Robin Tudge is a writer, professional actor and author, having written the No Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance (2011) and the best-selling Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories. He has also led tours to North Korea. Originally from London, he has lived and worked in Chicago, Moscow, Hanoi and Beijing and travelled across Asia and Europe, and has been published in newspapers worldwide. He now lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

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Robin Tudge is a writer, professional actor and author.

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Clouding the issue

clouds

Nicolas Raymond under a Creative Commons Licence

The raid and dissemination of personal images of actress Jennifer Lawrence from her iCloud account, among others, is appalling. To say people should not upload their most personal pictures to cloud storage (or anywhere else) in case it gets hacked could be said to be victim-blaming.

People should be allowed to do such things without fear of having their privacy so grossly violated. But it’s also horribly true that all and any data stored remotely from users’ computers or phones or memory sticks can be stolen, lost, corrupted or hacked and can go viral instantly. That is why Apple, in its iCloud users’ terms and conditions (T&Cs), has this big fat disclaimer in capital letters to disabuse users’ expectations that their data is safe and sound:

APPLE DOES NOT REPRESENT OR GUARANTEE THAT THE SERVICE WILL BE FREE FROM LOSS, CORRUPTION, ATTACK, VIRUSES, INTERFERENCE, HACKING, OR OTHER SECURITY INTRUSION, AND APPLE DISCLAIMS ANY LIABILITY RELATING THERETO.

That’s them covered, atop an almost 9,000-word contract in which lurk innumerable potentially violating ends for our data and content – from users as young as 13 years old, or children as they’re known – in the hands of Apple and friends, ends to which we users consent.  

Surely providers can far more clearly explain to technically inept users – that’s most of us – whether their data is uploaded to the cloud by choice or default. Maybe that is somewhere in the iCloud’s novelette contract, for example, but even the coolest, most tech- and legal-savvy minds can only make their judgement based on the T&Cs, ‘last revised: September 18, 2013’, because ‘Apple reserves the right at any time to modify this Agreement and to impose new or additional terms or conditions’. And that’s not all: ‘For more information, please read our full privacy policy  – which then shows how your rights vary according to your location. Seriously, who has the time to read and process all this? (more shifting goal posts can be seen here).

Apple and its T&Cs are by no means unique, but here’s some more from Apple’s novelette: ‘Apple may collect, use, transmit, process and maintain information related to your Account and related registered devices’, to better Apple’s products, but also ‘this information may be transferred to the United States and/or other countries for storage, processing and use by Apple, its affiliates, and/or their service providers’. I’d assume all my data had already gone to the US-based National Security Agency (NSA) anyway – but who are these un-named affiliates? Where are they? How will they get my data? ‘Apple may transmit your Content across various public networks, in various media, and modify or change your Content to comply with technical requirements of connecting networks or devices or computers.’

Apple also has the right to ‘access, use, preserve and/or disclose your Account information and Content to law enforcement authorities, government officials, and/or a third party, as Apple believes is reasonably necessary or appropriate, if legally required to do so or if we have a good faith belief [to do so]’ to comply with legal requests, to protect others’ property rights, and to enforce this Agreement.

So any un-named third party may get your content, for as little and as Kafkaesque a reason as Apple wondering aloud if its own agreement is being stuck to. Further, Apple has ‘a worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive license to use, distribute, reproduce, modify ... publicly perform and publicly display such Content on the Service’, without payment, as long as it’s not unlawful conduct or is ‘obscene, objectionable, or in poor taste’ – wholly subjective criteria which surely requires some Apple hack to come sniff out?

I’ve barely scratched the surface. People get exercised when, for example, the state seeks to take all our personal data out of separate state department silos and hoard it all onto a single database, a reckless endeavour that NO2ID has long campaigned against. Maybe people become upset because they perceive the state to be innately dictatorial, and by threatening the sanctity of their personal data, it threatens their personal sovereignty and autonomy. But with the private companies dealing with our emails, texts, the tax returns we compute and store on cloud and the precarious selfies we upload, people overlook those same dangers. Maybe it’s because they choose to use these companies’ services as a means to exercise their autonomy, to engage in the here and now, and that not only obscures any abstract threat posed by far-flung hackers but, far worse, blinds us to the potential violations that we blithely sign up to in the first place.

