Freedom – Not For Coulson

Freedom – Not For Coulson was published in July 2014

I have been ruminating further on the nature of freedom, which should be clearly on Andy Coulson’s mind after his verdict and jail sentence. I again refer you to the excellent coverage provided by The Drum, web site.

Brooks Coulson

Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson

Freedom from incarceration is clearly a very practical demonstration of the term as is freedom from state persecution. Many in the written media have commented on the limitations to freedom that the Leveson Inquiry has provoked. At the same time the press/media has imposed limits on the freedom from invasion of privacy of public and not so public figures. The hounding of individuals by the media (and it is not just the press and paparazzi – who is filming them?) in pursuit of a story is clearly of interest to the public, but as many have said it is not necessarily in the public interest.

I have blogged before about the revelations from Snowden of surveillance on the general public. These have a double twist on freedom. The freedom of the public to live without the danger of a terrorist attack has to be balanced against the freedom from state surveillance and the fear of such an attack. It is not an easy balance or an easy judgement. Even liberal (small l) politicians have at times imposed restrictions on freedoms. These could be a CCTV camera recording all comings and goings at a school in the belief that this will prevent a child abduction. To help deter or prevent such events most schools now have CCTV recording every visitor and delivery, just in case. All of us, on such a visit, are assumed to be potentially guilty and therefore our movements must be recorded.

Of course, in reality CCTV prevents nothing; Some of the time it may produce an image that may indicate something happened after the event. The rise of CCTV is an example of a surveillance state and a population which is scared or I should say encouraged by the media and politicians to feel scared. Prosecutal authorities want evidence of something happening after the event rather than preventing it happening. CCTV may increase the conviction rate but does it actually stop a crime being committed, whether petty vandalism or a more serious event? It is supposed to have a deterrence effect, but the largest growth of CCTV is in hidden cameras and private systems. This data is supposed to be registered with the Information Commissioner and the images are subject to the Data Protection Act unless they are purely for private means protecting private property. If you record the public street you are not recording private property but the passing general public.

Despite the growth of surveillance by the state and others, some elements of the media would have us believe that there are paedophiles and murderers everywhere, and that terrorists are planting bombs on every street corner. The terrorism facts for deaths in the UK, excluding in Northern Ireland, are 1970’s – 48, 1980’s – 307 (270 in Lockerbie), 1990’s – 18, 2000’s – 56 (all in the London bombings of 7th July 2005). Since then, thankfully, there has only been one, the murder of Trooper Rigby. This does not include the thousands injured over the years or the failed attacks. Is this because the security services and the police are very good, or just that there is not as great a threat as some would have us believe?

Contrast this with the threat of death from a car accident. Annual deaths, not decade totals, 1970’s- 7,499, 1980’s – 5,953, 1990’s – 5,217, 2000’s – 3500 reducing to 2,200 and so far reducing again in 2012 to 1,754. These numbers dwarf terrorism but we haven’t banned driving! Yet the budget for counter terrorism far exceeds that for road safety. Who are we protecting, and from what?

The headlines and statistics are designed to scare the population into believing that security measures are absolutely necessary. We must restrict freedom by introducing surveillance systems with carefully worded legal get out clauses that avoid oversight and scrutiny. We have masses of CCTV camera everywhere, and now we have black boxes being offered in cars so that the insurance company can track how many miles you drive at what speed and where. This is proposed as a way of reducing your premiums. How long before its primary use is to deny a claim because you were driving 1 mph over the speed limit 2 minutes after the insurance time curfew.

Meanwhile, the police can now request that data from the insurance company as evidence or just as part of a warranted or non-warranted investigation into something completely different. Of course you are not guilty of the crime that happened on the car route, but now your DNA is on file, alongside your fingerprints and the note on the police computer for eternity that you may have been a suspect or in the vicinity of.

I was massively against National ID cards because I felt that it was a complete change to innocent until proven guilty. It is not for me to prove who I am walking down the street minding my own business. Currently in UK law it is not a criminal offence to give a false name to the police until charged. With ID cards, failing to give a valid ID would have become an offence. Yes ID cards may have been convenient, but loss of freedom isn’t about convenience. Stop and Search as used and abused against the ethnic population demonstrates how badly some current laws are used.

