13 February 2015

Police surveillance of Charlie Hebdo magazine purchasers

Police collected the names of those ordering the special edition of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, in all probability to include on a national database of people politically active in the UK.

On 7 January 2015 two marginalised and alienated French nationals - armed with guns and a Muslim-inspired fascist ideology - went on a rampage of murder in the editorial offices of the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine. People in France and across the world were rightly outraged that journalists should be murdered for ridiculing religion. In defence of free speech and in solidarity people sought to purchase the special edition of the magazine which was published after the murders.

Nevertheless, in the Britain in 2015 people interested in controversial magazines from abroad - however understandable the motive - is not something which the police will ignore.

Four people ordered the magazine from a newsagent in Corsham in Wiltshire. Police visited the newsagent and demanded the names of the customers. When the police action came to light on 10 February, it was deemed a mistake and an isolated event. Names were to be deleted from police computers.

But the following day, it emerged that the same police enquires had been made in Presteigne in Wales and, by telephone, in Warrington in Cheshire. Two things became almost certain. First, that there were many investigations across the country into Charlie Hebdo readers, in addition to those we already know about. And secondly, the investigations were no isolated incidents, but a policy instructed from the top.

Police say that they were making “an assessment of community tensions.” Utter bilge! What community tensions involving militant Islam is there in rural Wales and in the countryside of Wiltshire. The idea that these police enquiries contribute to combating Islamic terrorism doesn't hold water, either: the Charlie Hebdo magazine is among the last things devout Muslims would purchase.

What this snooping is about, it would seem, is nothing more than the police and the security services building a database of all those who are in any way politically active in the UK. If they are prepared to go to such lengths, deploying police time in rural England and Wales to pick up a couple of names, then one can only imagine what effort is probably put into monitoring political activity on the internet.

7 February 2015

Cameron wants to outlaw encrypted messaging

David Cameron’s desire, however impractical, to outlaw the citizen’s use of end-to end encryption to enable the security services to view every private communication is a an assault on freedom.

Events in Paris on 7 January 2015 were truly horrific. Two marginalised and alienated people - armed with guns and a Muslim-inspired fascist ideology - went on a rampage of murder in the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine. France and the world were rightly outraged.

In Britain, cashing in the terror, David Cameron took his chance to push for a ban on end-to-end encryption, even though the terrorists in France never used encryption. End-to-end encryption is the means by which you encrypt a message on your own computer and send the message to someone else who decrypts it on his or hers. GCHQ and the NSA can’t read the data either in transit or from the internet giants’ servers. Apple’s new iphone and several messaging apps do the same thing.

In fact, you can get a small file which enables end-to-end text encryption here.

In his speech Cameron asked, “...in our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which we cannot read?” Well, yes we do. It is not just a matter of a fundamental right of people to be able to talk and write to one another without the security services reading and listening, but we know full well that state snooping of private correspondence is used to impede legitimate political activity by ordinary people.

Cameron and his government are a far greater threat to freedom than a handful of fanatical killers in Paris.

1 February 2015

Britain's war on investigative journalism

Free journalism is the last remaining source of opposition in Britain. That is why the state ranks journalists alongside terrorists as a threat.

With the demise of mass progressive organisations in the last few decades, one of the few remaining sources of critique of the existing political order is the writing of journalists. So today, it is the likes of Glenn Greenwald and George Monbiot who carry the torch of political opposition, rather than politicians.

It is hardly surprising that, according to documents from the Snowden cache, GCHQ in Britain ranks investigative journalists alongside terrorists and hackers as targets worthy of surveillance. In a single trawl in 2008 GCHQ harvested around 70 000 emails from journalists working for the BBC, Reuters, the Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, the Sun, NBC and the Washington Post. The results were placed on the GCHQ intranet for analysis by agents.

The mass hoovering up of electronic communication by the security agencies is now an established fact. The legality of doing so only comes into a play when some of these ill-gotten fruits of mass surveillance need to be brought into the public domain, such as for a court case. To this end, in Britain the state uses RIPA, Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which inter alia empowers police to access journalists’ electronic communication without a court order with only the approval of senior officers. Just to take two instances: In the so-called Plebgate affair, police used RIPA powers to access the phone records of a journalist working for the Sun; and the records of a Mail on Sunday journalist were similarly acquired in the Chris Huhne speeding affair. Neither case involved terrorism or serious crime.

Investigative journalism remains one the last means of critiquing political power in Britain. It is under attack, and one small step of resistance is to achieve secure communication by encrypting phone speech and email, end-to-end. Of course that does nothing to hide the metadata - who’s contacting whom, when and for how long - but it shuts GCHQ and the police out of the content. David Cameron doesn’t like that, and that’s why he would like to ban it.

The end of student life

Student university life is a potent and necessary experience, but it is ephemeral.

I left university in 1983. Nearly a decade later in 1992, I found myself with time on my hands to do some thinking and realised that the emotional introspective life of our our university years had given way, for most of us at least, to an angst-ridden, time-conscious, but more focussed existence.

Back in 1984, in an act of catharsis while unemployed in bedsit land, I had written the novella University Years, which had sought to portray and parody student university life. And nine years later, still with a manual typewriter, I found the time to type up the the scattered and scrappy manuscript. While doing so, I was reminded repeatedly of the contrast between our current attitude to life and to each other, which we now experienced as young people approaching thirty, and how we had seen the world at the beginning of the the 1980s as students at Exeter University.

At the time it seemed impossible to complete University Years and ignore the extent to which our lives and outlooks had changed. So to give effect to this point, I planned to make all the events in University Years a flashback, and begin the novella with a scene showing my character Martin’s current married life as a university academic, a man who is now anxious, pushed for time, and put out by the inconvenience of meeting up with Brian, his former university friend and housemate. I wrote a new beginning for the novella and then dumped the idea, mostly because I did not want to fundamentally alter the original text written in 1984.

The planned opening of the novella, a mere 351 words, written subjectively form Martin’s viewpoint, is below. The chapter would have been entitled: Anxiety: meeting Brian.

How quickly he went downhill after leaving university.

I received a letter from Brian this morning. It’s bothered me all day at work because I can’t think why Brian should want to see me. He said he’d have to drive up from Surrey after work a week next Friday. He can spend the night here, of course, but why does he want to contact me after all this time? We left university over ten years ago now, and apart from the funeral the following year, I haven’t seen him since. All we do these days is exchange Christmas cards; we’ve even given up writing short letters on them. I suppose we don’t have much in common; he’s a solicitor and I’m a university lecturer. He has children and I don’t.

I’m not sure that I want to get involved with Brian again. I’ve got so much on – my third year course on East European politics. My European politics post grads are causing me to work like hell at the moment. I want to finish the paper on the history of Czech/Slovak relations for next month. I’m bogged down with marking.

It can’t be money he wants, and surely he wouldn’t come to me on account of his marriage. I’m not sure he’ll get on with Myra. We’ll have to do a shop for two formal meals. Brian is coming on Friday the fifth, and Ruth and Ivan are coming on the Saturday.

At least Myra is preparing some food this evening.

I’ve grown attached to this room in our house, which is now my office. I’ve got so much paper here, and I need a second filing cabinet. I also need to put bookshelves in that other alcove on Saturday. The carpet is almost worn through between the word processor and my writing desk.

Myra has just called me downstairs to eat. I wonder how her teaching went today. We’ll eat, have a coffee, do the washing up together, and then I really need to get back to work. I also need to let Brian know that he can stay here.