Britain’s Brave New World Just Got Braver

Britain’s new counter-terrorism initiative builds on Stasi-like methods to create a potentially Orwellian present for British citizens, as former MI-5 officer Annie Machon explains.

By Annie Machon Special to Consortium News
in Brussels

British Home Secretary Sajid Javid unveiled a new counter-terrorism initiative last week that he says targets an ever-metastasizing threat, yet it raises a raft of new questions about people’s rights.

The government is acting on the imperative that something needs to be done. But MI5 – officially known as Britain’s domestic Security Service and the lead organization combating terrorism within the UK – has already, since the start of the “war on terror,” doubled in size and has been promised yet more staff over the next two years.

Yet despite these boosted resources for MI5, as well as increased funding and surveillance powers for the entire UK intelligence community, virtually every terror attack carried out in the UK over the last few years has been committed by someone already known to the authorities. Indeed, the Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, had been aggressively investigated but MI5 ignored vital intelligence and closed down the active investigation shortly before he carried out the attack.

This failure to target known threats is not just a UK problem. Attacks across Europe over the last few years have repeatedly been carried out by people already on the local security radar.

New approaches are needed. But this latest offering appears to be a medley of already failed initiatives and more worryingly, a potentially dangerous blueprint for a techno-Stasi state.

Sajid Javid: Backs dodgy software to spy on crowds. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

The main points of the new Home Office plan include: making MI5 share intelligence on 20,000 “subjects of concern” with a wide range of organizations, including local councils, corporations, local police, social workers, and teachers; calling on internet companies to detect and eradicate extremist or suspicious content; making online marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay report suspicious purchases; increasing surveillance of infrastructure and big events; and passing even tougher anti-terrorism laws.

It sounds reasonable until you realize how similar initiatives have failed and how the new plan can make wholesale abuse of surveillance powers more likely.

Intelligence is Not Evidence

The most chilling part of the MI5 plan is sharing intelligence on 20,000 “subjects of concern.” First of all, this is intelligence– by nature gathered from a range of secret sources that MI5 would normally wish to protect. When communicating with counter-terrorism police, intelligence agencies will normally hide the source, but that requires an immense amount of work for 20,000 cases before the information can be shared. Secondly, intelligence is not evidence. Effectively MI5 will be very widely circulating partially assessed suspicions, perhaps even rumors, about individuals who cannot be charged with a crime just based on the intelligence, but who will nonetheless fall under a deep shadow of suspicion within their communities.

Also if this intelligence is spread as widely as is currently being suggested, it will land in the laps of thousands of public bodies – for instance, schools, councils, social care organizations and local police. Multiple problems could arise from this. There will no doubt be leaks and gossip within communities  that so-and-so is being watched by MI5 and so on.

There will also be the inevitable mission-creep and abuse of power that we saw almost 20 years ago when a whole range of the same public bodies were allowed access to the then new eavesdropping and surveillance law, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000). Back then, local councils were abusing counter-terrorism legislation to catch people who might be trying to buy second homes in desirable school catchment areas (districts) to get their kids into better schools, or even, and I kid you not, might be cockle-rustling on their local beach. Of course, such intrusive electronic surveillance powers have been significantly increased since then, with the Investigatory Powers Act 2017, that allows bulk storage, bulk dataset hacking and hacking per se.

All this follows the notorious Home Office counter-terrorism PREVENT scheme – the failed parent of these new proposals.

West Berliner with hammer and chisel at the Wall, Nov. 13, 1989. (Photo by Joe Lauria)

A decade ago PREVENT was designed to build bridges with Muslim communities across Britain, encouraging them to report any suspicious behavior to the authorities to nip incipient radicalization in the bud. Unfortunately it did not quite work out that way. Young Muslims told stories of pressure from MI5 to spy on their communities. It destroyed community trust rather than built it.

The new Home Office scheme goes even further down that wrong path. It asks teachers, social workers, the local police and other authority figures to go beyond reporting suspicious behavior to actually be given a list of names to keep a watch on “subjects of interest.”

The last system of community informants in Europe was ended when the Berlin Wall opened in 1989 and East Germany’s Stasi system of a vast network of informers was shortly afterward revealed in all its horror. How ironic that the same system that was devised to protect East German youth from the “decadent influence” of the West is now being proposed in a “decadent” Western country to spy on its own youth for traces of radicalization.

