Here’s an interview I did for RT a while ago about the USA’s Orwellian NewSpeak about surveillance:
As I type this I am listening to one of my all-time favourite albums, Radiohead’s seminal “OK, Computer”, that was released in spring 1997. The first time I heard it I was spellbound by its edginess, complexity, experimentalism and political overtones. My partner at the time, David Shayler, took longer to get it. Self-admittedly tone deaf, he never understood what he laughingly called the “music conspiracy” where people just “got” a new album and played it to death.
His opinion changed drastically over the summer of ’97 after we had blown the whistle on a series of crimes committed by the UK’s spy agencies. As a result of our actions — the first reports appeared in the British media on 24 July 1997 — we had fled the country and gone on the run around Europe for a month. At the end of this surreal backpacking holiday I returned to the UK to face arrest, pack up our ransacked home, and try to comfort our traumatised families who had known nothing of our whistleblowing plans.
“OK, Computer” was the soundtrack to that month spent on the run across the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain. Taking random trains, moving from hotel to hotel, and using false names, our lives were dislocated and unreal. So in each hotel room we tried to recreate a sense of homeliness — some candles, a bottle of wine, natch, and some music. In the two small bags, into which I had packed the essentials for our unknown future life, I had managed to squeeze in my portable CD player (remember those?), tiny speakers and a few cherished CDs. Such are the priorities of youth.
The joy of Radiohead broke upon David during that month — particularly the track “Exit Music (for a Film)”, which encapsulated our feelings as we fled the UK together. Once we were holed up in a primitive French farmhouse for the year after our month on the run, this was the album that we listened to last thing at night, holding onto each other tightly to ward off the cold and fear. Revelling in the music, we also drew strength from the dissident tone of the lyrics.
So it was with some mirthful incredulity that I yesterday read on The Intercept that GCHQ named one of its most iniquitous programmes after one of the classic songs from the album — “Karma Police”.
In case you missed this, the basic premise of GCHQ was to develop a system that could snoop on all our web searches and thereby build up a profile of each of our lives online — our interests, our peccadilloes, our politics, our beliefs. The programme was developed between 2007 and 2008 and was deemed functional in 2009. Who knows what information GCHQ has sucked up about you, me, everyone, since then?
As I have said many times over the years since Snowden and who knows how many others began to expose the out-of-control spy agencies, this is disproportionate in soi-dissent democracies. It is certainly not lawful by any stretch of the imagination. UK governmental warrants — which are supposed to regulate and if necessary circumscribe the activities of the spy snoopers — have repeatedly been egregiously abused.
They are supposed to make a case for targeted surveillance of people suspected of being a threat to the UK’s national security or economic well-being. The warrants, blindly signed by the Home or Foreign Secretary, are not designed to authorise the industrial interception of everyone’s communications. This is a crime, plain and simple, and someone should be held to account.
Talking of crimes, after a month on the run with David, I returned (as I had always planned to do) to the UK. I knew that I would be arrested, purely on the grounds that I had been an MI5 officer and was David Shayler’s girlfriend and had supported his whistleblowing activities. In fact my lawyer, John Wadham who was the head of the UK’s civil liberties union, Liberty, had negotiated with the police for me return to the UK and hand myself into the police for questioning. He flew out to Barcelona to accompany me back to the UK almost exactly eighteen years ago today.
Despite the pre-agreements, I was arrested at the immigration desk at Gatwick airport by six burly Special Branch police officers and then driven by them up to the counter-terrorism interview room in Charing Cross police station in central London, where I was interrogated for the maximum six hours before being released with no charge.
The music playing on the radio during this drive from the airport to my cell? Radiohead’s “Karma Police”.
One can but hope that karma will come into play. But perhaps the ending of “Exit Music…” is currently more pertinent — we hope that you choke, that you choke.….
After all, the spies do seem to be choking on an overload of hoovered-up intelligence — pretty much every “ISIS-inspired” attack in the west over the last couple of years has reportedly been carried out by people who have long been on the radar of the spies. Too much information can indeed be bad for our security, our privacy and our safety.
