Archive | Human rights

The Assange dilemma

I stand with Julian Assange. But I think his case took a turn for the worse this week.

First, to recapitulate: Julian Assange has not been charged with any crime in Sweden. This ridiculous situation is the result of a Swedish prosecutor refusing to interview him about alleged sexual misconduct, in a case that is very thin. Assange has reasons to fear that Sweden might surrender him to the US, where a Grand Jury is preparing his case. Sweden has handed over people to the CIA without prior judicial process on an earlier occasion. And the Wikileaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning has been sentenced to 35 years in prison.

The situation for Julian Assange looks very much like that of a political dissident kept under house arrest.

Article 9 in The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.”

This declaration has been signed by Sweden as well as the United Kingdom. Now a UN panel under the Human Rights Commissioner has ruled that the way Assange is treated is in breach of this central principle. It is the same panel that e.g. took on the case of Aung San Suu Kyi. Usually, these rulings are held in high. But this time, the shoe seems to be on the other foot. Clearly the UK and Sweden only honor the UN panel when they are not the culprits.

Never the less, this has been lost on most people. It’s all too complicated and sublime.

The British and Swedish governments, on the other hand, only had to deliver simple one-liners. The UK foreign secretary Philip Hammond brands the UN panel’s ruling “ridiculous”. The Swedish government’s line is that this will not change anything.

Also, some media has deemed the UN approach as nonsensical. Remember, it’s simply not enough to be right — if this cannot be communicated in a way that makes an impact.

In practice, very little has changed. And the case against Assange will stay open until August 2020.

Somehow, I have a feeling that the UK, Sweden and the US feel rather content having Julian Assange in limbo at the Ecuadorean embassy in London. There his actions will be limited. And with an open investigation on alleged sex crimes, his reputation will stay tarnished. All of this having a negative impact on Wikileaks possibilities to expose wrongdoings and the dirty little secrets of the power elites.

That is exactly why the UN panel’s report is relevant.


Affidavit of Julian Paul Assange »



Tools of oppression

Today is January the 27:th, Holocaust Memorial Day. A day of remembrance. But also, a day to ask ourselves what we have learned from history.

One example is that records set up with the very best of intentions can be misused. From Wikipedia…

In the Netherlands, the Germans managed to exterminate a relatively large proportion of the Jews. The main reason they were found so easily was that before the war, the Dutch authorities had required citizens to register their religion so that church taxes could be distributed among the various religious organizations.

Unintended consequences, indeed. But this is exactly the kind of risks we must consider when handling personal data or rolling out mass surveillance. You never know why, how and by whom these tools will be used.

Can we trust that all future political leaders and bureaucrats will be decent people? Of course not. Can we be sure that we will live in a democracy 25, 50 or some 100 years from now? No, we can’t. Can we even take our national sovereignty for granted in the future? Sadly, no.

The only thing we can be certain of is that bad things will happen, sooner or later. So it is thoughtless to give the government tools that can be used to harm and oppress the people. And if we still do, we must make sure that we can disable them if there is a risk that they will be abused or fall into the wrong hands. Even when the change to the worse is gradual.

But that’s not what’s happening, is it? Evidently, today’s political leaders have learned nothing from history.



Free flow of information is a facilitator of democracy

During the cold war, the Soviet Union deployed radio jammers in the bay of the Baltic Sea between Finland and Estonia. The purpose was to limit people’s access to Finnish television in the then Soviet Baltic states.

It didn’t work. When Finnish television aired the soft porn movie Emanuelle, the streets of Estonian capital Tallin were empty. And after every episode of Dallas, people in northern Estonia kept friends and relatives in other parts of the country up to date with the doings of JR & Co by mail. (There is a very interesting and amusing film about this, Disco and Atomic War.)

When the Berlin Wall fell, people in the GDR had a rather good picture of life in the west from radio and television, transmitted from the BRD and West Berlin. And they knew that the world was watching and supporting the change that was going on.

Free flow of information is a facilitator of democracy.

Today, we have the Internet. It’s global, it’s instant and even in places where the regimes try to build digital walls, there are often ways to connect to the global network.

The Internet is as important for people who live under political and religious oppression today, as radio and television were during the cold war.

With access to strong encryption and other tools, the Internet also allows people within such countries to communicate in a relatively safe way with each other. This is essential to build a democratic opposition, enable activism and build alternate structures.

It has turned out that it is very difficult to introduce and uphold democracy by military means. And the Arabian Spring shows that freedom and democracy cannot be won overnight. It is a frustratingly slow process, that frequently backfires. But to succeed it is essential that people in totalitarian and failed states can find support, inspiration and good examples from us in the (relatively) free world.

The fight for a free and open internet is not only about our freedom and privacy. It’s about a democratic and peaceful world.


The normalisation of mass surveillance

Once upon a time, there were rumors about a global surveillance network — Echelon. When the European Parliament decided to look into the matter, it turned out it did indeed exist. For years to follow there were rumors about US intelligence organisation NSA and its new capabilities to “collect it all”. And a few years ago, the Snowden documents exposed exactly that.

Then followed a state of resignation.

In 2013/14, it was brought to light that the NSA might have compromised the international clearing system for bank transfers, European run SWIFT. It’s a bit odd, as the US can have as much information about European bank transfers as they want, in accordance with the EU-US TFTP agreement. Newer the less, there were strong indications of something going on. This time the European police agency, Europol, didn’t even bother to look into the matter. In a European Parliament hearing Europol director Bob Wainwright explicitly said so. (The hearing is quite surreal. It’s all on video here. »)

In Germany, politicians softened their tone against the US/NSA when threatened with limited access to US intelligence. It also turned out that under the level of political polemic, the BND had been working very closely with the NSA all the time. And in Sweden, according to the Snowden files, SIGINT organisation FRA has access to NSA superdatabase XKeyscore. Swedish politicians (including the Greens, who are now in government) will not even comment on the legality of this.

