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Posts from the ‘surveillance’ Category


Just when you thought it was safe to go back to spying… Charles Cumming’s A Colder War

It hardly needs saying, but spying did not stop with the collapse of Communism. But if spying continued, it naturally follows that so did betrayal. The haunting question provoked by every betrayal is, “Why?” Perhaps it was easier to understand during the Cold War. The globe’s ideological map was drawn all too clearly. However flawed the enemy might be, believing in their ideological stance always made it forgiving those flaws much easier. But what about today? Read more »


Václav Havel’s 1978 warning to the West

I’m trying to understand power – what it means, how it’s wielded, how it affects us. Big topic. But I’m increasingly convinced that we can’t understand the culture of suspicion without grasping the power of power (and its abuses).

This has drawn me to someone who has been a bit of a hero, but whose writings I’d only dipped into. Reading Václav Havel‘s masterly and vital 1978 essay The Power of the Powerless has blown me away. Written in the dark days of Czechoslovak communism (only 10 years after the false dawn of the Prague Spring), it is a profound analysis of what it was like to live under a regime built entirely on lies. The only response, the only subversion of the regime, therefore, is to live in truth. Read more »


Q Conversations 3: Spy novelist Charles Cumming

He ate my toast and drank my beer. But that seemed sufficient to put him at his ease and get him talking (good cop routine). And it was a lot of fun. Charles Cumming has managed to craft a very successful career as a spy novelist out of the failure to enter SIS/MI6 after their initial approach. Read more »


Giving voice to the whistleblower: Le Carré on cracking form in A Delicate Truth

There’s a key moment when the oleaginous Foreign Office chameleon, Giles Oakley, goads his protegé and A Delicate Truth‘s protagonist, Toby Bell, about what he should do with his qualms about government policy in the run up to Iraq War.

You’re exactly what the Guardian needs: another lost voice bleating in the wilderness. If you don’t agree with government policy, don’t hang around trying to change it. Jump ship. Write the great novel you’re always dreaming about. (p51) Read more »


Friday Fun 41: Mitchell & Webb debunking conspiracy theories

Some readers will know that my current obsessions are conspiracies and suspicions. One of these days, these may coalesce into something substantial. But that feels a long way off at the moment. Ho hum. But for now, if you want some brilliant ripostes to those who suck up every conspiracy theory going, then my suggestions are twofold:

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As If These Walls Had Tears: Reflections on Berlin’s Holocaust memorial

Apparently there were only 19 hours of sunshine in Berlin between 1st January and 22nd March – a record low. Such absolute greyness is oppressive. But in recent weeks, there have also been huge snowfalls. The result is an eerily monochrome world. Not ideal for taking sightseers’ photographs. But somehow appropriate for a visit to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Read more »


Memories, Diaries and Surveillance Reports: Reflections on Garton Ash’s “The File”

So you think you can remember stuff? Sure we all have trouble remembering names and details – but most of the time, we assume we have an ability to grasp and retain the basic details of our own experiences. But as the great composer Shostakovich mournfully observed towards the end of his traumatic and tragic life, “memory slips through one’s fingers like sand.” It’s remarkable how certain we can become of inaccuracies and even complete fabrications. Read more »


Q’s Espionage Festival: 3. Soviet Spies, John Stott and fleeting encounters

This is a mildly unserious combination of Q’s Espionage festival and Friday Fun. But London W1 is a spy-historian’s paradise – there are so many spots around here that saw Cold War duty (and the KGB certainly knew their way around). For a start, the formal gardens of Regent’s Park were regular rendezvous points for Cambridge Spies Kim Philby and Donald Maclean with their KGB handlers. But there’s another couple of connections that are even closer to home. Read more »


The oppressive shadows of the Berlin Wall: Anna Funder’s Stasiland

The Berlin Wall has been gone for over 20 years. But its shadows haven’t.

People here talk of the Mauer im Kopf or the Wall in the Head. I thought this was just a shorthand way of referring to how Germans define themselves still as easterners and westerners. But I see now a more literal meaning: the Wall and what it stood for do still exist. The Wall persists in the Stasi men’s minds as something they hope might one day come again, and in their victims’ minds too, as a terrifying possibility. (p233)

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Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 26 (November 2010)

Credit: Flickr user Nick Russell

Sacred Treasure

Topical Treasure

Quirky Treasure


‘Quod scripsi, scripsi’ and the omniscience of Google

Earlier this week, I was speaking at a consultation of international seminary teachers (organised by Langham) about the educational potential provided by new technologies. We got onto blogging and its pros/cons – and especially how careful one needs to be about editing before posting. For everything uploaded gets downloaded by Google – and remains in perpetuity (or for as long as their data farms have power). That’s how they achieve such speedy searching.

