UK sets up yet another costly spy agency

This art­icle was first pub­lished on RT Op Ed a month ago.

The UK Min­istry of Defence announced on 21 Septem­ber the estab­lish­ment of yet anoth­er Brit­ish spy agency, an amal­gam of mil­it­ary and secur­ity ser­vice pro­fes­sion­als designed to wage cyber war against ter­ror­ists, Rus­sia and organ­ised crime. The new agency will have upwards of 2000 staff (the size MI5 was when I worked there in the 1990s, so not incon­sid­er­able). I have been asked for a num­ber of inter­views about this and here are my thoughts in long form.

The UK already has a pleth­ora of spy agen­cies:

  • MI5 – the UK domest­ic Secur­ity Ser­vice, largely coun­ter­ing ter­ror­ism and espi­on­age;
  • MI6 – the Secret Intel­li­gence Ser­vice, tasked with gain­ing intel­li­gence abroad;
  • GCHQ – the gov­ern­ment elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance agency and best buds with the US NSA;
  • Nation­al Cyber Secur­ity Centre – an off­shoot that pro­tects the UK against cyber attacks, both state and crim­in­al;
  • NCA – the Nation­al Crime Agency, mainly invest­ig­at­ing organ­ised crime;
  • not to men­tion the police and Cus­toms cap­ab­il­it­ies.

To provide Amer­ic­an con­text, MI6 equates to the CIA, GCHQ and the NCSC equate to the NSA, and the NCA to the FBI. Which rather begs the ques­tion of where exactly MI5 fits into the mod­ern scheme – or is it just an ana­chron­ist­ic and undemo­crat­ic throw-back, a typ­ic­ally Brit­ish his­tor­ic­al muddle, or per­haps the UK’s very own Stasi?

So why the new and expens­ive agency at a time of nation­al fin­an­cial uncer­tainty?

Of course I acknow­ledge the fact that the UK deserves to retain a com­pre­hens­ive and impress­ive defence cap­ab­il­ity, provided it is used for that pur­pose rather than illeg­al, need­less wars based on spuri­ous polit­ic­al reas­ons that cost inno­cent lives. Every coun­try has the right and the need to pro­tect itself, and the cybers are the newly-defined battle lines.

Moreover, it might be overly simplist­ic to sug­gest that this is just more empire-build­ing on the part of the thrust­ing and ambi­tious young Sec­ret­ary of State for Defence, Gav­in Wil­li­am­son. Per­haps he really does believe that the UK mil­it­ary needs aug­ment­ing after years of cuts, as the former Deputy Chair­man of the UK Con­ser­vat­ive Party and er, well-known mil­it­ary expert, Lord Ash­croft, wrote in the Daily Mail. But why a whole new intel­li­gence agency at huge cost? Surely all the exist­ing agen­cies should already be able to provide adequate defence?

Addi­tion­ally, by singling out Rus­sia as the hos­tile, aggressor state, when for years the West has also been bewail­ing Chinese/Ira­ni­an/North Korean et al hack­ing, smacks to me of polit­ic­al oppor­tunism in the wake of “Rus­siagate”, the Skri­pals, and Russia’s suc­cess­ful inter­ven­tion in Syr­ia. Those of a cyn­ic­al bent among us might see this as polit­ic­ally expedi­ent to cre­ate the etern­al Emmanuel Gold­stein enemy to jus­ti­fy the ever-meta­stas­ising mil­it­ary-secur­ity com­plex. But, hey, that is a big tranche of the Brit­ish, and poten­tially the post-Brexit, Brit­ish eco­nomy.

The UK intel­li­gence agen­cies are there to pro­tect “nation­al secur­ity and the eco­nom­ic well-being of the state”. So I do have some fun­da­ment­al eth­ic­al and secur­ity con­cerns based on recent West­ern his­tory. If the new organ­isa­tion is to go on the cyber offens­ive what, pre­cisely does that mean – war, unfore­seen blow back, or what?

If we go by what the USA has been exposed as doing over the last couple of dec­ades, partly from NSA whis­tleblowers includ­ing Bill Bin­ney, Tom Drake and Edward Snowden, and partly from CIA and NSA leaks into the pub­lic domain, a cyber offens­ive cap­ab­il­ity involves stock­pil­ing zero day hacks, back doors built into the inter­net mono­pol­ies, weapon­ised mal­ware such as STUXNET (now out there, mutat­ing in the wild), and the egre­gious break­ing of nation­al laws and inter­na­tion­al pro­to­cols.

To dis­cuss these points in reverse order: among so many oth­er rev­el­a­tions, in 2013 Edward Snowden revealed that GCHQ had cracked Bel­ga­com, the Bel­gian nation­al tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions net­work – that of an ally; he also revealed that the USA had spied on the Ger­man Chancellor’s private phone, as well as many oth­er Ger­man offi­cials and journ­al­ists; that GCHQ had been pros­ti­tut­ing itself to the NSA to do dirty work on its behalf in return for $100 mil­lion; and that most big inter­net com­pan­ies had col­luded with allow­ing the NSA access to their net­works via a pro­gramme called PRISM. Only last month, the EU also accused the UK of hack­ing the Brexit nego­ti­ations.

