Thought police

Here is the full interview I did recently for RT about the announcement of a new section of the UK Metropolitan Police dedicated to hunting down “internet trolls”.

And here is the clip used in the interview:

Thought Police from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

International Day of Privacy, Berlin Demo

The International Day of Privacy was celebrated globally on 31 August, with the cases of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden bringing extra energy and resonance to the subject.

I was invited take part in a demonstration in Berlin, culminating with a talk at the hugely symbolic Brandenburg Gate. Here’s the talk:

Another abuse of UK terrorism laws

First published on RT Op-Edge.

David Miranda had just spent a week in Berlin, before flying back to his home country, Brazil, via London’s Heathrow airport. As he attempted to transit on to his flight home – not enter the UK, mind you, just make an international connection –  he was pulled to one side by the UK’s border security officers and questioned for nine hours, as well as having all his technical equipment confiscated.

Glenn Greenwald and his partner David MirandaHe was detained for the maximum period allowed under the draconian terms of Schedule 7 of the UK’s Terrorism Act (2000).  His apparent “crime”? To be the partner of campaigning journalist Glenn Greenwald who broke the Edward Snowden whistleblowing stories.

Miranda’s detention has caused outrage, rightly, around the world. Diplomatic representations have been made by the Brazilian government to the British, UK MPs are asking questions, and The Guardian newspaper (which is the primary publisher of  Greenwald’s stories), has sent in the lawyers.

This episode is troubling on so many levels, it is difficult to know where to begin.

Magna_CartaFirstly, the Terrorism Act (2000) is designed to investigate, er, terrorism – at least, so you would think. However it is all too easy for mission creep to set in, as I have been saying for years.  The definition of terrorism has expanded to cover activists, placard wavers, and protesters as well as, now apparently, the partners of journalists.  The old understanding of due legal process is merely yet another quaint, British artefact like the Magna Carta and habeas corpus.

In the UK we now have secret courts covering all things “national security”, we have pervasive Big Brother surveillance as exemplified by GCHQ’s TEMPORA programme, and we have our spies involved in kidnapping and torture.

So Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act is just another small nail in the coffin of historic British freedoms. Under its terms, anyone can be pulled aside, detained and questioned by border security guards if they are “suspected of” involvement in, the commissioning of, or financial support for terrorism. The detainee is not allowed to speak to a lawyer, nor are they allowed not to answer questions, on pain of criminal prosecution. Plus their property can be indefinitely seized and ransacked, including computers, phones, and other gadgets.

Under Schedule 7 people can be questioned for a maximum of 9 hours. After that, the authorities either have to apply for a formal extension, charge and arrest, or release. According to a UK government document, 97% people are questioned for less than 1 hour then released and only 0.06% are held for six hours.  Miranda was held up until the last minute of the full nine hours before being released without charge.

Secondly, this abuse of power displays all too clearly the points that Edward Snowden has disclosed via Greenwald about a burgeoning and out-of-control surveillance state. The detention of Miranda displays all the obsessive vindictiveness of a wounded secret state that is buzzing around, angry as a wasp. Snowden has the protection of the only state currently with the power to face down the brute might of US “diplomacy”, and Greenwald still has the shreds of journalist protections around him.

Friends and partners, however, can be seen as fair game.

I know this from bitter personal experience. In 1997 former MI5 intelligence officer, David Shayler, blew the whistle on a whole range of UK spy crimes: files on government ministers, illegal phone taps, IRA bombs that could have been prevented, innocent people in prison, and an illegal MI6 assassination plot against Gaddafi, which went wrong and innocent people died.

Working with a major UK newspaper and with due respect for real national secrets, he went public about these crimes.  Pre-emptively we went on the run together, so that we could remain free to argue about and campaign around the disclosures, rather than disappearing into a maximum security prison for years. After a month on the run across Europe, I returned to the UK to work with our lawyers, see our traumatised families, and pack up our smashed-up, police-raided flat.

Annie_arrest_BWIn September 1997 I flew back with my lawyer from Spain to London Gatwick. I knew that the Metropolitan Police Special Branch wanted to interview me, and my lawyer had negotiated this ahead of my travel.  Despite this, I was arrested at the immigration desk by six heavies, and carted off to a counter-terrorism suite at Charing Cross police station in central London, where I was interrogated for six hours.

