Wednesday, 4 December 2013



The OECD has just released the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores for 2012 ( and as is to be expected England languished down in 26th place. This caused some debate on FaceBook, reactions ranging from the usual ‘hang Groves’ to the ‘well, all Asians are automata who’ve never had an original thought in their head’ rationalisations.

I’ve always been of the opinion that in a meritocracy (even a would-be one like the UK) the primary aim of the government should be to provide kids with the very best education possible in order that he or she can fulfil all their potential. And I don’t subscribe to this simply for altruistic motives: I’ve always believed that the better we educate our kids today, the wealthier we all will be tomorrow.

A neat, logical idea, but one which I’ve never stopped to prove.

So I got to thinking that a better educated population will produced more good ideas and as these ideas are often protected by patents it seemed logical (that word again!) to me that as a country’s education improved so too would the pace at which it filed patents. Fortunately thanks to the US Patent and Trademark Office ( it’s one that’s pretty easy to check.

I looked to see if the PISA rankings correlated with the increase in patent filings 2012 vs 1999. I had to do a little shuffling around: Macau which appears as number 6 on the PISA list is lumped in with China for patent purposes and I eliminated Lichtenstein, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Poland, Estonia and Vietnam because they file so few patents that one either way skews things horribly. I also included the USA even tho' it came 34th on the PISA list. So this is the 22-country list (post amendments) I came up with:
COUNTRY                    PISA   RANK       PATENT RANK

CHINA                                   1                              1

SINGAPORE                        2                              2

HONG KONG                      3                              9

TAIWAN                               4                              5

SOUTH KOREA                   5                              3

JAPAN                                  6                              13

SWITZERLAND                   7                              17

NETHERLANDS                  8                              14

FINLAND                              9                              12

CANADA                              10                           10

BELGIUM                              12                           20

GERMANY                           13                           15

AUSTRIA                              14                           8

AUSTRALIA                         15                           7

IRELAND                              16                           4

DENMARK                           18                           11

NEW ZEALAND                  19                           6

FRANCE                               20                          18

ENGLAND                            21                           16

USA                                       22                           21

There seems to me to be a good correlation at the top and the bottom of my 22-Country table (i.e. the better educated countries do well and the poorly educated countries do badly) though the Antipodes and Ireland seem to do much better with regards to filing patents than I would have expected. Unfortunately what this also tell me (if patents today = jam tomorrow) is that England’s woes aren’t going to get better any time soon.

Monday, 18 November 2013


Interesting piece from a Demi-Mode reader, Claire Loughran …

Recognising Psychological Conditions in Literature

There are a great many novels and works of literature which deal with psychological conditions. Many modern works, such as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Girl, Interrupted and The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time are attempts to interpret and document psychological conditions suffered by the characters. In these instances, the psychological conditions are among the chief concerns of the piece and the novels are excellent means of understanding characters who are somewhat defined by the conditions which they bare. But what of other characters? Many of the greatest heroes and villains have possess some hint of a psychological condition; it is often what makes them so compelling. More often than not, a subtle facet of character can be an introduction into a psychological condition which is only ever examined in the subtext. Whilst these novels rarely focus on the psychological conditions of the characters, every characterisation and subtlety goes another step towards creating and sustaining a real and functioning personality. So what are some examples of psychological conditions throughout literature?

The First Case

Psychological conditions in literary characters can be traced back all the way to the very first stories and myths. As such, it was these myths which first gave many of the psychological conditions their names. When proposing theories, Sigmund Freud would often use literary characters as a reference point. Freud’s Oedipus and Electra complexes both stem from traits recognises in people which bore some similarity to traits shared by characters in classic Greek mythology. As psychoanalysis was first becoming a formalised medical practice, it was the characters themselves which leant their names to the numerous conditions. In order to define and explain complex psychological conditions, doctors used literary characters as explanative tools; their conditions were thought to be pre-existing and universal as such that the characters themselves could come to define the conditions. Freud’s Oedipus complex is perhaps as famous as the story of Oedipus itself, and to some extent, the relationship which many readers have with the character is viewed through the eyes of psychoanalysis. Whether the theory itself is correct is irrelevant – the theory has had an impact on the manner in which Oedipus as a character is read and understood, and the character of Oedipus now carries a greater cultural baggage.

Infiltration and Understanding

Psychological conditions have existed for as long as the concept of the self, but it was only at the turn of the twentieth century that we began to document, name and investigate these numerous conditions. Once the conditions themselves had names and could be organised away into neat little character holes, they began to emerge in recognisable personality traits in many of the great 20th century characters. Yossarian, of Catch 22, and Holden Caulfield, of Catcher in the Rye, both exhibit notable traits of one of the most scarring of psychological conditions: post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD can emerge in many different contexts and as the result of any number of incidents; learning how to deal with PTSD can be incredibly difficult. What sets these characters apart is the subtlety in which it is woven into the makeup of the personalities. In many respects, both Yossarian and Holden are avatars of 20th century life: Yossarian is a reflection of the horrors and idiocy of war, while Holden is one of the first major examples (however tragic) of that invention of the 1960s, the teenager. That both have experienced tragedies in their past is a key aspect of their character, and the traits of psychological scarring are often made apparent. Throughout both Catch 22 and Catcher in the Rye, we witness the subtleties of psychological conditions make themselves apparent without ever being truly and explicitly mentioned.

