It’s (crypto)party time!

With our advanced free democracies resembling George Orwell’s “1984” more and more (your TV is spying on you, NSA global mass-surveillance, pre-crime repression of free speech  etc), there surely couldn’t be a better time to throw a CryptoParty!


New Academic Building
Goldsmiths, University of London
New Cross
London SE14 6NW


Saturday 30th November, 11am onwards


The event is free & open to the public. Anyone who worries about the privacy and ultimately freedom of expression of their loved ones should attend.

Great lineup of speakers/presenters – check out the event schedule!

I will be doing a few workshops on mobile device privacy, encrypted Internet phone calls and using a computer without leaving any traces behind.

If you’re around on the 30th, join us for a day of practical tinkering with privacy tools!

…and here are the slide decks of the workshops I ran:

Qubes OS – a secure operating system:

TAILS – This session never happened:

VoIP- Private voice calls:

Mobile privacy – how to keep your smartphone communications private:

OTR – a gentle introduction to chatting Off The Record:

NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake: “US using the Stasi playbook”

NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake testifying before the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs on September 30, 2013. The Committee has called an inquiry into NSA Mass Surveillance of EU Citizens.

Hat tip to Government Accountability Project

Thank you to the European Parliament and the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee for inviting me to speak before your critically important public hearings – and the challenge you collectively face regarding the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs and their impact on your respective member countries as well as the privacy of citizens in my country and yours.
The fundamental issue before your Committee is a foreign government (often in league with the intelligence apparatus of other countries as well as cooperating internet, phone and data service providers), spying on you under the guise of protecting its own interests in the name of national security – a convenient constraint of monitoring and control especially when conducted in secret – outside the purview of law and public debate – while subverting your sovereignty.

I used to fly as a crypto-linguist on RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft in the greater European theater during the latter years of the Cold War. My primary target of interest was East Germany. The Stasi became monstrously efficient using surveillance to enable their pathological need ‘to know everything’ – their very operating motto. However, I never imagined that the US would use the Stasi playbook as the template for its own state sponsored surveillance regime and turning not only its own citizens into virtual persons of interest, but also millions of citizens in the rest of the world. Do we really want to become subject to and subjects of a secret surveillance state?

In a surveillance state everybody is suspicious and laws protecting privacy and citizen sovereignty are regarded as inconvenient truths bypassed in the name of keeping the rest of us safe and secure as justification for the wanton and surreptitious bulk copy collection and unbridled access to vast amounts of data about our lives. Unfortunately, this surveillance regime has now grown into a globe girdling system that has gone far beyond prosecuting terrorism and other international crimes and wrongdoing.
Your Committee faces the challenge of dealing with a secret hidden shadow surveillance state dissolving the very heart of freedom and liberty and our respective citizen rights and using this power to expand sovereign-free zones – even when it undermines the very fabric of society, breaks trust between nations and endangers the very mechanisms we use for commerce and trade.
This exceptionalism gives rise to an ends justifying the means mentality in violating the sovereignty of other nations and citizens far beyond the real threats we do face from those who would cause us real harm, but often exaggerating those very threats in public for access to all of our data behind the scenes.

When national security services are more than willing to deliberately compromise the very information technology services and protocols that so many citizens as well as commercial and private enterprises rely upon and enjoy for legitimate confidentiality, data protection, and security in order to conduct their day to day business, it becomes very difficult to maintain trust in those systems.

Nothing less than the very sovereignty of our citizens and states are at stake in the face of an unfettered surveillance state apparatus.
From the recent disclosures of Edward Snowden, the US government has routinely violated on a vast industrial scale the Constitutional protections afforded its own citizens, while also disregarding the internal integrity of other states and the fundamental rights of non-US citizens.

I know. Because I was eyewitness to the very foundations of a persistent surveillance state expanded in the deepest of secrecy right after 9/11. I was there at the beginning.
While a senior official at the National Security Agency, I found out about the use of a top secret domestic electronic eavesdropping program that collected and accessed vast amounts of digital data (including phone numbers, e-mail addresses, financial transactions and more), turning the US into the equivalent of a foreign nation for the purposes of blanket dragnet surveillance and data mining – blatantly abandoning and unchaining itself from the Constitution and a 23 year legal regime enacted due to earlier violations of citizen rights by US government’s use and abuse of national instruments of power against Americans in the 60s and 70s.
These secret surveillance programs were born during the first few critical weeks and months following 9/11, as the result of willful decisions made by the highest levels of the US government. Such shortcuts and end-runs were not necessary, as lawful alternatives existed that would have vastly improved US intelligence capability with the best of American ingenuity and innovation, while fundamentally protecting the privacy of citizens at the same time.
I raised the gravest of concerns through internal channels, spoke directly with the NSA Office of the General Counsel, and then became a material witness and whistleblower for two 9/11 congressional investigations in 2002, and then exposing massive fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement at NSA during a multi-year Department of Defense Office of Inspector General audit from 2003-2005 regarding a multi-billion dollar NSA flagship intelligence collection program under development that was far more costly and far less effective in supporting critical intelligence requirements than a readily available and privacy protecting alternative.
I followed all the rules as a whistleblower until it fundamentally conflicted with my oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, and made a fateful choice in 2006 to exercise my First Amendment rights and went to the press with critical information about which the public had a right to know regarding the fraud, waste and abuse as well as the secret and unconstitutional surveillance programs.
However, rather than address the illegality and wrongdoing, the government made me a target of a huge federal criminal “leak investigation” into the exposure of the secret surveillance programs and subjected me to severe retaliation, reprisal and retribution that started with forcing me out from my job as a career public servant. I was subsequently blacklisted, no longer had a stream of income, while simultaneously incurring substantial attorney fees and other huge costs, necessitating a second mortgage on my house, emptying of my bank accounts, including retirement and savings. And that was just the beginning.
What I experienced as a whistleblower sends the most chilling of messages about what the government can and will do when one speaks truth to and of power—a direct form of political repression and censorship.
And yet once exposed, these unconstitutional detours were (and still are) predictably justified by often vague and undefined claims of national security, while aided and abetted by shameless fear mongering on the part of the government.

