CitizenFour portrays the haunting, human sides of state surveillance

October 23rd, 2014 by heather

Last night I saw the documentary CitizenFour by Laura Poitras. The film is subtle yet compelling. The opening sequence begins in a dark tunnel, lights passing overhead, a female voice – Poitras – reads an email she has received from a senior intelligence source who we learn later is Edward Snowden.

Her voice is soft and filled with the sadness knowledge brings. Faded fairytales and carefree ignorance replaced with realisation: of what our world actually is as opposed to what we thought or wanted it to be.

There is haunting footage of the physical manifestations of industrial surveillance. White birds fly over a bleak landscape of dirt and desert, bulldozers biting out chunks of earth, a blank cube takes shape. Poitras began filming at the start of the National Security Agency’s construction of a massive data center in Utah. Equally haunting are the white bubbles of listening dishes in the English countryside of Menwith Hill.

The first part of the film sets up her early knowledge of surveillance. She was put on a watch list by the American government after making a film about the Iraq War. She was stopped by US Border guards almost every time she entered her country. She was questioned. Her electronic items were seized. She had no idea why and no way to find out.

In his early emails to her, Snowden writes:

You ask why I picked you. I didn’t. You did. The surveillance you’ve experienced means you’ve been selected, a term which will mean more to you as you learn about how the modern sigint system works.
From now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, article you write, site you visit, subject line you type, and packet you route, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not. Your victimization by the NSA system means that you are well aware of the threat that unrestricted, secret abilities pose for democracies. This is a story that few but you can tell.

Senior officials from US intelligence services give testimony under oath that there is no bulk interception or collection of Americans’ communications. There is a wonderful scene filmed in the 9th Circuit Court where digital rights lawyer Kevin Bankston argues that his clients (AT&T customers) have a right to bring a case against the NSA for its bulk interception of call data. The NSA lawyer tries to claim that because all calls are intercepted, the client does not have a valid case, and even if he did, an open courtroom is not the appropriate place to settle such complaints.

‘I’m not sure I see what role there is for the judiciary in your proposal,’ says a white-haired judge. ‘It sounds like you want us to simply get out of the way.’

Later revelations make it clear that’s exactly what is desired.

The heart of the film is Poitras’s meeting with Edward Snowden in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, June 2013. Here Glenn Greenwald comes to the fore as the reporter whose task it became to translate Snowden’s cache of data into stories for The Guardian newspaper. Greenwald has often struck me as more idealist than journalist, keen to ignore inconvenient truths if they get in the way of a political worldview (e.g. glossing over Julian Assange’s moral bankruptcy). But in the film the reporter comes across as thoughtful, smart, independent and brave. Exactly the sort of journalist you’d want fighting your corner.

I love the expression on Greenwald’s face when Snowden puts on his ‘mantel of power’ to hide his hands typing a password. It’s such a fantastic ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’ moment. Then Snowden gets down to telling Greenwald about the various programs the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ have built to collect bulk communications data on citizens. The most invasive systems in the world are from Britain, Snowden says. ‘The NSA love Tempora,’ he says. It’s a “full take system”, unconstitutional in the US but the Brits can do it and hand over all the data to the Americans.

Once the news stories are published, the discussion in the hotel room turns to Snowden’s safety. He is adamant he doesn’t want to ’skulk in silence’ like other whistleblowers. He and Greenwald talk through the options of remaining anonymous or going public and they soon settle on going public as the best option. It’s the best way to give a big “fuck you” to the overbearing surveillance state.

Director Laura Poitras

Director Laura Poitras

It’s a powerful decision and you have to admire the audacity and bravery of it. After the circus side-shows of Assange, Snowden is the real deal. A man of conscience, acting on his values.

Poitras, too, made a brave and audacious decision to follow the story of state surveillance wherever it took her. In the words of her colleague Jeremy Scahill, “This boils down to the power of one woman’s camera against the entire national security state.”

Never let it be said one woman can’t make a difference.

The film opens Friday, October 24th 2014. Check the official CitizenFour website for screenings.

On Channel 4 News discussing UK’s emergency surveillance laws

July 30th, 2014 by heather


Article: The Language of Secrets

February 20th, 2014 by heather

The Guardian
Saturday, January 18, 2014

We’ve not had the words to talk about our security services. Dishfire, Prism: we’re now learning some

What we have no words for we cannot discuss except crudely. The latest revelation about the security services brings a new word to our growing vocabulary: Dishfire. This week’s expose reveals the NSA collecting information from hundreds of millions of text messages a day. While messages from US phone numbers are removed from the database, GCHQ used it to search the metadata of “untargeted and unwarranted” communications belonging to British citizens.

