Despite being a classicist not a geek by training, this sounds like I know what I’m talking about, right? Well somewhat to my own surprise, I do, after years of exposure to the “hacktivist” ethos and a growing awareness that geeks may our last line of defence against the corporatists. In fact, I recently did an interview on The Keiser Report about the “war on the internet”.
Officially, Telstra is implementing this capability to protect those fragile business flowers (surely “broken business models” — Ed) within the entertainment and copyright industries — you know, the companies who pimp out creative artists, pay most of them a pittance while keeping the bulk of the loot for themselves, and then whine about how P2P file sharing and the circulation and enjoyment of the artists’ work is theft?
But who, seriously, thinks that such technology, once developed, will not be used and abused by all and sundry, down to and including our burgeoning police state apparatus? If the security forces can use any tool, no matter how sordid, they will do so, as has been recently reported with the UK undercover cops assuming the identities of dead children in order to infiltrate peaceful protest groups.
Writer and activist, Cory Doctorow, summed this problem up best in an excellent talk at the CCC hackerfest in Berlin in 2011:
The shredding of any notion of privacy will also have a chilling effect not only on the privacy of our communications, but will also result in our beginning to self-censor the information we ingest for fear of surveillance (Nazi book burnings are so 20th Century). It will, inevitably, also lead us to self-censor what we say and what we write, which will slide us into an Orwellian dystopia faster than we could say “Aaron Swartz”.
As Columbian Professor of Law, Eben Moglen, said so eloquently last year at another event in Berlin — “freedom of thought requires free media”:
Two of my favourite talks, still freely available on the internet. Enjoy.
Just a quickie, as this is some sort of holiday season apparently. However, this did annoy me. In the same way that President Obama signed the invidious NDAA on 31st December last year, despite his protestations about vetoing etc, it appears the US government has sneaked/snuck through (please delete as appropriate, depending on how you pronounce “tomato”) yet another draconian law during the festive season, which apparently further erodes the US constitution and the civil rights of all Americans.
Yet another problem for our benighted cousins across the pond, you might think. But as so often happens these days, bonkers American laws can affect us all.
But the NDAA and the extended FISA should at least rouse the ire of Americans themselves: US citizens on US soil can now potentially be targeted. This is new, this is dangerous, right?
Well, no, not quite, as least as far as the interception of communications goes.
The Echelon system, exposed in 1988 by British journalist Duncan Campbell and reinvestigated in 1999, put in place just such a (legally dubious) mechanism for watching domestic citizens. The surveillance state was already in place, even if through a back door, as you can see from this article I wrote 4 years ago, which included the following paragraph:
ECHELON was an agreement between the NSA and its British equivalent GCHQ (as well as the agencies of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) whereby they shared information they gathered on each others’ citizens. GCHQ could legally eavesdrop on people outside the UK without a warrant, so they could target US citizens of interest, then pass the product over to the NSA. The NSA then did the same for GCHQ. Thus both agencies could evade any democratic oversight and accountability, and still get the intelligence they wanted.
The only difference now is that FISA has come blasting through the front door, and yet people remain quiescent.
In January I had the pleasure of speaking in The Netherlands at the excellent geekfest known as ETH-0. Rather than just banging on about the spooks, I thought it was time to take a step back and examine what exactly we mean when we talk about totalitarianism, police states, and how far down the road our countries have gone.
I also wanted to drive home to an audience, many of whom are too young to remember the Cold War, what exactly it would be like to live under a police state with its endemic surveillance.
The US government has apparently been getting its knickers in a twist about the excellent Wikileaks website. A report written in 2008 by US army counter-intelligence analysing the threat posed by this haven for whistleblowers has been leaked to, you’ve guessed it, the very subject of the report.
Wikileaks was set up three years ago to provide a secure space for principled whistleblowers around the world to expose corruption and crimes committed by our governments, intelligence agencies and mega-corporations. The site takes great care to verify the information it publishes, adheres to the principle of exposing information very much in the public interest, and vigorously protects the identify of its sources.
By doing so, Wikileaks plays a vital part in informing citizens of what is being done (often illegally) in their name. This free flow of information is vital in a democracy.
Well, no government likes a clued-up and critical citizenry, nor does it like to have transparency and accountability imposed on it. Which led to the report in question.
As I have written before ad nauseam, whistleblowers provide an essential function to the healthy working of a democracy. The simplistic approach would be to say that if governments, spies and big corporations obeyed the law, there would be no need for whistleblowers. However, back in the real, post-9/11 world, with its endless, nebulous “war on terror”, illegal wars, torture, extraordinary rendition and Big Brother surveillance, we have never had greater need of them.
Rather than ensuring the highest standards of legality and probity in public life, it is far simpler for the powers that be to demonise the whistleblower — a figure who is now (according to the Executive Summary of the report) apparently seen as the “insider threat”. We are looking at a nascent McCarthyism here. It echoes the increasing use by our governments of the term “domestic extremists” when they are talking about activists and protesters.
There are laws to protect whistleblowers in most areas of work now. In the UK we have the Public Interest Disclosure Act (1998). However, government, military, and especially intelligence professionals are denied this protection, despite the fact that they are most often the very people to witness the most heinous state abuses, crimes and corruption. If they try to do something about this, they are also the people most likely to be prosecuted and persecuted for following their consciences, as I described in a talk at the CCC in Berlin a couple of years ago.
Ideally, such whistleblowers need a protected legal channel through which to report crimes, with the confidence that these will be properly investigated and the perpetrators held to account. Failing that, sites like Wikileaks offer an invaluable resource. As I said last summer at the Hacking at Random festival in NL, when I had the pleasure of sharing a stage with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, I just wish that the organisation had existed a decade earlier to help with my own whistleblowing exploits.
The Official Secrets Act (1989) in the UK, is drafted to stifle whistleblowers rather than protect real secrets. Such laws are routinely used to cover up the mistakes, embarrassment and crimes of spies and governments, rather than to protect national security. After all, even the spooks acknowledge that there are only three categories of intelligence that absolutely require protection: sensitive operational techniques, agent identities and ongoing operations.
This US counter-intelligence report is already 2 years old, and its strategy for discrediting Wikileaks (by exposing one of their sources pour encourager les autres) has, to date, manifestly failed. Credit is due to the Wikileaks team in out-thinking and technologically outpacing the intelligence community, and is a ringing endorsement for the whole open source philosophy.
I’ve said this before, and I shall say it again: as our countries evolve ever more into surveillance societies, with big brother databases, CCTV, biometric data, police drones, voting computers et al, geeks may be our best (and last?) defence against emerging Big Brother states.