Keeping Abreast of Privacy Issues

In the wake of the Edward Snowden dis­clos­ures about endem­ic glob­al sur­veil­lance, the rather thread­bare old argu­ment about “if you have done noth­ing wrong and have noth­ing to hide, you have noth­ing to fear” has been trot­ted out by many Big Broth­er apo­lo­gists.

But it’s not about doing any­thing wrong, it’s about hav­ing an enshrined right to pri­vacy — as recog­nised in the Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights agreed in 1948.  And this was enshrined in the wake of the hor­rors of World War 2, and for very good reas­on.  If you are denied pri­vacy to read or listen, if you are denied pri­vacy to speak or write, and if you are denied pri­vacy about whom you meet and see, then free­dom has died and total­it­ari­an­ism has begun.

Those were the les­sons learned from the growth of fas­cism in the 1930s and 1940s.  If you lose the right to pri­vacy, you also lose the abil­ity to push back against dic­tat­or­ships, cor­rupt gov­ern­ments, and all the attend­ant hor­rors.

How quickly we for­get the les­sons of his­tory: not just the rights won over the last cen­tury, but those fought and died for over cen­tur­ies. We recent gen­er­a­tions in the West have grown too bloated on ease, too fin­an­cially fat and socially com­pla­cent, to fully appre­ci­ate the freedoms we are cas­u­ally throw­ing away.

body_armourSo what sparked this mini-rant? This art­icle I found in my Twit­ter stream (thanks @LossofPrivacy). It appears that a US police depart­ment in Detroit has just sent out all the tra­di­tion­ally vital stat­ist­ics of its female officers to the entire depart­ment — weight, height and even the bra size of indi­vidu­al female police officers have been shared with the staff, purely because of an email gaffe.

Well people make mis­takes and hit the wrong but­tons. So this may not sound like much, but appar­ently the women in ques­tion are not happy, and rightly so. In the still macho envir­on­ment of law enforce­ment, one can but cringe at the “josh­ing” that fol­lowed.

Put­ting aside the obvi­ous ques­tion of wheth­er we want our police officers to be tooled up like Rob­ocop, this minor débâcle high­lights a key point of pri­vacy. It’s not that one needs to hide one’s breasts as a woman — they are pretty much obvi­ous for chris­sakes — but does every­one need to know the spe­cif­ics, or is that per­son­al inform­a­tion one step too far? And as for a woman’s weight, don’t even go there.….

So these cops in Detroit, no doubt all up-stand­ing pil­lars of their com­munit­ies, might have learned a valu­able les­son. It is not a “them and us” situ­ation — the “them” being “ter­ror­ists”, act­iv­ists, com­mun­ists, lib­er­als, Teabag­gers — whatever the theme du jour hap­pens to be.

It is about a fun­da­ment­al need for pri­vacy as human beings, as the Duch­ess of Cam­bridge also dis­covered last year. This is not just about height, bra size or, god for­bid, one’s weight. This is about big­ger issues if not big­ger boobs. We all have some­thing we want kept private, be it bank state­ments, bonk­ing, or bowel move­ments.

How­ever, with endem­ic elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance, we have already lost our pri­vacy in our com­mu­nic­a­tions and in our daily routines — in Lon­don it is estim­ated that we are caught on CCTV more than 300 times a day just going about our daily busi­ness.

More import­antly, in this era of fin­an­cial, eco­nom­ic and polit­ic­al crises, we are los­ing our free­dom to read and watch, to speak and meet, and to protest without fear of sur­veil­lance. It is the Stas­i’s wet dream, real­ised by those unas­sum­ing chaps (and obvi­ously the chapesses with boobs) in law enforce­ment, the NSA, GCHQ et al.

But it is not just the nation state level spies we have to worry about. Even if we think that we could not pos­sibly be import­ant enough to be on that par­tic­u­lar radar (although Mr Snowden has made it abund­antly clear that we all are), there is a bur­geon­ing private sec­tor of cor­por­ate intel­li­gence com­pan­ies who are only too happy to watch, infilt­rate and destabil­ise social, media and protest groups. “Psy­ops” and “astro-turf­ing” are ter­ri­fy­ing words for any­one inter­ested in human rights, act­iv­ism and civil liber­ties. But this is the new real­ity.

