Britain’s Brave New World just got Braver

First pub­lished by Con­sor­ti­um News.

On 5th June 2018 the UK Home Sec­ret­ary, Sajid Javid, unveiled his new counter-ter­ror­ism ini­ti­at­ive that he says is tar­get­ing an ever-meta­stas­ising threat, yet it raises a raft of new ques­tions about people’s rights.

The gov­ern­ment is act­ing on the imper­at­ive that some­thing needs to be done. But MI5 — offi­cially known as the UK domest­ic Secur­ity Ser­vice and the lead organ­isa­tion in com­bat­ing ter­ror­ism with­in the UK — has already, since the start of the war on ter­ror, doubled in size and has also been prom­ised yet more staff over the next two years.

Yet des­pite these boos­ted resources for MI5, as well as increased fund­ing and sur­veil­lance powers for the entire UK intel­li­gence com­munity, vir­tu­ally every ter­ror attack car­ried out in the UK over the last few years has been com­mit­ted by someone already known to the author­it­ies. Indeed, the Manchester bomber, Sal­man Abedi, had been aggress­ively invest­ig­ated but MI5 ignored vital intel­li­gence and closed down the act­ive invest­ig­a­tion shortly before he car­ried out the attack.

This fail­ure to tar­get known threats is not just a UK prob­lem. Attacks across Europe over the last few years have repeatedly been car­ried out by people already on the loc­al secur­ity radar.

New approaches are needed. But this latest offer­ing appears to be a med­ley of already failed ini­ti­at­ives and more wor­ry­ingly a poten­tially dan­ger­ous blue­print for a techno-Stasi state.

The main points of the new Home Office plan include: mak­ing MI5 share intel­li­gence on 20,000 “sub­jects of con­cern” with a wide range of organ­isa­tions, includ­ing loc­al coun­cils, cor­por­a­tions, loc­al police, social work­ers, and teach­ers; call­ing on inter­net com­pan­ies to detect and erad­ic­ate extrem­ist or sus­pi­cious con­tent; mak­ing online mar­ket­places such as Amazon and eBay report sus­pi­cious pur­chases; increas­ing sur­veil­lance of big events and infra­struc­ture; and passing even tough­er anti-ter­ror­ism laws.

This all sounds reas­on­able to those who are fear­ful of ran­dom attacks on the streets or at events – that is unless one has seen in the past how some ini­ti­at­ives have already been proven to fail or can fore­see in the future whole­sale abuse of increased sur­veil­lance powers.

Intel­li­gence is not Evid­ence

The most chilling part of the MI5 plan is shar­ing intel­li­gence on 20,000 sub­jects of con­cern. First of all, this is intel­li­gence – by nature gathered from a range of secret sources that MI5 would nor­mally wish to pro­tect. When com­mu­nic­at­ing with counter-ter­ror­ism police, intel­li­gence agen­cies will nor­mally hide the source, but that will require an immense amount of work for 20,000 cases before the inform­a­tion can be shared. Secondly, bear in mind that intel­li­gence is not evid­ence. Effect­ively MI5 will be cir­cu­lat­ing par­tially assessed sus­pi­cions, per­haps even rumours, about indi­vidu­als, very widely about people who can­not be charged with any crime but who will fall under a deep shad­ow of sus­pi­cion with­in their com­munit­ies.

Also if this intel­li­gence is spread as widely as is cur­rently being sug­ges­ted, it will land in the laps of thou­sands of pub­lic bod­ies – for instance, schools, coun­cils, social care organ­isa­tions, and loc­al police. Mul­tiple prob­lems could arise from this. There will no doubt be leaks and gos­sip with­in com­munit­ies – so-and-so is being watched by MI5 and so on.

There will also be the inev­it­able mis­sion-creep and abuse of power that we saw almost 20 years ago when a whole range of the same pub­lic bod­ies were allowed access to the new eaves­drop­ping and sur­veil­lance law, the Reg­u­la­tion of Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Act (2000). Back then, loc­al coun­cils were abus­ing counter-ter­ror­ism legis­la­tion to catch people who might be try­ing to play school catch­ment areas (dis­tricts) to get their chil­dren into bet­ter schools, or even, and I kid you not, might be cockle-rust­ling on their loc­al beach. Of course, such intrus­ive elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance powers have been sig­ni­fic­antly increased since then, with the Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Act 2017, that allows bulk stor­age, bulk data­set hack­ing and hack­ing per se.