Corporate Allies

Suffice to say that if the British government cannot even make internet titans such as Google and Facebook pay their fair share in taxes, nor call Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to account in Parliament about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, then good luck forcing them make a meaningful effort to root out extremist material.

But even if they do agree, the idea is fraught with the troublesome question of who gets to decide whether something is extremist material or a dissenting opinion against the establishment? Facebook, Google and YouTube are already engaging in what can only be called censorship by de-ranking in search results material from legitimate dissident websites that they, with no history of exercising news judgement, deem “fake news.” Such established news sites such as Wikileaks, Consortium News and World Socialist Web Site, as well as many others listed on the notorious and unreliable PropOrNot list have taken a significant hit since these restrictions came into play on April 23, 2017.

Amazon, eBay and other retail companies are being asked to report suspicious sales of precursor materials for bombs and other potential weapons. Car hire companies will be asked to report suspicious individuals hiring cars and lorries. Algorithms to detect weapons purchases may be feasible, but denying rentals to merely “suspicious” individuals who’ve committed no crimes strays into Stasi territory.

Back in the era of fertilizer and nail bombs, laws were put in place across Europe to require fertilizer companies to report strange purchases – from people who were not registered agriculturalists, for example. Unfortunately, this law was easily subverted by Norwegian right-wing terrorist Anders Breivik, who simply worked to establish a farm and then legally purchased the ingredients for his Oslo car bomb in 2011.

You are Being Watched

East Germans celebrating with champagne at opening in the Wall, Nov. 13, 1989. (Photo by Joe Lauria) Click for larger view.

The UK is known to have the most CCTV cameras per capita in the Western world. There have been various plans mooted (some leaked to Wikileaks) to hook these up to corporations such as Facebook for immediate face-tagging capabilities with algorithms that can identify suspicious behavior in real time, allowing the police to intercept the “suspect.”

Face recognition cameras are being tested by three police forces in the UK with software that can allegedly watch crowds at events and permit police to potentially identify known criminals and suspects. Police would then be alerted to swoop in.

Unfortunately, according to Big Brother Watch in the UK, these computer systems have up to a 98 percent failure rate. If the Home Secretary is really suggesting that such dodgy software is going to be used to police our public spaces I would suggest he asks his geeks to finish their homework.

Do we really want to live in a country where our every movement is watched by technology, with the police waiting to pounce; a country where if we are having a stressed work day and seem “strange” to a clerk at a car hire company we can be tracked as a potential terrorist; where children need to fear that if they ask awkward questions of their teachers or raise family concerns with social care, they might be put on a watch list?

In that direction lies totalitarianism. I have been tracking how a state can slide unthinkingly into such a situation for years, particularly looking at such warnings from 1930s Germany. Over the last decade I have seriously begun to fear for my country.

If these measures go through, Britons could be living under SS-GB– the name of a book by the excellent spy writer, Len Deighton, who envisioned what the UK would have been like if the Nazis had invaded and occupied Britain during World War Two. The acronym attributed to MI5 at international intelligence conferences way back in the 1990s used to be UK SS – UK Security Service. I hear it has changed now….

Annie Machon is a former intelligence officer in the UK’s domestic MI5 Security Service.

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27 comments for “Britain’s Brave New World Just Got Braver

  1. June 15, 2018 at 08:23

    The question that is always begged is why “radicalization” is happening. What are its root cause and what is done to address them. Not to see what the West in doing in the rest of the world and particularly in the Middle East as a possible cause of such radicalization is to bury our head in the sand, or worse, to know why and be willing to pay the price in violence within the West’s borders.

    It is useful to look at this war on terror’s children as products of the above and the opportunism rampant in the bureaucratic mind, that sees every tragedy as an opportunity to expand their power and budgets. Homeland Security and M-15 are cases in point, and every event an opportunity for more.

    No bureaucracy is free of this virus, and as glaring as the cases above is the Defense Department which along with its sponsors is a master of this process.

  2. rick jarvis
    June 14, 2018 at 05:50

    Typically a counter Terrorism initiative is not what it seems. Consider the inability of the security services to prevent attacks by known radicals already on their security radar and the mendacity of a Government who claims to protect us from terrorists at home whilst supporting Islamic terrorists in Syria. Terrorism is as much a ploy soon to be eclipsed by Russophobia (Russia is our greatest threat and enemy parroted by UK Security State representatives) as a means to justify wars of aggression abroad and the imposition of a Stasi like surveillance state at home SS-GB. You can be certain the real intent of this ‘Counter Terrorism Initiative’ is to sow fear and suspicion amongst the masses by seeding rumours and exposing vicarious “enemies of the state” i.e. all those dissident political voices and organisations that oppose SS-GB.