So, what can we do? Let’s remem­ber that most law enforce­ment people in the var­ied agen­cies are us — they want a stable job that feels val­ued, they want to provide for their fam­il­ies, they want to do the right thing. Reach out to them, and help those who do have the cour­age to speak out and expose wrong­do­ing, be it law enforce­ment pro­fes­sion­als speak­ing out against the failed “war on drugs” (such as those in LEAP) or intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers expos­ing war crimes, illeg­al sur­veil­lance and tor­ture.

Thomas_PaineBut also have the cour­age to protest and throw the tired old argu­ment back in the faces of the secur­ity proto-tyr­ants. This is what the found­ing fath­ers of the USA did: they risked being hanged as trait­ors by the Brit­ish Crown in 1776, yet they still made a stand. Using the “sedi­tious” writ­ings of Tom Paine, who ended up on the run from the UK, they had the cour­age to speak out, meet up and fight for what they believed in, and they pro­duced a good first attempt at a work­able demo­cracy.

Unfor­tu­nately, the USA estab­lish­ment has long been cor­rup­ted and sub­ver­ted by cor­por­at­ist interests. And unfor­tu­nately for the rest of the world, with the cur­rent geo-polit­ic­al power bal­ance, this still has an impact on most of us, and provides a clear example of how the chan­ging polit­ic­al land­scape can shift the goal posts of “accept­able” beha­viour — one day your are an act­iv­ist wav­ing a plac­ard, the next you are poten­tially deemed to be a “ter­ror­ist”.

But also remem­ber — we are all, poten­tially, Tom Paine. And as the end­less, neb­u­lous, and frankly largely bogus “war on ter­ror” con­tin­ues to rav­age the world and our demo­cra­cies, we all need to be.

In this post-PRISM world, we need to take indi­vidu­al respons­ib­il­ity to pro­tect our pri­vacy and ensure we have free media. At least then we can freely read, write, speak, and meet with our fel­low cit­izens. We need this pri­vacy to be the new res­ist­ance to the creep­ing total­it­ari­an­ism of the glob­al elites.

Read the sem­in­al books of Tom Paine (while you still can), weep, and then go forth.….

With thanks to my moth­er for the title of this piece. It made me laugh.

The “Insider Threat”

As the old media pro­pa­ganda battle inev­it­ably heats up around the Edward Snowden case, I stumbled across this little Amer­ic­an news gem recently. The premise being that poten­tial whis­tleblowers are now deemed to be the new “insider threat”.

Well, the US spooks and their friends have already had a pretty good run through the “reds under the bed” of McCarthy­ism, polit­ic­al sub­vers­ives, illeg­als, Muslims and “domest­ic extrem­ists”, whatever the hell that really means leg­ally.  Now they’ve hit on anoth­er threat­en­ing cat­egory to jus­ti­fy yet fur­ther sur­veil­lance crack­downs. What’s in a name.….

Firstly, this is old news resur­rec­ted in the wake of the Edward Snowden dis­clos­ures to scare people anew. Way back in 2008 the US gov­ern­ment wrote a report about “insider threats” and the per­ceived danger of the high-tech pub­lish­er Wikileaks and, in early 2010 the report was leaked to the very same organ­isa­tion.

Wikileaks1In 2008 the US gov­ern­ment strategy was to expose a Wikileaks source so that oth­ers would be deterred from using the con­duit in future. Well that did­n’t hap­pen — Wikileaks tech­no­lo­gic­ally out­paced the lum­ber­ing, bru­tish might of the US and syco­phant­ic West­ern intel­li­gence agen­cies.  The unfor­tu­nate Brad­ley Man­ning was exposed by an FBI snitch, Adri­an Lamo, rather than from any tech­nic­al fail­ure of the Wikileaks sub­mis­sion sys­tem.

What did occur was a mus­cu­lar dis­play of glob­al cor­por­at­ism, with nation after nation capit­u­lat­ing to take down the Wikileaks site, but mir­ror sites sur­vived that poin­ted to Switzer­land (which has a strong tra­di­tion of dir­ect demo­cracy, self defence and free speech and which remains stead­fastly inde­pend­ent from inter­na­tion­al dip­lo­mat­ic circle jerks the UN, NATO, and such like.

On top of that, all major fin­an­cial chan­nels stopped dona­tions to Wikileaks — an act now been deemed to be mani­festly illeg­al in some coun­tries.