At that point I had done nothing more than support David. As another ex-MI5 officer I agreed that the spies needed greater oversight and accountability, but actually my arrest was because I was his girlfriend and going after me would be leverage against him. But is got worse – two days later Shayler’s two best friends and his brother were arrested on flagrantly trumped-up charges. None of us was ever charged with any crime, but we were all kept on police bail for months.

Looking back, our treatment was designed to put more pressure on him and “keep him in his box” – it was pure intimidation. Journalists and students were also threatened, harassed, and in one case charged and convicted for having the temerity to expose spy crimes disclosed by Shayler. To this day, none of the criminals in the UK intelligence agency has ever been charged or convicted.

So the threats and intimidation around the Snowden case, and the detention of Greenwald’s partner, are old, old tactics. What is new is the sheer scale of blatant intimidation, the sheer brutish force. Despite the full glare of global internet and media coverage, the US and UK spooks still think they can get away with this sort of intimidation. Will they? Or will we, the global citizenry, draw a line in the sand?

Oh, and let’s not forget the sheer hypocrisy as well – the US condemns Snowden for seeking refuge in Russia, and castigates that country for its civil rights record on certain issues. Be that as it may, the US establishment should look to the log in its own eye first – that one of its young citizens faces the death sentence or life-long incarceration for exposing (war) crimes against the global community as well as the country’s own constitution.

There is an internationally-recognised legal precedent from the Nuremburg Nazi trials after World War 2: “just following orders” is not a defence under any law, particularly when those orders lead to victimisation, war crimes and genocide.  The UK border guards, as well as the international intelligence communities and military, would do well to heed that powerful lesson from history.

So this overzealous use of a law to detain the partner of a journalist merely travelling through the UK should make us all pause for thought. The West has long inveighed against totalitarian regimes and police states. How can they not recognise what they have now become? And how long can we, as citizens, continue to turn a blind eye?

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 debacle 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.

Dutch festival OHM – Observe, Hack, Make

Today I am limbering up to attend the Dutch geek festival, Observe Hack Make (OHM 2013). A lot of talks from whistleblowers, scientists, geeks, futurists and bleeding edge tech people. The visionaries?

You decide – all talks will be live streamed and available afterwards. Enjoy!

The Secret Policemen’s Balls-Up

First published on RT Op-Edge, with the slightly more circumspect title: “British police secretly operated outside democratic control for years”. Also on HuffPo UK.

In the wake of the global impact of the ongoing Edward Snowden saga, a smaller but still important whistleblower story flared and faded last week in the UK media.

Peter Francis revealed that 20 years ago he had worked as an undercover cop in the Metropolitan Police Force’s secret Special Demonstrations Squad (SDS) section. In this role, Francis stated that he was tasked to dig up dirt with which the Met could discredit the family of murdered black teenager, Stephen Lawrence and thereby derail their campaign for a full and effective police investigation into his death.  The Lawrence family correctly believed that the original investigation had been fumbled because of  institutional police racism at that time.

The fact that secret police were posing as activists to infiltrate protest groups will come as no shock after the cascade of revelations about secret policemen in 2011, starting with DC Mark Kennedy/environmental activist “Mark Stone”.  Kennedy was uncovered by his “fellow” activists, and nine more quickly emerged in the wake of that scandal. This has resulted in an enquiry into the shadowy activities of these most secret officers, accusations that the Crown Prosecution Service suppressed key evidence in criminal trials, and a slew of court cases brought by women whom these (predominantly male) police officers seduced.

But the disclosures of Peter Francis plumb new depths.  In the wake of the Stephen Lawrence murder, many left-wing and anti-Nazi groups jumped on the bandwagon, organising demonstrations and provoking confrontations with the far-right British National Party.  There was a clash near the BNP’s bookshop in south London in 1993.  So, sure, the Met Police could potentially just about argue that the undercover officers were trying to gather advance intelligence to prevent public disorder and rioting, although the sheer scale of the operation was utterly disproportionate.

However, what is completely beyond the Pale is this apparent attempt to smear the traumatised family of a murder victim in order to derail their campaign for justice.

The role of undercover cops spying on their fellow citizens who are politically active is distasteful in a democracy. And the fact that, until the original scandal broke in 2011, the reconstituted SDS continued to target peace and environmental protest groups who offered no threat whatsoever to national security is disgraceful – it smacks of the Stasi in East Germany.