The European Court of Justice has invalidated the EU data retention directive, finding it in breach of fundamental human rights. Never the less most EU member states are upholding (and in some cases implementing) data retention, leading national constitutional courts to object. But data retention fits well with US surveillance systems, so it seems to be less important if it is legal or not.

I could go on, but I better get to my point.

Politicians and intelligence bureaucrats are sending some pretty clear signals these days. They do not care about what is legal or not legal. They do not care if being exposed. They do not even comment on issues that ought to be fundamental in a democracy. The message is: This is the way it is. Live with it.

If there was ever need for a broad political movement against mass surveillance, it is now.



The mass surveillance tipping point

Mass surveillance is getting more and more widespread, intrusive and extensive.

If we look at the bigger picture — the resemblance with totalitarian societies is getting rather obvious.

So, when will enough be enough? When will all of this become dangerous for real? Or is it already?

The entire notion of mass surveillance is dangerously close to the fascist concept: The all-embracing state controlling the lives of the people — in which citizens are not regarded as individuals, but are subordinate to the state.

A central problem is that the public is not allowed to know how mass surveillance is being used. Is it “only” a rather ineffective way to protect the people from real or imaginary dangers? Or is it being used to “collect it all” for the purpose of strengthening the government’s control and power over us? It seems politicians are not really that interested in telling us, are they?

Regardless, mass surveillance is a tool in the hands of the ruling political and bureaucratic class. And we know nothing about who those people will be tomorrow. Can we be sure that they will be somewhat democratic and fair people — forever? If not, we will have a very real problem on our hands.

But even with friendly, honest and democratic people in power — you can only have so much surveillance before it becomes dangerous, intolerable and unacceptable. Even with the best of intentions.

There is a tipping point somewhere between no surveillance and total surveillance. It might be in the future. Or we might already have passed it.

That is where the public debate on mass surveillance should be. But it’s not.



EU: It’s Snowden-time!

It is getting painfully clear: No single western democracy will stand up against the US to grant NSA-whistleblower Edward Snowden refuge – and refuse to hand him over to Washington.

So it’s time for plan B: Let’s campaign for the EU to provide sanctuary for Snowden.

Snowden is a very hot potato for western politicians. There is a clear public demand to grant him asylum or some other form of protection. On the other hand, the US will apply extreme pressure on any country that does.

In the EU, politicians can do the right thing — and avoid to take the heat directly. Questions from the US could be directed to Brussels and the European Commission can blame the European Parliament. No single country or politician will have to stand up against the US administration.

The initiative (probably) will have to come from the European Commission. That’s the tricky part. When it comes to the European Parliament — it has already stated that it wants the EU to provide refuge for Snowden. On the opposing side, we will find most of the member states in the European Council.

It might also be possible to involve the Council of Europe (this is not an EU institution, as this organization has more member states and is the guardian of the Europan Convention on Human Rights).

Let’s use the EU for something good, for a change.



We are all under surveillance: Re-group. Re-think.

After the Paris attacks politicians, police and the intelligence community are tumbling over each other eager to introduce even more mass surveillance.

This will direct resources away from regular police and intelligence work. It will not protect us, but could rather make us all less safe. But then again, mass surveillance isn’t really about terrorism. Obviously, it’s about control.

Terrorism (plus serious crime, drug trade, trafficking, child protection and the copyright legal framework) is being used as a pretext for doing what politicians cannot openly admit.

But facts are straight forward: We are all under surveillance.

The fight for people’s right to privacy must and will go on. But we also must recognize the fact that we are already living in a Big Brother society. It might be about time to re-group and re-think. Where do we take the fight for a free and open society from here?

There is the political road. Defending human and civil rights, you can punch over your weight. It all boils down to principles about democracy, rule of law and the relation between citizens and the government. In that context, most politicians cannot afford to appear as if they don’t care. Not in public.

And there is the technical road. Let’s start with something reasonable: Could anybody please make strong e-mail encryption really, really user-friendly? It shouldn’t be impossible. Or let’s take a wider approach: Can the entire internet protocol be replaced with something new and more privacy friendly?

The fight will go on. And you can be certain of one thing: Regardless of how much surveillance we have, the ruling political and bureaucratic classes will always find reasons to introduce more.



Mass surveillance makes us less safe


Our thoughts are with the victims of the terror attacks in Paris.

But we should not allow ourselves to react in a thoughtless way. Terrorists want to impose fear –leading us away from a free, open and democratic society.

France already has one of the most intrusive regimes of mass surveillance in the western world. Apparently, this did not stop the terrorists.

Actually, it might very well be that mass surveillance makes us all less safe. The number of “false positives” makes serious police work more difficult. Dependence on electronic surveillance systems also directs resources away from old fashion police activites, intelligence operations, informed analysis and “HUMINT” (Human Intelligence).

Naturally, there is a place for advanced forms of electronic surveillance. But it should be focused on individuals and groups who are suspected to prepare for criminal activities. And to identify such targets, HUMINT is essential.

Time and time again it has been revealed that terrorists have been on the security services radar before striking. But the what, where and when is normally never communicated in ways that can be intercepted by mass surveillance. Here you need targeted surveillance, old-fashioned spies and qualified intelligence analysis. This is hard work, it takes time, it is costly and it can be dangerous. But it is what is effective to keep us reasonably safe from terrorism. (If at all possible.)

And given that the whole point of fighting terrorism is to defend our free, open and democratic society — it would be counter-productive to treat all citizens as potential terrorists and criminals. The people is not the problem.