Living in a World Bereft of Privacy

As Edward Snowden confirmed beyond doubt, we live in a world where our most intimate moments can be seen by would-be extortioners and, more alarmingly, by our governments, says Annie Machon.

By Annie Machon
in Brussels
Special to Consortium News

A few days ago I first received a menacing email from someone calling herself Susana Peritz. She told me “she” had hacked my email, planted malware on my computer, and had then filmed me getting my jollies while watching “interesting” porn online. Her email had caught my attention because it mentioned in the subject line a very old password, attached to a very old email address I had not used for over a decade. The malware must have been planted on a defunct computer.

Putting aside the fact that I am far more concerned about GCHQ or the NSA hacking my computer (as should we all be), this did rather amuse me.

Apparently, I must pay this “Susana” $1000 via Bitcoin or, shock, have my alleged pleasures shared with my acquaintances. And just last night I received another courteous request for cash from someone calling themselves Jillie Abdulrazak, but the price has now been inflated to $3000.

Why am I not concerned? Well, I can safely say – hand on heart – that I have never watched online porn. But this got me thinking about how or why I could have been singled out for this mark of a blackmailer’s esteem, and that brings me on to some rather dark thoughts.

It is perfectly possible that a rare, unguarded moment of long-distance online love might have been captured (but by whom?). That would probably be over a decade ago and would certainly have been using the old email account which was attached to the particular password at the time. 

However, even those memories have been denied me – I distinctly remember that I have been too paranoid for too long and have always covered the built-in computer camera lens. Anything that could possibly have been recorded could only be audio – a saucy phone call at most. There can be no video of my younger self, alas.

I have had good reason to be paranoid. In the late 1990s I supported my former partner and fellow MI5 intelligence officer, David Shalyer, in his whistleblower exploits to expose the crimes and incompetence of the UK spy agencies at the time. This resulted in us literally going on the run across Europe, living in hiding for a year in la France profonde, and another two years in exile in Paris before he voluntarily returned to the UK in 2000 to face the music and inevitably, under the terms of the UK’ draconian 1989 Official Secrets Act, being sent to prison for exposing the crimes of British spies.

From those years, knowing what we knew about the spies’ capabilities even then, the sense of being always potentially watched has never rubbed off.

The Bigger Picture

So, knowing absolutely that I have never watched any online porn and that I always keep my computer camera lens covered, “Susana” and “Jillie” can go whistle. You have tried to shake down the wrong paranoid ex-MI5 whistleblower, darlings. And my tech people are now hunting you.

Any possible audio could, I suppose, be spliced in some way to some dodgy video to make this the stuff of a blackmailer’s dreams. That, surely, will be easy to “forensicate” – and indeed I have other friends who can do this, at world class level.

Alternatively, the former love at the time could have recorded the audio for his own nefarious personal usage for some nebulous time in the future. And if that future is now, after he had shown himself a long time ago to be chronically dishonest, why do this in 2018 when we have been separated for years?

He may have possibly continued to used the old email account himself to watch vile material – he certainly had the password back then and perhaps he uses it to distance himself from his own porn habit (fapware, as the geeks call it)? If that is the case, he is even less honorable than I had considered him to be.

Or perhaps this is some type of dark LoveInt operation by the spooks, in some failed attempt to frighten or embarrass me?

But there is, of course, a bigger, more political picture.

Ever since I worked as an intelligence officer for MI5, before going on the run with Shayler during the whistleblowing years in the late 1990s, I have been painfully aware of the tech capabilities of the spies. Even back then we knew that computers could be captured by adversaries and turned against you – keystroke loggers, remote recording via microphones, cameras switched on to watch you, and many other horrors.

The whistleblowing of Edward Snowden back in 2013 has confirmed all this and more on an industrial, global scale – we are all potentially at risk of this particular invasion of our personal privacy. I have kept my computer and mobile camera lenses covered for all these years precisely because of this threat.