Now, in the wake of the Man­ning and Snowden dis­clos­ures, the US main­stream media appears, inev­it­ably, to be try­ing to con­flate the cases of known trait­ors with, you’ve guessed it, bona fide whis­tleblowers.

Cases such as Ald­rich Ames and Robert Hanssen, who betrayed their coun­tries by selling secrets to an enemy power — the Soviet Uni­on — in an era of exist­en­tial threat. They were trait­ors to be pro­sec­uted under the US Espi­on­age Act (1917) — that is what it was designed for.

This has noth­ing what­so­ever to do with the cur­rent whis­tleblower cases and is just so much basic neuro-lin­guist­ic pro­gram­ming. *Yawn*. Do people really fall for that these days?

This is a tired old tac­tic much used and abused in the offi­cially secret UK, and the USA has learned well from its former colo­ni­al mas­ter — so much for 1776 and the con­sti­tu­tion.

How­ever, in the CBS inter­view men­tioned above it was subtly done — at least for a US broad­cast — with the com­ment­at­or sound­ing reas­on­able but with the imagery telling a very dif­fer­ent story.

In my view this con­fla­tion exposes a dark hypo­crisy at the heart of the mod­ern mil­it­ary-secur­ity com­plex. In the old days the “good­ies” and “bad­dies” were simplist­ic­ally demarc­ated in the minds of the pub­lic: free West good; total­it­ari­an East bad. This fol­lowed the main­stream pro­pa­ganda of the day, and those who worked for the oppos­i­tion — and the Soviet Uni­on gave the US/UK intel­li­gence axis a good run for its money — were pro­sec­uted as trait­ors.  Unless, of course, they emerged from the rul­ing class, when they were allowed to slip away and evade justice.

And of course many of us remem­ber the scan­dal of the Rus­si­an spy ring that was exposed in 2010 — many indi­vidu­als who had illeg­ally been infilt­rated into the US for dec­ades. Yet, when they were caught and exposed, what happened?  A deal was struck between the US and Rus­sia and they were just sent home.

No such lib­er­al­ity is shown to true mod­ern-day whis­tleblowers. Quite the oppos­ite, with the UK and the US will­ing to breach all estab­lished dip­lo­mat­ic pro­to­cols to hunt down their quarry. This des­pite the fact that the whis­tleblowers are lib­er­at­ing inform­a­tion about the illeg­al­ity of our own gov­ern­ments to empower all of us to act as informed cit­izens, and des­pite the fact that they are expos­ing glob­al-level crimes.

Bradley_Manning_2Brad­ley Man­ning and Edward Snowden have risked their lives to expose the fact that we are liv­ing under a glob­al police state and that our mil­it­ary and intel­li­gence agen­cies are run­ning amok across the plan­et, with CIA kill lists, rendi­tions, tor­ture, wars, drone strikes and dirty tricks.

Yet the West is not offi­cially at war, nor is it facing an exist­en­tial threat as it did dur­ing the Second World War or the so-called Cold War.  Des­pite this, the US has used the Espi­on­age Act (1917) more times in the last 5 years than over the pre­ced­ing cen­tury. Is it sud­denly infes­ted with spies?

Well, no.  But it is sud­denly full of a new digit­al gen­er­a­tion, which has grown up with the assump­tion that the inter­net is free, and which wants to guar­an­tee that it will remain free without Big Broth­er watch­ing over their shoulders.  Tal­en­ted indi­vidu­als who end up work­ing for the spy agen­cies will inev­it­ably be per­turbed by pro­grammes such as PRISM and TEMPORA. Law­yers, act­iv­ists and geeks have been warn­ing about this for the last two dec­ades.

By 1911 the UK had already put in place not only the proto-MI5, but also then added the first Offi­cial Secrets Act (OSA) to pro­sec­ute real trait­ors ahead of the First World War. The UK updated the OSA in 1989 spe­cific­ally to sup­press whis­tleblow­ing. The US has learned these leg­al sup­pres­sion les­sons well, not least by shred­ding its con­sti­tu­tion with the Pat­ri­ot Act.

How­ever, it has neg­lected to update its law against whis­tleblowers, fall­ing back instead onto the hoary old 1917 Espi­on­age Act — as I said before, more times in the past five years than over the last cen­tury.

This is indeed a war on whis­tleblowers and truth-tell­ers, noth­ing more, noth­ing less.