Last year Wikileaks repor­ted on the Vault 7 dis­clos­ures – a cache of CIA cyber weapons it had been stock­pil­ing. It is worth read­ing what Wikileaks had to say about this, ana­lys­ising the full hor­ror of how vul­ner­able such a stock­pile makes “we, the people”, vul­ner­able to crim­in­al hack­ing.

Also, two years ago a huge tranche of sim­il­arly hoarded NSA weapons was acquired by a crim­in­al organ­isa­tion called the Shad­ow Brokers, who ini­tially tried to sell them on the dark web to the highest bid­der but then released them into the wild. The cata­stroph­ic crash of NHS com­puters in the UK last year was because one of these cyber weapons, Wan­nac­ry, fell into the wrong crim­in­al hands. How much more is out there, avail­able to crim­in­als and ter­ror­ists?

The last two examples will, I hope, expose just how vul­ner­able such caches of cyber weapons and vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies can be if not prop­erly secured. And, as we have seen, even the most secret of organ­isa­tions can­not guar­an­tee this. To use the Amer­ic­an ver­nacu­lar, they can come back and bite you in the ass.

And the earli­er NSA whis­tleblowers, includ­ing Bill Bin­ney and Tom Drake, exposed just how easy it is for the spooks to manip­u­late nation­al law to suit their own agenda, with war­rant-less wiretap­ping, breaches of the US con­sti­tu­tion, and massive and need­less over­spend on pred­at­ory snoop­ing sys­tems such as TRAILBLAZER.

Indeed, we had the same thing in the UK when Theresa May suc­ceeded in finally ram­ming through the invi­di­ous Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Act (IPA 2016). When she presen­ted it to par­lia­ment as Home Sec­ret­ary, she implied that it was leg­al­ising what GCHQ has pre­vi­ously been doing illeg­ally since 2001, and extend their powers to include bulk metadata hack­ing, bulk data set hack­ing and bulk hack­ing of all our com­puters and phones, all without mean­ing­ful gov­ern­ment over­sight.

Oth­er coun­tries such as Rus­sia and China have passed sim­il­ar sur­veil­lance legis­la­tion, claim­ing as a pre­ced­ent the UK’s IPA as jus­ti­fic­a­tion for what are claimed by the West to be egre­gious pri­vacy crack­downs.

The remit of the UK spooks is to pro­tect “nation­al secur­ity” (whatever that means, as we still await a leg­al defin­i­tion) and the eco­nom­ic well-being of the state. I have said this many times over the years – the UK intel­li­gence com­munity is already the most leg­ally pro­tec­ted and least account­able of that of any oth­er West­ern demo­cracy. So, with all these agen­cies and all these dra­coni­an laws already at their dis­pos­al, I am some­what per­plexed about the per­ceived need for yet anoth­er costly intel­li­gence organ­isa­tion to go on the offens­ive. What do they want? Out­right war?

Have British Spies been hacking the EU?

First pub­lished by Con­sor­ti­um News.

Just after mid­night on 16 August I was called by LBC in Lon­don for a com­ment on a break­ing story on the front page of The Daily Tele­graph about Brit­ish spies hack­ing the EU. Even though I had just retired to bed, the story was just too irres­ist­ible, but a radio inter­view is always too short to do justice to such a con­vo­luted tale. Here are some longer thoughts.

For those who can­not get past the Tele­graph pay wall, the gist is that that the EU has accused the Brit­ish intel­li­gence agen­cies of hack­ing the EU’s side of the nego­ti­ations. Appar­ently some highly sens­it­ive and neg­at­ive slides about the Brit­ish Prime Minister’s plan for Brexit, the Chequers Plan, had landed in the lap of the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment, which then lob­bied the EU to sup­press pub­lic­a­tion.

Of course, this could be a genu­ine leak from the Brus­sels sieve, as Brit­ish sources are claim­ing (well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?). How­ever, it is plaus­ible that this is the work of the spies, either by recruit­ing a paid-up agent well-placed with­in the Brus­sels bur­eau­cracy, or through elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance.

Before dis­miss­ing the lat­ter option as con­spir­acy the­ory, the Brit­ish spies do have form. In the run up to the Iraq war in 2003, the USA and UK were des­per­ate to get a UN Secur­ity Coun­cil res­ol­u­tion to invade Iraq, thus provid­ing a fig leaf of appar­ent legit­im­acy to the illeg­al war. How­ever, some coun­tries with­in the UN had their doubts and the USA asked Britain’s listen­ing post, GCHQ, to step up its sur­veil­lance game. Fore­warned is fore­armed in del­ic­ate inter­na­tion­al nego­ti­ations.

How do we know this? A brave GCHQ whis­tleblower called Kath­er­ine Gun leaked the inform­a­tion to The Observ­er. For her pains, she was threatened with pro­sec­u­tion under the dra­coni­an terms of the UK’s 1989 Offi­cial Secrets Act, and faced two years in pris­on. The case was only dropped three weeks before her tri­al was due to begin, partly because of the feared pub­lic out­cry, but mainly because her law­yers threatened to use the leg­al defence of “neces­sity” – a defence won only three years before dur­ing the case of MI5 whis­tleblower, Dav­id Shayler. Tan­gen­tially, a film is this year being made about Gun’s story.

