Here’s an interview I did while at the excellent Internetdagarna conference in Stockholm last month. It covers all things whistleblower, going on the run, and spy accountability:
A comment piece from last week on RT about German politicians wanting to go back to paper-based communications to evade the US spy panopticon:
And here is the full text of the interview I gave on RT Op Edge:
Both typewriter and strong encryption is going to slow down communication, but upholding a basic democratic right of privacy seems to be more important, former MI5 agent Annie Machon told RT.
Amid the American-German espionage scandal, German politicians are considering going back to old-fashioned manual typewriters for confidential documents in order to protect national secrets from American NSA surveillance.
RT: Why would Germany think of using typewriters as a security measure?
Annie Machon: What I find interesting is that we have a situation where even our democratically elected representatives have to think deeply and seriously about how to protect the privacy of their communications, particularly when the investigation of the very subject of invasion of the privacy of the citizens, which is what the Bundestag at the moment is doing in Germany, trying to hold hearings to work out what exactly the NSA has been doing, which might be contravening the constitution of Germany. It is very difficult now but it is still possible to protect your electronic communications, but I think this announcement, this sort of statement by the Bundestag representative about going back to typewriters is interesting. It just makes a very strong point that we all need to be aware of the fact that we can be spied on at any time.
RT: Do you think everyone would follow Germany’s example?
AM: I think more and more people are concerned about their privacy because of the Edward Snowden disclosures. He has done the world a huge service with great personal cost, exposing the predations of the US Intelligence agencies and the NSA particularly, as well as a number of European agencies. In the past all countries spied on each other because they wanted to gain advantage over other countries, not necessarily their enemies, just an advantage economically or politically. However, what we are seeing at the moment is the result of what was the perfect storm for the USA in the 1990s, it was a perfect opportunity for them, because at that point the Cold War had ended, they were the sole remaining superpower on the planet, and precisely at that moment we had the evolution of the internet, a huge tech explosion of communications. They saw the opportunity and they went for it. Of course they did because that meant that they could embed whatever they wanted into the infrastructure that the whole world now uses for communication. Of course they were not going to turn this opportunity down, and they haven’t. That is what Edward Snowden disclosed.
So we have the situation now when everything can conceivably be hoovered up by the NSA and its vassal states in Europe, everything can conceivably be stored for ever and be used against citizens in the future if the laws change. And everything can conceivably be known amongst the private deliberations of our parliament’s democratically elected representatives. It’s worse than Orwellian.
It would be naïve to think that the US would not take up this opportunity, but of course they did, and these are the results we are living in. It would be lovely to think that we could go back to the era of having privacy in our lives that our governments would have power to ensure we had it, but in this globalized world it is very difficult to ensure that. One of the things that is little known out of all Snowden’s disclosures is the fact that it is not just what we send over the internet, it is also hardware, the computers, the technology we actually use that can already be compromised by the NSA. This is one of the things that came out just after Christmas last year. So we are living in a very complex world but there are very simple steps we can take, both the governments and the citizens, to protect our democratic and our basic right to privacy.
RT:Wouldn’t using typewriters slow things down in terms of communication? Why not use other, more modern ways of protecting communication?
AM: Either going back to using pen paper or typewriter or using very strong encryption is going to slow down one’s communication, there is no doubt about it. The point is though, what is more important, is it access to the latest celebrity gossip on the internet or is it actually upholding a basic democratic right of privacy. Because if we don’t have privacy, then we lose our freedom to communicate easily and in private, we lose our freedom to ingest information via video, audio or from reading, we cannot plan, we cannot conduct private personal relationships over the internet. So what is the price of a little bit of inconvenience when it comes to protecting our basic rights? I think that however light-heartedly the German politician mentioned using typewriters, when it comes to proper security issues within government, he is probably absolutely right. Last year there was a report as well, saying that some of the Russian security operators were now using typewriters too. We will all have to think about that, and it’s just a jolting wake up call to make us all think about that by stating that the German government is now going back to typewriters for certain things.
RT: What kind of solution do you see? Should people rely on their governments for protection of their privacy?
