Oxford Union Society Debate

I recently had the pleas­ure of tak­ing part in a debate at the Oxford Union Soci­ety.  I spoke to the pro­pos­i­tion that “this house believes Edward Snowden is a hero”, along with US journ­al­ist Chris Hedges, NSA whis­tleblower Bill Bin­ney, and former UK gov­ern­ment min­is­ter Chris Huhne.

The cham­ber was full and I am happy to report that we won the debate by 212 votes to 171, and that Oxford stu­dents do indeed see Edward Snowden as a hero.  Here is my speech:

Oxford Union Soci­ety Debate from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Circumventing the Panopticon, Transmediale Berlin

Last month I was on a panel dis­cus­sion at the Ber­lin Trans­me­diale con­fer­ence with NSA whis­tleblower Bill Bin­ney, Chelsea Man­ning rap­por­teur Alexa O’Brian, and act­iv­ist Diani Bar­reto. Here is the link to the full two hour event, and here is my speech:

Trans­me­diale, Ber­lin 2014 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Week of the Whistleblower

So this com­ing week prom­ises to be inter­est­ing in the UK, with a num­ber of inter­na­tional whis­tleblowers gath­er­ing for a range of events and inter­views in Lon­don and Oxford.

SAA_logoThe primary reason for this gath­er­ing is the SAA award cere­mony for Chelsea Man­ning at the Oxford Union Soci­ety on 19th Feb­ru­ary.  Every year an inter­na­tional group of former intel­li­gence per­son­nel vote on the Sam Adams Award for Integ­rity in Intel­li­gence and this year, inev­it­ably and resound­ingly, the award went to Chelsea.  She joins a dis­tin­guished list of laur­eates.

TheWhistlerlogoWe shall also be par­ti­cip­at­ing in the launch of the UK whis­tleblower sup­port net­work, The Whist­ler. This aims to provide prac­tical sup­port to whis­tleblowers com­ing out of every sec­tor: med­ical, fin­an­cial, gov­ern­ment… — whatever and wherever there are cover-ups and corruption.

There seems to be a grow­ing aware­ness of the role of the whis­tleblower and the safe­guards they can add to our soci­ety and demo­cratic way of life: the reg­u­lat­ors of last resort.  Please sup­port these campaigns.

Edward Snowden, Man of the Year

First pub­lished at RT Op-Edge.

When asked if Edward Snowden deserves to be the Man of the Year 2013, and I have been many times, my answer has to be a cat­egor­ical, resound­ing YES.

Sure, it has been an event­ful year and there are a lot of con­tenders. But Edward Snowden stands out for me for three key reas­ons:  his per­sonal and con­scious cour­age, the sheer scale of his dis­clos­ures and the con­tinu­ing, global impact of what he did. Purely because of his actions we, the world’s cit­izens, are now able to have a dis­cus­sion about the nature of our civil­isa­tion and poten­tially call a halt to the fright­en­ing slide into a global sur­veil­lance dystopia.

For the actions of Snowden have indeed laid bare the fact that we are liv­ing global crisis of civil­isa­tion .  To date it is estim­ated the we have only seen about 1% of the doc­u­ments he dis­closed -  the merest hint of the tip of a mon­strous ice­berg.  What fur­ther hor­rors await us in 2014 and beyond?

The Per­sonal Risk

First of all, there is the per­sonal aspect.  Snowden has said that he does not want to be the story, he wants the focus to remain on the inform­a­tion.  I respect that, but it is worth remind­ing ourselves of the scale of sac­ri­fice this young man has made.  He had a well-paid job in Hawaii, an appar­ently happy rela­tion­ship, and good career pro­spects. All this he threw away to alert the world to the secret, illegal and dysto­pian sur­veil­lance sys­tem that has stealth­ily been smoth­er­ing the world.

But Snowden faced far more than merely throw­ing away a com­fort­able pro­fes­sional life. Over the last few years the US gov­ern­ment, appar­ently learn­ing well from its former colo­nial mas­ter the UK about the art of crush­ing of whis­tleblowers, has been waging a war against what it now deems the “insider threat” — ie per­sons of con­science who speak out. Pres­id­ent Obama has used the Espi­on­age Act (1917) to per­se­cute and pro­sec­ute more whis­tleblowers than all pre­vi­ous pres­id­ents in total before him.

