So that’s what Britain’s GCHQ have been up to – sending in the Smurfs to control our phones.
So far, according to Edward Snowden, we have Dreamy Smurf that switches on our phones, Nosey Smurf that listens to our conversations, Tracker Smurf that reveals our location and Paranoid Smurf that disguises the fact that it controls your phone.
What’s next? It’s time GCHQ cooperated with other government departments than just the security services. Let’s have a think about what else it might be able to discover on our phones. How about these ground-breaking applications:
Greedy Smurf: listens to your order in a restaurant and informs your GP if the fat content is more than 20%.
Stasi Smurf: hears you cursing the police, the Queen or the Conservative Party and puts you on the terrorist watch list.
Teresa Smurf: listens to you ranting about immigration and puts you on the Conservative Party mailing list.
Wonga Smurf: listens to your conversations with your dodgy accountant about sneaky tax evasion tactics and sends them to the Inland Revenue
Madison Smurf: catches you cheating on your spouse and informs the spouse.
Smutty Smurf: catches you making ribald remarks about colleagues of the opposite sex and outs you on Twitter
Jezza Smurf: listens to you making admiring noises about Jeremy Corbyn and informs the police.
Drunken Smurf: tracks your erratic driving and informs the police.
Dirty Smurf (under-18s only): listens for groans and moans coming from your laptop and informs your parents.
Donald Smurf: catches you bad-mouthing America and informs the NSA.
Euro Smurf: catches you bad-mouthing the EU and puts you on Nigel Lawson’s anti-EU mailing list.
Come to think of it, GCHQ really needs to licence this technology so that all and sundry can listen in to our calls and read our texts.
Two benefits: first, we would eliminate the deficit in short order thanks to the massive royalty revenue stream from companies wanting to sell us stuff and benign foreign governments just dying to listen in on their citizens. Second, we would stop using our smart phones for anything other than emergencies and start talking to each other again – after sticking blutac on all its orifices.
Are you listening guys?
Once upon a time, my long-departed grandmother was an actress in silent movies. She was not very famous, but well enough known to attract the attention of the Inland Revenue, Britain’s tax collectors. They were, according to my father, the bane of her life.
Eventually she retired from acting to become a full-time mother to her children. But the demands from the Revenue kept coming. She decided that enough was enough. So she sent a letter to the tax inspector informing him that Miss Stevenson (or whatever her stage name was) was no longer alive, and would they therefore stop sending these tiresome letters to her address? The letters stopped, and she never heard from the Revenue again.
Twenty-five years ago I took a job with rather an eccentric company in Surrey. I say eccentric because not many company owners even in those days would have a large, flea-bitten dog lying across the entrance to his office. The office was in a wood-beamed house dating back to the 16th Century, and the entrance was at least six inches shorter than me. The challenge of stepping over the dog and remembering to duck left me with dents in my head that can still be felt today.
Even stranger was that he “employed” a bookkeeper who freely admitted that he didn’t exist. By which he meant that he was totally under the radar of officialdom. He paid no tax and no national insurance contributions. He was paid in cash, and there were no transactions he was aware of that would enable anyone to track him down. Some bookkeeper. Some company.
Could anyone get away with being a non-person today? Well yes actually. In the United Kingdom there are probably hundreds of thousands of people who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas. They have effectively disappeared from official notice. Like the bookkeeper, they operate within the black economy. But should they decide to get into something of which the state disapproves, such as plotting a terrorist act or encouraging people to go to Syria, there’s a fair chance that they would catch the attention of the government agencies tasked with preventing such activities.
Given, post-Snowden, what we know of the capabilities of these agencies – MI5 and MI6 primarily, but with the government communications agency GCHQ providing increasingly close support – it’s pretty clear that if the government wanted to round up a large proportion of the illegal immigrants in the country, it could do so in fairly short order. It chooses not to because it has bigger fish to fry.
Those fish are the subject of Gordon Corera’s Intercept – The Secret History of Computers and Spies.
Corera is the BBC’s Security Correspondent. In his latest book, which could be subtitled “From Bletchley to Snowdonia”, he describes how computers – in the hands of the spies – have gone from single-purpose devices designed to crack German codes during World War II to vast repositories of data to be mined for the purpose of discovering the activities and intentions of individuals, companies and potentially hostile foreign powers.
Before the internet, the intelligence communities used the limited tools at their disposal to monitor their Cold War rivals. Who was spying on them? Was an attack imminent? What were the enemy’s capabilities? The main protagonists, America, Britain and the Soviet Union, relied on increasingly effective cryptology to keep their secrets secret. But codes could be cracked, and as at Bletchley Park, where the first recognisable computer, Colossus, was pivotal to the British war effort, computers increasingly complemented and to an extent replaced the input of human spies.