What are they so afraid of? Ideal­ists who believe in the old demo­crat­ic con­sti­tu­tions? The Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights and oth­er such fuddy-duddy con­cepts?

Or could the real enemy be the bene­fi­ciar­ies of the whis­tleblowers? When the US gov­ern­ment says that Man­ning or Snowden have aided the enemy, do they, could they, mean we the people?

The answer to that would logic­ally be a resound­ing “yes”. Which leads to anoth­er ques­tion: what about the nation states — China, Rus­sia, Iran — that we have been told repeatedly over the last few years are hack­ing and spy­ing on us?

The phrase “pot and kettle” springs to mind. There are no good­ies and bad­dies any more. Indeed, all that remains is out­right and shock­ing hypo­crisy.

Snowden has laid bare the fact that the US and its vas­sals are the most flag­rant prot­ag­on­ists in this cyber­war, even as our gov­ern­ments tell us that we must give up basic human rights such as pri­vacy, to pro­tect us from the glob­al threat of ter­ror­ism (while at the same time arm­ing and fund­ing our so-called ter­ror­ist enemies).

Yet whis­tleblowers who bravely step up and tell us our gov­ern­ments are com­mit­ting war crimes, that we are being spied on, that we live under Orwellian sur­veil­lance, are now the people being pro­sec­uted for espi­on­age, not the “real” spies and cer­tainly not the war crim­in­als.

In the CBS inter­view, former US Gen­er­al Michael Hay­den, ex-head of the CIA and NSA asked: “what kind of mor­al judge­ment does it take for someone to think that their view trumps that of two pres­id­ents, the Con­gress and Sen­ate, the court sys­tem and 35,000 co-work­ers at the NSA?”

Er, per­haps someone who does not want to col­lude in the most stark examples of glob­al war crimes and illeg­al sur­veil­lance? And per­haps someone who believes that the Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights was set up for a reas­on after the hor­rors of the Second World War?

When the rule of law breaks down, who is the real crim­in­al?

What we are wit­ness­ing is a gen­er­a­tion­al clash, not a clash of ideo­lo­gies. The old­sters still be believe in the Cold War nar­rat­ive (or even “cow­boys and Indi­ans”?) of good­ies, bad­dies and exist­en­tial threats. The digit­al gen­er­a­tions have grown up in the wake of 9/11 and all the asso­ci­ated gov­ern­ment­al over-reac­tion — war crimes go unre­por­ted and untried, real civil liber­ties are an his­tor­ic arte­fact, and the glob­al pop­u­la­tion lives under Big Broth­er sur­veil­lance. Why on earth is any­one, really, sur­prised when young people of hon­our and ideal­ism try to take a stand and make a dif­fer­ence?

We should be more wor­ried about our future if the whis­tleblowers were to stop com­ing for­ward.

Edward Snowden — the Globalisation of Whistleblowing

I have held back from writ­ing about the Edward Snowden NSA whis­tleblow­ing case for the last week — partly because I was immersed in the res­ult­ing media inter­views and talks, and partly because I wanted to watch how the story developed, both polit­ic­ally and in the old media. The reac­tion of both can tell you a lot.

That does not mean that I did not have a very pos­it­ive response to what Snowden has done. Far from it. The same night the story broke about who was behind the leaks, I dis­cussed the implic­a­tions on an RT inter­view and called what he did Whis­tleblow­ing 2.0.

Why did I say that? Well, it appeared from his ini­tial video inter­view with The Guard­i­an that he had learned from pre­vi­ous whis­tleblow­ing cases: he had watched the media and care­fully chosen a journ­al­ist, Glenn Gre­en­wald, with a good track record on the rel­ev­ant issues who would prob­ably fight his corner fear­lessly; his inform­a­tion clearly demon­strated that the intel­li­gence agen­cies were spin­ning out of con­trol and build­ing sur­veil­lance states; he care­fully chose a jur­is­dic­tion to flee to that might have the clout to pro­tect him leg­ally against the wrath of an over-mighty USA; and he has used his inter­net and media savvy to gain as much expos­ure and pro­tec­tion as quickly as pos­sible.

edward_snowdenPlus, he has been incred­ibly brave, con­sid­er­ing the dra­coni­an war on whis­tleblowers that is cur­rently being waged by the Amer­ic­an admin­is­tra­tion. There have been three oth­er NSA whis­tleblowers in recent years, all also talk­ing about endem­ic sur­veil­lance. All have paid a high per­son­al price, all dis­played great bravery in the face of adversity yet, sadly, none has achieved the same level of inter­na­tion­al impact. Were we just deaf to their warn­ings, or has Snowden played this bet­ter?