This is indeed a “war on whis­tleblowers”. John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer who refused to par­ti­cip­ate in the tor­ture pro­gramme and then exposed, it is cur­rently lan­guish­ing in prison; Thomas Drake, an earlier NSA whis­tleblower, was threatened with 35 years in prison; young Chelsea Man­ning was mal­treated in prison, faced a kangaroo court, and is cur­rently serving a sim­ilar sen­tence for the expos­ure of hideous war crimes against civil­ians in the Middle East. And the list goes on.

So not only did Edward Snowden turn his back on his career, he knew exactly the sheer scale of the legal risk he was tak­ing when he went pub­lic, dis­play­ing bravery very much above and bey­ond the call of duty.

The intel­li­gence apo­lo­gists in the media have inev­it­ably  shouted “nar­ciss­ism” about his brave step to out him­self, rather than just leak the inform­a­tion anonym­ously.  How­ever, these estab­lish­ment wind­bags are the real nar­ciss­ists. Snowden cor­rectly assessed that, had he not put his name to the dis­clos­ures, there would have been a witch-hunt tar­get­ing his former col­leagues and he wanted to pro­tect them. Plus, as he said in his very first pub­lic inter­view, he wanted to explain why he had done what he had done and what the implic­a­tions were for the world.

The Dis­clos­ures

The sheer scale and nature of the dis­clos­ures so far has been breath­tak­ing, and they just keep com­ing. They show that a vast, sub­ter­ranean sur­veil­lance state that has crept across the whole world, unknown and unchecked by the very politi­cians who are sup­posed to hold it to account. Indeed, not only have we learned that we are all under con­stant elec­tronic sur­veil­lance, but these politi­cians are tar­geted too. This is a global secret state run­ning amok and we are all now targets.

Only yes­ter­day, Der Spiegel repor­ted more egre­gious examples of how the spies bug us: hard­ware hacks, com­puter vir­uses and even microwave wavelengths attack­ing both our com­puters and us – tin foil hats might not be such a bad idea after all.…

The Implic­a­tions

Snowden’s dis­clos­ures have laid bare the fact that the inter­net has been thor­oughly hacked, sub­ver­ted and indeed mil­it­ar­ised against we the people.  The basic free­dom of pri­vacy,  enshrined in the UN Declar­a­tion of Human Rights in the imme­di­ate after­math of the Second World War, has been destroyed.

Without free media, where we can all read, write, listen and dis­cuss ideas freely and in pri­vacy, we are all liv­ing in an Orwellian dysto­pia, and we are all poten­tially at risk. These media must be based on tech­no­lo­gies that empower indi­vidual cit­izens, not cor­por­a­tions or for­eign gov­ern­ments, and cer­tainly not a shad­owy and unac­count­able secret state.

The cent­ral soci­etal func­tion of pri­vacy is to cre­ate the space for cit­izens to res­ist the viol­a­tion of their rights by gov­ern­ments and cor­por­a­tions. Pri­vacy is the last line of defense his­tor­ic­ally against the most poten­tially dan­ger­ous organ­isa­tion that exists: the state.

By risk­ing his life, Edward Snowden has allowed us all to see exactly the scale of the threat now facing us and to allow us the oppor­tun­ity to res­ist.  We all owe him a debt of grat­it­ude, and it is our duty to ensure that his cour­age and sac­ri­fice has not been in vain.

Snowden, privacy and the CCC

Here’s an RT inter­view I did about the media response to Edward Snowden, the media response, pri­vacy and what we can do.

Apt, as I am cur­rently at the Chaos Com­mu­nic­a­tion Con­gress (CCC) in Ham­burg, and shall be speak­ing about sim­ilar issues this even­ing.

Most UK media con­cer­tedly ignore Snowden rev­el­a­tions, under gov’t pres­sure from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

TPP — copyright versus free speech

First pub­lished by RT Op-Edge.

We, the cit­izens of the world, already owe NSA whis­tleblower Edward Snowden a huge debt of grat­it­ude.  Even the lim­ited pub­lic­a­tion of a few of the doc­u­ments he dis­closed to journ­al­ists has to date pro­voked a polit­ical and pub­lic debate in coun­tries across the planet — and who knows what other nas­ties lurk in the cache of doc­u­ments, yet to be exposed?