And yet we are now in an era where sharing issues of significant concern in the public interest, which do not in any way compromise national security, are often now considered criminal acts of espionage aided and abetted by reporters and the press – yet anathema to a free, open and democratic society.
I did everything I could to defend the inalienable rights of all U.S. citizens and the sovereignty of the individual which were so egregiously violated and abused by my own government—when there was no reason to do so at all, except as an excuse to go to the proverbial ‘dark side’ by exercising unaccountable, irresponsible and “off the books” unilateral executive power in secret.
I blew the whistle because I saw grave injustice, illegality and wrongdoing occurring within the National Security Agency. I was subsequently placed under intense physical and electronic surveillance, raided by the FBI in 2007 and two and half years later under the Obama Administration criminally charged under a 10 felony count indictment including five under the Espionage Act, facing 35 years in prison. The extraordinary charges that were leveled against me by the US Department of Justice are symptomatic of the rising power of the national security state since 9/11 and a direct assault on freedom of speech, thought, innovation, and privacy.
The government found out everything they could about me and turned me into an Enemy of the State. I became the first whistleblower prosecuted in the decades since Daniel Ellsberg, under the draconian World War I-era Espionage Act, a law meant to go after spies, not whistleblowers.
Having the secret ability to collect and analyze data with few if any substantial constraints – especially on people, is seductively powerful – and when done without the person’s permission and in secret against their will – is the ultimate form of control over others.

When government surveillance of this magnitude hides behind the veil of secrecy, when it professes openness and transparency while practicing opaqueness and deceit, that’s when citizens need to become very aware and wary of what the future might hold – when their very liberties are eroded and even taken away in the name of national security — without their consent.
The fear engendered through the invocation of threats (real and imagined), creates a climate where rights are ignored as the unifying cause for obsessing over national security and the use of fear by the government to control the public and private agenda.
My criminal case is direct evidence of an out of control and ‘off the books’ government that is increasingly alien to the Constitution and democracy at home and abroad. The rise in this form of a contrary alien form of government assuming the shape of a national security state under surveillance evidences the all too distinct and historically familiar characteristics of an alarming ‘soft tyranny’ and is an anathema to all forms of democracy.
As Montesquieu wrote, “No tyranny is more cruel than that which is practiced in the shadow of the law and with the trappings of justice: that is, one would drown the unfortunate by the very plank by which he would hope to be saved.”
One could make the case that the government chose to make me (and others) targets as part of a much broader campaign against whistleblowers in order to send the strongest possible message about what the government can and will do to suppress dissent and speech it doesn’t like.
And yet the United States’ brutal and unrelenting crackdown on whistleblowers is outdone by the magnitude of what it is now trying to hide or continue as a result of the Snowden disclosures. NSA is not just eavesdropping on all Americans and building the architecture for a police state in the US, it has created the largest set of mass surveillance programs in the history of the world, while covertly weakening Internet security and privacy for everyone on the planet. Without privacy and robust data protections under the law, no real individual citizen sovereignty within a state and society is possible.

NSA is doing this deliberately, systematically, and in secret. Even if we take NSA at its word—its intention to only target persons suspected of terrorism as it relates to foreign intelligence— they’re clearly now collecting and storing as much of our communications as possible.
NSA has inverted and perverted the heart of the democratic paradigm in which the government acts in public and our personal lives are private. Now everyone’s personal and private lives and associated transaction and data history becomes the equivalent of secret government property, held for years as pre-crime data just in case it is needed in the future – secret dossiers of the State – while attempts to expose the government are met with the heavy hand of criminal prosecution.

The words of US Senator Frank Church during the hearings he conducted on the abuses of national security power in the 1970s are worthy of reminding us what can happen when a state sponsored surveillance regime is used as the excuse to keep us safe at the expense of liberty and freedom.
“If a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of government to know. Such is the capacity of technology.”

People in America and around the world should not have to worry about protecting themselves from an unhinged United States government, unchained from its own Constitution, but worry they must. And the government should not, under the guise of protecting its own citizenry, conduct mass dragnet surveillance in secret, let alone the rest of the entire world while publicly crushing anyone who tries to expose it.
I respectfully suggest that your Committee duly examine the critical need for transparency and legal accountability to enforce fundamental and vitally precious citizen rights to speech and association while protecting those who expose government malfeasance and wrongdoing as well as providing for robust protections against unwarranted “search and seizure” by any foreign power, state surveillance agency or corporate entity.
I hope that your Committee will consider a European Union-wide law that all EU-to EU Internet links and nodes must be encrypted, with open source encryption technology made available for the widest possible use wherever practical, while also audited by the EU.

What we see now revealed on a global scale creates the power of mass- surveillance and eludes effective control by current data and privacy protection regulations.
How do your member states protect themselves from the predations of the surveillance regime?

