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:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.