To make matters even worse, when details emerged two years ago, it became apparent that the SDS Version 2.0 was operating outside the formal hierarchy of the police, with what little democratic oversight that would provide. In fact, it emerged that the SDS been renamed the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) and had for years been the private fiefdom of a private limited company – the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).  Within a notional democracy, this is just gobsmacking.

So how did this mess evolve?

From the late 19th century the Metropolitan Police Special Branch investigated terrorism while MI5, established in 1909, was a counter-intelligence unit focusing on espionage and political “subversion”. The switch began in 1992 when Dame Stella Rimington, then head of MI5, effected a Whitehall coup and stole primacy for investigating Irish terrorism from the Met. As a result MI5 magically discovered that subversion was not such a threat after all – this revelation only three years after the Berlin Wall came down – and transferred all its staff over to the new, sexy counter-terrorism sections. Since then, MI5 has been eagerly building its counter-terrorism empire, despite this being more obviously evidential police work.

Special Branch was relegated to a supporting role, dabbling in organised crime and animal rights activists, but not terribly excited about either. Its prestige had been seriously dented. It also had a group of experienced undercover cops – known then to MI5 as the Special Duties Section – with time on their hands.

It should therefore come as little surprise that ACPO came up with the brilliant idea of using this skill-set against UK “domestic extremists”. It renamed the SDS as the NPOIU, which first focused primarily on potentially violent animal rights activists, but mission creep rapidly set in and the unit’s role expanded into peaceful protest groups. When this unaccountable unit was revealed it rightly caused an outcry, especially as the term “domestic extremist” is not recognised under UK law, and cannot legally be used as justification to aggressively invade an individual’s privacy because of their legitimate political beliefs and activism.

So, as the police become ever more spooky, what of MI5?

As I mentioned, they have been aggressively hoovering up the prestigious counter-terrorism work. But, despite what the Americans have hysterically asserted since 9/11, terrorism is not some unique form of “eviltude”. It is a crime – a hideous, shocking one, but still a crime that should be investigated, with evidence gathered, due process applied and the suspects on trial in front of a jury.

A mature democracy that respects human rights and the rule of law should not intern suspects or render them to secret prisons and torture them for years. And yet this is precisely what our spooks have been doing – particularly when colluding with their US counterparts.

Also, MI5 and MI6 have for years operated outside any realistic democratic oversight and control. Until this year, the remit of the Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament has only covered the policy, administration and finance of the spies. Since the committee’s inception in 1994 it has repeatedly failed to meaningfully address more serious questions about the spies’ role, and has been repeatedly lied to by senior spies and police officers.

The spooks are effectively above the law, while at the same time protected by the draconian Official Secrets Act. This makes the abuses of the NPOIU seem almost quaint. So what to do? A good first step might be to have an informed discussion about the realistic threats to the UK. The police and spies huddle behind the protective phrase “national security”. But what does this mean?

The core idea should be safeguarding the nation’s integrity. A group of well-meaning environmental protesters should not even be on the radar. And, no matter how awful, the occasional terrorist attack is not an existential threat to the fabric of the nation in the way of, say, the planned Nazi invasion in 1940. Nor is it even close to the sustained bombing of government, infrastructure and military targets by the Provisional IRA in the 1970s-90s.

Only once we understand the real threats can we as a nation discuss the necessary steps to take to protect ourselves effectively; what measures should be taken, what liberties occasionally and legally compromised, and what democratic accountability exists to ensure that the security forces do not exceed their remit and work within the law.

It is only by going through this process that can we ensure such scandals as the secret police will remain firmly in the past. And in the wake not only of Peter Francis’s confessions but the sheer scale of the endemic electronic surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden, this long-overdue national debate becomes ever more necessary.

“The House I Live In” – drug panel discussion

I recently represented LEAP at a panel discussion in London about the failed war on drugs after a screening of the excellent film The House I Live In, along with Steve Rolles of Transform and Niamh Eastwood of Release:

Oval Space Cinema Club: ‘The House I Live In’ – Panel Discussion from Oval Space on Vimeo.

Interview for the Release newsletter, “TalkingDrugs”

An interview I did on behalf of LEAP this week for the newsletter of the UK campaign, Release.

Release, run by the indefatigable Niamh Eastwood, does excellent work providing legal advice about drug issues, and campaigning for fairer and more compassionate drug laws.

The interview appeared in the campaign’s newsletter, “TalkingDrugs“.

