Archive for the ‘Crime & Justice’ 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.



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.


Article: England’s antiquated court system

Monday, July 20th, 2015

Gove is right: our antiquated court system produces two-nation justice

The Guardian, Friday 3 July 2015

As legal aid cuts force people to represent themselves, the costly, tortuous steps to access court records threaten access to justice. But it needn’t be this way – as the US shows

Justice must be seen to be done. It is a famous aphorism laid down in 1924 by Lord Hewart, the lord chief justice. But what happens when people put this principle to the test? When they actually go to court?


Royal Courts Of London

Michael Gove has given his own account of this exercise, narrating in his first speech as justice secretary his experience of today’s courts. He found “snowdrifts of paper held in place by delicate pink ribbons”, cases derailed by the late arrival of prisoners, broken video links or missing paperwork, a rape victim who had waited nearly two years for her case to be heard: overall, a “creaking, outdated system”.

You don’t have to be a justice secretary to witness the inefficiency and antiquated ways of the courts. In fact, as legal aid cuts bite, more people will have to represent themselves in courts where they encounter a system that is the very opposite of user friendly.

We pay a lot for this system, but many would argue it’s not enough. The Royal Courts of Justice may be as grand as palaces, but many others are dilapidated, their facilities in desperate need of modernisation. Investing in justice should be a point of principle but also a matter of practicality. When people see and experience justice being done efficiently and fairly, they are content to abide by the rule of law.

Gove was right when he identified a two-nation justice system. “While those with money can secure the finest legal provision in the world, the reality in our courts for many of our citizens is that the justice system is failing them, badly.”

Too often the public – the people funding the system and in whose name it operates – are treated as an afterthought at best, a nuisance at worst. It seems obvious that courts should be user friendly, directed to meet the needs of the general public, but too often they cater only to a cloistered elite.

Back in 2010 I did the same exercise as Gove. I was researching my book The Silent State and wanted to get some court documents. In America where I’ve worked, this process is usually simple: speak to the clerk, look through the files, make copies. These days many American courts have digitised indexes for searching, sometimes the records themselves are digitised. The US supreme court has an online docket search, digitised transcripts and audio files. You can access court records electronically in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.


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

A few thoughts on the death of hacktivist Aaron Swartz

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

Today I heard that hacktivist Aaron Swartz killed himself. He was just 26 years old. I met Aaron at various Open Government conferences. He was an incredibly intelligent original thinker who was committed to freedom of information and democracy. He went beyond the rhetoric and put his principles into action. While I was researching the Boston hacker scene for The Revolution Will Be Digitised he generously agreed to help me. I’ve decided to post that section here to give a sense of the man we’ve lost.

…I can count on one finger my Boston contacts. Fortunately that person is Aaron Swartz, who’s in the Cambridge tech/activist scene. He describes himself as a writer, activist and hacker and at twenty-five his CV is impressive: currently founder and director of a democracy campaign group, Demand Progress, he previously co-founded (a website for sharing news links) and was part of the original team to launch Creative Commons. At fourteen he co-authored the Really Simple Syndication (RSS 1.0) specification for publishing news updates. In the information war he’s participated in a few guerrilla campaigns which have accorded him his own FBI file (posted on his blog). In 2008, he hacked into a federal court library system to leak over 18 million public documents that the government had been charging citizens to access. Swartz only realised how much trouble he was in when the FBI started monitoring him. He got himself a lawyer, but luckily the New York Times got on the case and made him something of a cause célèbre. The FBI eventually backed off: it looked bad to spend taxpayers’ money going after a kid for making public records more publicly available.

Aaron has set me up with a room in a place called the Acetarium but even standing outside the door on this cold November night I can’t tell if it’s a hostel, a hotel or a house. I telephone the proprietor Benjamin Mako Hill and in a few minutes I see pale legs jumping down the stairs. He’s known as ‘Mako’, he tells me, and he has an impish, Irish look with a pointy Pan-like beard and big mischievous blue eyes with a ring through his left eyebrow. He’s wearing an American flag do-rag and a yellow cycling jacket. He’s brimming with energy and hops up the stairs two at a time. On the landing is a sign: ‘Shoes and pants off please’. I leave mine (shoes that is) at the door and head in.

