Let’s Smash Up The Guardian’s Hard Drives

The UK police recently detained a Guardian journalist for nine hours, signalling that any journalist, blogger or anybody who says something that the UK government or US governments do not like are liable to be detained under section 7 of the Terrorism Act. Those that are actually arrested have more rights than those detained in this way. It is alleged that the journalist was ordered by the police to answer all questions they asked without a lawyer and his property was confiscated, no court order required.

Now I’m the last person to defend the hypocrites at the Guardian and I’m not saying that the journalist was a choir boy either: that analysis is beyond the scope of this article. But this latest incident in the Edward Snowden saga heralds the seemingly unstoppable powers of government at the expense of press and personal freedoms.

Governments, McCarthy-ism style, have taken it upon themselves to justify draconian actions by invoking some “anti-terror” law or other. Anything goes. Governments can spy on and harass who the hell they like by saying, “National Security”, “Terror Suspect” or similar. But the greatest risk to our freedoms does not come from terrorists, it is presented by overly powerful governments. Big Brother.

Our two-faced politicians queued up to sanctimoniously condemn the illegal mobile phone hacking tactics of Murdoch’s journalists (overlooking journalists from other papers that were up to the same thing). Yet that spying pales into insignificance compared to the surveillance programs of the government itself. (GCHQ etc).

Insidiously, since the 9/11 attacks, governments have granted themselves vaguely worded yet virtually limitless powers (called anti-terror laws) over the populace whose best interests they’re supposed to serve. And, predictably, these anti-terror laws are being “interpreted” to mean whatever a government wants them to mean.

For example, in the States, smoking marijuana puts you on the terrorist suspect list, because of some alleged correlation. And being on the terrorist suspect list can, in the States, have you executed by a secret court.

Now that governments have granted themselves these powers, inevitable corruption (even if well-meaning) means that they will be increasingly (ab)used for political reasons, rather than national security reasons (which are horrific enough). In this case the laws are being used to fight the press, we are on the slippery slope.

A farcical event related to the Miranda journalist detainment was that the Guardian was ordered by the government to release its data to the government or to destroy the data. The Guardian had no choice but to choose the latter action. So the paper destroyed its own computer hard disks by angle grinder under government supervision. Believe me, on one level it would be a guilty pleasure to order the Guardian to destroy their stuff. However, firstly, the government and police should not have these extreme powers in the first place. Secondly the order was expensive but futile, because the data was duplicated off-site and off shore. Maybe GCHQ are hoping to intercept that data on its way back to the Guardian’s systems. It is certainly a warning shot to the media.

But what about our safety that the Government claims to care so much about? The terrorism threat is genuine and needs to be controlled. However ubiquitous surveillance by the State and having governments and police forces operate like the Stasi is too high a price to pay for what is a relatively small risk presented by terrorism (statistically). Society must tolerate some risk and damage from enemies such as terrorists if that means we maintain our freedoms, because, after all, we do not live in a perfect world. People will die, but millions have died to create and preserve the freedoms that we as a society are relinquishing so quickly. It is all there in Orwell’s novel, 1984. It is happening.

I’ll take a tour of some of the technology-related aspects of this ironic reign of terror – by our government, allied governments, well, virtually all governments in the Information Age.

There are two main Big Brother technologies in play right now. Firstly data gathering, secondly extracting information from the data.

To gather data governments usually cajole or force companies, corporations and other organisations to give it to them. If you are a provider of Internet services, such as BT or Virgin, you can expect the government to knock on the door and install black boxes that plug into your infrastructure. These black boxes then syphon off all the internet traffic that moves through the Internet Services Provider’s systems.

An example is Room 641A, a “Black Room”. In the States, this room contains equipment operated by AT&T on behalf of the US government (NSA) but there are many other black rooms around the US and, indeed, the world. Such rooms are operated by various services providers. These rooms copy Internet backbone traffic that contains data travelling betwixt all corners of the Earth. Not only that, but governments also listen in on mobile phone voice and other data. They can even take control, they can switch on your phone mic and listen in. That’s true even if your phone is switched off, assuming the battery has charge.

Another source of data gathering is to request information from computer services organisations such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, Skype (now part of Microsoft), Yahoo, “Cloud” services providers and the like. Even for corporations with a will to resist the requests, Government demands for data can be irresistible. These organisations collaborate with the US Government, as the Snowden NSA PRISM programme documents reveal. It’s difficult to refute the conclusion that any US organisation will provide data to the US government on request. And the same goes for other organisations and governments word wide.

Also, the US government uses other governments to gather data. The Telegraph has reported that the US government (NSA) pays the UK Government (GCHQ) tens of millions annually. No doubt information flows between various other governments and organisations galore.

Then you have governments using electronic equipment manufacturers to spy. All those computer systems and network hardware systems made in China and the Far East, can they be trusted not to have “back doors” to allow unauthorised parties to hack into your systems? That was a rhetorical question, by the way. And it’s not just the Far East either. The upcoming Microsoft XBox One, kitted out with a mic and cameras, looks like a veritable NSA spying machine that, come Christmas, will be planted right in your lounge or kids’ bedrooms. More on this another time, but this is another reason to favour open source hardware and software.

