Friday, October 31, 2014

The extent of this surveillance

Cross-posted at lookatthestateofthat and evilwednesday. Seems to fit with both.

Zoe Williams writes in The Guardian

The first compensation award, of £425,000, has been made to Jacqui, one of the women impregnated in the mid-90s by a police officer pretending to be an activist. She said last year that it felt as though she had been raped by the state

Jacqui says:

“Did he report every contraction back to the police? What use was that for information purposes? That is a moment so intimate, and I shared it with a ghost.”

She said that she felt as though she’d been raped by the state and I can see her point.  Presumably the police officer, Bob Lambert, reported with some regularity to his superiors who saw nothing wrong in beginning and maintaining this relationship through to and beyond childbirth.  As Williams says:

The language doesn’t exist to describe this crime, and that consigns us to imperfect analogies: it is an invasion beyond privacy and beyond sex, into a person’s destiny, holding them hostage forever to the love of a child conceived as the byproduct of state reconnoitre.

How would you feel if your partner – with whom you share a life and a child – turned out to be leading another life, too?  Not ‘just’ something relatively commonplace like an affair but a completely different life, such as having another family with someone else or having lied about their job?  It’s hard to imagine. But to know that the deception was sanctioned and maybe even encouraged by the state in order to catch some criminals who didn’t exist in the first place is a whole new level of unreality. It must be massively dehumanising; the feeling of being used – of being thought of as a tiny cog in a large and futile game – must be devastating. I don’t know what feelings, if any, Lambert had for Jacqui.  But she doesn’t either. All she knows is that the police didn’t. The state that sanctioned their activities didn’t.  She was unwittingly used: and used as part of a surveillance system aimed at the people and ideals she cared most about.The £425k compensation seems meagre at best.

Williams points out something I hadn’t considered:

The impact on Bob Lambert, the police officer, cannot be ignored. His life has been completely denatured by this duplicity. Surveillance, like torture, brutalises the agent as much as it violates the victim

Well, perhaps, but I’m struggling to summon any sympathy. He didn’t have to form a romantic relationship with Jacqui. He sure as shit didn’t have to father her child. He didn’t have to form any kind of intimate relationship – sexual or otherwise with her – in order to do his job. And he didn’t have to do that job.  I feel safe in my assumption that either he thought his actions were justified or even correct, or that he didn’t care whether they were or not.  And he certainly got off lighter than Jacqui in any case.

[…] at some point, it must have been obvious that this woman was not a threat to the state. One day, using average human judgment, of a woman he knew inside out, Lambert must have known that Jacqui was not a terrorist but rather a person of radical views. The thing we will never know is how long after that penny had dropped he continued to spy on her. One year? Three? Five?

I don’t know whether the ‘investigation’ was about Jacqui or her circle of friends and contacts.  But the point is important either way.  How much time, effort and money are the police prepared to spend in investigating a lead that’s leading nowhere? And how many lives are they prepared to ruin in the process?

When, for that matter, did MI5 realise that Eric Hobsbawm had no intention of defecting to Russia, and was simply agitating for radical left possibilities within UK politics? When did it realise that Christopher Hill was not intending to restart the English civil war, with a mind to recreating a Leveller revolution three centuries later? These two men were academics and communists, and last week it emerged that they were trailed by security services for more than three decades. The extent of this surveillance is still considered too incendiary to be released fully into the public domain, with sections still redacted.

Williams suggests two explanations. The first is that – to the police and state – the possession of radical views is tantamount to a crime in itself.  I think that’s almost true.  I think it’s a case of the means justifying the means: circular logic being let out to run riot.  Unlike youths in a town local to me: police are “clamping down” on large gangs of youths gathering in public parks on the grounds that – in their view – no good can come of it. It’s unfortunate for the police that the officer issuing threats against youths and their parents that cannot be legally enforced is called Inspector Button. Aaaaawwww. Anyway, large groups are bound to contain a bad apple and they’re all so close together! If we watch a large group long enough, a crime is certain to occur eventually and we can justify our intolerance of crowds! I’m not sure that the state (at least this state) thinks that activists are automatically evil, but that some of them are likely to be and that catching one justifies enormous taxpayer expense (that’s enormous expense, not necessarily an enormous taxpayer) and the devastation of innocent people’s lives.