There is a distinct need for policies that prohibit third party countries and commercial concerns from accessing and compromising personal data, while also covering vendors and suppliers of IT systems and products.
There is also the need to put in place the power to prosecute and hold accountable those transnational companies and entities from secretly compromising the very infrastructure that society depends on for business and trade – even considering the need for a comprehensive data protection treaty between member states and the US.
‘Prism-proofing’ your member state Internet hosting and service providers is now critical given how data is not so much broken into as it is taken and renditioned by the surveillance state.
It is the constant possibility of the unequal gaze and reality of surveillance and observation (real or imagined) that stultifies society, renders creativity mute, and erodes our freedom with the acid served up by the potent brew of secrecy and surveillance for the sake of security while forsaking our liberties as the price we must pay. I fundamentally reject this dystopian premise given what happened to me.

In conclusion, I was fortunate that I did not end up in an actual prison for coming out of the system and speaking truth to and of power – a dangerous act of civil disobedience and individuality for sure in these times.

The last thing a free and open society needs is a digital fence around us – with the barbed wire of surveillance not only keeping track of our comings and goings, yet now increasingly wanting to know what we think and feel – the very essence of who we are and share as human beings.

How to send and receive encrypted emails in Windows

Why use encrypted email?

It’s simple: the government is reading your emails. Edward Snowden’s revelations make this a plain truth. If you are not an American citizen it’s a little bit worse, because at least two governments are reading your emails: yours, and the American government.

There are many plugins/addons/guides out there that claim to “encrypt” your email, so that “nobody can read it”. Most of those are nonsense. There is currently only one well-known way of encrypting emails so that only the intended recipient will read them. That is the OpenPGP protocol. So if you’re not using the commercial PGP product, the free GnuPG product, or another well-known product that follows the OpenPGP protocol, your emails can still be read by the government.

But if you’ve been following the news you will wonder “Hang on – if OpenPGP is secure, why did a bunch of prominent Internet security experts like the Silent Circle board decide to shut down their Silent Mail service (which used OpenPGP)?” The answer is that OpenPGP is based on cryptographic keys. And Silent Mail tried to manage your keys for you, which made Silent Circle vulnerable to the law – as the law in most countries states that government agencies can force companies to disclose such secrets.

Therefore, the problem was key concentration. If Silent Circle holds all the keys, the FBI slaps them with a few subpoenas and grabs all of our secret keys. Heck, Silent Circle can not even tell us about it – by law!

So, OpenPGP is still considered trustworthy as a technology – what doesn’t work is concentrating key management, because by law the government can grab all secret keys, which will allow them to read all encrypted emails we’ve sent using those keys.

But what if we just manage our own keys? The government would not legally compel all of its citizens – directly, on a one-by-one basis – to give up their secrets. That would be much less politically palatable than a program like PRISM, where they just suck out the data from our service providers (Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Apple etc).

Using OpenPGP and managing our own keys, then, is the best we can do right now. Let me show you how.

Note: This tutorial will focus on making using encrypted emails as easy as possible. We will propose settings that are optimised for convenience, not security. If you are a journalist, an activist, a politician or anyone who needs a setup as secure as possible, let me know in the comments and I will propose more secure but inevitably slightly less convenient settings.

Setting up encrypted email

For this example, I will use a free Gmail account and setup access from my Windows 7 computer. Note that this method is not Gmail specific. It will work for any email account out there.

Get GnuPG

Installing GnuPG will allow your email program to encrypt your emails.

  1. Download Gpg4win from
  2. Run the gpg4win-(version).exe installer to install the software, ensuring that GPA is selected for installation as well:
    00 - ensure GPA is installed

Get Thunderbird

Thunderbird is the email application we will use to send and receive emails. We can’t just use GMail’s webpage for encrypted emails – it will become cumbersome in the long run.

  1. Download Thunderbird from
  2. Run “Thunderbird Setup (version).exe” to install Thunderbird on your computer.

Connect Thunderbird with your email account

As soon as setup is finished and Thunderbird launches, you are asked whether you’d like a new email address. Let’s skip this for now and go with your existing email address.

02 TB first run - new mail address

(For this example I will use the Gmail account

Fill in your name, email address and Gmail password.

03 TB account details

Thunderbird checks for the settings of your email provider

04 looking up ISP DB

…and, in the case of a well-known service as Gmail, finds the right settings:

05 found ISP DB

If everything works and the dialog disapears with no errors, great. If not, verify that whichever access method you choose (POP or IMAP), is supported and enabled for your account. For our example (Gmail), follow these instructions to enable IMAP.

If you see the following window, with your email account on the top left, you have configured Thunderbird correctly. Congratulations!

06 TB first run page

Get the encryption addon (EnigMail)

Click on the “menu” icon on the top right and then “Addons“.

07 getting to addons

Search for “enigmail” and install the addon.

08 finding enigmail

Click on “Restart Now” – this will only restart Thunderbird, not your computer.

10 thunderbird restart required

After Thunderbird has restarted, close the Add Ons tab – you’re done with this.

11 after addons installation and restart need to close tab

Create your encryption keys

Go to Options -> OpenPGP -> Setup Wizard

12 openpgp menu enigmail setup wizard

Go through the wizard, adjusting only the following settings:

In the “Signing” step of the wizard choose “No, I want to create per-recipient rules for emails that need to be signed“.

14 - do not sign by default

In the “No OpenPGP Key Found” step of the wizard choose “I want to create a new key pair for signing and encrypting my email

17 create new keypair

In the “Create Key” step, choose the passphrase that will be required to read or send encrypted emails.