My most recent article for the ExBerliner magazine:
What is exile? Other than a term much used and abused by many new expats arriving in Berlin, dictionary definitions point towards someone who is kept away from their home country for political reasons, either by regal decree in the past or now more probably self-imposed. But there are many other ways to feel exiled – from mainstream society, from your family, faith, profession, politics, and Berlin is now regarded as a haven.
However, let’s focus on the classic definition and a noble tradition. Every country, no matter how apparently enlightened, can become a tyrant to its own citizens if they challenge abuses of power. Voltaire was exiled in England for three years and soon after Tom Paine, a former excise man facing charges for seditious libel, sought refuge in France. More recent famous exiles include David Shayler, the MI5 whistleblower of the 1990s who followed in Paine’s footsteps pretty much for the same fundamental reasons, yet Alexander Litvinenko, the KBG whistleblower of the same era, ironically found safe haven in exile in the UK.
So, being an exile effectively means that you have angered the power structures of your home country to such an extent that other countries feel compelled to give you refuge, partly for legal or principled reasons, but also for political expediency. The current most famous exile in the world is, of course, Edward Snowden, stranded by chance in Russia en route to political asylum in Ecuador.
What does the act of fleeing into exile actually feel like? It is a wild leap into an unknown and precarious future, with great risk and few foreseeable rewards. At the same time, as you leave the shores of the persecuting country, evading the authorities, avoiding arrest and going on the run, there is an exhilarating, intense feeling of freedom – a sense that the die has very much been cast. Your old way of life is irrevocably at an end and the future is a blank slate on which you can write anything.
After Shayler and I fled to France in 1997, for the first year of the three we lived in exile we hid in a remote French farmhouse just north of Limoges – the nearest village was 2 kilometres away, and the nearest town a distant thirty. We lived in constant dread of that knock on the door and the ensuing arrest. And that, indeed, eventually did catch up with him.
As a result, for Shayler it meant the world grew increasingly small, increasingly confined. Initially, when we went on the run, we were free to roam across Europe – anywhere but the UK. Then, after the French courts refused to extradite him to Britain in 1998 to face trial for a breach of the draconian UK Official Secrets Act, France became the only place he could live freely. If he had then traveled to any other European country, the British would have again attempted to extradite him, probably successfully, so he was trapped.
However, there are worse places than France in which to find yourself stranded. As well as being one of the most beautiful and varied countries in the world it felt particularly poignant to end up exiled in Paris for a further two years.
It was also conveniently close to the UK, so friends, family, supporters and journalists could visit us regularly and bring Shayler supplies of such vital British staples as bacon and HP source. But he still missed the simple pleasures in life, such as being free to watch his beloved football team, or being able to watch the crappy late night comedy shows that the British endlessly churn out. Despite these small lacks, I shall always remember those years in France fondly, as a place of greater safety, a literal haven from persecution.
Of course, all this was in the era before the standardised European Arrest warrant, when national sovereignty and national laws actually counted for something. Finding a secure place of exile now would be almost an impossibility in Europe if you home country really wanted to prosecute you.
Many Western expats now talk of being “exiled in Berlin”, and they may indeed be self-exiled in search of a more sympatico life style, a buzzy group of like-minded peers, work opportunities or whatever. But until they have felt the full force of an extradition warrant, before the fuzz has actually felt their collars, this is realistically exile as a lifestyle choice, rather than exile as a desperate political necessity or, in Edward Snowden’s case, a potentially existential requirement.
My interview today for RT about the German prosecutor’s decision to stop the investigation of the NSA tapping Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone, and much more:
My interview on RT yesterday about the young whistleblower, Submariner William McNeilly, who exposed serious security concerns about the UK’s nuclear deterrent system, Trident:
Today it was reported that McNeilly turned himself in to the police at Edinburgh airport and is currently in military custody.
This week I made my first visit to the re:publica annual geekfest in Berlin to do a talk called “The War on Concepts”. In my view this, to date, includes the four wars — on drugs, terror, the internet, and whistleblowers. No doubt the number will continue to rise.