AM: There is a danger that people and the government will become very paranoid about trying to protect against the predations of the NSA and its vassals in Europe. However, I’m not sure as we as citizens can rely on governments to protect our privacy because all governments would want to know what is going on on the internet for legitimate reasons as well, to try to track down the illegitimate criminals and terrorists. But it can be easy for them to hoover up all the personal information and we, as citizens, need that have that guarantee of privacy. So one of the things we can do as citizens is to take responsibility in our own hands. We can indeed source all technologies, source computers pre-2008 that have not built-in hardware backdoors. We can use decent PGP encryption, we can use Tor to hide what we are looking at in the internet, we can use other encryption methodologies to protect our privacy, and we need to. I think it’s a very interesting crossroads in our history, both as civilizations, as democracy and as individuals, but also how we view the technology, how we use it, how we can better use it to protect our life, so that is going it be an ongoing debate. I’m very pleased to see this in Germany particularly. The politicians seem to be waking up around these issues and wanting debate these issues because the USA has got away with it for long enough across the West.
As a second German intelligence officer was arrested for spying for the Americans, here’s my recent RT interview on the subject, plus much more:
A year ago I stumbled across a story about a worrying new surveillance programme developed by the NSA: Prism. While nobody was identified as the source of the disclosure, I was awestruck by the bravery of this unknown person.
At that time the Obama administration had been waging an aggressive war on whistleblowers: ex-CIA officer, John Kiriakou, who exposed the CIA’s torture programme, was languishing in prison while the torturers went free; Kirk Wiebe, William Binney and Thomas Drake of the NSA had narrowly escaped prosecution for exposing NSA malfeasance — indeed, despite having gone through all the approved channels, Drake had faced a 35-year prison sentence; and of course the kangaroo court had just started to try Chelsea Manning for her exposure of US war crimes. Inevitably, it is the whistleblower Manning who is now serving a 35 year stretch in prison, not the war criminals.
President Obama has used and abused the 1917 US Espionage Act against whistleblowers during his years in the White House more times than all his predecessors put together, while at the same time allowing a bone fide spy ring — the Russian illegals exposed in 2010 — to return home. This paranoid hunt for the “insider threat” has been going on since at least 2008, as we know from documents leaked to Wikileaks in 2010.
Against this background, fully aware of the hideous risks he was taking and the prospect of the rest of his life behind bars, a young man stepped forward. Four days after the initial Prism disclosure, Edward Snowden announced to the world that he was the source of the story and many more to come. He was clear then about his motivation and he remains clear now in the few interviews he has done since: what he had seen on the inside of the NSA caused him huge concern. The American intelligence infrastructure, along with its equivalent agencies across the world, was constructing a global surveillance network that not only threatened the constitution of the United States, but also eroded the privacy of all the world’s citizens.
The global surveillance state wanted to “master the internet”, as another disclosure proved, and the UK’s GCHQ stepped up to the plate. As increasing numbers of us conduct aspects of our lives over the internet (be it banking, health, social lives, organisations, activism, relationships) this growing lack of privacy strikes at the very root of democracy. Privacy was enshrined as a basic human right in the UN Declaration in 1948 precisely because without it we are vulnerable to the encroachments and abuses of the state. What Snowden has disclosed would the the Stasi’s wet dream and goes far beyond the dystopic horrors of George Orwell’s novel “1984”.
So what did Snowden disclose? Prism was only the start, and that was bad enough — a programme to scoop up all our metadata: whom we’re in contact with, for how long, what we’re reading, what we’re viewing. NSA apologists say that this is not invasive, it is not looking at the contents of communications. I can assure your that metadata is intelligence gold dust. It can provide a far more detailed overview of a person’s life than any individual communication often can.
But it gets worse. Then came Tempora and associated documents that disclosed that the UK’s GCHQ was mainlining information from the transatlantic fibre optic cables, which affected all European citizens, as well as displaying how GCHQ was prostituting itself to the NSA for money and putting NSA objectives above the priorities of the UK government.
And then XKeyscore, enthusiastically used by Germany’s BND, presumably without the knowledge of its political masters. There have been many more: Brazil’s Petrobras oil company, the French telephone network, charities, the Muscular access point and the massive Fascia database, which contains trillions of device-location records.…. Where to stop?
This year Britain’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group was using Squeaky Dolphin’s real-time monitoring of social media networks, and the bulk collection of private webcam images via the Optic Nerve programme.
This last most grimly does away with the “done nothing wrong, nothing to hide” argument. In this era of families living in different countries and long distance relationships, video skype is increasingly used to stay in contact with loved ones. And this contact can be somewhat intimate at times between couples. On video. Anyone who has ever used skype for such purposes must surely be feeling violated?