  3. Andrew Nichols
    June 13, 2018 at 23:42

    Also if this intelligence is spread as widely as is currently being suggested, it will land in the laps of thousands of public bodies – for instance, schools, councils, social care organizations and local police. Multiple problems could arise from this. There will no doubt be leaks and gossip within communities that so-and-so is being watched by MI5 and so on.

    Replace the word “MI5” with Stasi……a nasty slippery slope.

  4. John Puma
    June 13, 2018 at 18:38

    Has the British government been able, or bothered, to call Cambridge Analytical to account in Parliament about the Cambridge Analytica scandal?

  5. rosemerry
    June 13, 2018 at 16:24

    Annie’s article is mostly about terrorism and radicalisation, but to see this year the Russophobia displayed by Mayhem(sic) BoJo and “‘Defence Minister” Williamson accusing the Russians of the Skripal poisoning, with no evidence, blaming them without allowing any response, punishing Russia with no investigation or trial, vilifying Jeremy Corbyn for even suggesting seeking evidence first gives little hope for government reactions which will help protect the UK from harm from whoever its “enemies” are supposed to be. The unprovoked attack, with France and the USA, on Syria and the refusal even to listen to the “victims of the gas attack” who travelled to the Hague for a meeting of the OPCW, ad to the distrust that thinking people must have of the UK leadership with or without Brexit.

  6. barry k.
    June 13, 2018 at 08:49

    I concur Joe. But if 9/11 skyscrapers turning to dust at freefall speed can be made reasonable to a gullible “intelligence” community then pre-crime detection probably seems like an obvious next step. 9/11 was a crime never investigated for the simple reason that it was an inside job, that could never have been carried out by the alleged perpetrators according to the absurd conspiracy theory concocted by the Bush administration.

    These policy makers and policing agencies, worldwide , act as if they have no idea at all about what terrorism is, what the root causes of these violent acts are , the relative magnitude of the problem , or what responses are worthwhile. Since they can’t all be stupid then the whole terrorism phenomenon is clearly a stratagem for increasing police state powers to control the have nots. And it’s working.

  7. Bo
    June 13, 2018 at 06:01

    I found Propornot to be really useful, it provided a large proportion of my ‘go to’ news and commentary sites.

    • June 14, 2018 at 00:47

      :-):-):-) So true!

  8. Susan T
    June 13, 2018 at 02:36

    One of the problems with having a massive security apparattus that tries to see everything and collect everything and that wants every citizen to be an informer, is that almost everyone is ‘on the radar’ at some point or time or another. Thus, they have to now come up with excuses after every attack about why it is they had investigated this person and then later they were involved in the attack. Its a numbers game, when its so easy to get on their radar, then its likely that every attacker has been on their radar.

  9. E Wright
    June 13, 2018 at 02:22

    Too true. I listened to the debate in Parliament just last night when Alex Chalk, MP for Cheltenham, was spouting forth to an almost empty House about the need to extend the ambit of mens rea to catch people who might inadvertenly radicalise bystanders. You could see that he was blinding the other Members with his eloquent knowledge of the Law, but he failed to point out that criminalising reckless comments would flag so many people that Stasi like records would need to be kept not only on the target, but anyone he came into contact with. Oh, they already do that. Well I suppose then the MP for Cheltenham knows what he’s doing.

  10. June 12, 2018 at 19:40

    its not just the spying on citizens its the reduction of civil rights all around.What is most astonishing is the terrorists are well known to state authorities and the attacks are used as justification for more civil right abuse by the state…..the Boston Bombers in the USA were investigated by the FBI and Russia warned us about them……those warning were ignored…..why ?…………thats the question.

  11. Tom Welsh
    June 12, 2018 at 14:25

    Maybe a more effective way of preventing terrorism against the UK and its citizens might be if the UK government were to refrain from launching unprovoked wars of aggression against a dozen or more nations in Europe, Asia and Africa; invading them; overthrowing their governments; deliberately and systematically destroying their infrastructure; and murdering literally millions of civilians – men, women and children.

    Whooops… too late. They already did those things.

    Honestly, the only thing that surprises me is that the UK hasn’t been visited with hails of bombs, missiles, firestorms, pestilence and destruction. Just a few misguided individuals trying feebly to strike back – and always getting the wrong targets, because the true culprits are heavily protected at the expense of the UK taxpayer. Who was never consulted before our nation turned into the 21st century’s closest thing to Nazi Germany.