Thanks to Snowden, mil­lions of people as well as many gov­ern­ments have woken up to the fact that pri­vacy is the vital com­pon­ent of free soci­et­ies.  Without that basic right we are unable to freely read, write, speak, plan and asso­ci­ate without fear of being watched, our every thought and utter­ance stored up to be poten­tially used against us at some neb­u­lous future date.  Such pan­op­tic global sur­veil­lance leads inev­it­ably to self-censorship and is cor­ros­ive to our basic freedoms, and indi­vidual cit­izens as well as coun­tries are explor­ing ways to pro­tect them­selves and their privacy.

As I and oth­ers more emin­ent have said before, we need free media to have a free society.

But even if we can defend these free chan­nels of com­mu­nic­a­tion, what if the very inform­a­tion we wish to ingest and com­mu­nic­ate is no longer deemed to be free?  What if we become crim­in­al­ised purely for shar­ing such un-free information?

The global mil­it­ary secur­ity com­plex may be bru­tal, but it is not stu­pid. These cor­por­at­ist elites, as I prefer to think of them, have seen the new medium of the inter­net as a threat to their profits and power since its incep­tion. Which is why they have been fight­ing a des­per­ate rear­guard action to apply US pat­ent and copy­right laws globally.

Pirate_Bay_LogoThey began by going after music shar­ing sites such as Nap­ster and impos­ing grot­esque legal pen­al­ties on those try­ing to down­load a few songs they liked for free, then try­ing to build national fire­walls to deny whole coun­tries access to file shar­ing sites such as The Pir­ate Bay and per­se­cut­ing its co-founder Ana­kata, mer­ci­fully fail­ing to extra­dite Richard O’Dwyer from the UK to the US on trumped up charges for his sign­post­ing site to free media, and cul­min­at­ing in the take down of Megaup­load and the illegal FBI attack against Kim Dotcom’s home in New Zea­l­and last year.

But for all these high-profile cases of attemp­ted deterrence, more and more people are shar­ing inform­a­tion, cul­ture, and research for free on the inter­net. Using peer to peer tech­no­lo­gies like Bit­tor­rent and anonymising tools like Tor they are hard to detect, which is why the cor­por­at­ist lob­by­ists demand the sur­veil­lance state develop ever more intrus­ive ways of detect­ing them, includ­ing the pos­sib­il­ity of deep packet inspec­tion. And of course once such invas­ive tech­no­lo­gies are avail­able, we all know that they will not only be used to stop “pir­acy” but will also be used against the people of the world by the mil­it­ary sur­veil­lance com­plex too.

But that is still not enough for the cor­por­at­ists.  Largely US-based, they are now try­ing to flex their polit­ical muscle glob­ally.  First the US claims that any site end­ing with a tier one US domain name (.com, .org, .net and .info) comes under US law — any­where in the world — and can be taken down without warn­ing or redress by a diktat from the US government.

More egre­giously still, the US cor­por­at­ists have been try­ing to impose their legal domin­ion glob­ally via a series of secret regional trade agree­ments: ACTA, TTIP/TAFTA, SOPA, and now in the recently Wikileaked details of the Trans-Pacific Part­ner­ship (TPP) tar­get­ing the coun­tries around the Pacific rim.

These agree­ments, writ­ten by cor­por­ate lob­by­ists, are so secret that the demo­cratic rep­res­ent­at­ives of sov­er­eign coun­tries are not even allowed to read the con­tents or debate the terms — they are just told to sign on the dot­ted line, effect­ively rubber-stamping legis­la­tion that is anti­thet­ical to the vast major­ity their cit­izens’ interests, which gives greater sov­er­eign powers to the interests of the cor­por­a­tions than it does to nation states, and which will crim­in­al­ise and dir­ectly harm the people of the world in the interests of the few.

One of the pro­pos­als is that mul­tina­tional cor­por­a­tions can sue national gov­ern­ments for future lost profits based on pat­ents not gran­ted or envir­on­mental restric­tions. This is noth­ing short of full-on cor­por­at­ism where inter­na­tional law and global treat­ies serve a hand­ful of large cor­por­a­tions to the det­ri­ment of national sov­er­eignty, envir­on­mental health and even human life.