An Addictive Plot Device

It is dystopian fiction, however, that has perhaps best incorporated psychological conditions into the framework of literary fiction. William Gibson’s famed novel Neuromancer features a character driven by addiction. Case, the chief protagonist, is a man hindered by addiction. As well as being a drug addict, former hacker Case finds himself cut off from his ability to access the global cyberspace network. Not only is his drug addiction driving him to commit foolish acts, but his addiction to the cyberspace network - and the information and freedom it provides – becomes a compelling character motivation. Gibson uses addiction not only as an understandable aspect of a flawed protagonist, but uses the audiences engendered knowledge of the psychological issues behind addiction in order to drive the plot forwards. Similarly, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World features a society built on the pillars of chemical addiction. Huxley examines and incorporates a great many psychological conditions into the novel, but one of the major plot points centres around an addiction to the hallucinogen Soma. Rather than a single character suffering from addiction, Huxley proposes an entire society suffering, their brave new world built on the back of a synthesised chemical reaction. The society’s addiction, their psychological condition, is one of the key concerns which must be overcome if they are ever to escape the dystopian future. Rather than a single character afflicted by addiction, Huxley allows psychological conditions – and the audience’s understanding of their perils – to be the platform for his social commentary.

What Does it all Mean?

Many novels are written about characters struggling to come to terms with psychological afflictions. But such is the diaspora and dissemination of public awareness when it comes to mental health, we are able to recognise psychological traits in character for whom mental health is not necessarily their driving force. While all character are built on the back of personality and individuality, it is now possible for the audience to recognise - and to some extent diagnose – certain conditions within the world of fiction. Thanks to the heightened public awareness, these facets of characters, and the manner in which an audience will understand and comprehend them, is another tool at the author’s disposal.

Sunday, 17 November 2013



An interesting article in this week’s The Economist’s entitled ‘Ubiquitous Cameras’ ( which discussed the implications of the widespread use of Google’s Glass headset.

Google Glass Explorer Edition.jpeg

Google Glass is a wearable computer with an optical head-mounted display which can also take pictures.

Now most of the debate about Glass has centred around ‘oh, won’t it be terrible all these Glass-equipped people going around taking surreptitious photographs of us and invading out privacy’ this countered by the inevitable, ‘if people don’t want their business archived in a photo, don’t do guilty things in public’.

To me what Glass exemplifies is the increasingly rapid miniaturisation of surveillance equipment and the thought that in a few short years it won’t just be photographs the Glass-of-the-future is taking but videos (and probably constant-stream videos at that, then we’ll all be ‘life loggers’). And once this is teamed up with facial recognition we will truly be in a PanOpticon society, where everyone will be able to see what we were doing at any moment in our public life.

The result will be a radical change in how we disport ourselves in public. Since the Rialto police in the USA began using body cameras to record incidents in February 2012 public complaints against police officers fell a staggering 88% and the use of force by officers by 60%. Body cameras, it seems, incentivise people to conduct themselves in a more civilised manner … nobody wants to see themselves looking and acting like a total prick on YouTube.

But (and I think it’s a pretty big but) what this will provoke is a massive experiment in social re-engineering with people being obliged to act in a more censured way. They will know they are being watched and will act accordingly. A good thing, you might suggest, but the upshot will be that life, I suspect, will become even more boring than it is today.

As Jenni-Fur says in Invent-10n:

I am fed up enduring the claustrophobic, cossetted tyranny of the nice.

Fuck nice.




Agent Elli and the Tricky Language that is Russian

(Part 2)


There are four important points to note about the manner in which Gouzenko came to learn about Agent Elli: one, Gouzenko and Luibimov would have been speaking in Russian; two, in all probability their command of English would have been basic at best (certainly Gouzenko’s was); three, these conversations took place at night when people are tired (and maybe even a little drunk?); and four, I suspect in a beleaguered and blacked-out Moscow the lighting in their office (candles? oil-lamps?) would have been inadequate. The upshot is that this is the ideal environment for mistakes to be made.

So what did Gouzenko learn about Agent Elli during these night time chats? Well, I guess the most basic is that the Agent’s codename was ‘Elli’. Everyone has assumed that Gouzenko got this right: unfortunately I don’t think Gouzenko (or Black) did!

In 1942 when they were discussing ‘Elli’, Gouzenko and Liubimov would have been speaking in Russian and when he came to be debriefed by the Canadian authorities three years later it is highly likely that Gouzenko would have used the same Russian pronunciation for the name he saw on Liubimov’s decrypts, Элли. In fact this is the Cyrillic rendering of the English word ‘Ally’ but as Gouzenko’s English was poor he wouldn’t have known the word and would have pronounced it phonetically as Elli. This mistake was not picked up by Black and is one which created a lot of subsequent confusion.

Professor Christopher Andrew in his authorised history of MI5 (The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5) states that that ‘El’ is the Russian pronunciation of the letter ‘L’ (correct) and hence that ELLI in Russian translates as the plural of the English letter ‘L’. I am reliably informed by a native-speaking Russian linguist that this is ‘nonsense’: no Russian would ever refer to double-L as Elli. Moreover, I doubt the Soviets would have been so stupid as to give such an important agent a code-name made up of his initials. Unfortunately Professor Andrew uses this ‘ELLI = Russian double-L’ hypothesis to corroborate his contention that Leo Long (who I’ll return to later) is the real identity of Agent Elli. Understandable I suppose: without this supporting ‘evidence’ the Leo Long surmise seems somewhat threadbare.