What it means is that even if you delete a post or file from your blog, myspace or any other site, a record of it will remain somewhere out there. Hence the warnings about firms discovering the less than savoury antics of potential employees from their facebook pages. Publishing and broadcasting have, up until now, been the preserve of such a few, some would say elite, and the processes involved so complex and involved, that the potential for the man on the street to leave trivialities and embarrassments to posterity has been greatly restricted. (Still, it’s incredible how much triviality and embarrassment has been broadcast and published). The web has changed all that. Now, anyone can say anything to anyone ‘forever’. So be careful. Google really does ‘know everything’ (cartoon is from the ingenious and iconoclastic Wellington Grey).

“Quod scripsi, scripsi”

Pontius Pilate famously uttered these words (though he probably said them in Greek, not Vulgate latin as quoted here) ‘What I have written, I have written‘ in response to the request from chief priests to remove the sign on Jesus’ cross declaring him to be ‘The King of the Jews’ (in John 19:21-22). Of course, his was the rather dismissive, and perhaps apathetic, response of power – it’s a simple statement of his authority.

But you could say that anyone who writes anything online needs to learn to echo those words, to own those words. Because anything we write could return to haunt us. Who knows? Without wanting to sound melodramatic, such an acknowledgement may be a confession we must make, not because of a position of power but because of our own powerlessness. I’m certainly not wanting to sound paranoid here – but it is extraordinary how much more of ourselves we make accessible to anyone than people ever did before. Of course, the existence of a Google archive of everything we have posted doesn’t mean that anyone will actually look at it. But they could, if they wanted to…

But that’s actually nothing new…

But then one of the consultation leaders simply pointed out that, in a sense, it’s always been like this. For there is an accountability that we all have to the one who does know everything. And the awkward thing is that it’s not just what we post that he knows – but even what we contemplate posting and then think better of it. As the psalmist wrote:

O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. (Psalm 139:1-4)

Alarming? Well, yes, not least because of these words of Jesus :

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. (Luke 12:2-3)

So in a sense, we have always had to fess up to what we’ve written, seen, said, done, thought.

  • Quod vidi, vidi
  • Quod dixi, dixi
  • Quod feci, feci
  • Quod putavi, putavi

But there is one crucial difference…

The difference is not what is known but who knows it

You see, one perspective on the exponential growth of technology is that we are constantly gaining abilities that were for centuries regarded as the preserve of divinity.

Google on 20th Anniversary of Berlin Wall's fall

We have gained the ability to communicate instantly over vast distances (a revelation of a sort); we have achieved speeds unthinkable even 100 years ago (like the fiery chariot given to Elijah); we have sources of power that can destroy the planet several times over (we seem to strive after omnipotence). And we now have the ability to discover almost anything about anyone: the algorithms that Google relies on to power its search engines have remarkable power not just to remember what you search for but actually to predict what you’ll search for next (see this fascinating article from yesterday’s Telegraph). It’s an omniscience of sorts.

All in all, it should shatter the myth of total, autonomous invisibility. As if that ever existed.

I suspect that our ancestors were much more aware of the consequences of their actions than we are because they knew there would be a reckoning. What’s salutary now is that it’s not just God who has the ability to know some of our most hidden realities. And I know who I’d rather trust to do the right thing with such knowledge of me: a judge who is also an advocate; a defender of truth and goodness who is also a merciful rescuer. It’s when human beings play at being God that I get really concerned.


The Ungooglable Man

Does such a man exist? Can such a man exist?

Love this cartoon by Roz Chast from last week’s New Yorker. Genius.


Sacrifices on the Altar of Ambition: Agamemnon’s Daughter by Ismail Kadare

Ismail Kadare is fast becoming one of my favourite writers. An Albanian who has divided his time between his native land and Paris since the early 90s, Kadare ingeniously captures the disorientating experience of life under dictatorship. In some ways, he is the iron curtain’s equivalent of George Orwell, except for the obvious difference that his experiences were first-hand.

This book, Agamemnon’s Daughter is actually a compilation of 3 short stories, fluently translated from a French translation of the original Albanian by David Bellos.

  • The title story is set in Tirana in the 1980s, as the unnamed narrator unexpectedly finds himself granted a ticket to the senior stands at the annual May Day Parade (normally the preserve of the communist party elite).
  • The Blinding Order is set in Istanbul during the reforms of the Ottoman Empire that occurred during the 1800s
  • The Great Wall is set on the Chinese frontier during the 1300s, the time that imperial China faced threats from the hoardes of Timur (or Tamburlaine) the Great.