All this fol­lows the notori­ous Home Office counter-ter­ror­ism PREVENT scheme – the failed par­ent of these new pro­pos­als.

A dec­ade ago PREVENT was designed to reach out, build bridges with Muslim com­munit­ies across Bri­tain, encour­aging them to report any sus­pi­cious beha­viour to the author­it­ies to nip incip­i­ent rad­ic­al­isa­tion in the bud. Unfor­tu­nately it did not quite work out that way. Young Muslims told stor­ies of pres­sure from MI5 to spy on their com­munit­ies. It des­troyed com­munity trust rather than built it.

Unfor­tu­nately, this new Home Office scheme goes even fur­ther down the wrong path. It asks teach­ers, social work­ers, the loc­al police and oth­er author­ity fig­ures to go bey­ond report­ing sus­pi­cious beha­viour to actu­ally be giv­en a list of names to keep a awatch on “sub­jects of interest”.

The last time such a sys­tem of com­munity inform­ants used in Europe was ended when the Ber­lin Wall came down in 1989 and East Germany’s Stasi sys­tem of a vast net­work of inform­ers was revealed in all its hor­ror. How iron­ic that the same sys­tem that was devised to pro­tect the East Ger­man youth from the “dec­ad­ent influ­ence” of West­ern ideals is now being pro­posed in a “dec­ad­ent” West­ern coun­try to spy on its own youth for traces of rad­ic­al­isa­tion.

Cor­por­ate Allies

Suf­fice to say that if the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment can­not even make the inter­net titans such as Google and Face­book pay their fair share in taxes, nor call Facebook’s Mark Zuck­er­berg to account in Par­lia­ment about the Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­ica scan­dal, then good luck for­cing them make a mean­ing­ful effort to root out extrem­ist mater­i­al.

But even if they do agree, this idea is fraught with the trouble­some ques­tion of who gets to decide wheth­er some­thing is extrem­ist mater­i­al or a dis­sent­ing opin­ion against the estab­lish­ment?  Face­book, Google and You­tube are already enga­ging in what can only be called cen­sor­ship by de-rank­ing in search res­ults mater­i­al from legit­im­ate dis­sid­ent web­sites that they, with no his­tory of exer­cising news judge­ment, deem “fake news”.Such estab­lished news sites such as Wikileaks, Con­sor­ti­um­News and World Social­ist Web Site as well as many oth­ers lis­ted on the notori­ous and unre­li­able Pro­pOrNot list have taken a sig­ni­fic­ant hit since these restric­tions came into play on 23 April 2017.

Amazon, eBay and oth­er retail com­pan­ies are being asked to report sus­pi­cious sales of pre­curs­or mater­i­als for bombs and oth­er weapons. Car hire com­pan­ies will be asked to report sus­pi­cious indi­vidu­als hir­ing cars and lor­ries. Algorithms to detect weapons pur­chases may be feas­ible, but deny­ing rent­als to merely “sus­pi­cious” indi­vidu­als who’ve com­mit­ted no crimes strays into Stasi ter­rit­ory.

Back in the era of fer­til­iser lorry and nail bombs, laws were put in place across Europe to require fer­til­iser com­pan­ies to report strange pur­chases – from people who were not registered agri­cul­tur­al­ists, for example, Unfor­tu­nately, this law was eas­ily sub­ver­ted by Nor­we­gi­an right-wing ter­ror­ist, Anders Breivik, who simply worked to estab­lish a farm and then leg­ally pur­chased the ingredi­ents for his Oslo car bomb in 2011.

You are Being Watched

The UK is known as hav­ing the most CCTV cam­er­as per cap­ita in the West­ern world. There have been vari­ous plans mooted (some leaked to Wikileaks) to hook these up to cor­por­a­tions such as Face­book for imme­di­ate face tag­ging cap­ab­il­it­ies, and the devel­op­ment of algorithms that can identi­fy sus­pi­cious beha­viour in real time and the police can move to inter­cept the “sus­pect”.

Face recog­ni­tion cam­er­as are being tri­alled by three police forces in the UK – with soft­ware that can allegedly watch crowds at events and in sta­tions and poten­tially identi­fy known crim­in­als and sus­pects in a crowd and alert the police who will imme­di­ately move in and inter­cept.