Robin Tudge is the author of the No Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance and is the Newcastle co-ordinator for the anti-database state campaign group, NO2ID.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Meanwhile the Electronic Freedom Frontier group has given the following suggestions as per enhancing security:

The best way to secure your data in the cloud is to use a good password. That doesn’t mean it has to be super-complicated with lots of symbols and random numbers and capital letters; you can be just as secure using a password made up of four or five totally random words strung together (as long as they don’t form a coherent sentence). For even more security, you can use a totally random password and make use of a password safe like Keepass or Mitro. If your cloud service supports it, you should also enable two-factor authentication on your account – then when someone tries to change your password (or even login, depending on the service), they’ll have to enter a code that gets sent to your phone via SMS or a phone call. That way, a thief would not only have to know your password, but also have physical access to your phone (which is a lot harder).

The British government is terrorizing the public into accepting its snooping law

banksy.jpg

Who do we citizens really need protecting from? www.agencian22.mx under a Creative Commons Licence

Our government is blasting a new law onto the books, out of the blue. Under the guise of a pincer movement from Syrian jihadists and British paedophiles, it is trying to terrorize its citizens into accepting the bombshell Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP).

All three main political parties – Labour, Tories and the Lib-Dems – have secretly plotted to demand all private citizens’ email and phone records be stored by firms so state spies can sift through them.

The new law is designed to re-instate the snooping enabled under the 2006 European Data Retention Directive, which the European Court of Justice (ECJ) struck down last April as in breach of the Human Rights Act.

The British government wants to circumvent that judgement by re-branding spying under DRIP. It describes the Bill as an emergency ‘stop gap’. Yet in the last three months, no party has discussed the ECJ’s ruling with the public, and they are now, without any debate, trying to make it into law during three days next week, before parliament’s summer break.

The Open Rights Group has noted that DRIP contains statutory instruments that allow the Home Secretary and others to broaden the scope of the surveillance at a stroke, without parliament’s involvement.

DRIP also reprises much of the defeated Snooper Charter, a communications bill that the Liberal Democrats stymied in 2013. Restrictions and safeguards are promised in secondary legislation, which has yet to be produced, but this writer suspects these protections will be as open and vague as the apparent state of emergency requiring the law.

We are protected by a ‘sunset’ clause, which will kill the Act in 2016 – a phrase that suggests  the suspension of our fundamental rights in law is temporary and ends beautifully! Yet by 2016, there will be no substantive change in party personnel or politics and it’s likely to be renewed with new measures tacked on. Maybe the ECJ will damn the practices again, but enshrining snooping as national – not an EU – law will complicate legal challenges.

This act is just one in a series of laws intent on making seedy furtiveness the all-pervasive code of conduct. Last year, the Justice and Security Act came into effect in Britain. It allows ‘closed sessions’ in civil trials, where sensitive intelligence can be presented against claimants that the judge and security-cleared special advocates can see, but the claimant – and their lawyer cannot. This leaves them hard pushed to disprove any allegations.

In June, the Appeal Court ruled it permissible to allow only certain accredited journalists to attend terror trials, and then to attend some but not all proceedings, and then their notes be stored in court. This demolishes the concept of ‘open justice’ and allows the state to pick and choose who covers such trials.

Meanwhile, inquests and inquiries into state or police malpractices are being ever more jeopardised by cuts to legal aid.

Last year Edward Snowden’s revelations proved the US National Security Agency (NSA)’s surveillance apparatus was global and applied to everybody, even the elected officials of ‘friendly’ states.

We are in an age of global disclosures of state abuses, where whistleblowers such as Snowden, Bradley Manning or Julian Assange, and revelations made under Freedom of Information requests have exposed the need for state spies to be subject to more scrutiny.

This would ensuring that they work to protect our democracy, in a manner commensurate with defending those freedoms, and not usher in the kind of totalitarian state.

Yet we are heading in the opposite direction. This is a global phenomenon. As New Internationalist reported back in August 2012, the governments of the US, UK, Canada and Australia – long-standing partners in harvesting and sharing global intelligence – were all busy pushing laws that demanded our data be stored and open for sifting.

States all profess that these laws are needed to better fight terrorism and paedophiles. Yet in Britain these claims come from the same political parties who housed Cyril Smith, former MP for Rochdale, who abused boys with impunity for decades. More worrying still, a dossier about an alleged paedophile ring among MPs that was given to then Home Secretary Leon Brittan in 1983, was ‘lost’, along with hundreds of other files relating to organized child abuse.

This is more than just a poisonous irony. From protecting those guilty of the most heinous and perverted crimes, to smearing the dead of the Hillsborough football disaster we’ve seen how the top echelons of power in our parliament, civil service, media and police collude.

It begs the question, once again, who do we citizens really need protecting from?

Robin Tudge is the author of No Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance, the Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories and writes for New Internationalist and The Guardian. www.robintudge.wordpress.com

Spies and the prism of lies

Who's listening in? AJ Korkadis

The latest revelations about PRISM, a secret means for the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect our emails and other material without warrants, suggest that the British government cannot or will not protect its own innocent citizens from Washington’s spying.