Here’s the link, and here’s the text:

Q1 What led you into thinking that current drug policies on illicit drugs were failing?

My journey began when I was working as an intelligence officer for MI5 in the 1990s.  One of my roles was investigating terrorist logistics and working closely with UK Customs.  I learned then that trying to stop the flow of illicit material into the UK (whether drugs, weapons, or people) is like looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack.  Plus there is a huge overlap between the funding of organised crime and terrorist groups.

Over the last decade I have become a writer, commentator and public speaker on a variety of inter-connected issues around intelligence, the war on terror, whistleblowers, policing, and civil liberties.  To me, the war on drugs meshes very closely with all these topics.  Three years ago I was approached by LEAP to become a speaker, and then in March this year I became a member of the international board and also the Director of LEAP Europe in order to consolidate the organisation’s work here.

Q2 Do you think that there are barriers to police officers being honest about the effectiveness of their actions to combat the trade in illicit drugs and is the greater disquiet amongst those involved in law enforcement about current policies than is popularly perceived ?

Yes, absolutely, and it’s not just amongst the police but also the wider law enforcement community.

LEAP supporters, approaching 100,000 in over 90 countries around the world, include judges, lawyers, prison governors, customs and intelligence officers, and former drug czars.  Within all these professions there is a tacit understanding that you toe the conventional line.  In my experience, most people go into this type of work hoping not only to have an interesting job, but also to do some good and make a difference.  Many then see the social fall-out, or that friends, family or community are affected by the drug wars, and many serving officials do question what it is all about and what it is really achieving.

However, they are there to do a job, which is upholding and applying the law.  The cultural pressure within such groups can make it extremely difficult on many levels for them to speak out.

Any change to the international and national drug laws will have to come from the politicians within the UN and nationally.  LEAP increasingly contributes to the political debate and is building a groundswell of support internationally.   Most people today will know someone who has at least tried a currently illegal drug.  They also instinctively know this is mere social experimentation, relaxation or, at worst, a health problem.  And penalisation, imprisonment and a criminal record exacerbates rather than helps the situation.

Q3 Does the policing of drug possession impact the effectiveness of policing generally and what benefits do you think could stem from ceasing to use law enforcement to attempt to discourage drug use?

There are multiple strands to this issue: the diversion of police resources, the additional crime caused by prohibition that is not dealt with successfully, the diversion of resources from harm reduction programmes, the criminalisation of what are essentially health issues, and the disrepute that results for law enforcement.

The policing of drug possession takes away vast resources from investigating other crimes such as burglary, rape and murder.  Yet it is largely pointless – those with a drug dependency need health interventions, and there will always be replacements for any low-level dealers who are arrested and imprisoned.  If you arrest and convict a rapist, he will not be on the streets committing more rapes; but if you catch a drug dealer, you just create a job vacancy for which many will compete in ever more violent ways for a slice of an incredibly lucrative market.

The UK anti-prohibition advocacy group, Transform, estimates that even if just cannabis were legalised in the UK, an additional $1.6 billion would flow into the British economy every year.  While tax raised on a controlled and regulated cannabis trade is predicted to provide the bulk of this ($1.2 billion), $170 million would be saved from law enforcement, $155 million from the justice system, and $135 million from the prison system.

In the current economic situation, can the UK afford not to consider alternatives to the current drug war?

Also, as we have seen since the decriminalistion laws in Portugal since 2001 and Switzerland since 1994, the “peace dividend” by ending the war on drugs would not only see a drop in property crimes (about 50% of which are committed to fund drug dependencies), it could also be used to finance and extend harm reduction programmes.  As we have seen in the case of tobacco across the West, we do not need to ban a substance to reduce its use; education and treatment are far more effective.

Finally, illegal drugs are available to anyone who wants to buy them on the streets of the UK.  The increasing militarisation of the police to fight the war on drugs, the breakdown of civil liberties for the same reason (mirroring the war on terror), and the widespread flagrant flouting of the drug laws by large numbers of the population, thereby “making an ass of the law”, has led to a breakdown of trust and respect between the police and the policed. One of LEAP’s aims is to rebuild this trust, this social contract.

Q4 The impact on the safety of law enforcement personnel of the ‘war on drugs’ should be an issue for other membership organisations representing the sector, will you be reaching out to them to encourage campaigning on the issue?

