Sep 102013
 
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So. Sweden joins the club:

[...] Raw data. Legal loopholes. Secret details. Oversight that does too little, far too late. But maybe the [Swedish] FRA can’t be blamed entirely for its transgressions. It’s not like it came up with these ideas on its own.

Last week, British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell revealed Sweden’s involvement as one of the United States’ most important partners in efforts to monitor internet communications across the globe.

“A new organization has joined the “Five Eyes” and is seen as the largest cooperating partner to [the UK's] GCHQ outside the English-speaking countries – and that is Sweden,” Campbell told the European Parliament committee, referring to the colloquial term used to refer to the US, UK, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada.

Nowhere is safe, it would seem, from the reality that “[...] like the US, the defenders of these illegal activities are quick to point out that national security is more important than following laws or respecting citizens’ rights”.  Not even our erstwhile cuddly Scandinavian social democracies.  Perhaps especially not them.

Just to step back a moment from all of the hullabaloo.  What was the plan, do we think?

  1. Protect Western democracy from evil people.
  2. But the Lord says everyone is born with Original Sin.  Therefore, everyone is potentially evil.  Therefore, everyone needs protecting from everyone else.
  3. Trawl everything that might possibly be useful.  But hey, this ain’t dolphin-friendly land.  We’ll trawl both the relevant and the irrelevant – and who cares if some of the good guys and gals get speared in the meantime?
  4. Problem is, what to do with all the catch?  Prioritise, of course.
  5. So: a) some of the bad stuff is really really bad – and actionable; b) some of the bad stuff is irrelevant for our objective of overall law and order (thus we have the British police announcing they only investigate forty percent of crimes); and c) some of the bad stuff may be useful further down the line, only we can’t tell exactly when or how – so we’ll keep it just in case!
  6. Actually, c) is what I’m most worried about in this game plan I perceive: imagine how you could shape Western “democracies”, if you had embarrassing stuff on every single leading public actor, ready for using at any crucial moment.  You wouldn’t, then, have democracy at all, would you?  No.  You wouldn’t.

I’m beginning to wonder, however, that whilst these revelations may make many a leading politician or businessperson a mite hesitant about rocking too many of these nasty little fishing-boats, as far as the general public is concerned their effect may not only be minimal but the reverse of what most people are currently assuming.

Over the past five years or so, via Facebook and latterly Twitter, as well as through that prior generation of famously blogging enthusiasts, we’ve been brainwashed into baring our every inner thought and occurrence with a happy abandon unknown in the previous century’s history.  We’re already quite used to being tracked by advertisers everywhere.  We may complain and mutter under our breath how horrible it all is, but when upgrade time comes we don’t usually step back from investing two more years in that cracking (where not cracked) new smartphone.

So why should what the Western security services do to us make any difference?  Before the summer, we suspected (some of us, anyhow) we were all being watched.  (In fact, around the time of the Iraq War, I was once put in a hospital for asserting this was the case.)  After the summer, we know it to be true.  We know that anything and everything we do has been registered and recorded for future examination by our virtual lords and masters.  We now know what it’s like to live with the chill factor: that feeling you cannot say something because someone else might act on it.  Although since the revelations, it really doesn’t matter any more (even as before them we wondered whether encroaching offline injunctions wouldn’t get the better of social networks’ freedoms).

And this is how it’s become: they already know how we think; they probably already know how we’d act under various circumstances.  Surely in that, then, there is a tremendous sense of liberation.  Surely in that we can begin to come round to the idea that the NSA revelations may lead to more of a desire – not less – on our part to exercise our freedom to speak out.

In for a penny, in for a krona … there’s nowhere you can go to escape these disagreeable behaviours.

Stay where you are, then.  Stand firm and understand: this is how it will be from now on.  You can choose to be quiet – which is clearly your right.  Or you can choose to speak up – in the full liberty-engendering knowledge that we are now in a state of mind we once occupied so joyfully, quite before the Original Sin in question was committed.

As naked as the day we were born.  And gradually becoming as unconscious of our circumstance, as that day for certain we were.

Wonderful feeling, ain’t it?

Wonderful just doesn’t begin to describe it!


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Sep 022013
 
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Whilst the government called Ed Miliband “a fucking cunt” and a “copper-bottomed shit” for saying no to a repeat of Iraq, it would appear the French – who did say no to Iraq all those years ago – have known that Syria has had chemical weapons for at least thirty years:

The announcement comes after Sunday’s French paper, Journal du Dimanche, said French intelligence agents had compiled information showing that some of the weapons had been stockpiled for nearly 30 years.

And if the French have known it, surely the NSAs and GCHQs of the world have known it just as much.

