OHM 2013 — The Joy of Geeks

ohm2013_logoHome and recovered from the rigours of the amaz­ing geek­fest, OHM 2013.

This was a 5-day fest­ival in the Neth­er­lands where 3000 geeks, act­iv­ists and whis­tleblowers gathered to have fun and also try to put the world to rights.  And this crowd, out of all act­iv­ist groups, has a fight­ing chance. The geeks are tooled-up, tech-savvy, and increas­ingly politi­cised after all the recent assaults on the inter­net and wider freedoms.

These include all the anti-piracy meas­ures (inter­est­ingly, Rus­sia has just joined the lost war that is the anti-piracy legis­la­tion, and the Rus­sian pir­ates are going to form a Pir­ate Church, as this will give them spe­cial pro­tec­tions and rights under the law). It also includes all the invi­di­ous inter­na­tional agree­ments that the US and its Euro-vassals are try­ing to force down the throats of reluct­ant pop­u­la­tions: ACTA, PIPA, SOPA, TAFTA.… you name it, there’s a whole new anti-freedom alpha­bet soup out there in addi­tion to the spook acronyms.

Not to men­tion all the illegal US take-downs of legit­im­ate busi­ness web­sites, such as Megaup­load, and the pan­op­tic sur­veil­lance powers of the NSA and its global intel­li­gence bud­dies, long sus­pec­ted by many and now proven by the dis­clos­ures of the cour­ageous Edward Snowden.

So it was lovely to see at OHM an increas­ing politi­cisa­tion. This was partly because of all the above recent hor­rors, but also because the OHM organ­isers had pulled together a strong polit­ical and whis­tleblow­ing speaker track. The attack against digital civil liber­ties is inex­tric­ably linked to and reflect­ive of the full-frontal attack on our his­toric real-world freedoms:  endemic sur­veil­lance, kid­nap­ping, tor­ture, CIA kill lists, illegal wars, drone strikes, secret courts, and many other encroach­ing hor­rors that I have writ­ten about ad nauseam. And this is just what we know about.

sinking_shipIn my view our West­ern demo­cra­cies have been at least fatally holed, if they have not yet foundered. Which, of course, means that our viol­ent, inter­ven­tion­ist attempts to bring “demo­cracy” to the devel­op­ing world are derided as hypo­crit­ical at best, and viol­ently res­isted at worst.

The new front-line of this struggle is “cyber” war­fare — be it the illegal aggress­ive attacks of such US/Israeli vir­uses against Iran such as Stuxnet (that is now roam­ing free in the wild and mutat­ing), or the slower wars of attri­tion against “pir­ates”, hack­ers, Wikileaks, and the grow­ing war on whis­tleblowers such as Brad­ley Man­ning and Edward Snowden.

Well, geeks are the new res­ist­ance and they have a fight­ing chance in my view. And this is why I think that they are our best hope.

SAMSUNGThis was my exper­i­ence of OHM. Three thou­sand of the best and the bright­est from around the world gathered together not just to have fun play­ing with bleeding-edge tech, hack­ing and build­ing toys, and cre­at­ing slightly sur­real, if beloved, hover-pets (see right), but also who turned out in their thou­sands to listen to and absorb the exper­i­ences of a num­ber of inter­na­tional intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers. In the wake of the Edward Snowden case, this is a hot topic in these circles and there was a huge impetus to help.

We whis­tleblowers had a fab­ulous time too. One is a “natural-born geek” — Tom Drake, formerly of the NSA, who was threatened with 35 years in prison because he dared to dis­close prob­lems with his organ­isa­tion. His law­yer, gov­ern­ment lawyer-turned-whistleblower Jes­selyn Radack, also spoke of her exper­i­ences. Coleen Row­ley, the FBI whis­tleblower who exposed the intel­li­gence fail­ure in the US in the run-up to 9/11 and was voted Time Per­son of the Year in 2002 also gave a fant­astic talk called “Secrecy Kills”, and former CIA ana­lyst and pres­id­en­tial “briefer”, Ray McGov­ern, gave the open­ing key­note speech, focus­ing on the need to speak out and pre­serve our rights. I fin­ished the quin­tet of whis­tleblowers and provided the Euro-perspective.

And of course the pat­ron saint of whis­tleblowers also did one of the key talks — but he had to be beamed in. Julian Assange, who was free to attend HAR, the last such event in the Neth­er­lands four years ago, was unavoid­ably detained in his embassy refuge in the UK.

OHM_Great_Spook_Panel_2013

Photo by Rein­oud van Leeuwen (http://​rein​oud​.van​.leeuwen​.net/)

The whis­tleblowers all came together for one of the big ses­sions of OHM — the “Great Spook Panel”, mod­er­ated by the indom­it­able Nick Farr. The panel was basic­ally a call to arms for the next gen­er­a­tion. This addressed the need to stand up to pro­tect our rights against all the egre­gious erosions that have occurred since 9/11.  The response was hugely enthu­si­astic. I hope this goes global, and the wider com­munity fol­lows up.

It cer­tainly did in one way. Ray McGov­ern announced the estab­lish­ment of the Edward Snowden Defence Fund at the end of the panel dis­cus­sion, and the dona­tions poured in for the rest of the event.