Safety is certainly an issue, although we have been more fortunate in Europe than our colleagues in the USA, where the more prevalent gun culture leads to many more law enforcement deaths.  That said, gang violence is on the rise across Europe where organised crime gangs fight increasingly violent turf battles.

Mexico has been one of the worst hit countries in the world.  Since the ramping up of the war on drugs  almost six years ago, over 62,000 men women and children have been tortured and murdered in that country, and many of them had no involvement whatsoever in the drugs trade.  In fact, LEAP USA has just successfully participated in the Mexican Caravan for Peace, a group of activists and families highlighting the tragedy, that toured across the USA for a month to raise awareness and finished with a rally in Washington last week.

The increasing violence of the drugs trade and the militarisation of the response should be of concern to all law enforcers, membership organisations and allied groups working in the drugs sector.  We need to think urgently about how to avoid a similar spiral of violence in Europe.   LEAP is happy to reach out to such organisations to develop a more humane solution.

Q5 How would you like to see LEAP in Europe develop and will you be looking to lobby European policy makers in Brussels?

There are already LEAP speakers across most European countries.  We in LEAP see the organisation’s primary goal as educational.  We shall be working to build up speaking engagements for a wide variety of groups and audiences, including the political sector, as well as strengthening our media exposure.  We recognise the valuable work Release and other NGOs and advocacy groups are already doing across Europe, and hope that you will see that we offer a unique voice and pool of expertise that can be used to strengthen your work.

It is wonderful that so many organisations and indeed governments around the world (particularly in Europe and Latin America) are now focusing on exploring alternatives such as decriminalistion and harm reduction programmes.  Based on our professional experience, LEAP argues that we need, at very least, to consider the next logical step in the chain: controlled regulation of the drug market as we currently do with alcohol and tobacco.

Decriminalisation may help to reduce the harm for the drug users, but leaves the drug trade in the hands of increasingly violent global organised crime networks.  Only by removing the profit motive from this illicit trade can we end the involvement of the criminal element and all the attendant violence, and work to make the world safer for all.

The Scorpion Stare

I have written over the years about the encroaching surveillance state, the spread of CCTV and the increasing use of drones in our skies.  When the North East of England introduced talking CCTV cameras that could bark orders at passing pedestrians in 2008, I thought that we were fast approaching the reductio ad absurdum point – and indeed this subject has raised a wry laugh from audiences around the world ever since.

Recently I have been reading with dismay a slew of articles about the increasing corporatisation of the surveillance state.  First I stumbled across a piece describing Facebook’s latest innovation, Facedeal: cameras planted in shops and bars that will use the facial recognition and tagging abilities of FB to recognise you as a valued customer and offer you a discount, simply because you have signed up to this Big Brother app on Facebook.

Add this to the fact that Facebook is probably, well, an open book for to the entire US security apparatus, and you can see the potential abuse of this system.  We shall effectively be bribed to allow ourselves to be spied on.

Facedeal is being trialed in the US.  Some European countries, most notably Germany, have already stated that data recognition technology used even just for photo “tagging” is or could be deemed illegal. Germany specifically has regulations that allow Internet users control over their data. They are not going to like Facedeal.

Secondly, it was reported today that Google had patented intelligent image recognition technology.  Combine this capability with Googles Earth and Street, and we are potentially looking at a truly panopticon society.  The Germans are really not going to like that. (Nor indeed will certain of the French, including the man who earlier this year tried to sue Google after being photographed having a pee in his own front garden).

Thirdly, Boeing has triumphantly launched the concept of the drone swarm, operating with a hive mentality and upping the capabilities of military surveillance exponentially, while taking much of the risk out of any operation.

And finally, the Wikileaks story about TrapWire. This first emerged as yet another bonkers American scheme, where the footage from CCTV street cameras was being mainlined into the security apparatus. Subsequently, it has emerged via Wikileaks that Trapwire is also being used in other western countries, including the UK.

Not only can the securocrats watch you, they too are installing face recognition software that can identify you. While this may not yet be as accurate as the spies might wish, TrapWire has also installed predictive software that apparently can assess whether you are acting, loitering or walking in a suspicious manner.  So you could pre-emptively be assessed to be about to commit a crime or an act of terrorism and, no doubt, appropriately and pre-emptively “dealt with”.

All of which must be so reassuring to protest groups such as Occupy, which have been subject to massive CCTV surveillance in NYC and which have been labelled a “terrorist/extremist threat” in the City of London.

