Club of Amsterdam

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the Club of Amsterdam.  The topic under discussion was “The future of digital identity”.  Many thanks to Felix and the team. A lively evening.

Annie Machon at the Club of Amsterdam from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
First published in my newsletter last week, amongst much else. Do sign up!

The Scorpion Stare

I have written over the years about the encroaching surveillance state, the spread of CCTV and the increasing use of drones in our skies.  When the North East of England introduced talking CCTV cameras that could bark orders at passing pedestrians in 2008, I thought that we were fast approaching the reductio ad absurdum point – and indeed this subject has raised a wry laugh from audiences around the world ever since.

Recently I have been reading with dismay a slew of articles about the increasing corporatisation of the surveillance state.  First I stumbled across a piece describing Facebook’s latest innovation, Facedeal: cameras planted in shops and bars that will use the facial recognition and tagging abilities of FB to recognise you as a valued customer and offer you a discount, simply because you have signed up to this Big Brother app on Facebook.

Add this to the fact that Facebook is probably, well, an open book for to the entire US security apparatus, and you can see the potential abuse of this system.  We shall effectively be bribed to allow ourselves to be spied on.

Facedeal is being trialed in the US.  Some European countries, most notably Germany, have already stated that data recognition technology used even just for photo “tagging” is or could be deemed illegal. Germany specifically has regulations that allow Internet users control over their data. They are not going to like Facedeal.

Secondly, it was reported today that Google had patented intelligent image recognition technology.  Combine this capability with Googles Earth and Street, and we are potentially looking at a truly panopticon society.  The Germans are really not going to like that. (Nor indeed will certain of the French, including the man who earlier this year tried to sue Google after being photographed having a pee in his own front garden).

Thirdly, Boeing has triumphantly launched the concept of the drone swarm, operating with a hive mentality and upping the capabilities of military surveillance exponentially, while taking much of the risk out of any operation.

And finally, the Wikileaks story about TrapWire. This first emerged as yet another bonkers American scheme, where the footage from CCTV street cameras was being mainlined into the security apparatus. Subsequently, it has emerged via Wikileaks that Trapwire is also being used in other western countries, including the UK.

Not only can the securocrats watch you, they too are installing face recognition software that can identify you. While this may not yet be as accurate as the spies might wish, TrapWire has also installed predictive software that apparently can assess whether you are acting, loitering or walking in a suspicious manner.  So you could pre-emptively be assessed to be about to commit a crime or an act of terrorism and, no doubt, appropriately and pre-emptively “dealt with”.

All of which must be so reassuring to protest groups such as Occupy, which have been subject to massive CCTV surveillance in NYC and which have been labelled a “terrorist/extremist threat” in the City of London.

At the risk of sounding alarmist, we now all know what “being dealt with” in this era of anti-activist SWAT teams, drone strikes and kill lists can potentially entail.

So where does this leave us as concerned citizens?  It strikes me that we are being catapulted into some sci-fi dystopia beyond even Orwell’s wildest imaginings.  Any fan of modern thrillers and sci-fi will be familiar with the concept of integrated super-computers that can watch our every move via CCTV.

The latter is what TrapWire et al are working towards.  These new technologies remind me of a story line from a wonderful series of books called the The Laundry Files by Charles Stross.  These novels are a perfect of merging of Len Deighton’s laconic spy fiction, a la Harry Palmer, with the geek universe and beyond. And, at the risk of a spoiler, one of the story lines envisages a centralised and weaponised CCTV system, mainlining into the secret services, that can be turned on UK citizens if the balloon goes up. This system is codenamed the “Scorpion Stare”.

Sounds far-fetched? Well The Laundry Files are a rollicking good read, but do bear in mind not only that our CCTV systems may be centralised courtesy of TrapWire, but also that various law enforcement agencies in the UK are using micro-drones to spy on protesters, and that they have reportedly enquired if these drones could be weaponised…..

So it all depends on how you define the balloon, I suppose.

Published in The Huffington Post UK, 3 September 2012

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism article

Here is a recent article I wrote for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, about our slide into a surveillance state.  

TBIJ supported Wikileaks during the release of the SpyFiles. The issue is of such crucial importance for our democracy, I was disappointed that more of the mainstream media did not follow up on the stories provided.

Here’s the text:

Analysis: the slide into a surveillance state

Fifty years ago, President Eisenhower warned of the ‘disastrous rise’ of the military-industrial complex. His fears proved all too accurate.