Of course, my Agent Ally hypothesis might be wrong and there are other possibilities. If, for instance, the decrypts shown to Gouzenko by Liubimov had been handwritten – a strong possibility given that most of the documents Gouzenko took with him when he defected were handwritten, making them difficult to decipher – and remembering that this was taking place at night in an ill-lit room it could be that the agent’s name wasn’t Elli (Элли ) but the similar-looking Eppi (Эппи). The one other possibility (the one my own Agent Elli refers to in ‘Faktion’) is that Elli was simply a shortened form of ‘Elijah’!

However I am as confident as anyone can be the Agent Elli was actually Agent Ally, a very apt cryptonym for someone as highly placed and as committed to socialist revolution as this spy.

This ‘Agent Ally’ contention is reinforced by there being two Agent Ellis.

Elli is recognised in Russian as being a woman’s name and, interestingly, the codename ‘Elli’ (sometimes rendered as ‘Ellie’) had already been assigned to one of the Soviet’s female spies in Canada. Gouzenko identified two agents called Elli, the first of whom turned out to be a woman, Elli (or Ellie) being the cryptonym of Kathleen Willsher, who worked as a confidential secretary to the British High Commissioner in Canada, Malcolm MacDonald (Willsher was subsequently identified and arrested). That the Soviets used the same code name of two agents (one a man and one a woman) has generally been dismissed as ‘just one of those things’, but I don’t think it was: the names weren’t the same. There was an Agent Ellie (female) and an Agent Ally (male). Different names but rendered in exactly the same way in Russian.

The final piece of mal-translation confusing the search for Agent Elli is the phrase used by Gouzenko: ‘ou nego shto-to Russkoe’ which Black translated as ‘having something of the Russian about him’. This has been used to suggest that Agent Elli had Russian antecedents, but in fact the phrase is so vague as to be almost meaningless and should have prompted Black to ask for clarification. Unfortunately he didn’t. Nelli’s translation would have been the much more general ‘had a Russian connection’.

The journalist Chapman Pincher presents a coherent set of arguments when he suggests that Elli is Roger Hollis – Hollis worked for MI5 from 1939, eventually becoming Director-General in 1956 (see Pincher’s Treachery: Betrayals, Blunders, and Cover-ups: Six Decades of Espionage Against America and Great Britain for details). Pincher refers to the ‘ou nego shto-to Russkoe’ description of Elli and suggests that it indicates that Elli had pre-Revolutionary connections with Russia (Nelli disputes this: in her opinion the phrase is so ambiguous as to invite several, equally plausible, interpretations). Apparently the Hollis family is able to trace its lineage back to Peter the Great. The difficulty here is that Hollis’s Russian antecedents were tenuous to say the least and I am doubtful they would have stimulated gossip in the GRU’s Moscow headquarters.

But my biggest problem with the ‘Hollis is Elli’ hypothesis is that Hollis would have been too junior in the period running up to 1942 (when Gouzenko first heard of Elli) to be regarded as the Soviets’ most important intelligence asset in Britain.

These pieces of mis-translation and mis-interpretation have confused the hunt for Agent Elli with none of the proposed candidates quite fitting the description provided by Gouzenko: that he was a man; a committed Marxist; recruited by the GRU not the NKVD; had a strong Russian connection; had, from early 1942, access to Britain’s most sensitive of secrets; and was ready and willing and able to provide the USSR with these secrets. A man who truly warrants the cryptonym Agent Ally.

There’s only one man who fits the bill …



Agent Elli and the Tricky Language that is Russian

(Part 1)

‘Faktion’, my alternate-history story set in a very different world of 1947, went out to publishers last week. It uses as a backstory the search by MI5 for the various ‘moles’ that the Soviets had infiltrated into the British establishment and it was while I was doing my background research I became fascinated by the mysterious Soviet agent, Agent Elli whose information was of such importance that his messages were hand-delivered to Stalin immediately they were received in Moscow. To add to the intrigue the identity of Agent Elli has never been definitively established, the two leading candidates being Leo Long (proposed by Professor Christopher Andrew) and Roger Hollis (proposed by journalist Chapman Pincher). Despite the efforts of various historians and journalists the question, ‘who was Agent Elli’ remains hotly debated to this day.

‘Faktion’ delivers my own, somewhat left-field, verdict on who was Agent Elli much of my surmising turning, as does the plot of ‘Faktion’, on the difficulties faced when information is translated/interpreted from Russian into English. This is based on my own experiences living and working in Russia: really good translators are rare as hen’s teeth and most have a real reluctance to raise their hand when they don’t understand what they were being asked to translate. This caused no end of muddles though I was lucky to always have Nelli by my side who is a fanatic for accuracy (and a highly qualified linguistic to boot).