If we examined the number of arrests for terrorism as opposed to the number of convictions we have the same mind set from the police and the emerging surveillance state. The enforcement of ever more identity checks, stopping innocent individuals taking photos in London, airport security etc, is a colossal waste of resources which rarely if ever prevents an act. It does succeed in terrorising the population though in the form of scaring the public into accepting further curtailments of their freedom. These are dressed up as preventing crime or terrorism. In all the recent attacks around the globe the security services had some of the individuals under surveillance or knew what was going on. Of course if there are no terrorist attacks then how can the security service and police justify their budgets and the new laws they require to prevent further terrorist attacks.

Freedom is chipped away at our peril. One inch at a time, one adjustment of the law, one expansion of the law to cover a purpose for what it was not intended. For example extradition rules to the USA were change to help in terrorism cases. Their first use was for financial crime. The use of RIPA by local government to prevent dog fouling, I’m sure that was uppermost on the then Home Secretary’s mind, but the use continues, it has not been stopped. It saves of course the local authority from employing a dog warden, extra police or providing bins for dog walkers. They would need to be emptied. There are very few litter bins in London because once, in Warrington the bins were used for an IRA bomb causing the tragic deaths of two boys. As a consequence many bins were removed they have never returned. Now we have more litter as an unintended consequence of a counter terrorism measure. Are we safer?

The ability to say, act and do things which are offensive, obnoxious or just stupid is as much a part of freedom as voting but given that 65% of the voting public can’t be bothered I don’t hold up much hope for freedom. Nothing to hide nothing to fear is normally advocated by those that believe we need more security. Despite my blogs I still like my privacy, especially by unwarranted intrusion. I do not want private companies phoning me wanting to sell me stuff or falsely asking if I have had an insurance claim. Nor do I want the state endlessly checking my email or filming me wherever I go, just in case something somewhere connects me to something else. If my third cousin fifteen times removed once looked at a Jihadist web site. Does that make me a legitimate target for surveillance? If Snowden is to be believed then the NSA/GCHQ etc already know that they just might not have checked the details, but they would have the meta-data of a connection. But of course reading about Jihad, other political and religious beliefs can be considered an act of terrorism seen as preparing for an act or just promoting extremism.

Lady Chatterley was once banned because it was considered obscene now we ban web sites because they promote a belief and accessing such a web site is considered as preparation for an act of terrorism. Where is Freedom of Speech in this debate? I consider many political party web sites to be obnoxious, wrong and encouraging the wrong behaviour. Where they advocate repealing or changing the law are they not advocating potentially criminal acts and accessing them could be a criminal act? In the amount of misquoted statistics, headline promoting facts which are rarely taken in context I am surprised the Advertising Standards Authority does not take them to task.

In the last few days England’s abject football performance received more detailed coverage that the Coulson, Brooks, et al, trial. The headlines of that trial have been used by the media to portray themselves as innocent and acting in the public interest, and therefore to undermine the politician’s case for press restrictions. There was little or any comment about real freedom, only the press’ freedom to continue to print their stories which are rarely if ever in the Public Interest. The hacking trial rarely if ever covered that because the Editor of a national newspaper was more interested in the sex life of a politician. There is almost no analysis of the evidence or the wider implications.

There were greater headlines about the affair between Brooks and Coulson than there was about some of the key evidence e.g. the hacking of the Home Secretary’s phone something that Coulson admitted in the witness box but still pleaded not guilty to. He did not claim public interest for divulging the details of another conniving politician. How come the security services responsible for the security of the Home Secretary did not prevent that, or perhaps they knew but decided to keep the secret to themselves ready for the next discussion on budget. One editor guilty and one editor not guilty does not give either side in press freedom a leg to stand on.

The press was exposed as not an arbiter of freedom but as what they are. Private companies desperate to generate revenue regardless of the legitimacy of the story. They were willing to publish anything from any source, truth, freedom to privacy had little to do with editorial decisions. Much of the hacking and other investigations was designed to hinder other media rivals. Denials were to prevent stories in other papers. The News of The World was exposed but what of the other papers all meekly claiming they had nothing to do with it and using the trial to hammer their News International Rival. Have their actions extended press freedom?