Out of this morass of spying came moments of personal annoyance for western politicians, not least the information that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone was also being tapped, as were those of numerous other politicians. Which rather blows out of the water the much-abused argument that all this surveillance is to stop terrorists. On what planet would the NSA spooks need to live to seriously think that Merkel could be deemed a terrorist?
All these disclosures are of the gravest public interest. Yet how have western politicians reacted? In the usual way — shoot the messenger. All the standard li(n)es have been trotted out by the spies: Snowden was too junior to know what he is talking about, and was “just” a contracted systems administrator (this line says more the ignorance of the politicians about all things tech than anything about Snowden’s job); that Snowden is a traitor for fleeing to Russia, when in fact he was trapped there by the USA withdrawing his passport while in transit to Latin America; or that he should “man up” and return to the US to stand trial. There were even apparently calls from the spies for him to be extrajudicially murdered.
Despite this, his disclosures have resulted in congressional hearings in the US, where senior spooks have been caught out lying about the efficacy of these spy programmes. A US federal judge has declared the NSA’s activities unconstitutional, and minor reforms are underway to protect the rights of US citizens within their own country.
Which is a start. However, that still leaves the rest of us living under the baleful gaze of the NSA and its vassals.
The British response has been largely muted, with politicians immediately assuring the grateful citizens of the UK that everything done by the spies is legal and proportionate, when in fact it was manifestly not. Nor is this any consolation for the rest of Europe’s citizens — after all, why should the British Foreign Secretary be able to take it upon himself to authorise intercept programmes such as Tempora that sweep up the communications of an entire continent?
Press discussion of Snowden’s disclosures in the UK has been largely muted because of a censorship notice slapped on the media, while the Guardian newspaper that helped to break the story had its hard disks smashed up by GCHQ.
Other countries have displayed a more robust response, with Brazil planning to build its own transatlantic cables to Europe to avoid the Tempora programme, and in Germany people have been demanding that the constitution be upheld and privacy ensured against the American surveillance behemoth.
The European parliamentary Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) committee has held months-long hearings with evidence from tech experts, whistleblowers and campaigners about what it should do to protect EU citizens from the predations of the US. Edward Snowden himself gave a statement. This is all well and good, but it would be more helpful if they could give Snowden asylum in Europe and also put in place some meaningful measures to protect our rights one year on — in fact, all they would need to do is enact the provisions of the European parliament’s own July 2001 report into the Echelon fiasco.
Echelon, some of you may remember, was a global proto-surveillance network, where the intelligence agencies of the US, UK, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada (now called Five Eyes) could all share product and subvert oversight measures in each others’ countries. In 2001 the EU recommended that Europe develop its own internet infrastructure and move away from its dependency on US corporate proprietary software. All good suggestions, but all too soon forgotten after 9/11 and the rush to the “war on terror”.
One year on from Snowden I would suggest that these measures should indeed be implemented. The European Parliament needs to take action now and show its 500 million citizens that it is serious about protecting their rights rather than pandering to the demands of the US government and its corporate sponsors.
So, on this anniversary, I want to salute the bravery of Edward Snowden. His conscious courage has given us all a fighting chance against a corporate-industrial-intelligence complex that is running amok across the world. I hope that we can all find within us an answering courage to do what is right and indeed take back our rights. His bravery and sacrifice must not be in vain.
The 27th European Media Art Festival began this evening in Osnabrueck, Germany. In the wake of all the global intelligence whistleblowing that has gone on over the last few years, the theme for the artists of 2014 is “We, the Enemy”.
Do visit if you can — a lot of interesting and political art installations are on display, as well as films, music, and talks. I shall be doing a talk on speaking on Friday afternoon.
I had the pleasure of making a short speech at the opening ceremony this evening, and did an interview for national German TV channel ARD last night to publicise the festival.
I regularly revisit the famous Pastor Martin Niemoeller poem from the Nazi era as his words remain resonant in our post-9/11, “war on terror” world. Over the last week threads of various alarming stories have converged, so here is my latest update:
First they came for the Muslims, but I was not a Muslim so did not speak up.
Then they came for the whistleblowers, but I was not a whistleblower so did not speak up.
Then they came for the “domestic extremists”, but I was not an activist so did not speak up.
And when they came for me, there was nobody left to speak up for me.