Virtually all our knowledge regarding Agent Elli comes from the testimony of Igor Gouzenko, a 26-year old cipher clerk who was posted to Canada in June 1943 to work in the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa. In September 1945 Gouzenko gave himself up to the Canadians rather than be shipped back to the USSR bringing with him a collection of files and code books and an insider’s knowledge of the extent of the Soviet Union’s espionage efforts in Canada, the USA and in Britain. Such was the brouhaha caused by Gouzenko’s revelations (especially regarding Soviet Intelligence’s penetration of the Manhattan Project) that he is often cited as the man responsible for initiating the Cold War.

Given how important he is to the story of Agent Elli it is perhaps worth spending a moment considering just what sort of a man Gouzenko was (for this I mostly reference Gouzenko’s biography This Was My Choice). He was born in the village of Rogachov, ‘not far distant from Moscow’. His father was killed soon after his birth (in 1919) fighting in the civil war raging in Russia at that time (for which side he was fighting remains tantalisingly unclear). His mother, a teacher, seems to have been a woman of some influence because she managed to move herself and her family to Moscow (moving towns in the Soviet Union was a considerable feat which would have required the pulling of any number of strings), Gouzenko entering the prestigious school named in honour of Maxim Gorky and from there going to study at the Moscow Architectural Institute. Whilst Gouzenko claims that his family had no blat – influence – I doubt this is the case: his mother’s move to Moscow and the quality of the schools where Gouzenko studied give the lie to that. This is confirmed by his being transferred to the Kuibyshev Military Engineering Academy in Moscow where he trained as a cipher clerk in Intelligence Administration run by the GRU, a very cushy, a very safe and a very well-paid job. Although ranked merely as a lieutenant his salary was an astonishingly high 1,200 roubles (in 1940 the average salary of an engineer was R696 and a worker R324).

By his own account Gouzenko was a dedicated student, a diligent officer, a loyal Communist and a devoted husband to his wife, Anna. He does, though, seem partial to a drink noting in his book that ‘I never allowed an opportunity for obtaining vodka or wine to pass’ though whether he was the alcoholic claimed by John Cairncross I couldn’t confirm. As a cipher clerk most of his work seems to have been on telegrams from and to Germany and Switzerland (again, given that Germany was invading Russia at that time, this was a prestigious appointment).

In June 1943 (the pivotal time in the fighting on the Eastern Front) he was transferred to the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, Canada. That Gouzenko had precious little English (he describes himself as having only a ‘fair foundation in the language’) this seems an unusual appointment, and being such a plumb (and very safe!) posting again smacks of prodigious amounts of blat.

Gouzenko quickly became enamoured of life in Canada and when he was advised that he was to be transferred back to Moscow decided to defect which he and his family did on 5th September, 1945, being taken into custody by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. (En passant, I have my suspicions regarding Gouzenko and his motives for defecting. This man wasn’t what he appeared. I just wonder …)

So the Gouzenko who defected was young, of junior rank (he was still just a lieutenant) and possessed of pretty shaky English (despite twenty years of living in Canada, during the CBC television interview of March, 1966 Gouzenko still answered questions in heavily accented English). The upshot is that all of Gouzenko’s interviews with the RCMP had to be made using an interpreter, which, I believe, accounts for some of the problems historians have had in recent years. The interpreter the RCMP used was Special Constable Mervyn Black and, as with Gouzenko, it's worth taking a closer look at Black. According to Gregory S. Kealey who has made a study of the RCMP's Security Bulletins Black was born on 31st May 1890 in Petrograd (now St Petersburg) to Scottish parents, his father being Managing Director of the D.N. Lebedeff jute mill. After being schooled in Belfast, Dundee and London, Black returned to Russia in 1914 as manager of the Riga Textile factory. He left Russia in 1921finally coming to rest in Canada where he farmed in Saskatchewan until 1932.
This doesn't seem to have been a successful endeavour because in 1933 he joined the RCMP as a civilian translator though his duties also included him working as an undercover agent spying on Communist agitators ... again not very successfully. As Black is reported to have said: 'My connections with the working class of various countries have been very close and intimate but always from the standpoint of the employer, not as a fellow worker on the same step of the social ladder'. Thus Black's background and feelings apparently deprived him of the ability to make a successful secret agent. Mervyn Black was obviously something of a snob who probably regarded his having to work as a translator (and as an agent rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi) as somewhat beneath him. He certainly railed about never being commissioned into the uniformed branch of the RCMP (apparently his age was against him) so I have the suspicion that Black was an embittered man.
So we have a translator who although )probably) fluent in Russian is not a native speaker nor a linguist and whose snobbishness might have prevented him admitting he didn't understand what Gouzenko was saying. This is especially the case given that Black must have recognised the opportunity Gouzenko presented him with to impress his superiors.
My suspicions regarding the difficulties Black faced in accurately interpreting what Gouzenko said when he was being debriefed by the RCMP are reinforced by a letter written by RCMP Inspector George McClellan and dated 11 October, 1945 which notes: ‘I would like to point out that under the living conditions in Rexall (Camp X) at the moment, Black (the interpreter) laboured under much difficulty in obtaining the statement already submitted herewith … this is due to the fact that Corby (Gouzenko’s codename) has somewhat of the dreamer mentality and it is extremely difficult to pin him down to the business at hand’ (Amy Knight: ‘How the Cold War Began’).