    • June 13, 2018 at 12:10

      Agreed. It is a common practice to ignore the basic reasons for terrorism . The governments and their corporate elites are the ones to blame. As the U.S., the UK, and France continue to destroy entire countries, the terrorists attacks will increase. Why we are allowing leaders to confuse with propaganda the citizens who, like in America are so ignorant and misinformed by the media? In time, there will be so many wars that the basic structures of civilizations will be so damaged as to create global chaos. I fear that we are near this time.

  12. Vivian O'Blivion
    June 12, 2018 at 07:44

    In the current circumstances this is receiving little attention and for the same reason the changes will likely go through with little scrutiny.

    From a technical perspective it sounds like there are few if any benefits regarding preventing terrorist attacks with a whole bunch of negative implications nicely laid out in the article.
    In any event this is a fixation on policing a problem without trying to address root causes.

    Growing up in 1970’s Scotland extreme interpretation of Islam amongst my UK born, Asian connected peers was inconceivable. The problem, and it is far from an existential one (try applying comparative perspective against the IRA bombing campaign), is a relatively new phenomenon.
    If people want to embrace their cultural roots that’s their business so long as they don’t try and force their views on others. So why would a relatively small number of younger generation of British Asians than that of my own generation entertain extreme Sunni Islam and jihad? Where to start?

    General political disenfranchisement: Far from an British Asian phenomenon, establishment government has neglected working class Britain, worked against any notion of societal integrity and generally promoted the philosophy of “devil tack the hindmost”. For other consequences think Brexit and the rise of the extreme right and white supremacists.

    A highly patriarchal culture in a country where this is increasingly out of place: Many of these would be jihadis may be in domestic circumstances where subconscious low self esteem leads to seething resentment of all that surrounds their daily grind. Think an Uber driver or spice chef (nothing wrong with that) married to a GP, lawyer or Head teacher.

    Take this general disenchantment, present it to the male bonding and mutual support network at the mosque, add in a manipulative activist with sufficient rhetorical ammunition in the form of imperialist western foreign policy and you have a potential jihadi.

    The thing that amuses me is that a frankly, humiliatingly inept plot is counted as a successful jihad (it’s the thought that counts apparently). Some of these clowns are being released from one sentence for initiating a Keystone cops type plot only to be picked up a couple of months later for more of the same. If they were from my circle you would put it down to a fondness for prison food.

  13. June 12, 2018 at 01:01

    “Do we really want to live in a country where our every movement is watched by technology…”

    Surprised if Annie is living in the UK, thought she had relocated years ago.

  14. F. G. Sanford
    June 11, 2018 at 18:33

    In London’s fair city,
    Where it’s now such a pity,
    They’re watching with cameras wherever you go.
    They’re tracking each aspect,
    To find every suspect-
    Those rustlers of cockles had better lie low!

    It’s live, alive oh,
    It’s live, alive, oh,
    They’ve got you on camera, alive, alive, oh!

    With face recognition,
    And computer cognition,
    They’re watching and waiting to see what’s in store.
    They’ve doubled their budget,
    So now they can judge it-
    All that data they’re crunching with cameras galore!

    It’s live, alive oh,
    It’s live, alive, oh,
    They’ve got you on camera, alive, alive, oh!

    It’s a paranoid fever,
    Some high tech deceiver,
    Is making a killing on software programs.
    Those Scotland Yard coppers,
    Will have to tell whoppers-
    The next time they fail to stop one of those scams!

    It’s live, alive oh,
    It’s live, alive, oh,
    They’ve got you on camera, alive, alive, oh!

    When I heard about the cockle rustlers (I bet most Americans have no idea), I couldn’t help myself. The Ballad of Molly Malone: Crying “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh”! Smile! You’re on Candid Camera! Ain’t it great to live in the “free world”?

    • Sam F
      June 11, 2018 at 18:37

      Good song, FG!

    • Realist
      June 11, 2018 at 22:02

      I take notice because I’ve always loved that ballad, which is a tragedy in the end. Amazing the way you come up with rhyme schemes so quickly. And, yes, the song is apt as a template because the Brit policies are headed to a tragedy just like the song. Is it life imitating art or vice versa?

    • June 14, 2018 at 00:54

      The UK’s nonsense has really damped my desire to travel back to the UK once again. I wonder if the UK Stasi state has considered the effects of their brilliant strategies on tourism.