Unfor­tu­nately, accord­ing to Big Broth­er Watch in the UK, these com­puter sys­tems have up to a 98% fail­ure rate. If the Home Sec­ret­ary is really sug­gest­ing that such dodgy soft­ware is going to be used to police our pub­lic spaces I would sug­gest that he ask his geeks to go back and do their home­work.

Do we really want to live in a coun­try where our every move­ment is watched by tech­no­logy, with the police wait­ing to pounce; a coun­try where if we are run­ning late or are hav­ing a stressed work day and seem “strange” to a per­son in a car hire com­pany, we can be tracked as a poten­tial ter­ror­ist; where chil­dren need to fear that if they ask awk­ward, if inter­ested, ques­tions of their teach­ers or raise fam­ily con­cerns with social care, they might already be on a watch list and their file is stack­ing up slowly in the shad­ows?

That way lies total­it­ari­ansim. I have been track­ing how a state can slide unthink­ingly into such a situ­ation for years, par­tic­u­larly look­ing at such warn­ings from his­tory as 1930s Ger­many and, over the last dec­ade, I have ser­i­ously begun to fear for my coun­try.

If these meas­ures go through Bri­tons could be liv­ing under SS-GB – the name of a book by the excel­lent spy writer, Len Deighton, in his envi­sion­ing of what the UK would have been like if the Nazis had suc­ceed in invad­ing dur­ing World War Two. The ulti­mate irony is that the acronym attrib­uted to MI5 at inter­na­tion­al intel­li­gence con­fer­ences way back in the 1990s used to be UK SSUK Secur­ity Ser­vice. I hear it has changed now….

Crosstalk debate on Russiagate

A recent debate about “Rus­siagate” on RT’s Crosstalk show, with CIA whis­tleblower, John Kiriakou, and former US dip­lo­mat, James Jat­ras, along with host Peter Lav­elle.

Debunk­ing some of the wilder intel­li­gence claims.….

Crosstalk on “Rus­siagate” from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

CIA and MI5 hacking our “Internet of Things”

Yet again Wikileaks has come good by expos­ing just how much we are being spied upon in this brave new digit­al world — the Vault 7 release has provided the proof for what many of us already knew/suspected — that our smart gad­gets are little spy devices.

Here are a couple of inter­views I did for the BBC and RT on the sub­ject:

BBCCIA and MI5 Hack our TVs from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

And:

Wikileaks release info re CIA/MI5 hacks 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:

Head of MI5 goes public

Andrew_ParkerFor the first time a serving head of a major intel­li­gence ser­vice in the UK, Andrew Park­er the Dir­ect­or Gen­er­al of the UK domest­ic Secur­ity Ser­vice, has giv­en an inter­view to a nation­al news­pa­per.

Inter­est­ingly, he gave this inter­view to The Guard­i­an, the paper that has won awards for pub­lish­ing a num­ber of the Edward Snowden dis­clos­ures about endem­ic illeg­al spy­ing and, for its pains, had its com­puters ritu­ally smashed up by the powers that be.

The tim­ing was also inter­est­ing — only two weeks ago the Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Tribunal (the only leg­al body that can actu­ally invest­ig­ate alleg­a­tions of spy crime in the UK and which has so far been an unex­cep­tion­al cham­pi­on of their prob­ity) broke ranks to assert that the UK spies have been illeg­ally con­duct­ing mass sur­veil­lance for 17 years — from 1998 to 2015.

This we could all deduce from the dis­clos­ures of a cer­tain Edward Snowden in 2013, but it’s good to have it offi­cially con­firmed.

Yet at the same time the much-derided Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Bill has been oil­ing its way through the Par­lia­ment­ary sys­tem, with the cul­min­a­tion this week.

This “Snoop­ers’ Charter”, as it is known, has been repeatedly and fer­vently rejec­ted for years.

It has been ques­tioned in Par­lia­ment, chal­lenged in courts, and soundly con­demned by former intel­li­gence insiders, tech­nic­al experts, and civil liber­ties groups, yet it is the walk­ing dead of UK legis­la­tion — noth­ing will kill it. The Zom­bie keeps walk­ing.

It will kill all notion of pri­vacy — and without pri­vacy we can­not freely write, speak, watch, read, activ­ate, or res­ist any­thing future gov­ern­ments choose to throw at us. Only recently I read an art­icle about the pos­sib­il­ity of Face­book assess­ing someone’s phys­ic­al or men­tal health — poten­tially lead­ing to all sorts of out­comes includ­ing get­ting a job or rent­ing a flat.