We also have con­firm­a­tion from one of the early 2013 Edward Snowden dis­clos­ures that GCHQ had hacked its way into the Bel­ga­com net­work – the nation­al tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions sup­pli­er in Bel­gi­um. Even back then there was an out­cry from the EU bod­ies, wor­ried that the UK (and by exten­sion its closest intel­li­gence buddy the USA), would gain lever­age with stolen know­ledge.

So, yes, it is per­fectly feas­ible that the UK could have done this, even though it was illeg­al back in the day. GCHQ’s inces­tu­ous rela­tion­ship with the America’s NSA gives it massively great­er cap­ab­il­it­ies than oth­er European intel­li­gence agen­cies, and the EU knows this well, which is why is is con­cerned to retain access to the UK’s defence and secur­ity powers post-Brexit, and also why it has jumped to these con­clu­sions about hack­ing.

But that was then and this is now. On 1st Janu­ary 2017 the UK gov­ern­ment finally signed a law called the Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Act, gov­ern­ing the leg­al frame­work for GCHQ to snoop. The IPA gave GCHQ the most dra­coni­an and invas­ive powers of any west­ern demo­cracy. Oth­er­wise known in the Brit­ish media as the “snoop­ers’ charter”, it had been defeated in Par­lia­ment for years, but Theresa May, then Home Sec­ret­ary, pushed it through in the teeth of leg­al and civil soci­ety oppos­i­tion. This year the High Court ordered the UK gov­ern­ment to redraft the IPA as it is incom­pat­ible with European law.

The IPA leg­al­ised what GCHQ had pre­vi­ously been doing illeg­ally post-9/11, includ­ing bulk metadata col­lec­tion, bulk data hack­ing, and bulk hack­ing of elec­tron­ic devices.

It also notion­ally gave the gov­ern­ment great­er over­sight of the spies’ actions, but these meas­ures remain weak and offer no pro­tec­tion if the spies choose to keep quiet about what they are doing. So if GCHQ did indeed hack the EU, it is feas­ible that the For­eign Sec­ret­ary and the Prime Min­is­ter remained ignor­ant of what was going on, des­pite being leg­ally required to sign off on such oper­a­tions. In which case the spies would be run­ning amok.

It is also feas­ible that they were indeed fully briefed and an argu­ment could be made that they would be cor­rect to do so. GCHQ and the oth­er spy agen­cies are required to pro­tect “nation­al secur­ity and the eco­nom­ic well-being” of Great Bri­tain, and I can cer­tainly see a strong argu­ment could be made that they were doing pre­cisely that, provided they had pri­or writ­ten per­mis­sion for such a sens­it­ive oper­a­tion, if they tried to get advance intel­li­gence about the EU’s Brexit strategy.

This argu­ment becomes even more power­ful when you con­sider the prob­lems around the fraught issue of the bor­der between North­ern Ire­land and Ire­land, an issue about which the EU is being par­tic­u­larly intransigent. If a deal is not made then the 1998 Good Fri­day Agree­ment could be under threat and civil war might again break out in North­ern Ire­land. You can­not get much more “nation­al secur­ity” than that and GCHQ would be jus­ti­fied in this work, provided it has acquired the neces­sary leg­al sign-offs from its polit­ic­al mas­ters.

How­ever, these argu­ments will do noth­ing to appease the enraged EU offi­cials. No doubt the UK gov­ern­ment will con­tin­ue to state that this was a leak from a Brus­sels insider and oil will, pub­licly at least, be seen to have been poured on troubled dip­lo­mat­ic waters.

How­ever, behind the scenes this will mul­tiply the mutu­al suspicion,and will no doubt unleash a witch hunt through the cor­ridors of EU power, with top civil ser­vant Martin Sel­mayr (aka The Mon­ster) cast as Witchfind­er Gen­er­al. With him on your heels, you would have to be a very brave leak­er, whis­tleblower, or even paid-up agent work­ing for the Brits to take such a risk.

So, per­haps this is indeed a GCHQ hack. How­ever jus­ti­fi­able this might be under the leg­ally neb­u­lous concept of “nation­al secur­ity”, this will pois­on fur­ther the already tox­ic Brexit nego­ti­ations. As Angela Merkal fam­ously if dis­en­gen­ously said after the Snowden rev­el­a­tion that the USA had hacked her mobile phone: “no spy­ing among friends”. But per­haps this is an out­dated concept – nor has the EU exactly been entirely friendly to Brexit Bri­tain.

I am just wait­ing for the first hys­ter­ic­al claim that it was the Rus­si­ans instead or, fail­ing them, former Trump strategist-in-chief, Steve Ban­non, reportedly cur­rently on a mis­sion to build a divis­ive Alt-Right Move­ment across Europe…..

Living in a World Bereft of Privacy

First Pub­lished by Con​sor​ti​um​news​.com.

A few days ago I first received a men­acing mes­sage from someone call­ing her­self Susana Per­itz, telling me that “she” had hacked my email, planted mal­ware on my com­puter, and had then filmed me get­ting my jol­lies while watch­ing “inter­est­ing” porn online. Her email had caught my atten­tion because it had writ­ten in the sub­ject line a very old pass­word, attached to a very old email address I had not used for over a dec­ade, and the mal­ware must have been planted on a defunct com­puter.

Put­ting aside the fact that I am far more con­cerned about GCHQ or the NSA hack­ing my com­puter (as should we all be), this did rather amuse me.