Note: Choose something that is easy to type and not too long. (remember, we’re optimising for usability here)

Good passphrase: “This is my favourite song!”

Bad passphrase: 9x$Z4;Fq (why?)

18 assign passphrase

When the wizard completes, you will be prompted to generate a revocation certificate. This is a good idea – it’s like an insurance policy for when you lose your key:

20 generate revocation cert prompt

Save this file on your Desktop for now – you can decide where to store it permanently (away from your computer! – e.g. on a CDROM or a USB stick you keep in a safe place) later.

21 save rev cert somewhere safe

Your passphrase is needed to generate the revocation certificate:

22 - need passphrase

… at which point you are done!

Congratulations, you have created cryptographic keys and setup your email program to use them!

Sending email

You can only exchange encrypted emails with people who also use OpenPGP. Before you can send people encrypted email, you need to make your public key available to the world, otherwise your recipients will not be able to read your emails.

Publishing your public key

Open Thunderbird and click on its “options” button. Then OpenPGP -> Key Management.

01 - key management

Tick “Display All Keys by Default”:

02 display all keys

Now click on your name (John Doe) to select your keys and go to Keyserver -> Upload Public Keys

03 upload public keys

In the next prompt just click OK:

04 upload to pool

Congratulations – you have published your public keys on the keyservers. Now anyone using OpenPGP can send you encrypted and signed email, and people can read the encrypted emails you send them!

Sending your first encrypted email

Let’s email our friend Bob. He also has a Gmail account and his Gmail address is

To start composing a new message in Thunderbird you click the “Write” button:

05 hit write button

This brings up a new email window, where you can address and type your message.

07 - composed new message to recipient

Notice the pen and the key icons in the lower right corner? They are greyed-out, i.e. inactive, i.e. you are currently not signing (pen) or encrypting (key) your message.

Let’s click on the key icon to enable message encryption – the icon becomes colourful (gold), which means encryption has been activated:

08 - message marked to be encrypted

Let’s attempt to send this message – click the “Send” button. You have just asked Thunderbird to encrypt this message for Bob ( – but Thunderbird hasn’t got Bob’s public key! And this is how public key encryption works – you need to have people’s public keys before you can encrypt stuff for them – and only them – to read. Therefore, Thunderbird complains that your recipient has not been found (in your OpenPGP keyring):

09 recipients not found

Click “Download missing keys” to look for Bob’s key on the keyservers – dedicated computers that host people’s keys.

10 import public key from keyserver

Just hit OK to allow Thunderbird to look for Bob’s public key online.

And lo! Bob’s public key is there. Just tick it and click OK to import Bob’s key on your keyring. You only need to do this once.

11 found public keys

If all went well, Thunderbird lets you know the import was successful:

12 import success

Great, now you have Bob’s key. You have a new greyed-out line with Bob’s email address. Tick the box of that line and click on “Create per-recipient rule(s)“.

13 got key

Here you will tell Thunderbird to always use this key to sign and encrypt your emails to Bob.

Click on “Select Key(s)…“:

14 create recipoient rule

…and make sure the line with Bob’s address is selected before clicking OK:

15 select key (preselected) for rule

Now tell Thunderbird to always sign and encrypt your messages to Bob by changing these fields to “Always“:


Clicking “OK” closes this window and immediately prompts you for your passphrase, as you’re just about to cryptographically sign a message to somebody – that requires access to your secret key, which can only be accessed with the passphrase you setup earlier:

17 prompted for passphrase

As soon as you hit “OK” with that passphrase – oh my! Look at all this gibberish – that’s encrypted text, otherwise called “ciphertext”. This is what the spooks will now see. This is what Google will store. This is what Bob will see as well, but because he has the right private key, he will be able to decrypt this ciphertext into your plaintext email message.

See, it doesn’t matter that Google and the spooks can still read your email, because now it looks like gibberish, and it can only be decrypted and read by your intended recipients (in this case, Bob). You can use this method to communicate in private with anyone in the world, as long as they use OpenPGP too.


Congratulations! You have just sent you first cryptographically signed and encrypted message, using the most robust encryption technology known to mankind: OpenPGP.

Sending your second, third… 1000’th email

Things are much simpler now that you’ve done all the hard work in advance. All you need to do is compose an email to Bob. Thunderbird will automatically sign and encrypt your message with the right key, so that only Bob can read it. Pretty slick.

18 second email - pre-selected encrypt + sign

Notice the blue “+” next to the pen and the key? That means your message to Bob will be automatically

  • signed – so that Bob knows the message came from you and it has not been altered in any way) and
  • encrypted – so that no one else but Bob can read its contents.

Enjoy your private chats with Bob!

Receiving email

Receiving OpenPGP encrypted email is not a problem – you just need to provide your passphrase and you will be able to read the message.

How to kill meaningful social change

Ok, so, say you’re a person the US government doesn’t like very much. Say you’re charismatic, and give great speeches, and you have ideas they don’t care for. I dunno, maybe that we shouldn’t be killing people without a trial. You know, one of those weird liberal ideas, that extrajudicial executions are bad. And you’ve got some real political momentum, to the point that you might actually cause dicomfort to the military-industrial complex.


So, in years prior, they’d have been kind of hampered in their ability to fight you. No more. Now, they can know every friend you have, and possibly every friend you’ve had since 2001. All your lovers, all your enemies, your social groups, your online groups, and so on.


If you’re male, did you ever stick your dick in crazy? Well, guess what, she’s now on CNN, talking about you. Did you ever get into an intemperate argument? Suddenly, that’s national news. If you haven’t been absolutely perfect in all respects, everyone is going to know all about it.


