‘Social media encourages people to live lives online and accept Big Brother’s all seeing-eye’

Annie Machon
Annie Machon is a former intel­li­gence officer for MI5, the UK Secur­ity Ser­vice, who resigned in the late 1990s to blow the whistle on the spies’ incom­pet­ence and crimes with her ex-partner, David Shayler. Draw­ing on her var­ied exper­i­ences, she is now a pub­lic speaker, writer, media pun­dit, inter­na­tional tour and event organ­iser, polit­ical cam­paigner, and PR con­sult­ant. She is also now the Dir­ector of LEAP, Europe. She has a rare per­spect­ive both on the inner work­ings of gov­ern­ments, intel­li­gence agen­cies and the media, as well as the wider implic­a­tions for the need for increased open­ness and account­ab­il­ity in both pub­lic and private sectors.
AFP Photo / Paul J. Richards
Today we live our lives through the internet but we have to take a responsibility to protect our privacy as our governments can’t guarantee that intelligence agencies don’t spy on us, former MI5 agent Annie Machon told RT.

RT:What do you think about the situation with whistleblowers?

Annie Machon: I think we’ve had over the last few years a number of amazingly brave whistleblowers come forward. And I think it’s been good because of the degree of criminality they have been exposing for the public good, and also to raise the profile of the concept of whistleblowing, how important it is within functioning democracies to have the regulations of last resort exposing wrongdoing. I suppose the downside is that America particularly and also the UK seem to be waging a war on whistleblowers. So rather than taking their evidence, investigating allegations of criminality, and seeing that justice is done what they are trying to is incarcerate the whistleblowers, persecute them rather than protect them. And it would be nice to be able to see 2015 as the year when they are given proper legal protection and their disclosures are properly investigated.

RT:Are people taking their privacy more seriously after all the Snowden revelations? Or are they just making a joke of it?

AM: Yes, one of the jokes, of course, is “GCHQ is always listening to its customers.” I think people are beginning to take their privacy more seriously. It depends on which country you live in though because depending on the media coverage and the degree of media coverage people are more or less aware of what’s going on.

For example, in Germany there is a historic understanding of the importance of privacy as the last defense against sliding towards tyrannical government. And also people are very conscious still of more recent history, things like the Stasi secret police. So they take these issues very seriously and in fact there are a number of initiatives in Germany to up the protection of citizens’ rights.

However in places like the UK for example where the media has been largely censored around reporting some of the very serious disclosures which Mr. Snowden produced, there is less awareness; there is more a sort of complacency that the spies are always the good guys, that … if you do nothing wrong you have nothing to hide. But I think even in the UK people are waking up to this, so all we can do is thank Edward Snowden for all he has done for raising awareness of these various issues around the world.

RT:How can ordinary internet users protect their data?

AM: Well, it is difficult. It has been incredibly difficult but I know that the tech community is working on simplifying how you can apply things like basic privacy protectors like encryption, like using tools for anonymous web browsing and things like that. And I’m amazed that during the last year quite many of my contacts and friends have suddenly started adopting PGP encryption so that we could email with privacy. I think despite the hurdles more people are taking these issues seriously and beginning to adopt them. Now one issue has grown exponentially over the last couple of years and it is an initiative called CryptoParties where you get socially-minded technologists holding voluntary gatherings where people who do want to encrypt their laptops, who do want to protect their privacy can take their computers along to these CryptoParties and have these technologies installed in order to protect themselves. And this is a global phenomenon that’s been going for about two years. And I very much encourage everybody to find their local CryptoParty and go and get protected.

RT:Well, let’s get to the other side of the barricades. What is the position of security agencies in the world?

AM: I think what we are seeing is only the tip of the iceberg from the Snowden documents and even those are bad enough. And of course the intelligence agencies around the world are crying foul and saying “This is not fair, let’s put back our capabilities in terms of investigating threats to national security.” However, actually most of the disclosures have shown that they have been acting illegally under international law and national laws. So instead of sort of reigning in those powers what they are now asking is for the national governments to strengthen the laws retrospectively to legalize what they have already been doing. So I think it is probably as very much business as usual.

RT:You have said it’s just the tip of the iceberg. And we know that the NSA is today preparing for a cyber war. Is it possible that ordinary people might be also involved in that?

AM: If you think how dependent our countries are on the internet. I mean this is the nerve center of our modern civilizations, it controls things like power stations, it controls our transport, it controls our hospitals, our medical records, everything, our banking. So if cyber attacks are launched potentially whole countries could be paralyzed by such an attack. And in fact we’ve already seen that America and Israel have engaged in cyber warfare. A few years ago something called the Stuxnet virus was unleashed against the civilian nuclear capabilities of Iran and this caused massive damage to the systems. And of course another Stuxnet variety is sort of out there in a wild and it’s being mutated and it can be turned against any of our countries. It’s a bit like putting out biological warfare agents out there. These agents can mutate and cause massive damage and once they are out there the Intelligence agencies that release them cannot control them or predict where they are going to hit next. And that’s what we’ve seen with America and Israel developing that Stuxnet virus.

RT:Do you think the concept of privacy is going to change in the future?

AM: I think it’s a difficult one, how the concept of privacy is going to develop because whole generations now have grown up now knowing a world with the internet embedded in it - the digital natives know nothing else. And of course they are encouraged particularly by things like Facebook and Twitter to live their lives online and put all the information out there. So it’s like they have been groomed to accept a sort of Big Brother, all-seeing eye that can watch their lives online. However I think because of these disclosures of brave whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and of course this year’s Sam Adams award winner Bill Binney from the NSA. Because of their bravery more people are aware of the dangers of living their lives entirely in the glare of the internet panopticon. So they are moving away from things like the American corporate companies which of course have back doors built into them and can be easily suborned by the Intelligence agencies to hand over all the information. They are moving on to things like open-source technology and they are beginning to take steps to protect their online lives and make them private again. So I think it’s a very interesting stage in our development because all our lives are lived through the internet but we all have to take a responsibility each and every one of us to protect our privacy because we can’t guarantee that our governments can against these intelligence agencies.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.