Appar­ently, I must pay this “Susana” $1000 via Bit­coin or, shock, have my alleged pleas­ures shared with my acquaint­ances. And just last night I received anoth­er cour­teous request for cash from someone call­ing them­selves Jil­l­ie Abdulrazak, but the price has now inflated to $3000.

Why am I not con­cerned? Well, I can safely say — hand on heart — that I have nev­er watched online porn. But this got me think­ing about how or why I could have been singled out for this mark of a blackmailer’s esteem, and that brings me on to some rather dark thoughts.

It is per­fectly pos­sible that a rare, unguarded moment of long-dis­tance online love might have been cap­tured (but by whom?). That would prob­ably be over a dec­ade ago and would cer­tainly have been using the old email account which was attached to the par­tic­u­lar pass­word at the time.

How­ever, even those memor­ies have been denied me – I dis­tinctly remem­ber that I have been too para­noid for too long and have always covered the built-in com­puter cam­era lens. Any­thing that could pos­sibly have been recor­ded could only be audio – a saucy phone call at most. There can be no video of my young­er self, alas.

I have had good reas­on to be para­noid. In the late 1990s I sup­por­ted my former part­ner and fel­low MI5 intel­li­gence officer, Dav­id Shalyer, in his whis­tleblower exploits to expose the crimes and incom­pet­ence of the UK spy agen­cies at the time.

This res­ul­ted in us lit­er­ally going on the run across Europe, liv­ing in hid­ing for a year in la France pro­fonde, and anoth­er two years in exile in Par­is before he vol­un­tar­ily returned to the UK in 2000 to face the music and inev­it­ably, under the terms of the UK’ dra­coni­an 1989 Offi­cial Secrets Act, being sent to pris­on for expos­ing the crimes of Brit­ish spies.From those years, know­ing what we knew about the spies’ cap­ab­il­it­ies even then, the sense of being always poten­tially watched has nev­er rubbed off.

So, know­ing abso­lutely that I have nev­er watched any online porn and that I always keep my com­puter cam­era lens covered, “Susana” and “Jil­l­ie” can go whistle. You have tried to shake down the wrong para­noid ex-MI5 whis­tleblower, darlings. And my tech people are now hunt­ing you.

Any pos­sible audio could, I sup­pose, be spliced in some way to some dodgy video to make this the stuff of a blackmailer’s dreams. That, surely, will be easy to forens­ic­ate – and indeed I have oth­er friends who can do this, at world class level.

Altern­at­ively, the former love at the time could have recor­ded the audio for his own nefar­i­ous per­son­al usage for some neb­u­lous time in the future. And if that future is now, after he had shown him­self a long time ago to be chron­ic­ally dis­hon­est, why do this in 2018 when we have been sep­ar­ated for years?

Or indeed, he may have con­tin­ued to used the old email account him­self to watch vile mater­i­al – he cer­tainly had the pass­word back then and per­haps he uses it to dis­tance him­self from his own porn habit (fap­ware, as the geeks call it)? If that is the case, he is even less hon­our­able than I had con­sidered him to be.

Or per­haps this is some type of dark LoveInt oper­a­tion by the spooks, in some failed attempt to fright­en or embar­rass me?

But there is, of course, a big­ger, more polit­ic­al pic­ture.

Ever since I worked as an intel­li­gence officer for MI5, before going on the run with Dav­id Shayler dur­ing the whis­tleblow­ing years in the late 1990s, I have been pain­fully aware of the tech cap­ab­il­it­ies of the spies. Even back then we knew that com­puters could be cap­tured by adversar­ies and turned against you – key­stroke log­gers, remote record­ing via micro­phones, cam­er­as switched on to watch you, and many oth­er hor­rors.

The whis­tleblow­ing of Edward Snowden back in 2013 has con­firmed all this and more on an indus­tri­al, glob­al scale – we are all poten­tially at risk of this par­tic­u­lar inva­sion of our per­son­al pri­vacy. I have kept my com­puter and mobile cam­era lenses covered for all these years pre­cisely because of this threat.

One spe­cif­ic Snowden dis­clos­ure, which has received little MSM trac­tion, was a pro­gramme called OPTIC NERVE. This was a GCHQ pro­gramme (fun­ded by Amer­ic­an money) that allowed the spooks to inter­cept in real time video con­fer­en­cing calls. It turned out, hor­ror, that 10% of them were of a sala­cious nature, and the spooks were shocked!

I have spoken about pri­vacy and sur­veil­lance at con­fer­ences around the world and have many, many times had to debate the sup­pos­i­tion that “if you are doing noth­ing wrong, you have noth­ing to hide”.

How­ever, most people would like to keep their intim­ate rela­tion­ships private. In this era of work travel and long dis­tance rela­tion­ships, more of us might well have intim­ate con­ver­sa­tions and even video play via the inter­net. In an adult, con­sen­su­al and mutu­ally pleas­ur­able con­text, we are doing noth­ing wrong and we have noth­ing to hide, but we surely don’t want the spooks to be watch­ing us or listen­ing in, any more than we would want the crim­in­als cap­tur­ing images and try­ing to shake us down for money.

This low-level and ama­teur attempt at extor­tion is ris­ible. Unfor­tu­nately, the threat from our gov­ern­ments spy­ing on us all is not.