Where are their investigations into press misbehaviour? Do we have to wait another ten years for other press misbehaviour to be exposed or another policing scandal. Which policeman shut down the hacking investigation and why? Who asked him/her to stop? Who is holding the prosecution service to account? Not the politicians and certainly not the press. Don’t ask because then you will become the investigated by the media and by the state. But then again we can protect the children and keep us all safe.

One last thing on Coulson, Ed Milliband has accused David Cameron of employing a criminal. He is a convicted criminal now, he wasn’t then – remember innocent until proven guilty. One freedom does remain constant, never let the truth get in the way of a politician’s freedom to smear another individual sometimes even of the opposition party!

NSA and Snowden – A Year On

NSA and Snowden was written in 2014 but the revelations remain concerning and technology, surveillance and privacy remain key issues

Another anniversary this past week. After the commemoration of D-Day 70 years ago on the 6th June, something far less significant in multiple nation’s collective memories, it is one year since The Guardian first printed Edward Snowden’s revelations about the activities of the NSA, GCHQ et al. For an excellent commentary and summation read the article on The Register.

The article covers not only the scope of what was revealed but also discusses the impact of these revelations. It is clear there is still much to be revealed, and there is also the on-going reluctance of the British Press in particular to publish some of the revelations. Most notably, the Register also published details about the international fibre and communication link tapping operations notably in Oman. Quoting from the article from 2nd June.

Exclusive Above-top-secret details of Britain’s covert surveillance programme – including the location of a clandestine British base tapping undersea cables in the Middle East – have so far remained secret, despite being leaked by fugitive NSA sysadmin Edward Snowden. Government pressure has meant that some media organisations, despite being in possession of these facts, have declined to reveal them. Today, however, the Register publishes them in full.
So not only do we have hidden spying activity, no surprise there, but a marked reluctance by our own media to discuss the issue. The often quoted excuse for not discussing the issues is that it put lives at risk and harms the nation. This is made as a statement with no factual information to back it up. Proof of a negative is always difficult, but really lives at risk from the UK public knowing that a location in Oman is built and operated for the entire purpose of monitoring Internet communication links, something that the locals in Oman. all the people who built and service the staions and all the agencies know, but the British public must not.

This reminds me of the farcical situation a few years ago when Ordnance Survey Maps and road atlases would show blank empty spaces where UK military and other sensitive bases were. Meanwhile the then Soviet Union was scanning those places with satellite photography almost hourly. So our prospective enemy knew what was there (at least what building were) but the British Public was not allowed to see that just inside the main gate was the entrance to the Officers’ Mess and NAAFI next to the tennis court. I have never been able to understand why this was the case, this in built secrecy left over from the war, like changing the road signs around as if an invader would not have a compass and discover our ruse.

Back to NSA and the latest series of revelations. The sheer scope and scale of the observations are in one way comforting, our spies are spying, protecting us. They claim to have prevented all sorts of illegal actions like Germany stealing a march on trade negotiations or when Chancellor Merkel was getting home from the state dinner. The plumbed into the content not just metadata of every single telephone call in the Bahamas. How many pizza takeaway orders were there? We should be told about this vital contribution to national security. The sheer scale of the monitoring beggars belief yet it has raised the merest flicker of interest in the UK. I believe that some of this is down to media jealousy. Much like the Telegraph when it broke the MPs’ expenses scandal. The Guardian had an exclusive and the rest of the media seemed reluctant to follow up.