Amongst the revelations Gouzenko made during these somewhat tortuous debriefings was that there was a Soviet agent – codenamed Elli – operating in Britain. Gouzenko had learned of Elli’s existence when chatting with a fellow cipher clerk called Liubimov during the night-shift at GRU headquarters in Moscow in 1942. Apparently Liubimov even went so far as to show him deciphered messages relating to Elli.

(En passant, it should be noted that there has been some suggestion that Gouzenko fabricated the existence of Agent Elli simply to enhance his importance to the Canadians. I doubt this. On 24 November, 1945, the Soviet Commissar for State Security, Vsevolod Merkulov, sent a personal message to Stalin and Beria confirming that Gouzenko had betrayed the existence of the GRU agent inside British intelligence, Elli. The inescapable conclusion is that what Gouzenko said was fact.)

Monday, 11 November 2013



In reading the ‘Comments’ made following the report of the BBC on the public interrogation of Britain’s three spy chiefs on 7 November ( I was struck by how many times the adage ‘you’ve nothing to worry about surveillance if you’re not doing anything wrong’ was brandished in defence of what the British Security Services are doing.

The problem with this argument is that ‘wrong’ is a very mutable concept which is apt to change – often quite radically – over a surprisingly short period of time. Considering that the last SUCCESSFUL prosecution for blasphemy was in 1977 (just thirty-six years ago!) tells me that the (relatively) liberal country we live in is a recent construct. Fifty years ago it was a crime to bad-mouth God or to be a practicing homosexual, and the law (and much of society) was unconcerned about those who penalised or persecuted others for being black or female.  Fifty years ago what was considered ‘wrong’ was profoundly different from what we consider ‘wrong’ today.

'Wrong' is an ever moving target. What is perceived to be ‘wrong’ today may not be ‘wrong’ tomorrow.

And how quickly the mood and sensibilities of a country can change is, I would suggest, illustrated by the growth of the ultra-conservative Tea Party movement in the USA and the emergent of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece. These exemplify how quickly the political and moral outlook of a country can alter (especially as a result of economic set-backs). To my mind this is what makes the collection and storage of so much information by our Security Services (and by other organisations) so worrying.

Let us say that for some unknown reason Britain in twenty years makes a sudden shift to the right or the left and a new, more draconian ethos takes hold when homosexuality is seen as a bad thing or that Jews were once again branded as untermenschen. Then it would be a relatively simple task for our Security Services to access their databases and identify those who had bought Gay Times or Diva, or to make a search for those who had attended a synagogue.

THAT is what makes the collection and storage of surveillance information so troubling: not how it IS being used but how it MIGHT be used. It is not the present we should be worrying about but the future and that is why the debate about what is collected by GCHQ, how long it is stored and how it is managed is so important.

Sunday, 10 November 2013


The recent appearance of the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ on television has centred everyone’s attention on the scope and the dangers of State surveillance, but what commentators have forgotten is that surveillance conducted by those not belonging to the Secret Service community is much more ubiquitous and, in many ways, much more disturbing.
And the reason for this is simple: we are willing participants in this Surrogate Surveillance.
Take, for instance, the loyalty card phenomenon. At first glance the reason why Tesco and all the other big stores provide loyalty cards is simply to reward those who shop regularly at their stores and by doing so to encourage them to keep coming back. But there is another reason why these stores are so keen on promoting their loyalty cards: the vast quantities of information they acquire about their customers enables them to profile them. A shopping cart reveals a great deal of information about you: whether you have children or live alone; whether you drink (and how much); whether you have a pet; how clean you are; whether you are environmentally conscious; and (from the papers you buy) what your political views are likely to be. All these data are stored (for how long?), analysed and used to develop a portrait of you useful in tailoring adverts directed at you. Bespoke promotion … you can see it on the side of your Facebook page.
Not that the stores are stopping there. The news that Tesco will be installing face-recognition equipment in its petrol stations ( is just the next step: Tesco aims to put faces to data. I’m guessing that soon we’ll be in a ‘Minority Report’ type world where adverts are tailor-made for each potential customer passing them by. Of course, it will also enable Tesco to refuse entry to known shop-lifters and serial-complainers but that’s by-the-by (unless you happen to have the misfortune to look like a shop-lifter!).
What is important about this development is the vast amount of data that Tesco have to store and process in order to make their face-recognition initiative work. This is just a STORE when all said and done, not GCHQ or the NSA.
Which brings me back to my central point. Around the country (and on-line, Amazon must be awash with data) there are hundreds of stores doing pretty much the same thing as Tesco and warehousing copious amounts of data. And these databases are supplemented by those holding the information hoovered up by official surveillance devices operated by the police and local authorities, and the information held by the Inland Revenue, local GPs, the rating authorities, the police, by the Congestion Charging centre in London, by the DVLA in Swansea and, of course, by the banks. Moreover if Tesco is using facial recognition you can bet your bottom dollar that the police and GCHQ are way ahead of them. Even the Inland Revenue is using Google Earth (
This is what I call Surrogate Surveillance.
The Snowden brouhaha focussed attention on how the internet and cell phone service providers co-operated (or didn’t co-operate, depending on who you believe) with the GCHQ/NSA to facilitate their tapping into our e-communications but what was forgotten was that there is this mass of Surrogate Surveillance data collected quite openly that could provide very interesting information about us. Nobody seems interested in it.
Nobody, I suspect, apart from GCHQ.
Now with all this data lying around neatly warehoused I would have thought it beyond belief that GCHQ wouldn’t be accessing it. After all it has been acquired quite legally (and often with the surveillee’s co-operation) so no one can criticise GCHQ for using it. Now I’ve never made a bomb but I suspect that the ingredients are pretty standard and need to be bought by any would-be bomber. Analysing data held in a store’s databases would reveal who was buying this stuff (presumably terrorists have credit cards) and hence who was worth MI5 taking a closer interest in.
Forget Tempora and worry about Surrogate Surveillance ...