But, let’s say you have been perfect. That doesn’t matter. Somewhere in your friends network, and you will have a very large friends network if you have real political influence, there will be people that have been imperfect, maybe very badly imperfect.


Everyone that you’ve ever known that has, up until now, gotten away with stuff, is going to suddenly get a visit from the FBI, and they’re going to use their false-recording tactic, where the second agent writes that they said things they never said. Suddenly, they’re in deep shit. And the FBI has them by the balls. They can either go to jail, or they can say really horrible, awful things about you. Like you raped them, maybe. Rape is a really good one.


In a world with ubiquitous government surveillance, there cannot be meaningful social change, because the conservatives in the government will use their unlimited power to stifle and suppress all dissent. Leaders will not be able to develop, because they will be discredited as soon as they start to form. And major social change without central leadership is very rare.


If the US had had these powers in the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement would not have been successful, and everyone important in Martin Luther King’s terrorist network would be in prison, or perhaps in unmarked graves.

Shamelessly copied from malor’s comment on What the NSA can do with “big data”.

Bill Binney on the NSA’s domestic surveillance “Stellar Wind” program

Preview of the documentary film “The Program” by Laura Poitras, as covered in the New York Times:

If you want a quick under-10-minute summary of what the big deal with the NSA, GCHQ etc hoovering up all of your data, this is a good one to watch. Remember, they are not only hoovering up Americans’ data – they are hoovering up any data they can get their hands on. This means that if you use any of the big American technology services (Google mail, Google search, Youtube, Microsoft Hotmail, Skype, Yahoo! Mail, Dropbox, Apple services, Amazon etc), your data is being collected.

Secrets: A memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers – by Daniel Ellsberg

Some powerful excerpts from Daniel Ellberg’s book on Vietnam and the leaking of the McNamara study on US decision making in Vietnam that came to be known as The Pentagon Papers (freely available online by the US National Archive)

Note: Page numbers are from the Penguin edition ISBN 978-0-14-200342-8

p.41: Proof that the US have been capable of global-range drone missions at least as early as the early 1960s:

One morning just before eight o’clock John (ed: McNaughton) came back from McNamara’s office minutes after he’d gotten a call and dashed out. He said to me, “A Blue Springs drone has gone down in China. Bob is seeing the press at eight-thirty. We have ten minutes to write six alternative lies for him.”

It was the only time I remember the actual word “lies” being used. Blue Springs was the code name for an espionage program for reconnaissance photographic flights by unmanned drone planes.

p.213: On the responsibility of people who do not actively oppose wrongdoing:

Nearly all evildoing, she pointed out, like nearly all coercive power, legitimate and illegitimate, depends on the cooperation, on the obedience and support, on the assent or at least passive tolerance of many people. It relies on many more collaborators than are conscious of their roles; these include even many victims, along with passive bystanders, as in effect accomplices.

p.237: Ellsberg’s advice to Henry Kissinger on the psychological and behavioural effects of secret clearances on people:

“Henry, there’s something I would like to tell you, for what it’s worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You’ve been a consultant for a long time, and you’ve dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you’re about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret.

“I’ve had a number of these myself, and I’ve known other people who have just acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn’t previously know they even existed. (ed: emphasis in original) And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.

“First, you’ll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all – so much! incredible! – suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess. In particular, you’ll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn’t know about and didn’t know they had, and you’ll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

“You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t… and that all those other (ed: emphasis in original) people are fools.

“Over a longer period of time – not too long, but a matter of two or three years – you’ll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn’t tell you, it’s often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.

“In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn (ed: emphasis in original) from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: ‘What could this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?’ And that (ed: emphasis in original) mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I’ve seen this with my superiors, my colleagues… and with myself.

“You will deal with a person who doesn’t have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you” become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.”

p.254: On the arrogance of power plaguing the US administration:

There was some realistic basis for the belief that many Vietnamese were naive and misled in their notions of what a Communist-led victory would do for them. But as I now realized, we American officials were no less ignorant or self-deceptive, in turn, about the nature of French rule or of the various Saigon regimes we supported or imposed later or the incentives that would lead people to take up and persist in armed struggle against greatly superior forces – and above all, about the burden of the war on the rural population. In any case, to presume to judge what was best for them, with life and death at stake, was the height of imperial arrogance, the “arrogance of power,” as Senator Fullbright later called it.

p.269 On the difficulty of stepping out of line and doing something you believe in for the first time:

Something very important had happened to me. I felt liberated. I doubt if I could have explained that at the time. But by now I have seen this exhilaration often enough in others, in particular people who have just gone through their first action of civil disobedience, whether or not they have been taken to jail. This simple vigil, my first public action, had freed me from a nearly universal fear whose inhibiting force, I think, is very widely underestimated. I had become free of the fear of appearing absurd, of looking foolish, for stepping out of line.

p.289 On how the Thai Khac Chuyen murder case blew the lid off Ellsberg’s passive tolerance of official lies and helped him decide to do something about it:

I lay in bed that Tuesday morning and thought: This is the system that I have been working for, the system I have been part of, for a dozen years – fifteen, including the Marine Corps. It’s a system that lies automatically, at every level from bottom to top – from sergeant to commander in chief – to conceal murder.

That described, as I had come to realize from my reading that month, what that system had been doing in Vietnam, on an infinitely larger scale, continuously for a third of a century. And it was still going on. I thought: I’m not going to be a part of it anymore. I’m not going to be part of this lying machine, this cover-up, this murder, anymore.