They’re very different tales. But they share the loose but common thread of Ottoman history; and they all depict the bewilderment of those desperately second-guessing despotic regimes. Nothing is ever as it seems – the powers that be always more Machiavellian than one thought possible. The only certainty is that one’s initial interpretation of political moves or decrees is wrong. It is grimly cynical – but then if you’ld lived under Albanian communism (supposedly the ‘purest’ in history), you’d be too. As the hapless sentry on the Great Wall in the 3rd story narrates:

That night a swarm of thoughts buzzed in my head. States are always either wiser or more foolish than we think they are. Snatches of conversations with officials who had been posted on the other side came back to me, but I now saw them in a different light. (p217)

I reviewed Kadare’s gripping but terrifying book The Successor a while back. Agamemnon’s Daughter was written a few years before, and involves some of the same characters. It was written during the dying days of Enver Hoxha‘s brutal regime, and smuggled out to a Parisian publisher 2 or 3 pages at a time (that story’s worth another novel all by itself). While the other 2 stories in this book are certainly good, I want to focus on the title (and much longer) tale. For it illustrates how stories, especially ancient ones, can uniquely make sense of the present.

A Daughter Sacrificed for a Father’s Ambition

The narrator has fallen in love with Suzana, the beautiful daughter of a top party official (one of those touted as successor to dictator, ‘The Guide’, who’s clearly modelled on Hoxha). But as a fairly lowly worker in National Television, and because of his subversive, anti-regime views, the relationship was doomed and thus forbidden by the girl’s father. Nevertheless, despite having been caught up in some murky Party purges in the past, he finds himself with the Parade invitation, much to the acute jealousy of colleagues and rivals. He can’t fully comprehend why he has this ticket, and nor can anyone else – but while at the parade he catches a few glimpses of Suzana ‘higher up’.

But in the days before the parade, he had been immersed in Robert Graves’ classic Greek Myths. Presumably this was one of the few western books available in hermetically sealed Albania, both for the narrator and Kadare himself. Yet this book, for all its ancient and mythological subjects, has profound resonance, a relevance that evidently slipped under the censors’ radar. The narrator can’t help but find in ancient legends analogues and articulations of his pain. 2 in particular ring true of the regime and those who suffer under it.

The first is from the era of Homer and the Trojan War. King Agamemnon has offended the goddess Artemis and so she has used the winds to prevent his armada from setting sail for Troy. A soothsayer, Calchas (as it turns out, a Trojan turncoat, now working for the Greeks), informs him that the only way to appease Artemis is to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. This he duly does.

But this is where Kadare’s genius comes into its own. He turns the myth inside out, deconstructing it through the lens of the Hoxha regime. For the narrator suddenly realises how implausible it would have been for the king to take the word of the Trojan Calchas seriously. He could have been a double agent, after all, especially after making such an horrific suggestion. No – it was the king himself who devised the plan – such was his zeal and fanaticism for the war. For now, who of his band of soldiers, sailers and mercenaries could possibly find an excuse not to play their part? Who would dare suggest they had paid a higher price during the war than the king. He’d had to sacrifice his very own daughter, hadn’t he?

Which is of course what, in the narrator’s eyes, Suzana’s father had done. He’d sacrificed her future happiness for his own future career. But this is completely true to the smoke and mirrors world of spin and propaganda – and it clearly heralded a terrifying future for the country. If he’s prepared to sacrifice his own daughter like that, what might he demand of everyone else? What hope does anyone now have? And then it occurs to him that Stalin had done something with his son, Yakov, by refusing to accept an offer to exchange him after he’d been captured by the Nazis and held in Sachsenhausen concentration camp…

A Climber Destroyed by his own Ambition

The other myth that the narrator ponders is a dark Albanian legend, that of Bald Man and the Eagle. This has particular resonance because Albania’s indigenous name (Shqipëri) actually means Land of the Eagles – hence the double-headed eagle on the national flag.

One night, Bald Man fell all the way down to the netherworld… After his fall, Bald Man strove with all his might to find the way and the means to clamber back to the upper world. He wore himself out searching every corner, until an old man whispered the solution in his ear.  There was an eagle that could fly all the way up by the sheer strength of his wings – but on one condition: throughout the flight, the raptor would need to eat raw meat. Bald Man didn’t think this would be a problem. (p37)

The eagle’s flight to the upper world was taking much longer than Bald Man had expected.

When Bald Man finished off the meat he had brought, he cut into his own flesh and fed the eagle with that.