Which brings us to the matter of a request by a UK company to export precursors of chemical weapons to the Syrian government last year.  Here we have the British government’s reaction, via the Lib Dem member of the Coalition, Vince Cable.  A little disingenuous to say the least:

The licences for the two chemicals were granted on 17 and 18 January last year for “use in industrial processes” after being assessed by Department for Business officials to judge if “there was a clear risk that they might be used for internal repression or be diverted for such an end”, according to the letter sent by Mr Cable to the arms controls committee.

Mr Cable said: “The licences were granted because at the time there were no grounds for refusal.”

No grounds for refusal – except thirty years of stockpiling, Mr Cable.

Right?

So what do we have then?  A UK Coalition government, which commits austerity violence on its own population, gaily spending our taxpayer dosh on coming to decisions to export potentially dangerous chemicals to war-torn regions – war-torn regions where their government is one of the few which hasn’t signed international treaties on not using the WMDs that can be made from such chemicals … and this UK Coalition I talk of finds itself able to congratulate itself that it has complied with the law, even as it foul-mouths the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition for saying no to any resulting Western “intervention”.

Which by the way would, as a Facebook photo that just whizzed through my feed pointed out, involve members of our Armed Forces “fighting [in a way] alongside Al Qaeda in a Syrian civil war”.

This, I feel most strongly, is the result of what we might term the psychodrama of austerity unspooling.  What I’m not quite sure of is whether we were brutal and incoherent abroad first – and then learnt how to be so at home.  Or, perhaps more likely, vice versa – in a (sociopolitical) vice of totally immoral proportions.

When you learn how to treat your own people as scroungers, wasters, chavs and layabouts, how much easier it must be to think that on the foreign stage you can prance your incongruences – brightly flailing their idiocy and unkindness without anyone caring.

He (or she) who can call the Leader of the Opposition a “shit” and a “cunt” is able to see all voters, all opponents, all anti-war activists, all thinking people who are unsure of this matter … everyone who does not instinctively agree with what only starts out as yet another drone- and cruise-missile-led adventure … well, anyone who does not automatically say yes is also going to be seen as a “shit”.  No wonder austerity is so easy for them.  We are simply bits and pieces of political (sometimes literal) cannon fodder in a cruel and global conflict.

The problem here, of course, and I leave it without resolution on my part, is that whilst Iraq was the war we should’ve said no to – a war, in fact, the French did say no to – perhaps this Syria biz is quite something else.

What’s more, if the French are prepared to declassify intelligence which shows Western governments knew that Syria had stockpiled chemical weapons for nigh on thirty years, and then did absolutely nothing about it, it surely does beg the following question:

“How can our own political institutions and structures choose to make money out of such evil political trajectories – and then expect us to vote in favour of anything the former propose?”

From chemical weapons to Saddam’s unspeakable WMDs to austerity politics where the poor are savaged by the consequences of the acts of the rich, even as the rich are able to emerge unscathed, we have a politics which is broken quite as badly as it ever could be.

No wonder we feel like being shits to the profession.  They’ve been cunts to us all along.


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Aug 232013
 
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I was chided last night on Twitter for retweeting this story from the Independent, as it might serve to threaten the lives of telecom engineers in the field.  I replied by saying I found it difficult to evaluate the situation either way.  As I pointed out recently, I get the feeling we’re being played with by people who otherwise should limit themselves to serving the voters and their families.

Meanwhile, the Guardian‘s journalist at the eye of this storm today responds thus to the above story:

[...] The question is: who provided them this document or the information in it? It clearly did not come from Snowden or any of the journalists with whom he has directly worked. The Independent provided no source information whatsoever for their rather significant disclosure of top secret information. Did they see any such documents, and if so, who, generally, provided it to them? I don’t mean, obviously, that they should identify their specific source, but at least some information about their basis for these claims, given how significant they are, would be warranted. One would think that they would not have published something like this without either seeing the documents or getting confirmation from someone who has: the class of people who qualify is very small, and includes, most prominently and obviously, the UK government itself.

Just to summarise and clarify: serious accusations are being made that the British security establishment is not only looking to fulfil its rightful responsibility of protecting the British people from external and internal threat, but is also messing around – quite unreasonably I would argue – with the public’s perception of reality and its proper course.  The former is quite sustainable, of course; the latter I would submit is most unacceptable in all cases – and probably a symptom of weakness rather than strength.