The internet, and the development of encryption tools that individuals and non-state actors could use to protect their privacy, changed everything. The door was not only open to libertarians, bombers and drug dealers to cover their tracks, but to governments that could use the internet to hack into companies and the institutions of other governments. And, it seems, this is precisely what they did on an industrial scale. Most notably the Chinese, whose People’s Liberation Army employed legions of hackers to suck western companies dry of their intellectual property.
In particular the Chinese wanted know-how related to military and communications technology. They would penetrate servers by exploiting security vulnerabilities, by phishing emails and through access granted by insiders in their pay. Before long intelligence agencies that previously had an offensive role, spying on foreign countries, were forced to go on the defensive in order to prevent potentially destructive attacks on institutions and infrastructure. Companies realised, too late in the case of some, how vulnerable they were, and likewise took action.
After 9/11, attention in the US turned to individuals who might be plotting against the state, be they in the homeland or in hot spots such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. The main actors were the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA). In the United Kingdom the GCHQ joined the so-called War against Terror. For the first time the NSA and GCHQ, whose remit up to then had been confined to targets in foreign countries, found themselves – because of their unique expertise in electronic surveillance – monitoring people in their own countries.
In the main they were looking at metadata – information about who was doing what and going where, rather than what they were actually doing. Who had made calls or sent emails to who, rather than the content of the conversations. The task of finding the needle in the haystack was made easier by technology that enabled them to recognise intersecting patterns of activity. Once they had identified “persons of interest”, they needed warrants that authorised them to listen to calls and read emails related to specific individuals. Use of individual warrants in the UK resulted in a number of high profile arrests, including those of the second, unsuccessful, wave of bombers in July 2005.
Meanwhile we were entering the era of Big Data. Private organisations, such as credit card companies, social media sites and banks, were collecting huge amounts of information about their users. New software tools enabled them to target individual customers based on their social preferences and buying habits. Which is how Amazon, for example, sends you recommendations of products you are likely to buy, and offers of cheap flights to destinations you are contemplating mysteriously arrive on Facebook or in your email account.
To exploit this data governments demanded access for their purposes. The US and the UK passed legislation compelling companies to hand over their data on demand. Access to a much richer set of data – both at home and abroad – enhanced their ability to identify threats to national security. Not without opposition, however. Civil liberties organisations have argued that if governments are able to trawl through these huge and comprehensive repositories of data, for what other purpose might they use the capability – either now or in the future? Not good news for my grandmother had she been alive today, perhaps, or for the bookkeeper who didn’t exist .
Then came Edward Snowden, a contractor with the NSA. The documents he stole from the NSA revealed the full extent of what the intelligence agencies were up to. According to the British and US governments, his revelations seriously affected the counter-terrorism efforts of both countries. The warriors, plotters and planners of jihad very quickly changed their methods of communication to avoid detection.
Corera ends his narrative in the present day with a set of moral and practical dilemmas. Can we justify secure encryption on grounds of civil liberty, when some use it to do bad things? Can we be sure that our governments will use their powers responsibly when others are using cyber capabilities to oppress their citizens? To what extent should national entities govern the internet? Will every country – like China – end up with a Great Firewall, behind which they can control their citizens as they wish (see this article on the BBC website about Thailand’s plans, for example)? And how do we protect our infrastructures in the age of the Internet of Things against cyber-attacks such as the Stuxnet virus that disabled Iran’s nuclear centrifuges?
What is clear, according to Corera, is that the US has exploited home advantage – as the country through which until recently 80% of internet traffic passes (the other 20% passes through the UK), and as the source of the vast majority of technical innovation over the past seventy years. Whether that will remain the case in the future is debatable. China is well aware of its vulnerability on these grounds, hence the Great Firewall and the rise of home-grown technology powerhouses like Huawei.
Whatever the posturing, the US, China and Russia are well aware that a principle of mutually assured destruction applies. Just as today’s great powers can destroy each other and themselves with nuclear weapons, they can also inflict great damage in a cyber war. Yet the economies of each need each other. So an uneasy accommodation recognising that “spies will be spies” will no doubt continue. But no such accommodation exists between governments and insurgent groups, between governments and individuals that seek to bring them down, and between major powers and smaller countries prepared to wage asymmetric war against them.
Personally, I can live with the possibility that my government can find out what they need to about me. I have no secrets likely to be of interest to them. If I did, I would most likely keep them in my head. But then again, I freely express myself in this blog, and I’m acutely aware that if I were a citizen of Egypt or several of its neighbours, were I to say exactly what I thought about my government, my life could be made extremely uncomfortable.
