Monthly Archives: September 2016

Whistleblowers: latest Ed Snowden film lands as UK hacktivist Lauri Love faces 99 years in US prison

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

Today marks a rather incredible inflection point for the lives and the future and the history of whistleblowers.

The new Snowden movie opens in cinemas across the US today, offering an attempt at exploring the moments that made the whistleblower – his character, his motivation – now a figure of such legend that the story’s being told by Hollywood director Oliver Stone.

Concurrently, and with almost cinematic coincidence, a UK judge has just ruled that hacktivist Lauri Love can be extradited to the US to face alleged hacking charges that could carry a 99-year prison sentence.

The Love case was a test of a legal precedent set in 2012, when then Home Secretary Teresa May protected Gary McKibbon from extradition on similar charges. Love’s legal team say he is set to appeal.

It hasn’t been an easy decade or so for relations between internet folks, citizens, policymakers and spies. While those who grew up exploring the web have always found walls to climb, there are now people with access to privileged information who’ve started to question whether the work they’re doing for their country is really the right thing to do. And that’s all while others work harder still to hide secrets, protect data and stop ‘bad actors’.

From former NSA technical lead Bill Binnie turning whistleblower way back in 2001, to the founding of Wikileaks by Julian Assange in 2006, to 2013, when prominent digital rights campaigner Aaron Swartz took his own life – the internet is becoming an increasingly complex clash of civilisations.

Swartz had just helped win the Stop Online Piracy Act campaign and was tipped for ever-greater political stardom because of his powerful speaking and writing skills, which set him slightly apart from other computer nerds. But it seems he couldn’t bear the pressure of his potential fate – a maximum 50-year jail sentence for mass-downloading science journals from MIT.

When I met Lauri Love in London last week, in town with the Courage Foundation’s Sarah Harrison to do interviews around the Snowden film, he said he’d felt similar suicidal feelings over the course of his time negotiating the opaque US legal system.

Earlier this month, former US solider Chelsea Manning went on hunger strike in a military prison in a bid to secure gender reassignment surgery, while just last night Assange said he would turn himself in if Manning receives a formal pardon from Barack Obama. Ed Snowden, too, suggested this week that the most powerful man in the world could easily extend a pardon to him, “for the things that may seem unlawful in letters on a page but when we look at them morally… it seems these were necessary things, these were vital things”.

What unites most if not all of the people treading an increasingly public line between terrorist and freedom fighter is that they have all been white men, but men who could never or no longer accept a privileged position or a pay cheque. Many of them, also, have a personal background that appears to make them discreditable in some way by the mainstream media. And their lives are becoming increasingly intertwined.

What seems to set apart government whistleblowers like Snowden, Manning and Binnie is that their motivation is patriotism for a country they want to reform, rather than the typical view of a ‘hacker’, who seems more interested in the freedom of the internet and revolution.

Collectively, these people have revealed mass government spying and military crimes, highlighting in technicolour the hypocrisy of a nation considered to be the leader of the free world. Whether the public wanted, or indeed needed, to know these things is apparently still debatable.

“He is a patriot who grew up believing in the system – which is why he risked his entire life for the public to know,” says Sarah Harrison, of Wikileaks and the Courage Foundation, which was set up to help Snowden’s defence, but now advocates for others too.

That includes Lauri Love, along with journalist Barrett Brownand hacktivist Jeremy Hammond, who are both in jail in the US . “This is what it takes – to ruin your whole life in order to tell the truth,” she says.

According to Harrison, Snowden had no further plan once he’d made it to Hong Kong to share the information he had with journalists. “But then, he decided he did want to see if there was any chance he might stay alive.”

It was she who flew to Hong Kong, under the expectation that her expertise at Wikileaks was probably Snowden’s best hope. She then approached different countries asking for asylum, arranged flights to Ecuador via Moscow and Cuba, only to find Snowden’s passport cancelled as they tried to change planes in Moscow.