I agree more closely with Williams’ second explanation:

Once you start spying on somebody, it is incredibly difficult to stop

This seems about right. We humans love nothing more than to throw money after bad. It’s the basis of the Gambler’s Ruin. We’ve spent so much without results that someone – and it might be me – is going to get in trouble. So we show progress in ever finer detail but rarely have the guts to call it quits. I’ve done it in various roles as an academic, a software engineer, a project manager and a human being. But in addition to that, Williams suggests that the police and other authorities just really love spying on people and don’t want to stop. I think that’s true too. I mean both spying in general and spying on individuals.

Once you’ve started, the piece of evidence that comprehensively proves innocence doesn’t exist. All that exists is absence, the lack of definitive proof of guilt. One more push might be all it takes.

Yes. This is true regardless of whether authorities view dissent itself as guilt. As I said, some people think that the means justifies the means. The means exist in anticipation of an end but they don’t seem to rely on one. Hence surveillance in the wider context, too.

Williams writes a lot of nonsense about Russell Brand, for some reason. He hasn’t been “monstered” as she suggests. He’s been told off in the papers because of his immature and ill-considered views, but has been lionised in about equal measure. He hasn’t been vanished or curtailed, he’s been granted podia at which to air his views regardless of never having earned it by, for instance, actually having something to say. Let’s not consider him someone who’s been demonised because of his off-centre beliefs. If anything, the opposite is true.

But I liked some of the things Williams said that were not about Russell Brand.  Every time we allow our government to spy on us a little bit more… Well, you know the rest.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Credit fraud as a tactic of domestic abuse

One of the problems faced by victims of domestic abuse is that they lack the finances to leave their abusive partner.  In many cases, the abuser sabotages their partner’s career.  Ophelia reports on this, quoting Lucy Green:

There are a number of ways an abuser can prevent a victim from holding a job. He may cause physical injuries to her face or body, so that she’s embarrassed to go to work. He may keep her from getting enough sleep, or show up at the workplace and harass the victim, disrupting her duties. He may refuse to provide child care, forcing the woman to stay home with the kids, or he might not allow the victim to have a car, depriving her of reliable transportation.

There’s a particular kind of terror in this type of abuse. Imagine knowing that your partner’s actions are aimed at blocking every chance you have to escape a their abuse.  Imagine seeing your options disappearing one by one. It’s a distressing thought and disturbingly common.  As Green notes, abusers are prepared to go to more chilling lengths still:

Another tactic that is becoming more common is identity fraud. The abuser may take out a credit card account in the victim’s name and pile up debt, destroying her credit rating.

So there’s no way for the victim to regain control of her finances.  No way for her to escape a lifetime of abuse.  Not even a way for her to have any sort of life outside the abuse.  I can only imagine the sense of helplessness. 

And yet there’s no shortage of helpful men lining up to ask women why they don’t just leave their abusers.

Ophelia again, quoting herself this time:

Dominance. Such a deep need for dominance. So destructive.

Destructive is right. These abusers are destroying people.

Monday, October 20, 2014

A reply to Michael Nugent’s extraordinarily long post about why I am wrong

In response to this masterpiece:

I said on Twitter that Michael Nugent defends rapists. I didn’t say he defends rape.  I said that he defends (some) people who are rapists, I meant something fairly specific by this: Michael Nugent continues to provide a safe haven for people who perpetuate rape culture. People who trivialise rape. People who use the threat of rape as an instrument for silencing women. People who vociferously claim that sex with someone whose judgment is impaired by alcohol or youth is not rape. Nugent does not condemn people who espouse such opinions in the comments on his blog. He equivocates, pretending this means he isn’t taking a position.

I expect Nugent despises some or all of these opinions. But he doesn’t condemn them. This is not an issue on which one can be apolitical. Refusing to comment or pick a side; refusing to condemn hateful comments; calling for the abused to engage in dialog with their abusers… These are political statements and failure to condemn them is tacit endorsement of a deeply unfair and horrible status quo.  This is what I mean when I say that Michael Nugent defends rapists. It’s what I always meant. I stand by it. I didn’t apologise for that and I don’t apologise for it now.