Worse still, we law-abiding citizens are expected to trust that those secret types who spy on us – who clearly don’t trust us – are equally law abiding. Why should we assume they are? If we hold them to the paranoid standard that they hold us to, then they too must be open to account.

If they’ve nothing to hide why do the agents of the state behave so furtively? Secrecy allows them to do whatever they think they can get away with, and they do it.

PRISM is the latest outrage. But for as long as there have been telecommunications, there have been private companies working with spies to enable state monitoring.

The US National Security Agency (NSA) was originally called the Black Chamber. Under censorship laws in WWI it worked with Western Union and others to ensure access to all America’s telegram traffic. These practices, and the laws that allowed them, supposedly ended with the war, but telegram companies carried on handing over bags of telegrams to Chamber spies in back alleys.

The Black Chamber developed over the years to become inaugurated as the NSA in 1952, without the oversight of US Congress. The NSA, FBI and CIA went on to visit upon the citizens of the Land of the Free a staggering array of domestic surveillance abuses, from phone tapping to break–ins, to agent provocateurs and planting slanderous press reports about environmentalists, feminists, civil rights’ groups, democracy activists – basically anyone to the left of rabid anti-communist senator Jo McCarthy.

These abuses were only exposed by senator Frank Church’s Senatorial committee in the 1970s, which served also to inform many senators that the NSA – by then staffed by tens of thousands – even existed.

This problem is not confined to the US. In Britain, we’ve seen revelations about government agents stealing the identities of dead children to infiltrate protest groups where they encourage criminal acts while sleeping with activists. MI5 was involved in the extraordinary rendition and torture of British subjects.

And let’s not forget how the CIA and MI6 sat and watched their own intelligence about Iraq’s non-existent WMD be entirely adulterated so Bush and Blair could make their case for war.

Collaboration between international spy agencies is not new. PRISM’s an updated version of ECHELON, the global telecoms tapping and sharing network set up and run by the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand under the ‘UKUSA Agreement’.

So we must assume that where our own spies may not directly spy on us, they get the same data off their partners, as UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) does through PRISM.

And the US’ Patriot Act demands Google, Yahoo! and friends give up any data it gets from overseas (non-US) operations to the NSA, CIA et al.

The internet companies’ claim to ignorance of PRISM borders on disingenuous. After all, they know about the Patriot Act, and they’d be aware of how illegal eavesdropping takes place.

The US government has extended its snooping powers in a battery of recent laws, passed if not promoted, such as the Stop Online Piracy Act, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) bill, the Cybersecurity Act and the SECURE IT Act. They all seek to enable greater state and corporate cooperation in tracking individuals’ online activities.

The Snoopers’ Charter is just more of the same for the UK, adding to the 2000 Regulation of Investigative Powers Act and the EU’s 2006 Data Retention Directive. Canada, Australia and New Zealand – all ECHELON partners – are also bidding, with strangely coincidental timing, to have their electorates’ accept in public law what’s already done on the sly.

The only problem for these powerful entities is that they have human beings with principles and consciences working for them – people like Edward Snowden, or Bradley Manning – brave individuals who stand up to the abuses of power that they see and expose them, instantly, globally, with a memory stick, the Internet and perhaps a media partner. It’s that easy to expose the malevolence of governments to the scrutiny – and wrath – of their electorates. And that is how the balance of power should be.

Robin Tudge is the author of the No Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance and the Newcastle coordinator for anti database-state group NO2ID.

Surveillance: another battle is won – but the war goes on

Big Ben and a CCTV camera
Big Brother next to Big Ben - you are being watched Harshil Shah under a CC Licence

There are victories in the war on surveillance. Just this April, years of campaigning by the Open Rights Organisation, Privacy International, NO2ID and Liberty, among others, helped kill off the British government’s ‘Snooper’s Charter’ that sought to monitor all our internet and social media usage in a ‘massive extension of state power’ as even one Conservative called it, while a committee of MPs said the bill ‘trampled on the privacy of British citizens’ while adding nothing to their security. When Deputy PM Nick Clegg refused to back the bill, this rare good deed seemed to be the fatal blow.

But for every high-profile victory, another stealthy assault on our privacy continues as the government thinks our most private medical data is its to sell. The privatization of the NHS will abolish our medical privacy in the name of profit. Since 1 April, information held about us by our doctors, from our illnesses, to our NHS numbers and postcodes, is being uploaded to the NHS’s new Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) to analyse health trends and allocate health services, while for-profit companies or any other approved ‘customers’ can access the data. Guidelines allow explicitly identifiable data to be disclosed without patients’ consent, and data already possessed by the HSCIC can be used for ‘secondary purposes’ – whatever they are.