One specific Snowden disclosure, which has received little mainstream media traction, was a programme called OPTIC NERVE. This was a GCHQ program (funded by American money) that allowed the spooks to intercept in real time video conferencing calls. It turned out, horror, that 10 percent of them were of a salacious nature, and the spooks were shocked!

I have spoken about privacy and surveillance at conferences around the world and have many, many times had to debate the supposition that “if you are doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.”

However, most people would like to keep their intimate relationships private. In this era of work travel and long distance relationships, more of us might well have intimate conversations and even video play via the internet. In an adult, consensual and mutually pleasurable context, we are doing nothing wrong and we have nothing to hide, but we surely don’t want the spooks to be watching us or listening in, any more than we would want the criminals capturing images and trying to shake us down for money.

This low-level and laughably amateur attempt at extortion is risible. Unfortunately, the threat from our governments spying on us all is not.

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

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42 comments for “Living in a World Bereft of Privacy

  1. August 7, 2018 at 5:13 pm

    The nudies … that would be tough to explain to loved ones.
    What matters most, perhaps, is that exchanging thoughts with loved ones, friends and colleagues on politics and the times we live in used to be normal. The letter was safely mailed. Now, your letters can be read by the “liberal/ party’s “people”, and those persons — you can call them “the party faithful” — are now moral arbiter, judge, jury, executioner and the destroyer of lives.

    • August 7, 2018 at 5:15 pm

      sorry … edited out a word by accident

      That should be the “liberal”/war party’s people

  2. TJ
    August 2, 2018 at 5:15 am

    There is no audio or video, it is a scam like the 419 Nigerian princes etc. That said we live in a time where digital fabrications are becoming not just easier, but computer automated and accessible to the average person e.g. putting peoples faces on others with Deepfake ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deepfake ) and cloning peoples voices with Deep Voice ( https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/3k7mgn/baidu-deep-voice-software-can-clone-anyones-voice-with-just-37-seconds-of-audio ). There are also people working on attempting to expose such fakery e.g. detecting lack of eye blinking in Deepfake videos ( https://gizmodo.com/most-deepfake-videos-have-one-glaring-flaw-1826869949 ). We are no longer just in a wilderness of mirrors, but are entering the wilderness of sensory illusions where nothing is real, The Matrix made manifest, just remember, there is no spoon.

  3. VA
    August 1, 2018 at 11:45 am

    Would it surprise you to know that I got the very same spam email with same accusations naming an old password as proof! haha! I forwarded the whole thing to a “report spam” address.

  4. Tim
    August 1, 2018 at 8:38 am

    Ms Machon may have been targeted by a common-or-garden Internet scam:

    I received what seems to be the same message yesterday (my provider’s spam filter intercepted it).
    As in her case, it claimed to have the same kind of disreputable information to use against me that cannot possibly exist, and demanded a ransom in bitcoins for not publishing this.

    The faked sender was: “Wieland Mantione”
    But guess what? That “Russian” domain does not even exist, apparently…

    • Tim
      August 1, 2018 at 8:40 am

      – Consortium automatically filtered out the e-mail address I gave.

      Let me try again: web(at)angels-of-russia(dot)ru

  5. August 1, 2018 at 5:08 am

    Adds another Page to who’s watching the watchers. You’ve Strozk a nerve.

  6. Joe Tedesky
    July 29, 2018 at 6:02 pm
  7. Daniel
    July 29, 2018 at 2:30 pm

    1, Hackers can install nasty stuff onto one’s computer, and then the user can be arrested. So even those who “have nothing to hide” can be sent up the river for decades if they’re targeted.

    2. Apple has patents for cameras hidden behind the computer screen/display. So, even if one’s taped over the obvious camera lens, another one can be secretly recording the user.

    https://appleinsider.com/articles/09/01/08/apple_files_patent_for_camera_hidden_behind_display

  8. R Davis
    July 29, 2018 at 1:32 pm

    It has all moved a few steps further – Wolf Street – Global Digital Bank Robbers Feast on Latin America by Don Quijones.
    $12 million vanished
    $20 million vanished & we have no idea how much more was taken – or WHODUNNIT – or where the money vanished to.
    The guess is that they sent in a Machine Learning Program to map the layout of the banks systems & where abouts of the monies.
    Hasn’t it been drummed into us all that we are all being watched – to within an inch of our lives ??
    And even every the whereabouts of speck of dust can be monitored ??
    So I wonder …
    “What the hell happened here guys ??”