And this dove­tails into the early Snowden dis­clos­ure of the pro­gramme PRISM — the com­pli­city of the inter­net mega­corps — as well as the secret back doors what were built into them.

It will be the end of demo­cracy as we (sort of ) know it today. And, as we know from the Snowden dis­clos­ures, what hap­pens in the UK will impact not just Europe but the rest of the world.

So how does this all link into the MI5 head honcho’s first live inter­view?  Well, the tim­ing was inter­est­ing — ahead of the Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Bill passing oleagin­ously into law and with the ongo­ing demon­isa­tion of Rus­sia.

Here is an inter­view I gave to RT about some of these issues:

Com­ment­ary on MI5’s first nwspa­per inter­view from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

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.

Fight for your Right to Privacy

A recent talk I gave to the excel­lent Spark​.me con­fer­ence in beau­ti­ful Montenegro:

Annie Machon at SparkMe con­fer­ence 2016 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

The Chilcot Report about the Iraq War

Here is an inter­view I did yes­ter­day about the long-awaited Chil­cot Report into the cluster­fuck that was and is Iraq:

The Chil­cot Report on the Iraq War from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Parliamentary Evidence on the UK Investigatory Powers Bill

My writ­ten evid­ence to the Scru­tiny Com­mit­tee in the UK Houses of Par­lia­ment that is cur­rently examin­ing the much-dis­puted Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Bill (IP):

1. My name is Annie Machon and I worked as an intel­li­gence officer for the UK’s domest­ic Secur­ity Ser­vice, com­monly referred to as MI5, from early 1991 until late 1996. I resigned to help my part­ner at the time, fel­low intel­li­gence officer Dav­id Shayler, expose a num­ber of instances of crime and incom­pet­ence we had wit­nessed dur­ing our time in the ser­vice.

2. I note that the draft IP Bill repeatedly emphas­ises the import­ance of demo­crat­ic and judi­cial over­sight of the vari­ous cat­egor­ies of intrus­ive intel­li­gence gath­er­ing by estab­lish­ing an Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Com­mis­sion­er as well as sup­port­ing Judi­cial Com­mis­sion­ers. How­ever, I am con­cerned about the real and mean­ing­ful applic­a­tion of this over­sight.

3. While in the Ser­vice in the 1990s we were gov­erned by the terms of the Inter­cep­tion of Com­mu­nic­a­tions Act 1985 (IOCA), the pre­curs­or to RIPA, which provided for a sim­il­ar sys­tem of applic­a­tions for a war­rant and min­is­teri­al over­sight.

4. I would like to sub­mit evid­ence that the sys­tem did not work and could be manip­u­lated from the inside.

5. I am aware of at least two instances of this dur­ing my time in the ser­vice, which were cleared for pub­lic­a­tion by MI5 in my 2005 book about the Shayler case, “Spies Lies, and Whis­tleblowers”, so my dis­cuss­ing them now is not in breach of the Offi­cial Secrets Act. I would be happy to provide fur­ther evid­ence, either writ­ten or in per­son, about these abuses.

6. My con­cern about this draft Bill is that while the over­sight pro­vi­sions seem to be strengthened, with approv­al neces­sary from both the Sec­ret­ary of State and a Judi­cial Com­mis­sion­er, the interi­or pro­cess of applic­a­tion for war­rants will still remain opaque and open to manip­u­la­tion with­in the intel­li­gence agen­cies.

7. The applic­a­tion pro­cess for a war­rant gov­ern­ing inter­cep­tion or inter­fer­ence involved a case being made in writ­ing by the intel­li­gence officer in charge of an invest­ig­a­tion. This then went through four lay­ers of man­age­ment, with all the usu­al redac­tions and fin­ess­ing, before a final sum­mary was draf­ted by H Branch, signed by the DDG, and then dis­patched to the Sec­ret­ary of State. So the min­is­ter was only ever presen­ted with was a sum­mary of a sum­mary of a sum­mary of a sum­mary of the ori­gin­al intel­li­gence case.

8. Addi­tion­ally, the ori­gin­al intel­li­gence case could be erro­neous and mis­lead­ing. The pro­cess of writ­ing the war­rant applic­a­tion was merely a tick box exer­cise, and officers would routinely note that such intel­li­gence could only be obtained by such intrus­ive meth­ods, rather than explor­ing all open source options first. The reval­id­a­tion pro­cess could be even more cava­lier.