Saturday, 9 November 2013


On Thursday  7th November I invested ninety minutes of my life watching the Intelligence and Security Committee grill (if that’s the word) the Heads of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 for the first time in public. Now I had no great hopes for this televised interrogation (any Committee that includes Hazel Blears has no right to use the word ‘Intelligence’ in its title) and it lived down to my low expectations. The three being interrogated (Andrew Parker of MI5; John Sawers of MI6 and Iain Lobban of GCHQ) were obviously well-rehearsed and had been provided with a selection of sound-bites to recite. Worse, the questions posed by the Committee were anodyne in the extreme.

The Independent 7th November, 2013
For example: there was no question as to why the existence of the Tempora system (which taps into the transatlantic fibre-optic cables) had been kept from the Committee; there was no question as to why GCHQ had to monitor e-communications in Germany; and there was no question regarding the extent of the monitoring of e-communications here in the UK. And there was most certainly no questioning of if (oh yeah) GCHQ co-operates with the NSA to circumvent UK law.
So pretty much a waste of time but there were some points of interest.

1. The body language of Iain Loggan (Head of GCHQ) was that of a man under EXTREME pressure. Not a poker player methinks: he was just one mass of twitches and tics.

The Times 8th November 2013

2.       Lobban used the analogy that GCHQ’s task was akin to finding a needle in a haystack. What he failed to mention was that to build the haystack ALL the hay (or e-communications in normal speak) has to be gathered. His claim that GDHQ does not spend its time listening to calls made by the majority of the British population is simultaneous accurate but evasive.

The Guardian 7th November 2013
3.       Andrew Parker’s admission that most of the terrorist threats MI5 have dealt with since 7/7 in 2005 had been domestically organised should have generated more interest from the Committee. Surely the corollary of this is that GCHQ’s would be directing more of their resources towards surveilling the UK and its citizens. None of the Committee seemed able to join up these dots.

4.       I can only hope the questioning during the Close-Door sessions  is more determined than what was seen today otherwise we’re in big trouble.

Thursday, 7 November 2013



I should begin with a confession: I loathe Russell Brand. Ever since his juvenile antics on Have I Got News For You a couple of years back I have made a point of avoiding him and anything in which he is involved.

However, by accident, I saw his Jeremy Paxman interview and had to admit to being impressed: he was articulate and, despite my natural antipathy towards the man, persuasive.  For those of you who missed the brouhaha caused by Brand’s comments check out the article he wrote for The Guardian (, but in a nutshell what Brand is saying that the current political system in Britain has failed, that our politicians are no longer representative of the people, that the rich are becoming distanced from and contemptuous of the poor and that as a protest people should no longer bother to vote.

Now I haven’t voted for some considerable time and the reason for this is simple. I look at the political parties and there’s barely a cigarette paper’s thickness with regards policies between them. I look at the parties and see that they are each led by men (and they’re all men) who have the same backgrounds (public school/OxBridge) and who are bland, anodyne and devoid of passion. I look at the parties and I see they are all enthral to the Establishment and to big business.

I can’t be bothered with any of them. By many people’s lights I have become apathetic and it took a conversation on FaceBook yesterday to make me stand back and rationalise this apathy.

All governments have to be legitimised and as best I can make out there are three main ways this is achieved. There’s the Divine Right or the Ordained by God tactic which seems to be making something of a comeback lately especially in the Muslim world. There’s the Fear Strategy, which involves terrorising a population into doing what they’re told to do. And then there’s the Democratic Method where the government rules at the behest of the majority of the people.

What we have in Britain is democracy flavoured with fear. Back in 1920, H.L.Mencken noted that: The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary. That is still the case today. We are deprived of having a meaningful debate about surveillance because of fear of terrorists and ‘National Security’ concerns (now that’s a threadbare blanket used to cover a multitude of sins!); we cannot effectively regulate the banks for fear they will transfer their operations to another company; we cannot control tax avoidance because those doing the avoiding have so much influence in government and our politicians are scared of them. The upshot is that our democracy is being distorted, skewed in favour of the rich and the powerful.

We need change … fundamental change. But because the political establishment is so entrenched causing such change is nigh-on impossible. Which is why Brand’s idea not to vote is such a good one. It isn’t apathy, it’s a BOYCOTT.

I’d call it Active Apathy. Its aim would be to de-legitimise the political status quo and by doing so provoke meaningful debate about political reform.