We are not so much free citizens, innocent until proven guilty, but rather, as one of the Dishfire slides says, a “rich data set awaiting exploitation”. Prism, Tempora, Upstream, Bullrun – as our language grows we begin to speak with greater clarity. We move from James Bond fantasies to a greater understanding of what the intelligence services actually do in our name and with our money. Is indiscriminate surveillance the best way to protect democracy?

It is proving bad for business. Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft are trying to salvage their reputations by fighting against their own governments to protect customer data. Vodafone’s head of privacy spoke out this week, asking the governments of the 25 countries in which it operates for the right to publish the number of demands it receives for interceptions and customer data.

PRISM_logo_(PNG)

The company wants to follow its US counterparts AT&T and Verizon and publish a transparency report – but of the 25 markets, including India, Turkey and South Africa, where it operates, the UK is one of the most restrictive in terms of the public’s right to know.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Ripa) Act 2000 states that: “Where an interception warrant has been issued or renewed, it shall be the duty of every person falling within subsection (2) to keep secret all the matters mentioned in subsection (3).” In plain English: those in receipt of a warrant must keep secret not only the contents of the warrant but its very existence. Neither Vodafone, nor any other phone company, can tell the public how many demands it receives. The penalty for disclosure is a prison term of up to five years.

Ripa was controversial when introduced, but it was an improvement on an earlier version, which required everyone to give up their passwords to police on pain of prison. That’s not to say the current law would be unwelcome in an oppressive society. It demands loyalty to the state, official secrecy without a public interest defence. Telecommunications companies are specifically named in the law to stay schtum. How can we have a meaningful conversation about wiretapping telephones when even the number of warrants is a state secret?

In the US, the public often learn about the FBI’s use of covert surveillance in court. Their methods and practices are examined as evidence brought to trial. Yesterday Barack Obama announced new curbs on his security agencies. He has made moves to respond, as Britain has not, to public disquiet.

In the UK, Ripa forbids the contents of interceptions from being used in court. That is problematic not only for justice but also for public accountability. Being tested in the courts is one of the ways we could learn how interception is employed. Is it tightly targeted against those whom the state has probable cause to suspect; or a dragnet based on little more than prejudice? We don’t know.

In George Orwell’s 1984, Newspeak meant the dictionaries became smaller not bigger. Fewer words meant fewer thoughts. What we have no language for we cannot discuss. For too long we’ve had no language to discuss the intelligence services. Now a dictionary is being written. It will be interesting to see what new words are added.

Article: Anger at the Ballot Box

January 20th, 2014 by heather

The Guardian
Saturday, December 28, 2013

We live in the digital age but our politics is still analogue. No wonder voters are disillusioned

Politics matters. It always has and always will. It has always been a sham to say that voters not voting is due to disinterest or boredom. Yesterday’s Guardian/ICM poll explains exactly what lies behind voter “apathy”. It is disillusionment. It is disengagement. More than anything it is anger.

That is the single word that respondents cited as the best description of how they feel about politics. Twenty-five per cent said “bored”, 16% “respectful” and just 2% “inspired”. Former minister Chloe Smith was right to highlight the generation divide developing in British politics between young and old, but there is also a wide perception – 46% of poll respondents – who believe “MPs are just on the take”, largely as a result of the MPs’ expenses scandal. As the person who forced MPs to digitise and publish their expenses, I fear that disengagement will get worse until politicians change their actions and not just their rhetoric.

The expenses scandal did nothing more than allow the public to see reality as it is, not the fairytale that was previously presented. Yet political institutions have failed to address the fundamental problems: the system remains elitist, centralised and secretive. Power is still an alibi for avoiding responsibility while the “little people” bear the brunt of ever more intrusive surveillance, on-the-spot fines, increasing laws and regulations.

Expectations for democracy are rising, not just in Britain but globally. People in countries around the world are demanding to have a say in the way power is exercised. To do that they need access to information because the adage that information is power is true. The democratisation of information is the second stage of the Enlightenment. It’s what I call the Information Enlightenment.