9. When prob­lems with this sys­tem were voiced, officers were told to not rock the boat and just fol­low orders. Dur­ing the annu­al vis­it by the Intel­li­gence Inter­cept Com­mis­sion­er, those with con­cerns were banned from meet­ing him.

10. Thus I have con­cerns about the real­ist­ic power of the over­sight pro­vi­sions writ­ten into this Bill and would urge an addi­tion­al pro­vi­sion. This would estab­lish an effect­ive chan­nel whereby officers with con­cerns can give evid­ence dir­ectly and in con­fid­ence to the Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Com­mis­sion­er in the expect­a­tion that a prop­er invest­ig­a­tion will be con­duc­ted and with no reper­cus­sions to their careers inside the agen­cies. Here is a link to a short video I did for Oxford Uni­ver­sity three years ago out­lining these pro­pos­als:

11. This, in my view, would be a win-win scen­ario for all con­cerned. The agen­cies would have a chance to improve their work prac­tices, learn from mis­takes, and bet­ter pro­tect nation­al secur­ity, as well as avoid­ing the scan­dal and embar­rass­ment of any future whis­tleblow­ing scan­dals; the officers with eth­ic­al con­cerns would not be placed in the invi­di­ous pos­i­tion of either becom­ing com­pli­cit in poten­tially illeg­al acts by “just fol­low­ing orders” or risk­ing the loss of their careers and liberty by going pub­lic about their con­cerns.

12. I would also like to raise the pro­por­tion­al­ity issue. It strikes me that bulk inter­cept must surely be dis­pro­por­tion­ate with­in a func­tion­ing and free demo­cracy, and indeed can actu­ally harm nation­al secur­ity. Why? Because the use­ful, indeed cru­cial, intel­li­gence on tar­gets and their asso­ci­ates is lost in the tsunami of avail­able inform­a­tion. Indeed this seems to have been the con­clu­sion of every inquiry about the recent spate of “lone wolf” and ISIS-inspired attacks across the West – the tar­gets were all vaguely known to the author­it­ies but resources were spread too thinly.

13. In fact all that bulk col­lec­tion seems to provide is con­firm­a­tion after the fact of a suspect’s involve­ment in a spe­cif­ic incid­ent, which is surely spe­cific­ally police evid­en­tial work. Yet the jus­ti­fic­a­tion for the invas­ive inter­cept and inter­fer­ence meas­ures laid out in the Bill itself is to gath­er vital inform­a­tion ahead of an attack in order to pre­vent it – the very defin­i­tion of intel­li­gence. How is this pos­sible if the sheer scale of bulk col­lec­tion drowns out the vital nug­gets of intel­li­gence?

14. Finally, I would like to raise the point that the phrase “nation­al secur­ity” has nev­er been defined for leg­al pur­poses in the UK. Surely this should be the very first step neces­sary before for­mu­lat­ing the pro­posed IP Bill? Until we have such a leg­al defin­i­tion, how can we for­mu­late new and intrus­ive laws in the name of pro­tect­ing an undefined and neb­u­lous concept, and how can we judge that the new law will thereby be pro­por­tion­ate with­in a demo­cracy?

Webstock in New Zealand

Webstock_2016_2I just want to say a huge thank you to the organ­isers of the 10th Web­stock Fest­iv­al in New Zea­l­and earli­er this month — def­in­itely worth the inter­min­able flights.

This is a tech-focused con­fer­ence that very much looks at the big­ger pic­ture and joins a whole num­ber of dif­fer­ent soci­et­al dots.

Plus they look after their “inspir­a­tion­al speak­ers” exceed­ingly well, with scary coach trips out of Wel­ling­ton and up the cliffs, a chance to appre­ci­ate the finer aspects of bowl­ing at a NZ work­ing men’s club, and a rip-roar­ing party at the end of the fest­iv­al. It was great to have the time to chat with so many amaz­ing people.

Oh, and I exper­i­enced my first earth­quake — 5.7 on the Richter Scale. Slightly dis­tant, but still impress­ive when you’re in a sway­ing 5th floor hotel room.  I ini­tially thought a bomb might have gone off in the base­ment.…  Thank­fully, NZ hotels are made of pli­able, if stern, stuff.

I was also shunted on to Radio New Zea­l­and for a half hour inter­view, dis­cuss­ing whis­tleblowers, spies, drugs and sur­veil­lance.  Here it is — it was fun to do — so thank you NZ.

