The Blacklist – how to go on the run

Recently I did this interview for BBC Click to promote the third series of the excellent US spy series “The Blacklist”:

How to go on the run from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
The series is apparently huge in the USA – and I can see why, as it is good – but little known to date in the UK.

RT Going Underground – the Snoopers’ Charter

Here is a recent interview I did for the RT UK’s flagship news channel, “Going Underground” about the horrors of the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill – the so-called “snoopers charter” – that will legalise previously illegal mass surveillance, mass data retention, and mass hacking carried out by GCHQ in league with the NSA:

My interview starts at 19 minutes in – there is Brexit stuff first, about which I shall write more about soon….

Parliamentary Evidence on the UK Investigatory Powers Bill

My written evidence to the Scrutiny Committee in the UK Houses of Parliament that is currently examining the much-disputed Investigatory Powers Bill (IP):

1. My name is Annie Machon and I worked as an intelligence officer for the UK’s domestic Security Service, commonly referred to as MI5, from early 1991 until late 1996. I resigned to help my partner at the time, fellow intelligence officer David Shayler, expose a number of instances of crime and incompetence we had witnessed during our time in the service.

2. I note that the draft IP Bill repeatedly emphasises the importance of democratic and judicial oversight of the various categories of intrusive intelligence gathering by establishing an Investigatory Powers Commissioner as well as supporting Judicial Commissioners. However, I am concerned about the real and meaningful application of this oversight.

3. While in the Service in the 1990s we were governed by the terms of the Interception of Communications Act 1985 (IOCA), the precursor to RIPA, which provided for a similar system of applications for a warrant and ministerial oversight.

4. I would like to submit evidence that the system did not work and could be manipulated from the inside.

5. I am aware of at least two instances of this during my time in the service, which were cleared for publication by MI5 in my 2005 book about the Shayler case, “Spies Lies, and Whistleblowers”, so my discussing them now is not in breach of the Official Secrets Act. I would be happy to provide further evidence, either written or in person, about these abuses.

6. My concern about this draft Bill is that while the oversight provisions seem to be strengthened, with approval necessary from both the Secretary of State and a Judicial Commissioner, the interior process of application for warrants will still remain opaque and open to manipulation within the intelligence agencies.

7. The application process for a warrant governing interception or interference involved a case being made in writing by the intelligence officer in charge of an investigation. This then went through four layers of management, with all the usual redactions and finessing, before a final summary was drafted by H Branch, signed by the DDG, and then dispatched to the Secretary of State. So the minister was only ever presented with was a summary of a summary of a summary of a summary of the original intelligence case.

8. Additionally, the original intelligence case could be erroneous and misleading. The process of writing the warrant application was merely a tick box exercise, and officers would routinely note that such intelligence could only be obtained by such intrusive methods, rather than exploring all open source options first. The revalidation process could be even more cavalier.

9. When problems with this system were voiced, officers were told to not rock the boat and just follow orders. During the annual visit by the Intelligence Intercept Commissioner, those with concerns were banned from meeting him.

10. Thus I have concerns about the realistic power of the oversight provisions written into this Bill and would urge an additional provision. This would establish an effective channel whereby officers with concerns can give evidence directly and in confidence to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner in the expectation that a proper investigation will be conducted and with no repercussions to their careers inside the agencies. Here is a link to a short video I did for Oxford University three years ago outlining these proposals:

11. This, in my view, would be a win-win scenario for all concerned. The agencies would have a chance to improve their work practices, learn from mistakes, and better protect national security, as well as avoiding the scandal and embarrassment of any future whistleblowing scandals; the officers with ethical concerns would not be placed in the invidious position of either becoming complicit in potentially illegal acts by “just following orders” or risking the loss of their careers and liberty by going public about their concerns.

12. I would also like to raise the proportionality issue. It strikes me that bulk intercept must surely be disproportionate within a functioning and free democracy, and indeed can actually harm national security. Why? Because the useful, indeed crucial, intelligence on targets and their associates is lost in the tsunami of available information. Indeed this seems to have been the conclusion of every inquiry about the recent spate of “lone wolf” and ISIS-inspired attacks across the West – the targets were all vaguely known to the authorities but resources were spread too thinly.