Now in the post-9/11 world, the threat goes even further: the military-industrial complex is evolving into the military-intelligence complex. It is a world, I fear, that is propelling us into a dystopian surveillance nightmare.

I have seen this nightmare unfold from close quarters. In the mid-90s I was an intelligence officer for MI5, the UK domestic security service. That is, until I resigned to help my former partner and colleague David Shayler blow the whistle on a catalogue of incompetence, cover-ups and crimes committed by spies. We naively hoped that this would lead to an inquiry, and a review of intelligence work and accountability within the notoriously secretive British system.

The blunders and illegal operations that we witnessed in our six years at MI5 took place at what is probably the most ethical and accountable decade in the British spying service’s 100-year history.

Even then, they were getting away with pretty much whatever they wanted.

Since the attacks of 9/11, I have watched with increasing dismay as more powers, money and resources have been pumped into the international intelligence community to combat the nebulous ‘war on terror’. As a result, civil liberties have been eroded in our own countries, and countless innocent people have been killed, maimed and displaced across the Middle East.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which was designed to allow our spy agencies to lawfully intercept our communications to counter terrorism and organised crime, has been routinely used and abused by almost 800 public bodies. MI5 admitted to making 1,061 mistakes or ‘administrative errors’ this year alone in its application of RIPA, according to the Interception of Communications Commissioner, Sir Paul Kennedy.

Intelligence creep extends to the police, as we saw with the undercover police scandal earlier this year, where the unaccountable National Public Order Intelligence Unit was discovered to be infiltrating harmless and legitimate protest groups for years on end.

It is a world, I fear, that is propelling us into a dystopian surveillance nightmare.

Even beyond the undercover cops, we have seen an explosion in corporate spying. This involves mercenary spy companies such as Xe (formerly Blackwater), Kroll, Aegis and Diligence offering not just security muscle in hotspots around the world, but also bespoke operations enabling big corporations to check out staff or to infiltrate and investigate protest groups that may embarrass the companies.

The mercenary spy operates without any oversight whatsoever, and can even be granted immunity from prosecution, as Xe enjoyed when operating in Iraq.

The last decade has also been a boom time for companies providing high-tech surveillance capabilities. One aspect of this in the UK – the endemic CCTV coverage – is notorious. Local councils have invested in mobile CCTV smart spy cars, while cameras that bark orders to you on the street have been trialled in Middlesbrough.

Drones are increasingly used for aerial surveillance – and the potential for militarisation of these tools is clear.

All this despite the fact that the head of the Metropolitan Police department that is responsible for processing all this surveillance information stated publicly that CCTV evidence is useless in helping to solve all but 3% of street robberies in London. In fact, since CCTV has been rolled out nationally, violent crime on the streets of Britain has increased.

But, hey, who cares about facts when security is Big Business? Someone, somewhere, is getting very rich by rolling out ever more Orwellian surveillance technology. And while the technology might not be used against the wider UK citizenry in a particularly malignant manner – yet – the same companies are certainly allowing their technologies to find their way to the more violent and repressive Middle Eastern states.

That would never happen in Britain – would it? We retain an optimistic faith in the long-term benign intentions of our government, while tut-tutting over Syrian police snatch squads pre-emptively arresting suspected dissidents. Yet this has already happened in the UK: before the royal wedding in April, protesters were pre-emptively arrested to ensure that they would not cause embarrassment. The intent is the same in Syria and Britain. Only the scale and brutality differs – at the moment.

When I worked for MI5 in the 1990s I was appalled how easily telephone interception could be used illegally, and how easily the spies could hide their incompetence and crimes from the government. In the last decade it has become much worse, with senior spies and police officers repeatedly being caught out lying to the toothless Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament. And this is only the official intelligence sector.

How much worse is the endemic surveillance carried out by the corporate spy industry?

The balance of power, bolstered by new technologies, is shifting overwhelmingly in favour of the Big Brother state – well, almost. The WikiLeaks model is helping level the playing field, and whatever happens to this trailblazing organisation, the principles and technology are out there and will be replicated. This genie cannot be put back in the bottle. This – combined with the work of informed MPs, investigative journalists and potentially the occasional whistleblower – gives me hope that we can halt this slide into a Stasi state.

Annie Machon is a former spy with MI5, the British intelligence agency working to protect the UK’s national security against threats such as terrorism and espionage.
You can read Annie Machon’s blog ‘Using Our Intelligence’ here.

If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide….

"Well, if you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.  Why object to increasing state surveillance powers?"

I speak regularly at international events about basic freedoms, civil liberties and encroaching police states, and this is one of the most frequently asked questions.