It occurred to me that what I had in my safe at Rand was seven thousand pages of documentary evidence of lying, by four presidents and their administrations over twenty-three years, to conceal plans and actions of mass murder. I decided I would stop concealing that myself. I would get it out somehow.

p. 394 On the surveillance capabilities of the FBI in the 1970s. We can only imagine how much this has changed, in the favour of the government, in our current era of pervasive wholesale surveillance:

The main secret to avoid being found by the FBI (in the 1970s) seemed to be: Don’t use your home or office phone.


On one occasion, “Mr Boston” went downstairs and across the street to a phone booth on the corner, about fifty yards from the apartment building where were staying that afternoon. He talked for about ten minutes to my friends Lloyd Shearer in Los Angeles, relaying some questions I had for Shearer, who was giving me advice on whom to deal with in the media. We happened to be looking out the front window when he left the booth and came back. Just as he entered the front door, perhaps twelve minutes from the time he placed the call, four police cars converged on the phone booth from two directions. Brakes screeched, and police jumped our with guns drawn, though the booth was now empty. Evidently Shearer’s line was tapped.

p.413 A glimpse into the administration’s psyche and why leaking hard evidence hurts their license to do whatever they want. It’s not so much the content of the leaks – but bringing to light the fact that the administration will sometimes be wrong. That’s why accountability, checks and balances at all levels are important:

H. R. Haldeman to President Nixon, Oval Office tapes, June 14, 1971, on the impact of the Pentagon Papers:
To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing: you can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgement. And the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the president can be wrong.

p.418 People who have lost touch with reality casually discussing mass murder from their ivory tower – the Oval Office:

Two hours later, at noon, H. R. Haldeman and Ron Ziegler joined Kissinger and Nixon:
President: How many did we kill in Laos?
Ziegler: Maybe ten thousand – fifteen?
Kissinger: In the Laotian thing, we killed about ten, fifteen…
President: See, the attack in the North that we have in mind… power plants, whatever’s left – POL [petroleum], the docks… And, I still think we ought to take the dikes out now. Will that drown people?
Kissinger: About two hundred thousand people.
President: No, no, no… I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?
Kissinger: That, I think, would just be too much.
President: The nuclear bomb, does that bother you? … I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christsakes.

p.426 The (disgusting) light side of mass murder:

[…] the president was particularly concerned that the bombing of Cambodia in early 1969 and later (code-named Menu, for a series of raids initially code-named Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner) might be about to be revealed.

p.428 How the system of secrecy was used to mislead Congress and to hide entire bombing campaigns:

Moreover, Congress, which had to appropriate the money for these operations, had been given false top secret documentation on what country they were paying to bomb. Hundreds of military staffers in MACV and CINCPAC headquarters were kept busy faking classified flight plans and after-action reports of the bombing raids, falsifying the coordinates of the actual targets to indicate they were in South Vietnam rather than in Cambodia. When in 1970 Nixon ordered secret bombing of the Plain of Jars in Laos (which had no relation to infiltration routes), he used the same system of dual bookkeeping he had used to conceal the bombing of Cambodia.


A modern president’s practical ability to drop secretly several hundred thousand tons of bombs in a country with which we were not at war was a considerable tribute to the effectiveness of the postwar secrecy system. It gives our presidents a capability to initiate and escalate a war in secret that was scarcely possessed by monarchs of the past.

p. 431 James Madison‘s words on the importance of an informed public:

A popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.

p.457 Powerful closing remarks of an excellent book:

As Judge Byrne in Los Angeles was issuing his dismissal of our indictment, which had been anticipated all morning in the Oval Office discussions, the president addressed the situation in anguish and perplexity:

For example, on this national security thing, we have the rocky situation where the sonofabitching thief is made a national hero and is going to get off on a mistrial. And the New York Times gets a Pulitzer Prize for stealing documents… They’re trying to get at us with thieves. What in the name of God have we come to?

What we had come back to was a democratic republic – not an elected monarchy – a government under law, with Congress, the courts, and the press functioning to curtail executive abuses, as our Constitution envisioned.

What can I do about PRISM?

Now that the most powerful nation states of the world have been caught performing wholesale surveillance on us, their citizens, and have responded with a “so what?”, the question arises… what are we, the citizens caught in a surveillance society to do?

It seems to me there are five broad strategies:

1. Retreat

Leave the big cities. Stop using credit cards and mobile phones. Live off the land. Read only paper books. Send snail mail. Use cash. Deny your children education in and enjoyment of modern technology.

2. Ignore

Carry on your life as if PRISM did not exist. Suppress the inconvenient knowledge that you have acquired. Hope it’ll all be okay, since you will always toe the line of whatever establishment you happen to operate under. Leave your children uninformed about what’s going on, or just tell them “that’s normal, that’s how it’s always been”. Carry on using Facebook, surf the web while being logged into Yahoo!, Google or Hotmail, carry on syncing all your Apple iThings content to “the cloud”. Chat with your loved ones over Skype/Google Talk/FaceTime/WhatsApp/MSN/Facebook and all the other “freebie” services that are surveillance chambers. Have photos of your kids online.

3. Hide (with technical means)

Use Tor for surfing the web, PGP to encrypt your email, ZRTP to encrypt your voice/video calls, OTR to encrypt your chats, learn how to manage your keys securely, use secure operating systems like Qubes OS. This approach is inconvenient, difficult to do properly even for experts, network effects penalise you because others will not communicate with you in compatible (private) ways and therefore it will be difficult to communicate with them. Loathing by others because you’re visibly putting barriers between them and you. A losing battle, but buys you and (if you manage to convert them to your cause and if they are capable of following) your loved ones some privacy and decency, even though what you are practically doing is hiding.

