Snowden and the War On Whistleblowers: An Interview With Annie Machon
BY Carola Frediani | Tuesday, February 11 2014
Former British intelligence officer Annie Machon offers an interesting inside perspective to the NSA surveillance debate: she resigned from the UK Security Service MI5 (Military Intelligence, Section 5) in the late 1990s together with her then partner, David Shayler, to blow the whistle on a series of alleged crimes committed by MI5, such as illegal wiretapping and lying to the ministers responsible for overseeing the intelligence services. After living on the run in Europe, and then in exile in Paris for two years, Machon then started a new career as a public speaker, writer and political campaigner, supporting citizens’ privacy and advocating for accountability from intelligence agencies.
Lately, she has been in the spotlight for a new initiative to protect Edward Snowden as well as future whistleblowers. In its first release, it was called the Journalistic Source Protection Defence Fund (JSPDF) and appeared to be closely affiliated with WikiLeaks. Now it is called the Courage Foundation to Protect Journalistic Sources, a larger whistleblower protection organization, which is expected to launch officially next spring.
Machon talked about the Courage Foundation last December at the 30th Chaos Communication Congress (30C3) in Hamburg, Germany; it is one of the most important annual meetings for hackers around the globe. There, Machon won the audience’s admiration with her talk on what she calls, “the war on whistleblowers.” She believes that these wars are mainly used as a pretext to erode civil liberties worldwide and intervene in other countries’ affairs.
TechPresident spoke with Machon by telephone about the Courage Foundation, whistleblowing, and the large surveillance programs that have been revealed as a result of Snowden's leaks. Below is a lightly edited version of the conversation.
TechPresident: Let’s start with the Courage Foundation, which was previously The Journalistic Source Protection Defence Fund, and is now waiting for an official launch. Who are its founders? What is its aim? Is it affiliated with WikiLeaks?
Thanks to WikiLeaks and Chelsea Manning, the concept of whistleblowing has been at the center of international discussion. However, our fund -- which will be officially launched in the spring and for the time being people can donate through the FreeSnowden.is website -- is not evolving from Wikileaks per se, but comes from groups helping Edward Snowden and other activists. If you go to FreeSnowden.is, at the top of the webpage you can see some of these groups supporting different people who have been affected by the crackdown on whistleblowers or activists, like Jeremy Hammond, a former member of Anonymous who has been sentenced to 10 years for having hacked an intelligence firm, Stratfor; Julian Assange, the leader of WikilLeaks; Sarah Harrison, the WikiLeaks activist who helped Snowden get to Russia; or even Gottfrid Svartholm, known as Anakata, the founder of Pirate Bay, who has been pursued by the authorities for copyright infringement. They are interrelated campaigns.
Courage Foundation itself is actually just a legal fund to protect journalistic sources, so we aim to advocate and publicize the issues around whistleblowing and journalistic sources, and raise money in order to build up a fund which can then be used to help people like Edward Snowden as well as future whistleblowers. We try to offer a lifeline to existing and future whistleblowers. We basically say to them: “You have done something that is very brave, and risky, so we offer you a service of assistance, since you don’t have to be alone.” In the past we have seen, and I know it also from my personal experience, that governments and intelligence agencies try to crash whistleblowers in order to deter others to do the same. So if you see that instead, some of them seem to survive the process, build a happy and productive new life, you’ll be encouraged to come out.
TechPresident: Snowden is your first and only recipient so far. But you also just mentioned interrelated campaigns, and people like Jeremy Hammond, the jailed journalist and Anonymous activist Barrett Brown, Julian Assange and of course Chelsea Manning. So we are talking about both whistleblowers and cyber activists. Do you think that WikiLeaks and Anonymous, two entities that have even cooperated at some point and who both had an agenda of disclosing state secrets, paved the way to a new generation of whistleblowers?
Absolutely, yes. My whistleblowing story was back in the nineties, when all we had was mainstream media. What I’ve been saying for years is that I wished WikiLeaks had existed back in 1999, since it’s such a better way to publish disclosures from governments and intelligence agencies. The problem is that if you take documentation to prove the crimes you want to reveal, and you give it to mainstream media, [the media] still could be barred. If you put them on WikiLeaks or something like that, at least there’s a public record to prove what you are saying. I think this has shifted the landscape of future whistleblowing.
TechPresident: But shouldn’t whistleblowers be protected by the law, as well as the media that use them as sources? And if not, why does this happen?