At the risk of sounding alarmist, we now all know what “being dealt with” in this era of anti-activist SWAT teams, drone strikes and kill lists can potentially entail.

So where does this leave us as concerned citizens?  It strikes me that we are being catapulted into some sci-fi dystopia beyond even Orwell’s wildest imaginings.  Any fan of modern thrillers and sci-fi will be familiar with the concept of integrated super-computers that can watch our every move via CCTV.

The latter is what TrapWire et al are working towards.  These new technologies remind me of a story line from a wonderful series of books called the The Laundry Files by Charles Stross.  These novels are a perfect of merging of Len Deighton’s laconic spy fiction, a la Harry Palmer, with the geek universe and beyond. And, at the risk of a spoiler, one of the story lines envisages a centralised and weaponised CCTV system, mainlining into the secret services, that can be turned on UK citizens if the balloon goes up. This system is codenamed the “Scorpion Stare”.

Sounds far-fetched? Well The Laundry Files are a rollicking good read, but do bear in mind not only that our CCTV systems may be centralised courtesy of TrapWire, but also that various law enforcement agencies in the UK are using micro-drones to spy on protesters, and that they have reportedly enquired if these drones could be weaponised…..

So it all depends on how you define the balloon, I suppose.

Published in The Huffington Post UK, 3 September 2012

The Report on BBC Radio 4 – the Death of Gareth Williams

A look at the forensic and police failures around the investigation of the still inexplicable death of intelligence officer, Gareth Williams, in London in 2010.

Here’s the link.

The Gareth Williams Inquest

What a mess, what a cover-up.  The inquest into the sad, strange death of Gareth Williams concluded yesterday, with the coroner raising more questions than she was able to answer.

It was also patently obvious that both MI6 and the Metropolitan Police Counter-Terrorism Squad (SO15) hampered the investigation, for the inevitable reasons of “national security”.

When will MI6 realise that it is not above the law?

My heart goes out to Gareth’s family.

Cops Take Pro-Legalization Message to UN War on Drugs Meeting

LEAP_logo

Law Enforcers Say Ending Prohibition Will Improve Global Security & Human Rights

VIENNA, AUSTRIA – Judges, prosecutors and jailers who support legalizing drugs are bringing their message to the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting next week in Vienna. At the U.N. session, which comes just days after the Obama administration stepped-up its attempts to counteract the emerging anti-prohibition sentiment among sitting presidents in Latin America, the pro-legalization law enforcement officials will work to embolden national delegations from around the world to push back against the U.S.-led failed “war on drugs.”

VanwicklerRichard Van Wickler, a currently-serving jail superintendent who will be representing Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) in Vienna, says, “World leaders who believe we could better handle drug problems by replacing criminalization with legal control are becoming less and less afraid of U.S. reprisal for speaking out or reforming their nations’ policies. And for good reason.”

Van Wickler, who has was named 2011’s Corrections Superintendent of the Year by the New Hampshire Association of Counties, explains, “Voters in at least two U.S. states will be deciding on measures to legalize marijuana this November. It would be pure hypocrisy for the American federal government to continue forcefully pushing a radical prohibitionist agenda on the rest of the world.”

In recent weeks, Presidents Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica and Felipe Calderon of Mexico have added their voices to the call for a serious conversation on alternatives to drug prohibition, causing U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to travel to Latin America this week in an unsuccessful attempt to quash the debate.

GierachFormer Chicago drug prosecutor James Gierach, recently a featured speaker at a conference in Mexico City last month attended by the first lady of Mexico and the former presidents of Colombia and Brazil, says, “The unending cycle of cartel violence caused by the prohibition market has turned a steady trickle of former elected officials criticizing prohibition into a flood of sitting presidents, business leaders and law enforcement officials calling for an outright discussion about legalization. It’s time for the U.S. and the U.N. to acknowledge that legal control, rather than criminalization, is a much better way to manage our drug problems. The world can have either drug prohibition, violence and corruption or it can have controlled drug legalization with safe streets and moral fabric, but it can’t have both.”

The UN meeting in Vienna is an annual opportunity for nations around the world to re-evaluate drug control strategies and treaties. More information about the meeting is here

In recent years, countries like Portugal and Mexico have made moves to significantly transform criminalization-focused drug policies into health approaches by fully decriminalizing possession of small amounts of all drugs. Still, no country has yet to legalize and regulate the sale of any of these drugs. Doing so, the pro-legalization law enforcers point out, would be the only way to prevent violent transnational criminal organizations from profiting in the drug trade.