For by pro­tect­ing “intel­lec­tual prop­erty” (IP), we are not just talk­ing about the cre­at­ive endeav­ours of artists. One does not need to be a law­yer to see the fun­da­mental prob­lem­atic assump­tions in the goals as defined in the leaked doc­u­ment:

Enhance the role of intel­lec­tual prop­erty in pro­mot­ing eco­nomic and social devel­op­ment, par­tic­u­larly in rela­tion to the new digital eco­nomy, tech­no­lo­gical innov­a­tion, the trans­fer and dis­sem­in­a­tion of tech­no­logy and trade;

This state­ment assumes that IP, a made-up term that con­fuses three very dif­fer­ent areas of law, is by defin­i­tion bene­fi­cial to soci­ety as a whole. No evid­ence for these claimed bene­fits is provided any­where. As with “what-is-good-for-General-Motors-is-good-for-America” and the the­ory of ”trickle down” eco­nom­ics, the bene­fits are simply assumed and altern­at­ive mod­els act­ively and wil­fully ignored. The idea that most soci­et­ies on the planet might vastly bene­fit from a relax­a­tion of pat­ent laws or the length of copy­right is not even up for debate. This des­pite the fact that there is plenty of research point­ing in that direction.

These secret pro­posed treat­ies will enforce pat­ents that put the cost of basic phar­ma­ceut­ic­als bey­ond the reach of bil­lions; that privat­ise and pat­ent basic plants and food; and that pre­vent the shar­ing of cut­ting edge aca­demic research, des­pite the fact that this is usu­ally pro­duced by pub­licly fun­ded aca­dem­ics at our pub­licly fun­ded universities.

The price, even today, of try­ing to lib­er­ate research for the pub­lic good can be high, as Aaron Swartz found out earlier this year.  After try­ing to share research inform­a­tion from MIT, he faced a witch hunt and dec­ades in prison. Instead he chose to take his own life at the age of 26. How much worse will it be if TPP et al are ratified?

It is thanks to the high-tech pub­lisher, Wikileaks, that we know the sheer scale of the recent TPP débacle.  It is also heart­en­ing to see so many Pacific rim coun­tries oppos­ing the over­ween­ing demands of the USA. Aus­tralia alone seems sup­port­ive — but then region­ally it bene­fits most from its mem­ber­ship of the “Five Eyes” spy pro­gramme with America.

The intel­lec­tual prop­erty wars are the flip side of the global sur­veil­lance net­work that Snowden dis­closed — it is a clas­sic pin­cer movement.

hAs well as watch­ing everything we com­mu­nic­ate, the cor­por­at­ists are also try­ing to con­trol exactly what inform­a­tion we are leg­ally able to com­mu­nic­ate, and using this con­trol as jus­ti­fic­a­tion for yet more intrus­ive spy­ing. It’s the per­fect self-perpetuating cycle.

By cur­tail­ing the powers of the spy agen­cies, we could restore the inter­net to its ori­ginal func­tion­al­ity and open­ness while main­tain­ing the right to pri­vacy and free speech — but main­tain­ing a 20th cen­tury copyright/IP model at the same time is impossible. Or we could give up our pri­vacy and other civil rights to allow spe­cific pro­tec­ted indus­tries to carry on coin­ing it in. A last option would be to switch off the inter­net. But that is not real­istic: mod­ern coun­tries could not sur­vive a day without the inter­net, any more than they could func­tion without electricity.

As a soci­ety we’re going through the pain­ful real­isa­tion that we can only have two out of the three options. Dif­fer­ent cor­por­at­ist interest groups would no doubt make dif­fer­ent choices but, along with the vast major­ity of the people, I opt for the inter­net and pri­vacy as both a free chan­nel for com­mu­nic­a­tion and the free trans­fer of use­ful information.

Like any social change (the abol­i­tion of slavery, uni­ver­sal suf­frage), this is also accom­pan­ied by heated argu­ments, legal threats and repres­sion, and lob­by­ist pro­pa­ganda. But his­tor­ic­ally all this sound and fury will sig­nify.… pre­cisely noth­ing. Surely at some point basic civil rights will make a comeback, upheld by the legis­lature and pro­tec­ted by law enforcement.

The choice is simple: inter­net, pri­vacy, copy­right. We can only choose two, and I know which I choose.

Voice of Russia radio interview about spies, oversight, whistleblowers, and Snowden.

Here is an inter­view I did for Voice of Rus­sia radio in Lon­don last week about spies and their rela­tion­ship with our demo­cratic pro­cesses, over­sight, Edward Snowden and much more:

Voice of Rus­sia radio inter­view from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

BBC World interview re UK spy accountability

Here’s a recent inter­view I did for BBC World about the three top Brit­ish spies deign­ing, for the first time ever, to be pub­licly ques­tioned by the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in par­lia­ment, which has a notional over­sight role:

BBC World inter­view on UK Par­laiment­ary hear­ings on NSA/Snowden affair from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

It sub­sequently emerged that they only agreed to appear if they were told the ques­tions in advance.  So much for this already incred­ibly lim­ited over­sight cap­ab­il­ity in a notional West­ern democracy.….