Inside, over some home-made vegetable dumplings, I meet Mako’s wife and some of the other residents: a twenty-year-old couchsurfer from North Carolina, a freelance software programmer in the spare room and a guinea pig whose owner has gone travelling. Mako himself is a scholar at MIT’s media lab specialising in sociology and online communities and he’s an active member of the Free Software Foundation. He sounds exactly the sort of person who can put me in touch with the people I need to talk to, but when I start asking questions he clams up. ‘I’m not into that scene,’ he says tersely, tapping his foot. ‘I don’t know any of those people.’

Later that evening, Aaron comes over to the Acetarium and tells me this used to be the original Reddit offices. He passed them to Mako when Reddit was bought by Condé Nast and he and the other founders moved out to San Francisco to live the dream. He says California wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Neither was the office job at Condé Nast. He’s since been fired, dropped out of Stanford and is now a fellow at the Center for Ethics at Harvard University as well as running his campaign group. He has an intense curiosity that lasers into whatever happens to interest him at any given moment, but the attention is short, and soon he’s off delving into something else. Fortunately his immediate interest is my ‘quest’, so he grabs a nearby laptop to see what he can find online. A quick glance of Tyler Watkins’ and David House’s social networks reveals they’re both linked to someone called Danny Clark. It’s a long shot, but I ask Mako if he knows Danny Clark. His response is straightforward enough: ‘Never heard of him.’

‘But he’s on your list of LinkedIn contacts,’ says Aaron, now perusing Mako’s profile, and I remind Mako there’s no privacy on the Internet. He reiterates that he’s ‘not involved in any of this, and I don’t want anything to do with it’.

‘What’s wrong with answering her questions?’ Aaron counters.

‘You don’t understand, there’s been all kinds of people round here.’

‘I understand completely. I was investigated by the FBI, don’t forget. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk. We’re not in a police state yet.’

I decide not to press my host any further, but I’m struck by his guardedness. Clearly people are scared, and I begin to worry if I’ll get anything at all out of this trip. Maybe to make up for his reticence, Mako invites me to come along to a pub in Harvard Square where every Sunday he organises a social evening for a group of techie friends studying or working at MIT or Harvard. I meet all sorts of interesting people including a woman working on the human genome project, but the most interesting of all is another Brit who tells me he lives with Danny Clark…

While I was in Boston, Aaron told me he was working on another ‘project’ which I found out later was his guerrilla action to liberate academic articles. In July 2011, he was arrested and charged with downloading 4.8 million academic articles between September 2010 and January 2011 from JSTOR, a research subscription service offering digitised copies of academic journals and documents. He was accused of breaking into a computer wiring closet on MIT’s campus and downloading the documents which prosecutors say he intended to share online. Swartz turned himself in and pleaded not guilty to charges including wire fraud, computer fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer. He was released on a $100,000 unsecured bond and faced up to thirty-five years in prison, if convicted. In September 2012, federal prosecutors added even more charges.

Aaron wasn’t a dangerous person who hurt people. His mission was to free public information. Shamefully for that he was targeted by certain justice officials in what amounted to more of a persecution than a prosecution. I think the war on hackers has gone on long enough. Officials need to understand that criminalising the best and the brightest is not good public policy.

More on Aaron Swartz here and here.

Article: Police attempting to criminalise investigative journalism

Friday, September 9th, 2011

Investigative journalism must not be criminalised
Guardian, 9/10 September

Police questioning of journalists such as the Guardian’s Amelia Hill who seek to uncover corruption is a worrying trend

The questioning under caution of the Guardian reporter Amelia Hill by the Metropolitan police is part of a worrying trend: for the police appear to be using their power not to root out corruption or bribery, but to stop a reporter doing her job, namely to winkle out the truth about an issue of public importance.

Hill reported a number of stories about the phone-hacking scandal, including the revelation of Milly Dowler’s phone being hacked by News of the World. It was this story that finally compelled police and politicians to fully investigate a scandal that some had known about for years. Commentators have seen Hill’s questioning as part of a wider attempt to criminalise contact between journalists and off-the-record sources.