  9. MaryannSmi9
    July 29, 2018 at 1:17 am

    me before this technology is widely used by the world’s intelligence networks, prying even further into what little remain

  10. Iron Felix
    July 28, 2018 at 7:07 pm

    If Ms. Machon has no idea what Internet porn looks like, she is probably of a fairly rare breed. That being the case, this scam must be very profitable. Many people who get these emails will wonder just what the scammer has or does not have. It is easy to see how some victims will fork over the money.

  11. quedup
    July 28, 2018 at 1:52 pm

    Don’t ever enter the internet from your own computer. Don’t ever make important calls from your own telephone. Avoid using Google, Twitter and Facebook. Don’t ever buy anything from Amazon. There are advantages to “less developed” countries where public (shared) access to the internet, phones, etc. is still common.

    If you have to use a device associated with you personally, take some time to generate many random internet accesses and random phone calls.

    • Tom Kimmel
      July 30, 2018 at 8:11 pm

      Thanks. But really? I’m 76 and believe I am monitored on line, in real time sometimes. Your last line interests me: create garbage.
      I avoid as you suggest, but buy from Amazon and wonder what they make of that. My guess is that privacy is in fact defunct. And sure, some notion of whats up with me is derivable from their gleanings. The monitors are subject to their own delusions as well.
      Stuxnet was an eye opener. Exposure of even more profound hacking capacities amaze. From this I surmise the PTB are scared as shit. As well they may be, There really is more going on than is drempt of in my or your or their philosophy.
      Carry on friend,

  12. Al Pinto
    July 28, 2018 at 12:05 pm

    Just because your paranoid, it does not mean that they are not trying to get you… :) There are certainly “six ways from Sunday” for the agencies getting back to you. But…

    Have you considered that the referenced email is just an extortion attempt by hackers? There are plenty of email addresses with password for free in the underground web. Especially the old ones that are free by now.

    I’ve got a very similar email just this week, except that it asked for $1,400 in Bitcoin. The email address that received the extortion attempt was correct, but the password was not. I would not put my hand on my heart to swear that I have never watched any explicit videos. Yes, I may have in some point in my life, but that’s not the point is. This type of extortion builds on the fact that most people had watched this type of videos at one point, or another and it’ll be scary enough for some of them to pay.

    My initial reaction to the email had been to write a response and ask for the link to video that I’ve allegedly watched. Instead, I’ve reported the extortion email to the hacker’s email service provider. In my case, the provider was Microsoft via their outlook.com service. The chances are that the email account in question has been closed, Microsoft is pretty responsive, when it comes to this type abuse.

  13. anastasia
    July 28, 2018 at 11:25 am

    If the security agencies are so adept in finding out what we are doing and where we are at all times, how come they didn’t catch Snowden before he landed in Russia? they could have used one of those CIA planes, kidnapped him and taken him to one of their Guantanamo Bay prisons they have all over the world. How did he evade them? I would also like to know where Snowden gets his money to support himself in Russia? How come we don’t know what he is doing there; if he is working; if the Russians have been in touch with him (although I highly doubt that the Russians bother him.) I am pretty mystified about Snowden. Nothing about him makes any sense.

    • Iron Felix
      July 28, 2018 at 6:58 pm

      Snowden has a job in Moscow. I thought everyone knew that.

    • August 9, 2018 at 3:01 am

      Most people who are fans of Snowden think it’s a shame he got stuck in Russia. Not at all. Either Moscow or St. Petersburg is a far better place to live than anywhere in the US or Europe. Go see for yourselves. Actually, he’s lucky.