Maria.KaramAlso attending the conference on behalf of LEAP will be former Brazilian judge Maria Lucia Karam and former UK MI5 intelligence officer Annie Machon.

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) represents police, prosecutors, judges, FBI/DEA agents and others who support legalization after fighting on the front lines of the “war on drugs” and learning firsthand that prohibition only serves to worsen addiction and violence. More info can be found here.

CONTACT:

Tom Angell: 001 202 557-4979 or media@leap.cc

Shaleen Title: 001 617 955-9638 or speakers@leap.cc

DoubleThink Disorder – a new pathology

An update is apparently due of the 1994 edition of the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders", the psychiatrists' bible that allows them to tick-box their patients into a disorder, and then, no doubt, prescribe Big Pharma industry drugs or an expensive form of therapy.  Anyone who has ever watched Adam Curtis's excellent "Century of Self" will be aware of the pathologising of society to the benefit of the psychiatric professions and far beyond.

I am not making light of serious mental illnesses requiring specialised and long term treatment such as bipolar, schizophrenia or chronic depression.  These are crippling and soul-destroying conditions and many families, including my own, have been touched by them.

RitalinBut I am concerned by the appalling Pharma-creep that has been going on over the last few decades where, for example, increasing numbers of children are labeled with ADHD and ladled full of Ritalin (which can also lead to a thriving black market in the onward sale of said drug). And we are apparently about to see ever more divaricating disorders added to the shrinks' bible.  

Kevin_and_PerryAs this recent article in The Independent states, stroppy teens will now have "oppositional defiance disorder", and adults who think of sex more than every 20 minutes are suffering from "hypersexual disorder". (How on earth will this be diagnosed – will potential sufferers have to keep a thought crime diary as they go about their daily lives? Management meetings could be so much more diverting as people break off to write an update every so often – although they might have to pretend they're playing buzzword bingo.)   And those suffering from shyness or loneliness will suffer from "dysthymia".  Well, as a classicist, I'm glad to see that ancient Greek still has a role to play in today's lexicon.

I know that such behavioural traits can be debilitating, but to pathologise them seems rather extreme – enough to give a person a complex…..

Ivory_tower2On another somewhat facetious note I was intrigued to see this doing the internet rounds recently.  It appeared to suggest that having a robust distrust of your government was also about to be pathologised as Anti-Government Phobia, which I presume would mean that vast swathes of the world's population were mentally ill.  However, I think the clue to the legitimacy of the piece was in the name of the supposed author: Ivor E. Tower MD…..

However, back to the point of this article. This was the paragraph in the Indie report that really got my goat:

"More worrying, according to some experts, are attempts to redefine crimes as illnesses, such as "paraphilic coercive disorder", applied to men engaged in sexual relationships involving the use of force. They are more commonly known as rapists."

So it appears that crime will now be explained away as a disorder.  

LEAP_logoBut, but, but…. the key point LEAPing out at me, if you'll forgive the clumsy link, is that this seems to be in direct, sharp contrast to how we deal with an immense and ongoing problem in the world today: namely the 50 year old failed "war on drugs".  In this phoney war millions of people across the world have been, and against all expert advice, continue to be treated as criminals rather than as patients.

Rather than rehash (sorry) all the well-known articles about why this war is such a failure on every conceivable front, let me just make three key points: prohibition will always fail (as this classic "Yes Minister" scene depicts), and the regulation and taxation of recreational drugs (in the same way as alcohol and tobacco) would be good for society and for the economy; it would decapitate organised crime and, in some cases, the funding of terrorism; and, most pertinently for the purposes of this article, it would make the use and possible abuse of recreational drugs a health issue rather than a criminal matter.

Many people at some point in their lives experiment with drugs such as dope, E, coke, or whatever and have fun doing so, just as many like to have a drink to unwind after work.  A small percentage will go on to develop medical problems.  

That is the crux of the argument here. Excessive abuse of drugs, both licit and illicit, is manifestly a health issue and yet some people are criminalised.  Compare and contrast the proposed new shrinks' bible, where what were formerly deemed to be crimes will now be seen as medical disorders.

Tony_BlairI would call this rank hypocrisy, but perhaps the shrinks can come up with a more high-brow name?  I propose Societal DoubleThink Disorder.  