But there is nothing unusual about police and reporters hanging out together. In the old days of crime reporting this was commonplace and it was not unduly difficult to strike a balance between keeping the public informed without endangering investigations. But in the age of public relations and spin, such free conversations are looked upon by the authorities as highly dangerous – not to policing so much as to those in power. Such free conversations might lead to challenging questions.

The danger with a centralised police PR operation is that information is used not to benefit the public but to benefit those in power, often to the detriment of the public. It is for this reason that officers “leak”, because they want to solve their cases and they know they can only do so with the help and co-operation of the public.

The situation Hill has apparently been questioned about calls to mind two recent cases. Philip Balmforth was a former police inspector and vulnerable persons officer responsible for Asian women in the Bradford area of West Yorkshire. He was praised in a House of Commons early day motion signed by 56 MPs in March 2008 for being a “knight in shining armour” who “does everything he can to protect people and give them time to assess the situation they are in”. Yet a week after he was praised in parliament he was facing a disciplinary hearing for “damaging the reputation” of West Yorkshire police, all because he spoke directly to a journalist.

“I had a speech ready for every journalist – after being told the publicity had to stop,” Balmforth told me. “The speech was: ‘You must contact the press office.’ But many in the media would ask for ‘off the record’ background to the problem, which I would willingly give, subject to contacting the press office before using it (who would always refuse).

Balmforth spoke out in the Times challenging the official figure given by the government’s forced marriage unit that there were 300 cases of forced marriage annually, saying he dealt with that many in West Yorkshire alone.

We should be grateful to Balmforth for alerting us to the problem of forced marriage. Instead he was stripped of his position by the police force. He has now retired.

Another police officer who dared to question one force’s use of covert surveillance was himself put under surveillance and his friend Sally Murrer, a journalist at the Milton Keynes Citizen, was arrested and threatened with life in prison.


Police hearings held in secret

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Freedom of Information requests have revealed that 48 police officers in Wales have faced serious misconduct hearings in the past three years, including allegations of assault, careless driving, drinking on duty and breach of confidentiality, all of which were held in secret.

Yesterday, the Western Mail reported that calls had been made for public hearings for police officers, in line with doctors, nurses and teachers. Councillor Malcolm King told the paper:

It is a balance between what harm is done by having them out in the open against what harm is done by not doing so.
For pubic services the question should always be, ‘are we being open enough with the public, do the public have a right to know and is it in the public interest?’ There needs to be a change in priorities.
All hearings should have to be held in public unless there is a good reason to have them in private, not the other way around.

A spokesman for Dyfed Powys Police, the force which was heavily criticised for arresting a citizen who refused to stop filming a public council meeting earlier this month, said the figures only referred to misconduct hearings, and that minor cases were brought to misconduct meetings as outlined by government policy. John Feavyour from the Association of Chief Police Officers defended the current system, saying other public professions only hold hearings in public when allegations are ‘serious breaches’ that ‘involve their professional bodies’.

Gwent police officers smashed the car window of Robert Whatley, 71, after he was pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt. He was denied access to the disciplinary hearing that vindicated the two officers involved, as was his lawyer. His son Peter pointed out that the hearing panels are made up of senior police officers rather than independents, and told the Western Mail:

These hearings need to be held in public simply for accountability. If a doctor is accused of breaching confidentiality or a teacher for assaulting a pupil they are made accountable in public hearings, why should it be any different for police officers? It is an antiquated system and sets a dangerous precedent.

Tom Whatley is right, and disciplinary hearings should be accessible, transparent and effective. If justice is not seen to be done, if it is done at all, then hearings serve little purpose other than to spare the blushes of chastised officers. If the public are to have confidence in the police, they need to see the police live under the same laws as the rest of the population, and face consequences when those laws and codes are broken.

FOI requests submitted by the Times (£)

Surveillance: the other side of the lens

Friday, June 17th, 2011

Jacqui Thompson, a campaigner and blogger, was arrested last week by Dyfed Powys Police after she refused to stop filming a council meeting. She was angered by the way that members of Carmarthenshire Council had dismissed a petition (presented by elderly campaigners trying to save a local day centre) and decided to start recording the meeting on her phone. In her words, the reason for this was obvious: “People need to know what is going on in that Chamber.”