The second Big Brother technology concerns extracting useful information from all those endless terabytes of data. I will come on to this fascinating horror story next week, so have had to postpone the third article on Open Source in the light of the latest Snowden-related brouhahas.

12 comments on “Let’s Smash Up The Guardian’s Hard Drives

  1. Stephen Porter
    August 24, 2013 at 11:36 am #

    True freedom of the press, would enable a more democratic society, and reduce the threat of conflict and terrorism. and so one must presume that this sanctioning of our media, is nothing to do with our security, but merely an attempt to preserve the status quo, and the power that of those therein.

    • James Eadon
      August 24, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

      @Stephen I’d say that the the attacks on the media are more aggressive than preserving the status quo, the aim seems to be to increase the power of the State at the expense of personal and press freedoms, and, as a consequence, to reduce personal security from the creeping threat of totalitarian rule.

  2. Rocco
    August 24, 2013 at 12:10 pm #

    Good article. But if I may offer a small criticism, that headline is a mistake. It makes it seem like you’re in favour of a Police State, so long as its aggression is directed against those you don’t agree with.

    • James Eadon
      August 24, 2013 at 12:24 pm #

      @Rocco – You’re not wrong, but one can’t let logic get in the way of a good headline 😉
      Besides, the Guardian was gleeful when the state was arresting Murdoch’s journalists, the Guardian did not stand up for the free-press concept then. Instead they played politics, the traitors. So in a way this barbaric act was poetic justice, albeit of the worst kind.

      • Rocco
        August 24, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

        Brendan O’Neill has an excellent article about that: “The amazing double standards of the Miranda affair”. Its well worth a read.

  3. RGTyler
    August 24, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

    I just think its all a very scary advance on basic liberties by the State. And as with all scandals the cover up has made things worse.

  4. johnnyb
    August 25, 2013 at 5:52 am #

    A good read and good points. However, I would quibble with your calling Miranda a “journalist”. Greenwald’s partner is merely a courier and there was no way the authorities were just going to let him waltz on in with more zip drives in his pocket. One could argue he is being directed by the Russians or Chinese by now.

  5. right_writes
    August 25, 2013 at 9:12 am #

    Interestingly, we don’t seem to recognise that the cure for this problem is to meet each other physically on a regular basis… I am not sure which is the best forum for the ordinary bloke in the UK (for instance)…

    It used to be the pub… But enjoying oneself in a pub has been made illegal, one has to endure 3rd party entertainment, and god forbid anyone that dares to light a fag.

    In revolutionary Ireland at the turn of the 20th century, there were “hedge schools”, where the Gaelic pressure groups like the GAA, the IRB and A etc., would meet in open fields, preferably out of sight of the British and discuss, history, politics and revolution.

    The more straight-laced Muslims have been using their mosques to spread their message… (everyone is trying to spread a message).

    By far the most successful though was a combination of the above… The London Coffee House, is the reason that Britain had an empire…

    Ordinary people made and lost fortunes through meeting in these places and talking to each other, we didn’t depend on governments to licence our meeting times, we didn’t depend on government to provide us with our communication conduits, we didn’t depend on government at all…

    Ever since these places were eventually successfully undermined by the telegraph, the government has maintained an iron grip.

    I don’t pretend to know the answer, but face to face has to be an option, surely?

    • James Eadon
      August 25, 2013 at 9:50 am #

      @right_writes – very good points. One horrible problem we have is that people like to stay indoors these days. “at the turn of the 20th century” – in those days there was no TV and no Internet to keep us locked in. I’ve long thought TV the worst thing to happen to humanity. The Internet might be amounting to the same thing, albeit it much richer than TV.

  6. James Eadon
    August 25, 2013 at 9:51 am #

    Incidentally I don’t watch TV, not least because I don’t want to pay Tax to the left-wing propaganda machine, the BBC

  7. Simon Roberts
    August 25, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

    What concerns me about this is that it if it weren’t for the Guardian we wouldn’t know anything about it.

    All the other national dailies seem to have cowed to the D-Notice – and this mechanism was intended to protect national security, not rogue government agencies.

    Even the Independant has now published a story which was obviously leaked to them by the goverment to smear Snowdon and Greenwald – presumably prior to making arrests.

    These agencies have always existed of course – it’s just that their ambitions have been limited by the resources and technology available. Now that this has changed, we need to do something about the situation before it’s too late.

    • Rocco
      August 25, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

      Regarding government agencies and technology, Mark Steyn wrote something interesting a week or two ago.
      Apparently, 20,000 Americans had their phone calls mistakenly intercepted by some agency or other. They meant to intercept phone calls from Egypt but they got the area codes mixed up. The code for Egypt is 20, but they added an extra 2, which is the code for Washington!
      ( I think the title of the piece was Idiot Big Brother).

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