Recent interviews: UK Cyber Security, Kim Dotcom, and Iraq

I’ve done a few more inter­views this month for RT, on a vari­ety of issues:

US boots on the ground in Iraq

USA Boots on the Ground in Iraq — again. from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

The extra­di­tion case against Megaupload’s founder, Kim Dot­com

Megaupload’s Kim Dot­com faces extra­di­tion from NZ to USA from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

And the launch of the UK’s new Cyber Secur­ity Centre, soon after the new Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Act (aka the “snoop­ers’ charter”) became law

The launch of the UK’s new Nation­al Cyber Secur­ity Centre from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

German spy agency penetrated by ISIS

My recent inter­view about the Ger­man domest­ic spy agency, the BfV — the Office for the Pro­tec­tion of the Con­sti­tu­tion, iron­ic­ally — being allegedly infilt­rated by ISIS.

ISIS Agent in Ger­man Spy Agency from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Webstock, New Zealand, 2016

Now, I speak all over the world at con­fer­ences and uni­ver­sit­ies about a whole vari­ety of inter­con­nec­ted issues, but I do want to high­light this con­fer­ence from earli­er this year and give a shout out for next year’s. Plus I’ve finally got my hands on the video of my talk.

Web­stock cel­eb­rated its tenth anniversary in New Zea­l­and last Feb­ru­ary, and I was for­tu­nate enough to be asked to speak there.  The hosts prom­ised a unique exper­i­ence, and the event lived up to its repu­ta­tion.

Webstock_2016They wanted a fairly clas­sic talk from me — the whis­tleblow­ing years, the les­sons learnt and cur­rent polit­ic­al implic­a­tions, but also what we can to do fight back, so I called my talk “The Pan­op­ticon: Res­ist­ance is Not Futile”, with a nod to my sci-fi fan­dom.

So why does this par­tic­u­lar event glow like a jew­el in my memory? After expun­ging from my mind, with a shud­der of hor­ror, the 39 hour travel time each way, it was the whole exper­i­ence. New Zea­l­and com­bines the friend­li­ness of the Amer­ic­ans — without the polit­ic­al mad­ness and the guns, and the egal­it­ari­an­ism of the Nor­we­gi­ans — with almost equi­val­ent scenery. Add to that the warmth of the audi­ence, the eclecticism of the speak­ers, and the pre­ci­sion plan­ning and aes­thet­ics of the con­fer­ence organ­isers and you have a win­ning com­bin­a­tion.

Our hosts organ­ised ver­tigo-indu­cing events for the speak­ers on the top of mile-high cliffs, as well as a sur­pris­ingly fun vis­it to a tra­di­tion­al Brit­ish bowl­ing green. Plus I had the excite­ment of exper­i­en­cing my very first earth­quake — 5.9 on the Richter scale appar­ently. I shall make no cheap jokes about the earth mov­ing, espe­cially in light of the latest quakes to hit NZ this week, but the hotel did indeed sway around me and it wasn’t the loc­al wine, excel­lent as it is.

I men­tioned eclecticism — the qual­ity of the speak­ers was fero­ciously high, and I would like to give a shout out to Debbie Mill­man and her “joy of fail­ure” talk, Harry Roberts, a ser­i­ous geek who crowd-sourced his talk and ended up talk­ing ser­i­ously about cock­tails, moths, Chum­bawamba and more, advert­ising guru Cindy Gal­lop who is inspir­ing women around the world and pro­mot­ing Make Love Not Porn, and Casey Ger­ald, with his evan­gel­ic­ally-inspired but won­der­fully human­ist­ic talk to end the event.

All the talks can be found here.

It was a fab­ulous week.  All I can say is thank you to Tash, Mike, and the oth­er organ­isers.

If you ever have the chance to attend or speak at the event in the future, I ser­i­ously recom­mend it.

And here’s the video of my talk:

A Good American — Bill Binney

I have for a num­ber of years now been involved with a glob­al group of whis­tleblowers from the intel­li­gence, dip­lo­mat­ic and mil­it­ary world, who gath­er togeth­er every year as the Sam Adams Asso­ci­ates to give an award to an indi­vidu­al dis­play­ing integ­rity in intel­li­gence.

This year’s award goes to former CIA officer, John Kiriakou, who exposed the CIA’s illeg­al tor­ture pro­gramme, but was the only officer to go to pris­on — for expos­ing CIA crimes.

The award cere­mony will be tak­ing place in Wash­ing­ton on 25 Septem­ber at the “World Bey­ond War” con­fer­ence.

Last year’s laur­eate, former Tech­nic­al Dir­ect­or of the NSA Bill Bin­ney, is cur­rently on tour across Europe to pro­mote an excel­lent film about both his and the oth­er stor­ies of the earli­er NSA whis­tleblowers before Edward Snowden — “A Good Amer­ic­an”.

The film is simply excel­lent, very human and very humane, and screen­ings will hap­pen across Europe over the next few months. Do watch if you can!

This is a film of the pan­el dis­cus­sion after a screen­ing in Lon­don on 18th Septem­ber:

A Good Amer­ic­an” — pan­el dis­cus­sion with ex-NSA Bill Bin­ney from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Karma Police

As I type this I am listen­ing to one of my all-time favour­ite albums, Radiohead’s sem­in­al “OK, Com­puter”, that was released in spring 1997. The first time I heard it I was spell­bound by its edgi­ness, com­plex­ity, exper­i­ment­al­ism and polit­ic­al over­tones. My part­ner at the time, Dav­id Shayler, took longer to get it. Self-admit­tedly tone deaf, he nev­er under­stood what he laugh­ingly called the “music con­spir­acy” where people just “got” a new album and played it to death.

