UK sets up yet another costly spy agency

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

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

The UK already has a pleth­ora of spy agen­cies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Facebook snooping on Russians

Here is an inter­view I gave to RT about the recent news that Face­book has tagged 65,000 Rus­si­ans as inter­ested in “treas­on”. Hardly help­ful, but sim­il­ar to the oth­er snoop­ing with algorithms they have done across the West into people’s sup­posed views, and not least the involve­ment with Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­ica.

Face­book implic­ated in more sur­veil­lance from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Britain’s Brave New World just got Braver

First pub­lished by Con­sor­ti­um News.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intel­li­gence is not Evid­ence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cor­por­ate Allies

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

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

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

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

You are Being Watched

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Technology Collective

Recently I was invited to be on the glob­al coun­cil of a new tech policy inti­ti­at­ive called the Good Tech­no­logy Col­lect­ive, based in Ber­lin.

~ Foun­ded by a group of tech­no­logy enthu­si­asts led by 1aim co-founders Torben Friehe and Yann Lere­taille, the GTC will serve as a cru­cial European for­um for pilot­ing tech­no­lo­gic­al advances in the 21st cen­tury. Through its Expert Coun­cil, it will bring togeth­er lead­ing founders, engin­eers, sci­ent­ists, journ­al­ists, and act­iv­ists, who will research, gen­er­ate con­ver­sa­tion around, and offer coun­sel as to the soci­et­al impact of AI, vir­tu­al real­ity, Inter­net of Things, and data sur­veil­lance.

We believe that there are eth­ic­al ques­tions con­cern­ing how fron­ti­er tech­no­lo­gies will affect our daily lives,” Lere­taille said. “As a soci­ety, Europe deserves broad and access­ible dis­cus­sions of these issues, hos­ted by those who appre­ci­ate, under­stand, and worry about them the most.” ~

The Good Tech­no­logy Col­lect­ive (GTC), a new European think-tank address­ing eth­ic­al issues in tech­no­logy, will offi­cially open its doors in Ber­lin on Decem­ber 15th. The grand open­ing will kick off at 7:30PM (CET) at Soho House Ber­lin and I shall be one of the guest speak­ers.

Invit­a­tions are lim­ited for the grand open­ing. Those inter­ested in attend­ing should con­tact: rsvp@goodtechnologycollective.com; or, fill in the invit­a­tion form at: https://​goo​.gl/​X​p​n​djk.

And here is an intro­duct­ory inter­view I did for GTC recently:

Why We Must Fight for Pri­vacy

We live in a soci­ety where shad­owy fig­ures influ­ence what makes the news, who goes to jail, and even who lives or dies.

We live in a sys­tem where cor­por­a­tions and the state work togeth­er to take con­trol of our inform­a­tion, our com­mu­nic­a­tions, and poten­tially even our future digit­al souls.

So we do not merely have the right, but rather the oblig­a­tion, to fight for our pri­vacy.

It is a simple human right that is essen­tial for a func­tion­ing demo­cracy.

But we are a long way away from hav­ing that right guar­an­teed, and we have been for a long time.

My Time as a Spy

I spent six years work­ing with MI5, the Brit­ish domest­ic counter-intel­li­gence and secur­ity agency, in the 1990s. It was a time of rel­at­ive peace after the Cold War and before the hor­rors of Septem­ber 11, 2001, when the gloves came off in the War on Ter­ror.

And even then, I was hor­ri­fied by what I saw.

There was a con­stant stream of illeg­al wireta­ps and files kept on hun­dreds of thou­sands of our cit­izens, act­iv­ists, journ­al­ists, and politi­cians.

Inno­cent people were sent to pris­on due to sup­pressed evid­ence in the 1994 bomb­ing of the Israeli Embassy in Lon­don. IRA bomb­ings that could have been pre­ven­ted were allowed to take place, and the MI6 fun­ded a plot to murder Liby­an lead­er Col­on­el Gad­dafi using Al Qaeda affil­i­ates. He sur­vived, oth­ers did not.

This is just part of the cor­rup­tion I saw intel­li­gence and secur­ity agen­cies engage in.

The pub­lic and many politi­cians believe these agen­cies are account­able to them, but that is simply not how things work in real­ity. More often than not, we only know what they want us to hear.