Promises the data will be ‘anonymised’ and secure are worthless – ways will be found to identify people and the data will be hacked or left on mislaid laptops. Meanwhile, the confidentiality that underpins the patient-doctor relationship is eroded. People may not seek medical help and will suffer in silence, while the data that is aggregated will be skewed and all policies or resource-allocation based on it, leaving epidemics to thrive under a delusion of happy stats.

The Coalition is consistently inconsistent regarding privacy. Last December, the same Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who had opposed Labour’s national DNA database, and whose Freedoms Bill reined in Britain’s police DNA database and its ever-expanding mass of samples from innocent people, floated proposals for a national NHS database of patients’ DNA that would be sold to research companies like Google. Again, the incredible claim was made that our DNA, the code that identifies us beyond all else as individuals but over which we have no control or ownership, will be anonymised.

Again, this same Coalition, which in 2010 binned Labour’s hated ID cards, has proposed NHS ‘entitlement cards’ to stem health tourism by enabling Brits to distinguish themselves from undeserving foreigners. Ironically, Labour first introduced ID cards as ‘entitlement cards’, before vaguely claiming ID cards could fight terrorism and we should be grateful for having to present the card to buy stamps while a state database logged every transaction and the data was sold or hacked.

And we see how at an international level the worst ideas can be resurrected and the best ideas corrupted by function creep. MEPs are now working on a new Data Protection Regulation to update the 1995 version (the basis of the UK’s Data Protection Act). But the updated form already has some 3,000 amendments, thrown on by Liberal and Democrat parties backed by big business, that will strip EU citizens ‘naked’ by ‘making it almost impossible for them to control who sees their personal information and even how it is used,’ according to the Naked Citizens Campaign report, amid weakening consent, worsening profiling and data to be used for purposes way beyond what people agree to. Most revealing is the fact that the European Parliament wants to extend companies’ existing right to cite ‘legitimate interests’ that mean companies decide their business interests can prevail over consumers’ rights and interests, to include third parties that consumers know nothing about, let alone consent to.

Such ‘legitimate interest’ was Google’s defence for its move last year to merge 60 separate data privacy policies across all its services and combine all accrued for any purposes into one universal procedure. Critics said users didn’t know what information was kept, how Google combined it or for how long, with Google’s description of its rights to consumer data containing the word ‘may’ more than any other word. In April 2013, a half-dozen EU countries started legal action to demand Google specify what is being collected, and better present its data policies… hardly stopping Google in its tracks. Moreover, any new law would take until 2015 to implement; by then it will be trumped by the new Data Protection Regulation.

Repeatedly, what the one hand gives, the other takes away. With every safeguard is a contradictory, over-riding caveat. For sure, the Snooper’s Charter will rise from the dead in some other hideous form. With enough determination, we win battles in the war on surveillance, but it’s not without irony that we must always be most vigilant about the powers that be.

Postscript, 8 May: Since this article was published, the absence of the Snooper’s Charter from the Queen’s Speech proved its demise – however, the speech cryptically said the government would ‘bring forward proposals to enable the protection of the public and the investigation of crime in cyberspace’ with regard to the problem of there being more mobile devices in use than there are Internet Server Protocols to identify them. In other words, the door is open for a new law to track our web usage – and another battle begins.

There is, however, another victory for privacy campaigners, as the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt conceded that people could in fact opt out from having their medical data being shared: ‘GPs will not share information with the HSCIC if people object,’ and patients can ‘veto... that information being shared in the wider system’. Now all the government needs do is tell everyone of that right of veto...

No-Nonsense Guide to Global SurveillanceRobin Tudge is the Newcastle co-ordinator for the anti-database state campaign group, NO2ID, and the author of the No Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance.

Store and deliver, governments tell web firms

Truthout.org under a CC Licence

Freedom from warrantless, arbitrary searches and all-pervasive state surveillance and suspicion were defining principles of life for citizens in the West, or so one might naively once have thought. But so much of our modern lives is spent online, and this year, Australia, Canada, Britain and the US have seen a curiously coincidental effort to have the motherlode of surveillance laws thrust upon their peoples, with private companies bade to store and surrender every byte of online data to state spies, on demand, without a warrant.

As the democracy activist group GetUp! Action for Australia explains, Australia’s government has been seeking legal changes which will require communications companies to keep all web users’ data, emails and social media traffic for up to two years, to be given up, along with any passwords, on pain of imprisonment, to the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). Terrifyingly, the ASIO was also to be given free hand to remotely access people’s computers and ‘legally modify, delete or add files’, without a warrant, if ASIO thought your computer was linked, for example through an open wi-fi connection, to any other computers under investigation.

