Snowden and beyond.

Edward Snowden is a matter of months younger than me, in his early thirties. Yet the impact he has made on our modern, or are we now in the post modern world is almost unfathomable. In fact it is so unfathomable that it is almost too large an idea to be appreciated by the normal human brain. So we just don’t process it. If we did then I feel that it would be being talked about by more people. Not just the Glen Greenwalds of this world.

Snowden’s documents confirmed that government agencies such as GCHQ and the NSA were and still are collecting information from everyone. Everyone. Not just the perceived “enemy” but everyone. Allied countries, their own citizens, foreign diplomats on diplomatic trips. The breadth and depth of the revelations are quite breath taking.

Now, let me refocus, what does this mean for GCHQ? I think in reality, probably very little. Due to the nature of “The War On Terror” and how communication technology works in the modern world. The only way they can do their job, is by collecting data the way we know they do. All of us normal citizens don’t deny that we like what the security services do. I don’t really want to be blown up and I’m sure you don’t either and they help stop that. That being said, I’m not sure I want the government of any country having free unbridled access to my communications without any legal backing, even if that is my own country and I have nothing to hide.

GCHQ was once an outward looking operation. Focusing purely on foreign actors. Now we live in a world where e-commerce and communication render physical borders largely pointless. As such it will have to spend time looking at those it is trying to protect to ensure that it catches everything.

Let’s not beat about the bush here. GCHQ is watching, that is an insoluble fact. We have seen the level of access they have in to the very backbone of the communication networks and organisations we all use. By watching films such as Citizen Four or reading The Intercept, or Salon, or the Guardian we can see the capabilities they have to fight those they perceive as against them. The biggest battle GCHQ and its companions will have as we rumble in to the twenty first century, will be how it defines its enemies and how the law defends those choices.

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The end of the Bloc to the beginning of Snowden.

With the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the security services begin trying to justify their role in this new world. The target had changed, it was no longer a single sprawling enemy, but smaller fast moving organisations, crossing the boundaries between “state” actors and criminal. Furthermore the internet revolution was changing how everyone communicated. Previously security services had to intercept a single stream of data moving between two points. With the introduction of packetised communication utilised in the internet, there was no single point of intercept.

Put simply, whilst GCHQ was dealing with restructuring to validate its role post Soviet Union, it also had to completely alter its intelligence gathering methods to adapt to this new technology. A truly awesome challenge. 

In 1994, GCHQ was also placed on a statutory footing for the first time with the putting in to law of the Intelligence Services Act. This stated.

“An Act to make provision about the Secret Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Headquarters, including provision for the issue of warrants and authorisations enabling certain actions to be taken and for the issue of such warrants and authorisations to be kept under review; to make further provision about warrants issued on applications by the Security Service; to establish a procedure for the investigation of complaints about the Secret Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Headquarters; to make provision for the establishment of an Intelligence and Security Committee to scrutinise all three of those bodies; and for connected purposes.” (From Wikipedia)

For the first time, the security force were accountable.

However, with the outbreak of hostilities in the Balkans, it was made clear to UK government that some element of traditional SIGINT was required and GCHQ came to the fore. A massive investment in a new building in Cheltenham, colloquially called “the donut” was made, with the intention of bringing all GCHQ staff together geographically for the first time. Then 9/11 occurred. This attack and the following wars in Iraq and Afghanistan showed the need for good intelligence, and this new building was already too small for those needs.

Personally, I remember being at University in 2002 – 2004 as the Iraq war was beginning. Spending too may late nights sat in the I.T. labs going down the rabbit holes surrounding conspiracy theories. Treading the strange world, where words like PRISM, New World Order, and Bilderberg Group came together. I remember talking to friends and family at the time about it and being told I was crazy. My Dad the only exception to that rule and I now know why. Then in 2013 an NSA contractor called Edward Snowden appeared and blew everyone’s minds wide open.

More Reading.