Cryptofestival, London, 30th November

Big_Brother_posterHere’s one for the diary, if you’re in the UK and value your basic, enshrined right to pri­vacy (UDHR Art­icle 12) in this NSA/GCHQ etc dystopic, pan­op­tican world.

Come along to the Cryptofest­ival at Gold­smiths, Lon­don on 30th Novem­ber, where con­cerned hackt­iv­ists can help con­cerned cit­izens learn how to pro­tect their online privacy.

And if you believe the “done noth­ing wrong, noth­ing to hide” garbage, have a look at this.

Crypto­parties, where geeks offer their help for free to their com­munit­ies, were star­ted by pri­vacy advoc­ate Asher Wolf in Aus­tralia just over a year  ago.  The phe­nomenon has swept across the world since then, helped along by the dis­clos­ures of the heroic Edward Snowden.

I hope to see you there. You have to fight for your right (crypto)party — and for your right to pri­vacy! Use it or lose it — and bring your laptop.

BBC “World Have Your Say” debate

A recent inter­view on BBC World Ser­vice radio, on “World Have Your Say”.  An inter­est­ing debate with some other former intel­li­gence types:

BBC World Ser­vice “World Have Your Say” inter­view from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Interview on London Real TV

Here’s my recent inter­view on Lon­don Real TV, dis­cuss­ing all things whis­tleblow­ing, tech, intel­li­gence, and the war on drugs.  Thanks Brian and Colin for a fun hour!

London Real TV Interview — coming soon

Here is a taster of my recent inter­view on Lon­don Real TV. It was diverse, lively and fun, and should be broad­cast in full tomor­row:

Annie Machon — Whis­tleblower — Lon­don Real TV from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

The Empire Strikes Back

First pub­lished by RT Op-Edge.

Sir Andrew Parker, the recently elev­ated Dir­ector Gen­eral of the UK’s domestic secur­ity Ser­vice (MI5) yes­ter­day made both his first pub­lic speech and a super­fi­cially robust defence of the work of the intel­li­gence agen­cies. Read­ing from the out­side, it sounds all pat­ri­otic and noble.

Darth_VaderAnd who is to say that Parker does not believe this after 30 years on the inside and the MI5 group­think men­tal­ity being what it is? Let’s give him the bene­fit of the doubt. How­ever, I have two prob­lems with his speech, on both a micro and a macro scale.

Let’s start with the micro — ie the devil in the detail — what is said and, cru­cially, what is left unsaid. First up: over­sight, which the spook apo­lo­gists have dwelt on at great length over the last few months.

I wrote about this last week, but here’s some of that dev­il­ish detail. Parker cor­rectly explains what the mech­an­isms are for over­sight within MI5: the Home Office war­rants for oth­er­wise illegal activ­it­ies such as bug­ging; the over­sight com­mis­sion­ers; the Com­plaints Tribunal; the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in Par­lia­ment. This all sounds pretty reas­on­able for a demo­cracy, right?

Of course, what he neg­lects to men­tion is how these sys­tems can be gamed by the spies.

The applic­a­tion for war­rants is a tick-box exer­cise where basic legal require­ments can be by-passed, the author­ising min­is­ter only ever sees a sum­mary of a sum­mary.… ad infin­itum.… for sig­na­ture, and never declines a request in case some­thing lit­er­ally blows up fur­ther down the line.

Sure, there are inde­pend­ent com­mis­sion­ers who over­see MI5 and its sur­veil­lance work every year and write a report. But as I have writ­ten before, they are given the royal treat­ment dur­ing their annual visit to Thames House, and officers with con­cerns about the abuse of the war­rantry sys­tem are barred from meet­ing them. Plus, even these ano­dyne reports can high­light an alarm­ing num­ber of “admin­is­trat­ive errors” made by the spies, no doubt entirely without malice.

The com­plaints tribunal — the body to which we can make a com­plaint if we feel we have been unne­ces­sar­ily spied on, has always found in favour of the spies.