Now some of the comments I’ve read regarding Brand’s interview and opinions have been high-on hysterical (one guy in The Independent predicting fighting in the streets) whilst others have criticised Brand for failing to come up with an alternative to the present mess we’re in: both these are erroneous and both smack of the Establishment circling the wagons against change. Active Apathy wouldn’t involve violent revolution but rather stimulate a debate - an urgent and meaningful debate - about the sort of society Britain should be and what its priorities should be (my two-pennyworth:  scrap Trident and stop going to war for a start). We are in the Internet Age and surely it can be used to enfranchise everybody … and meaningful debate will provoke everybody into wanting to be enfranchised. We don’t need to know the answer to ‘what next’: that would evolve from the debate.

Sounds good to me. I endorse Active Apathy!

Wednesday, 6 November 2013



John Rhys-Davies (who played Gimli in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) once opined that:

‘Spying is like chess: sometimes you have to withdraw, sometimes you have to sacrifice one of your pieces to win – preferably a knight rather than a king or a queen.’

Unfortunately Rhys-Davies was wrong on two counts. The first is mechanistic: you can’t sacrifice your king in chess. But the second is more philosophical.

When you sit down to play chess you can see ALL the pieces – those belonging to yourself and those controlled by your opponent – and, moreover, you both know the rules governing the playing of the game. This was not the case in the topsy-turvy world of espionage. Here each side does its damnedest to hide its pieces from the opposition and the breaking of rules was not only expected but positively encouraged. Further, in espionage there is never only one opponent: a nation’s  enemies are numerous and even those who evince friendship might, if push comes to shove, reveal themselves as in league with the bad guys.

Espionage is a game of bluff and counter-bluff.

Thus espionage is more akin to poker than to chess with every player desperately trying to keep his opponents from having a peek at the cards he or she is holding.

Of course, as in real-life  poker, everyone is trying to get an advantage (fair or otherwise) and religiously searches their opponents for ‘tells’,  the signals regarding the strength or weakness of a player’s hand that are sent by the player’s body language or by changes to their physiological condition. How a player holds himself, how he stacks and plays with his chips, the way his hands move, his facial expressions   all these and many, many others can give clues as to the player’s state of mind and what their intention is vis à vis their hand.

I suspect that the reason why in the last twenty years we’ve seen such a blanding out of our politicians (in Britain, post-Thatcher, all the leaders of our political parties have been youngish, white, sport a full head of hair but no beards or moustaches, have an athletic frame, are neatly if conservatively dressed, have a family life of yawning conventionality and speak in a neutered, indeterminate accent. Only one deviated from that template, Brown, and look what happened to him!). The reason isn’t wholly to do with this being the ‘image’ of a leader opinion polls tell the party gurus will best secure victory in an election but also because it is indicative of a person who is willing to sublimate his personality to the political process  … a person who can maintain an impassive poker face.

But there is another aspect of poker playing which has a wider relevance to the espionage world-at-large: card counting. Card counters in poker keep a mental record of all the high and low valued cards played and this allows them to assess the probability of a high or low value card being played next (for anyone interested I recommend Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich).  

Surveillance is card counting writ large, the means by which espionage agencies seek to tip the cards in their favour. The problem is that to do this surveillance must be directed at ALL the players, friendly and unfriendly alike, because their actions are intertwined and what one player does influences what other players do and so on. Thus it is no surprise that America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ have been eavesdropping on the German government. Germany is a powerful nation and what it does has major international political and economic repercussions, therefore for Angela Merkel to say (following the disclosure that the NSA had accessed her ‘phone records) ‘Spying on friends is not on at all’ is breathtakingly naïve.

For her to say she didn’t know what was  going on is pure bullshit. Back in 1998 the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee commissioned a report which advised ‘The European Parliament should reject proposals from the United States for making private messages via the global communications network assessable to US intelligence agencies’. The report urged the NSA’s activities in Europe be scaled back or be made more transparent. They did neither, so for Merkel to pronounce ignorance is hokum.

The report also castigated Britain’s involvement in this snooping. Just as NSA and GCHQ have circumvented domestic controls by indulging in reciprocal surveillance in order that they can monitor (all?) their country’s citizens (‘Hi there GCHQ!) so they have done the same thing in Germany (and Spain and Italy …).

Methinks that Merkel’s outrage wasn’t triggered by moral indignation but rather by the thought that she wasn’t one of the Watchers but one of the Watched.

Welcome to the club, Angela. Maybe you should take up poker?

Tuesday, 5 November 2013



In researching my book Invent-10n it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t the surveillance side of State intervention in our lives – the employing of cameras and digital-communication intercepts to collect data about us – that we should be worried about but the use that is made of that data. And this, in turn, led me to the belief that there are now seven truisms regarding the surveillance-pervasive Britain of 2013.

Truism 1: We’re being watched.

Although statistics on the subject are difficult to pin down, the consensus seems to be that, by some margin, the British are the most watched people on the planet, with there being one CCTV camera for every fourteen of us (a conservative estimate, by the way). Now that’s an awful lot of surveillance and as none of these cameras are regulated, there is no information regarding the data they collect, for how long it’s held or who has access to it. The reality is that no matter where we are, we’re being watched.

What this also signals is how obsess the British authorities (be they police, security services or local councils) are with CCTV surveillance: they have become the most avaricious voyeurs in history. The British authorities like to watch.

Truism 2: Our e-communications are being monitored.