Fighting the Electronic war – 1950’s – 1990’s..

The rise of GCHQ can most definitely be pinned to the rise in electronic communication. Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) by its very nature needs signals from which it can draw its intelligence. These signals in the 1950’s were relatively simple. “Communications structures before the internet can be thought of as fixed networks in which any ‘message’ (telephone call, fax, or data transmission) travelled over a single identifiable path between two communicators.” (taken from They stayed this way for the whole of the cold war, finally being usurped by the internet and the knowledge revolution that this has bought about. This made interception of communication by GCHQ relatively simple. Furthermore, the target of its efforts from the end of World War Two was also very simple. Russia and the Soviet Bloc. The largest military threat to Great Britain, until its collapse in the 1990’s. One target, simple interception. Easy.

Britain in the 1950’s just about had hold of its empire and so had listening stations around the world. The American’s due to the special relationship could piggy back off these too. They were territory short, but technology rich. The special relationship, was and is one of necessity rather than warm chumminess. This of course changed as British power dwindled in the post war years, but key British stations, such as Hong Kong and Cyprus, kept the relationship solid for the rest of the twentieth century and in to the twenty first.

At home, GCHQ actually became GCHQ in the post war period. It moved its main operations from Bletchley Park to Eastcote in Middlesex in1946 and then to Cheltenham in the 1950’s. Then relatively speaking GCHQ kept its head down and out of the spotlight. Whilst failures in other services, such as the scandal around Kim Philby, were being reported, there is little if any reporting regarding GCHQ. MI5 and MI6 were portrayed in book form by Ian Fleming and John Le Carre, portrayed in films by Sean Connery and radio by Sir Alec Guinness, but no glamourisation of GCHQ ever appeared. But then I guess the intercepting of radio transmissions or tapping telephones is less enigmatic to a reader or viewer than the personal relationships involved in human intelligence operations. (HUMINT).

This period was not all sunshine for GCHQ and by association the NSA. They completely missed the date of the first test of Russia’s burgeoning nuclear capability, the invasion of the Falkland Islands and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Proving that even the ability to hear everything, still involves some element of knowing what you’re listening for.

Minor scandal in the late 1970’s revolving around the journalist Duncan Campbell and the ABC Trial, followed up the Geoffrey Prime affair. Possibly the biggest fail of UK intelligence since the Cambridge five, began to bring the work of the service to light. This was not helped by Margaret Thatcher doing what she did best. Attacking unionisation, this time inside GCHQ. All told the work of the organisation was bought to light and with scrutiny on spending at the end of the cold war, GCHQ was becoming firmly implanted in the common psyche.

More Reading.

The Future of Targeted killing

I was reading the internet recently, as I do, and found this.

“According to a Teal Group report more than $6 billion is spent each year on developing drone technology worldwide, a number that is expected to double over the next decade.  Almost 90 percent of this spending is expected to be on military applications.  The RAND Corporation notes that 70 nations already have acquired drones, while 50 countries are developing them.  Defense One noted predictions from some experts that “virtually every country on Earth will be able to build or acquire drones capable of firing missiles within the next ten years.” From here

And it blew my mind. What blew my mind further, was that non state actors will have access to drones too. By this I mean, terrorists. Actually I don’t just mean terrorists, I mean police forces, border patrols, any one, they will probably all be armed and in the not too distant future may well be autonomous. How long until we get autonomous drone to drone warfare? Now thats an interesting thought. Watching drones have dogfights above our heads, oh wait no it isn’t, it is terrifying. I can’t help but be led to think of the Terminator movies. The US government already kills people on how they behave, how long until that idea is wholesale around the world and any of us who is deemed to be behaving against the norm gets taken out by an unannounced drone strike?

OK I may be exaggerating, but the next few years to a decade will be a massively pivotal moment in this arena. Unlike nuclear weapons, which assured peace through mutual destruction, the idea of selective killing in fact increases conflict. The process becomes almost risk free. As long as your target selection is good enough, or hidden behind enough layers of bureaucracy to be unaccountable to the average citizen.