The Bankers' Bonus being that it would conveniently (psycho)pathologise all our "peace-speaking" war-mongering politicians, "free market" monopolistic big businesses, and "publicly owned but private profit" banks.

Praise the Government and pass the Ritalin….

“Subversion” old and new

Abu_Qatada_CartoonAn interesting article in yesterday’s Telegraph by political commentator Peter Oborne about Abu Qatada.  This case has caused much sound and fury amongst the British political and media classes over the last couple of days.  Oborne’s article strips out the bombast and takes us back to basic principles – as did this other recent article in the Independent a day or two ago by Christina Patterson.

However, what really grabbed my attention in Oborne’s article was his reference to David Maxwell Fyfe, the British politician and lawyer who was tasked by Sir Winston Churchill to lay the foundations of the European system of human rights after the atrocities of World War Two – a period when the need for basic rights was seared into people’s minds.

Maxwell_FyfeWhile Maxwell Fyfe laid some good foundations for European law, his name also has resonance to all who worked for the UK domestic Security Service, MI5, during or in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War.  It was Maxwell Fyfe’s directive, issued in 1952, that was instrumental in allowing MI5 to spy on British political activists subversives.  This directive remained in place until 1989, when MI5 was placed on a legal footing for the first time in its then 80 year history, with the Security Service Act 1989. Here is a segment about the Maxwell Fyfe directive from my old book, “Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers“:

Background to subversion

At this time MI5 was still using the same criteria for recording individual subversives and their sympathisers as was set out by Home Secretary David Maxwell-Fyfe in 1952.  He called on the services to identify any individual engaged in undermining Parliamentary democracy, national security and/or the economic well-being of the UK by violent, industrial or political means.  In fact, many would argue that groups who used only political means to get their point across were merely exercising their democratic rights.  In fact, MI5 used photos of demonstrations, copies of election lists and even lists of subscribers to radical left-wing book clubs as indicators of subversive sympathy and membership.  Of course, the world was a very different place when I joined the section, almost 40 years after Maxwell-Fyfe’s declaration, not least because of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc allies.  

TrotskyFrom Maxwell-Fyfe’s statement to Parliament, which was never made law, MI5 and subsequent governments used to argue that all members of certain parties –such as the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) or later the bewildering array of Trotskyists, with names like the International Marxist Group (IMG), Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP) Major and Minor, Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG), anarchists and the extreme right — were threats to the security of the state or our democratic system.  This in itself is a contentious proposition.  None of these Trotskyist groups was cultivating Eastern bloc finance or building bombs in smoky back rooms, but were instead using legitimate democratic methods to make their case, such as standing in elections, organising demonstrations and educating ‘the workers’.  They certainly had no allegiance to a foreign power, the primary raison d’etre for the investigation of subversion, because, unlike the Communist Party, they abhorred the Eastern bloc.

Greenham-commonSince MI5 was effectively investigating individuals for holding opinions the government did not like — a very un-British position — it was always at pains to point out that it took its responsibilities with regard to human rights very seriously, although not seriously enough to ensure that these activities were regulated by a legal framework.  All the service’s phone taps prior to the passing of the Interception of Communications Act (IOCA) in 1985 were unlawful because there was no legislation governing the interception of communications.”

The directive was not a legally binding document, but it was the basis for the work of F Branch, MI5’s massive section tasked with hunting “subversives” during those decades.  It allowed intelligence officers great latitude in interpreting what was deemed subversive activity and who were “legitimate’ targets.  And yet there were many, many instances of the abuse of this system by paranoid, senior intelligence officers over the years.  More information can be found in this chapter on subversion from the book.

So my point is, yes, Britain ostensibly led the way in developing a system to protect human rights in the aftermath of the Second World War.  But the very architect of that system then produced the directive that gave British spies carte blanche to investigate political dissidents within their own country, which they abused for decades.

Mark_KennedyAnd now we have commentators rightly saying that we should uphold basic human rights’ values in cases such as Abu Qatada.  But what about all the UK activists who were illegally investigated by MI5 from 1952 to the 1990s? And, more pertinently today, what about all the activists and protesters who have been aggressively spied upon by the unaccountable, undercover police of the NPOIU since the 1990s, under the illegal category of “domestic extremists“?

I was heartened to see 87 year old artist and peace activist John Catt is suing the NPOIU for intrusive surveillance over the last 6 years.  Perhaps he should quote Maxwell Fyfe on human rights during his case?