13. In fact all that bulk collection seems to provide is confirmation after the fact of a suspect’s involvement in a specific incident, which is surely specifically police evidential work. Yet the justification for the invasive intercept and interference measures laid out in the Bill itself is to gather vital information ahead of an attack in order to prevent it – the very definition of intelligence. How is this possible if the sheer scale of bulk collection drowns out the vital nuggets of intelligence?

14. Finally, I would like to raise the point that the phrase “national security” has never been defined for legal purposes in the UK. Surely this should be the very first step necessary before formulating the proposed IP Bill? Until we have such a legal definition, how can we formulate new and intrusive laws in the name of protecting an undefined and nebulous concept, and how can we judge that the new law will thereby be proportionate within a democracy?

Jihadi John and MI5

So this week the murderous beheader of the Islamic State, “Jihadi John”, has been unmasked.  His real identity is apparently Mohammed Emwazi, born in Kuwait and now a British citizen who was raised and educated in west London

Much sound, fury and heated debate has been expended over the last couple of days about how he became radicalised, who was to blame, with MI5 once more cast in the role of villain. In such media sound-bite discussions it is all too easy to fall into facile and polarised arguments. Let us try to break this down and reach a more nuanced  understanding.

First up is the now-notorious press conference hosted by the campaigning group, Cage, in which the Research Director, Asim Qureshi , claimed that MI5 harassment of Emwazi was the reason for his radicalisation. Emwazi had complained to Cage and apparently the Metropolitan Police that over the last six years MI5 had approached him and was pressurising him to work as an agent for them. According to Cage, this harassment lead to Emwazi’s radicalisation.

Yet recruitment of such agents is a core MI5 function, something it used to do with subtlety and some success, by identifying people within groups who potentially could be vulnerable to inducements or pressure to report back on target organisations.  In fact, British intelligence used to be much more focused on gathering “HUMINT”.  The very best intelligence comes from an (ideally) willing but at least co-operative human agent: they are mobile, they can gain the trust of and converse with targets who may be wary of using electronic communications, and they can be tasked to gather specific intelligence rather than waiting for the lucky hit on intercept.

MI5 used to be good at this – spending time to really investigate and identify the right recruitment targets, with a considered approach towards making the pitch.

However, it appears since 9/11 and the start of the brutal “war on terror” that two problems have evolved, both of which originated in America. Firstly, British intelligence seems to have followed their US counterparts down a moral helter-skelter, becoming re-involved in counter-productive and brutal activities such as kidnapping, internment and torture. As MI5 had learned at least by the 1990s, such activities inevitably result in blow-back, and can act as a recruiting drum to the terrorist cause of the day.

(Tangentially, the Home Office also instigated the Prevent programme – in concept to counter radical Islam in vulnerable social communities, but in practice used and abused by the authorities to intimidate and coerce young Muslims in the UK.)

Secondly, British intelligence seems over the last decade to have blindly followed the US spies down the path of panoptican, drag-net electronic surveillance.  All this has been long suspected by a few, but confirmed to the many by the disclosures of Edward Snowden over the last couple of years. Indeed it seems that GCHQ is not merely complicit but an active facilitator and enabler of the NSA’s wilder ideas.  And what we now know is horrific enough, yet it currently remains just the tip of the iceberg.

This deluge of information creates gargantuan haystacks within which some genuine intelligence needles might reside – to use the terminology of the spy agency cheerleaders. However, it concurrently swamps the intelligence agencies in useless information, while also certainly throwing up a percentage of false-positives.  Bearing in mind the sheer scale of the legally dubious snooping, even a 0.001% of false positives could potentially produce thousands of erroneous leads.

Curious people now have a world of information at their fingertips. They may click on an intriguing link and find themselves on a radical website; even if they click out quickly, the panopticon will have logged their “interest”. Or they could donate money to an apparently legitimate charity; “like” the wrong thing on Facebook; follow the wrong person on Twitter; have their email hacked, or whatever….

The Big Brother Borg algorithms will crunch through all of this information predictably and predictively, with subtleties lost and mistakes made. Mind you, that happened in a more limited fashion too at the height of the Cold War subversion paranoia in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, when schoolboys writing to the Communist Party HQ for information for school projects could end up with a MI5 file, and divorcing couples could denounce each other.  But at least, then, whole populations were not under surveillance.