4. Fight (within the system)

Become a member and donate as much as you can to organisations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF, US-focused), the Open Rights Group (UK-based), EDRI (Europe-focused) etc. Write to your politicians. Write to newspapers. Publish articles on your blog. Talk to your friends to raise awareness. Join demonstrations. Vote accordingly whenever you’re given the chance.

5. Fight (with all you’ve got – also known as civil disobedience)

“Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” Subvert the system in any (non-violent) way possible. Stop obeying the rules of a system that is immoral. Become as vocal as possible and follow your words with actions. No matter what the consequences to you personally, it’s worth it if we all fight together. Remember that “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.”

Most people will want to do a combination of different elements of the above – although a clear strategy that balances pain to you with protection for your family is difficult to describe.

Some excerpts from Evgeny Morozov’s “The Net Delusion”

Evgeny Morozov’s “The Net Delusion: How not to liberate the world” is a refreshing note of realism amongst the cheerleading majority that promise us that “the Internet” or “information” will somehow magically transform our lives for the better.

Here are a few excerpts from the book which I found particularly pertinent:

Chapter “Orwell’s favourite lolcat” (Morozov’s book chapters are too funny and to the point to not mention)

On the “mash-up” of attitudes towards “freedom” between West and Rest (here personified in China):

[…]as the writer Naomi Klein puts it, “China is becoming more like [the West] in very visible ways (Starbucks, Hooters, cellphones that are cooler than ours), and [the West is] becoming more like China in less visible ones (torture, warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention, though not nearly on the Chinese scale).”

On the modus operandi of modern dictatorships:

It seems fairly noncontroversial that most modern dictators would prefer a Huxleyan world to an Orwellian one, if only because controlling people through entertainment is cheaper and doesn’t involve as much brutality. When the extremely restrictive Burmese government permits – and sometimes even funds – hip-hop performances around the country, it’s not 1984 that inspires them.

Chapter “Censors and Sensibilities”
On how most citizens of “The Rest” do not necessarily share the ill-defined dreams of “democracy” as portrayed in the West:

Most citizens of modern-day Russia or China do not go to bed reading Darkness at Noon only to wake up to the jingle of Voice of America or Radio Free Europe; chances are that much like their Western counterparts, they, too, wake up to the same annoying Lady Gaga song blasting from their iPhones. While they might have a strong preference for democracy, many of them take it to mean orderly justice rather than the presence of free elections and other institutions that are commonly associated with the Western model of liberal democracy. For many of them, being able to vote is not as valuable as being able to receive education or medical care without having to bribe a dozen greedy officials. Furthermore, citizens of authoritarian do not necessarily perceive their undemocratically installed governments to be illegitimate, for legitimacy can be derived from things other than elections; jingoist nationalism (China), fear of a foreign invasion (Iran), fast rates of economic development (Russia), low corruption (Belarus), and efficiency of government services (Singapore) have all been successfully co-opted for these purposes.

Chapter “Hugo Chavez Would Like to Welcome You to the Spinternet”

On enforced jingoist nationalism in China:

In 2009 millions of customers of the state-controlled China Mobile, who perhaps were not feeling patriotic enough on the country’s National Day, woke up to discover that the company replaced their usual ringback tone with a patriotic tune sang by the popular actor Jackie Chan and a female actress.[…] These days even the website of China’s Defense Ministry has a section with music downloads; one can enjoy jingoistic music all one wants.”

On propaganda reusing the West’s “liberating” technologies:

The use of text messaging for propaganda purposes – known as “red-texting” – reveals another creative streak among China’s propaganda virtuosos. The practice may have grown out of a competition organized by one of China’s mobile phone operators to compose the most eloquent Party-admiring text message. Fast forward a few years, and senior telecom officials in Beijing are already busily attending “red-texting” symposia.
“I really like these words of Chairman Mao: ‘The world is ours, we should unite for achievements. Responsibility and seriousness can conquer the world and the Chinese Communist Party members represent these qualities.’ These words are incisive and inspirational.” This is a text message that thirteen million mobile phone users in the Chinese city of Chongqing received one day in April 2009. Sent by Bo Xilai, the aggressive secretary of the city’s Communist Party who is speculated to have strong ambitions for a future in national politics, the messages were then forwarded another sixteen millions times. Not so bad for an odd quote from a long-dead Communist dictator.

Chapter “Why the KGB wants you to join Facebook”

On why databases are better (at their job) than Stasi officers:

The Lives of Others, a 2006 Oscar-winning German drama, with its sharp portrayal of pervasive surveillance activities of the Stasi, GDR’s secret police, helps to put things into perspective. Focusing on the meticulous work of a dedicated Stasi officer who has been assigned to snoop on the bugged apartment of a brave East German dissident, the film reveals just how costly surveillance used to be. Recording tape had to be bought, stored and processed; bugs had to be installed one by one; Stasi officers had to spend days and nights on end glued to their headphones, waiting for their subjects to launch into an antigovernment tirade or inadvertently disclose other members of their network. And this line of work also took a heavy psychological toll on its practitioners: the Stasi anti-hero of the film, living alone and given to bouts of depression, patronizes prostitutes – apparently at the expense of his understanding employer.
As the Soviet Union began crumbling, a high-ranking KGB officer came forward with a detailed description of how much effort it took to bug an apartment:

“Three teams are usually required for that purpose: One team monitors the place where that citizen works; a second team monitors the place where the spouse works. Meanwhile, a third team enters the apartment and establishes observation posts one floor above and one floor below the apartment. About six people enter the apartment wearing soft shoes; they move aside a bookcase, for example, cut a square opening in the wallpaper, drill a hole in the wall, place the bug inside, and glue the wallpaper back. The artist on the team airbrushes the spot so carefully that one cannot notice any tampering. The furniture is replaced, the door is closed, and the wiretappers leave.”

