Talk at the Icelandic Centre for Investigative Journalism

Wikileaks spokes­man, Kris­tinn Hrafns­son, invited me to speak at the Icelandic Centre for Invest­ig­at­ive Journ­al­ism while I was in Ice­land in February.

While focus­ing on the inter­sec­tion and con­trol between intel­li­gence and the media, my talk also explores many of my other cur­rent areas of interest.

Ice­land Journ­al­ists talk 2013 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

What whistleblowers want

Whis­tleblowers want the sun and the moon — or at least they want to get their inform­a­tion out there, they want to make a dif­fer­ence, they want a fair hear­ing, and they don’t want to pay too high a per­sonal price for doing so.

Is that too much to ask? The decision to expose crimin­al­ity and bad prac­tice for the pub­lic good has ser­i­ous, life-changing implications.

By going pub­lic about ser­i­ous con­cerns they have about their work­place, they are jeop­ard­ising their whole way of life: not just their pro­fes­sional repu­ta­tion and career, but all that goes with it, such as the abil­ity to pay the mort­gage, their social circle, their fam­ily life, their rela­tion­ship…  Plus, the whis­tleblower can poten­tially risk prison or worse.

So, with these risks in mind, they are cer­tainly look­ing for an avenue to blow the whistle that will offer a degree of pro­tec­tion and allow them to retain a degree of con­trol over their own lives.  In the old days, this meant try­ing to identify an hon­our­able, cam­paign­ing journ­al­ist and a media organ­isa­tion that had the clout to pro­tect its source.  While not impossible, that could cer­tainly be dif­fi­cult, and becomes increas­ingly so in this era of endemic elec­tronic surveillance.

Today the other option is the secure, high-tech pub­lish­ing con­duit, as trail-blazed by Wikileaks. While this does not provide the poten­tial bene­fits of work­ing with a cam­paign­ing journ­al­ist, it does provide anonym­ity and a cer­tain degree of con­trol to the mod­ern whis­tleblower, plus it allows their inform­a­tion to reach a wide audi­ence without either being filtered by the media or blocked by gov­ern­ment or cor­por­ate injunctions.

As someone who has a nod­ding acquaint­ance with the reper­cus­sions of blow­ing the whistle on a secret gov­ern­ment agency, I have liked the Wikileaks model since I first stumbled across it in 2009.

As with most truly revolu­tion­ary ideas, once pos­ited it is blind­ingly obvious.

Never before has this been tech­nic­ally pos­sible — the idea that a whistleblower’s inform­a­tion could be made freely avail­able to the cit­izens of the world, in order to inform their demo­cratic choices, with no block­age, not cen­sor­ship, no fil­ter­ing or “inter­pret­a­tion” by the cor­por­ate media.

This is par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant in an age when the global media has been con­sol­id­ated in the hands of a few mul­tina­tion­als, and when these mul­tina­tion­als have a cer­tain, shall we say “cosy”, rela­tion­ship with many of top our politi­cians and power elites.

The con­trol of the main­stream media by the spooks and gov­ern­ments has been the focus of many of my recent talks.  These cor­rupt inter-relationships have also been recently laid bare with the News Inter­na­tional phone-hacking scandals.

The days of gar­ner­ing news from one favoured paper or TV bul­letin are long gone. Few people now trust just one media out­let — they skip across a vari­ety of news sources, try­ing to eval­u­ate the truth for them­selves. But even that can be prob­lem­atic when some­thing big occurs, such as the “jus­ti­fic­a­tion” for the inva­sion of Iraq or Libya, and the cur­rent beat of war drums against Iran, when the cor­por­ate media mys­ter­i­ously achieves a consensus.

Hence the demo­cratic dis­con­nect, hence the dis­trust, and hence (in part) the plum­met­ing profits of the old media.

Wikileaks is based on a simple concept -  it allows the people to read the source mater­ial for them­selves and make up their own minds based on real inform­a­tion.  This led to expos­ure of all kinds of global nas­ties way before the massive 2010 US data-dump.

Des­pite this approach, the impact was ini­tially sub­dued until Wikileaks col­lab­or­ated with the old media.  This, as we all know, did indeed pro­duce the cov­er­age and aware­ness of those issues deemed import­ant as it was filtered through the MSM. This has also inev­it­ably lead to ten­sions between the new model hackt­iv­ists and the old-school journalists.

No gov­ern­ment, least of all the USA, likes to have demands for justice and trans­par­ency forced upon it, and the push back since 2010 has been massive across the world in terms of an appar­ently illegal fin­an­cial block­ade, opaque legal cases and a media back­lash. Cer­tain of Wikileaks’s erstwhile media part­ners have col­lab­or­ated in this, turn­ing on one of their richest sources of inform­a­tion in history.

How­ever, Wikileaks is more than a media source.  It is a whole new model — a high-tech pub­lisher that offers a safe con­duit for whis­tleblowers to cache and pub­li­cise their inform­a­tion without imme­di­ately hav­ing to over­turn (and in some cases risk) their lives.