What commentators seem to have missed in the brouhaha following Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding GCHQ’s Tempora system – the hacking into the transatlantic fibre-optic cables by the British security services – was that Tempora is only one of the programs our spooks are developing to better access, store and analyse our e-communications. It seems to me naïve in the extreme to imagine that they – through some newly-discovered sense of fair-play and restraint – have been able to resist the temptation to create programs which are equally effective in tracking the calls you make on your cell-phone, in reading the e-mails you send and receive and in monitoring the social media comments you post. The assumption must be that all our e-communications have been (or soon will be) compromised.

The British authorities don’t just like to watch, they like to listen too.

Truism 3: Soon GCHQ will know us better than we know ourselves.

The aim of information gathering is prediction, to be able to identify the bad guys and to interdict them – Minority Report-style – before they create trouble. The only way to be able to do this is to have access to all personal data relating to everybody in the UK and to be able to manipulate it.

This nexus point – the time when the security services have the ability to collect, store, collate and analyse the tsunami of e-data produced on a daily basis – is fast approaching. The ever tumbling cost of data warehousing makes it financially and technically feasible to store the mass of information hoovered up daily by the plethora of cameras and e-survillance gizmos which GCHQ operates or to which it has access. This has been shadowed by the development of ever more sophisticated algorithms, the enormously complex decision trees used to solve breath-takingly difficult problems by breaking these problems down into a long string of binary choices. They operate much like the neurons powering our brain which is a good analogy given that they have become so damned sophisticated that they can now imitate thought processes.

Infinitely large data storage coupled with the use of unfeasibly powerful algorithms means that soon (a couple of years?) our security services will have a real-time 360⁰ portrait of each and every one of us. They will know what we did, who we interacted with, what we said, what we wrote: in short, they will know everything. All of these data will be poured over looking for patterns that might suggest we’re thinking of doing something of which the government doesn’t approve.

Truism 4: There’s nothing we can do to prevent the spread of surveillance.

Scott McNealy’s famous maxim ‘Privacy is dead; get over it’ becomes more pertinent by the day. The demands from the liberal press that ‘something must be done’ to curb the inclination of the security services to dig and delve into our lives are, ultimately, futile. Knowledge is power and politicians (the putative masters of the security services) are in the business of acquiring and wielding power. The upshot is that any ‘controls’ imposed will have only a temporary effect: as soon as the next 9/11 comes along that great get-out-of-jail-free card ‘National Security’ will be played and off we’ll go again. We will NEVER be able to put the surveillance genie back in the lamp.

The recent revelation that the Foreign Office is withholding over one million files which should have been made public under the Public Records Act demonstrates the arrogance of the powers-that-be when it comes to complying with the law.

Truism 5: It isn’t surveillance that is the problem, it’s the use made of the information collected by surveillance.

Okay, so trying to limit or curtail surveillance is a fatuous endeavour and one which is destined to fail. The problem is that the availability of this surveillance-collected information puts democracy at risk. This is what I call the ‘J. Edgar Hoover Syndrome’, where the power derived from having access to so much (often very sensitive) information has a corrupting effect on those accessing it. In an information-driven society it will be oh-so-easy to follow the declension that reads.

Yesterday the Government was serving you ...…

Today the Government is surveilling you ...

Tomorrow the Government will be controlling you.

As Paul Valéry said, ‘politics is the art of preventing people taking part in affairs which properly concern them’.

Truism 6: Forget about controlling surveillance, control the fruits of that surveillance.

So what is to be done?

We are told constantly that GCHQ’s surveillance systems are necessary to protect the British people from terrorists and others who wish to do us harm. The danger is, of course, that this purpose becomes blurred and that surveillance becomes a means of control and of social engineering. The total automation of surveillance will protect us from this sort of function creep.

We must remember that it is not the computers that threaten our freedoms, but the use made of that computer-harvested information by their human masters. Therefore, to protect ourselves, we must take the human element out of the surveillance matrix: we must use the computer to protect us from ourselves. The danger of surveillance is that the information it gathers can be used by an authoritarian-minded regime to subvert/subjugate a population. So it would be better, in my opinion, not only to automate the collection and storage of surveillance derived information – which is, broadly, where we are today – but also its analysis. The computers that drive the algorithms analysing this data must be divorced from the direction of the security services: the hunt for the bad guys must be made totally automatic.

Not as far-fetched as it might sound. Algorithms can be written which screen all the information collected by surveillance looking for connections and trends and then the system would act – automatically and independently of human intervention – to thwart any identified threats. Any attempt to use the information for a purpose other than protection of the British people from a terrorist threat would be rejected.

The J.Edgar Hoover Syndrome would be cured simply by ensuring that any would-be J.Edgars would be refused access to the information collected by surveillance by the computers controlling it.

Truism 7: Only when the human element is taken out of surveillance will we be safe from surveillance.


Back in 1977 Lord Denning upheld the deportation of Mark Hosenball who disclosed the existence of GCHQ – then a state secret, saying:

‘There is a conflict here between the interests of national security on the one hand and the freedom of the individual on the other. The balance between these two is not for a court of law. It is for the Home Secretary. He is the person entrusted by Parliament with the task. In some parts of the world national security has on occasions been used as an excuse for all sorts of infringements of individual liberty. But not in England.’

We need to change things such that Denning’s assertion is as valid today as it was forty-six years ago.