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, à 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.