I’ll get to what I did apologise for later, First, I’ll address a tiny portion of Nugent’s ~3000 words of self-indulgent claptrap.

I’ll begin by saying that nothing I said was in any way representative of anything PZ Myers said, Michael can’t understand this. He used his conversation with me - and his misunderstanding of what I was apologising for - in an attempt to somehow shame PZ into apologising for something he said. We don’t speak for each other and my apology for one thing shouldn’t be seen as a reason for PZ to apologise for something else.

Latsot, a pseudonymous occasional guest blogger at FreeThought Blogs, has withdrawn and apologised for their repeated allegation that I defend rapists, saying that they had intended to convey something else.

I didn’t say that I intended to convey something else. See above for what I intended to convey. See below for what I apologised for.

This might be a positive first step in trying to reverse the demonisation of some atheists by PZ Myers and others, which has resulted in increasingly serious allegations being casually made as if they were an acceptable part of normal discourse.

Michael, you may not use an apology I made to imply a change in stance of anyone other than me.  As you’ll see, you shouldn’t use it to imply a change in my stance, either. If you think other people are making serious allegations against you, take it up with them. It has nothing to do with me and what I say has nothing to do with them.

There’s a long part of Michael's post where he quotes some things I said interspersed with calls to “[some time later]” in which he removes things that were said, for some reason. The reason certainly can’t be edits for brevity. He says it’s difficult to reconstruct Twitter conversations into a linear thread. He’s right. Others might call it cherry picking but I’m more generous.

This part ends with me explaining my point, which was the point I was making all along:

Because the point is a little more subtle than you’ll admit. Being complicit in rape culture is making a haven for rapists. I think you are defending people who happen (probably) to be rapists. If that sounds like I’m backtracking, I’m not. I think – and no doubt I could have been clearer – that you defend the actions of people who either rape or apologise for rape when you dismiss evidence of rape and when you encourage people who do the same. I think that it is a moral imperative to take a stand on this issue and hyperskepticism is at best a cop out. This is what I’ve been trying to say. Most of the time I’ve been replying to what other people have said, so the message will be fragmented at best. I hope this is a little clearer.

I daresay Michael didn’t see much of my earlier conversation with others and indeed believed that this was a new argument. But as you can see, I made it clear that this is what I meant all along, even if I was unclear earlier even though the discussion spanned several conversations, not all of which Michael was necessarily privy to. I thought this would clear the matter up. I wasn’t making the simplistic and wrong claim that Michael advocates rape and I told him so.

But this wasn’t good enough for Michael. He was only concerned with trying to intimidate me into withdrawing statements he misinterpreted in the first place. 

I did withdraw them. Not because I was intimidated but because I didn’t mean what he continued to think and claim that I meant.  In that sense, it was a not-pology: sorry you thought that’s what I what I said. Sorry if I came across that way.  But what I said stands. 

Michael, I didn’t apologise for what you seem to think I apologised for.  I apologised for being unclear. I don’t think I implied that you endorse rape but if I did, I’m sorry. But what I didn’t apologise for still stands.

Then Michael included a conversation we had about his cat. It was dying and I felt sorry for it and for Michael. I still do. I’m appalled that he included this exchange in his post. It had nothing to do with what we were talking about and he presumably only included it to make me seem contrite for whatever it is he mistakenly thinks I apologised for.

The second part of Michaels post was about what he considers my ‘new’ argument. Which was actually what I was saying all along. I’ll skip the passive-aggressive parts where possible (it’s not easy):

I will now address your rephrased intended allegation, which is not that I defend rapists, but that in your opinion, my actions seem to perpetuate rape culture and are very problematic.

This allegation is vague and impossible to respond to in its current format.

I daresay that a statement made in chunks of 140 characters was indeed vague.  I’d have thought the appropriate response would be to seek clarification rather than to write a long blog post about what you assumed I was saying.  But as we’ll all see, I apparently don’t know what I’m talking about.