Increasingly, there are many decisions that must now be made as a whole planet – about climate, about resources, about financial systems. To make these decisions we need information. Lots of it. We have a financial system that is global and the relations complex. It’s the same with the environment. It is no longer possible for any one person or even one organisation to process all this information, especially if they’re doing so in a top-down, centralised, secretive hierarchy, as Whitehall does, for instance.

So across many sectors we’re seeing a move towards fully connected systems that are open, collaborative and share information. This is how the best decisions are made. However, there is one sector that resolutely refuses to adapt. Politics – the system by which power is organised and exercised. We would expect people’s changing expectations of power to be reflected in our democracies. Instead we have an analogue political system trying to deny the realities of the digital age. Officials still take the view that they know what’s best for the rest.

Democracies should be made up of an informed electorate but currently we have neither enough information nor a meaningful vote. Voting for our MPs and councillors once every five years isn’t enough – and people know it. The act of voting has been rendered decorative rather than functional.

One of the biggest problems is the selection process. In the current setup, people gain political power not through merit but most often because they have sucked up to the right powerful people. Deference and patronage still rule the day: politicians and public servants gain and maintain their power not by doing their jobs well, or even competently, but by staying in favour with those who appoint them.

This has to change. It is the people who give public servants their power and so it must be to the people to whom public servants are accountable. Directly and forthrightly – with no middlemen in between.

Manifesto for a New Democracy

September 5th, 2013 by heather

I wrote this several years ago. It’s the last chapter of The Silent State but it’s remarkably relevent right now. I’ll be adding the manifesto points in the coming days.

Manifesto for a New Democracy
Who am I to put forward a manifesto? I’m not elected. I’m not accountable to any regulator. I’m just a freelance trouble- maker, a rabble-rouser, a nosey parker prying into the silent state, a writer with a love of novels that remind us just how close we are to realising their dystopian fears: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Tyler Durden asks in Fight Club to be delivered from Swedish furniture; I ask only:

  • Deliver us from officious officials.
  • Deliver us from prying bureaucrats who refuse to be named.
  • Deliver us from arrogant MPs who feel entitled to pilfer the public purse.
  • In a democracy, everyone has a right to propose ideas and it is in the roiling competition of these ideas that the best become policy and the weakest fall by the wayside. I am not a politician. I can’t compel people to give me money to implement my world view. I can’t imprison, fine or smear if you don’t buy my book or agree with me. I can’t siphon off public cash to create a huge PR industry to peddle my propaganda. I have no power other than the facts I’ve put forward in this book and the belief that if these stories are compelling then they might persuade a few people that our current system isn’t acceptable. Things need to change. Here’s how:

    1) We should give no more power to the state without the state giving something to us.

    Before the state can keep a database of our identities, aggregate our DNA or gather any other intrusive personal information, it should acknowledge that these measures do nothing whatsoever to empower ordinary citizens. We do not need millions of CCTV cameras turning citizens into suspects, nor every child entered into a database.

    2) Name all public officials. These people work for us.

    The state should publish its entire staff directory so we can see, by name, who is doing what at taxpayer expense.
    Throughout this book I’ve used the real names of real people. If you’re going to tell a story then you need to focus on an individual with a name. It’s through individuals that we are best able to gain understanding. Yet individuality is precisely what is lacking from the state. A faceless wall of bureaucracy has been built up that alienates citizen from state. If public servants are truly working for the public then we need to know who they are. Wherever we see ‘facts’ followed by anonymous officials, we should be sceptical. There should be no power exercised without accountability, ending the domination of behind-the-scenes spin doctors and strategists.

    This will benefit bureaucracies too. Throughout public services there are professionals with all sorts of expertise, all kinds of information. They have concerns about what works and what doesn’t and good ideas for improvement. But in the current anonymised, hierarchical structure these people have no voice. They are not listened to nor trusted and if they dare speak directly to the public they are penalised and often prosecuted. In the end the silent state hurts many for the benefit of an elite few.

    More points to come…

    Events: Cruel Britannia

    April 3rd, 2013 by heather

    CRUEL BRITANNIA INVITE (pdf))

    Article: Spinning the Cyber War

    April 3rd, 2013 by heather

    I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the recent DDoS attack that was breathlessly described as ‘breaking’ the ‘entire Internet’. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say the original reporting was “shoddy” (a sub-editor wrote that headline) but certainly scepticism was severely lacking. Unfortunately, as long as the public continue to expect something for nothing this is the type of journalism in store. Public relations people are constantly badgering journalists to run stories that serve some private interest. These journalists used to be paid a decent wage to report their own stories. Now their numbers are crashing yet they are expected to write more with fewer resources in less time. If you want quality journalism there’s no way around it. We have to pay for it.