We pay our security establishment to protect us from physical harm.  We don’t pay them to play silly buggers with our understanding of where the truth lies.  When the aforementioned establishment thinks it can lash out at anyone and everyone in the interests of keeping the lid on all these unpleasant situations, we have an equally unpleasant problem presenting itself in what is now a very public domain: our security services find as threatening to their sense of wellbeing and focus our own 21st century social-media and virtual inquisition as they do the beastly things which nasty people are planning to do, every day of the week.

The job of the security services shouldn’t need to cover playing mind games with the nation’s perceptions.  We are, after all, ultimately, their paymasters.  We should not be perceived as the enemy.  Our representative democracy should be efficient enough in the task of representation to make the contemplation of repressive response totally unnecessary.

And if it’s not, that’s then a symptom that something is going very wrong with the mechanisms of our democracy.

That our security services do feel they must play to the gallery, as they allegedly leak information when it pleases them, is bad for our sense of equanimity of course – but, equally, it’s bad for the efficiency of those who would defend the integrity of the nations that make up our state.  If instead of focussing on sifting through all the information they’ve gathered on us, they choose to expend all that energy on massaging and manipulating our attitudes to their labour, they’re bound to be wasting a helluva lot of time and money on what is little more than a rolling PR operation.  And it”s not even as if they’re any good at it.  As the Atlantic piece I linked to above underlines:

[...] Given how ham-handedly the NSA has handled PR as each document was exposed, it seems implausible that it wanted advance knowledge so it could work on a response. It’s been two months since the first Snowden revelation, and it still doesn’t have a decent PR story.

In this sense it would seem that the NSA, GCHQ and the rest of the security bundle have been attacked by the same malaise that affects corporate organisations all over the globe: first, keep it secret at all costs; second, if you can’t keep it secret, deny it; third, if you can’t deny it, find some dirt on the enemy; fourth, if finding dirt doesn’t work, pay the enemy off; and fifth, if paying the enemy off doesn’t work, put it all in the hands of a platoon of lawyers.

And if all that fails, put it in the hands of an advertising agency with a solid reputation in rebranding.

No wonder David Cameron is our Prime Minister.  It’s quite fitting that an adman should be running a government whose security services practically own our airwaves at the moment.

No attempt or desire to deal with stuff at all correctly.  Just a continuous and ongoing attempt to brazen their way out of the hole they’ve stupidly gone and dug themselves.

Getting to the point where these guys and gals would appear to be more worried about how we see them than they are about the reality of defending Queen & Country.

Getting to the point where we can only expect a 21st century version of the Spanish Inquisition:

Various motives have been proposed for the monarchs’ decision to found the Inquisition such as increasing political authority, weakening opposition, suppressing conversos, profiting from confiscation of the property of convicted heretics, reducing social tensions and protecting the kingdom from the danger of a fifth column.

Though I’m sure I’m wrong, of course.  As I’m just as sure none of the following sketch bears any relevance to the above.


http://youtu.be/vt0Y39eMvpI


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Jun 152013
 
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I once had a next-door neighbour who was clever enough to know how, and stupid enough to go ahead.  This individual split the cable that came out of another neighbour’s Sky dish and hogged half of the service for free for probably a year.  They caught him in the end.

Nothing came of it though.

I’d like you to watch a podcast before we continue, which eventually – in its studied and careful way – takes us back to basic physics.  Remember what that beautiful object we called a prism actually did?  Split a pure white light into a rainbow of illuminating colours.  And that is just about what this video from last Wednesday invokes both figuratively and literally.  If you’ve not too much time on your hands, start from a little after twenty minutes in.  You might also want to read this EFF document (.pdf format) which describes a highly relevant legal deposition from way back in 2006.  It gets mentioned in the podcast; it’s a crucial part of the audit trail.


http://twit.tv/show/security-now/408

Worth every damn minute, right?  As I said, that next-door neighbour of mine.

So really, if they’re right in their analysis, what’s happening here is permanent wire-tapping, possibly legal (the Internet after all is a public space), on a hugely infrastructured scale.  Maybe a bit like (then again, who am I to say?) those episodes of CSI where they gain DNA by getting someone to drink a cup of coffee and then throw away the cup.

You discard something into that public domain and we’ll hoover it up by splitting the signal as close to its node as we can, without even telling the companies which harvest it in the first place what we’ve decided to do.

So where do people congregate?  What do people use?  The services of – and routers closest to – Google & Co’s massively centralising communication facilities.  All that careful language in their denials of any possible server back-doors, when the issue – semantically – wasn’t the servers.  Direct access to the data the servers contained, yes; but not direct access to the servers themselves.

So it is our society has trodden a long path from once being “economical with the truth” to saying “the least untruthful thing” a politicised figure could think of.

But I’d like to take the issue one step further.  What if Prism doesn’t only allow the light to be split off?  What if it also allows the data to be manipulated?