MI5 officer has evidence of torture?

Well, this story is inter­est­ing me extremely, and for the obvi­ous as well as the per­haps more arcanely leg­al reas­ons.

Appar­ently a former seni­or MI5 officer is ask­ing per­mis­sion to give evid­ence to the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in Par­lia­ment about the Secur­ity Service’s col­lu­sion in the US tor­ture pro­gramme that was the pyro­clast­ic flow from the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

I have long spec­u­lated about how people with whom I used to work, social­ise with, have din­ner with in the 1990s might have evolved from ideal­ist­ic young officers into people who could con­done or even par­ti­cip­ate in the tor­ture of oth­er human beings once the war on ter­ror was unleashed in the last dec­ade.

Dur­ing the 1990s MI5 abso­lutely did not con­done the use of tor­ture — not only for eth­ic­al reas­ons, but also because an older gen­er­a­tion was still knock­ing around and they had seen in the civil war in North­ern Ire­land quite how counter-pro­duct­ive such prac­tices were.  Intern­ment, secret courts, stress pos­i­tions, sleep depriva­tion — all these policies acted as a recruit­ing ser­geant for the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA.

My gen­er­a­tion — the first tasked with invest­ig­at­ing the IRA in the UK and Al Qaeda glob­ally — under­stood this.  We were there to run intel­li­gence oper­a­tions, help gath­er evid­ence, and if pos­sible put sus­pec­ted mal­efact­ors on tri­al. Even then, when eth­ic­al bound­ar­ies were breached, many raised con­cerns and many resigned.  A few of us even went pub­lic about our con­cerns.

But that is so much his­tory.  As I said above, I have always wondered how those I knew could have stayed silent once the intel­li­gence gloves came off after 9/11 and MI5 was effect­ively shang­haied into fol­low­ing the bru­tish Amer­ic­an over-reac­tion.

Now it appears that there were indeed doubters with­in, there was indeed a divided opin­ion. And now it appears that someone with seni­or­ity is try­ing to use what few chan­nels exist for whis­tleblowers in the UK to rec­ti­fy this.

In fact, my con­tem­por­ar­ies who stayed on the inside would now be the seni­or officers, so I really won­der who this is — I hope an old friend!

No doubt they will have voiced their con­cerns over the years and no doubt they will have been told just to fol­low orders.

I have said pub­licly over many years that there should be a mean­ing­ful chan­nel for those with eth­ic­al con­cerns to present evid­ence and have them prop­erly invest­ig­ated. In fact, I have even said that the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in Par­lia­ment should be that chan­nel if — and it’s a big if — they can have real invest­ig­at­ory powers and can be trus­ted not just to brush evid­ence under the car­pet and pro­tect the spies’ repu­ta­tion.

So this takes me to the arcane leg­al­it­ies I alluded to at the start. Dur­ing the Dav­id Shayler whis­tleblow­ing tri­als (1997−2003) all the leg­al argu­ment was around the fact that he could have taken his con­cerns to any crown ser­vant — up to the ISC or his MP and down to and includ­ing the bobby on the beat — and he would not have breached the Offi­cial Secrets Act. That was the argu­ment upon which he was con­victed.

Yet at the same time the pro­sec­u­tion also suc­cess­fully argued dur­ing his tri­al in 2002 in the Old Bailey that there was a “clear bright line” against dis­clos­ure to any­one out­side MI5 — (Sec­tion 1(1) OSA (1989) — without that organisation’s pri­or writ­ten con­sent.

The new case rather proves the lat­ter pos­i­tion — that someone with eth­ic­al con­cerns has to “ask per­mis­sion” to give evid­ence to the “over­sight body”.

Only in the UK.

Now, surely in this uncer­tain and allegedly ter­ror­ist-stricken world, we have nev­er had great­er need for a mean­ing­ful over­sight body and mean­ing­ful reform to our intel­li­gence agen­cies if they go off-beam. Only by learn­ing via safe extern­al vent­il­a­tion, learn­ing from mis­takes, reform­ing and avoid­ing group-think, can they oper­ate in a way that is pro­por­tion­ate in a demo­cracy and best pro­tects us all.

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.