Licence to spill

One suspects the new law would only have legalized what ASIO already does, and it already has pretty broad licence. Under part 13 of Australia’s 1997 Telecommunications Act, providers can disclose to law enforcement agencies users’ data if it is ‘reasonably necessary’ to enforce a law, or there is a warrant to do so – a pretty standard legal cop-out from data protection seen across Western states, but at least there is a statutory demand for some kind of legal justification for disclosures. But also under part 13, warrantless disclosures are permitted, ‘where the disclosure is made to ASIO for the performance of its functions’.1 As ASIO’s primary function is surveillance, giving data to ASIO spies is self-justifying – enabling ASIO’s spies to spy on people is OK because that is what ASIO does.2

This year, Australia, Canada, Britain and the US have seen a curiously coincidental effort to have the motherlode of surveillance laws thrust upon their peoples

One might think ASIO is literally a law unto itself; however, following much public protest – led by GetUp! – against giving ASIO even more powers, on 10 August Australia’s attorney-general Nicola Roxon deferred putting the proposals to parliament until after the next election. For that she duly incurred the wrath of the security services,3 with a senior (and anonymous) national security official calling the government ‘risk adverse’ with little appetite ‘for anything that attracts controversy’.4 This fits the trend of the West’s one-time super-secret intelligence agencies now openly criticizing elected governments. Whereas once only right-wing political opponents sought to capitalize, calling their opponent softs on terror, now our spies do so freely.

Ticking bomb fear tactics

The proposals themselves bore striking resemblance to other surveillance laws being wielded elsewhere. In Canada earlier this year, police backed the ‘Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act’ that sought to have telecommunications providers give them subscriber data on demand, without a warrant, on the grounds that they needed such data quickly to stop children being groomed over the internet and suicidal people killing themselves. Funnily enough, while children and paedophiles often loom large in arguments supporting the set-up of all-invasive surveillance states for these children to grow up in, the bill did not mention children beyond its title, while the touchy-feely concern for suicidal people was a new twist on the ‘ticking bomb’ fear tactic that accompanies so much other draconian legislation.5 The bill was the latest attempt of many since 1999 to secure ‘lawful access’ and failed like the others, not least because, as federal deputy privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier said, the law ‘could impact any law-abiding Canadian citizen’ with its demolition of privacy and the presumption of innocence.

The Pentagon has ‘formally recognized cyberspace as a new domain in warfare’

However, Canada’s Public Safety minister Vic Toews denounced one critic of the bill, saying: ‘He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.’ And this remark was curiously echoed by Home Secretary Theresa May to opponents to Britain’s 2012 Communications Act bill (a.k.a. the ‘Snoopers charter’ or ‘mass surveillance bill’) that demands companies store all users’ telecom and online data so the police and agencies can sniff through everyone’s records, whenever, without a warrant. May dismissed criticism that the bill binned fundamental rights such as living free from arbitrary state suspicion and surveillance, or the right to hold investigators to account and their acts to judicial scrutiny, arguing that the only freedom being defended was that of ‘criminals, terrorists and paedophiles’. The bill will recommence its churn through Parliament after the summer recess.

One woman's protest against Vic Toews and the internet bills.

Caelie Frampton under a CC Licence

Battle of the bills

In the US, a veritable battle of bills is going on. Following the Stop Online Piracy Act, which allows the US to shut down entire internet domains and censor free speech in the name of enforcing copyright laws, in April the House of Representatives passed the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) bill, giving more cover to private companies when sharing individuals’ private and personal data and communications with the government, and also better enabling them to monitor individuals’ web usage, backed, tellingly, by Microsoft and Facebook. The Senate is supposedly against it, and even were it passed President Obama may veto it. But Obama’s record on civil rights and liberties includes having renewed the Patriot Act, keeping Guantanamó open and taking execution by drone to a new level. Obama backed Joe Liebermann’s 200-page Cybersecurity Act, designed to defend the US’ major computer networks and infrastructure against cyber attacks, but meanwhile giving greater legal impunity to companies to spy on web users – and share their data with the government.6 In early August, Republicans led the Senate vote down of this bill, much to Obama’s chagrin. But don’t thank the GOP for defending liberty. Their own SECURE IT Act of 2012 would enable and incentivise greater commercial and state surveillance of web usage – without establishing any government regulation or standard for security to cover infrastructure. The bill is currently batting around Congress.