Allow me to explain this current version. Regular readers of this website will be well aware of my horror at the global rape of basic human rights in the West’s fight against the “war on terror” since 9/11: the kidnappings, the torture, the CIA presidentially-approved weekly assassination lists, the drone bombings, the illegal wars.…
All these measures have indeed targeted and terrorised the Muslim community around the world. In the UK I have heard many stories of British Muslims wary of attending a family event such as a wedding of their cousins in Pakistan or wherever, in case they get snatched, tortured or drone bombed.
Now it appears that even British citizens who choose to donate to UK charities offering humanitarian relief in war zones such as Syria can be arrested under counter-terrorism laws.
Moazzam Begg, the director of Cage (the UK NGO campaigning about the community impact of the war on terror) was again seized last week. As I have written before, this is a man who has already experienced the horrors of Bagram airbase and Guantanamo. When he was released he became a campaigner for others in the same plight and set up the Cage campaign which has gained quite some traction over the last few years.
Over a year ago he visited Syria on a fact-finding mission, investigating those who had been summarily detained and tortured in the conflict. Last December he had his passport seized on spurious grounds He wrote about this trip quite openly, and yet now, a year on, has been arrested and charged with “training terrorists and fund raising” in Syria. This is a high-profile campaigner who operates in the full glare of the media. How credulous does one have to be to believe that Begg, after all his experiences and running this campaign, is now involved in “terrorism”? Really, anyone?
Since then other people involved in British charities offering aid to the displaced peoples of Syria have also been scooped up. But this is just affecting the British Muslim community, right? There’s “no smoke without fire”, and it does not impinge the lives of most people in the UK, so there has been no widespread outcry.…
.…so nobody speaks up.
Then we have the ongoing “war on whistleblowers” that I have discussed extensively. This affects every sector of society in every country, but most seriously affects whistleblowers emerging from central government, the military and the intelligence agencies. They are the ones most likely to witness the most heinous crimes, and they are the ones automatically criminalised by secrecy laws.
This is most apparent in the UK, where the Official Secrets Act (1989) specifically criminalises whistleblowing, and in the USA, where President Obama has invoked the 1917 Espionage Act against whistleblowers more times than all other presidents combined over the last century. If that is not a “war on whistleblowers”, I don’t know what is.
This, of course, is a paranoid over-reaction to the work of Wikileaks, and the brave actions of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. This is what Obama’s government deems to be the “insider threat”. Yet it is only through greater transparency that we can operate as informed citizens; it is only through greater accountability that we can hope to obtain justice. And in this era, when we are routinely lied into illegal wars, what could be more important?
But intelligence and military whistleblowers are rare, specialised and easy to stigmatise as the “other” and now, the insider threat — not quite of the normal world. The issues they disclose can seem a bit remote, not linked to most people’s daily experiences.…
.…so nobody speaks up.
But now to my third revamped line of the Pastor Niemoeller poem: the activists or, to use current police terminology, the “domestic extremists”. This, surely, does impinge on more people’s experience of life. If you want to go out and demonstrate against a war, in support of Occupy, for the environment, whatever, you are surely exercising your democratic rights as citizens, right?
Er, well no, not these days. I have written before about how activists can be criminalised and even deemed to be terrorists by the police (think London Occupy in 2011 here). I’m thinking of the ongoing British undercover cop scandal which continues to rumble on.
For those of you outside the UK, this is a scandal that erupted in 2010. There is was a section of secret police who were infiltrated into activist groups under secret identities to live the life, report back, and even potentially work as enablers or agents provocateurs. As the scandal has grown it appears that some of these cops fathered children with their targets and spied on the grieving families of murder victims.
This sounds like the East German Stasi, but was happening in the UK in the last couple of decades. A government enquiry has just been announced and many old cases against activists will be reviewed to see if tarnished “evidence” was involved in the trials and subsequent convictions.
But again this does not affect most people beyond the activist community.…
.…so nobody speaks up.
Now, people who have always assumed they have certain protections because of their professions, such as lawyers and journalists, are also being caught in this dragnet. Julian Assange’s lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, discovered she was on a flight watch list a few years ago. More recently Jesselyn Radack, human rights director of the US Government Accountability Project and legal advisor to Edward Snowden, was stopped and interrogated at the UK border.
And just this week a Dutch investigative journalist, Brenno de Winter, was unable to do his job since his name was placed on alert in all national government buildings. The police accused him of hacking-related crimes and burglary. They had to retract this when the smear campaign came to light.
