Archive for the ‘Spying’ Category

Article: Britain’s Investigatory Powers Bill is extraordinary – for all the wrong reasons

Saturday, January 16th, 2016

This snooper’s charter makes George Orwall look unimaginative

The Guardian, 8 November 2015

 

The new surveillance bill renders the citizen transparent to the state, putting every one of us under suspicion. It would serve a tyranny well

When the Home Office and intelligence agencies began promoting the idea that the new investigatory powers bill was a “climbdown”, I grew suspicious. If the powerful are forced to compromise they don’t crow about it or send out press releases – or, in the case of intelligence agencies, make off-the-record briefings outlining how they failed to get what they wanted. That could mean only one thing: they had got what they wanted.

So why were they trying to fool the press and the public that they had lost? Simply because they had won.

I never thought I’d say it, but George Orwell lacked vision. The spies have gone further than he could have imagined, creating in secret and without democratic authorisation the ultimate panopticon. Now they hope the British public will make it legitimate.

This bill is characterised by a clear anti-democratic attitude. Those in power are deemed to be good, and are therefore given the benefit of the doubt. “Conduct is lawful for all purposes if …” and “A person (whether or not the person so authorised or required) is not to be subject to any civil liability in respect of conduct that …”: these are sections granting immunity to the spies and cops.

The spies’ surveillance activities are also exempt from legal due process. No questions can be asked that might indicate in any legal proceeding that surveillance or interception has occurred. This is to ensure the general public never learn how real people are affected by surveillance. The cost of this exemption is great. It means British prosecutors can’t prosecute terrorists on the best evidence available – the intercepts – which are a key part of any prosecution in serious crime cases worldwide.

Those without power – eg citizens (or the more accurately named subjects) – are potentially bad, and (more…)

Article: The Independent Surveillance Review Panel

Monday, July 20th, 2015

Mass surveillance: my part in the reform of GCHQ and UK intelligence gathering

The Guardian, Tuesday 14 July 2015 

When I sat down with an ex-minister, former security chiefs, internet execs and others, today’s report on oversight of bulk data collection seemed a long way off

It was an unusual group. An investigative journalist, a moral philosopher, an internet entrepreneur, a cyber-law academic, a government historian, a computer scientist, a technology exec, a long-time cop, an ex-minister and three former heads of intelligence agencies. I wondered not just how but if we could agree on anything, let alone an entire set of recommendations to reform UK communications surveillance.

GCHQ

GCHQ

Yet we did. The Royal United Services Institute panel was set up by Nick Clegg, the then deputy prime minister, in response to revelations from the US whistleblower Edward Snowden about the scale of intrusion by US and British intelligence agencies into private lives. Our remit: to look at the legality, effectiveness and privacy implications of government surveillance; how it might be reformed; and how intelligence gathering could maintain its capabilities in the digital age.

It wasn’t easy and there were several times when I thought I would be writing a minority report with one or two of the panel members. But in the end we reached consensus: the report – published today – proposes that the security services continue with bulk collection of communications data, but with improved oversight and safeguards.

It wasn’t the ideal any of us individually might have chosen, but neither does it contain items any of us heartily oppose. For me there were four main victories and one loss. At what point is privacy engaged? For the security services and government it only becomes an issue at the point when a human looks at material. This is how vast quantities of data could be intercepted, stored and analysed by computer without much considering of privacy implications. For me privacy is engaged from the moment information is accessed and stored. Take the recent case of Amnesty International’s emails being found on GCHQ computers. Does it matter whether or not they were actually read by a person? The mere fact they were intercepted and stored by an intelligence agency is worrying enough.

In bulk collection the potential exists for anyone to be watched at any time. One of the red herrings put our way was that GCHQ does not conduct mass surveillance because it does not read everyone’s email. What was not mentioned is that GCHQ might intercept and store large quantities of it, as the Amnesty case demonstrates.

The point of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon wasn’t that everyone was actually watched at all times, it was that they could all potentially be watched. It is the possibility of omnipotent surveillance that acts as a chilling effect on any behaviour that potentially offends the state or the powers that be. For those who commit acts of journalism or legal advocacy that directly challenge state power, the risks in such a society are great.

This is why the report states that privacy is engaged at point of collection and recommends regular review of data retention policies by oversight bodies to ensure they remain proportionate.

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CitizenFour portrays the haunting, human sides of state surveillance

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

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

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014