State Manip­u­lates News and Polit­ics

I wit­nessed gov­ern­ment agen­cies manip­u­late the news through guile and charm, at times even writ­ing it them­selves. Fake news is not new. The state has long shaped media cov­er­age using vari­ous meth­ods.

This was the case in the ana­logue era, and things have become worse in the era of the Web.

In the end, I felt there was no choice but to blow the whistle, know­ing that it would end my career. My part­ner and I resigned, and we went into hid­ing.

We spent years on the run for breach­ing the UK Offi­cial Secrets Act. We would have been imprisoned if caught.

We fled Bri­tain in 1997, spend­ing three years in a French farm­house and a loc­a­tion in Par­is. My part­ner went to pris­on, twice, and we learned indelible les­sons about state power along the way.

Learn­ing the Value of Pri­vacy

We also learned the value of pri­vacy.

As high-value tar­gets, we knew our com­mu­nic­a­tions and rel­at­ives were mon­itored.

So when I called or emailed my moth­er, I had to self-cen­sor. I had to assume that her house was bugged, as yours could be.

Our friends were pres­sured into cooper­at­ing with the police. It was one way we were stripped of our pri­vacy, cor­rod­ing our spir­it.

You lose trust in every­one around you, and you do not say any­thing that could give you away.

Sur­veil­lance Has Moved with the Times

That was then. Today, sur­veil­lance is part of our daily lives, on the Inter­net and in the street.

Edward Snowden recently revealed the scale of gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance. And it is mind-bog­gling.

The Snowden Effect, as it is known, has made 28 per­cent of the people in the United King­dom rethink their online habits. If we do not feel we have pri­vacy, then in a way it does not mat­ter if someone is watch­ing us. We will self-cen­sor any­way. Just in case.

This has a tan­gible impact on soci­ety. It is the road to a world like Orwell’s 1984.

Legit­im­ate act­iv­ists know they can be watched. This means that protest­ors may think twice before get­ting involved with press­ing issues. Sur­veil­lance is a sure-fire means of stifling demo­cracy.

We Are All Being Watched

Snowden revealed that Inter­net com­pan­ies opened their doors to the U.S. Nation­al Secur­ity Agency and the Brit­ish Gov­ern­ment Com­mu­nic­a­tions Headquar­ters (GCHQ). He also dis­closed that Brit­ish intel­li­gence was hand­ing over inform­a­tion on Europeans to Amer­ic­an intel­li­gence agen­cies.

Both gov­ern­ment agen­cies can access our video com­mu­nic­a­tions. Appar­ently their per­son­nel were forced to sit through so many expli­cit “romantic” video calls that they later had to receive coun­sel­ing.

It might sound amus­ing. But it shows that the state is reg­u­larly invad­ing our pri­vacy.

And that is just gov­ern­ment agen­cies. The cor­por­ate world is sur­veilling us, too. Com­pan­ies have been gran­ted excep­tion­al powers to see who is shar­ing inform­a­tion and files across the Inter­net.

When the FBI Is a Cor­por­ate Tool

In New Zea­l­and, Kim Dot­com developed MegaUp­load. It did have legit­im­ate users, but the fact that some dis­trib­uted pir­ated intel­lec­tu­al prop­erty led to an FBI raid on his home.

Likely under the influ­ence of the FBI, the New Zea­l­and author­it­ies per­mit­ted sur­veil­lance to bol­ster the U.S. extra­di­tion case against him. In Octo­ber 2012, Prime Min­is­ter John Key pub­licly apo­lo­gized to Dot­com, say­ing that the mis­takes made by New Zealand’s Gov­ern­ment Com­mu­nic­a­tions and Secur­ity Bur­eau before and dur­ing the raid were “appalling.

This was all a massive infringe­ment on New Zealand’s sov­er­eignty. One must won­der how the cor­por­ate world can wield so much influ­ence that the FBI is able to a raid the home of an entre­pren­eur on for­eign land.

This is not how gov­ern­ment agen­cies are meant to work. It is a pin­cer move­ment between the cor­por­a­tions and the state.

This Is the Defin­i­tion of Fas­cism

Itali­an dic­tat­or Benito Mus­solini defined fas­cism as the mer­ging of the state and the cor­por­ate world. And it is becom­ing increas­ingly clear that we are head­ing in this dir­ec­tion.