Last week, just a day before the podcast linked to above, the Greek broadcaster ERT – described to me by Greek citizens recently as the Greek equivalent of the British BBC – was suddenly taken off-air.  News, current affairs, history, culture – all gone at the drop of a hat.  The shock, if replicated here in Britain with our own organisation, would be powerful and lasting for sure.  Yet I argued, for only a moment it is true, that perhaps the Greek way was better: at least someone was taking ownership for obfuscation by clearly closing down its outlet.

The BBC, in the meantime, has been accused of multiple acts of perfidious journalism – an institutionally implemented censorship, in fact, of considerable consequences; a censorship never admitted nor answered by anyone in charge; a censorship, for the majority of its viewers, never even perceived.

Under such circumstances, wouldn’t a manifest – even where shockingly sudden – absence be a cleaner and more hygienic way forward than this grubby messing-about with the parameters of our perceptions and realities?

Except that, of course, for those who use it as a tool to transmit on-message content, keeping it all going is going to be far more productive and in keeping with their overarching objectives than any honest admitting of the truth.

The aforementioned opportunities for manipulation being far more useful than simple tracking and observance.

Don’t just be a spectator is what I’m suggesting here; far more proactively, actually become an actor.

This brings me back, then, to Prism.  If the NSA is accessing everyone’s data, and has allowed in some indirect way for our knowledge of this information to finally hit the public domain, it will surely – now – have the parallel capacity to intervene, interrupt, modify and falsify almost anything which flows around the Internet.

I’m not saying it would, mind you; just suggesting that it’s impossible that the facility wouldn’t have been included.

That is to say, it would include not only the ability to split out of the Internet a perfect copy of everything that hit Google & Co’s servers just before it actually did but also the ability to replace a digitally manipulated alternative of what was originally on the point of being there, just before it actually ended up being so.

There could be many desperate reasons why someone might wish to reserve the right to do this: not least, in times of awful war or some other ongoing conflict, the desire to short-cut legal niceties and thus allow the summary removal from circulation of people who otherwise might be far too clever by half.

And I’m not saying even in this case I’d agree with such a position; all I’m saying is that it wouldn’t surprise me if someone thought engineering such a feature into the infrastructure might be a natty thing to do.

Whatever the substantive reality of the situation, I’m pretty sure one of the drivers of all these repressive instincts is that maybe, just maybe, the Internet as constructed has, at least in the eyes of those who would continue governing, given us far too many freedoms: far too many freedoms for governments to treat their peoples with justice; far too many freedoms for the establishments across the world to feel safe; perhaps, I wonder, even far too many freedoms for even the most sensible and stable of the planet’s citizens to know how to choose consistently reasonable ways of using them.

I’m not saying they’re right; I’m just trying to understand their fears and behaviours – as well as their downright illegalities.

I’m trying to understand how rational human beings can justify using “the least untruthful” way of answering questions from political representatives speaking in permanently-recorded public forums.

*

Let’s finish on a pertinent piece of legalese.  Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says the following:

  • No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Now that’s pretty sweeping – correspondence for example, at least these days, may cover everything from the more analogous emails to tweets and Facebook “likes”.

And remembering Doctorow’s intelligent separation of the words “privacy” and “secrecy” this morning, I do wonder if anyone who’s fighting the good fight still recalls why they went into the business in the first place.

Stop Watching Us?  Well, quite.  It’s an important thought.

Though when 60 percent of Americans say they just don’t care any more, perhaps the good fight has already been lost.


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Jun 152013
 
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This needed to be said, and I’ve never seen it said better:

You should care about privacy because privacy isn’t secrecy. I know what you do in the toilet, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to close the door when you go in the stall.

Read the rest of this brilliantly pointed post.  It sets up the market-stall for those of us who find attacks on privacy disturbing and resistable – even as that government argument of “If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear” both resonates weightily and sees rebuttal as a complex process.

Privacy is a human right.  The flipside of the coin of integrity.

We mustn’t allow government discourse to interfere with that right, nor dirty it with broad-brushed arguments which attempt to criminalise us or make of all our activities suspicious indicators they must feel obliged to track for ever and always.

In truth, whilst governments becomes evermore disagreeably secretive, they avoid all constructive debate on the matter by shifting the onus onto the voters and represented who must – often with a sense of overriding guilt these days – pledge themselves to fight for the few remaining freedoms out there.

Our desire to be private has been corrupted by their need to maintain their own secrecy.  And so they confuse and conflate their desire to hide stuff from democratic oversight by arguing our human requirements for privacy equal their hierarchical and corporatising thirst for permanent obfuscation.

