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.

Terrorism, crime, or mental illness?

This morn­ing I was invited on to RT to do an inter­view about the break­ing story of a mass shoot­ing that occurred last night at a nightclub in Flor­ida in the USA.  You will, no doubt, have seen the head­lines by now — the biggest mass shoot­ing in mod­ern Amer­ic­an his­tory.

At the time, as the news was break­ing, I was some­what puzzled about what I could con­trib­ute — surely this was just anoth­er ghastly mas­sacre by the usu­al gun-tot­ing crazy that Amer­ica seems to spawn so reg­u­larly? After all, it seems that the Second Amend­ment is the last right stand­ing from the US con­sti­tu­tion, after all the oth­ers have been evis­cer­ated as a res­ult of the “war on ter­ror” and the social fric­tion caused by the fin­an­cial melt-down of the US eco­nomy?

How­ever, with a little thought on a mel­low European Sunday, I could see a num­ber of threads com­ing togeth­er, which I explored dur­ing the inter­view.  I would like to devel­op some of them fur­ther in this art­icle.

At the time I was inter­viewed, few hard facts had been con­firmed about the shoot­ing — merely a con­ser­vat­ive estim­ate of the num­ber of dead and wounded, and the fact the gun­man had been killed. Everything else was pure spec­u­la­tion. That did not stop much of the West­ern media from jump­ing to con­clu­sions — that this must be an ISIS-inspired attack and there­fore Muslim ter­ror­ism, by our cur­rent West­ern defin­i­tion.

I have a prob­lem with this cur­rent usage. When work­ing as an intel­li­gence officer with MI5 in the 1990s — at the height of the reli­gious civil war being waged between the Prot­est­ants and the Cath­ol­ics in North­ern Ire­land, our work­ing defin­i­tion was that “ter­ror­ism” was the use of viol­ence to achieve polit­ic­al aims. So “ter­ror­ism” has nev­er been a purely Muslim-ori­gin­ated concept, no mat­ter how the USA has chosen to define it since 9/11.

The reas­on I am mak­ing this rather obvi­ous point is that the USA, par­tic­u­larly, has always engendered some rather unsa­voury domest­ic “ter­ror­ist” groups, motiv­ated by Chris­ti­an or cult fan­at­icism — think the Branch Dav­idi­ans, or the Chris­ti­an fun­da­ment­al­ists mur­der­ing doc­tors and blow­ing up abor­tion clin­ics, or white suprem­acists ter­ror­ising black com­munit­ies or blow­ing up FBI offices such as the Oklahoma bomb­ing of 1995, which was ini­tially blamed on Middle East­ern ter­ror­ism. If that is not the use of viol­ence to achieve polit­ic­al aims, then our intel­li­gence agen­cies need to change the defin­i­tion of ter­ror­ism.

As the shoot­ings in the Pulse nightclub in Flor­ida spe­cific­ally tar­geted a LGBT crowd, it is just as feas­ible that the gun­man could have fun­da­ment­al­ist Chris­ti­an beliefs that urged him to tar­get this com­munity as some ISIS-inspired jihadi.  After all, we have seen sim­il­ar attacks in the UK, with the Lon­don nail bomber tar­get­ing gay nightclubs in 1999.

Yet the former is, to this day, widely seen as a mass killing, a “ram­page shoot­er” or a mad­man, and treated as a crim­in­al, where­as a Muslim com­mit­ting the same acts for sim­il­arly big­oted reas­ons is auto­mat­ic­ally deemed to be a ter­ror­ist. And we all know that “ter­ror­ism” is a unique form of “evil­tude” that imme­di­ately exposes the sus­pect  to great­er leg­al pen­al­ties at the very least and assas­sin­a­tion at the worst end of the scale, US cit­izen or not.

Ter­ror­ism is a crime — pure and simple — and it should be treated as a crime.  Muslim sus­pects of such crimes should not be kid­napped, tor­tured, held in isol­a­tion for years, or sub­ject to mil­it­ary tribunals with no real right to defence, any more than Chris­ti­an, athe­ist or any oth­er sus­pects should be.  Nor should spe­cific­ally “Muslim” ter­ror­ism be the excuse used to strip away all our basic and hard-won civic freedoms and human rights in our own coun­tries, yet that is what has been hap­pen­ing in the unend­ing “war on ter­ror”.