We are all con­stantly con­nec­ted through our smart­phones and com­puters. Incid­ent­ally, any hard­ware, even USB cables, pro­duced after 1998 prob­ably comes with a back­door entry point for the gov­ern­ment.

We also freely provide inform­a­tion on Face­book that would have taken secur­ity and intel­li­gence agen­cies weeks to assemble before the era of digit­al com­mu­nic­a­tions.

We need to know who is watch­ing that inform­a­tion, who can take it, and who can use it against us.

Research con­duc­ted today may one day lead to our entire con­scious­ness being uploaded into a com­puter. Humans could become soft­ware-based. But who might be able to manip­u­late that inform­a­tion and how?

It is vital for us to start think­ing about ques­tions such as these.

Secret Legis­la­tion Can Change Our World

In Europe, we are see­ing the Transat­lantic Trade Invest­ment Part­ner­ship (TTIP) forced upon us. It is a ghastly piece of legis­la­tion through which cor­por­ate lob­by­ists can neg­at­ively affect 500 mil­lion people.

Its investor-state dis­pute set­tle­ment clause grants mul­tina­tion­al cor­por­a­tions the leg­al status of a nation-state. If they feel gov­ern­ment policies threaten their profits, they can sue gov­ern­ments in arbit­ra­tion tribunals. The treaty paper­work is kept in a guarded room that not even politi­cians work­ing on the legis­la­tion can access freely.

Sim­il­ar pro­jects were attemp­ted before, but they were over­turned by the weight of pub­lic opin­ion. The pub­lic spoke out and pro­tested to ensure that the legis­la­tion nev­er came to pass.

We must pro­tect our right to demo­cracy and the rule of law, free from cor­por­ate inter­ven­tion.

A Per­fect Storm for Pri­vacy?

A per­fect storm against pri­vacy is brew­ing. A debate con­tin­ues over how much con­trol the state should exer­cise over the Inter­net amid the threat of ter­ror­ism, which has become part of mod­ern life.

Add to this the increas­ing ten­sion between the United States and Rus­sia and cli­mate change, and things could get quite messy, quite fast.

We need pri­vacy so we can protest when we need to. We need to be able to read and write about these top­ics, and dis­cuss them. We can­not rely on the main­stream media alone.

We need pri­vacy to be prop­er cit­izens. This includes the right to lobby our politi­cians and express our con­cerns.

We also have to be aware that politi­cians do not know what the intel­li­gence and secur­ity ser­vices are doing. We need to take our pri­vacy into our own hands.

As a start, we must all begin using encryp­tion, open-source soft­ware and oth­er tools to make sure we have pri­vacy. If we do not, we will lose our demo­cracy.

It took our ancest­ors hun­dreds of years of blood, sweat, tears and death to win the right to pri­vacy.

We must defend that leg­acy.

CIA and MI5 hacking our “Internet of Things”

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

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

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

And:

Wikileaks release info re CIA/MI5 hacks from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

The NSA “Brain Drain”

The former head of the NSA, Keith Alex­an­der, is repor­ted to have said that the agency is facing a “brain drain” of its best staff, pre­dom­in­antly the young­er ones. Here is my per­spect­ive on this:

The NSA “Brain Drain” from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Webstock, New Zealand, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the talks can be found here.

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

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

And here’s the video of my talk:

Head of MI5 goes public

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blacklist — how to go on the run

Recently I did this inter­view for BBC Click to pro­mote the third series of the excel­lent US spy series “The Black­list”:

How to go on the run from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
The series is appar­ently huge in the USA — and I can see why, as it is good — but little known to date in the UK.

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.

The Nice terror attack

Here is an inter­view I did in the middle of the night for RT about the Nice ter­ror­ist lorry attack:

And here is the art­icle I men­tioned about the French spy chief warn­ing that the next prob­lem­at­ic epis­ode could lead to civil unrest/war.

Fight for your Right to Privacy

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

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

Defending Human Rights in a Digital Age

This is an (abbre­vi­ated) ver­sion of my con­tri­bu­tion to a pan­el dis­cus­sion about human rights in a digit­al age, hos­ted last Decem­ber by Pro­fess­or Mari­anne Frank­lin and Gold­smiths Uni­ver­sity in Lon­don:

Gold­smiths Uni­ver­sity Pri­vacy Dis­cus­sion, Decem­ber 2015 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.