I think a bit of both.  He’s a geek, a young geek, he will have seen what happened to oth­er whis­tleblowers and appears to have taken steps to avoid the same pit­falls. He has gone pub­lic to pro­tect his fam­ily and pre­vent harm to his former col­leagues in any ensu­ing witch-hunt. And he has fled the coun­try in order to remain at liberty to argue his case, which is key to keep­ing the story alive for more than a week in the gad­fly minds of the old media. I know, I’ve been involved in the same pro­cess.

He has blown the whistle to pro­tect an Amer­ic­an way of life he thinks “worth dying for”. Yet he has broadened out the issues inter­na­tion­ally — what hap­pens in Amer­ica impacts the rest of the world. This, in my view, is cru­cial.  I have been writ­ing for years that the US is increas­ingly claim­ing glob­al leg­al hege­mony over the entire inter­net, as well as the right to kid­nap, tor­ture and murder for­eign­ers at will.

The Pat­ri­ot Act has not only shred­ded the US con­sti­tu­tion, it also now appar­ently has glob­al reach for as long as our craven gov­ern­ments allow it to. Now we know that this is not some abstract concept, the­ory or spec­u­la­tion — we are all poten­tially being watched

Edward Snowden argued his case very effect­ively in a live chat on The Guard­i­an news­pa­per web­site. It became clear that he is indeed a new gen­er­a­tion of whisteblower. This is not someone who wit­nessed one crime and imme­di­ately felt he had to speak out. This is a tech­nic­al expert who watched, over time and with dis­may, the encroach­ing Big Broth­er sur­veil­lance state that is tak­ing over the world via the NSA and its clones.

He is young, he had faith that a new gov­ern­ment would mean change, but in the end felt com­pelled to take con­sidered action when he wit­nessed the unac­count­able mis­sion creep, the lim­ited and inef­fec­tu­al over­sight, and the neutered politi­cians who rush to reas­sure us that everything is leg­al and pro­por­tion­ate when they really have no idea what the spy agen­cies get up to.

In both the US and the UK the spies repeatedly get away with lying to the notion­al over­sight bod­ies about mis­takes made, rules bent, and illeg­al oper­a­tions. Former seni­or CIA ana­lyst, Ray McGov­ern, has cata­logued the US lies, and here are a few home-brewed Brit­ish examples. The inter­net com­pan­ies have also been wrig­gling on the hook over the last week.

Snowden appears to be very aware not only of poten­tial state level sur­veil­lance but also the glob­al cor­por­at­ist aspect of the sub­ver­sion of the basic com­pan­ies most people use to access the inter­net — Google, Face­book, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, Skype et al. A few pion­eers have been dis­cuss­ing the need to pro­tect one­self from such cor­por­at­ist over­sight for years, and such pion­eers have largely been ignored by the main­stream: they’re “just geeks” they are “para­noid”, “tin foil hat” etc.

Edward Snowden has laid bare the truth of this glob­al­ised, cor­por­at­ist Big Broth­er state. From his pub­lic state­ments so far, he seems very alive to the inter­na­tion­al aspects of what he is reveal­ing. This is not just about Amer­ic­ans being snooped on, this affects every­body. We are all sub­ject to the bru­tal hege­mony that US securo­crats and cor­por­a­tions are try­ing to impose on us, with no rights, no redress under the law.

Big_Brother_posterWe have already seen this with the illeg­al US state take-down of Kim Dot­com’s secure cloud ser­vice, Megaup­load, with the glob­al per­se­cu­tion of Wikileaks, with Obama’s war on whis­tleblowers, with the NDAA, with the asym­met­ric extra­di­tion cases, with the drone wars across the Middle East and Cent­ral Asia.….  where to stop?

Snowden, through his incred­ible act of bravery, has con­firmed our worst fears. It is not just cor­por­a­tions that have gone glob­al — sur­veil­lance has too. And now, thank­fully, so too are whis­tleblowers.