It’s not known if Bald Man was still alive when the eagle came out into the upper world. People say that locals who happened to be around at the time couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw a huge black bird carrying a human skeleton on its back. (p41-42)

This tale’s significance is obvious. It’s interspersed between the story of a man who, in order to reverse his fall from political grace, denounces and tramples on others to climb his way back up. But then the narrator realises that he too has had a close escape in the party purges and is now making his way to the senior parade stands. After all, if he’s been given the parade invitation, does that mean he’s also (however unwittingly) offered others up? And what of his own flesh? Has he lost his soul in return for his life? But the significance goes wider too – Suzana’s father has paid with others’ flesh, and his own – and has lost his own soul. A terrifying thought for someone on the cusp of becoming supreme leader…

The Power of Literature

Kadare won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005 – and his recipient’s speech is included in this edition, and has been posted online. I found his account of the power of literature incredibly moving and thoroughly recommend it (it’s worth checking out prize chairman John Carey’s speech in awarding the prize too). There’s one paragraph that particular struck me. In answer to the question of how such writing was even possible under such oppressive regimes, Kadare says:

To explain myself briefly, I’d like to refer you to an episode in the Divine Comedy. Dante Alighieri, as he travels through Hell, is frightened of a huge, oncoming storm. Dante’s master Virgil tells him: “Be not afraid, for it is a dead storm!”
That phrase helps to clarify what I was just saying. If you can manage to make yourself see the rough weather of dictatorship as a “dead storm”, you’ll have the key to the enigma. But a writer can only get that key from literature.

That’s a potent phrase. To see all regimes as dead storms helps us to weather them. But this is where I gently venture to disagree with the great man – or rather, to quibble slightly with that final sentence. It is not just from literature. Dead storms become visible from the perspective of history, and above all of prophecy. This is what has struck me again and again as we have been working through the early chapters of Daniel over the last few months. For every regime faces its own writing on the wall…


Vanishing in the digital age

Have you ever wondered about disappearing? I’m not talking about Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak (although that would certainly come in handy on occasion). No, I mean disappearing like Jason Bourne: forging plausible identities, making new starts, covering old traces, laying false trails. Hiding, essentially.

Now before you start worrying, panic not – I’m not considering it at all. Plenty of things to keep me where I am!

But in idle moments, when contemplating the surveillance state (in which CCTV cameras seem to breed inside London Underground stations and one’s every digital move is now plotted by faceless geek-watchers), I’ve wondered whether it is even possible anymore. How would one go about it, if one had to? Under the Orwellian regimes of 20th Century despots, it was hard enough – id cards, passpapers, regular security police checkpoints. Think The Great Escape; or Hans Fallada’s brilliant Alone in Berlin; or the world of Le Carré’s Smiley. But now? I suppose it must be, somehow. But boy, do you have to be clever to keep ahead of the game. And rich. Like the Gene Hackman character in Enemy of the State. Which is of course ludicrous fantasy… Isn’t it…?

Evan Ratcliff (Photo: Joe Pugliese - Wired US, Nov 2009)

Which is all by way of explaining why I was so gripped by this article in the US edition of Wired from before Christmas – writer Evan Ratliff Tried to Vanish: Here’s What Happened.

After weeks of preparations, Ratcliff decided (as an experiment) to disappear completely for a month in 2009, laying down the gauntlet (through Wired) for people to use legal means to track him down. Once they had, they were to ask him, “You wouldn’t happen to know a guy named Fluke, would you?” in exchange for a financial reward.

For some, finding Evan Ratcliff became an obsession – the ultimate in reality gaming. Chatrooms, twitter hashtags and even a specially created Facebook App sprang up, as people all over the place compared research, shared sightings, and generally tried to outsmart each other. Through various means, people discovered Ratcliff’s passions (bizarrely enough, he’s an avid Fulham supporter), credit card details, and even his dietary requirements. The tiniest details played their part. As the article wryly observes, they discovered everything about him – except his current location. But they were never far behind. This Zeemaps group traces his every move – it’s fun to follow while reading the article.

It’s all pretty scary. And legal.

I was particularly interested in the impact it all had on him, though. There are some pretty poignant moments:

It’s surreal, in those moments when I stop to think about it. Scores of people have studied my picture, stared into those empty eyes in the hopes of relieving me of thousands of dollars. They have stood for hours, trying to pick out my face in a crowd. They’ve come to know me like we’ve been friends for years. It’s weirdly thrilling, in a narcissistic kind of way, but also occasionally terrifying.

But as he reflects on it later:

…I’d discovered how quickly the vision of total reinvention can dissolve into its lonely, mundane reality. Whatever reason you might have for discarding your old self and the people who went with it, you’ll need more than a made-up backstory and a belt full of cash to replace them.

For weeks after the hunt ended, I still paused when introducing myself and felt a twinge of panic when I handed over my credit card. The paranoid outlook of James Donald Gatz was hard to shake. Even now, my stomach lurches when I think back to the night I got caught. “You wouldn’t happen to know a guy named Fluke, would you?”

The article is definitely worth reading in full. It simply proves how digitally interconnected, dependent, and even chained, we all are in the west – and that includes even the most luddite or technophobe.

No wonder Bin Laden decided to hide out in the mountains of Pakistan. That seems to be one of the few options left if you want to really disappear.