The pair then spent 40 days in the airport together trying desperately to help Snowden find political asylum, which was ultimately only secured from the Russian government.

“Ed wanted to go to Latin America,” she explains. “He knew what it would look like to end up in Russia. Ultimately, though, this was probably the best place he could be if he wanted to be physically far away from the US.”

She says that while Obama had come to office with a commitment to protect whistleblowers, he “has imprisoned more than any other president”.

“When Julian founded Wikileaks, he thought he’d be bringing light to corrupt regimes, perhaps things coming out of China and Russia, but the largest leaks have all been from the US.”

It’s been well documented that Harrison and Assange used to be a couple, a fact that has been used to question her character, given the Swedish rape allegations and sometimes odd behaviour of the Wikileaks founder. But this feels, at best, a distraction.

These are tense moments, not least for Lauri Love, who lost a friend in Aaron Swartz and says he’s here to “change the coercive plea bargain system, end disproportionate sentences for computer crime and stop the persecution of people who advocate for information transparency”.

For Sarah Harrison too, who is one of the subjects of a wide-ranging US government investigation, despite her journalistic credentials. And for Manning and Snowden, of course, who are quickly becoming the subject of fiction when both just want to go home.

Matt Hancock: “Digital will clearly underpin the whole industrial strategy of the UK”

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

Matt Hancock is two months into his new role as Minister for Digital and Culture – filling the rather large shoes of Ed Vaizey – and he must hit the ground running.

As the minister acknowledged in a chat with journalists today ahead of a big tech announcement tomorrow, “tech businesses by their nature are dynamic and deal with the world as we find it”.

Yes, they largely won’t wait for bureaucracy to catch up, which can enable great innovation – as well as helping to create companies that aren’t playing by the official rules. ‘Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness’ is a tired but apt old maxim that can be traced back to early computer programmer Grace Hopper, little could she have known about today’s lawless Ubereconomy.

Asked by NS Tech where our Digital Strategy has got to – and how it’ll fit in now an Industrial Strategy is in the works – Hancock stated his position in even stronger terms than in his speech made last week for the Creative Industries Federation:

“Digital will clearly underpin the whole industrial strategy of the UK. There are also specific digital things, some of which we’re taking through parliament in the Digital Economy Bill [having its second reading in parliament today], others of which are non-legislative.

“In a way, more important than how you order the documents is the substance of what comes forward and having taken this job on two months ago, we’re working really hard to make sure that we get all that right.”

Hancock is clearly more bothered about the message than the medium, which might mean this is the last we see of the document formerly known as the Digital Strategy.

He is also positive and enthusiastic about the future of the UK tech industry post-Brexit, saying that:

“Being open and outward-looking and attracting the best people around the world is incredibly important and we’re determined to make Brexit a success by making sure that we’re a great place to do business.”

The main challenge with that is that many people thought they were voting for immigration control, rightly or wrongly, which most pro-business government ministers seem to hope won’t materialise. That’s particularly as it’ll mean sacrificing the benefits of the single market, among other things helpfully flagged by the government of Japan in an appeal to policymakers last week.

Hancock continued:

“The tech industry both uses domestic talent and talent from all around the world so we’ve got to get the deal right for the UK thinking about our place in the whole world, not just in relation to Europe.

“That’s the best way to think about this challenge, clearly it’s going to be part of the negotiation but the way we need to think about that negotiation is – what is the the best deal for the UK as a globally connected country?”

If only the EU was so keen to make sure the UK gets the best of all worlds. Just yesterday, Berlin unveiled its new trade office in London, where it’s hoping to woo startups, larger companies and investors with the offer of an EU-based country, without the strings of Brexit attached.

Everyone’s a tech company now – including struggling Deutsche Bank

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

The chief exec of Germany’s biggest lender Deutsche Bank has warned in an open letter to staff that they must start thinking more like tech workers – or risk failure.

The bank lost €6.8bn in 2015 and faces a significant year of restructuring, so far marked by the sales of its Argentinian subsidiary and German retail bank Postbank.