Exile — ExBerliner Article

My most recent art­icle for the ExBer­liner magazine:

What is exile? Oth­er than a term much used and abused by many new expats arriv­ing in Ber­lin, dic­tion­ary defin­i­tions point towards someone who is kept away from their home coun­try for polit­ic­al reas­ons, either by regal decree in the past or now more prob­ably self-imposed. But there are many oth­er ways to feel exiled – from main­stream soci­ety, from your fam­ily, faith, pro­fes­sion, polit­ics, and Ber­lin is now regarded as a haven.

How­ever, let’s focus on the clas­sic defin­i­tion and a noble tra­di­tion. Every coun­try, no mat­ter how appar­ently enlightened, can become a tyr­ant to its own cit­izens if they chal­lenge abuses of power. Voltaire was exiled in Eng­land for three years and soon after Tom Paine, a former excise man facing charges for sedi­tious libel, sought refuge in France. More recent fam­ous exiles include Dav­id Shayler, the MI5 whis­tleblower of the 1990s who fol­lowed in Paine’s foot­steps pretty much for the same fun­da­ment­al reas­ons, yet Alex­an­der Litv­inen­ko, the KBG whis­tleblower of the same era, iron­ic­ally found safe haven in exile in the UK.

So, being an exile effect­ively means that you have angered the power struc­tures of your home coun­try to such an extent that oth­er coun­tries feel com­pelled to give you refuge, partly for leg­al or prin­cipled reas­ons, but also for polit­ic­al expedi­ency. The cur­rent most fam­ous exile in the world is, of course, Edward Snowden, stran­ded by chance in Rus­sia en route to polit­ic­al asylum in Ecuador.

What does the act of flee­ing into exile actu­ally feel like? It is a wild leap into an unknown and pre­cari­ous future, with great risk and few fore­see­able rewards. At the same time, as you leave the shores of the per­se­cut­ing coun­try, evad­ing the author­it­ies, avoid­ing arrest and going on the run, there is an exhil­ar­at­ing, intense feel­ing of free­dom – a sense that the die has very much been cast. Your old way of life is irre­voc­ably at an end and the future is a blank slate on which you can write any­thing.

After Shayler and I fled to France in 1997, for the first year of the three we lived in exile we hid in a remote French farm­house just north of Limoges – the nearest vil­lage was 2 kilo­metres away, and the nearest town a dis­tant thirty. We lived in con­stant dread of that knock on the door and the ensu­ing arrest. And that, indeed, even­tu­ally did catch up with him.

As a res­ult, for Shayler it meant the world grew increas­ingly small, increas­ingly con­fined. Ini­tially, when we went on the run, we were free to roam across Europe – any­where but the UK. Then, after the French courts refused to extra­dite him to Bri­tain in 1998 to face tri­al for a breach of the dra­coni­an UK Offi­cial Secrets Act, France became the only place he could live freely. If he had then traveled to any oth­er European coun­try, the Brit­ish would have again attemp­ted to extra­dite him, prob­ably suc­cess­fully, so he was trapped.

How­ever, there are worse places than France in which to find your­self stran­ded. As well as being one of the most beau­ti­ful and var­ied coun­tries in the world it felt par­tic­u­larly poignant to end up exiled in Par­is for a fur­ther two years.

It was also con­veni­ently close to the UK, so friends, fam­ily, sup­port­ers and journ­al­ists could vis­it us reg­u­larly and bring Shayler sup­plies of such vital Brit­ish staples as bacon and HP source. But he still missed the simple pleas­ures in life, such as being free to watch his beloved foot­ball team, or being able to watch the crappy late night com­edy shows that the Brit­ish end­lessly churn out. Des­pite these small lacks, I shall always remem­ber those years in France fondly, as a place of great­er safety, a lit­er­al haven from per­se­cu­tion.

Of course, all this was in the era before the stand­ard­ised European Arrest war­rant, when nation­al sov­er­eignty and nation­al laws actu­ally coun­ted for some­thing. Find­ing a secure place of exile now would be almost an impossib­il­ity in Europe if you home coun­try really wanted to pro­sec­ute you.

Many West­ern expats now talk of being “exiled in Ber­lin”, and they may indeed be self-exiled in search of a more sym­patico life style, a buzzy group of like-minded peers, work oppor­tun­it­ies or whatever. But until they have felt the full force of an extra­di­tion war­rant, before the fuzz has actu­ally felt their col­lars, this is real­ist­ic­ally exile as a life­style choice, rather than exile as a des­per­ate polit­ic­al neces­sity or, in Edward Snowden’s case, a poten­tially exist­en­tial require­ment.

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.