Hewitt and Harman v. the UK

This is an interesting case from a while back. concerning Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman.

“In 1985, evidence emerged that MI5 (also known as the Security Service) was systematically infringing the applicants’ rights under the [Euro Human Rights] Convention when a former officer of MI5, Ms Cathy Massiter, made certain allegations to this effect on a television program. According to Ms Massiter, the applicants had been classified as subversive and as communist sympathizers, and these grave libels were published within MI5 and were available for publication to other agencies with whom MI5 had a relationship. Their files recorded details of passport applications, data from surveillance by local police, Special Branch and by special agents, and references to them or by them on telephone intercepts picked up under warrants issued in relation to other persons. Such intercepts, in the second applicant’s case, were likely to include confidential conversations which she, as a practising solicitor, had had with certain of her clients. The first applicant’s file included information about her personal relationship with a former member of the Communist Party. Surveillance of both applicants was continued after they had left the National Council for Civil Liberties on the basis that they were both candidates for elected office.

“On 19 May 1986, the applicants lodged an application with the European Commission of Human Rights against the United Kingdom government alleging breaches of their right to privacy (Article 8), their right to freedom of expression (Article 10), their right to freedom of association (Article 11) and their right to an effective remedy (Article 13) in respect of the violations arising from the nature and consequences of the surveillance to which they had been subjected by MI5. The application was declared admissible on 12 May 1988.

“In its Report dated 9 May 1989 the Commission concluded by a majority that given the existence of practices in the United Kingdom permitting secret surveillance and given further the reasonable likelihood that the applicants were the subjects of surveillance the compilation and retention by the Security Service of information concerning the private lives of the applicants constituted an infringement of their right to privacy under Article 8 (1) of the Convention. The Commission further concluded that the domestic law of the United Kingdom contained neither legal rules formulated with sufficient precision nor a framework indicating with the requisite degree of certainty the scope and manner of the exercise of discretion by the Security Service in the carrying out of secret surveillance activities to render interference “in accordance with the law” within Article 8 (2). Finally the Commission concluded that since no information was forthcoming in relation to how the United Kingdom had chosen to provide an effective remedy under its domestic law that the applicants did not have an effective remedy as required by Article 13.”

There’s some interesting detail therein about the workings of the Security Service, e.g.,

“The procedure for opening a file is strictly controlled. It may start as a temporary file, which has a maximum life of three years, when there is uncertainty whether the criteria for opening a permanent file are satisfied. These criteria have their basis in the Service’s functions and require high standards of accuracy. If and when these criteria are satisfied, the permanent file will be opened. The Service then applies a system of colour coding which controls how files are used. Once a file is opened, there is a period coded “green:, during which inquiries may be made about the subject. The length of the green period varies according to the reason why the particular file was made. It may be extended as a result of the receipt of new information. At the end of the green period it changes to “amber”, under which inquiries are prohibited, but any relevant information that the Service receives about the subject may be added to the file. After the designated amber period the file is coded “red”. During this period, inquiries continue to be prohibited and any addition of substantive information is also prohibited. Finally, after a period of red coding, the file is microfilmed. The hard copy is destroyed and the entry for the file in the Service’s central index is transferred from the Live Index to the Research Index. The Research Index is usually consulted only when it is thought that old files may exist which are relevant to current work. In practice the volume of check against the Research Index is small: for instance, it is not consulted in vetting checks.”

GCHQ’s director’s Turing speech – a research team manual?

Just read the (4 Oct 2012) speech about Alan Turing, given by Iain Lobban, Director GCHQ, at the University of Leeds.

Fantastic stuff in there. Here are some excerpts.

On learning to solve problems

“… [Turing] reported to Bletchley Park as agreed and immediately started working with [Dilly] Knox [expert on the Enigma cypher …]. Knox’s influence on Turing at this time is immense. The older veteran cryptanalyst shared everything he knew about Enigma with Turing, who eventually used this knowledge to write the first four chapters of his treatise on Enigma […]

“…[Turing] was happy to learn from Dilly Knox, happy to use that knowledge as the foundation for what he would develop subsequently, and was diligent in recording what he had learned and how he developed that into new areas so that others could profit from his knowledge just as he had profited from that of Knox.”