What troubles me some­what is the way that the old media is respond­ing — even The Guard­i­an, which broke the story. Glenn Gre­en­wald is an excel­lent, cam­paign­ing journ­al­ist and I have no doubt what­so­ever that he will fight to the wire for his source.

How­ever, the news­pa­per as an entity seems to be hold­ing back the free flow of inform­a­tion. Char­it­ably, one could assume that this is to max­im­ise the impact of Snowden’s dis­clos­ures. Less char­it­ably, one could also see it as a way to eke out the stor­ies to max­im­ise the news­pa­per­’s profits and glory. Again, it’s prob­ably a bit of both.

How­ever, I do not think this will ulti­mately work in the best interests of the whis­tleblower, who needs to get the inform­a­tion out there now, and get the whole debate going now.

Plus, today it was repor­ted that a D‑Notice had been issued against the UK media last week. I have writ­ten before about this invi­di­ous self-cen­sor­ship with which the Brit­ish media col­lab­or­ates: seni­or edit­ors and seni­or mil­it­ary per­son­nel and spooks meet to agree wheth­er or not stor­ies may act against “nation­al secur­ity” (still a leg­ally undefined phrase), and ban pub­lic­a­tions accord­ingly. And this is “vol­un­tary” — what does that say about our press hold­ing power to account, when they will­ingly col­lude in the sup­pres­sion of inform­a­tion?

Plus, some of the key journ­al­ists at The Guard­i­an who were involved in the Wikileaks stitch-up are also now peck­ing away at the Snowden story. The old media are still con­tinu­ing to act as a bot­tle­neck of the free flow of inform­a­tion from whis­tleblowers to the pub­lic domain. In the post-Wikileaks era, this is a ret­ro­grade step. It is not for them to assess what the pub­lic needs to know, nor is it down to them to ana­lyse and second-guess why any whis­tleblower is doing what they are doing.

As Edward Snowden stated: “The con­sent of the gov­erned is not con­sent if it is not informed”.

Club of Amsterdam

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

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

The FISA/Echelon Panopticon

A recent inter­view with James Corbett of the Corbett Report on Glob­al Research TV dis­cuss­ing issues such as FISA, Ech­el­on, and our cul­tur­al “groom­ing” by the bur­geon­ing sur­veil­lance state:

The End of Privacy and Freedom of Thought?

I saw this chilling report in my Twit­ter feed today (thanks @Asher_Wolf): Tel­stra is imple­ment­ing deep pack­et inspec­tion tech­no­logy to throttle peer to peer shar­ing over the inter­net.

Des­pite being a clas­si­cist not a geek by train­ing, this sounds like I know what I’m talk­ing about, right?  Well some­what to my own sur­prise, I do, after years of expos­ure to the “hackt­iv­ist” eth­os and a grow­ing aware­ness that geeks may our last line of defence against the cor­por­at­ists.  In fact, I recently did an inter­view on The Keiser Report about the “war on the inter­net”.

Offi­cially, Tel­stra is imple­ment­ing this cap­ab­il­ity to pro­tect those fra­gile busi­ness flowers (surely “broken busi­ness mod­els” — Ed) with­in the enter­tain­ment and copy­right indus­tries — you know, the com­pan­ies who pimp out cre­at­ive artists, pay most of them a pit­tance while keep­ing the bulk of the loot for them­selves, and then whine about how P2P file shar­ing and the cir­cu­la­tion and enjoy­ment of the artists’ work is theft?

But who, ser­i­ously, thinks that such tech­no­logy, once developed, will not be used and abused by all and sun­dry, down to and includ­ing our bur­geon­ing police state appar­at­us? If the secur­ity forces can use any tool, no mat­ter how sor­did, they will do so, as has been recently repor­ted with the UK under­cov­er cops assum­ing the iden­tit­ies of dead chil­dren in order to infilt­rate peace­ful protest groups.

Writer and act­iv­ist, Cory Doc­torow, summed this prob­lem up best in an excel­lent talk at the CCC hack­er­fest in Ber­lin in 2011:

The shred­ding of any notion of pri­vacy will also have a chilling effect not only on the pri­vacy of our com­mu­nic­a­tions, but will also res­ult in our begin­ning to self-cen­sor the inform­a­tion we ingest for fear of sur­veil­lance (Nazi book burn­ings are so 20th Cen­tury).  It will, inev­it­ably, also lead us to self-cen­sor what we say and what we write, which will slide us into an Orwellian dysto­pia faster than we could say “Aaron Swartz”.