Given such elaborate preparations, the secret police had to discriminate and go only for well-known high-priority targets. The KGB may have been the most important institution of the Soviet regime, but its resources were still finite; they simply could not afford to bug everyone who looked suspicious. Despite such tremendous efforts, surveillance did not always work as planned. Even the toughest security officers – like the protagonist of the German film – had their soft spots and often developed feelings of empathy for those under surveillance, sometimes going so far as to tip them off about upcoming searches and arrests. The human factor could thus ruin months of diligent surveillance work.
The shift of communications into the digital realm solves many of the problems that plagued surveillance in the analog age. Digital surveillance is much cheaper: Storage space is infinite, equipment retails for next to nothing, and digital technology allows doing more with less. Moreover, there is no need to read every single word in an email to identify its most interesting parts; one can simply search for certain keywords – “democracy”, “opposition”, “human rights”, or simply the names of the country’s opposition leaders – and focus only on particular segments of the conversation. Digital bugs are also easier to conceal. While seasoned dissidents knew they constantly had to search their own apartments looking for the bug or, failing that, at least tighten their lips, knowing that the secret police was listening, this is rarely an option with digital surveillance. How do you know that someone else is reading your email?

On wholesale surveillance using cameras and face recognition software:

[…]the Chinese government keeps installing video cameras in its most troubling cities. Not only do such cameras remind passersby about the panopticon they inhabit, they also supply the secret police with useful clues[…]. Such revolution in video surveillance did not happen without some involvement from Western partners.
Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles, funded in part by the Chinese government, have managed to build surveillance software that can automatically annotate and comment on what it sees, generating text files that can later be searched by humans, obviating the need to watch hours of video footage in search of one particular frame. (To make that possible, the researchers had to recruit twenty graduates of local art colleges in China to annotate and classify a library of more than two million images.) Such automation systems help surveillance to achieve the much needed scale, for as long as the content produced by surveillance cameras can be indexed and searched, one can continue installing new surveillance cameras.
The face-recognition industry is so lucrative that even giants like Google can’t resist getting into the game, feeling the growing pressure from smaller players like, a popular tool that allows users to find and automatically annotate unique faces that appear throughout their photo collections. In 2009 launched a Facebook application that first asks users to identify a Facebook friend of theirs in a photo and then proceeds to search the social networking site for other pictures in which that friend appears. By eary 2010, the company boasted of scanning 9 billion pictures and identifying 52 million individuals. This is the kind of productivity that would make the KGB envious.

(ed: Note that automatic face recognition technology is now a standard feature of Facebook, as well as popular products like Google’s Picasa and Google Web albums)

On government “open-source” surveillance via social sites like Facebook:

One gloomy day in 2009, the young Belarusian activist Pavel Lyashkovich learned the dangers of excessive social networking the hard way. A freshman at a public university in Minsk, he was unexpectedly called to the dean’s office, where he was met by two suspicious-looking men who told him they worked for the KGB, one public organization that the Belarusian authorities decided not to rename even after the fall of communism (they’re a brand-conscious bunch).
The KGB officers asked Pavel all sorts of detailed questions about his trips to Poland and Ukraine as well as his membership in various antigovernment movements.
Their extensive knowledge of the internal affairs of the Belarusian opposition – and particularly of Pavel’s own involvement in them, something he didn’t believe to be common knowledge – greatly surprised him. But then it all became clear, when the KGB duo loaded his page on, a popular Russian social networking site, pointing out that he was listed as a “friend” by a number of well-known oppositional activists. Shortly thereafter, the visitors offered Lyashkovich to sign an informal “cooperation agreement” with their organization. He declined – which may eventually cost him dearly, as many students sympathetic to the opposition and unwilling to cooperate with authorities have been expelled from universities in the past. We will never know how many other new suspects the KGB added to its list by browsing Lyashkovich’s profile.

On using “technology” as the proposed solution to anything, denying our responsibility for real decisions and action:

Since technology, like gas, will fill any conceptual space provided, Leo Marx, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describes it as a “hazardous concept” that may “stifle and obfuscate analytic thinking”. He notes, “Because of its peculiar susceptibility to reification, to being endowed with the magical power of an autonomous entity, technology is a major contributant to that gathering sense… of political impotence. The popularity of the belief that technology is the primary force shaping the postmodern world is a measure of our.. neglect of moral and political standards, in making decisive choices about the direction of society.”

Highly recommended to help us re-focus on the things that matter and stop waving around the “technology, technology, technology!” magic wand, hoping that it fixes the world.

Echelon: a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications

Conspiracy theory, right? Something like this would never happen in our free, democratic world…

Well guess what. I borrowed the title of this post from a European Parliament report, published in 2001!

Here is a copy of the report in English: “REPORT on the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system) (2001/2098(INI))” [PDF]

This report gives us a very high degree of confidence that such a global interception system has been operational since the 1990’s.

Think about that the next time you think to yourself “Nah, the current snooping legislation and practice is fine – intelligence services around the world could never monitor and collate all this chaos of information”.