Knox could only take Turing so far and his quest for experience-based understanding of the cryptanalysis of Enigma took Turing to France in January 1940…”

Team work

There are lots of different ways in which people can work as part of a team.  Turing’s way was to take in other people’s ideas, develop and build on them, and then pass the product on to other people to be the foundation for the next stage.  He took the idea of electromechanical processing of Enigma messages from the Poles but developed their idea into something radically different.  When Welchman later enhanced the Bombe with his diagonal board, Turing was among the first to congratulate him on this major improvement.  Turing was part of the team, and shared in the success of the team.”

Respecting diversity

“I strongly believe a Sigint agency needs the widest range of skills possible if it is to be successful, and to deny itself talent just because the person with the talent doesn’t conform to a social stereotype is to starve itself of what it needs to thrive.”

“I don’t want to pretend that GCHQ was an organisation with twenty-first century values in the twentieth century, but it was at the most tolerant end of the cultural spectrum.  In an organisation which valued the skills and characteristics that difference can bring, Turing’s homosexuality was less of a talking point than his insights into the complex crypt problems of the day.  When he was put on trial, Hugh Alexander, the Head of Cryptanalysis at GCHQ went, with official approval, to speak as a character witness on his behalf, saying in court that Turing was a national asset.”

Exploiting serendipity

“Geoffrey Tandy was posted to Bletchley by the Admiralty in a spirit of helpfulness: his posting officer had understood him to be an expert in cryptograms, a word still used in the Admiralty at that time to mean messages signalled in code.  In fact he was an expert in cryptogams: non-flowering plants like ferns, mosses and seaweeds.  But while this knowledge might not have appeared to be of much use, Tandy became expert in German naval Enigma and because of his work on seaweed was able to provide unique advice on the preservation of cryptologic documents rescued from the sea.”

The role of management

“Part of my job is to continue to foster that atmosphere: to attract the very best people and harness their talents, and not allow preconceptions and stereotypes to stifle innovation and agility.”

Datamining to catch terrorists

Apparently it wouldn’t work, say the following groups of the US National Academies:

in this book: Protecting Individual Privacy in the Struggle Against Terrorists: A Framework for Assessment.

[via The Register]

Buried news

What ever happened to Alex Allan—former head of the JIC who on July 3rd was found in his apartment unconscious and covered in blood? The last news reports about Allan around July 10th noted that there were “positive signs of recovery” (BBC News, July 10) after he had been in a coma for 10 days, and that there was no sign of foul play (Daily Mail Online, July 11). Whitehall sources suggested that he had contracted pnuemonia, however (Telegraph, July  6):

Dr Keith Prowse, chairman of the British Lung Foundation, said: “If it’s pneumonia it is likely to be secondary to something else. And a significant quantity of blood is more likely to come from the gut than the chest.”

Also the Telegraph reported that:

Government sources suggest Mr Allan was “too high profile” to be a target for foreign intelligence agencies but others have suggested this is exactly what could make him vulnerable.

There could be many innocent explanations, but the silence is very odd.

On eco-toffs and spies

According to IndyMedia, an employee of C2i International tried to infiltrate Plane Stupid, a direct action group opposed to aviation. (See also this Times article.) I love the comment here:

I recognise him – he’s often hanging out in bars in Fulham pretending to be important.

He recently tried to chat up one of my girlfriends. When she asked him what job he did, he said ‘security – but I can’t say anything more, it’s all hush hush if you know what I mean’ But two minutes later he was telling me that he had been ‘working undercover’ and he had been ‘infiltrating an extremist group that posed a threat to national security’.

True/false who knows. (Note also Ian Bone‘s amusing take on eco-toffs.)