    How a cyberwar was spun by shoddy journalism
    The Guardian, Friday 29 March 2013

    Journalistic scepticism was lacking when stories about a DDoS attack ‘breaking’ the internet surfaced. This is a real future risk

    ‘A lot of people have a lot to gain from peddling scare stories about cyber “warfare”. As with any type of politics it’s important to know precisely who is making the claims and what their interests are.’ Photograph: Daniel Law/PA

    A veteran Reuters reporter related a piece of advice given by his editor: “It’s not just what you print that makes you an authoritative and trusted source for news, but what you don’t print.”

    He wasn’t talking about censorship, he was talking about what separates journalism from stenography and propaganda: sceptical scrutiny. The professionalism of the craft isn’t simply learning to write or broadcast what other people tell you. Crucially it is the ability to delve, interrogate and challenge, and checking out stories you’ve discovered through your own curiosity, or robustly testing what other people tell you is true.

    Scepticism was in short supply this week when breathless claims about the collapse of the internet were published in such reputable publications as the New York Times, the BBC and even technical journal Ars Technica, all falling prey to the hyped-up drama of a DDoS attack against Spamhaus, a group that tracks spammers, and their alleged attacker Cyberbunker, a Dutch hosting company Spamhaus had blacklisted.

    Ars Technica described the attack as at “a scale that’s threatening to clog up the internet’s core infrastructure and make access to the rest of the internet slow or impossible”. “If a Tier 1 provider fails, that risks breaking the entire internet,” it continued.

    There is risk everywhere. Being alive carries the risk of death. It’s no good just saying what might happen (that’s the role of a screenwriter or novelist), what matters is the likelihood of it happening. The “risk” of the entire internet breaking from such an attack is very small. That should have killed off the worst of the scaremongering headlines and alerted the sceptical reporter that something was afoot.

    A lot of people have a lot to gain from peddling scare stories about cyber “warfare”. As with any type of politics it’s important to know precisely who is making the claims and what their interests are.

    In whose interest is it to hype up the collapse of the internet from a DDoS attack? Why, the people who provide cyber security services of course. And looking at the reporting, almost all the sources are directly involved and have a vested interest. The claims about the scale of the attack are from CloudFlare, the anti-DDoS firm hired by Spamhaus to ward off the attack. Eschewing subtlety they blogged about the event: “The DDos that Almost Broke the Internet”.

    As soon as you have a source with a direct involvement, scepticism should be your guide. Sadly, reporters don’t always have the time or space for scepticism, and increasingly they are judged only on their ability to fill space at speed. In this environment there is no incentive to challenge a good yarn.

    While the infrastructure of the internet might not be easy for reporters to understand, simply juxtaposing quotes from opposing sides isn’t all there is to journalism. Yes, this was a big attack in terms of traffic directed against one website (approx 300Gbps), but the internet seemed to cope just fine.

    Even if you knew nothing about technology, you could have done what Sam Biddle did at Gizmodo and simply asked some challenging, sceptical questions such as:

    • Why wasn’t my internet slow?
    • Why didn’t anyone notice this over the course of the past week, when it began?
    • Why isn’t anyone without a financial stake in the attack saying the attack was this much of a disaster?
    • Why haven’t there been any reports of Netflix outages, as the New York Times and BBC reported?
    • Why do firms that do nothing but monitor the health of the web, like Internet Traffic Report, show zero evidence of this Dutch conflict spilling over into our online backyards?

    This story wasn’t just a failure to understand technology. It was a failure of basic journalism practice. To be willing to not write the story if it didn’t stack up.

    This is the danger of the “dark age of journalism”, as it has been called. The training of the old Reuters reporter is replaced by one of political and corporate collusion. The separation between newsrooms and public relations agencies growing ever thinner as reporters rush to fill space at all costs, regardless of truth.

    Even after she’d written the piece in the New York Times, tech reporter Nicole Perlroth tweeted how she was still getting targeted by corporate PRs to cover the “story”: “Hi Nicole, News is just breaking on the biggest cyber-attack in history. Are you planning on covering?”

    The collapse of journalism combined with complex, fast-changing technology offers a wealth of opportunity for propagandists. In the soil of ignorance, fear can easily be sown. So it is with cyberwarfare.