And finally, the pièce de résist­ance, so to speak: the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in par­lia­ment. How many times do I have to write this? Top cops and Parker’s spy pre­de­cessors have admit­ted to lying suc­cess­fully to the ISC for many years. This is not mean­ing­ful over­sight, nor is the fact that the evid­ence of earlier major intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers was ignored by the ISC, except for the part where they might be under invest­ig­a­tion by MI5 themselves.…

Of course, the cur­rent Chair of the ISC, Sir Mal­com Rif­kind, has entered the lists this sum­mer to say that the ISC has just acquired new powers and can now go into the spies’ lairs, demand to see papers, and over­see oper­a­tional activ­it­ies. This is indeed good, if belated, news, but from a man who has already cleared GCHQ’s endemic data-mining as law­ful, one has to won­der how thor­ough he will be.

While the com­mit­tee remains chosen by the PM, answer­able only to the PM, who can also vet the find­ings, this com­mit­tee is irre­deem­ably undemo­cratic. It will remain full of cred­u­lous yes-men only too happy to sup­port the status quo.

Secondly, what are the threats that Parker talks about? He has worked for MI5 for 30 years and will there­fore remem­ber not only the Cold War era, where Soviet spies were hunted down, but also the very real and per­vas­ive threat of IRA bombs reg­u­larly explod­ing on UK streets. At the same time hun­dreds of thou­sands of polit­ic­ally act­ive UK cit­izens were aggress­ively invest­ig­ated. A (cold) war and the threat of ter­ror­ism allowed the spies a drag-net of sur­veil­lance even then.

V_for_Vendetta_masksHow much worse now, in this hyper-connected, data-mining era? One chilling phrase that leapt out at me from Parker’s speech was the need to invest­ig­ate “ter­ror­ists and oth­ers threat­en­ing national secur­ity”. National secur­ity has never been leg­ally defined for the pur­poses of UK law, and we see the goal posts move again and again. In the 1980s, when Parker joined MI5, it was the “reds under the bed”, the so-called sub­vers­ives. Now it can be the Occupy group encamped in the City of Lon­don or envir­on­mental act­iv­ists wav­ing plac­ards.

So now for my macro con­cerns, which are about wider con­cepts. Parker used his first pub­lic speech to defend not only the work of his own organ­isa­tion, but also to attack the whis­tleblow­ing efforts of Edward Snowden and the cov­er­age in The Guard­ian news­pa­per. He attempts to seam­lessly elide the work and the over­sight mod­els of MI5 and GCHQ.  And who is fall­ing for this?  Well, much of the UK media appar­ently.

This mud­dies the waters. The con­cerns about Snowden’s dis­clos­ures are global — the TEMPORA pro­ject affects not only the cit­izens of the UK but people across Europe and bey­ond. For Rif­kind or the For­eign Sec­ret­ary to com­pla­cently say that GCHQ is over­seen by them and everything is hunkey-dorey is just not good enough, even for the hap­less cit­izens of the UK. How much more so for those unrep­res­en­ted people across the world?

The IOCA (1985) and later and much-abused RIPA (2000) laws were writ­ten before the UK gov­ern­ment could have con­ceived of the sheer scale of the inter­net. They are way out of date — 20th cen­tury rolling omni­bus war­rants hoover­ing up every scrap of data and being stored for unknown times in case you might com­mit a (thought?) crime in the future. This is noth­ing like mean­ing­ful oversight.

Unlike the UK, even the USA is cur­rently hav­ing con­gres­sional hear­ings and media debates about the lim­its of the elec­tronic sur­veil­lance pro­gramme. Con­sid­er­ing America’s mus­cu­lar response after 9/11, with illegal inva­sions, drone strikes, CIA kill lists and extraordin­ary kid­nap­pings (to this day), that casts the UK spy com­pla­cency in a par­tic­u­larly unflat­ter­ing light.

Plus if 58,000 GCHQ doc­u­ments have really been copied by a young NSA con­tractor, why are Parker and Rif­kind not ask­ing dif­fi­cult ques­tions of the Amer­ican admin­is­tra­tion, rather than con­tinu­ing to jus­tify the anti­quated Brit­ish over­sight system?