Whistleblowers should be protected by the law and in many Western countries many of them are. Unfortunately, whistleblowers coming out from the core of government, intelligence and military agencies are specifically excluded from those legal protections in many countries, which is a problem. So they go to the press. Alternatives such as WikiLeaks or funds to help whistleblowers highlight the fact that many elements of the media are failing to protect their sources, not just technologically -- protecting their anonymity as the story breaks -- but in the aftermath too. It is very easy for journalists to make their careers out of a whistleblower story. They get all the fame and glory, but then the whistleblower is left alone. Meanwhile, the media interest shifts to the next big story. There are plenty of awards and recognitions for journalists who write these stories, but there’s very little protection for whistleblowers once the story is broken. And that is what we want to provide.
TechPresident: Among the many revelations emerging from the Snowden leaks, and as someone who worked in the intelligence field, what struck you the most? What surprised you or enraged you?
I wasn’t surprised in terms of the direction the intelligence agencies - particularly the American NSA and the British GCHQ - have gone in: if they can do something, they will do something. I know from the inside that it is very easy for them to work around government’s oversight, to game the legal structure in which they are supposed to be working. What shocked me was the sheer scale of surveillance, and its industrialization. By using the war on terrorism after 9/11 they built a global panopticon: for example, there’s no way you can justify intercepting Angela Merkel’s mobile phone, by saying you have to investigate terrorism. We also know that in the US this endemic surveillance society has not contributed to thwarting one terrorist plot. So they use this nebulous theory of terrorism in order to create an Orwellian society.
TechPresident: What is the point of collecting so much data to the extent that the same intelligence agencies struggle to cope with them? Do you think it is a matter of controlling the average citizen? Specific groups?
I think they want social control. It’s not so different from what happened in Germany with the Stasi. Of course with these new technologies and the Internet, governments have a greater chance to have that control by gathering information. We should remember that it’s not people analyzing all this information; they use computer algorithms. So all they need to do is to grab that information and store it as long as they want in these huge data centers like the one in Utah.
Governments usually argue: “if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide…” Actually we might not be doing anything wrong now, but perhaps in five years time the law could change. For example, now we can go and protest on the street, like with the Occupy movement, and that is not illegal; however in times of social unrest that might be deemed to be illegal. If the political and legal environments shift, by storing all this information about people, they could go back to these records and use them against you. They could identify and profile you, trying to spot potential problem people. That’s why I think that the bulk collection of data is a source of societal control.
TechPresident: Are you satisfied with President Obama’s speech in January about NSA reforms?
It is very obvious that what the NSA has been doing is completely unconstitutional in US law. But I think that from our European perspective, nothing has really changed. The US will still carry on invading our privacy since we are not American citizens. Privacy is at the very heart of how democracy functions because if you don’t have privacy, you can’t really freely speak and write and plan things and get active. Internet is now the medium on which we do all these things. If we don’t feel we have privacy, we’ll start to self-censor. And that’s the end of freedom.
TechPresident: Based also on your experience, is it common practice for intelligence agencies in different countries to exchange information about their citizens or other targets?
There are certain groupings of intelligence agencies which work closely, no doubt about that. The American-British relationship is particularly close, then there are the so called Five Eyes (UK, US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia), and there are bilateral agreements between other countries. What some of these agencies have been doing is snooping on each other's citizens and sharing what they pick up, since many of them couldn’t spy on their own citizens without a warrant.
TechPresident: One last question about the future of Snowden. Do you think he should stay in Russia? Or rather, move to Germany, where lately, many Internet activists like Sarah Harrison have moved to? Or other countries?
You would think Germany should offer asylum to Snowden considering the scale of US spying on that European country and its politicians. In fact, in Germany there’s been a lot of public anger about it. However, Russia is probably the safest place for him right now, since few countries have the capability to protect him against US intelligence agencies. Let’s not forget that some US politicians and intelligence people have called for Snowden’s assassination. So even if he were able to move to Germany or Ecuador, would he be safe enough? If I were he, I would look for permanent asylum in Russia.
Carola Frediani is an Italian journalist and co-founder of the media agency, Effecinque.org. She writes on new technology, digital culture and hacking for a variety of Italian publications, including L’Espresso, Wired.it, Corriere della Sera, Sky.it. She is the author of Inside Anonymous: A Journey into the World of Cyberactivism.
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