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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

EU: Apple ‘avoided tax on profits made across the EU’ – but right now it owes €13bn in Ireland

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

Apple must pay €13 billion (plus interest) to the Irish exchequer in a landmark EU ruling that has judged its tax arrangements in Ireland to be “illegal” under state aid rules.

The competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager has finally ruled after a two-year investigation that the company was given “illegal” benefits that gave it an unfair advantage.

“The Commission’s investigation concluded that Ireland granted illegal tax benefits to Apple, which enabled it to pay substantially less tax than other businesses over many years.

“In fact, this selective treatment allowed Apple to pay an effective corporate tax rate of 1 per cent on its European profits in 2003 down to 0.005 per cent in 2014.”

The ruling relates to two tax deals made by Apple in Ireland in 1991 and 2007.

The commission disputed the ability of what it called Apple’s ‘head office’ in Ireland to generate $22 billion in profit that went largely untaxed. “The ‘head office’ did not have any employees or own premises,” the commission said.

Going further than this, though, the commission said Apple has been able to “avoid taxation on almost all profits generated by sales of Apple products in the entire EU Single Market”.

It’s illegal under EU state aid rules for tax arrangements to give companies an unfair advantage within one country, however, the cross-border tax issue is as yet outside the remit of EU state aid control.

Our friends over at Currency Fair were quickly to LAH.

Although the EU said this ruling was not designed to undermine the wider Irish tax system, Ireland’s Minister for Finance Michael Noonan is likely to appeal the decision.

“This is necessary to defend the integrity of our tax system; to provide tax certainty to business; and to challenge the encroachment of EU state aid rules into the sovereign member state competence of taxation.”

Indeed, Ireland has already spent more than €670,000 trying to defend itself against the ruling.

US regulators last week outlined their shared “concern with tax avoidance by multinational firms”  but said:

“These investigations, if continued, have considerable implications for the United States — for the U.S. government directly and for U.S. companies—in the form of potential lost tax revenue and increased barriers to cross-border investment. Critically, these investigations also undermine the multilateral progress made towards reducing tax avoidance.”

Jeremy Corbyn heads to trendy East London to launch plans for public eBay and Google

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

Jeremy Corbyn has headed to civic tech space Newspeak House in trendy East London to launch a digital democracy manifesto that he intends to take into the next general election.

While giving a nod to Skype and Google for transforming our everyday lives, he said the internet’s advances could become “forces of inequality and exploitation”.

This plan, he said, would “democratise the internet”, while also acknowledging the many people who face social exclusion as government and politics moves online.

He said Labour would ensure that “no community is left behind”.

None of the pledges are brand new ideas, several are already being done to some extent by the current government, but here they are:

  • £25 billion investment in a Universal Service Network to give mobile and broadband internet access to the whole of the UK

“Inequality of coverage is not trivial,” Corbyn said. He called it a “barrier to social and educational opportunity”. The policy is not unlike the Conservative Party’s Universal Service Obligation, which has been a long and hard thing to deliver.

  • Open Knowledge Library as a hub for lessons and curriculum, a public Google platform?
  • Platform Cooperatives that operate as a public trading platform for digital goods and services, like eBay and Taskrabbit in one?

This would be enhanced by “reformed copyright laws” to help protect the UK’s cultural workers and a “new kind of trade union membership” for digital workers.

  • Digital Citizen Passport for people to interact with government and private companies, not unlike (abandoned?) midata project or current GOV.UK Verify
  • Library for open source software that has been publicly funded
  • People’s Charter of Digital Liberty Rights, announced earlier this year, to “protect people from unwarranted surveillance” and enshrine privacy and freedom of speech
  • Massive Multi-Person On-line Deliberation to let people participate in policy decisions

Corbyn also made mention of online voting in elections but said this would have to be “open to widest possible consultation”.

Should tech companies join the government’s counter-terrorism unit?

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

MPs reporting on the radicalisation of young people in the UK couldn’t be more clear on where they stand on the impact of digital on this issue:

“The use of the internet to promote radicalisation and terrorism is one of the greatest threats that countries including the UK face.”

The ‘Radicalisation: the counter-narrative and identifying the tipping point‘ report made big headlines because Twitter and Facebook received lengthy criticism for not being proactive enough on policing ‘extremist’ content.