Finally, Parker is show­ing his age as well as his pro­fes­sion when he talks about the inter­webs and all the implic­a­tions.  As I said dur­ing my state­ment to the LIBE com­mit­tee in the European Parliament:

  • Without free media, where we can all read, write, listen and dis­cuss ideas freely and in pri­vacy, we are all liv­ing in an Orwellian dysto­pia, and we are all poten­tially at risk. These media must be based on tech­no­lo­gies that empower indi­vidual cit­izens, not cor­por­a­tions or for­eign gov­ern­ments. The Free Soft­ware Found­a­tion has been mak­ing these recom­mend­a­tions for over two decades.
  • The cent­ral soci­etal func­tion of pri­vacy is to cre­ate the space for cit­izens to res­ist the viol­a­tion of their rights by gov­ern­ments and cor­por­a­tions. Pri­vacy is the last line of defense his­tor­ic­ally against the most poten­tially dan­ger­ous organ­isa­tion that exists: the nation state. There­fore there is no ‘bal­ance between pri­vacy and secur­ity’ and this false dicho­tomy should not be part of any policy debate.

US/UK spy chiefs cover up NSA surveillance scandal

First pub­lished on RT Op-Edge. Also on Inform­a­tion Clear­ing House and The Huff­ing­ton Post.

The dis­par­ity in response to Edward Snowden’s dis­clos­ures within the USA and the UK is aston­ish­ing.  In the face of right­eous pub­lic wrath, the US admin­is­tra­tion is con­tort­ing itself to ensure that it does not lose its treas­ured data-mining cap­ab­il­it­ies: con­gres­sional hear­ings are held, the media is on the warpath, and senior securo­crats are being forced to admit that they have lied about the effic­acy of endemic sur­veil­lance in pre­vent­ing ter­ror­ism.

Just this week Gen­eral Alex­an­der, the head of the NSA with a long track record of mis­lead­ing lying to gov­ern­ment, was forced to admit that the endemic sur­veil­lance pro­grammes have only helped to foil a couple of ter­ror­ist plots. This is a big dif­fer­ence from the pre­vi­ous num­ber of 54 that he was tout­ing around.

Cue calls for the sur­veil­lance to be reined in, at least against Amer­ic­ans. In future such sur­veil­lance should be restric­ted to tar­geted indi­vidu­als who are being act­ively invest­ig­ated.  Which is all well and good, but would still leave the rest of the global pop­u­la­tion liv­ing their lives under the bale­ful stare of the US pan­op­ticon. And if the cap­ab­il­ity con­tin­ues to exist to watch the rest of the world, how can Amer­ic­ans be sure that the NSA et al won’t stealth­ily go back to watch­ing them once the scan­dal has died down — or just ask their best bud­dies in GCHQ to do their dirty work for them?

I’m sure that the UK’s GCHQ will be happy to step into the breach. It is already par­tially fun­ded by the NSA, to the tune of $100 mil­lion over the last few years; it has a long his­tory of cir­cum­vent­ing US con­sti­tu­tional rights to spy on US cit­izens (as for­eign­ers), and then simply passing on this inform­a­tion to the grate­ful NSA, as we know from the old Ech­elon scan­dal; and it has far more legal lee­way under Brit­ish over­sight laws. In fact, this is pos­it­ively seen to be a selling point to the Amer­ic­ans from what we have seen in the Snowden disclosures.

GCHQ is abso­lutely cor­rect in this assess­ment — the three primary UK intel­li­gence agen­cies are the least account­able and most leg­ally pro­tec­ted in any west­ern demo­cracy. Not only are they exempt from any real and mean­ing­ful over­sight, they are also pro­tec­ted against dis­clos­ure by the dra­conian 1989 Offi­cial Secrets Act, designed spe­cific­ally to crim­in­al­ise whis­tleblowers, as well as hav­ing a raft of legis­la­tion to sup­press media report­ing should such dis­clos­ures emerge.

This might, indeed, be the reason that the UK media is not cov­er­ing the Snowden dis­clos­ures more extens­ively — a self-censoring “D” Notice has been issued against the media, and The Guard­ian had its UK serv­ers smashed up by the secret police. 1930s Ger­many, anyone?

Defend­ers of the status quo have already been out in force. For­eign Sec­ret­ary Wil­liam Hague, who is notion­ally respons­ible for GCHQ,  said cosily that everything was legal and pro­por­tion­ate, and Sir Mal­colm Rif­kind, the cur­rent chair of the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in par­lia­ment last week staunchly declared that the ISC had invest­ig­ated GCHQ and found that its data min­ing was all legal as it had min­is­terial approval.

Well that’s all OK then.  Go back to sleep, cit­izens of the UK.

What Hague and Rif­kind neg­lected to say was that the min­is­terial war­rantry sys­tem was designed to tar­get indi­vidual sus­pects, not whole pop­u­la­tions. Plus, as the For­eign sec­ret­ary in charge of MI6 at the time of the illegal assas­sin­a­tion plot against Gad­dafi in 1996, Rif­kind of all people should know that the spies are “eco­nom­ical with the truth”.