As Columbi­an Pro­fess­or of Law, Eben Moglen, said so elo­quently last year at anoth­er event in Ber­lin — “free­dom of thought requires free media”:

Two of my favour­ite talks, still freely avail­able on the inter­net. Enjoy.

Echelon Redux

Just a quick­ie, as this is some sort of hol­i­day sea­son appar­ently.  How­ever, this did annoy me.   In the same way that Pres­id­ent Obama signed the invi­di­ous NDAA on 31st Decem­ber last year, des­pite his prot­est­a­tions about veto­ing etc, it appears the US gov­ern­ment has sneaked/snuck through (please delete as appro­pri­ate, depend­ing on how you pro­nounce “tomato”) yet anoth­er dra­coni­an law dur­ing the fest­ive sea­son, which appar­ently fur­ther erodes the US con­sti­tu­tion and the civil rights of all Amer­ic­ans.

Yet anoth­er prob­lem for our benighted cous­ins across the pond, you might think.  But as so often hap­pens these days, bonkers Amer­ic­an laws can affect us all.

Yes­ter­day the Sen­ate approved an expan­sion of the terms of the For­eign Intel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Act (FISA).  This allows the US intel­li­gence ser­vices to hoover up, if you’ll par­don the mild intel­li­gence joke, the emails of god-fear­ing, law-abid­ing Amer­ic­ans if they are exchan­ging emails with pesky for­eign­ers.

Well of course the whole world now knows, post 9/11, that all for­eign­ers are poten­tial ter­ror­ists and are now being watched/snatched/extraordin­ar­ily rendered/tor­tured/assas­sin­ated with impun­ity.  In Europe we have had many people suf­fer this way and some have man­aged to achieve recog­ni­tion and resti­tu­tion.  That appears to do little to stop the drone wars and blood-let­ting that the USA has unleashed across the Middle East.

But the NDAA and the exten­ded FISA should at least rouse the ire of Amer­ic­ans them­selves: US cit­izens on US soil can now poten­tially be tar­geted.  This is new, this is dan­ger­ous, right?

Well, no, not quite, as least as far as the inter­cep­tion of com­mu­nic­a­tions goes.

The Ech­el­on sys­tem, exposed in 1988 by Brit­ish journ­al­ist Duncan Camp­bell and rein­vestig­ated in 1999, put in place just such a (leg­ally dubi­ous) mech­an­ism for watch­ing domest­ic cit­izens.  The sur­veil­lance state was already in place, even if through a back door, as you can see from this art­icle I wrote 4 years ago, which included the fol­low­ing para­graph:

ECHELON was an agree­ment between the NSA and its Brit­ish equi­val­ent GCHQ (as well as the agen­cies of Canada, Aus­tralia, and New Zea­l­and) whereby they shared inform­a­tion they gathered on each oth­ers’ cit­izens. GCHQ could leg­ally eaves­drop on people out­side the UK without a war­rant, so they could tar­get US cit­izens of interest, then pass the product over to the NSA. The NSA then did the same for GCHQ. Thus both agen­cies could evade any demo­crat­ic over­sight and account­ab­il­ity, and still get the intel­li­gence they wanted.

The only dif­fer­ence now is that FISA has come blast­ing through the front door, and yet people remain qui­es­cent.

Talking about totalitarianism at ETH‑0, January 2010

ETH-0_PosterIn Janu­ary I had the pleas­ure of speak­ing in The Neth­er­lands at the excel­lent geek­fest known as ETH‑0.  Rather than just banging on about the spooks, I thought it was time to take a step back and exam­ine what exactly we mean when we talk about total­it­ari­an­ism, police states, and how far down the road our coun­tries have gone.

I also wanted to drive home to an audi­ence, many of whom are too young to remem­ber the Cold War, what exactly it would be like to live under a police state with its endem­ic sur­veil­lance. 

And here’s the talk:

US Intelligence targets Wikileaks

WikileaksThe US gov­ern­ment has appar­ently been get­ting its knick­ers in a twist about the excel­lent Wikileaks web­site.  A report writ­ten in 2008 by US army counter-intel­li­gence ana­lys­ing the threat posed by this haven for whis­tleblowers has been leaked to, you’ve guessed it, the very sub­ject of the report.

