Whitehouse wiretap smear: GCHQ has reaped what it has sown

When institutions abuse the trust placed in them, they become brittle and expose themselves to conspiracy theorists and demagogues

One thing I like to do on this blog is note the small and less spectacular effects of human rights violations on our democracy.

Too often, when we discuss government wrong-doing, or some power-grabbing piece of legislation, we speak in grand terms about how it could lead to the breakdown of democracy and the onset of totalitarianism. We always talk about the end state—Nineteen Eighty-Four, usually—which conveys the implicit message that the way-points in that journey are not terrible in-and-of themselves. Continue reading “Whitehouse wiretap smear: GCHQ has reaped what it has sown”

Surveillance: It’s not all about you

Ambivalence about the rights of others is unpatriotic.

The Investigatory Powers Bill will be published tomorrow.  The Home Secretary will set out her vision for what snooping powers the security services should have in their tool-box, and also what oversight parliament, the judiciary, and independent ‘watchdogs’ should have over the use of those powers.

I work for English PEN, one of the six organisations leading the Don’t Spy On Us campaign.  Be in no doubt I will be sharing our analysis of the proposed new law and recommendations for improvement.

A constant issue regarding civil liberties (and one that we have discussed before on these pages) is how to convince members of the public to care about human rights when few of us ever actually experience a violation of those rights.  In the past, I have discussed the idea of ‘everyday rights‘ and the notion that, even if we are not tortured or detained, our lives are made marginally worse when our rights are eroded, even in small ways. Continue reading “Surveillance: It’s not all about you”

Surveillance changes the “Psyche of the Community”

When we talk about surveillance, we need to talk about The Observer Effect.

When we debate surveillance (whether its CCTV or snooping on our e-mails) the debate is usually framed as a trade off between civil liberties and security.  Its the right to privacy versus the right to be protected from crime.  Often, civil libertarians seek to win the argument by highlighting how the State can be tyrannical, oppressive, corrupt… or unworthy of trust.  Our governments are compared literary dystopias like Airstrip One in Nineteen Eighty-Four or to real-life dictatorships like North Korea.  These arguments are persuasive to some.

But as I have discussed previously, this approach does not persuade everyone.  And by deploying these arguments, civil liberties campaigners actually leave themselves exposed.  What if you do not believe that (say) the UK is as bad as North Korea?  What if you think that, on balance, Teresa May, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe and Robert Hannigan are actually on our side and not out to seize tyrannical control of the people?  All this chat about nefarious government agents acting like the Stasi will simply not persuade. 

When we talk about surveillance, we need to talk about The Observer Effect.  In physics, this is the concept that says that by measuring something, you change it.  And  we’re talking about surveillance, The Observer Effect means that simply by watching someone, you change their behaviour. Continue reading “Surveillance changes the “Psyche of the Community””

Discrediting Assange

Andrew O’Hagan’s London Review of Books essay on the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is quite something. Hired to ghostwrite Assange’s autobiography, O’Hagan spent many months with the hacker while he was on bail and living in a country house in Norfolk. The essay describes Julian Assange’s erratic, selfish and sometimes delusional personality that caused the book project to wither.

I’ve heard some people call the essay ‘a hatchet job’ but it is more subtle than that. The piece seethes and scathes, but I don’t detect a sneer or anything to suggest that it seeks to pull Julian Assange down a peg.

Rather, its a literary catharsis. O’Hagan is a man squeezed between the exasperating Assange and the bolshy publisher Jamie Byng, a position he clearly finds deeply uncomfortable. The story reads as incredibly sincere, which also makes it credible and compelling.

There’s no doubt that O’Hagan’s essay zips up the body bag on Assange’s already brutalised reputation. His protagonist (for, by the end, Assange has become a character, a ‘cipher’) is unquestionably the author of his own downfall. Nevertheless, there remains a certain unease in the fact that this essay has been published in the same week as some more damning revelations about the practices of GCHQ.

Writing on First Look Media’s Interceptor blog, Glenn Greenwald (the journalist who took receipt of Edward Snowden’s cache of NSA documents) exposes the paychological techniques deployed by our the security services. His article is titled ‘How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations’ and presents leaked GCHQ slides that describe the techniques used by JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group). The group allegedly deploys techniques developed by behavioural scientists to break up political groups that they perceive to be a threat to national security. They use agents provocateurs, False Flag operations, and even ruin business and personal relationships through the hacking of social media and e-mail accounts. ‘Honey Traps’ are also mentioned.

Its impossible to know which, if any, of these techniques have been used against Wikileaks and Julian Assange, but I don’t think it would be particularly outlandish or paranoid to imagine that the group have been the target of this sort of action. I don’t know how the public, and targets of such covert government attacks, can counter the misinformation… But I do know that Assange’s chaotic response, and his decision to avoid the chance to clear his name, is not the way to go about it.

Protect whistleblowers to protect the leaks

If O’Hagan’s account is to be believed (and the hours of tape recordings lends weight to his account) then Julian Assange is actually quite careless with the sensitive data he handles. In an op-ed in the Independent, my colleague Mile Harris points out that this is a reason to protect and encourage whistleblowers. Far better that those who handle leaked information treat it with care. By aggressively prosecuting the act of whistleblowing, we ensure that future leakers are likely to be in the Assange mould—unreliable and careless.

Let's make art with GCHQ

Glen Greenwald has posted another dispatch on the Snowden files, presenting new revelations about GCHQ: False flag operations, spreading false information, and disrupting nascent political groups.  His report includes the tired, obtuse non-quote from GCHQ:

It is a longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters. Furthermore, all of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. All our operational processes rigorously support this position

It strikes me that this non-speak is ripe raw material for satire and art.  Continue reading “Let's make art with GCHQ”