Whether Snowden was right to release the information will be a matter for history to judge there has been a media backlash against him pushed forward by the self same agencies he has allegedly harmed. The bottom line is that like MPs these agencies work for us. GCHQ is funded by the taxpayer, if it is wasting needed national resources discovering how many of us posted tweets on our favourite dogs isn’t it justified that we question what they are spending our money on. At a time of national austerity with ongoing cuts still impacting numerous government spending, what exactly are we getting for our money. Our MPs don’t seem to want to find out as I have previously blogged here. Our media for spitefulness , boredom or just plain laziness have not followed up. Where is the probing Channel 4 or BBC Panorama expose? Yes, they have reported on the Snowden allegations but where is their own investigation adding to the story. The NSA intercepting and tampering with Cisco routers was an allegation without specificity from Snowden. Then film emerged of the NSA doing it, it’s referenced in The Register’s article but still the doubters question Snowden’s authenticity. This week, having claimed for months that they had no emails from Snowden complaining about anything, they suddenly released one email from him. How did they manage to find that? No emails means no emails, not one. Where are the others he cannot have sent just one? Another scandal waiting to happen unreported in the mainstream press.

My final comments for today concern the real issue. On Friday we commemorated a major step in the fight to bring freedom to Europe. Freedom what does that mean? Freedom in my view is about freedom from oppression, free to think, comment and express opinions. The Internet has greatly extended this freedom. It has also given us the freedom to shop, post dog and children videos and endless meaningless chatter. The e-commerce activities have been significantly undermined by our so called security agencies deliberate attempts to break encryption and other secure systems. There actions have made us less secure as a whole. Billions of financial transactions are at risk because of exploits they either created or left in place so that they could spy on everything else. This is akin to a policeman breaking the locks of every house in case he needs to raid it at some stage in the future or a doctor creating a virus so that he always has plenty of patients.

This is not security, this is not in my interest and it’s a colossal waste of resources. Every part of government is scrutinised about how it spends our money except this one. Perhaps our own MPs might do the job they are elected to do rather than the one their party or government tells them to do. Cosy-ing up to the security services is not their job, representing us is; I wonder if they ever will?

Spying and Oversight

Spying and oversight from November 2013

As a relatively new author, I watched with interest the appearance of the UK’s Spy Chiefs in front of the Parliamentary Committee that is established to hold them to account. My first book published – An Agent’s Demise – had as a backdrop how the Iraqi Dossier might have been manipulated to lead the politicians to decide to go to war. I have started a sequel – An Agent’s Rise and I have another story underway another thriller about revolution. These tales are all triggered by a keen interest in what the spies might get up to, but just as importantly what the politicians and the spy’s bosses know. Plausible deniability is often used to cover tracks both by spies, their managers and the politicians.

The revelations from Edward Snowden a former American computer specialist who apparently worked as a CIA employee and NSA contractor, provided information to the press, some of which has been published, about classified operations by the USA, Israel, and the UK security services. From what little we know these mass surveillance operations have added to some of our knowledge as to what happens, but has concentrated on the technicalities of the programmes rather than what is done with the information.

The appearance of the UK’s spy chiefs in front of the Committee is a regular occurrence but this was the first with all three chiefs (Security Service, Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ) in public. You can watch the proceedings from the BBC here. Not mentioned but notable by his absence was the Chief of Defence Intelligence (DI) who’s task is to act as “the main provider of strategic defence intelligence to the department (Ministry of Defence) and the Armed Forces.” Apparently the actual strategic defence of the UK is not as important so his attendance at the committee was not called for. Fighting the terrorist war on the ground in Afghanistan is a military operation which GCHQ supports, when their resources are not diverted by the NSA to help monitor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone in the interests of commercial advantage National Security.

So what did we learn from the evidence? Very little; the media made a big deal of the admission by the head of GCHQ that monitored terrorist groups had been observed/heard/monitored discussing how to change their methods of communication in the light of Snowden’s published revelations. If GCHQ bothered to notice the discussion about Internet security has been a constant trend on technical forums for at least 15 years, where methods of encryption, monitoring, obfuscation and a whole host of techniques have been freely discussed. If the UK’s enemies (terrorist or other) were not aware of the techniques then they are either more stupid than we think or perhaps it was a good line to feed the media. Admitting that we have overheard such a discussion is also telling them exactly what Snowden told them, so Sir Iain Lobban (Head of GCHQ) haven’t you just given away that little secret, perhaps your passport should be removed.