    • June 16, 2018 at 13:46

      Inspired – thank you!

      My grandfather, who flew Spitfires in WW2 before becoming a journalist, editor, and jurat (type of judge in the Channel Islands) used to sing the original to me when I was a child.

      God knows what he would have made of modern Britain.


      Annie Machon

  15. Sam F
    June 11, 2018 at 18:15

    The base problem of course is that corrupted government in the UK/US have made us the targets of terrorism.
    If we had had foreign policies of humanitarian aid since WWII instead of colonial warmongering, we would have lifted the poorest half of humanity from poverty, ignorance, malnutrition, and disease, and no one on Earth would hate us.

    Money controls mass media and elections in the West, the tools of democracy, and we no longer have democracy.
    The cause of terrorism is the dictatorship of the rich, which has destroyed democracy, and corrupted our civilization.

    To establish totalitarian surveillance to “protect” ourselves from the victims of our dictatorships of the rich, is of course counterproductive. We must restore humanitarian democracy, which requires eliminating economic concentrations.

    If our secret agencies are patriotic, they will support and direct terrorists to our gated communities, mass media, and CEO offices, to help us restore democracy. But perhaps they are tribalists and careerists, and will support our dictatorship to the very end. History does not suggest a long duration or pleasant ending for the US or the UK.

    • john wilson
      June 12, 2018 at 04:59

      I take your point about democracy, Sam, but the democratic process did work in the case of “Brexit” so there’s still some life left in the democracy animal at the moment.

      • martin
        June 15, 2018 at 04:06

        Pardon me John but what on earth makes you think the UK is leaving Europe? lol

    • Mild-ly Facetious
      June 12, 2018 at 08:50

      Book Suggestion — “The Anglo-American Establishment” , by Carroll Quigley

      The book gets five stars, not for holding one’s interest nor its readability, but rather because it not only devolves the origins of the hidden criminal elements that were soon to control the US government, but more importantly, it devolves the tactics used to achieve this. The relevance of the book lies not in England, but with the exporting of their ideas and methods to the US. I agree that this connection is loose and weak within this book itself and to form a clear picture of it, you need to add another source to accompany this reading. This other source is the subject of another of my reviews: The Invisible Government. Now, the reader is armed with the necessary information he/she needs to make sense of it all.

      A key member of Cecil Rhodes’s secret society and the beneficiary of ALL of Rhodes’s vast wealth brought the game over to the US at the turn of the 20th century. His name was Lord Rothschild. This mega-elitist was already somewhat involved behind the American scenes, as he had access to the US Ambassador to England, John Hay. John Hay was a widely known internationalist. The remarkable event that pushed America toward Empire was John Hay’s ascension to Secretary of State under President McKinley. This appointment marked a radical change in McKinley’s foreign policy.

      At this point, the US began to look a whole lot like Great Britain. While GB was slaughtering the Dutch farmers (Boers) in South Africa, the US began its slaughter of the Filipinos. Both superpower utilized scorched-earth policies as they slaughtered women and children, burned huts and killed their livestock. It was as ugly as mankind’s capabilities allow. The secret society soon recruited Col. Edward M. House, who wrote “Phillip Dru: Administrator” and the US has never to this day escaped the clutches of the Anglo-American Establishment.

      For fuller details and to bring the story into the 21 century, see the book, Don’t Weep for Me, America: How Democracy in America Became the Prince (While We Slept). Read Less

    • PastImperfect
      June 12, 2018 at 11:18

      “would have lifted the poorest half of humanity from poverty, ignorance, malnutrition, and disease”

      I feel that the way you have framed your comment is wrong. People can look after themselves. It is our “help” that has “lifted” them off their paths to prosperity by deposing or killing caring leaders, exploiting their resources, forcing them into vassal statehood or bombing them back to the stone age (witness North Korea).

      • Sam F
        June 12, 2018 at 14:03

        No, the US could easily have raised the desperate poor from poverty, ignorance, malnutrition, and disease.
        The fact of selfish and imperialist US foreign policy since WWII does not mean that there was no alternative.
        Cautious moderation of foreign intervention does not require forcing the desperate to fend for themselves.

        • June 13, 2018 at 12:16

          The U.S. has lost its battle for a just and non-violent pursuit of the betterment of humanity. With this present administration, corporate elites rule the nation through lobbyists and money. Americans are the least informed with the easiest access to information of any truly advanced nation.

Comments are closed.