Shutting out the snoopers
IN 1968, AT A SECRET LOCATION in Soho, Conrad Dixon, ex-military, ex-public school, was interviewed stark naked for a secret position within the Metropolitan Police. Once appointed, he outdid the Stasi by setting up a police unit, SDS (Special Demonstration Squad), which embedded for months – or even years – tens, if not hundreds, of police spies in British civic organisations, such as London Greenpeace. These spies, armed with false identities and backgrounds, befriended and formed relationships with activists; and in some cases even had children with them. Their purpose was to monitor and disrupt the work of these organisations, and where possible prosecute and imprison activists.
Only in 2011 did the full sorry story of Dixon’s poisonous legacy start to emerge. But what the embedded police spies affair proved, more than the bugging of phones and the intercepting of mail, is that the British state is prepared to invest large amounts of resources and take extreme measures to spy on political activists.
In the last couple of decades, most left wing discussion and organisation has moved online. While the internet has undoubtedly massively increased the ability of progressive forces to communicate, organise and spread information, it has also enabled the state through internet surveillance to easily monitor and disrupt opposition to the regime, even when that opposition is legal.
In 2013 the revelations of the CIA contractor Edward Snowden proved that GCHQ, in league with the National Security Agency in the United States, has been attempting to mop up every last morsel of electronic communication. And today we know that since the late 1990s state agencies (GCHQ, MI5, MI6 and police units) have built up gigantic databases of digital data through bulk collection.
But while we know much about the technicalities of surveillance, we have little firm evidence on how the British state systematically uses its stockpiles of information. Yet if we look to the information that embedded police spies have sought from activists – who says what to whom, what is their relationship with each other, and what they plan to do – it would be reasonable to assume that state agencies use their bulk collection databases for the same purpose.
Strangely, the Charlie Hebdo murder in January 2015 threw some light on what the state agencies were looking for. Following the atrocity in Paris, four people, in solidarity, ordered the Hebdo magazine from a newsagent in Corsham in Wiltshire. Police visited the newsagent and requested the names of the customers. When the police action came to light, it was deemed a mistake and an isolated event. 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. The investigations were clearly not isolated incidents, but a policy instructed from the top. Evidently, there were politically active people whom the state couldn’t track because by ordering a magazine they had evaded internet surveillance, so the newsagents were approached as a source.
While the left supports measures to legally limit the behaviour of the spooks, such as amendments to the Investigatory Powers Bill, it is much more effective for socialists to simply deny the state agencies information, whenever they can. More use should be made of Tor Browser, which, though slow, hides the user’s internet browsing from internet service providers, which will soon be required to store everyone’s browsing histories for twelve months. And for emailing there are now several easy-to-use end-to-end encrypted services, such as tutanota.com.
There are always pessimistic voices which say: “Don’t bother, they can still monitor you anyway,” but that is not always true. And, in any event, a few simple steps can either keep your data private and unavailable to the state agencies, or at least massively increase the workload of the spooks in their attempt to get hold of it. And the more work you create for them, the fewer people get monitored.
The struggle for online privacy through encryption is not just an issue for journalists, people living in non-democratic regimes and for American libertarians. It is something of importance for socialists, too. Let us act, and hear more discussion about it. 20