Paranoid perception

Too often, our public servants – elected to safeguard our rights – end up serving the seedy agendas of state spies on the permanent public payroll

It seems both the GOP and Democrats have become engrossed in stopping the other taking the legislative credit for fulfilling the real agenda set by the Pentagon, which has ‘formally recognized cyberspace as a new domain in warfare.’ This global domain, where we play on Facebook, socialize, pay tax or bank online, is just another theatre of war where we are all potential victims to any blow struck anytime from anywhere. Too often, our public servants – elected to safeguard our rights – end up serving the seedy agendas of state spies on the permanent public payroll; they consider us all equally tooled up as potential cyber enemies. So they seek to fight this paranoid perception by demolishing our real rights, with the legalized connivance of private companies. If we kick up enough we can remind politicians who they really serve. But we have to keep at it, time and time again.

Robin Tudge is a journalist and the author of the No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance. Robin is also the Newcastle co-ordinator for NO2ID.

  1. efa.org.au
  2. efa.org.au
  3. Sydney Morning Herald
  4. Sydney Morning Herald
  5. Wikipedia
  6. The Register

Podcast: Robin Tudge on Global Surveillance

Book coverRobin Tudge is the author of the new No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance, a well-researched look into the history of surveillance and how the process is carried out today with the aid of technology and often, lack of express consent. In this interview, he discusses the extent to which Big Brother is watching us all in an age of CCTV, the internet and DNA databases with Nyan Storey, our podcast editor.

To find out more, visit the book page and follow the links to sample chapters, related blog posts, and more.

Social Media, Anti-Social Ends

The all-new No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance is out this month. Author Robin Tudge analyses censorship and political control in the growing social media landscape. 

Social Media, Anti-social Ends

The popular uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East started with the overthrow of Tunisia’s authoritarian government. But was it a ‘Twitter revolution’ or a ‘Facebook revolution’ (or indeed a Wikileaks revolution)? Which company has the greater claim, Google cannot say. Yet, one might think it's the greatest revolution of people power, democracy and human rights seen since the Berlin Wall fell. With uprisings razing across two continents, social media has undergone some sublime feat of corporate rebranding. Facebook and Twitter have become synonymous with the democratic aspirations and empowerment of people worldwide, wherein those millions of brave citizens risking their lives by overthrowing decades-old dictatorships have become free extras in an epic viral marketing exercise, propagated by social media. 

Well, that’s when social media isn’t being used to crush opponents. Egyptian police used Facebook and Twitter to track down protesters’ names before ‘rounding them up’, and Egypt’s military never really lost control. 

Elsewhere, police forces use Facebook to pettier ends. New Delhi police’s Facebook page allows tens of thousands of citizens to denounce and upload photographic evidence of traffic violations, enabling the issuing of hundreds of tickets. But social media is so easily used for remote monitoring to pre-empt dissent. Hence, British and European police forces need not spend time and money with potentially embarrassing infiltration efforts a la Mark Kennedy. Instead, under the direction of the UK’s National Policing Improvement Agency, some 3,500 police and detectives are being trained to track social networking sites for allegations of domestic violence, rape and honour crimes, as well as any political movements considered a likely danger.

Anyone can legally and freely follow a Tweet thread with all its opinions, plots and real-time updates. Indeed, the Inspectorate of His Majesty specifies that the British security forces should focus on social network surveillance as protestors use them via mobile phones to plan – and change plans – ‘in minutes… police officials in charge should plan their actions with the possibility in mind.’

And both protesters and police use social media to spread their messages. During the siege of Fortnum & Mason and the battle of Trafalgar Square, protesters’ were met tweet for tweet by the Met making its case for coshing and kettling. A more sustained campaign is the US Military’s $200 million Operation Earnest Voice. Avatars working on Facebook et al act as ‘sock puppets’ to spread positive propaganda across extremist, non-US-based networks. At first, it countered extremism in post-Saddam Iraq but has since expanded to anywhere or anyone considered to be extremist, like anti-war or anti-arms industry protestors or environmental activisits.

Up to the early 1990s, telecommunications monitoring was dominated by ECHELON, a global network dominated by the US, with support from the UK, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand intelligence agencies. But globalisation and the Internet have enabled global monitoring to become less of a clandestine state enterprise than a privatised matter, and services from Google Alerts to www.buzzcapture.com enable any entity to monitor to some extent who and what is being said about certain subjects.

Meanwhile, the 2001 Patriot Act allows the US government to demand all the data that passes through the clutches of US companies working abroad. Facebook is a US firm, with nearly a tenth of the world’s population profiled. We must assume that updates and data are routinely filtered through CIA, NSA or FBI supercomputers – including not only how much you drank last night, or the last protest you attended, but everything your friends did, too, the kind of guilt by association that leads innocent Americans and Europeans to end up on No Fly Lists, and innocent Muslims to suffer Extraordinary Rendition.