Google’s YouTube received the most high praise for implementing a rapid-response flagging system so a trusted group can highlight potentially harmful material and alert the company as quickly as possible.

Twitter was singled out because it does not proactively notify police of material that poses a threat to life, it said, because the content is public for anyone to find. But the company did confirm it had more than 100 people working on this issue and, between mid-2015 and February 2016, had suspended 125,000 accounts. Google said it had removed 14 million videos globally in 2014.

All three companies, along with Microsoft, have also recently signed upto new EU rules on tackling illegal hate speech, the MPs conceded.

It’s clear now that these aren’t just IT or tech or social media companies, they are big parts of people’s lives, huge distributors of content and therefore can’t hide behind their relative newness.

A whole five pages of the report was dedicated to the role of tech platforms, while just five paragraphs was dedicated to the old media: “In short, what cannot appear legally in the print or broadcast media, namely inciting hatred and terrorism, should not be allowed to appear on social media,” the MPs said.

It’s not unsurprising that websites distributing information with billions of users, versus traditional media outlets with relatively insignificant audiences, have found themselves here, as MPs explained:

“The internet has a huge impact in contributing to individuals turning to extremism, hatred and murder. Social media companies are consciously failing to combat the use of their sites to promote terrorism and killings. Networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are the vehicle of choice in spreading propaganda and they have become the recruiting platforms for terrorism. They must accept that the hundreds of millions in revenues generated from billions of people using their products needs to be accompanied by a greater sense of responsibility and ownership for the impact that extremist material on their sites is having…

“These companies are hiding behind their supranational legal status to pass the parcel of responsibility and refusing to act responsibly in case they damage their brands. If they continue to fail to tackle this issue and allow their platforms to become the ‘Wild West’ of the internet, then it will erode their reputation as responsible operators.”

MPs have called on these companies to produce quarterly public reports on their efforts in this area, detailing what they have removed and why.

MPs also floated the suggestion, made in the evidence of Baroness Shields, the government’s Minister for Internet Safety and Security, that tech companies should invest in technology to “automate the identification and removal of dangerous extremist content”. We know we can’t always trust computers to decide what the right thing to do it, but there you go.

But, in what is likely an unprecedented move, the MPs also suggest that tech companies set up permanent home within the police’s Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit.

“It is odd that when taking down dangerous and illicit material the CTIRU needs to waste time trying to establish contact with organisations outside the unit. Representatives of all the relevant agencies, including the Home Office, MI5 and major technology companies, should be co-located within CTIRU. This will enable greater cooperation, better information-sharing and more effective monitoring of and action against online extremist propaganda.”

It’s one thing to recognise the status and power of these newer companies in the media market, but this recognition surely comes with some ethical need for independence?

The new Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) was unable to comment on this issue, although they have recently launched a digital review of regulations and the way they apply to global digital publishers.

NS Tech has reached out to the Editors Code of Practice Committee, as well as Facebook, Twitter and Google to find out whether they think social media companies now need to be more regulated – and therefore also independent – like the press.

We will update when we hear back.


Facebook and Google declined to comment on joining the counter-terrorism unit.

iPhone hack proves mobile is the new battleground – and it’s us humans that are truly vulnerable

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

Apple’s issued a major patch to iOS 9 after a human rights activist reported a strange text message that was found to contain three zero-days vulnerabilities.

Long thought to be more secure than desktop computers, this smartphone attack would have enabled hackers to see inside the user’s device, including tracking his movements, recording phone calls and logging messages.

An experienced avoider of state surveillance, Ahmed Mansoor didn’t click the link, but sent it on to Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, who worked with security firm Lookout to test the software.

“The implant installed by the [now nicknamed] Trident exploit chain would have turned Mansoor’s iPhone into a digital spy in his pocket,” the researchers said.

“We are not aware of any previous instance of an iPhone remote jailbreak used in the wild as part of a targeted attack campaign, making this a rare find.”

The problem was reported to Apple and a new version of iOS 9 was delivered within 10 days. Updating to the latest version means the attack will no longer work, but of course doesn’t protect people from new, future exploits.