  14. Dennis Rice
    July 28, 2018 at 9:32 am

    In every society, in every profession, you can find the scum of the earth.

  15. mike k
    July 28, 2018 at 7:42 am

    The worst among us have seized power over society. Mass murderers, torturers, insanely greedy persons are controlling our human destiny, and destroying our world. Removing these ultimately evil people from their positions of power over us all is the one thing necessary if we are to continue our existence on Earth. This is by far our highest priority. If we fail to accomplish this, then our fate is sealed.

    • Sam F
      July 28, 2018 at 2:06 pm

      Exactly; it is the bully tyrant who rises to control economic and political power in an unregulated market economy with no protection of the press and the institutions of democracy from money. Their removal is the first step in restoration of democracy.

    • Paul Easton
      July 29, 2018 at 9:38 pm

      The highest priority is to change the system. It is designed to put those people in control, and it always was.

    • July 30, 2018 at 11:40 am

      That sums it up…it will be an uphill battle to say the least. what has happened is unethical, immoral, and dishonest behavior in so many major insitutions of governance and commerce is the norm, top to bottom. So when you stand up for the right thing, you often stand alone, as the author eludes to regarding her whistle blowing partner. And then the prevailing point of view is “Oh so you are right and all these other people are wrong.” Your character is assasinated, you are portrayed as narcissistic and grandiose (in Assange’s case a rapist). People hate you because you remind them of their own weakness, their own self-disgust that they sold their soul, so as not to rock the boat, and to advance in their career. It’s like Bill Hicks said (and I paraphrase) it is just a ride, these people have alot invested in this ride, “And what about my family?”

  16. July 28, 2018 at 4:51 am

    Yes, and just imagine the long-term potential for blackmail and reprisals against politicians whom the establishment does not like.

    The money-driven American political system with its duopoly of parties in support of Pentagon and Empire, which we are encouraged to think of we think of as democracy, will be eventually reduced to a completely hollow shell.

    Readers may enjoy:

    https://chuckmanwordsincomments.wordpress.com/2018/07/22/john-chuckman-comment-how-american-politics-really-work-why-there-are-terrible-candidates-and-constant-wars-and-peoples-problems-are-ignored-why-heroes-like-julian-assange-are-persecuted-and-r/

    • mike k
      July 28, 2018 at 7:57 am

      Good stuff on your site John Chuckman. Thanks!

    • July 28, 2018 at 11:11 am

      Lived it since September 14, 1987
      I have gone through phases.
      Sometimes I didn’t believe anything like that would be permitted or accepted in American Culture. Other times I recognized people didn’t mind as long as they weren’t doing it to them.
      Today serenity. It’s just the way it is and it’s never going to go back to those joyous days when I could turn on a broadcasting station +not be prepared to be intruded on.
      I must consider issues other people take for granted for their sake and mine. People need privacy for basic intimacy in all relationships.
      (Platonic or not) It’s fundamental for basic trust vs. mistrust. That’s necessary for healthy mental living.
      Living without privacy is cruel and once was unusual punishment. Today it’s life in America.

    • backwardsevolution
      July 28, 2018 at 4:20 pm

      John Chuckman – that was excellent! I agree with all of it. Thank you for posting it.

    • Iron Felix
      July 28, 2018 at 7:03 pm

      They speculate about what Putin has on Trump, but the US Deep State has been monitoring the digital traffic of the world for decades, and must have the dirt on EVERYONE, including all public officials of the US.

    • Paul Easton
      July 29, 2018 at 9:53 pm

      Money has power but Truth has more. The Truth will out.

    • Peg Wilson
      July 29, 2018 at 11:19 pm

      “…American political system reduced to hollow shell” (effect on our Constitution?)–this hollow shell replaced by what? A revelation of the true puppet master(s) of the world? To me, it seems political systems, emperors, standing armies, central banks are merely tools of world domination.