Last December the US Department of Justice demanded that Twitter hand over account details – connection records, sessions, IP addresses, email and residential addresses, bank account and credit card details – of Julian Assange and Private Bradley Manning, but also those of Birgitta Jonsdottir, a former volunteer for Wikileaks and now an MP in Iceland, prompting an official complaint from the Icelandic government. As the DoJ is telling the world, anyone’s online work and identity can and will be retrieved wherever they themselves may be in the world.

Too often people disclose way too much information about themselves. However, social media firms are working hard to batter down data protection and privacy laws. Facebook is notorious for abruptly changing its privacy settings to leave profiles and data exposed to the world and its marketing algorithms, while countless apps stream out users’ data in real time.

Facebook also has dedicated lobbyists in Brussels and Washington who attempt to convince government officials to ‘understand our philosophy’and prevent them from passing laws preventing ‘the beneficial sharing of information’.

Facebook meanwhile engages in its own censorship of Christian groups, as is claimed on facebookcensorship.com, at the behest of no one in particular, but governments may still fear Facebook more than its users should. It is blocked in China, whose own state-approved version, Renren, is shortly to float on the US stock market. China’s Market Stalinism shows rampant capitalism prospers at the expense of democracy, and Western tech firms cash in. Google may have abandoned China’s billion-dollar internet market in 2010 as it refused to bow to government censors of its search filters, but this was belated, with Google having submitted to Chinese state censors since 2006, and the company’s ire was only stoked in 2009 when Beijing could or would not prevent hacking attacks on the Gmail accounts of human rights advocates outside China.

However, Bill Gates scoffed that China’s Internet censorship was ‘very limited’ and ‘easy’ to evade, before noting that ignoring a host country’s laws meant ‘you may not end up doing business there’. Gates argues that bringing the Internet to China serves the greater purpose for information sharing – but aiding a totalitarian government to crush dissent is not a step back for two gained on the road to freedom. It is simply a step back, abetting oppression for the sake of profit. Microsoft has censored the China-sourced content of its blog service Windows Live Spaces, and AOL, Skype and Yahoo! are among those that agree. In 2004, Yahoo! gave Chinese police the details of dissident journalist Shi Tao, who ended up being imprisoned for 10 years.

Google, Facebook and Twitter are not evil per se, they are just profitable firms providing a tool that is put to ends good or ill. Perhaps social media doesn’t kill people, it’s governments that kill people, and Western tech firms just follow the law. But whatever else you use Facebook or Twitter for, don’t believe the hype – they’re not your friends. 

The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance

Globalization, climate change, terrorism, fair trade, human rights, health, poverty… The No-Nonsense Guides help make sense of these vast and complex issues, all in under 150 pages - providing a concise, ‘no-nonsense’ view that you can read anywhere. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be highlighting each No-Nonsense Guide in our series with blog posts from the authors concerning the subject of each book. Chapter 1 and the Table of Contents are available for The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance on our website. 

NN Global SurveillanceThe No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance
by Robin Tudge

As a journalist and author of the No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance, my work is involved in the global industry that is the public’s most frequent, solicited exposure to mass surveillance – journalism. Newspaper agents produce daily digests and reports of news and insights, information and data for global dissemination – a daily feed of surveillance for the public’s consumption. 

Just a flick through one copy of the freebie urban newspaper The Metro shows that most of the stories are surveillance-related. The front page of the December 17, 2010 issue is a story about how police will gauge whether youth are gang members by their clothing and use that to apply some kind of pre-emptive sanction or disbarring from public areas with no wrong-doing required. The profiling and pre-emption of groups in society are central controversies of modern surveillance. Police and security services have long been known to harass Muslims and minorities, but now race is giving way to apparel. Restricting people’s access to areas based on the risk they are presumed to pose is a practice that goes from urban control to the basis of global immigration. Government use of xenophobia is a game that too many newspapers seem happy to play. Another story concerns a man who killed a woman in a car crash; the salient point is apparently that he is a failed asylum seeker yet a judge ruled he won’t be sent home. Another newspaper story concerns the sinking of a ship of asylum-seekers near Christmas Island, with scores dead because the authorities lacked the surveillance to know their location. The British government used xenophobia to sell ID cards to the public, as the cards were deemed necessary to stop dirty criminal foreigners coming over here, abusing our welfare and women. However, the suspicion of the few would mean we would all need ID cards to prove we were kosher – the state assumes we are dodgy until a crappy plastic card proves otherwise. Another story shows the ludicrous depths to which this can go, when a student in Poundland can’t buy a tin opener without a proof of age identity card. 