What conditions might lead to the British government doing the same as Egypt? Who knows, but it doesn’t bode well to hear an anonymous former general implying that if a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn were to downgrade the capabilities of our armed forces, a coup might be forthcoming. One would hope that the intelligence services would quickly pick up on that possibility. But would they be listening in on the colonels? And what if a future government decided to extend its existing powers of surveillance under its anti-terrorism laws in order to clamp down more effectively on tax evasion? One only has to look at the emergency powers of surveillance introduced under the US Patriot Act in the wake of 9/11, or the UK Regulation of Investigatory Powers legislation enacted in 2000 to see how individual rights to privacy can be chipped away, never to be restored.
I’m not sure how many people will end up reading Intercept, or indeed how many of us actually care about the issues Gordon Corera raises. But we should. It’s an important subject. The book requires some concentrated reading, but it’s a fluent and accessible exploration of one of the major dilemmas of our time.
I fear for Jeremy Corbyn. Maybe I shouldn’t. After all he’s made his own bed.
And yet, having read acres of stuff about him – both sympathetic and scathing – since he emerged as a serious contender for the Labour Leadership, I still can’t work out whether he’s the cork blasted out of the champagne bottle, or the golden liquid itself.
If he is the cork, he’s a well-considered, thoughtful piece of tree bark. I accept the logic of many of his embryonic policies (I say embryonic because what they will look like once they’ve been honed by the party grinding machine is anybody’s guess), and I like some of them, even if they may not be in my financial best interest.
His many supporters clearly think he’s the champagne – a heady change from the machine politicians whose every spoken word has been negotiated over by a dozen spin doctors and Whitehall obfuscators. They think he can deliver on turning ideals into action. They love his homespun style, so different from the silken smoothness of his opponents. They think he’s authentic, though I swear I have no idea what it means to be an authentic politician.
Who “they” are remains to be seen. The 0.5% of the electorate that voted for him? A groundswell of people who don’t normally vote but will now rise up and outnumber the privileged majority who rejected his party last time round? A new generation of voters for whom the ideas of the left are fresh and new – a different perspective from that of the old cynics who were around in the Seventies and Eighties and saw the same ideas dispatched to the fringes?
It would only take another major economic crisis, or possibly a political one involving China, Russia or the Middle East, for what one pundit on the BBC last night described as “pre-revolutionary conditions” to arise, and thus for “them” to become a majority. That must frighten the Conservatives, for all the self-satisfied noises they are currently making about Corbyn.
But I wonder if Labour’s new leader is prepared for what he will have to go through over the next few years – assuming he survives in post that long. I wonder if he’s prepared for the stress and the teeth-grinding frustration of having to drag a reluctant parliamentary party along with him. That will probably depend on whether he really is a leader, rather than a catalyst, or a lightning rod for all the idealists, the disaffected, the axe-grinders and the marginalised who see him as some kind of messiah. Will it be a case of “he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy”?
Those who are unhappy with the status quo are unhappy for many reasons. As I wrote back in July in Jeremy Corbyn and the Atomisation of the Labour Party, Corbyn will find it next to impossible to satisfy all the lobbies, interest groups and political sub-groups that have coalesced under his banner. If his teeth don’t grind down to stumps dealing with the 200-odd Labour members of parliament who didn’t vote for him, he will definitely need dentures by the time his unelected supporters have finished with him. Or possibly a hearing aid.
And that’s before the Conservatives and their friends in the media have had their turn.
Perhaps he’s a man of steel who will not let these competing forces wear him down. Perhaps he will be a Claudius, the Roman Emperor who was discovered hiding behind a curtain when Caligula met his gory end, and hoisted on the shoulders of the Praetorian Guard, to be acclaimed as the new Caesar. He turned out to be less pliable than his soldiers might have anticipated, and was by no means the worst of the Julio-Claudian rulers.
And perhaps because he is now in a position that most likely he never craved for, he will feel that he has nothing to lose by giving it a go, and will not be a broken man if it doesn’t work out. I hope so for his sake. Yet I have an uneasy feeling that though he’s clearly his own man, he will have the devil’s job of dealing with the minders, the ideologues, the union bosses and the political bruisers who will feel that they made him, and that therefore he owes them.
Kerensky or Lenin? Augustus or Claudius? A mild-mannered Trojan Horse? A political Pope Francis? I can think of any number of vaguely appropriate historical analogies to suggest that what you see may not necessarily be what you get.
However things pan out, the next few years in British politics will not be boring.