Re:publica – The War on Concepts

This week I made my first visit to the re:publica annual geekfest in Berlin to do a talk called “The War on Concepts”. In my view this, to date, includes the four wars – on drugs, terror, the internet, and whistleblowers. No doubt the number will continue to rise.

Here’s the video:

republica_2015_Annie_Machon_The_War_on_Concepts from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Code Red Media Launch in Perugia

I am very happy to announce a new initiative, Code Red,  that Simon Davies (the founder of Privacy International and The Big Brother Awards) and I have been organising over the last few months.  In fact, not just us, but a panoply of global privacy and anti-surveillance campaigners from many areas of expertise.

Simon and I have known each other for years, way back to 2002, when he gave one of the earliest Winston Awards to David Shayler, in recognition of his work towards trying to expose surveillance and protect privacy. That award ceremony, hosted by comedian and activist Mark Thomas, was one of the few bright points in that year for David and me – which included my nearly dying of meningitis in Paris and David’s voluntary return to the UK to “face the music”; face the inevitable arrest, trial and conviction for a breach of the Official Secrets Act that followed on from his disclosures about spy criminality.

Anyway, enough of a detour down memory lane – back to Code Red. Regular readers of this website will know that I have some slight interest in the need to protect our privacy for both personal reasons and societal good. Over the last 18 years since helping to expose the crimes of the British spies, I have worked with the media, lawyers, campaigners, hackers, NGOs, politicians, wonks, geeks, whistleblowers, and wonderfully concerned citizens around the world – all the time arguing against the encroaching and stealthy powers of the deep, secret state and beyond.

While many people are concerned about this threat to a democratic way of life, and in fact so many people try to push back, I know from experience the different pressures that can be exerted against each community, and the lack of awareness and meaningful communication that can often occur between such groups.

So when Simon posited the idea of Code Red – an organisation that can functionally bring all these disparate groups together, to learn from each other, gain strength and thereby work more effectively, it seemed an obvious next step.

Some progress has already been make in this direction, with international whistleblower conferences, cryptoparties, training for journalists about how to protect their sources, campaigns to protect whistleblowers, activist and media collectives, and much more.  We in Code Red recognise all this amazing work and are not trying to replicate it.

But we do want to do is improve the flow of communication – would it not be great to have a global clearing house, a record, of what works, what does not, a repository of expertise from all these inter-related disciplines from a round the world that we can all learn from?

This is one of the goals of Code Red, which launched to the media at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia a few weeks ago.  We were then lucky enough to also hold a launch to the tech/hacktivist community in Berlin a few days after at C Base – the mother-ship of hackers.

Here is the film of the Perugia launch:

Code Red – launched in Perugia, April 2015 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

No encryption? How very rude.

First published on RT Op-Edge.

It struck me today that when I email a new contact I now reflexively check to see if they are using PGP encryption.  A happily surprising number are doing so these days, but most people would probably consider my circle of friends and acquaintance to be eclectic at the very least, if not downright eccentric, but then that’s probably why I like them.

There are still alarming numbers who are not using PGP though, particularly in journalist circles, and I have to admit that when this happens I do feel a tad miffed, as if some basic modern courtesy is being breached.

It’s not that I even expect everybody to use encryption – yet – it’s just that I prefer to have the option to use it and be able to have the privacy of my own communications at least considered. After all I am old enough to remember the era of letter writing, and I always favoured a sealed envelope to a postcard.

And before you all leap on me with cries of “using only PGP is no guarantee of security….” I do know that you need a suite of tools to have a fighting chance of real privacy in this NSA-saturated age: open source software, PGP, TOR, Tails, OTR, old hardware, you name it.  But I do think the wide-spread adoption of PGP sets a good example and gets more people thinking about these wider issues.  Perhaps more of us should insist on it before communicating further.

Why is this in my mind at the moment?  Well, I am currently working with an old friend, Simon Davies, the founder of Privacy International and the Big Brother Awards. He cut his first PGP key in 2000, but then left it to wither on the vine. As we are in the process of setting up a new privacy initiative called Code Red (more of which next week) it seemed imperative for him to set a good example and “start using” again.

Anyway, with the help of one of the godfathers of the Berlin cryptoparties, I am happy to report that the father of the privacy movement can now ensure your privacy if you wish to communicate with him.

I am proud to say that my awareness of PGP goes back even further.  The first time I heard of the concept was in 1998 while I was living in hiding in a remote farmhouse in central France, on the run from MI5, with my then partner, David Shayler.

Our only means of communication with the outside world was a computer and a dial-up connection and David went on a steep learning curve in all things geek to ensure a degree of privacy.  He helped build his own website (subsequently hacked, presumably by GCHQ or the NSA as it was a sophisticated attack by the standards of the day) and also installed the newly-available PGP. People complain now of the difficulties of installing encryption, but way back then it was the equivalent of scaling Mount Everest after a few light strolls in the park to limber up.  But he managed it.

Now, of course, it is relatively easy, especially if you take the time to attend a Cryptoparty – and there will be inevitably be one happening near you some place soon.

Cryptoparties began in late 2012 on the initiative of Asher Wolf in Australia.  The concept spread rapidly, and after Snowden went public in May 2013, accelerated globally. Indeed, there have been various reports about the “Snowden Effect“.  Only last week there was an article in the Guardian newspaper saying that 72% of British adults are now concerned about online privacy. I hope the 72% are taking advantage of these geek gatherings.

The US-based comedian, John Oliver, also recently aired an interview with Edward Snowden.  While this was slightly painful viewing for any whistleblower – Oliver had done a vox pop in New York that he showed to Snowden, where most interviewees seemed unaware of him and uncaring about privacy – there was a perceptible shift of opinion when the issue of, shall we say, pictures of a sensitive nature were being intercepted.

Officially this spy programme is called Optic Nerve, an issue that many of us have been discussing to some effect over the last year.  In the Oliver interview this transmogrified into “the dick pic programme”.  Well, whatever gets the message out there effectively…. and it did.

We all have things we prefer to keep private – be it dick pics, bank accounts, going to the loo, talking to our doctor, our sex lives, or even just talking about family gossip over the phone.  This is not about having anything to hide, but most of us do have an innate sense of privacy around our personal issues and dealings and this is all now lost to us, as Edward Snowden has laid bare.

As I have also said before, there are wider societal implications too – if we feel we are being watched in what we watch, read, say, write, organise, and conduct our relationships, then we start to self-censor.  And this is indeed already another of the quantified Snowden effects. This is deleterious to the free flow of information and the correct functioning of democratic societies.  This is precisely why the right to privacy is one of the core principles in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Lessons had then been learned from the Nazi book burnings and the Gestapo spy state, and privacy was recognised as a pre-requisite of open democracy. Yet now we see senior and supposedly well-informed US politicians calling for the modern equivalent of book burnings and failing to rein in the global abuses of the NSA.

How quickly the lessons of history can be forgotten and how carelessly we can cast aside the hard-won rights of our ancestors.

Edward Snowden, at great personal risk, gave us the necessary information to formulate a push back. At the very least we can have enough respect for the sacrifices he made and for the rights of our fellow human beings to take basic steps to protect both our own and their privacy.

So please start using open source encryption at the very least. It would be rude not to.