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Spy machines, encryption and whistleblowers

 
Digital activist and journalist Peter Kofod has dedicated his life to information transparency and protecting our right to privacy.

The Iraq War was a pivotal moment for writer and activist Peter Kofod. He was a university student at the time and was uneasy about the justification given for entering the war – that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

He ended up in Baghdad in 2003 to participate in a human shield exercise whose goal was to disrupt the bombing and invasion of the country. While there, he witnessed first hand how the mainstream media were distorting the facts on the ground.

The next year, Danish military intelligence officer Frank Grevil released documents in which the intelligence agency FE concluded that there was little evidence to suggest Saddam Hussein actually possessed WMDs. Kofod supported Grevil throughout the ensuing court case, which saw Grevil prosecuted, sentenced and finally imprisoned for four months for releasing the documents.

The events inspired Kofod to support whistleblowers. He has since become one of Denmark’s most well-known activists in the field, and was even the first Dane to interview NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. He is a board member of the whistleblower support organization Veron and a writer for left-wing paper Arbejderen and online news media Den Fri.

His reputation as a reporter and digital activist is now bearing fruit.  More than 70 Danes combine to donate over 5000 kroner a month to Kofod to support his work.

We talked to Kofod about why he has dedicated his life to information transparency and protecting our right to privacy.

You have done extensive work on information transparency, but why is it so important and do you think people are paying enough attention to the issue?

No, I don’t think people are paying enough attention, but I also don’t want to be too negative. A lot more attention has been given to the issue by the general population and the media following Edward Snowden and his revelations.

When I give talks on information transparency I often tell this anecdote from 2004 during the Grevil case.

We had invited Daniel Ellsberg, an American whistleblower, to Denmark and I was trying to get the media to cover it. I managed to get in touch with an editor-in-chief of one the bigger newspapers and he connected me to a music journalist. He thought that a whistleblower was someone who played the flute.

But now I’m giving talks in journalism schools on how to encrypt data and protect sources. This is a major change: I’m used to screaming about how crap the media is. It’s fun to be teaching and part of the system I have spent my career criticising.

In this age of mass surveillance, do you think it has become more important for journalists to protect their sources?

Firstly you have to figure out who you are interviewing. If, for example, you’re writing about sports, nothing has changed there. But if your adversary is a government or even a big corporation, it can be really difficult to protect your sources. All email, chat and other digital communications are being spied on and hoovered up en masse.

So it is important to select what information you want to share. This is the change that has happened. Twenty years ago, if someone wanted to get hold of your data, they would have to physically access it. Now it can be done completely remotely.

It’s even more important to be vigilant, because as the computing power of security agencies increases, the cost of adding more people to their spy machines approaches zero. As soon as the spy machine is up and running, we are already inside it.

But happily, my colleagues and I have been invited to become part of the curriculum in two of the four journalism schools to teach data protection.

How have governments and the judicial system changed to deal with developments in information protection?

There have been small changes to the laws, but those kinds of changes are not the most important. The real change will have to take place through technology. Data encryption needs to be the default setting. There has been some progress here. For example, Apple has started to encrypt its internal message service, but elsewhere it is not happening fast enough.

Average consumers also need to start demanding that their data is encrypted. There are some user-friendly and open source programs out there, such as apps from https://whispersystems.org/, which easily allow people to encrypt between iPhones and smartphones. Once consumers are exposed to these, they might start demanding more encryption generally.

But can’t surveillance serve a positive purpose?

It is important to remember that the point is not to make all surveillance impossible. Some of it, such as spying on terrorists to prevent an attack, is positive. But surveillance should only be performed after a warrant has been issued by a judge, and not through mass surveillance that affects everybody.

If just a small percentage of people switch over to encrypted data, it would effectively make mass surveillance too expensive. It’s essentially free for intelligence services to add people who don’t encrypt their data into their spying machine. But it gets far more expensive if they encrypt their data, as the intelligence services have to pay to hack them.

So by encrypting our data we can force agencies to prioritise who they are performing surveillance of.

Do you have any tips for our readers about how to protect their data?

Most people have smartphones these days, and for those I highly recommend everything from Open Whisper System. On iPhones it is available as Signal and RedPhone and TextSecure for Android users.

These are extremely easy apps to use as they just replace your normal text messaging app. If both partners have the app installed then the data is fully encrypted. That is how it should be, just like with your online bank. It’s also not too difficult to encrypt emails and emails and computers, though installing the software can be a little tricky. But if you’re interested, a group of privacy activists host so-called “cryptoparties” at Cafe Retro on the last Sunday of each month, where nice friendly geeks help you get set up. M

 

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By Elias Thorsson

Managing editor. @Eliasthorsson elias@murmur.dk

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