The UK went through this debate in the 1980s and 1990s — at the height of the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA and Loy­al­ist para­mil­it­ary bomb­ing cam­paigns across the UK — which was anoth­er reli­gious-based ter­ror­ist war, as I men­tioned before.  It also — at least from the PIRA side, received the bulk of its fund­ing from the Amer­ic­an Irish dia­spora. In fact, des­pite the peace pro­cess in North­ern Ire­land signed with the Good Fri­day Agree­ment in 1998, this fund­ing from Amer­ica only finally dried up in the after­math of 9/11.

And what of the third point in the title — the men­tal health issue? I men­tion this because there was a recent case in Lon­don of a knife-wield­ing man fren­ziedly attack­ing com­muters in an under­ground rail­way sta­tion last year. The report­ing at the time declared that he had been shout­ing “this is for Syr­ia” — as he attacked his fel­low trav­el­lers. At the time every­one assumed he was anoth­er rad­ic­al­ised jihadi car­ry­ing out a lone wolf attack.  Indeed, even people at the scene seemed con­vinced. One wit­ness cried out “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv”, a heart­felt sen­ti­ment that went vir­al over social media.

This story was head­line news in the UK at the time. The tri­al recently reached its con­clu­sion, and it now appears that the per­pet­rat­or had ser­i­ous men­tal health issues.  These may have latched onto jihadi ter­min­o­logy, but the motiv­a­tion was not ter­ror­ist­ic.

The guy prob­ably needed an earli­er inter­ven­tion by health pro­fes­sion­als, but he slipped through the cracks. That does not make him a ter­ror­ist though — no mat­ter what he said in his frenzy — and yet this con­clu­sion cer­tainly did not get the front page head­lines the ini­tial attack received.

Let us also look at the so-called “lone wolf” attacks that have happened across West­ern coun­tries over the last few years — in Canada, Lon­don, Aus­tralia, the USA, Den­mark — as well as the Par­is and Brus­sels attacks.  Many of the prot­ag­on­ists were already on the radar of the West­ern intel­li­gence agen­cies, but because they are drown­ing in a tsunami of inform­a­tion garnered for the mass sur­veil­lance of us all, these cru­cial nug­gets of real intel­li­gence were swamped.

Even worse, it appears that many of the people sub­sequently fingered as the per­pet­rat­ors had already been approached by the intel­li­gence agen­cies, as appears to be the case in Flor­ida too.

So, how does this all come togeth­er? There is not doubt that genu­ine psy­cho­paths or sad­ists are attrac­ted to ter­ror­ist as well as crim­in­al gangs to give free rein to their tend­en­cies — ISIS is an abso­lutely hor­ri­fy­ing example of this.  But the ideo­logy of such groups can also attract from a dis­tance the men­tally fra­gile, who can become use­ful idi­ots or delu­sion­al fol­low­ers, or vul­ner­able indi­vidu­als who can even be manip­u­lated by law enforce­ment. Add into the mix fun­da­ment­al­ist reli­gion, cult, or racial suprem­acy beliefs and it all gets too messy, too fast.

And yet.… all these groups use ter­ror to achieve their goals, but only a few are deemed to be ter­ror­ists rather than crim­in­als — and we all know now that any­one labelled a ter­ror­ist faces far high­er pen­al­ties than these oth­er cat­egor­ies of crime.

Intel­li­gence agen­cies are there to pro­tect our nation­al secur­ity — ie our nation’s integ­rity and its very exist­ence.  As I have said for many years now, such threats include immin­ent inva­sion, as Bri­tain faced dur­ing the Second World War, or glob­al anni­hil­a­tion as we all faced dur­ing the Cold War.

The ran­dom attacks of ter­ror­ist — or crim­in­al groups or men­tally ill people — cause trauma to the coun­try and the com­munit­ies in which they occur, but they do not threaten our country’s very sur­viv­al.

We need to cla­ri­fy our think­ing urgently, both around the defin­i­tions applied to such crimes and to the pro­por­tion­al­ity of the response we make. This will allow us to pre­serve and strengthen the concept of the rule of law and the notion of demo­cracy under which we all hope to live.

