“This wretched Communications Data Bill” - Duncan Campbell at Hacks/Hackers London

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 12 July 2012
“This always was the plan. Random access, by computers, to everything” - Duncan Campbell

Legendary journalist Duncan Campbell spoke at Hacks/Hackers London about his lifelong crusade against state surveillance techniques. He sprang to prominence in the 70s and 80s by writing about the ECHELON network and SIGINT.

For a generation of hacks and hackers reared in an environment where a major complaint is that the results of your FOI request have been delivered as a PDF rather than as a CSV file, Duncan’s reminder of what life was like under the all-seeing auspices of the Official Secrets Act was a bit of a shock.

ECHELON was, he said, the first time that “they” were trying to hoover up all the communications streams around the planet. What was significant was that this wasn’t just about intercepting Soviet communications, but all communications.

Campbell suggested that at some points the Foreign Office were only finding out what the spooks were up to because of the journalism. His Time Out piece “The Eavesdroppers” had to be published without breaching that Official Secrets Act, and he delightfully recounted calling up GCHQ and asking for the press office.

He also showed a picture from the National Archives of a document with hand-written mark-up from Prime Minister Thatcher in pen discussing how the state could stop the BBC broadcasting and New Statesman from publishing this sort of thing - referring to the “Secret Society” documentary about the Zircon project referring to a 1981 Panaorama investigation into the intelligence services.

What I love more than anything about that story now is network effect. Someone leaked it (presumably on VHS) to an MP, who wanted to show it in the Houses of Parliament, but by the time that was forbidden, it was (accidentally I’m sure) leaked further to facilitate public screenings outside the House. It echoes the networked effect of placing WikiLeaks material on mirror servers or distributing content via BitTorrent. It doesn’t matter whether it is 1988 or 2008 - legislating against the spread of telling an interesting and vital story is hard once technology makes distribution easy.

“This wretched act”

Campbell’s major concern today is Government proposals for the monitoring of internet traffic - the Communications Data Bill - described by the Home Office website as “Vital powers to help catch criminals, save lives and protect children”. I’m not saying the Government has anything to hide, but the press release about the Bill links to a Flickr group with some of the lovely non-scary images produced to sell how good it is, but not the actual text of the proposed legislation.

The state claims, Campbell says, that the internet has meant that communications have “gone dark” and they need to combat that, but he argues that communications have always mostly been dark. The state is now looking for “deep packet inspection” of internet communications, and Campbell said: “I don’t understand what they think they are doing. I can’t understand what they think they want. It is an almost animalistic jungle reflex that makes them say ‘I want all the data’. It is kind of an expression of their fearfulness. They fear a world where they can’t get this access.”

From the 1980s until now, Campbell said, “this always was the plan. Random access, by computers, to everything. No government of any colour is to be trusted with such a roadmap to our souls.”

He suggested that the surveillance might be of use if terrorists started deciding that World Of Warcraft was the ideal place to communicate their plotting - but they don’t. “We stand at a sort of divide with this legislation” he said, worried not so much about what it proposes now, but the inevitable mission creep. In what he described as “this wretched act” there is ultimately the provision that in the future the state “may take any sort of data, and subject it to any sort of filter.”

He was asked how he felt, after spending years battling speculative surveillance, about the phone hacking scandal had engulfed journalism. Speaking to him afterwards he was positively bristling with glee at the prospect of some of the major players in the affair getting their comeuppance.

Duncan’s talk was one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen at Hacks/Hackers London. He is an incredibly excitable and charismatic speaker, even if you think he might veer towards the conspiracy theory/paranoia edge of internet activists. But then he has a right to be paranoid - he got prosecuted for trying to hold the state to account.

Next...

Having written about this, and Wendy Grossman’s account of her battles with Scientology, I guess what is next for me is a lifetime of my internet communications being monitored by all and sundry...

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.

Keep up to date on my new blog