This question is usually posed in the context of the ubiquitous CCTV cameras that infest the streets of Britain, where it is estimated that you can be photographed hundreds of times a day going about your daily business in London. 

DroneNot to mention the talking CCTV cameras in the North of England, nor the increasing use of spy drones (as yet, reportedly, unweaponised – at least lethally)  over the skies of Britain.  Nor the fact that the police officers in charge of CCTV units admit that the technology is only useful as evidence in 3% of cases, and that violent crime has actually gone up since the spread of CCTV, so we're certainly no safer on our streets.

Nor do the well-meaning people asking this question (who, one presumes, have never-ever done anything wrong in their lives, even to the extent of not dropping litter) seem to grasp the historical evidence: they retain an optimistic faith in the long-term benign intentions of our governments.

Yet as we've seen time and time again in history, more dubious, totalitarian and malignant governments can indeed gain power, and will abuse and extend the surveillance laws and available technology against their own peoples.  And I'm not just talking about Hitler's rise to power in the 1930s or the East German Stasi, although I'm in agreement with UK Education Secretary Michael Gove at the moment in saying that history lessons are never a waste….

Big_Brother_posterBut we also need to learn more recent lessons: the UK in the 1970s-1990s, where the Irish community as a whole was targeted because of fringe Republican terrorism; or the Muslim community post-9/11, which lives with the real fear of of being arrested, extraordinarily rendered, tortured, or even assassinated on the say-so of unaccountable intelligence agencies; or even peaceful protest groups in the USA and UK who are infiltrated and aggressively investigated by Stasi-like police officers.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was put in place for a very good reason in 1948: to prevent the horrors of state terrorism, violence and genocide from ever happening again.  Amongst the essential, internationally-agreed core principles are the right to life, the right not to be tortured, freedom of expression, and the right to individual privacy. 

Which brings me neatly back to the start of this article.  This is precisely why increasing state surveillance is a problem.  Because of the post-9/11, over-inflated, hyped-up threat from soi-disant terrorist groups, we are all being penalised.  The balance of power is shifting overwhelmingly in favour of the Big Brother state.

Well, almost.  The Wikileaks model is helping to level the playing field, and whatever happens to this trail-blazing organisation, the principles and technology are out there and will be replicated.  The genie cannot be put back in the bottle.

So, why not pose the very question in the title of this piece back on those who want to turn back the clock and eradicate Wikileaks – the governments, mega-corporations, and intelligence agencies which have been outed, shamed and embarrassed, and which are now trying to suppress its work?

If you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide…..

Bleat: the assassination of dissidents

Black_sheep?OK, so I'm not sure if my concept of Bleats (half blog, half tweet) is being grasped wholeheartedly.  But so what – it makes me laugh and the Black Sheep shall perservere with a short blog post…..

So I'm a bit puzzled here.  UK Prime Minister Dave Cameron is quoted in today's Daily Telegraph as saying that:

"It is not acceptable to have a situation where Colonel Gaddafi can be murdering his own people using aeroplanes and helicopter gunships and the like and we have to plan now to make sure if that happens we can do something to stop it."

But do his American best buddies share that, umm, humane view?  First of all they have the CIA assassination list which includes the names of US citizens (ie its own people); then those same "best buddies" may well resort to assassinating Wikileaks's Julian Assange, probably the most high profile dissident in international and diplomatic circles at the moment; plus they are already waging remote drone warfare on many hapless Middle Eastern countries – Yeman, Afghanistan, Pakistan…..

Oh, and now the UK government seems poised to launch covert spy drones into the skies of Britain.  Even the UK's most right-wing mainstream newspapers, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, expressed concern about this today.  Apparently these drones have yet to be weaponised…..

It's a slippery slope down to an Orwellian nightmare.


Spy drones coming soon to a place near you.

For a long time now I have been giving speaking out at conferences and in interviews around the world about the encroaching nature of our surveillance states. 

One aspect of this, the endemic CCTV coverage in the UK, is notorious internationally. Not only the estimated 4 million+ public CCTV cameras on British streets, but also all the traffic cameras and private security cameras that sneak a peak onto our public spaces too.  As if that were not enough, earlier this year it was also reported that local councils are investing in mobile CCTV smart spy cars too.

Additionally, of course, we had the issue of Google Street View invading our privacy, and the camera cars also just happened to coincidentally hoover up the private internet traffic of those too trusting to lock their wireless internet access.  Unlike the UK, the Germans have thankfully said a robust "nein" to Google's plan.