Here’s the video:
Last week artist Davide Dormino unveiled his sculpture celebrating whistleblowers in Alexanderplatz, Berlin.
Called “Anything to Say?”, the sculpture depicts Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange standing on three chairs, with an empty fourth chair beside them, upon which we are all encouraged to stand up on and speak our truth.
Davide invited me to do just that for the unveiling ceremony, along with German MP for the Green Party and whistleblower supporter, Hans Christian Stroebele and Wikileaks’ Sarah Harrison. Here’s a report:
I am very happy to announce a new initiative, Code Red, that Simon Davies (the founder of Privacy International and The Big Brother Awards) and I have been organising over the last few months. In fact, not just us, but a panoply of global privacy and anti-surveillance campaigners from many areas of expertise.
Simon and I have known each other for years, way back to 2002, when he gave one of the earliest Winston Awards to David Shayler, in recognition of his work towards trying to expose surveillance and protect privacy. That award ceremony, hosted by comedian and activist Mark Thomas, was one of the few bright points in that year for David and me — which included my nearly dying of meningitis in Paris and David’s voluntary return to the UK to “face the music”; face the inevitable arrest, trial and conviction for a breach of the Official Secrets Act that followed on from his disclosures about spy criminality.
Anyway, enough of a detour down memory lane — back to Code Red. Regular readers of this website will know that I have some slight interest in the need to protect our privacy for both personal reasons and societal good. Over the last 18 years since helping to expose the crimes of the British spies, I have worked with the media, lawyers, campaigners, hackers, NGOs, politicians, wonks, geeks, whistleblowers, and wonderfully concerned citizens around the world — all the time arguing against the encroaching and stealthy powers of the deep, secret state and beyond.
While many people are concerned about this threat to a democratic way of life, and in fact so many people try to push back, I know from experience the different pressures that can be exerted against each community, and the lack of awareness and meaningful communication that can often occur between such groups.
So when Simon posited the idea of Code Red — an organisation that can functionally bring all these disparate groups together, to learn from each other, gain strength and thereby work more effectively, it seemed an obvious next step.
Some progress has already been make in this direction, with international whistleblower conferences, cryptoparties, training for journalists about how to protect their sources, campaigns to protect whistleblowers, activist and media collectives, and much more. We in Code Red recognise all this amazing work and are not trying to replicate it.
But we do want to do is improve the flow of communication — would it not be great to have a global clearing house, a record, of what works, what does not, a repository of expertise from all these inter-related disciplines from a round the world that we can all learn from?
This is one of the goals of Code Red, which launched to the media at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia a few weeks ago. We were then lucky enough to also hold a launch to the tech/hacktivist community in Berlin a few days after at C Base — the mother-ship of hackers.
Here is the film of the Perugia launch:
Filmed last January, we discussed the old and new media, activism, and much more.
Here’s the trailer:
First published on RT Op-Edge.
It struck me today that when I email a new contact I now reflexively check to see if they are using PGP encryption. A happily surprising number are doing so these days, but most people would probably consider my circle of friends and acquaintance to be eclectic at the very least, if not downright eccentric, but then that’s probably why I like them.
There are still alarming numbers who are not using PGP though, particularly in journalist circles, and I have to admit that when this happens I do feel a tad miffed, as if some basic modern courtesy is being breached.
It’s not that I even expect everybody to use encryption — yet — it’s just that I prefer to have the option to use it and be able to have the privacy of my own communications at least considered. After all I am old enough to remember the era of letter writing, and I always favoured a sealed envelope to a postcard.
And before you all leap on me with cries of “using only PGP is no guarantee of security.…” I do know that you need a suite of tools to have a fighting chance of real privacy in this NSA-saturated age: open source software, PGP, TOR, Tails, OTR, old hardware, you name it. But I do think the wide-spread adoption of PGP sets a good example and gets more people thinking about these wider issues. Perhaps more of us should insist on it before communicating further.