So a very suc­cess­ful fest­ival. How do I make that assess­ment? Well, on top of all the fun, vari­ety of talks and net­work­ing, the Dutch intel­li­gence ser­vice, the AIVD (an unfortunate-sounding name to most Eng­lish speak­ers), reques­ted a plat­form at the event after the Great Spook Panel was announced in the programme.

Such an act­ive and open response shows a degree of push-back against a per­ceived “threat”. No doubt the organ­isa­tion wanted to inject the estab­lish­ment anti-venom before the truth-tellers had their say. Any­way, on the grounds that most whis­tleblowers are gen­er­ally denied a main­stream media plat­form and/or are smeared, the AIVD was pro­hib­ited the stage.

Of course, the AIVD would have been very wel­come to buy a ticket like nor­mal humans or pay the cor­por­ate rate to attend to show sup­port for the com­munity — its officers might have learned something.…

FBI Whistleblower Sibel Edmonds

Sibel_EdmondsI strongly recom­mend you take the time to watch this film about FBI whis­tleblower, Sibel Edmonds.

Kill the Mes­sen­ger”  joins some inter­est­ing dots, not just about what might have been going on round Sibel’s case, but also adds a dif­fer­ent per­spect­ive to the notori­ous out­ing of CIA officer, Valerie Plame.

Of course, a film that invest­ig­ates how the might of the state can be used to stifle the legit­im­ate dis­sent of a whis­tleblower will always res­on­ate with me.

Same mes­sage, dif­fer­ent country.

Amuse Bouche

A debate is cur­rently under way in the (ex) Land of the Free about how much pro­tec­tion intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers should be accor­ded under the law.

Yes, the coun­try that has brought the world the “war on ter­ror”, Guantanamo Bay, and the Pat­riot Act, is hav­ing a moral spasm about how to best pro­tect those who wit­ness high crimes and mis­de­mean­ors inside the charmed circle of secrecy and intelligence. 

And about time too, fol­low­ing the mess of rev­el­a­tions about spy com­pli­city in tor­ture cur­rently emer­ging on both sides of the pond.

Inter­est­ingly, intel­li­gence offi­cials in the US already have a smidgeon more lee­way than their UK coun­ter­parts.  In the US, if you wit­ness a crime com­mit­ted by spies, you have to take your con­cerns to the head of the agency, and then you can go to Con­gress.  In the UK, the only per­son you can leg­ally report crime to is the head of the agency involved, so guess how many suc­cess­ful com­plaints are made?  Even tak­ing your proven and legit­im­ate con­cerns to your elec­ted UK rep­res­ent­at­ives is a crime under the OSA.

Spooks in the UK now have access to an “eth­ical coun­sel­lor”, who has reportedly been vis­ited a grand total of 12 times by intel­li­gence officers since 2006.  But this per­son has no power to invest­ig­ate alleg­a­tions of crime, and a visit guar­an­tees a career-blocking black mark on your record of ser­vice: ie if you are the sort of per­son to worry your head with quaint ideas like eth­ics and mor­al­ity you are, at best, not a team player and, worse, a pos­sible secur­ity risk. 

WhistleThis is surely cul­tur­ally unsus­tain­able in a com­munity of people who gen­er­ally sign up to pro­tect the cit­izens of the coun­try and want to make a pos­it­ive dif­fer­ence by work­ing within the law?  Those who have con­cerns will resign, at the very least, and those who like to “just fol­low orders” will float to the top.  As one of the lead­ing pro­ponents for greater whis­tleblower pro­tec­tion in the USA states in the linked article:

The code of loy­alty to the chain of com­mand is the primary value at those insti­tu­tions, and they set the stand­ard for intens­ity of retaliation.”

Some enlightened US politi­cians appear to be aware that intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers require pro­tec­tion just as all other employ­ees receive under the law:  per­haps more so, as the nature of their work may well expose them to the most hein­ous crimes ima­gin­able.  There is also an argu­ment for put­ting proper chan­nels in place to ensure that whis­tleblowers don’t feel their only option is to risk going to the press.  Effect­ive chan­nels for blow­ing the whistle and invest­ig­at­ing crime can actu­ally pro­tect national secur­ity rather than com­prom­ise it.

The nay-sayers, of course, want to keep everything secret — after all, the status quo is cur­rently work­ing so well in uphold­ing demo­cratic val­ues across the globe.  Crit­ics of the new legis­la­tion talk of “dis­gruntled employ­ees .… glee­fully” spill­ing the beans.  Why is this hoary old line always dragged out in this type of dis­cus­sion?  Why are whis­tleblowers always described in this way, rather than called prin­cipled, brave or ethical?

Blanket secrecy works against the real interests of our coun­tries.  Mis­takes can be covered up, group-think ensures that crimes con­tinue, and any­one offer­ing con­struct­ive cri­ti­cism is labelled as a risky trouble­maker — no doubt a “dis­gruntled” one at that.

Of course, cer­tain areas of intel­li­gence work need to be pro­tec­ted: cur­rent oper­a­tional details (as ex-Met Assist­ant Com­mis­sioner, Bob Quick has dis­covered), agent iden­tit­ies, and sens­it­ive tech­niques.  But the life blood of a healthy demo­cracy depends on open debate, vent­il­a­tion of prob­lems, and agreed solu­tions.  Informed and par­ti­cip­at­ory cit­izens need to know what is being done in their name.