Ms Thompson refused to leave; she was not disturbing the meeting in anyway, or breaking the law, or contravening the council’s standing orders. The police were called, four officers arrived and Ms Thompson was arrested for breaching the peace. She was taken to a police station 30 miles away and held in a cell for two hours. News of the arrest quickly made its way onto Twitter, where the discussion earned the hash tag #DaftArrest.

The circumstances of the arrest were indeed daft. Legal blogger David Allen Green submitted several questions to the Dyfed Powys Police press office calling for an explanation as to why and under what circumstances Ms Thompson was arrested. Four days later an official response was emailed back and issued on their website. It was riddled with factual inaccuracies and gave no proper reason for the arrest itself (you can read David Allen Green’s full breakdown of the response here).

Ms Thompson pointed out the real injustice when she said: “I can’t quite believe what happened to me for trying to film a public meeting.”

Filming a public council meeting is not a breach of the peace, a fact that even the police attending the scene were confused over. The members of the council who called the police, including the Chair, were uncomfortable at being recorded when attending to issues of public concern, one of which being the petition signed by 1500 local residents. Jacqui Thompson’s arrest, as she puts it, is about the wider issues of local government transparency. Surveillance is power, but for ordinary citizens to be empowered is dangerous in the eyes of the council. Local authorities are clearly not happy to be on the other side of the lens.

Police press offices are a public insult

Friday, October 1st, 2010

I ran into the Guardian’s Paul Lewis after the Julian Assange event at City University last night. He’d just come from reporting this story on the fallout from the secret £3m CCTV surveillance operation that targeted Muslims in Birmingham.

Project Champion was sold to residents as a safety measure. Residents were told that the hundreds of CCTV and Automatic Numberplate Recognition Cameras (ANPR) installed in streets around Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath would be used to combat vehicle crime and antisocial behaviour. Police had planned a total of 218 cameras in the area, 72 of which would be covert.

It was due to an investigation by Paul Lewis that the truth came out which was that the project was, in fact being run from the West Midlands police counter-terrorism unit with the consent of security officials at the Home Office and MI5.

Yesterday, Thames Valley Police released their report into the project and found among other things that:

Police devised a “storyline” that concealed the true purpose of the cameras. Counter-terrorism insignia was removed from paperwork as part of a deliberate strategy to “market” the surveillance operation as a local policing scheme to improve community safety.

This ties it directly with something I talk about in The Silent State – the takeover of Public Relations in our public bodies. But there was another worrying thing I discovered about this incident while talking to Paul.

West Midlands Police had failed to tell him about the press conference and then refused to respond to any of his enquiries once another reporter told him about the event. He ended up tweeting:

At 1.07pm: ‘West Midlands police press office ignoring my queries about inquiry into Project Champion Muslim spy plan.’

Then at 2.21pm when there was still no response he named the head of the press office directly: ‘could @mattmarkham1 or his colleagues in west midlands police office answer questions about this story?’

‘I phoned seven times and they still never responded,’ Paul said.

Matt Markham is Chief Inspector at West Midlands Police and the Head of Press and PR. The common excuse given by public bodies for excessive spending on press offices is to say it’s needed to help the media. As I document in The Silent State, nothing could be further from the truth. PR exists for control purposes, to hinder, rather than to inform, and this is a fine example.

Public officials also often complain about the irresponsibility of the press. Yet here we see a responsible reporter who writes stories based on facts and in the public interest being frozen out of a press conference precisely because of the strength of his journalism, by a police force already accused of misleading the public with false information.

It is entirely too common for public officials like Matt Markham to believe they don’t have to account for themselves and their organisation to the public. Mr Markham’s refusal to answer Paul’s questions isn’t just an insult to a good reporter, it’s an insult to all the people who pay Mr Markham’s wage and in whose name he is supposedly working. By keeping silent and refusing to answer important questions that people have a right to know he has shown the absolute contempt with which West Midlands Police views its citizens.

Sadly, this is not unusual. Too many public servants refuse to account to the public directly. And too often journalists collude in protecting this corrupt system of secrecy. Journalists need to blow the lid on this lack of accountability. If press officers want to insist they are the only conduit for official information but can’t be bothered to respond to serious questions then they need to be named and shamed.