Why is this in my mind at the moment? Well, I am currently working with an old friend, Simon Davies, the founder of Privacy International and the Big Brother Awards. He cut his first PGP key in 2000, but then left it to wither on the vine. As we are in the process of setting up a new privacy initiative called Code Red (more of which next week) it seemed imperative for him to set a good example and “start using” again.
Anyway, with the help of one of the godfathers of the Berlin cryptoparties, I am happy to report that the father of the privacy movement can now ensure your privacy if you wish to communicate with him.
I am proud to say that my awareness of PGP goes back even further. The first time I heard of the concept was in 1998 while I was living in hiding in a remote French farmhouse in central France, on the run from MI5, with my then partner, David Shayler.
Our only means of communication with the outside world was a computer and a dial-up connection and David went on a steep learning curve in all things geek to ensure a degree of privacy. He helped build his own website (subsequently hacked, presumably by GCHQ or the NSA as it was a sophisticated attack by the standards of the day) and also installed the newly-available PGP. People complain now of the difficulties of installing encryption, but way back then it was the equivalent of scaling Mount Everest after a few light strolls in the park to limber up. But he managed it.
Now, of course, it is relatively easy, especially if you take the time to attend a Cryptoparty — and there will be inevitably be one happening near you some place soon.
Cryptoparties began in late 2012 on the initiative of Asher Wolf in Australia. The concept spread rapidly, and after Snowden went public in May 2013, accelerated globally. Indeed, there have been various reports about the “Snowden Effect”. Only last week there was an article in the Guardian newspaper saying that 72% of British adults are now concerned about online privacy. I hope the 72% are taking advantage of these geek gatherings.
The US-based comedian, John Oliver, also recently aired an interview with Edward Snowden. While this was slightly painful viewing for any whistleblower — Oliver had done a vox pop in New York that he showed to Snowden, where most interviewees seemed unaware of him and uncaring about privacy — there was a perceptible shift of opinion when the issue of, shall we say, pictures of a sensitive nature were being intercepted.
Officially this spy programme is called Optic Nerve, an issue that many of us have been discussing to some effect over the last year. In the Oliver interview this transmogrified into “the dick pic programme”. Well, whatever gets the message out there effectively.… and it did.
We all have things we prefer to keep private — be it dick pics, bank accounts, going to the loo, talking to our doctor, our sex lives, or even just talking about family gossip over the phone. This is not about having anything to hide, but most of us do have an innate sense of privacy around our personal issues and dealings and this is all now lost to us, as Edward Snowden has laid bare.
As I have also said before, there are wider societal implications too — if we feel we are being watched in what we watch, read, say, write, organise, and conduct our relationships, then we start to self-censor. And this is indeed already another of the quantified Snowden effects. This is deleterious to the free flow of information and the correct functioning of democratic societies. This is precisely why the right to privacy is one of the core principles in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Lessons had then been learned from the Nazi book burnings and the Gestapo spy state, and privacy was recognised as a pre-requisite of open democracy. Yet now we see senior and supposedly well-informed US politicians calling for the modern equivalent of book burnings and failing to rein in the global abuses of the NSA.
How quickly the lessons of history can be forgotten and how carelessly we can cast aside the hard-won rights of our ancestors.
Edward Snowden, at great personal risk, gave us the necessary information to formulate a push back. At the very least we can have enough respect for the sacrifices he made and for the rights of our fellow human beings to take basic steps to protect both our own and their privacy.
So please start using open source encryption at the very least. It would be rude not to.
Here is a panel discussion I did about whistleblowing at the Logan Symposium in London last November. With me on the panel are Eileen Chubb, a UK health care whistleblower who runs Compassion in Care and is campaigning for Edna’s Law, and Bea Edwards of the US Government Accountability Project. With thanks to @newsPeekers for filming this.
My interview on RT about the recent disclosure to Wikileaks about how undeclared CIA officers can travel safely into the EU. The big question is — why would they? Especially when we know from the Edward Snowden disclosures how much the European intelligence agencies collude with their counterparts in the USA…