If ever the term ‘secret services’ frightened you, stop worrying. Or maybe start worrying. Either way, BUGGER by Adam Curtis will give you a good laugh. It lays bare the fallacy that the spies we employ through our taxes and who spend more time spying on us than anyone else, know what they’re doing. Or are competent enough to do what they think they are doing.
It’s a series of stories about MI5, “and the very strange people who worked there. They are often funny, sometimes rather sad – but always very odd.”
It all started more than 100 years ago when a Franco/Brit called Le Queux wrote a fiction about a German invasion. I’m guessing it didn’t sell too well, because he took it to the Daily Mail. Lord Northcliffe ran the story as “‘The Invasion of 1910′ and it described how the Germans landed in East Anglia and marched on London.”
Thousands of Daily Mail readers wrote in, saying they had seen suspicious people – obviously German spies. Instantly, well rapidly, Britain’s spy service of one man and two assistants morphed into MI5, “created in large part by the dreams of a socially excluded novelist, and the paranoid imaginings of the readers of the Daily Mail.”
In other words, MI5 was born on the back of a lie (probably standing on the backs of four elephants on a turtle – pure comic fantasy). But it has carried on lying ever since. One such lie is the apprehension of a huge German spy ring in 1914. Historian Nicholas Hiley says,
One of the most famous successes of the British Security Service was its great spy round-up of August 1914. The event is still celebrated by MI5, but a careful study of the recently-opened records show it to be a complete fabrication – MI5 created and perpetuated this remarkable lie.
The great spy round-up of August 1914 never took place – as it was a complete fabrication designed to protect MO5(G) from the interference of politicians or bureaucrats.
The claim made next day that all but one had been arrested was false, and its constant repetition by Kell and Holt-Wilson [director and deputy director) was a lie.
And MI5 hasn’t stopped lying. Perhaps the biggest continuing lie is that it catches spies. “The terrible truth,” writes Curtis, “truth that began to dawn in the 1980s was that MI5 – whose job it was to catch spies that threatened Britain – had never by its own devices caught a spy in its entire history.”
There was one spy called Geoffrey Prime. He actually worked for GCHQ and sold secrets to the Russians. And he was caught – not by MI5 or GCHQ, but by the Cheltenham police.
And so it goes on. WMD in Iraq anyone? The whole war on terror, perhaps? It’s certainly true that after the end of the Cold War with Russia, MI5 should have contracted. It didn’t though, because along came the war on terror that forced it, for the sake of national security, to expand and expand and expand.
So why do we need to worry about such ineptitude? It is simply this: MI5 and GCHQ are spying on all of us, and are pressuring the government to give them even greater surveillance powers. The phrase that it and the government always throw out is, “if you haven’t done anything wrong you have nothing to worry about.”
Really? With this lot? It seems to me, on the basis of Adam Curtis’ potted history, if you haven’t done anything wrong you’ve got everything to worry about. It’s only by being a genuine threat that you will avoid the myopic gaze of the British intelligence services.
BUGGER, by Adam Curtis. Go read. Go laugh. Go cry.
Lisa Vaas states that “US customs can and will seize laptops and cellphones, [and] demand passwords”. Her article should be required reading for anyone crossing US borders. She cites an article in Sunday’s Boston Globe which describes the seizure of researcher David House’s laptop, with the authorities apparently looking for House’s connections with Bradley Manning.
Lisa makes it very clear that the American Constitution counts for nothing at the borders, and that the authorities are free to seize and search pretty much at will.
On House’s laptop, that data included contact information for WikiLeaks donors, House’s bank account passwords and family photos, and coding he had done in Mexico, Johnston writes. On other laptops, that data can include not only personal data but trade secrets.
US customs can and will seize laptops and cellphones, demand passwords
There is no mention on whether House’s computer was encrypted. But at the beginning of this year (too late for this incident) the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) urged a single new year resolution: full disk encryption as a matter of course for all computers.
Without encryption, forensic software can easily be used to bypass an account password and read all the files on your computer.
New Year’s Resolution: Full Disk Encryption on Every Computer You Own
Moreover, EFF had already produced a whitepaper specifically on the border seizure problems: Defending Privacy at the U.S. Border: A Guide for Travelers Carrying Digital Devices. In this paper there is further reference to the House case:
In one instance, ICE held onto David House’s laptop, thumb drive, and digital camera for 49 days. An acquaintance of accused WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning, Mr. House was returning from Mexico when agents confiscated his electronic equipment. While the Justice Department conceded that it held onto his laptop for longer than thirty days, it explained that “[t]he lack of password access required ICE computer experts to spend additional time on Mr. House’s laptop.” Kevin Poulsen, Feds Defend Seizure of Wikileaks Supporter’s Laptop, Wired Threat Level ( July 28, 2011).
Needless to say, the Wired article gives further details. My assumption is that the US authorities got past House’s access password, but not any encryption on the system.
Either way, the moral of this story is that if you value the privacy of your data and even think about visiting the United States, either don’t, or make sure you use the strongest whole disk encryption you can get.
As if we didn’t already know it, where security is concerned, the user is the flaw. Guido has published the perfect example:
Everyone has to carry around not only their government communications network issued Blackberry phone, but a Blackberry Smart Card Reader too, with another SIM card in it. If the two are separated by more than ten metres or so the Blackberry stops working. So if a pickpocket stole the Blackberry, it would stop working. Carrying two units is a little cumbersome and inconvenient. Unfortunately from a security point of view, the wonks and spinners have taken to just sello-taping the two of them back to back…
Downing Street’s iSpAd Blackberry Security Flaw
That’s our problem, folks.