ST_Spies_on_the_RunHis opin­ion changed drastic­ally over the sum­mer of ’97 after we had blown the whistle on a series of crimes com­mit­ted by the UK’s spy agen­cies. As a res­ult of our actions — the first reports appeared in the Brit­ish media on 24 July 1997 — we had fled the coun­try and gone on the run around Europe for a month. At the end of this sur­real back­pack­ing hol­i­day I returned to the UK to face arrest, pack up our ran­sacked home, and try to com­fort our trau­mat­ised fam­il­ies who had known noth­ing of our whis­tleblow­ing plans.

OK, Com­puter” was the soundtrack to that month spent on the run across the Neth­er­lands, Bel­gi­um, France and Spain. Tak­ing ran­dom trains, mov­ing from hotel to hotel, and using false names, our lives were dis­lo­cated and unreal. So in each hotel room we tried to recre­ate a sense of home­li­ness — some candles, a bottle of wine, natch, and some music. In the two small bags, into which I had packed the essen­tials for our unknown future life, I had man­aged to squeeze in my port­able CD play­er (remem­ber those?), tiny speak­ers and a few cher­ished CDs. Such are the pri­or­it­ies of youth.

The joy of Radi­o­head broke upon Dav­id dur­ing that month — par­tic­u­larly the track “Exit Music (for a Film)”, which encap­su­lated our feel­ings as we fled the UK togeth­er. Once we were holed up in a prim­it­ive French farm­house for the year after our month on the run, this was the album that we listened to last thing at night, hold­ing onto each oth­er tightly to ward off the cold and fear. Rev­el­ling in the music, we also drew strength from the dis­sid­ent tone of the lyr­ics.

So it was with some mirth­ful incredu­lity that I yes­ter­day read on The Inter­cept that GCHQ named one of its most ini­quit­ous pro­grammes after one of the clas­sic songs from the album — “Karma Police”.

In case you missed this, the basic premise of GCHQ was to devel­op a sys­tem that could snoop on all our web searches and thereby build up a pro­file of each of our lives online — our interests, our pec­ca­dilloes, our polit­ics, our beliefs. The pro­gramme was developed between 2007 and 2008 and was deemed func­tion­al in 2009. Who knows what inform­a­tion GCHQ has sucked up about you, me, every­one, since then?

As I have said many times over the years since Snowden and who knows how many oth­ers began to expose the out-of-con­trol spy agen­cies, this is dis­pro­por­tion­ate in soi-dis­sent demo­cra­cies. It is cer­tainly not law­ful by any stretch of the ima­gin­a­tion. UK gov­ern­ment­al war­rants — which are sup­posed to reg­u­late and if neces­sary cir­cum­scribe the activ­it­ies of the spy snoop­ers — have repeatedly been egre­giously abused.

They are sup­posed to make a case for tar­geted sur­veil­lance of people sus­pec­ted of being a threat to the UK’s nation­al secur­ity or eco­nom­ic well-being. The war­rants, blindly signed by the Home or For­eign Sec­ret­ary, are not designed to author­ise the indus­tri­al inter­cep­tion of everyone’s com­mu­nic­a­tions. This is a crime, plain and simple, and someone should be held to account.

Talk­ing of crimes, after a month on the run with Dav­id, I returned (as I had always planned to do) to the UK. I knew that I would be arres­ted, purely on the grounds that I had been an MI5 officer and was Dav­id Shayler’s girl­friend and had sup­por­ted his whis­tleblow­ing activ­it­ies. In fact my law­yer, John Wadham who was the head of the UK’s civil liber­ties uni­on, Liberty, had nego­ti­ated with the police for my return to the UK and hand myself into the police for ques­tion­ing. He flew out to Bar­celona to accom­pany me back to the UK almost exactly eight­een years ago today.

Annie_arrestDes­pite the pre-agree­ments, I was arres­ted at the immig­ra­tion desk at Gatwick air­port by six burly Spe­cial Branch police officers and then driv­en by them up to the counter-ter­ror­ism inter­view room in Char­ing Cross police sta­tion in cent­ral Lon­don, where I was inter­rog­ated for the max­im­um six hours before being released with no charge.

The music play­ing on the radio dur­ing this drive from the air­port to my cell? Radiohead’s “Karma Police”.

One can but hope that karma will come into play. But per­haps the end­ing of “Exit Music…”  is cur­rently more per­tin­ent — we hope that you choke, that you choke.….

After all, the spies do seem to be chok­ing on an over­load of hoovered-up intel­li­gence — pretty much every “ISIS-inspired” attack in the west over the last couple of years has reportedly been car­ried out by people who have long been on the radar of the spies.  Too much inform­a­tion can indeed be bad for our secur­ity, our pri­vacy and our safety.

US/UK intelligence agencies threaten Germany

Accord­ing to journ­al­ist Glenn Gre­en­wald, Ger­man Vice Chan­cel­lor Sig­mar Gab­ri­el has stated that the US and UK spy agen­cies threatened to cut Ger­many out of the intel­li­gence-shar­ing loop if it gave safe haven to NSA whis­tle­bower, Edward Snowden.

