­sec­ute Assange.  Hell, if the Yanks can’t find an exist­ing law, they will prob­ably write a new one just for him.

So why all the sound and fury? What is this really all about?

Wikileaks is a ground-breaking new form of high-tech, award-winning journ­al­ism that has exposed cor­rupt prac­tices across the world over the years.  And crucially, in this war-torn, weary and financially broken world, it offers a secure conduit to whistleblowers who want to expose institutional crime and corruption for the public good.

Whis­tleblowers want to get their inform­a­tion out there, they want to make a dif­fer­ence, they want a fair hear­ing, and they don’t want to pay too high a per­sonal price for doing so. Is that too much to ask?

By going pub­lic about ser­i­ous con­cerns they have about their work­place, they are jeop­ard­ising their whole way of life: not just their pro­fes­sional repu­ta­tion and career, but all that goes with it, such as the abil­ity to pay the mort­gage, their social circle, their fam­ily life, their rela­tion­ship…  Plus, the whis­tleblower can poten­tially risk prison or worse.

So, with these risks in mind, they are cer­tainly look­ing for an avenue to blow the whistle that will offer a degree of pro­tec­tion and allow them to retain a degree of con­trol over their own lives.  In the old days, this meant try­ing to identify an hon­our­able, cam­paign­ing journ­al­ist and a media organ­isa­tion that had the clout to pro­tect its source.  While not impossible, that could cer­tainly be dif­fi­cult, and becomes increas­ingly so in this era of endemic elec­tronic surveillance.

Today the other option is a secure, high-tech pub­lish­ing con­duit such as Wikileaks. This provides anonym­ity and a cer­tain degree of con­trol to the mod­ern whis­tleblower, plus it allows their inform­a­tion to reach a wide audi­ence without either being filtered by the media or blocked by gov­ern­ment or cor­por­ate injunctions.

As someone who has a nod­ding acquaint­ance with the reper­cus­sions of blow­ing the whistle on a secret gov­ern­ment agency, I have long seen the value of the Wikileaks model – and I also understand quite why governments feel so threatened by it. After all, no government or mega-corporation wants freedom of information and transparency forced upon it, nor an informed citizenry questioning its actions.

Our governments like to spout the phrase “if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide” as they roll out yet another intrusive surveillance measure.

Wikileaks has turned that right back at them – hence this modern-day witch-hunt.