Interestingly, the researchers not only explain that all of the three tools used in the attack were from “lawful intercept” spyware companies, but that the trail is thought to lead back to a US venture capital-owned business, NSO Group.

Citizen Lab believes that Israeli firm NSO Group builds software that is specifically designed and sold to government agencies. Attacks of this level of sophistication could be worth millions to those wishing to target journalists, human rights campaigners and other interesting parties.

“That the companies whose spyware was used to target Mansoor are all owned and operated from democracies speaks volumes about the lack of accountability and effective regulation in the cross-border commercial spyware trade,” the team added.

Speaking last week about a similar set of software hacks believed to belong to the NSA, former US Defense Intelligence Agency officer Michael Tanji issued a harsh reality check:

“If there is a potentially dangerous side-effect to the discovery of a set of 0-days allegedly belonging to the NSA it is the dissemination of the idea, and credulous belief of same, that intelligence agencies should place the security of the Internet – and commercial concerns that use it – above their actual missions…

“The idea that someone, somewhere, working for someone else’s intelligence agency might not also be doing vulnerability research, uncovering exploitable conditions in popular networking products, and using same in the furtherance of their national security goals is a special kind of hubris.”

Yes, the battle is truly on, between security researchers and commercial companies working on behalf of their users (and their brand reputations), and state actors and non-state actors who give no s**** about your digital identity.

Individual citizens, relying on the kindness of strangers to notice, test and then responsibly disclose new threats to the relevant company, before it’s too late, gives us real vulnerability in the vulnerability exploitation business.

Why Hull has cream phone boxes (and why it’s relevant to tech today)

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

Hull’s set to become the European Capital of Culture in 2017, cue visions of John Prescott cutting the ribbon looking as cultured as some bloke who’s just quickly pulled on his Sunday best.

The big moment is fast approaching, but it’s not only the city’s political leaders that might be in need of a face lift.

Despite being a significant trading hub as far back as medieval times, Hull’s telecoms infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with technological change.

Although Hull is reportedly the only city in the UK that is getting broadband officially described as “ultrafast” as standard, the leading local network provider KCOM hasn’t yet delivered.

Hull is the only city in the UK to have kept (until 2007) an independent, municipal telephone network provider, that’s KCOM.

Image credit: RM21/Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: RM21/Wikimedia Commons

And that’s why it has distinctive cream phone boxes and its residents received the White Pages telephone directory, rather than Yellow Pages.

But Hull was also one of only two places named in Ofcom’s Connected Nations report in 2015 where more than 30 per cent of businesses were stuck with sub-10 Mbps broadband.

In another report that flags poor connectivity as a significant issue for the citythe University of Hull concluded:

“Currently, the region finds itself towards the bottom of the league for most key metrics related to economics, skills, employment, social mobility, entrepreneurship and innovation.”

KCOM has committed to ramping up its roll out of Lightstream, which the company says is up to 25 times faster than copper cable broadband. It’ll be available to around three quarters of properties within its network over the next 18 months.

In the meantime, though, Hull is set to gain ‘Gigabit City’ status, thanks to a new, large-scale fibre roll out by CityFibre, which is partnering with young local KCOM competitor Pure Broadband.

Barack Obama likened the availability of super-fast, fibre-optic internet to that of “being the first city to have fire”.

He said that these internet speeds are akin to “unleashing a tornado of innovation” and many cities across the world are working out how they can get a slice of the action.

CityFibre claims its network offers speeds up to 1,000 Mbps (1 Gbps) and says its network is future-proofed to be able to allow for ever-greater capacity. It’ll soon be laying fibre across 62 km of the city to try to compete directly with KCOM’s effort.

The company has already upgraded most of the city to 4G, having installed fibre connections to mobile masts throughout Hull, in partnership with EE and Three.

Hull is now home to incubator and business innovation space C4DI and is a key city that could benefit from the government’s Northern Powerhouse initiative.

Let’s hope it doesn’t continue to be held back by the slow web speeds identified by Ofcom as Europe’s gaze lands there during its City of Culture year.

The University of Hull’s State of the Humber Economy report suggests that the city “plan to actively support entrepreneurship and innovation”.

If Barack Obama is to be believed, becoming a Gigabit City is most of the job done.