Here is my view of the situ­ation on RT today:

RT Inter­view about US/UK intel­li­gence threats to Ger­many from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

UK spies target women for recruitment

My recent inter­view on RT show “In the Now” about gender equal­ity in the Brit­ish spy agen­cies:

Gender Equal­ity in UK Spy Agen­cies — RT In the Now from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Jihadi John and MI5

So this week the mur­der­ous behead­er of the Islam­ic State, “Jihadi John”, has been unmasked.  His real iden­tity is appar­ently Mohammed Emwazi, born in Kuwait and now a Brit­ish cit­izen who was raised and edu­cated in west Lon­don

Much sound, fury and heated debate has been expen­ded over the last couple of days about how he became rad­ic­al­ised, who was to blame, with MI5 once more cast in the role of vil­lain. In such media sound-bite dis­cus­sions it is all too easy to fall into facile and polar­ised argu­ments. Let us try to break this down and reach a more nuanced  under­stand­ing.

First up is the now-notori­ous press con­fer­ence hos­ted by the cam­paign­ing group, Cage, in which the Research Dir­ect­or, Asim Qure­shi , claimed that MI5 har­ass­ment of Emwazi was the reas­on for his rad­ic­al­isa­tion. Emwazi had com­plained to Cage and appar­ently the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police that over the last six years MI5 had approached him and was pres­sur­ising him to work as an agent for them. Accord­ing to Cage, this har­ass­ment lead to Emwazi’s rad­ic­al­isa­tion.

Yet recruit­ment of such agents is a core MI5 func­tion, some­thing it used to do with sub­tlety and some suc­cess, by identi­fy­ing people with­in groups who poten­tially could be vul­ner­able to induce­ments or pres­sure to report back on tar­get organ­isa­tions.  In fact, Brit­ish intel­li­gence used to be much more focused on gath­er­ing “HUMINT”.  The very best intel­li­gence comes from an (ideally) will­ing but at least co-oper­at­ive human agent: they are mobile, they can gain the trust of and con­verse with tar­gets who may be wary of using elec­tron­ic com­mu­nic­a­tions, and they can be tasked to gath­er spe­cif­ic intel­li­gence rather than wait­ing for the lucky hit on inter­cept.

MI5 used to be good at this — spend­ing time to really invest­ig­ate and identi­fy the right recruit­ment tar­gets, with a con­sidered approach towards mak­ing the pitch.

How­ever, it appears since 9/11 and the start of the bru­tal “war on ter­ror” that two prob­lems have evolved, both of which ori­gin­ated in Amer­ica. Firstly, Brit­ish intel­li­gence seems to have fol­lowed their US coun­ter­parts down a mor­al hel­ter-skel­ter, becom­ing re-involved in counter-pro­duct­ive and bru­tal activ­it­ies such as kid­nap­ping, intern­ment and tor­ture. As MI5 had learned at least by the 1990s, such activ­it­ies inev­it­ably res­ult in blow-back, and can act as a recruit­ing drum to the ter­ror­ist cause of the day.

(Tan­gen­tially, the Home Office also instig­ated the Pre­vent pro­gramme — in concept to counter rad­ic­al Islam in vul­ner­able social com­munit­ies, but in prac­tice used and abused by the author­it­ies to intim­id­ate and coerce young Muslims in the UK.)

Secondly, Brit­ish intel­li­gence seems over the last dec­ade to have blindly fol­lowed the US spies down the path of pan­op­tic­an, drag-net elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance.  All this has been long sus­pec­ted by a few, but con­firmed to the many by the dis­clos­ures of Edward Snowden over the last couple of years. Indeed it seems that GCHQ is not merely com­pli­cit but an act­ive facil­it­at­or and ena­bler of the NSA’s wilder ideas.  And what we now know is hor­rif­ic enough, yet it cur­rently remains just the tip of the ice­berg.

This deluge of inform­a­tion cre­ates gar­gan­tu­an hay­stacks with­in which some genu­ine intel­li­gence needles might reside — to use the ter­min­o­logy of the spy agency cheer­lead­ers. How­ever, it con­cur­rently swamps the intel­li­gence agen­cies in use­less inform­a­tion, while also cer­tainly throw­ing up a per­cent­age of false-pos­it­ives.  Bear­ing in mind the sheer scale of the leg­ally dubi­ous snoop­ing, even a 0.001% of false pos­it­ives could poten­tially pro­duce thou­sands of erro­neous leads.

Curi­ous people now have a world of inform­a­tion at their fin­ger­tips. They may click on an intriguing link and find them­selves on a rad­ic­al web­site; even if they click out quickly, the pan­op­ticon will have logged their “interest”. Or they could donate money to an appar­ently legit­im­ate char­ity; “like” the wrong thing on Face­book; fol­low the wrong per­son on Twit­ter; have their email hacked, or whatever.…

The Big Broth­er Borg algorithms will crunch through all of this inform­a­tion pre­dict­ably and pre­dict­ively, with sub­tleties lost and mis­takes made. Mind you, that happened in a more lim­ited fash­ion too at the height of the Cold War sub­ver­sion para­noia in Bri­tain in the 1970s and 1980s, when school­boys writ­ing to the Com­mun­ist Party HQ for inform­a­tion for school pro­jects could end up with a MI5 file, and divor­cing couples could denounce each oth­er.  But at least, then, whole pop­u­la­tions were not under sur­veil­lance.

