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On “Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear” from PRISM

It appears the NSA and GCHQ are able to read people’s e-mails more or less at will. The whistleblower, Edward Snowden, who made this startling revelation has fled to…. China…. (well, Hong Kong, but the irony remains).

Of course the NSA and GCHQ can read our communications, THAT’S WHAT WE PAY THEM TO BE ABLE TO DO. The difference between countries like Britain and America, and those like China, is the security agencies of the former are genuinely looking for people who want to hack soldiers’ heads off in the street or blow themselves up on buses, while mostly ignoring people saying “I disagree with the Government”. China on the other hand, is about monitoring its citizens’ opinions of the Government.

Now, I’m not going to defend in detail the hyperventilating response of the US authorities to people like Snowden and Bradley Manning. Manning, in particular has been vindictively treated, and Snowden is rightly afraid of the same treatment.  But the wikileaks scandal did lead to widespread legitimate questioning by electorates about what is being done in their name and that is a good thing. The USA is in danger of losing sight of what made it powerful – the freedom enjoyed by Americans to think what they will. The suspicion of Government has been replaced by a fawning deference to the intelligence-military-industrial complex. But this is a cultural battle, not a political one.

There’s a reason some things are secret. Large-scale, indiscriminate leaking of information can cost lives if it means agents and sources in hostile countries can be identified. In an ideal world, our Governments wouldn’t need secrets, but we don’t live in an ideal world and there’s always an ideology of the angry – radical islam, before that Communism, anarchism and so forth which demanded surveillance. There’s always going to be a battle between those who favour security, and those who favour openness, in which will be impossible to strike the right balance at all times. What’s important is to keep the tension so that neither security prevents free thought, while allowing spooks to monitor some bad-guys. Libertarians on Twitter, most of whom have absolutely nothing to do with the intelligence agencies, are instinctively outraged about attacks on privacy by state agencies and kick up a knee-jerk fuss without thinking the issue through. As the overlap between Twitter libertarians and Geeks is almost total, internet freedom is felt very personally. Most people (and we live in a democracy) are more outraged when the spooks whom we pay to keep us safe, fail at their task.

It’s too easy as a libertarian to start from a position of “all state action is wrong” then work from there. It’s possible to make the intellectual arguments about how wicked the intelligence agencies are or even deny their utility. Of course they’re there to defend the Government and the State. Only an extremist could think this somehow wrong. Because the one part of the British state which appears to be doing its job is the intelligence agencies who are actually protecting ordinary people. It won’t be the politicians getting blown up on buses. In crying foul when intelligence agencies are doing what we pay them to do, you leave the non-aligned with the impression that Libertarianism is rather childish, and has nothing to say about the problems facing the world today, preferring to imagine a perfect state-free utopia. But Libertarianism is not anarchism. The state has the right to defend itself, and the majority law-abiding population, from those who would seek to use violence and subversion, rather than democracy, to achieve political ends.

Don’t believe we’ve got the balance right? How many countries would let parties which openly call for the break-up of the country to sit in the legislature? That’s allowed basically in Western Europe and the Anglosphere. If you’re prepared to use democratic means (which means persuading voters) you’re legitimate, more or less whatever you want to say.

Clearly, the intelligence agencies have foiled all but a handful of big attacks on our society, and they have done so by quietly watching the enablers and inciters. It seems probable had ‘the not-employed-as-plumbers’ Adebolajo and Adebowale gone into a hardware shop and bought a load of pipes and chemicals, they’d have been lifted for preparing a bomb. The fact these two were known to the intelligence agencies at the time of the Woolwich attack at all means MI5 is doing something right. The fact they weren’t lifted suggests the agencies have a mind on civil liberties. No intelligence agency can be wise to every threat, or use perfect judgement and most people are realistic enough to see that.

If the PRISM data is held, to enable people already of interest to be looked into more closely (and social networks here are vital) then this is understandable, and frankly despite protestations to the contrary, I expect the NSA to be able to do this to US citizens too. This is going to happen anyway, but I’d rather it be in a legal grey area as it is now, which will persuade the spooks to not ‘take the piss‘. During the cold war, Left-wing organisations and trades unions were often accused of being in league with the enemy – the Soviet Union. Most were not, and some like the Communist Party of Great Britain were openly sympathetic to Moscow. MI5 had files on Labour movement figures, many of whom ended up in Government.

Before mass communication, it was easy. You tapped telephone lines, steamed open letters and broke the codes of people you thought might be a wrong ‘un. Laws enabling agencies to do this, in extremis, were enacted. Nowadays it’s a bit harder. The sheer volume of electronic communications leads to agencies to data mine using algorithms to look for data in which they might be interested. The problem is that most extremists are, by nature, thick and incompetent. They’re easy to find by traditional means. The intelligent ones who’re actually capable of organising the big atrocities are harder to pin down. Simple encryption will defeat data-mining of PRISM data. No encryption is perfect, but it requires resources that will only be deployed if the agencies are already looking at you. It’s the network analysis from the thick and incompetent foot-soldiers and human bombs which leads to the clever, effective terrorists.