Brenno has made his name by freedom of information requests from the Dutch public sector and his subsequent investigations, for which he was named Dutch Journalist of the Year in 2011. Hardly subversion, red in tooth and claw, but obviously now deemed to be an existential, national security threat to the Netherlands.
Nor is this a Dutch problem — we have seen this in the US, where journalists such as James Risen and Barrett Brown have been hounded merely for doing their jobs, and the Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained at London Heathrow airport under counter-terrorism laws.
Journalists, who always somewhat complacently thought they had special protections in Western countries, are being increasingly targeted when trying to report on issues such as privacy, surveillance, whistleblower disclosures and wars.
Only a few are being targeted now, but I hope these cases will be enough to wake the rest up, while there is still the chance for them to take action.…
.…before there is nobody left to speak up for us.
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.
The 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.
We 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.
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 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.…
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.
Just a short post to announce the new Edward Snowden website. Away from all the spin and media hysteria, here are the basic facts about the information disclosed and the issues at stake.
And here’s another aide memoire of the disclosures so far. The impact of these disclosures is global. Edward Snowden is simply the most significant whistleblower in modern history.
Below is some background material from my submission to the European Parliament’s LIBE Committee on the implications of the NSA scandal.
Here is a video link to the hearing.
LIBE Committee Inquiry on Electronic Mass Surveillance of EU Citizens, European Parliament, 30th September 2013
Annie Machon was an intelligence officer for the UK’s MI5 in the 1990s, before leaving to help blow the whistle on the crimes and incompetence of the British spy agencies. As a result she and her former partner had to go on the run around Europe, live in exile in France, face arrest and imprisonment, and watch as friends, family and journalists were arrested.
She is now a writer, media commentator, political campaigner, and international public speaker on a variety of related issues: the war on terrorism, the war on drugs, the war on whistleblowers, and the war on the internet. In 2012 she started as a Director of LEAP in Europe (www.leap.cc).
Annie has an MA (Hons) Classics from Cambridge University.
- The insider threat
- Free Speech Debate project
- Whistleblower discussion panel
- What whistleblowers want
- The value of whistleblowers
- The cost of whistleblowing
- The real purpose of UK secrecy laws
- Head of MI6 statement
- Early article on Wikileaks
- Possible whistleblower protections
- Failure of UK parliamentary oversight
- UK spies and the law
- UK spies: unethical and unaccountable
- Meaningful parliamentary oversight of intelligence agencies, with full powers of investigation, at both national and European levels.
- These same democratic bodies to provide a legitimate channel for intelligence whistleblowers to give their evidence of malfeasance, with the clear and realistic expectation that a full inquiry will be conducted, reforms applied and crimes punished.
- Institute a discussion about the legal definition of national security, what the real threats are to the integrity of nation states and the EU, and establish agencies to work within the law to defend just that. This will halt international intelligence mission creep.
- EU-wide implementation of the recommendations in the Echelon Report (2001):
- to develop and build key infrastructure across Europe that is immune from US governmental and corporatist surveillance; and
- “Germany and the United Kingdom are called upon to make the authorisation of further communications interception operations by US intelligence services on their territory conditional on their compliance with the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights).”
- The duty of the European parliament is to the citizens of the EU. As such it should actively pursue technology policies to protect the privacy and basic rights of the citizens from the surveillance of the NSA and its vassals; and if it cannot, it should warn its citizens abut this actively and educate them to take their own steps to protect their privacy (such as no longer using certain Internet services or learning to use privacy enhancing technologies). Concerns such as the trust Europeans have in ‘e-commerce’ or ‘e-government’ as mentioned by the European Commission should be secondary to this concern at all times.
- 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.
Last week I was invited to discuss the control of the media by the spies and the government apparatus by the Centre for Media Studies at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. Many thanks to Hans, Anders and the team for inviting me, and to Inese Voika , the Chair of Transparency International in Latvia, for setting the scene so well.
I focused particularly on how journalists can work with and protect whistleblowers:
In the wake of the Edward Snowden disclosures about endemic global surveillance, the rather threadbare old argument about “if you have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” has been trotted out by many Big Brother apologists.
But it’s not about doing anything wrong, it’s about having an enshrined right to privacy — as recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights agreed in 1948. And this was enshrined in the wake of the horrors of World War 2, and for very good reason. If you are denied privacy to read or listen, if you are denied privacy to speak or write, and if you are denied privacy about whom you meet and see, then freedom has died and totalitarianism has begun.