All this, as I've previously noted, despite the fact that the head of the Metropolitan Police department responsible for processing all this surveillance information went on the record to say that CCTV evidence is useless in helping to solve all but 3% of crimes, and those merely minor.  In fact, since CCTV has been rolled out nationally, violent crime on the streets of Britain has not noticeably reduced.

But, hey, who cares about facts when security is Big Business?  Someone, somewhere, is getting very rich by rolling out ever more Orwellian surveillance technology. 

Talking_CCTV_CameraOn the streets of Britain, it is getting progressively worse.  Audiences across Europe and North America have responded with shocked laughter when I have mentioned that police trials had been conducted in the UK using talking CCTV cameras that barked orders at apparent transgressors.

In 2007 Middlesbrough, a town in the north east of the UK with a zero-tolerance policy, began a trial using these talking cameras.  In line with a government review of civil liberties this year, it was reported over the summer that the use of these cameras might be phased out.  Needless to say, the council is fighting a fierce rearguard action against the removal of talking CCTV – an obvious example of the inherent difficulty of trying to wrest established power from the authorities.

Then earlier this year it emerged that various British police forces and the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA),  have ordered military-style drones to spy on the citizenry from the skies.  One drone manufacturer said that there had been enquiries about the potential for militarisation of these drones: thankfully, his response was reported as follows in The Guardian:

Military_drone"Mark Lawrence, director of Air Robot UK, said: "UAVs will, to an extent, replace helicopters. Our air robots cost £30,000 compared with £10m for a fully equipped modern helicopter. We have even been asked to put weapons on them but I'm not interested in getting involved in that."

However, Wired has reported that "non-lethal" weapons could be installed, to facilitate crowd control.

There is also the other side of the security coin to consider, of course.  If these drones are implemented in the skies of Britain, how soon before some enterprising young "Al Qaeda" cadre cottons on to the idea that this could be an effective way to launch an attack?  So much for all our wonderfully effective airport security measures.

UK_Police_DronePlus, these little airborne pests will prove to be a real hazard for other aircraft, as has already been noted.

Despite all this, no widespread indignation has been voiced by the UK population.  When will the tipping point be reached about this incipient Orwellian nightmare?

But hope may be at hand.  A somewhat frivolous article appeared today, stating that small spy drones will become the new paparazzi: Version 2.0, no doubt.

Perhaps, finally, we shall now see some meaningful opposition to this encroaching Big Brother state. 

Once Bono, Sting, Saint Bob and the assembled celeb corps get on their high horses about their enshrined, fundamental right to privacy, it might finally become fashionable to discuss the very basic principles underpinning our civilisation…..

….you remember, those fuddy-duddy ideas like the right to life, not to be tortured, not to be unlawfully imprisoned or kidnapped, free speech, fair trials, free conscience etc ….. oh, and privacy of course!

The Real Reason for the Police State?

DroneI haven’t written here for a while, despite the embarras de richesses that has been presented to us in the news recently: Dame Stella saying that the UK is becoming a police state;  drones will patrol the streets of Britain, watching our every move; databases are being built, containing all our electronic communications; ditto all our travel movements. What can a lone blogger usefully add to this?  Only so much hot air – the facts speak for themselves.

Plus, I’ve been a bit caught up over the last couple of months with Operation Escape Pod. Not all of us are sitting around waiting for the prison gates to clang shut on the UK. I’m outta here!

But I can’t resist an interesting article in The Spectator magazine this week. And that’s a sentence I never thought I would write in my life.

Tim Shipman, quoting a plethora of anonymous intelligence sources and former spooks, asserts that Britain’s foreign policy is being skewed by the need to placate our intelligence allies, and that the CIA is roaming free in the wilds of Yorkshire.

His sources tell him that the UK is a “swamp” of Islamic extremism, and that the domestic spies are terrified that there will be a new terrorist atrocity, probably against US interests but it could be anywhere, carried out by our very own home-grown terrorists. According to Shipman, this terrible prospect had all the spooks busily downing trebles in the bars around Vauxhall Cross in the wake of the Mumbai bombings.

Apart from the suggestion that the spies’ drinking culture appears to be as robust as ever, I find this interesting because well-sourced spook spin is more likely to appear in the august pages of The Speccie than in, say, Red Pepper. But if this is an accurate reflection of the thinking of our politicians and intelligence community, then this is an extremely worrying development. It goes a long way to explaining why the UK has become the most policed state in the Western world.