    Article: Last of the Assange fans sees the light

    March 30th, 2013 by heather

    Assange is no hero. He’s just another Max Clifford
    The Times (London), February 8, 2013 Friday

    Jemima Khan so believed in the cause of WikiLeaks, of opening up state secrets to the public gaze, that she put up bail for Julian Assange, a man accused of rape and sexual assault. Now, in an article for the New Statesman she writes of her disillusionment, warning that he risks going from Jason Bourne to L. Ron Hubbard.

    Mr Assange is an example of the crusading campaigner who equates righteousness with media attention. He hijacked a noble cause as a means of self-aggrandisement. Indeed, at his 40th birthday party he auctioned photographs of himself to the assembled celebrity admirers. Many people, not just Ms Khan, were so eager for him to be the person they wanted him to be that they failed or refused to see what he was: a morally questionable man exploiting idealistic supporters to advance his own fame.

    Some cling to the fiction that Mr Assange “changed the game”. Did he? As a result of his actions governments across the world have been frightened into ever greater internet surveillance. If a campaigner’s ultimate aim is to change the law, WikiLeaks has failed.

    WikiLeaks was at its best before Mr Assange took the credit for it, when it was a team publishing on the internet material that journalists couldn’t report in their own countries. The “megaleaks” of thousands of documents – the Afghan and Iraq war logs and the US diplomatic cables – were certainly powerful. But the credit belongs to Bradley Manning, the US soldier detained since 2010, who risked his life to make them public. It’s clear from his chat logs that educating the public was his goal, not granting Mr Assange a proprietorial licence to cajole journalists into writing sycophantic profiles. For that reason I was happy to break his monopoly and leak his most precious leak – the diplomatic cables.

    “WikiLeaks exposed corruption, war crimes, torture and cover-ups,” Jemima Khan writes. No it didn’t. It was exposed by Private Manning and the reporters who spent weeks digging through the data to make sense of it and produce stories that stacked up. Mr Assange’s contribution was to organise – or rather get his young interns and lackeys to organise – the huge press conference in which he starred as saviour.

    Mr Assange is, at best, a middle man of the Max Clifford variety, brokering deals between source and newspaper. Except that Private Manning got only incarceration and a potential life sentence. Far from advancing the cause of openness worldwide, Mr Assange has gravely undermined it by so shamelessly making it all about himself.

    Anonymity is a Privilege Not a Right

    January 27th, 2013 by heather

    A few notes on why I generally don’t respond to anonymous people on twitter or in comments.

    Anonymity is a privilege. Words are powerful and if that power is not to be abused it must be accountable.

    There are some cases where granting the privilege of anonymity is necessary and warranted. Primarily this is where direct harm would befall someone if he or she were identified as the source of the words. Such is the case with whistleblowers, insiders or someone in a vulnerable position. If these people are identified, they face the immninent threat of losing their jobs, their livlihoods or their well-being. They may face personal attack (physical or legal) for speaking out. They may be breaking corporate confidentiality even though what they expose is in the public interest.

    Others need anonymity to be able to voice inconvenient truths, or to simply tell their stories. Women posting about driving without a male overseer in Saudi Arabia, for example, need anonymity to avoid being arrested.

    The primary justification for anonymity is provable harm.

    There are other occasions where people use anonymity to take on a different persona in order to explore different parts of themselves or simply for fun. I don’t see a problem with this so long as they aren’t hurting anyone.

    But the idea that anonymity is a right and not a privilege is wrong. There needs to be good reason to avoid being accountable for what we say or write, particularly if what we say affects other people. Too often online, anonymity is the tool of the bullying coward, a means to avoid responsibility for publishing threats, abuse and lies.

    That doesn’t mean writing only anodyne, inoffensive drivel. It does mean having the courage of your convictions and the ability to withstand criticism. If you believe in what you say, put your name behind it. People may disagree with you. That’s fine. But if they launch an anonymous ad hominem attack that is not fine. It reveals a weak argument made by someone who is a coward, a fool and/or a nasty piece of work.

    Video: Freeing our Data

    January 19th, 2013 by heather

    I was on BBC’s Daily Politics show Thursday, 17 January 2013 discussing opening up government databases with Stephan Skakespeare who is leading the government’s review. The main point I hope I made is that access to data should be determined by what is in the public interest not necessarily that which can turn a profit.