There have been some very clever uses of words in the USA and UK to describe the activities like PRSIM and why they are considered legal, under political scrutiny. Effectively the NSA can trawl the data on UK citizens given to it by GCHQ without a warrant and GCHQ can trawl the USA data given to it by NSA without a warrant. Both agencies may legally spy on foreigners without warrants. There is not a handover of a database. It’s the same systems in use just different access permissions. Both agencies can then report to their oversight representatives that they are operating within the law.

Then we have the testimony, not under oath by the way, that multiple terrorist operations have been prevented in the last few years. In Parliament the Head of the Secret Service said 34 operations had been disrupted but provided no evidence for this statement. In the USA General Alexander, head of the NSA, accompanied by the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, stated in testimony to Congress that 54 operations had been prevented since 9th September 2011, again no details provided. He did admit that the use of the surveillance systems had not necessarily contributed to any of these operations.

So what do we know, in the UK there were the attacks of 7th July 2005. Several of the suicide bombers and their wider circle were known to the authorities – result 52 dead over 700 injured. That was four years after 9/11 and that attack was after Embassy bombings and attacks around the globe. This was followed by failed attacks two weeks later when the security authorities managed to kill an innocent Brazilian on a tube train after he had got on that tube train. I won’t list all the attacks Wikipedia has a comprehensive list, but please note the IRA ones over 30 years and yet Al-Qa’eda are considered a bigger threat? The former head of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, stated in December 2006 that

Al-Qa’eda poses a greater threat to civilian life than the Nazis did during the Second World War.

Sir Ian had clearly never researched The Blitz, which killed over 40,000 civilians in one 57-day period from September 1940. He may have been exaggerating a little but is this the mind set, or just a bad history education?

So returning to Parliament and the serious damage that Snowden is alleged to have done. It has been quoted that Snowden’s leaks are the greatest threat to UK Intelligence operations. Like Sir Ian Blair methinks they doth protest too much. They clearly have forgotten or would like us to forget about Blunt, Philby, McClean, Burgess, possibly Cairncross, often reffered to as The Cambridge Four/Five or how about the Profumo scandal when the then Minister of State for War (now the MoD) John Profumo shared a mistress with the Soviet Naval Attaché. Before our American friends get all clever about the British problem what about the Rosenburgs or John Walker.

According to reports Snowden shared access to the information he attained with nearly 1 million others, clearly this secret is not quite as secret as some might think. The fact he could leave the high security office with all this data is the security scandal and out security chiefs on both sides of the Atlantic seem hell bent on avoiding how Snowden got the information instead concentrating, as ever, on the messenger. Snowden did not hand the information to Al-Qa’eda, he may have been in China and now Russia but the security services have failed to demonstrate that the information is in the hands of the Russian or Chinese intelligence services. Stopping the partner of the journalist who was allegedly carrying a written down password to a USB stick does not mean that the stick has been accessed; in fact we are then told that the security services were unable to access the data or were they? So why mention the password at all, maybe it was his bank PIN? Maybe the current court case investigating his detention at Heathrow airport on suspicion of terrorism might shed some light?

As a would be author I have so many possible plot lines for a fictional story left by this mess I don’t know where to start. How much of the story and information that is in the public eye is disinformation or real, is impossible to guess. From what I have seen of our democratic institutions their lack of oversight, technological knowledge, and willingness to believe what the spy chiefs tell them, is not encouraging. After all Sir Malcolm Rifkind the head of the Parliamentary Committee former Foreign Secretary (responsible for the Secret Intelligence Service) has never explained why he claimed expenses for constituency flights to Scotland when his constituency is in London, all within the rules, all submitted with proper Government oversight. He was by no means the worst of the MP expenses scandal but… I haven’t commented on the lack of questions about torture, extraordinary rendition, or any of the other things that maybe we should know about being done in our name, after all the hounding of one, perhaps misguided, whistle-blower is so much better TV than asking a proper question or getting a proper answer.

  • UK spy chiefs emerge from shadows to blast Edward Snowden – Reuters (
  • NSA leaks: UK’s enemies are ‘rubbing their hands with glee’, says MI6 chief (
  • UK spy chiefs hit out at Snowden (
  • Questioning of spy agency chiefs ‘wouldn’t have scared a puppy’ (