I think this may go some way towards explain­ing so many recent cases where “lone wolf” attack­ers around the world have been known to their nation­al intel­li­gence agen­cies and yet been left to roam free, either dis­coun­ted as too low level a threat in the flood of inform­a­tion or oth­er­wise sub­jec­ted to bungled recruit­ment approaches.

In the ana­logue era much time, research and thought would go into identi­fy­ing per­sons of interest, and more cru­cially how to approach a tar­get either for dis­rup­tion or recruit­ment.  I should think that the spy super-com­puters are now throw­ing up so many pos­sible leads that approaches are made in a more hur­ried, ill-informed and less con­sidered way.

And this can res­ult in cases such as Michael Ade­bolayo whom MI5 approached and allegedly har­assed years before he went on to murder Drum­mer Lee Rigby in Wool­wich in 2013. The same may well have happened with Mohammed Emwazi. Once someone has been tar­geted, they are going to feel para­noid and under sur­veil­lance, wheth­er rightly or wrongly, and this might res­ult in grow­ing resent­ment and push them into ever more extreme views.

How­ever, I would sug­gest that MI5 remains merely the tool, fol­low­ing the dir­ect­ives of the UK gov­ern­ment in response to the ever-expand­ing, ever-neb­u­lous war on ter­ror, just as MI6 fol­lowed the dir­ect­ives of the Blair gov­ern­ment in 2003 when it allowed its intel­li­gence to be politi­cised as a pre­text for an illeg­al war in Iraq. MI5 might be an occa­sion­al cata­lyst, but not the under­ly­ing cause of rad­ic­al­isa­tion.

Unfor­tu­nately, by immers­ing itself in the now-over­whelm­ing intel­li­gence detail, it appears to be miss­ing the big­ger pic­ture — just why are young Brit­ish people tak­ing an interest in the events of the Middle East, why are so many angry, why are so many drawn to rad­ic­al views and some drawn to extreme actions.

Surely the simplest way to under­stand their griev­ances is to listen to what the extrem­ist groups actu­ally say? Osama Bin Laden was clear in his views — he wanted US mil­it­ary bases out of Saudi Ara­bia and US med­dling across the Middle East gen­er­ally to stop; he also wanted a res­ol­u­tion to the Palestini­an con­flict.

Jihadi John states in his ghastly snuff videos that he is met­ing out hor­ror to high­light the hor­rors daily inflic­ted across the Middle East by the US mil­it­ary — the bomb­ings, drone strikes, viol­ent death and mutil­a­tion.

To hear this and under­stand is not to be a sym­path­iser, but is vital if west­ern gov­ern­ments want to devel­op a more intel­li­gent, con­sidered and poten­tially more suc­cess­ful policies in response. Once you under­stand, you can nego­ti­ate, and that is the only sane way for­ward. Viol­ence used to counter viol­ence always escal­ates the situ­ation and every­one suf­fers.

The USA still needs to learn this les­son. The UK had learned it, res­ult­ing in the end of the war in North­ern Ire­land, but it now seems to have been for­got­ten. It is not rock­et sci­ence — even the former head of MI5, Lady Man­ning­ham-Buller, has said nego­ti­ation is the only suc­cess­ful long-term policy when deal­ing with ter­ror­ism.

Along with the UK, many oth­er European coun­tries have suc­cess­fully nego­ti­ated their way out of long-run­ning domest­ic ter­ror­ist cam­paigns. The tragedy for European coun­tries that have recently or will soon suf­fer the new mod­el of “lone wolf” atro­cit­ies, is that our gov­ern­ments are still in thrall to the failed US for­eign policy of “the war on ter­ror”, repeated daily in gory tech­ni­col­our across North Africa, the Middle East, cent­ral Asia, and now Ukraine.

Glob­al jihad is the inev­it­able response to USA glob­al expan­sion­ism, hege­mony and aggres­sion. As long as our gov­ern­ments and intel­li­gence agen­cies in Europe kow­tow to Amer­ic­an stra­tegic interests rather than pro­tect those of their own cit­izens, all our coun­tries will remain at risk.

Privacy as Innovation Interview

A recent inter­view I gave while in Stock­holm to the Pri­vacy as Innov­a­tion pro­ject:

privacy_innovation

Keynote at Internetdagarna, Stockholm, November 2014

Here is my key­note speech at the recent Inter­net­dagarna (Inter­net Days) con­fer­ence in Stock­holm, Sweden, dis­cuss­ing all things whis­tleblower, spy, sur­veil­lance, pri­vacy and TTIP:

internetdagarna

Interview on Swedish Aftonbladet TV

I’m cur­rently in Stock­holm to do a key­note tomor­row at the fant­ast­ic Inter­net Days con­fer­ence, an annu­al gath­er­ing organ­ised by Inter­net Infra­struc­ture Found­a­tion.

This morn­ing, I would say at the crack of dawn but it was still dark, I was invited on to Afton­bladet TV to talk about my story, the role of whis­tleblowers, the Sam Adams Award for Integ­rity in Intel­li­gence, and threats to the inter­net. Here is the inter­view:

Sweden — Afton­bladet TV Inter­view about whis­tleblowers from Annie Machon on Vimeo.