“Hacking the rendition flights” - Stephen Grey at Hacks/Hackers London

 by Martin Belam, 29 November 2011
“I didn’t have a clue about how to take on the world’s biggest intelligence agency and prove what they were doing in secret” - Stephen Grey at Hacks/Hackers London

At last week’s Hacks/Hackers London meet-up, Stephen Grey was talking about the journalistic process behind his work to uncover the CIA’s network of rendition flights.

The computer tools he had used were mainly Excel, or, when the data became too much for that to handle, MySQL. He also used i2’s Analyst’s Notebook for visualisations, although he said that he’d never been able to afford his own licence for it. I thought that was an interesting reminder that investigative journalism takes money, and until you’ve got the story, that can be a scarce resource.

Raising money or interest, he said, was particularly hard when trying to write on the topic of torture during the early years of the “war on terror”. He said that he tried convincing several major news organisations to run stories about rendition for over a year before one would, and partly this was due to the fact that the pervading atmosphere was that if you had been arrested for connection with terrorism offences, then the general presumption was that you were associated with terrorism and had it coming. It didn’t help, Stephen said, that the alleged victims didn’t always make the most convincing witnesses, which, to be fair, if you had been held in bewildering torture conditions for a period of time, you probably wouldn’t.

One of the most interesting things I took from his story was the way that Stephen Grey seemed to be the classic example of combining traditional journalistic skills of having a source and a hunch, with the skills to analyse the data subsequently gathered. Or, as Stephen rather more elegantly put it: “If you are going to spend all night looking for a needle in the haystack, it is worth having someone on the inside assuring you that there is a needle there.”

A lot of the reporting was only able to be done because there are meticulous datasets about plane movements, possession and registration. That was a massive help, because as Stephen said, “There are no plane spotters in Cairo or Karachi.”

He got a lot of material from a source that gave him European flight movement data, and then worked on the principle that “if it quacks like a duck...” it is probably a duck. In this case, his hypothesis was that planes involved in moving terrorism suspects around for torture would probably visit the US and a selection of destinations closely linked to the “war on terror”. This allowed him to narrow down the possible planes involved to the point where he could basically identify the CIA fleet and the airport they were operating from.

Some plane registration data comes on CD-ROM, and it turned out that the CIA were not particularly adept at covering up their tracks. Whilst they had built a network of fake people and fake companies to administer the flights, they’d failed to prevent Stephen being able to link them all together.

Stephen Grey said that the problem wasn’t so much collecting the data in order to analyse it, but getting the data cleaned up and into a format that made it ready to be analysed. He also made the point that you should pick your story and then get the data to support it, rather than the other way around. When this got tweeted, I think it easily got misinterpreted as “bend the data to support your pre-determined argument”. I think what Stephen meant was that he would not have been trawling through European airspace logs hoping that any old interesting pattern would just turn up, but instead that he was acting on information that there was something there to be found, and that he was looking for data to support a story that he was already sure existed.

And as much as computers and data had allowed him to expose the story, Stephen Grey always brought it back to the human element of the story. He even got a quote from one of the CIA’s pilots, who said: “We are the bus drivers in the war on terror. I didn’t used to check who was in back.”

Interestingly, the fact that Stephen Grey was talking seemed to swing the demographic of the usual bunch of Hacks/Hackers London attendees to being more male and a good 10-15 years older than usual. Most of the questions after Stephen’s talk seemed to focus on the extent to which he had felt that he was, in return, being tracked by the CIA. Personally I thought that was a shame, because I was desperate to ask him at which point he had realised that computers could help with his reporting, and how he had gone about his first steps of using software to analyse data as part of building the evidence behind a piece of investigative journalist. I was also curious to find out whether he thought, in a pre-computer age, it would have been possible to track down and expose this activity.

There was something else that struck me during Stephen’s presentation. He showed the front cover of the New Statesman when the story had broken, which was to ape the style of Soviet propaganda. It suddenly reminded me of the extent to which we have become desensitised to the actions of our governments and intelligence services in fighting the “war on terror”. The reason imagery of Stalin-style gulags and civilian “disappearances” was so potent for the covert activities of Western governments against individuals was because these were kind of activities that were considered utterly un-American and the antithesis of Western democracy during the Cold War era. Yet in the UK now we seem to have sleepwalked into accepting that you can be arrested for the thoughtcrime of thinking about causing a breach of the peace, or threatening a riot that never transpires on Facebook.


Hacks/Hackers London is back on Wednesday 18 January 2011.

Hacks/Hackers London: Notes from the talks brings together notes from 16 talks, including those from Martin Rosenbaum, Stephen Grey, Alastair Dant, Scott Byrne-Fraser and Wendy Grossman. It looks at topics of interest to journalists and programers alike, including freedom of information, processing big data sets to tell stories, social activism hack camps, the future of interactive technologies, and using social media to cover your tracks - or uncover those of somebody else.
Hacks/Hackers London: Notes from the talks for Kindle is £1.14.

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