Wow, Mark Thomas has been spied on by one of his friends, the whole operation organised by Evelyn Le Chêne (described in the Times as a “grandmother from Gravesend”).

Turns out that councils can spy on you, e.g., to check whether you’re lying about where you live to get your kids into a better school. Check out, e.g., this BBC News article — especially the video footage of the council guy where he’s very careful not to describe the issue as one of better/worse schools, and the guy from Liberty who only just about manages to avoid screaming “CAN’T YOU SEE THIS IS COMPLETELY CRAZY?”. The Guardian lists some examples of notes taken by the council spies:

“female and three children enter target vehicle and drive off”

“curtains open and all lights on in premises”

Worrying, yes?

Katharine Gun

Interesting elaboration of the story over at New Statesman.

The Lords discussion around the time of the discontinuation of the case is helpful for picking up the context (over at Hansard). I found this intriguing, from Lord Wright of Richmond:

“I believe I am right in recording that following the Ponting case a counsellor was appointed to help individuals in the intelligence and security agencies—I think I am right in remembering that that included GCHQ but it may not have done—faced with crises of conscience about intelligence matters. Can the noble and learned Lord tell us whether that post still exists; whether the counsellor was used in this case; and whether Mrs Gun consulted him? If not, I suggest that the existence of a counsellor, if he is still in post, is brought to the attention of all employees in the security and intelligence agencies.”

Not sure what this counsellor does. Is the idea that you go with a crisis of conscience and they give you a dose of CBT to cure it?

SIS and Harrods

Some great stuff in the transcripts for “Miss X”‘s testimony on the information SIS keeps on people, how it’s stored, who has access, etc. Okay, it’s not terribly revealing. But my favourite bit:


2 Q. Was there any trace of SIS having sources or contacts or
3 others employed at Harrods?
4 A. No, there were not.
5 Q. I think you did have a number of hits.
6 A. Yes, I did, in relation to gift hampers.
7 Q. Yes. I suppose we can infer then that SIS bought
8 hampers from Harrods.
9 A. Where people had purchased Harrods gift hampers, yes.
10 Q. I do not know if that will give comfort to Mr Al Fayed
11 or not.

Update. Others here:

The phrase “economic well-being”

Appears all over British government documents, e.g. the Intelligence Services Bill.

I found an interesting quote on a parliament web page:

There is the provision for action—the tasking of our intelligence agencies—in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom. Those who have followed these matters know that that is a well-worn provision. It is in existing legislation, and is provided for in the European Convention on Human Rights. It sometimes causes puzzlement as to what it can mean.

“Examples of where it might be useful are where there is instability in a part of the world where substantial British economic interests were at stake, or where there was a crisis or a huge difficulty about the continued supply of a commodity on which our economy depended.

“The House will notice that the Bill restricts the activities of the SIS and GCHQ for safeguarding the economic well-being of the country to the acts or intentions of persons outside the United Kingdom. […]

The examples that Douglas Hurd gave are clear. One is coded speak for oil—

the continued supply of a commodity on which our economy depended.

Craig Murray on the intelligence services

Over here.  Key bits:

  • “There are some very right wing people in the security services. It is essential for our democracy that they are not allowed to interfere with our lawmakers.”
  •  “Commentators are generally puzzled by the government’s refusal to make bugging material admissible as evidence in court, and tend to take the view that this is a last vestige of liberalism. […]  In fact this is the opposite. Bugging material is in fact used in court, sanitised as ‘intelligence’, and given in tiny out of context clips to judges in camera to justify continued detention without trial or control orders. […] The defence and the ‘suspect’ are not shown the “intelligence” or even given any hint what they are supposed to have done.”
  • “… The same is true, incidentally, of the so-called liquid bomb plotters, some of whom were also bugged for over a year, revealing no plot to bomb up airplanes. Not helpful to have all that in court if you are trying to hype the terrorist threat.”