Wikileaks was set up three years ago to provide a secure space for prin­cipled whis­tleblowers around the world to expose cor­rup­tion and crimes com­mit­ted by our gov­ern­ments, intel­li­gence agen­cies and mega-cor­por­a­tions.  The site takes great care to veri­fy the inform­a­tion it pub­lishes, adheres to the prin­ciple of expos­ing inform­a­tion very much in the pub­lic interest, and vig­or­ously pro­tects the identi­fy of its sources.

By doing so, Wikileaks plays a vital part in inform­ing cit­izens of what is being done (often illeg­ally) in their name.  This free flow of inform­a­tion is vital in a demo­cracy.

Well, no gov­ern­ment likes a clued-up and crit­ic­al cit­izenry, nor does it like to have trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity imposed on it.  Which led to the report in ques­tion.

As I have writ­ten before ad nauseam, whis­tleblowers provide an essen­tial func­tion to the healthy work­ing of a demo­cracy.  The simplist­ic approach would be to say that if gov­ern­ments, spies and big cor­por­a­tions obeyed the law, there would be no need for whis­tleblowers.  How­ever, back in the real, post‑9/11 world, with its end­less, neb­u­lous “war on ter­ror”, illeg­al wars, tor­ture, extraordin­ary rendi­tion and Big Broth­er sur­veil­lance, we have nev­er had great­er need of them.

Rather than ensur­ing the highest stand­ards of leg­al­ity and prob­ity in pub­lic life, it is far sim­pler for the powers that be to demon­ise the whis­tleblower — a fig­ure who is now (accord­ing to the Exec­ut­ive Sum­mary of the report) appar­ently seen as the “insider threat”.  We are look­ing at a nas­cent McCarthy­ism here.  It echoes the increas­ing use by our gov­ern­ments of the term “domest­ic extrem­ists” when they are talk­ing about act­iv­ists and pro­test­ers.

There are laws to pro­tect whis­tleblowers in most areas of work now.  In the UK we have the Pub­lic Interest Dis­clos­ure Act (1998).  How­ever, gov­ern­ment, mil­it­ary, and espe­cially intel­li­gence pro­fes­sion­als are denied this pro­tec­tion, des­pite the fact that they are most often the very people to wit­ness the most hein­ous state abuses, crimes and cor­rup­tion.  If they try to do some­thing about this, they are also the people most likely to be pro­sec­uted and per­se­cuted for fol­low­ing their con­sciences, as I described in a talk at the CCC in Ber­lin a couple of years ago.

Ideally, such whis­tleblowers need a pro­tec­ted leg­al chan­nel through which to report crimes, with the con­fid­ence that these will be prop­erly invest­ig­ated and the per­pet­rat­ors held to account.  Fail­ing that, sites like Wikileaks offer an invalu­able resource.  As I said last sum­mer at the Hack­ing at Ran­dom fest­iv­al in NL, when I had the pleas­ure of shar­ing a stage with Wikileaks founder Juli­an Assange, I just wish that the organ­isa­tion had exis­ted a dec­ade earli­er to help with my own whis­tleblow­ing exploits.

The Offi­cial Secrets Act (1989) in the UK, is draf­ted to stifle whis­tleblowers rather than pro­tect real secrets.  Such laws are routinely used to cov­er up the mis­takes, embar­rass­ment and crimes of spies and gov­ern­ments, rather than to pro­tect nation­al secur­ity.  After all, even the spooks acknow­ledge that there are only three cat­egor­ies of intel­li­gence that abso­lutely require pro­tec­tion: sens­it­ive oper­a­tion­al tech­niques, agent iden­tit­ies and ongo­ing oper­a­tions.

This US counter-intel­li­gence report is already 2 years old, and its strategy for dis­cred­it­ing Wikileaks (by expos­ing one of their sources pour encour­ager les autres) has, to date, mani­festly failed. Cred­it is due to the Wikileaks team in out-think­ing and tech­no­lo­gic­ally out­pa­cing the intel­li­gence com­munity, and is a ringing endorse­ment for the whole open source philo­sophy.

I’ve said this before, and I shall say it again: as our coun­tries evolve ever more into sur­veil­lance soci­et­ies, with big broth­er data­bases, CCTV, bio­met­ric data, police drones, vot­ing com­puters et al, geeks may be our best (and last?) defence against emer­ging Big Broth­er states.