In addi­tion, as I’ve writ­ten before, many former top spies and police have admit­ted that they misled lied to the ISC. Sure, Rif­kind has man­aged to acquire some new powers of over­sight for the ISC, but they are still too little and 20 years too late.

This mir­rors what has been going on in the US over the last few years, with senior intel­li­gence offi­cial after senior offi­cial being caught out lying to con­gres­sional com­mit­tees.  While in the UK state­ments to the ISC have to date not been made under oath, state­ments made to the US Con­gress are — so why on earth are appar­ent per­jur­ers like Clap­per and Alex­an­der even still in a job, let alone not being prosecuted?

It appears that the US is learn­ing well from its former colo­nial mas­ter about all things offi­cial secrecy, up to and includ­ing illegal oper­a­tions that can be hushed up with the neb­u­lous and leg­ally undefined concept of “national secur­ity”, the use of fake intel­li­gence to take us to war, and the per­se­cu­tion of whistleblowers.

Except the US has inev­it­ably super-sized the war on whis­tleblowers. While in the UK we star­ted out with the 1911 Offi­cial Secrets Act, under which trait­ors could be imprisoned for 14 years, in 1989 the law was amended to include whis­tleblowers — for which the pen­alty is 2 years on each charge.

The US, how­ever, only has its hoary old Espi­on­age Act dat­ing back to 1917 and designed to pro­sec­ute trait­ors. With no updates and amend­ments, this is the act that is now rolled out to threaten mod­ern whis­tleblowers work­ing in the digital age. And the pro­vi­sions can go as far as the death pen­alty.

Pres­id­ent Obama and the US intel­li­gence estab­lish­ment are using this law to wage a war on whis­tleblowers. Dur­ing his pres­id­ency he has tried to pro­sec­ute seven whis­tleblowers under this Espi­on­age Act — more than all the pre­vi­ous pres­id­ents com­bined — and yet when real spies are caught, as in the case of the Rus­sian Spy Ring in 2010, Obama was happy to cut a deal and send them home.

An even more stark example of double stand­ards has emerged this August, when a leak appar­ently jeop­ard­ised an ongo­ing oper­a­tion invest­ig­at­ing a planned Al Qaeda attack against a US embassy in the Middle East. This leak has appar­ently caused imme­di­ate and quan­ti­fi­able dam­age to the cap­ab­il­it­ies of the NSA in mon­it­or­ing ter­ror­ism, and yet nobody has been held to account.

But, hey, why bother with a dif­fi­cult invest­ig­a­tion into leak­ing when you can go after the low-hanging fruit — oth­er­wise known as prin­cipled whis­tleblowers who “out” them­selves for the pub­lic good?

This to me indic­ates what the US intel­li­gence infra­struc­ture deems to be the real cur­rent issue — “the insider threat” who might reveal cru­cial inform­a­tion about state crimes to the world’s population.

And yet the US rep­res­ent­at­ives still trot out the tired old lines about ter­ror­ism. Sen­ator Lind­sey Gra­ham stated this week that the cur­rent level of endemic sur­veil­lance would have pre­ven­ted 9/11. Well, no, as pre­vi­ous intel­li­gence per­son­nel have poin­ted out. Coleen Row­leyTime Per­son of the Year 2002 — is fam­ous for high­light­ing that the US intel­li­gence agen­cies had prior warn­ing, they just didn’t join the dots. How much worse now would this pro­cess be with such a tsunami of data-mined intelligence?

In sum­mary, it’s good to see at least a semb­lance of demo­cratic over­sight being played out in the USA, post-Snowden. It is a shame that such a demo­cratic debate is not being held in the UK, which is now the key ena­bler of the USA’s chronic addic­tion to elec­tronic surveillance.

How­ever, I fear it is inev­it­ably too little too late. As we have seen through his­tory, the only pro­tec­tion against a slide towards total­it­ari­an­ism is a free media that allows a free trans­fer of ideas between people without the need to self-censor.  The global US military-security com­plex is embed­ded into the DNA of the inter­net. We can­not rely on the USA to vol­un­tar­ily hand back the powers it has grabbed, we can only work around them as Brazil has sug­ges­ted it will do, and as the EU is con­tem­plat­ing.

Other than that, respons­ib­il­ity for our pri­vacy rests in our own hands.