I will assume that it is related to your previous opinions that I don’t take a stand against rape culture, that I clearly don’t understand how much rape hurts people, that I dismiss evidence of rape, that I have defended someone you strongly suspect is a rapist, and that I am defending people who happen (probably) to be rapists.

I said those things. There’s quite a lot of context missing, but I stand by them. Let’s get to Michael’s measured response:

To put them in perspective, the most common advice that I am getting from people who actually know me, including women and including rape victims and including lifelong social justice activists, is that I am out of my mind to be even giving you the credibility of responding to you.

Some of my best friends….

Michael, it’s an astounding piece of arrogance to think your responding to me somehow lends me credibility. Authority is not a very good basis for an argument.

Seriously, Latsot, I really have to emphasise this. You have no idea how bizarre your allegations seem to people who actually know me, who actively campaign for social justice, and who do not share the particular worldview that has shaped your public allegations about me.

I’m sure that many of my opinions seem bizarre to people who don’t share them. I’ve been told that my opinion that women ought to be treated with respect are bizarre. I’ve been bewilderingly called racist and threatened with death for celebrating Christmas while being atheist. I’ve been threatened with death for suggesting that the terms ’Muslim’ and ‘Islamist’ referred to different sorts of people. None of these opinions make any sense at all. What was your point again?

I’ll start with your general opinion that I don’t take a stand against rape culture.

You provide a long quote, which is pretty reasonable. But you’ve also stressed (which seems at odds with what you’ve said here) that allegations of rape ought to be handled by the police with the clear implication that if the victim didn’t go to the police, the credibility of the argument is reduced.

Firstly, you say that I clearly don’t understand how much rape hurts people. The only response I will give to that is that you don’t know what you are talking about.

A brilliant argument.  Of course, that statement of mine was not made out of the blue but as part of an ongoing argument with someone who wasn’t you. But why listen to me?  Apparently I don’t know what I’m talking about. And you know what? I’ve never been raped. I know people who have been, but I certainly don’t understand how much rape can hurt people.

Secondly, you say that I dismiss evidence of rape. Actually, I don’t dismiss evidence of rape. I take evidence of rape very seriously.

Providing evidence is defined the way you choose. You seem to wilfully make the mistake that evidence of rape is necessarily how a police force would reckon it. If so, which police force? One in Ireland? In England? In Pakistan?  Credibility of a rape allegation is not increased by reporting it to the authorities. Evidence of a rape is not more credible if authorities endorse it or less so if they dismiss it. Evidence is still evidence outside a police investigation or court of law.


See above. I don’t think my suspicions are more important than due process and I have never said so.  We’re not talking about convicting anyone here, we’re talking about whether we believe a rape happened.  I strongly expect it did, but I have no case to bring to court. I don’t think anyone should be imprisoned without appropriate due process but I wouldn’t want to leave a vulnerable person alone with someone I suspected of being a predator.  This point has been made to you many times: there are different standards of evidence for different situations. Like many others, you choose to hide behind legal definitions when nobody has even suggested invoking a legal system. I find that stance sickening and you should be ashamed of yourself for holding it.

Who are these people?

Example: people who have sex with others who are impaired by alcohol. That’s rape.  Lots of people commenting at your place have argued otherwise and claimed to have had sex with people with impaired judgement. Those people are rapists. In any case, it’s not up to me to tell the police. It’s not my decision.  But I certainly don’t have to tolerate those people or their views in a space I own and police.  I consider such tolerance tacit endorsement.

Latsot’s withdrawal and apology is a positive first step in trying to reverse the demonisation of some atheists by PZ Myers and others, which has resulted in increasingly serious allegations being casually made as if they were an acceptable part of normal discourse.

I hope you now understand that I didn’t apologise for what you thought I apologised for.  I didn’t mean to suggest that you endorse rape and I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear about that. But I still wholeheartedly think that you provide something of a safe haven for rapists and misogynists; that you insist on sometimes inappropriate standards of evidence regarding the credibility of rape allegations; and especially that you are determined above all to tell everyone else how they should think.