  17. just average human
    July 28, 2018 at 12:36 am

    Bravo, Annie! We with you!!! Kick them in the butt! :D

  18. mike k
    July 27, 2018 at 7:50 pm

    Privacy is a form of secrecy, and as such has both positive and negative possibilities. The dark side of privacy is the hiding of criminals, our government, the CIA. Etc. You could say that the amount of secrecy in a society is one measure of it’s health or illness. In a world based on widespread caring for each other, secrecy becomes rarely necessary. But in a world based on selfishness, greed, and willingness to be violent – hiding becomes self preservation and a tool for exploiting others undetected. Loving mutual concern allows defenses to relax. We should work towards such a world – or else the escalating distrust, lying, and paranoia will end by destroying us all.

    • July 28, 2018 at 11:51 am

      Your comment is nonsense because it proceeds from a false equivalence, privacy is not a form of secrecy. Anyone who reflected seriously upon your proposition for a few moments would see that. Privacy is a distinct sphere carved out by a society’s laws to provide respite from the intrusion of the state. As such, privacy is at work often within ostensibly public spaces. One has the right to believe the state is keeping its side of the bargain and not, for example, tracking what books one peruses at a library, or keeping track on whom one visits/speaks to. Technology, however, has proved irresistible to states of every stripe, so that the so-called liberal democracies now routinely intrude into the lives of their citizens and collect and store vast quantities of data, to be mined at their discretion and exploited as they wish. As such, privacy now exists chiefly as a concept, and has indeed been referred to as a quaint relic, an anachronism, by US spymasters. Instead, privacy now has to be carved out through counter-measures, such as encryption technologies, or physical methods as Annie notes. That is all.

      • Sam F
        July 28, 2018 at 2:00 pm

        Mike did not equate privacy with secrecy; he said that it a form (subset) of secrecy. Then he makes it clear that personal privacy would not be a concern in a decent society, one that does not conceal its wrongs with secrecy.

      • Sam F
        July 28, 2018 at 2:01 pm

        Mike did not equate privacy with secrecy; he said that it is a form (subset) of secrecy. Then he clarifies that personal privacy would not be a concern in a decent society, one that does not conceal its wrongs with secrecy.

        • July 29, 2018 at 1:22 am

          Privacy is neither an equivalent nor a subset of secrecy.

          • witters
            July 29, 2018 at 10:46 pm

            “Privacy is neither an equivalent nor a subset of secrecy.” Indeed.

            “Excuse me, I’m going to the bathroom to have a piss.” Here I seek privacy, not – obviously – secrecy. To equate the former with the latter is the essence of totalitarianism. And that essence is there with Mike and Sam.

          • anon
            July 30, 2018 at 7:33 am

            Nonsense, Witters, no one made such an equation.
            Do not set up straw men so that you may have an opponent.

  19. Jeff Harrison
    July 27, 2018 at 6:07 pm

    Let me say this about that (in my best Nixonian). If you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide is pure unalloyed Bullshit. The simplest of examples is that I can take a piss in private but if I take a piss in public (in the US anyway), I’ll get arrested. The dividing line between public life which is regulated by the state and private life which is not, has moved a lot over the years. Indeed, there is an excellent series entitled, A History of Private Life, in six volumes that traces Private life from Roman times to the 20th century. It’s actually very fascinating. Zuckerberg & Co notwithstanding, the public/private life line hasn’t really changed much, all that’s happened is that some people are able to illegitimately penetrate the curtain that separates the two. Slowly, the state is beginning to realize that it has the responsibility to enforce the separation between public and private.

    • July 29, 2018 at 9:34 am

      Moreover, if you take a piss in a car park – hands up who hasn’t – you will not just get arrested. If they are after you they will charge you with a trumped up sexual offence, like exposing yourself in a public place, or suchlike.

  20. Sally Snyder
    July 27, 2018 at 5:39 pm

    Here is an interesting look at how WiFi can be used to actually track every keystroke that an individual makes:

    https://viableopposition.blogspot.ca/2017/07/wifi-and-keystroke-recognition.html

    It is only a matter of time before this technology is widely used by the world’s intelligence networks, prying even further into what little remains of our privacy.

Comments are closed.