We also need to think of non airborne drones. Autonomous submarines patrolling our shorelines, (bye bye boat people). Land based devices such as this. Designed to carry equipment for soldiers, but could be mounted with a rocket launcher or a machine gun fairly easily I would assume. Not to mention the insect sized drones that could hover near you your whole life, watching over your shoulder, ready to call on its big brother to launch a hellfire down on its GPS signal, the minute you accidentally click on that link you shouldn’t have. Or at least call the police on you.

Hold on to your butts, sh*ts about to get crazy.

—AMENDED 12th August 2015—-

Just found this great powerpoint

Wonderful Power Point presentation about the future of unmanned air power. In fact anything by Richard James Aldrich’s site is very interesting on this whole topic. I’d have a read if I were you.

Targeted Killing and Collateral Damage

Drones. The word has been said so many times now that it has almost lost its meaning. Say it with me now, “drone strike”, see it’s easy, you just throw it around. In reality a drone strike is a deep visceral thing. I have been reading up on the use of drones by various actors, mainly the CIA and it is quite remarkable.

They were first used in 1994 during the Bosnian war, only for reconnaissance. The first use as a military tool was 2002, not surprisingly in Afghanistan, trying to knock off Osama. Since then, use has increased exponentially, across both the Middle East and Africa. In fact anywhere the US and its allies can operate without major political attack (IE any third world country) drones are being used, to kill people.

You, like me, probably think that any time a drone launches a missile that kills someone, then some human has made the decision to kill the target. This is in fact not true. Obviously there is still currently a human operator actually pulling the trigger on firing the missile at the other human. But he doesn’t make the decision on whether to kill them, he is merely a technician administering the method. For the record two humans operate a drone, one to fly one to look at the pictures and fire the weapons.

The US now has a system in place that can decide to have a human killed just on their behaviour. Now, by behaviour I don’t mean that they have been fighting US forces, or firing rockets. They can be targeted for going to certain buildings for a few days in a row, or spending time with a certain person. Once the decision is made, it is not human reviewed. Just think about that for a second. Put yourself on the fleshy end of this equation. You are a farmer, one week, some millitants come to your house and force you to give them food and lodging for a few days before they move on. You are now on the list due to your behaviour. The next day a Hellfire missile comes in and kills your family whilst you are working in the field.

That is something that blows my mind and all I can see it doing is driving people in to extremism and hatred of the west. Just crazy.

TV – Opiate the Masses.

Ah TV, the warm glow in every home. Beaming the message of international corporations straight to our eyeballs. 

For full disclosure, I work in TV, as a tech guy looking after computers, so I do rely on the goggle box for my continued existence. That being said, I don’t own a TV and only really watch box sets and the like. That being said (again) I think TV is a valuable tool, especially when it comes to channels from the BBC in the UK, the ABC and SBS in Australia and PBS in the States. Unbias news and program making not based on selling advertising or towing the government line is very important. I fear however this won’t go on for ever. 

Channels are being assailed from both sides. On the one hand governments are pushing harder and harder to cut funding and regulate  these broadcasters. Most likely due to a combination of fear and pressure from big business. Murdoch and his minions have been fighting both the BBC and the ABC for many years. Don’t get me started on how well Murdoch has his empire set up. It’s terrifying. On the other hand, technology is threatening TV as we know it. The internet is now capable of broadcasting HD and higher resolution pictures with no issues, and services like Netflix are taking full advantage of that. Traditional broadcasters can’t keep up. 

This is great for consumers, as in the wider market, organisations such as Vice are moving into roles of news providers and more. Giving truly unbias reporting on subjects that aren’t even appearing in mainstream news. Conversely there is now so much information available that there is risk of people never finding out what we really need. 

Hell of a time to be alive.