Dining With Assange and Spies

Talking with a group of former spies and Julian Assange about all the different ways to be eavesdropped on is a sure-fire way to lose any and all illusions about privacy. Fortunately for now, such aggressive surveillance need only be of concern to people who visibly and effectively speak truth to power.

At their yearly conference the Dutch The National Cyber Security Center stated this week they want to listen more to the hacker community. It is fine that the government will at last listen to the people who have been ahead of the curve for decades, although the question remains - why it has waited to do this until 2013? Even if this had been done as recently as 5 or 10 years ago it would have saved an incredible amount of trouble and public money. I sincerely hope that the consultations with the hack(tivist) community are about more than just technical tricks, because most benefits to society are derived from discussing policy. For purely technical issues the usual consulting companies can always be hired and then simply pay hackers for their knowledge and advice, just like any other experts.

Meanwhile a big group of hackers were unhappy about the fact they were not welcome and organized an alternative meeting. If the NCSC's intentions for the coming year work out in practice, next time this might not be necessary. On the community side, these invitations to the table should be discussed openly and in detail (who sits at the table and wearing what hat). Because when community contributions and possible commercial interests get mixed up, things quickly degenerate into bickering and arguing. I speak from experience ;-). Nobody is "representative" of the entire hacker community. The NCSC will have to adjust to the idea that we have no centralised organisation with a head office where you can meet up with the CEO/director/top-dog.

Unfortunately I could attend neither meeting as I had a dinner engagement in London. This took place at the Embassy of Ecuador, where Julian Assange resides as a political refugee from US government extradition. This government has convened a secret grand jury to indict him for espionage (or just assasinate without process - a perennial favourite). This despite the fact he has violated no US law - journalism is still just about allowed. The small Embassy of Ecuador in London is now probably one of the best guarded places on earth, both visible (police-trailer-with-antennas) as well as invisible surveillance.

The dinner was held in preparation for the presentation of the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence held the next day at the prestigious Oxford Union Society. This prize is awarded annually to someone who has played an important role in the field of intelligence, peace and human rights. Some former prize-winners and organisers gathered in London ahead of the ceremony to visit Julian Assange (another former winner) as he can not leave the embassy property without risking a one-way trip to Cuba.

The winner this year was Dr. Thomas Fingar, who in 2007 was responsible for coordinating the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. Despite enormous political pressure on him to produce a desirable response, Dr. Fingar did his job and analysed the facts. The study emphatically concluded that since 2003 Iran had abandoned a nuclear weapons program. In his memoirs Governor G.W. Bush (the title of president "elected") admitted this report made it impossible for him to "use the US military to deploy against Iran" - you can hear the disappointed tone. Dr Fingar's integrity saved lives, in this case potentially millions of Iranians and others in the region.

The sober (in terms of both atmosphere and alcohol) portion of the dinner was spent on planning the ceremony. After both the planning and several bottles had been dealt with, the conversation turned to the situation in the embassy. Naturally such a group will then speculate about eavesdropping by the former colleagues of tablemates Ray McGovern (CIA), Thomas Drake (NSA), Coleen Rowley (FBI), Annie Machon (MI5) and Ann Wright (US Army). Bugging devices in the walls and the ceiling through very slowly and silently drilled holes? Laser beams on the windows? Directional microphones from across the street? Microwave radar?

Talking with a group of former spies and Julian Assange about all the different ways to be eavesdropped on is a sure-fire way to lose any and all illusions about privacy. Fortunately for now, such aggressive surveillance need only be of concern to people who visibly and effectively speak truth to power. The power of intimidation - the push-back - used against you also provides a good measure of your effectiveness as an activist (or journalist). "If you're not getting arrested every now and then, you need to try harder". In the Netherlands we have too many reporters who write what others tell them to, and too few journalists who write what others tell them not to. Respect to the small group in the latter category.

The planned programme for the award ceremony would be brutally swept off the table the following day by the Board of Trustees of the Oxford Union. The promised live streaming of video (and posting on the youtube channel of the Union) was blocked at the last minute on vague grounds. Apparently a discussion between former intelligence insiders is threatening enough to suspend a centuries-long tradition of openness and academic freedom of speech. Clearer evidence of the need for Wikileaks can hardly be imagined.

Update: a video clip of the speech of Julian Assange during the awards ceremony last Wednesday by the Oxford Union has been put online. The background of the video (originally the helicopter video leaked in April 2010) is replaced by the logo of the Union (in some of the images filmed of the audience in the debating chamber you can still see the original display). The official reason is that they are worried about possible copyright claims from the Pentagon (on a video that shows how journalists, citizens and children were shot with anti-tank munitions made from depleted uranium). Footage of the speeches of half a dozen other attendees (including the recipient of the prize that was the point of the entire gathering) will hopefully follow as soon as possible.


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