What PZ chooses to say and do has absolutely nothing to do with me and vice versa.  Stroppily using our argument as a bat to hit him with is rather pathetic. Not quite as pathetic as using our conversation about your poorly cat to make me appear humbled and contrite, though.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Do I look like a terrorist?

Confirmed bellend Richard Littlejohn writes things on the Daily Mail, for some reason. That’s already a bad beginning but needless to say it gets worse.

It begins charmingly:

As the old whore complained: ‘It’s not the sex, it’s the stairs.’ Same goes for air travel. It’s not the flight, it’s all the aggravation that goes with it.

I’m not sure he thought this analogy through. Aggravation as stairs, I get. But he seems to cast air travel as (presumably unwanted and laborious) sex and himself as the aging prostitute.  I doubt this is what he was trying to say.

He’s complaining about his bag being searched when he flew to Glasgow last weekend.

I’ve written before about middle-aged Howards and Hildas being given the third degree at airports while women in burkas and young men of Asian descent are waved through security — so terrified are the authorities of being accused of ‘profiling’.

What else could Littlejohn be saying other than he’s white, middle-aged and middle-class so couldn’t possibly be a threat, unlike those shifty-looking brown people in funny clothes?  He claims he was stopped because the plastic bag containing his fluids (I mean his shaving cream and so on, not his bodily fluids, presumably) was slightly too big.  I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt about that*, although I don’t really buy it.

Much of Littlejohn’s article is about the security theatre in airports, and I’ll get back to that. But the rest is high-grade, refined, starship-fuel grade racism. First, he establishes why he can’t possibly pose a threat to aircraft:

We were forced to wait while my miniature can of shaving gel was whisked away for an anti-explosives swab and the assistant filled in a special form, noting time and action taken.

While all this was going on, I was chatting away merrily to a supervisor who’d recognised me and wanted a natter about something he’d read in my column.

Clearly he knew perfectly well that neither my wife nor I were terrorists or had any intention of blowing up the Glasgow shuttle. So what was the point of holding us up?

I think the answer to that question is pretty clear. The security staff recognised him and wanted to give him – him personally – the hardest time they possibly could. I certainly would. Who wouldn’t? But he slaps his prejudices on the slab for all to see, so let’s poke at it gingerly with a stick and a horrified expression. It’s clear that he thinks he’s above suspicion. He’s not brown and his clothes are normal instead of funny so how could he possibly be a threat to a plane? I’ll come back to this, too.

Hundreds of wannabe jihadists seem to have had no difficulty passing through British airports en route to joining IS in Syria.

Even if there were hundreds of emigrating jihadists, what does Littlejohn propose? They’d be unlikely to carry explosives or to have any intention of blowing up a plane, so what would be the point of searching them? If they were going to blow up a plane, they’d need to have explosives. Where did they get them?  And why would they target flights to Syria? Surely that would be counter-productive if the supposed mass exodus of jihadists to Syria is to be facilitated. Littlejohn is proposing either searching of muslim-looking people for no reason or their prior surveillance, also for no reason.  Apparently just so he – who is clearly above suspicion – doesn’t have to go through the mild inconvenience of having his bag searched.  No matter that the ‘shoe bomber’ was white. And the ‘white widow’. And the ‘unabomber’. There are many threats to air travel. Excluding brown people from travel will not eliminate those threats.

The most recent [‘wannabe jihadist’] was a 15-year-old Somalian girl from Bristol, travelling via Turkey unaccompanied by an adult. Didn’t that ring any alarm bells?

I don’t know why it should. There are reasons to go to Syria other than jihad. Littlejohn doesn’t know whether or not she was treated with suspicion and her luggage searched, just like his was. If it was – as in his case – they didn’t find anything. So what reason would anyone have to stop her travelling? Littlejohn doesn’t seem to mind non-Somalians with the same travel plans. Not that Yusra Hussien is from Somalia, of course, she’s from Bristol. And nobody knows whether she travelled for the purposes of jihad. Perhaps she did, but preventing brown people from travelling is hardly going to help.

Wouldn’t all this money be better spent targeting them, instead of wasting time and effort treating respectable, middle-class Middle Englanders as potential shoe bombers?