Those were the lessons learned from the growth of fascism in the 1930s and 1940s. If you lose the right to privacy, you also lose the ability to push back against dictatorships, corrupt governments, and all the attendant horrors.
How quickly we forget the lessons of history: not just the rights won over the last century, but those fought and died for over centuries. We recent generations in the West have grown too bloated on ease, too financially fat and socially complacent, to fully appreciate the freedoms we are casually throwing away.
So what sparked this mini-rant? This article I found in my Twitter stream (thanks @LossofPrivacy). It appears that a US police department in Detroit has just sent out all the traditionally vital statistics of its female officers to the entire department — weight, height and even the bra size of individual female police officers have been shared with the staff, purely because of an email gaffe.
Well people make mistakes and hit the wrong buttons. So this may not sound like much, but apparently the women in question are not happy, and rightly so. In the still macho environment of law enforcement, one can but cringe at the “joshing” that followed.
Putting aside the obvious question of whether we want our police officers to be tooled up like Robocop, this minor débâcle highlights a key point of privacy. It’s not that one needs to hide one’s breasts as a woman — they are pretty much obvious for chrissakes — but does everyone need to know the specifics, or is that personal information one step too far? And as for a woman’s weight, don’t even go there.….
So these cops in Detroit, no doubt all up-standing pillars of their communities, might have learned a valuable lesson. It is not a “them and us” situation — the “them” being “terrorists”, activists, communists, liberals, Teabaggers — whatever the theme du jour happens to be.
It is about a fundamental need for privacy as human beings, as the Duchess of Cambridge also discovered last year. This is not just about height, bra size or, god forbid, one’s weight. This is about bigger issues if not bigger boobs. We all have something we want kept private, be it bank statements, bonking, or bowel movements.
However, with endemic electronic surveillance, we have already lost our privacy in our communications and in our daily routines — in London it is estimated that we are caught on CCTV more than 300 times a day just going about our daily business.
More importantly, in this era of financial, economic and political crises, we are losing our freedom to read and watch, to speak and meet, and to protest without fear of surveillance. It is the Stasi’s wet dream, realised by those unassuming chaps (and obviously the chapesses with boobs) in law enforcement, the NSA, GCHQ et al.
But it is not just the nation state level spies we have to worry about. Even if we think that we could not possibly be important enough to be on that particular radar (although Mr Snowden has made it abundantly clear that we all are), there is a burgeoning private sector of corporate intelligence companies who are only too happy to watch, infiltrate and destabilise social, media and protest groups. “Psyops” and “astro-turfing” are terrifying words for anyone interested in human rights, activism and civil liberties. But this is the new reality.
So, what can we do? Let’s remember that most law enforcement people in the varied agencies are us — they want a stable job that feels valued, they want to provide for their families, they want to do the right thing. Reach out to them, and help those who do have the courage to speak out and expose wrongdoing, be it law enforcement professionals speaking out against the failed “war on drugs” (such as those in LEAP) or intelligence whistleblowers exposing war crimes, illegal surveillance and torture.
But also have the courage to protest and throw the tired old argument back in the faces of the security proto-tyrants. This is what the founding fathers of the USA did: they risked being hanged as traitors by the British Crown in 1776, yet they still made a stand. Using the “seditious” writings of Tom Paine, who ended up on the run from the UK, they had the courage to speak out, meet up and fight for what they believed in, and they produced a good first attempt at a workable democracy.
Unfortunately, the USA establishment has long been corrupted and subverted by corporatist interests. And unfortunately for the rest of the world, with the current geo-political power balance, this still has an impact on most of us, and provides a clear example of how the changing political landscape can shift the goal posts of “acceptable” behaviour — one day your are an activist waving a placard, the next you are potentially deemed to be a “terrorist”.
But also remember — we are all, potentially, Tom Paine. And as the endless, nebulous, and frankly largely bogus “war on terror” continues to ravage the world and our democracies, we all need to be.
In this post-PRISM world, we need to take individual responsibility to protect our privacy and ensure we have free media. At least then we can freely read, write, speak, and meet with our fellow citizens. We need this privacy to be the new resistance to the creeping totalitarianism of the global elites.
Read the seminal books of Tom Paine (while you still can), weep, and then go forth.….
With thanks to my mother for the title of this piece. It made me laugh.