For this work, Wikileaks has over the years won a num­ber of inter­na­tion­ally pres­ti­gi­ous journ­al­ism awards.

Inev­it­ably, crit­ics in the main­stream media seem to want to have their cake and eat it too: one early part­ner, the New York Times, has writ­ten that it doesn’t recog­nise Wikileaks as a journ­al­ist organ­isa­tion or a pub­lisher — it is a source, pure and simple.

Either way, by say­ing this the media are surely shoot­ing them­selves in the cor­por­ate feet with both bar­rels. If Wikileaks is indeed “just” a source (the NYT seems to be blithely for­get­ting that good journ­al­ism is entirely depend­ent on its sources), then the media are break­ing their prime dir­ect­ive: pro­tect a source at all costs.

How­ever, if Wikileaks is a journ­al­ism or pub­lish­ing organ­isa­tion and as such is being tar­geted by the US gov­ern­ment, then all other media are surely equally at risk in the future?

By not stand­ing up for Wikileaks in either capa­city, it appears that the old media have a death wish.

Over the years whis­tleblowers around the world have demon­strated their trust in Wikileaks, as it was set up by someone emer­ging from the ori­ginal bona fide hacker com­munity.   And rightly so — let’s not for­get that no source has been exposed through the fail­ure of the organisation’s technology.

Many media organ­isa­tions rushed to emu­late its suc­cess by try­ing to set up their own “secure” whis­tleblow­ing repos­it­or­ies.  What the media execs failed to under­stand was the hacker ethos, the open source men­tal­ity: they went to their techie depart­ment or com­mer­cial IT ser­vice pro­viders and said “we want one”, but failed to under­stand both the ethos and the secur­ity con­cerns around closed, pro­pri­et­ary soft­ware sys­tems, often chan­nelled through the post–Pat­riot Act, post–CISPA USA.

Other, appar­ently well-meaning organ­isa­tions, also tried to emu­late the Wikileaks model, but most have died a quiet death over the last year.  Per­haps, again, for want of real trust in their ori­gin or tech security?

Why on earth would any security-conscious whis­tleblower, emer­ging out of a gov­ern­ment, mil­it­ary or intel­li­gence organ­isa­tion, trust such a set-up?  If someone comes out of such an envir­on­ment they will know all-too-well the scale of the push-back, the pos­sible entrap­ments, and the state-level resources that will be used to track them down. They either need an über-secure whis­tleblow­ing plat­form, or they need journ­al­ists and law­yers with fire in their belly to fight the fight, no mat­ter what.

So now to Open­Leaks — appar­ently the brainchild of Wikileaks defector Daniel Domsheit-Berg. He and the shad­owy “Archi­tect” fam­ously fell out with Julian Assange in late 2010, just when the polit­ical heat was ramp­ing up on the organ­isa­tion.  They left, reportedly tak­ing some of the cru­cial cod­ing and a tranche of files with them, and Domsheit-Berg decided to set up a rival organ­isa­tion called Open­Leaks.  As a res­ult of his actions, Domsheit-Berg was uniquely cast out of the inter­na­tional hacker group, the CCC in Berlin.

He now seems to have been wel­comed back into the fold and Open­Leaks appears, finally, to be ready to receive whis­tleblower information.

How­ever, there is a cru­cial dif­fer­ence between the two organ­isa­tions.  Where Wikileaks wants to lay the inform­a­tion out there for pub­lic eval­u­ation, Open­Leaks will merely act as a repos­it­ory for cer­tain approved main­stream media organ­isa­tions to access. We are back to the ori­ginal block­age of the cor­por­ate media decid­ing what inform­a­tion we, the people, should be allowed to ingest.

I would not wish to com­ment on Domsheit-Berg’s motiv­a­tion, but to me this seems to be an even worse option for a whis­tleblower than dir­ectly con­tact­ing a cam­paign­ing journ­al­ist with a proven track record of cov­er­ing hard-core stor­ies and fight­ing for the cause.

With Open­Leaks, the whis­tleblower loses not only the auto­matic wide­spread dis­sem­in­a­tion of their inform­a­tion, but also any semb­lance of con­trol over which journ­al­ists will be work­ing on their story.  Their inform­a­tion will be parked on the web­site and any­one from pre-selected media organ­isa­tions will be able to access, use and poten­tially abuse it.

One could say that Open­Leaks oper­ates as a secure sta­ging plat­form where a whis­tleblower can safely store sens­it­ive doc­u­ments and inform­a­tion.… but the founder allegedly removed and des­troyed sens­it­ive files from Wikileaks when he jumped ship in 2010.  Could any whis­tleblower really trust that Open­Leaks would not sim­il­arly “dis­ap­pear” shit-hot inform­a­tion in the future?

Plus, there is the added worry for any rightly-paranoid whis­tleblower that the founder of Open­Leaks so eas­ily aban­doned Wikileaks when under pres­sure.  Who’s to say that this would not hap­pen again, if the full might of the Pentagon were brought to bear on OpenLeaks?

