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.