By “them”, Littlejohn is referring to people who have travelled with false passports. Of course, no respectable, middle-class Middle Englander could be worthy of suspicion. I’m an entirely disrespectful lower-class northerner. Is there a Littlejohn Scale of Trustworthiness? I’d be interested to know how I scored.

And at this rate it can only be a matter of time before the aviation security ‘experts’ work out that the only way to guarantee our ‘safety’ is simply to abolish air travel altogether?

Well yes. That’s exactly what a security expert would say. Bruce Schneier has said exactly that and if he’s not a security expert I don’t know who is.  Security is always about trade-off. It’s easy and convenient to use the same password for everything but it’s roaringly insecure.  It’s easy and convenient to allow the public to visit public spaces, but one of them might have a gun or a bomb. The Internet and other telecommunications set us free, but they also chain us.

The only way to secure air travel entirely is to prevent it altogether. We’re not going to do that. But Littlejohn’s assertion is that there’s nothing to be gained from airport security theatre.  I agree to some extent.

There’s no denying that the security theatre at airports is mostly that. The vast majority of fluids on planes will not explode them. Most people just want to get to wherever they wish to be. Hardly anyone has exploding shoes. But that doesn’t mean there are no threats, risks or attacks. A threat is a potential vulnerability. A risk is a judgement about how seriously to regard a threat and how much – money, effort, fear, whatever – to spend on it. Attacks are attempts to exploit threats in order to make assets vulnerable. Assets are things that can be hurt. They might be data, objects, people or systems.

There’s also no denying that there are threats relating to air travel. There are assets with vulnerabilities which might be attacked. So our job is to understand the risks and to deploy countermeasures that result in some sort of security of those assets.

It would be nice to think that actual real-world countermeasures make threats benign and thereby protect our assets, but it doesn’t work that way for about a thousand reasons.  For example: if a neighbour’s burglar alarm goes off once, you’ll probably look out the window to see what’s up. If it goes off all day every day for a month, you’re likely to crash through the the neighbour’s house and rip the fucking thing off their wall with your teeth. Does any of this have any bearing on the risk of burglary?

A big part of security is about finding out what it is you want to protect and what you want to do with those things. Part of that involves recognising who is  the attacker and how they mean to attack. Sometimes the attackers we consider aren’t real, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth considering the attack. But sometimes attacks aren’t real and we have to wonder whether preventing them is worth the cost. The 9/11 attacks were certainly real and committed by people who want to hurt us. Littlejohn is right to suppose that confiscating our liquids and our tweezers will do nothing for plane security. But theatre has it’s place. It makes people feel safer even if they’re not.  It’s vital that people keep using air travel services even if the security surrounding them doesn’t make us safer. Placebos work even though they’re not medicine, even for people who know placebos are placebos. Security theatre might be worthwhile in some ways even though it’s bullshit; even though it doesn’t increase security.

In the case of security theatre at airports, I think it does have a place ,more good for airports and the air travel industry than it does for passengers. I think the bodies who need to do or be seen to do something are not always those in a position to do it. I think that many, many players are involved in airline security have conflicting agenda and that if they sat down at a table to decide how to secure airlines, they’d only be able to agree on stupid, trivial measures like taking away your tweesers and complaining that you have too much shaving cream.

Littlejohn’s complaint isn’t valid on any level. The security trade-off isn’t about the people he fears because they look and dress different to he. It’s about corporations and government together making travel difficult for various reasons. Or internet access. Or freedom of speech. Or access to information. Depending on where you are. The proper response to authoritarian bullshit isn’t to demand that minorities are prevented from travel or other freedoms and majorities are not. The correct response is to disobey. To protest. To disobey and protest even if – and especially because – you are not a minority,

Littlejohn is an idiot and he writes stupid shit. But his shit splatters a lot of people who never wanted to have to wipe it off.


* I flew from Newcastle to London to Amsterdam to New York to Chicago not long after 9/11. I got all the way to New York before security decided my deodorant was unacceptable for air travel. As the guard was confiscating it, I noticed a sign behind her saying that it was perfectly acceptable to carry a gun on the plane providing you inform the crew before you board.