Open­Leaks offers neither the per­sonal sup­port of work­ing with a trus­ted journ­al­ist and a media organ­isa­tion with the clout to fight back, nor does it provide full dis­clos­ure to the wider pub­lic to side-step poten­tial media self-censorship and gov­ern­ment law suits, as the ori­ginal Wikileaks model does.

As such Open­Leaks seems, at least to this par­tic­u­lar whis­tleblower, to be an evol­u­tion­ary blip — a ret­ro­grade step — in the quest for justice and accountability.

La Conférence régionale du journalisme d’enquête, Geneva

Swiss_Press_Club_PhotoThe end of April saw me bask­ing in the hot and sunny weather of Geneva, where I had been invited to give a talk (Down­load Geneva) at the Swiss Press Club.

We had a lovely time in Geneva, and many thanks to Jean-Philippe Ceppi and the rest of the team for such a warm, inter­ested and inter­est­ing welcome.

The Big Dig Journalism Conference, Copenhagen

I recently did the open­ing key­note at the Big Dig invest­ig­at­ive journ­al­ism con­fer­ence in Copen­ha­gen.  Thanks to the organ­isers for a won­der­ful weekend!

 

Mediafabric talk, Prague, October 2011

Last Octo­ber I had the pleas­ure of speak­ing at the excel­lent Medi­afab­ric con­fer­ence in Prague.  The focus of my talk was the future of intel­li­gence, whis­tleblow­ing and journalism.

The event was organ­ised by Source­fab­ric, an inter­na­tional organ­isa­tion that provides open source tools and solu­tions for journ­al­ists, so it was an eclectic and stim­u­lat­ing crowd of journ­al­ists, geeks, hack­tav­ists and design­ers.   So well done and thank you to the organisers.

Here’s the video:

Speaking at Mediafabric Conference, Prague, 21 October

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Off tomor­row to speak at the Medi­afab­ric con­fer­ence in Prague. 

Should be a good one — all about the media, journ­al­ists, tech­no­lo­gists, design­ers, hack­ers,  and all points in between!

The con­fer­ence has been organ­ised by Source­fab­ric, and there will be live stream­ing here.

Journalists need to wise up to secrecy laws

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I had a fant­astic time at the Global Invest­ig­at­ive Journ­al­ism Con­fer­ence in Kiev last week­end.  A huge  well done to the organ­isers for a great four days, and I loved hav­ing the chance to meet so many inter­est­ing and inter­ested people from across the world!

I was invited to give the open­ing key­note speech (video to fol­low), where I dis­cussed some of my exper­i­ences from the MI5 whis­tleblow­ing years, but then went on to apply the harsh les­sons learned to the cur­rent situ­ation vis a vis the issue of spy influ­ence on the media today and the thorny issue of whis­tleblow­ing and the pro­tec­tion of sources.

Part of my talk focused on the con­trol of the media by the spies in Bri­tain.  As I have writ­ten before, this is very much a “car­rot and stick” scen­ario: the soft aspect, of course, being cosy chats with selec­ted journ­al­ists, well-timed career-enhancing scoops, as well as an increas­ingly unhealthy journ­al­istic depend­ence on brief­ings com­ing out of the intel­li­gence world and government.

The stick aspect includes the bat­tery of harsh laws that can be called upon to sup­press free report­ing in the UK, which some­times leads to self-censorship by the media.  These laws include:

Beginning_of_trialHow do I know all this?  Well, as you can see from many of the links in the above list, I’ve lived through much of this and have fol­lowed with great interest sim­ilar and related cases over the years.  More inform­a­tion about these issues can be found in this excel­lent report pro­duced by Art­icle 19 and Liberty over a dec­ade ago.  The situ­ation has not improved.

While in Kiev I atten­ded an excel­lent ses­sion where two Rus­sian journ­al­ists dis­cussed the rami­fic­a­tions of report­ing on the mod­ern incarn­a­tion of the Rus­sian intel­li­gence agency, the FSB.

I was some­what startled to hear that even in Rus­sia journ­al­ists have more legal pro­tec­tion than those in the UK — ie they face no crim­inal legal sanc­tion if they report whis­tleblower mater­ial from the Rus­sian spy agen­cies.  In the UK journ­al­ists poten­tially face 2 years in prison for doing so, under the invi­di­ous Sec­tion 5 of the 1989 OSA.

Way to go, Brit­ish democracy.

Global Investigative Journalism Conference, Kiev

Off to do a key­note at the Global Invest­ig­at­ive Journ­al­ism Con­fer­ence in Kiev.   Should be inter­est­ing — watch this space.

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Spies and the Media — my recent talk at the Centre for Investigative Journalism

Here’s the film of my talk at the recent sum­mer school at the Centre for Invest­ig­at­ive Journ­al­ism in Lon­don a month ago:

 

Many thanks to Gavin and the rest of the CIJ team for such a stim­u­lat­ing and thought-provoking weekend!