Yes, in the 1990s the UK practised a strategy of appeasement towards Islamic extremists. MI5’s view was always that it was better to give radicals a safe haven in the UK, which they would then be loathe to attack directly, and where a close eye could be kept on them.

This, of course, was derailed by Blair’s Messianic mission in the Middle East. By unilaterally supporting Bush’s adventurism in Afghanistan and Iraq, in the teeth of stark warnings about the attendant risks from the head of MI5, Britain has become “the enemy” in the eyes of radical Islam. The gloves are off, and we are all at greater risk because of our former PM’s hubris.

But now we apparently have free-range CIA officers infiltrating the Muslim communities of the UK.  No doubt Mossad is also again secretly  tolerated, despite the fact that they had been banned for years from operating in the UK because they were too unpredictable (a civil service euphemism for violent).

And I am willing to bet that this international perception that UK spooks will be caught off-guard by an apparently British-originated terrorist attack is the reason for the slew of new totalitarian laws that are making us all suspects. The drones, the datamining and the draconian stop-and-search laws are designed to reassure our invaluable allies in the CIA, Mossad, ISI and the FSB.  They will not be put in place to “protect” us.

CCTV doesn’t prevent crime

So, the argument about CCTV and our big brother society rumbles on. A senior policeman, Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville of the Visual Images, Identifications and Detections Office (Viido) at New Scotland Yard, has been quoted as saying that only 3 per cent of crimes have been solved by CCTV evidence. Despite the UK having the highest per capita number of CCTVs in the world, this brave new world has failed to make us safer.

A few other police forces, and naturally the security companies flogging the kit, say that CCTV has at least dramatically reduced opportunistic crimes. Who should we believe?

What cannot be disputed is the fact that there are well over 4,000,000 CCTVs in this country, and the organisation, Privacy International, assesses that we are the most watched citizenry in Europe.

While some law-abiding citizens say they feel intimidated by CCTV and how the information could potentially be misused, most people seem not to care. In fact, the majority apparently feel safer if they can see CCTV on the streets, even if this pervasive surveillance has in no way discouraged crimes of violence. So why this gap between perception and reality?

One of my pet theories has always been to blame Big Brother. No, not the book. I have always been flummoxed by the popularity of the TV show and the plethora of reality TV spin-offs. My instinctive reaction was that it was similar to being “groomed” to accept round-the-clock intrusion into our personal lives. More than accept – desire it. The clear message is that such surveillance can lead to instant fame, wealth and access to the Z-list parties of London. And for that we are sleep-walking into a real Orwellian nightmare.

Slightly flippant theories aside, it is interesting that one of the most cited examples of the need for CCTV was the Bishopsgate bombing in London in 1993. In this case a lorry bomb, filled with a tonne of home made explosive (HME) was detonated in the heart of the city of London by the IRA. One person was killed, many were injured, and hundreds of millions of pounds worth of damage was caused, not to mention the fact threat the IRA scored a huge publicity coup.

But this had nothing to do with the lack or otherwise of CCTV in the streets of the City. It was an intelligence failure, pure and simple.

This attack could and should have been prevented. It occurred while I was working in MI5, and it was widely known in the service at the time that the bomber should have been arrested six months before during a surveillance operation. Despite the fact that he was seen checking out another lorry bomb in storage, he was allowed to walk free and escape to the Republic of Ireland due to procedural cock-ups. Months later, he returned to the City and bombed Bishopsgate.

By relying increasingly on technologies to protect us, we are following in the footsteps of the Americans. They have always had an over-reliance on gadgets and gizmos when seeking to investigate criminals and terrorists: satellite tracking, phone taps, bugs. But this hoovering up of information is never an adequate replacement for precise investigative work. Plus, any criminal or terrorist worth their salt these days knows not to discuss sensitive plans electronically.

Scatter-gun approaches to gathering intelligence, such as blanket surveillance, still at this stage require human beings to process and assess it for evidential use. That, according to DCI Neville, is part of the problem. There is just too much coming in, not enough staff, insufficient co-operation between forces, and the job lacks perceived status within the police.

The other problem of an over-reliance on technology is that it can always be hacked. The most recent hacking has broken the RFID chips that we all carry in our passports, Oyster cards and the planned ID cards. New technologies cannot guarantee that our personal data is secure, so rather than protecting us, they make us more liable to crimes such as identity theft.

So once again national and local government bodies have rushed to buy up technology, without fully thinking through either its application or its usefulness. And without fully assessing the implications for a free society. Just because the technology exists, it does not mean that it is fit for purpose, nor that it will make us safer.