I think this may go some way towards explaining so many recent cases where “lone wolf” attackers around the world have been known to their national intelligence agencies and yet been left to roam free, either discounted as too low level a threat in the flood of information or otherwise subjected to bungled recruitment approaches.

In the analogue era much time, research and thought would go into identifying persons of interest, and more crucially how to approach a target either for disruption or recruitment.  I should think that the spy super-computers are now throwing up so many possible leads that approaches are made in a more hurried, ill-informed and less considered way.

And this can result in cases such as Michael Adebolayo whom MI5 approached and allegedly harassed years before he went on to murder Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich in 2013. The same may well have happened with Mohammed Emwazi. Once someone has been targeted, they are going to feel paranoid and under surveillance, whether rightly or wrongly, and this might result in growing resentment and push them into ever more extreme views.

However, I would suggest that MI5 remains merely the tool, following the directives of the UK government in response to the ever-expanding, ever-nebulous war on terror, just as MI6 followed the directives of the Blair government in 2003 when it allowed its intelligence to be politicised as a pretext for an illegal war in Iraq. MI5 might be an occasional catalyst, but not the underlying cause of radicalisation.

Unfortunately, by immersing itself in the now-overwhelming intelligence detail, it appears to be missing the bigger picture – just why are young British people taking an interest in the events of the Middle East, why are so many angry, why are so many drawn to radical views and some drawn to extreme actions.

Surely the simplest way to understand their grievances is to listen to what the extremist groups actually say? Osama Bin Laden was clear in his views – he wanted US military bases out of Saudi Arabia and US meddling across the Middle East generally to stop; he also wanted a resolution to the Palestinian conflict.

Jihadi John states in his ghastly snuff videos that he is meting out horror to highlight the horrors daily inflicted across the Middle East by the US military – the bombings, drone strikes, violent death and mutilation.

To hear this and understand is not to be a sympathiser, but is vital if western governments want to develop a more intelligent, considered and potentially more successful policies in response. Once you understand, you can negotiate, and that is the only sane way forward. Violence used to counter violence always escalates the situation and everyone suffers.

The USA still needs to learn this lesson. The UK had learned it, resulting in the end of the war in Northern Ireland, but it now seems to have been forgotten. It is not rocket science – even the former head of MI5, Lady Manningham-Buller, has said negotiation is the only successful long-term policy when dealing with terrorism.

Along with the UK, many other European countries have successfully negotiated their way out of long-running domestic terrorist campaigns. The tragedy for European countries that have recently or will soon suffer the new model of “lone wolf” atrocities, is that our governments are still in thrall to the failed US foreign policy of “the war on terror”, repeated daily in gory technicolour across North Africa, the Middle East, central Asia, and now Ukraine.

Global jihad is the inevitable response to USA global expansionism, hegemony and aggression. As long as our governments and intelligence agencies in Europe kowtow to American strategic interests rather than protect those of their own citizens, all our countries will remain at risk.

Privacy as Innovation Interview

A recent interview I gave while in Stockholm to the Privacy as Innovation project:


RT Breaking the Set – interview about spies with Abby Martin

Here’s my interview from yesterday on RT’s excellent Breaking the Set show with host, Abby Martin.  We discussed all things spy, surveillance, Snowden, oversight, and privacy.  A fun and lively interview!  Thanks, Abby.


Keynote at international whistleblower conference, Amsterdam

With thanks to Free Press Unlimited, the Dutch Advice Centre for Whisteblowers, Network Democracy,  and the Whistleblowing International Network.

All these organisations came together to hold an international conference in support of whistleblowers on 18th June in Amsterdam.

It was a creative event, mixing up lawyers, journalists, technologists and whistleblower support networks from around the world at an event with speeches and workshops, in order for everyone to learn, share experiences, and develop new methodologies and best practice to help current and future whistleblowers.

A stimulating and productive day, at which I did the opening keynote:


ZDF TV interview at EMAF

Here is an interview I did for German national TV, ZDF, while speaking at the European Media Art Festival in Osnabrueck in April:


ZDF Kulturzeit interview about EMAF from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

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.