To me, the Cold War ‘Spycatcher’ stuff on Labour figures is reassuring. MI5 had a look, found nothing of interest and ignored them. People who had been of interest for a bit were not prevented from seeking high office. Preventing politicians of one side from entering office would have led to scandal of epic proportions. The very legal grey area the in which the spooks operate appears to have been a protection far better than any law.

Now, with all intelligence agency behaviour to be subject to laws, laws will be drafted to allow the Government to monitor communications. Given this legal top-cover, the Agencies will do so with alacrity. The volume of data stored, and the freedom with which it will be used, will rise exponentially. Any competent plotters will regard the Internet as fundamentally insecure, and will find other ways to communicate thus rendering them invisible. Furthermore, there’s the opportunity cost: spooks will spend all their time checking out people who tweet they’re going to Blow the Airport sky-high, and missing the next competent killer as a result.

The spooks belong in the shadows, collecting information, but being careful what they do with it, lest anyone find out how. William Hague said “we’ve nothing to fear from GCHQ”, and I agree with him. But the argument of Labour home secretaries that “if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear” (which I’ve long thought should be criminalised, punishable by 42-days in prison) does not follow. Data, in the volumes it’s generated these days, can be mined to create an entirely false picture of a person. A number of angry tweets will be used to demonstrate in court a violent personality disorder. An essay which in context is obviously dripping with irony, will be used at face-value out of context to demonstrate the opposite of what’s meant. (*innocent face*). Too much data means the wood will not be seen for the trees, as innocent people fall under suspicion.

The East-German Stasi used to monitor all and sundry, keeping detailed records of pretty ordinary lives. To what end? They failed to spot the imminent collapse of the regime because they were too busy recording the conversations of playwrights. Couldn’t happen here? Look at the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA): it was supposed to bring what was already happening under regulatory oversight. What it allowed was local councils to see who was sleeping where, to prevent benefit fraud. The law supposedly designed to protect the British people caused the (presumably) unintended consequence of council bin-snooping and so extended the power of the state.

Britain is not becoming like China where free expression of political thought is illegal. Nor has the British government over-reacted to a now-minuscule terrorist threat, like the Americans have since 9/11, and thrown all oversight of their intelligence agencies out of the window, with criticism of the Government agencies deemed unpatriotic. There is a judgement to be made. So long as the spooks have at least as much to fear as a result of getting it wrong, then it’s probably right to say ‘if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear’ in this instance (…42 days in gaol? I’ll go quietly, yer-‘onner). The right people: people who want to blow themselves up on public transport, are subject to surveillance, and no-one should think this is wrong. It’s what we pay intelligence agencies to do. There have been remarkably few stories of people incorrectly so targeted, unlike the bin snoopers brought about by RIPA.

If PRISM became wholly and undeniably legal, then the risks the spooks run by using its data would fall, and the temptation to abuse it would therefore rise. So. Let’s not give ’em the temptation. The Data and Communications Bill in particular would force exactly the sort of network data contained in Prism to be stored, but thankfully it has been killed off by the Liberal Democrats and some Tories. (You see why I like the coalition? The sillier instincts of both parties are tempered) This bill would have given the intelligence agencies powers they neither should have, nor need to foil the current threat of Islamist extremist terrorism.

However the spooks are doing it now, semi-legally or not, it’s working well. So it doesn’t need fixing.

Norwegians can be Proud of their Country Today.

Anders Behring Breivik. This is why racial profiling doesn’t work.

Needless to say the killing of nearly 100 people, probably by a right-wing Christian extremist called Anders Behring Breivik in by bomb in Oslo and by shooting on a nearby island youth camp yesterday is a terrible crime. A spokesman for the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s Labour party said

“We meet terror and violence with more democracy and will continue to fight against intolerance…”

I can’t help thinking that if Bush or Blair had said something similar in the wake of 9/11 or 7/7, Britons or Americans would not be living in the unpleasant police-states in which they now find themselves.