But when we righteously, rightly, demand our privacy, we are not asking for secrecy.  And when they refuse to concede our privacy democratically, arguing that it is little more than the anteroom to criminal secrecy, they curiously, perhaps revealingly, do not choose to give up on their own secretive games.

We ask for little.  They reject this little.  And, what’s more, they assume oversight over so much more.

This, and so much more, is why we must separate the words “privacy” and “secrecy”.  The battleground is so much clearer for me today.  I hope it is also clearer for you.


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Mar 042013
 
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Living in Britain is getting to be a moderately scary proposal.  At least from where I’m sitting, it would seem that both the past and the future are now weighing too heavily on the present.  Two examples tonight which may set you thinking as they have done me.

Last night, I was revising History with my daughter.  She was preparing for a mock exam she thought she had today – an exam, which in the event, won’t take place until Wednesday.  She loves doing mind maps to help her remember stuff: the mind maps we used yesterday were beautifully neat, cogent and well-structured.  Two items jumped out at me and made me wonder – whilst I asked her pertinent questions – whether here, right in front of us, we had the ultimate explanations for the Coalition’s incessant referencing of British history.

The first went as follows, in relation to Political Change:

In 1800 Parliament believed it should not interfere in people’s lives.  If people were unhealthy it was their business.

By 1900 Parliament was making laws to improve people’s health e.g. forcing towns to install sewers.

The second, meanwhile, said this on Entrepreneurs:

Medicine became big business.  Some entrepreneurs made millions of pounds from almost useless remedies.  However others put money into scientific research to find drugs which would help to cure disease.

My daughter is not yet fifteen, and yet, unknowingly to her, though perhaps not to her father, in these few words of hers – snatched and garnered from this book or that class – we have all we need to understand the historical drivers behind the past three years of political upheaval.

For the Coalition knows exactly where it wants to take us: for them, it’s pretty clear, the future means the past.  Not any old past, though.  Instead, the beginning of the century which arguably brought about an astonishing renaissance of persistent legacy.

Not a European renaissance couched in linguistic dissonance but a very British renaissance of a singularly English-speaking colonialism.

A singularly English-speaking colonialism which knew all too well how to traffic in the trade of death and infirmity, both abroad and at home.

*

Whilst British parliamentarians vote to introduce the concept of secret courts (more here), and everyone seems increasingly to see the virtues of spies-in-the-skies, and even privacy seems to be a concept from very forgotten times indeed, I am minded to wonder why the establishment is so very fearful.  As I tweeted this evening:

My question as follows: what have the establishment seen in the future that terrifies them into so much repression in the present?

All these moves around the edges to control and target and define.  And in a century where computing powers and predictive tools have multiplied their perspicacities in an almost terrifyingly exponential way.

So what have they seen – these lords and masters of ours – which leads them to scurry about in such unseemly and unremitting ways?

Why have our brave and powerful eagles suddenly become rabbits in the headlights of the future?

What, in the future, really awaits us?


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Apr 192012
 
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The prostitution scandal currently affecting the American Secret Service, and which has already led to three dismissals, is interesting.  If we were still living in a world where WikiLeaks held sway, this would surely have been a story they’d have run.  But it isn’t such a world.

So why – and more importantly how – is the story being run?

It’s not being run because upstanding Americans from the Moral Majority – or indeed the liberal left – are unhappy at such acts.  This is clear enough from recent political declarations, which, while mentioning ethical issues in pretty quick passing, go on to display the following narrative arc:

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Ms Collins, a Republican who represents Maine in the Senate, also said she had asked Mr Sullivan a number of questions during her phone briefing.

“Who were these women? Could they have been members of groups hostile to the United States? Could they have planted bugs, disabled weapons, or… jeopardised [the] security of the president or our country?”

The question of course, as always, is who does it benefit to run such a story at such a time?  Obama, because it distracts from other matters out there?  The Republicans, because it casts Obama in a bad light in the eyes of Hispanic voters?  Or maybe the newspapers themselves from a pecuniary point of view, because they’re owed one for previous favours rendered?

In reality, it leads one to believe that an intruded-upon secrecy simply doesn’t exist.  Whatever we see, it’s because someone who knows wants us to see it.  We’re always going to be at the mercy of that manipulatory instinct to engineer our perceptions; always going to be unable to see things directly and with clarity ourselves.

If our politics is really as “crap” as some are now saying, we need look no further than the above impulse to know the reason why.

Politics does not search out the truth.  Politics looks to degrade our appreciation of what’s right and what’s wrong.  And pretending, occasionally, that our media serve to cast light on dark realities is just one more part of the game those in power are playing with their voters.


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