Spooks leave UK vulnerable to Russian mafia

Accord­ing to the Daily Mail this week, Rus­si­an secur­ity expert, Andrei Sold­atov, reck­ons the UK is wide open to the threat of the Rus­si­an mafia. He primar­ily blames the froid­eur that has blighted Anglo-Rus­si­an rela­tions since the Litv­inen­ko affair. How­ever, he also states that MI5 no longer has a role to play in invest­ig­at­ing organ­ised crime, and that has con­trib­uted to our vul­ner­ab­il­ity.

Nat­ur­ally res­ist­ing the tempta­tion to say that MI5’s involve­ment would not neces­sar­ily have afforded us any mean­ing­ful pro­tec­tion, I would say that this is down to a fun­da­ment­al prob­lem in how we organ­ise our response to threats to the nation­al secur­ity of this coun­try.

The secur­ity infra­struc­ture in the UK has evolved over the last cen­tury into a ter­ribly Brit­ish muddle. For his­tor­ic reas­ons, we have a pleth­ora of intel­li­gence agen­cies, all com­pet­ing for fund­ing, power and prestige: MI5, MI6, GCHQ, the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Spe­cial Branch (MPSB), spe­cial branches in every oth­er police force, mil­it­ary intel­li­gence, and HM Rev­en­ue and Cus­toms et al. Each is sup­posed to work with the oth­er, but in real­ity they guard their ter­rit­ory and intel­li­gence jeal­ously. After all, know­ledge is power.

MI5 and MPSB have always been the lead intel­li­gence organ­isa­tions oper­at­ing with­in the UK. As such, their cov­ert rivalry has been pro­trac­ted and bit­ter, but to the out­side world they appeared to rub along while MI5 was primar­ily focus­ing on espi­on­age and polit­ic­al sub­ver­sion and the Met con­cen­trated on the IRA. How­ever, after the end of the Cold War, MI5 had to find new tar­gets or lose staff, status and resources.

In 1992 the then Home Sec­ret­ary, Ken Clarke, announced that MI5 was tak­ing over the lead respons­ib­il­ity for invest­ig­at­ing IRA activ­ity on the UK main­land — work that had been done by MPSB for over 100 years. Vic­tory was largely cred­ited to clev­er White­hall man­oeuv­er­ing on the part of the head of MI5, Stella Rim­ing­ton. The Met were furi­ous, and the trans­fer of records was frac­tious, to say the least.

Also, there was a year’s delay in the han­dover of respons­ib­il­ity. So MI5 arti­fi­cially main­tained the per­ceived threat levels posed by polit­ic­al sub­ver­sion in order to retain its staff until the trans­ition was com­plete. This meant that there was no real case for the aggress­ive invest­ig­a­tion of sub­vers­ive groups in the UK – which made all such oper­a­tions illeg­al. Staff in this sec­tion, includ­ing me, voci­fer­ously argued against this con­tin­ued sur­veil­lance, rightly stat­ing that such invest­ig­a­tions were thereby flag­rantly illeg­al, but the seni­or man­age­ment ignored us in the interests of pre­serving their empires.

How­ever, in the mid-1990s, when peace appeared to be break­ing out in North­ern Ire­land and bey­ond, MI5 had to scout around for more work to jus­ti­fy its exist­ence. Hence, in 1996, the Home Sec­ret­ary agreed that they should play a role in tack­ling organ­ised crime – but only in a sup­port­ing role to MPSB. This was nev­er a par­tic­u­larly pal­at­able answer for the spooks, so it is no sur­prise that they have sub­sequently dropped this area of work now that the threat from “Al Qaeda” has grown. Ter­ror­ism has always been per­ceived as high­er status work. And of course this new threat has led to a slew of increased resources, powers and staff for MI5, not to men­tion the open­ing of eight region­al headquar­ters out­side Lon­don.

But should we really be approach­ing a sub­ject as ser­i­ous as the pro­tec­tion of our nation­al secur­ity in such a haphaz­ard way, based solely on the fact that we have these agen­cies in exist­ence, so let’s give them some work?

If we are really faced with such a ser­i­ous ter­ror­ist threat, would it not be smarter for our politi­cians to ask the basic ques­tions: what is the real­ist­ic threat to our nation­al secur­ity and the eco­nom­ic well­being of the state, and how can we best pro­tect ourselves from these threats? If the most effect­ive answer proves to be a new, ded­ic­ated counter-ter­ror­ism organ­isa­tion, so be it. We Brits love a sense of his­tory, but a new broom will often sweep clean.