Two crime stories in the paper are illustrated by CCTV stills, one showing robbers bungling their bid to steal an ATM, the other shows a public school girl during and after her fatal battering by a man in Trafalgar Square – in both cases, CCTV helped identify the perpetrators, but did not prevent the crimes. Also, Facebook’s implementation of facial recognition technology to automatically identify people in uploaded photos on the website raises big questions about people’s right to privacy and anonymity. Facebook holds profiles on almost a tenth of the global population, with more data than any police-state surveillance system has ever achieved, but voluntarily provided by its users. This is being used to solicit ideas for a book of stories. By contrast to this creativity, another story details how illegal downloads of music, enabled by broadband-connected computers are killing creativity. Putin says Russia’s secret service no longer assassinates traitors, while another man hires a private investigator to find out who carried out a murderous raid on his prize birds. 

The adverts in the London Metro overwhelmingly pertain to computers, mobile phones, Blackberries and broadband, Carphone Warehouse, Best Buy, Sky broadband, Vodafone, T-Mobile, BT, Nokia etc. (i.e. the technology of communications, data storage and distribution that form the backbone of the globalised webs of digital surveillance). These adverts are targeted at tech-savvy, credit-loaded youthful readership based on surveillance of consumer behaviour to develop vast, nuanced gradations and categories of society, its individuals and how they can be made to spend more. 

The business pages detail how white-collar worker productivity can improve if allowed access to websites like YouTube, which enable the world to watch the world. Meanwhile, Twitter is valued at £2.37 billion. Elsewhere, a judge is forced to issue guidance to journalists regarding the use of ‘Tweeting’ during court proceedings. 

Amid this blizzard of surveillance-related stories, only on page 11 we find the story dominating the 24-7 rolling news global media, the Wikileaks’ US Embassy cables, and the prosecution – or persecution – of Wikileaks’ founder, journalist Julian Assange. What the Wikileaks cables reveal is less about the blow-by-blow substance of what the US visa clerk in Tbilisi ate for breakfast, or that US diplomats may be a bit two-faced; that is the essence of this art, second in age only to prostitution. The real issue is how the modern digitised means of communications, data collation and dissemination - computers and memory sticks, and a maverick employee – can compromise an enterprise of any scale and supposed security, in an instant, to the world. The duplicity of US global diplomacy has been exposed by an Army private handing a memory stick to a journalist with a website. In this digitised day and age, nothing is sacred or secure. What hope for the security of the mere Briton’s data - tax income, health records, education, driving details, banking, council tax, emails, phone records … are held on some 700 databases, public, private, global, and counting? 

Wikileaks may seem to be a great blow for investigative journalism and free speech, and against the hegemony of the hyperpower US. But the US government, intelligence agencies and corporate backers are retaliating in ways that one supposes would be the antithesis of the principles of freedom, democracy and justice. Assange claims to be the victim of a smear campaign, orchestrated by the CIA and supine Swedes.  Notwithstanding the Swedish allegations against Assange, America’s lawyers have had to work hard to find a possible law that Assange has broken, e.g. the 1917 Espionage Act, and its applicability to foreign nationals working from abroad is dubious. Still, many US commentators in the government and media are demanding Assange suffer extraordinary rendition (at the very least). Meanwhile, global corporations MasterCard, Amazon and PayPal have shown no heed to concepts like the presumption of innocence or wrongdoing and withdrawn their services from Wikileaks. Hence, a man’s business, his career, his life, liberty and reputation, his right to free speech, can be manipulated, shut down and destroyed from the other side of the world, by remote control. That these companies have since come under attack from Anonymous hackers adds another twist to the danger of the new age of cyber-war, surveillance and suspicion. 

Overall, surveillance encompasses various methods and means of gathering, recording and distributing information – surveillance is the morally inert tool or technology to accrue and apply the necessary data to carry out whatever end is sought, by individuals, companies and governments. Of the many signs that a society is tipping from relative freedom to fascism, from a pluralist democracy to plutocratic police state, is when surveillance stops being the means to an end, and becomes the end in itself, for profit or power. The world has reached an unprecedented point in its development where there is nowhere on Earth that an individual cannot be tracked, identified, and to a greater or lesser degree, controlled – where intelligence agencies, government treaties, commerce and technologies have globalised, cooperated and confluenced in the pursuit of profit and power that no-one is safe. Surveillance has truly become a global state in its own right. Anybody could tell that by picking up a newspaper. 


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