But this year of change also sees the opening of a new data analytics centre in Dublin, along with a “digital factory” due to open its doors in Frankfurt-Sossenheim this month.

While staying positive about future projects that might rescue the bank from trouble, Cryan tried to scotch rumours that it plans to sell off Deutsche Asset Management as part of the restructure.

“Our work is not just about pursuing restructuring,” British-born CEO John Cryan said.

“We must also change how we work in the future. Too often I see in my own daily routine that too many different people are busy doing the same work as each other. Sometimes there are valid reasons for this. But often a particularly cautious approach or a hierarchical mindset gets in our way instead of making us better and safer.”

Just as the company’s Chief Risk Officer Stuart Lewis said recently that everyone working at the bank is a risk manager, they must all also be thinking entrepreneurs.

“Trust yourself to make decisions instead of waiting for an instruction from above. I encourage our managers to support this kind of self-reliance. This mindset is also necessary if we want to see ourselves increasingly as a technology company. We should be more daring and think a bit more like entrepreneurs.

“This does not just apply to the Management Board. Entrepreneurial initiative arises wherever business is done. You are best placed to see what could be changed and what could be improved. Often it is the small steps that bring us farthest forward.”

Deutsche Bank will be wooing the likes of Microsoft and Salesforce at its own Technology Conference next week.

And it’s no surprise why, big banks, most notably Goldman Sachs, have admitted they’re struggling to hire digital people because of negative perceptions about what their company does.

Cryan attempted to rally the troops with his final lines:

“Ask yourself where you – where we – can demonstrate entrepreneurial spirit. Astonishing yourself is what makes life worth living, as Dublin-born Oscar Wilde once wrote.”

Via The Telegraph

‘The US government had the technology to prevent 9/11 – but they shut it down’

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

If you do one thing this month, aside from washing and dressing and probably going to work, you should go to watch docu-thriller A Good American.

The star is Bill Binney, former ace codebreaker and technical lead at the NSA turned whistleblower, who claims he and his swat team of colleagues built the technology that could have stopped 9/11.

ThinThread, a “big-ass graph” of communications metadata from across the world, was shut down by the NSA just weeks before the attacks on the World Trade Centre. “It absolutely would have prevented 9/11,” Binney says in the film’s moving opening scenes.

Bad shape

Having been the envy of the world, House Intelligence Committee staffer Diane Roark found herself looking at a much-diminished, mid-90s NSA that was struggling with digital change. “They hadn’t even started moving from digital to analogue and there was already too much data,” she says.

Then she found Binney, along with colleagues Kirk Wiebe and Edward Loomis, and contractor Tom Drake, had quietly started a “skunkworks” where they were working on ThinThread.

Binney says it solved all the problems of the “volume, velocity and variety” of big data in one go. But after realising they’d built “the most powerful analytics tools in history”, the team says they also built in privacy protections, meaning those who weren’t ‘of interest’ wouldn’t even have their data kept in the social graph.

That idea is worlds away from the mass spying networks being established all over the world today. Binney even appearedin front of lawmakers in the UK earlier this year to warn against the bulk acquisition powers being created under the Investigatory Powers Bill.

“You have to get away from bulk acquisition dumping on your analysts because it makes your analysts fail,” he said at the time. “They have failed consistently since 9/11 and even before that.”


The long-serving former civil servant is damning of the political leaders who he says have ignored intelligence all the way from Vietnam to today.

ThinThread was eventually dropped in favour of Trailblazers, an outsourced analogue to digital programme that became the subject of a complaint made by Binney and team for “corruption, fraud, waste and abuse”.

They claim millionaires were made from the contracts awarded for the Trailblazer programme. Those involved went on to take higher office, while Binney’s team was prevented from doing business post-NSA and even got raided by the FBI.

So what happened when they booted up ThinThread and ran the software after 9/11 just to check? Terrifying stuff.

US, Europe and UK-wide release is 23rd September