The Life and Trials Of Julian Assange

Guest post by Mara
Much of the media frenzy surrounding Assange is born of the fact that little is known about him. Thirty nine years old. Australian. No fixed address. Parents ran a touring company. Attended thirty seven schools. Has a child from a failed relationship. Malcolm Rifkind describes him as a ‘frighteningly amoral figure’, Edward Heathcoat-Armory as ‘paranoic and archaic’, one who lives a ‘bizarre peripatetic life’. Assange has been ritualistically demonized by the media as a shadowy, sinister and above all wicked figure who will stop at nothing in order to print a sensational story. In a savage evocation of the McCarthy era, politicians across the world have been baying for his arrest, his silence, and even his blood. It is ironic that some of these politicians, Attorney General Eric Holder who refused to prosecute the CIA for torture in particular, are now mounting a moral crusade using the ‘forces of darkness and light’ narrative to achieve their ends.
The latest move to silence Assange lies in the lap of a Swedish prosecutor who, despite a wealth of contradictory evidence, has issued a European Arrest Warrant in order to prosecute him for the alleged coercion and rape of two women. Prior to the issuing of said warrant, the case had been thrown out by a second Swedish prosecutor for lack of evidence. The first woman invited him to stay at her home, had intercourse with him, and threw a party for him the following evening. The second, evidently starstruck (describing him as ‘interesting, brave and admirable’), invited him to her home and paid for his rail fare in both directions. Later, the two women got together, the first “victim” having attempted to expunge an entry on her blog entitled ‘7 Steps to Get Legal Revenge’ and to erase a Tweet which read ‘Sitting outside … nearly freezing, with the world’s coolest people. It’s pretty amazing!’ They appear to have blown the whistle based on the fact that Assange had Biblical knowledge of them both within a matter of days. Whether this is a case of ‘sexfalla’, which may be loosely translated as a ‘honeytrap’, or two women seething with indignation that Assange shared his sexual favours impartially, there is negligable evidence that any crime was committed. Indeed, Assange has been attempting to meet face-to-face with the Swedish prosecutor for over a year in order to set the record straight.
The typical media response, imbued as it is with a prurient need to know the explicit details of this and every other case involving sex and a kneejerkist Puritannical desire to punish those involved for their morality or lack thereof, has been to define Assange’s character in relation to the allegations. Sex, though a powerful motivation, is not sufficient to explain, or detract, from Assange’s desire to see justice done: to make public a file passed on to him by Bradley Manning, a man whose own character has been torn to shreds, in order that global governance may not get away with covering up its sins. The release of a number of diplomatic telegrams, which has prompted Sarah Palin to call for the death sentence to be imposed on Assange, is both important and necessary. The intelligence that the Obama administration views ours with suspicion, believing that our PM isn’t up to the job and our military is inadequate, has a profound effect on our supposedly ‘joint’ efforts to pacify Afghanistan. Why should we continue to expend resources and lives to assist those who have no faith in us?
The fact that Hilary Clinton deliberately gave orders to pervert the course of justice by covertly obtaining biometric and personal data of UN delegates, including the Secretary General, highlights the fact that the United States believes itself to be above petty legal concerns. Such a profound insult, perversely, may make those waiting to be groped by the TSA at US airports or exposed to radiation via body scanners feel a little more solidarity with the powers-that-be. In relation to Iraq, US troops were commanded not to release details or investigate tortures of Iraqis under an order called ‘Frago 242’. And the latest ‘atrocity’ to be leaked, a list of defence facilities which has been characterised by the US State Department as ‘arrogant, misguided and ultimately not helpful in any way,’ a move that puts the ‘national security of the United States has been put at risk; the lives of people who work for the American people have been put at risk; the American people themselves’ at risk, despite the fact that said information has been available in the public domain for a considerable time. The claim that such an act is tantamount to ‘giving a targeting list to groups like al-Qaeda’ is risible. Though it is easy to represent those committing atrocious acts as the Other, an amorphous mass lacking both in intelligence and self-governance, it is more than likely that said group has both access to the Internet and a fair idea of what they want to target.
On balance, I would applaud Assange’s stance. He has, at personal risk, sought to expose the prim-lipped hypocrisy employed by Western governments towards each other, towards those nations they attempt to subdue and subvert in the name of ‘democracy’ and towards their citizens. This information is very much in the national interest. It is in the interest of each and every working man and woman because they are the ones who bear the financial and moral burden, and the after-effects, of governmental decisions taken on their behalf. Far from villifying Assange, we should applaud his endeavours; to hold those responsible for gross travesties of justice, rather than embarking on a witch hunt. We should overcome the Washington-driven jargon that seeks to make a laughing stock of Assange in order to sweep their dirty dealings under the carpet. Media analyst Glenn Greenwald noted that: ‘this kind of character smear (‘he’s not in his right mind,’ pronounced a 25-year-old who sort of knows him) is reserved for people who don’t matter in the world of establishment journalists – i.e., people without power or standing in Washington and, especially, those whom American Government authorities scorn. In official Washington, Assange is a contemptible loser – the Pentagon hates him and wants him destroyed, and therefore the ‘reporters’ who rely on, admire and identify with Pentagon officials immediately adopt that perspective – and that’s why he was the target of this type of attack.’
And, in making such an attack so personal, all accountability passes to the person being demonised. Higher standards need to be employed by those journalists who, despite bleating about impartiality, hop on to whatever political bandwagon happens to be rolling out that week so they gain approval. Where the bravery, where the unflinching honesty, that once used to epitomise reporting, from Deep Throat to the Killing Fields? Ironically, what most party line journalists seem to have overlooked is that in villifying one of their own, they are encouraging the establisment of a system wherein their own right to free speech, should they ever use it, could be revoked. An unhappy notion for the ‘global’ world we live in. And harping on about ‘responsibility’ and the ‘balance of liberty and power’ simply won’t cut it, for if they are willing to shore up the system unquestioningly, they are willing to shore up its abuses of liberty and power too. As Assange stated, ‘when governments stop torturing and killing people, and when corporations stop abusing the legal system, then perhaps it will be time to ask if free-speech activists are accountable.’Guest post by Mara