Edward Snowden, Putin and the crawling bots: I prefer GCHQ

My first email this morning revealed that I had been nominated by a “professional colleague” for inclusion in International Who’s Who. At last, recognition that I am no longer just a criminal hack, I have become a somebody. Who needs a puff from Chambers and Partners Legal 500? I was now an international celebrity. Not quite Tom Cruise or Barack Obama but bigger than, say, Jack Dee – who has heard of him internationally? Should I wish to get married again, or at least to renew my vows, I would be able to sell the picture rights to Heat. Tables in fully-booked restaurants would become available, and if I sat at them then other guests would break off their conversations to steal furtive glances at me. I planned a celebratory visit to the busy cafe at the Garden Centre, so that I could reply “do you know who I am?” to the inevitable information that my jacket potato would involve a 20 minute wait. I wondered which “other interests” would sound good. And anyone who is anyone in Who’s Who needs a suitable club: it came down to a choice between the Athaneum or Boodles. All that was necessary was to fill in a simple form with a few personal details and await the delivery of my complimentary and doubtless handsomely-bound copy of the 2014 edition.

But just as I was about click on the form, I hesitated. Who was the professional colleague who had nominated me for such an honour? Why had he or she not mentioned it to me first? What, in reality, had I done to deserve it? Was it my acquittal in the celebrated Bemerton Heath affray in April? Or my mitigation for that Southampton burglar in March? – he had been expecting immediate gaol but ended up with a suspended sentence; it seemed unlikely. My only previous nomination had been for the Fifth Form Scripture prize: and unlike Bertie Wooster I had been unsuccessful. And if International Who’s Who wanted to feature me then surely the ordinary UK Who’s Who would at least have made a polite inquiry. Not so fast: perhaps International Who’s Been Hacked would be a better title.

So I deleted the email and attempted to sign into www.barristerblogger.com. Impossible. An automated message popped up. The site had been locked down as a defence mechanism against a “concerted brute force attack by crawling bots”.

When I was eventually permitted to gain admittance, everything seemed superficially in order. I wasn’t quite sure how I would actually identify a crawling bot if I saw one. There was the usual spam but no creepy-crawlies. Tiptoing gingerly into the dark basement of the site whilst I could not actually see them, I could feel the bots crawling up my legs.

I found it was possible to click onto the IP addresses of some of my visitors. This brought up the location of what I assume to be my readership. To my bemusement much of it appeared to be based in Wenzhou in the Zhejiang region of China.

Now, of course the future of the English criminal bar is widely debated all over the world. I have had helpful and interesting comments from individuals as far away as the United States and New Zealand. It would be nice to think the future of legal aid is debated in Zhejiang as much as it is in EC4. There may even be a cohort of clever Zhejiang students unwise enough to be considering a career at the criminal bar of England and Wales. Were it not for China’s repressive laws on public demonstrations it is conceivable that Wenzhou’s main square would by now be occupied by an anti-Grayling mob. Perhaps, instead of rioting, the mob had been reading barristerblogger.

Unfortunately another explanation for my oriental fan club exists, pointed out by one of the country’s top  computer experts, the shrewd and street-wise ex-detective, Mark Morris of Aardvark Forensics: that my Chinese readers are not really interested in the workings of the English legal system at all. In fact they may not even be “readers” in the normally accepted sense, just computers programmed to give birth to trillions of crawling bots which then worm their way inside any vulnerable website, including mine, where they no doubt hope to breed and multiply all over again. Indeed it is possible that they have even now started to breed and are busily sending out baby bots, hijacking my ostensibly respectable website to hawk dodgy viagra and too-good-to-be-true Siberian single women all round the world.

If the crawling bots can be bothered to launch a concerted brute force attack even on a little blog like mine then one shudders to think what their plans are for computer systems of national importance.

Which brings us to Edward Snowden’s revelations about the cyber-activities of the CIA. It is obvious that computer espionage is an extremely widespread activity. The Americans are certainly not alone. Whether or not the Wenzhou crawling bots have penetrated www.barristerblogger.com the Chinese are undoubtedly capable of doing so, and of a great deal worse. The Russians have almost certainly already launched concerted and crippling cyber attacks on both Estonia and Georgia and no doubt Mr Putin would happily do so to any other country if he thought his interests would thereby be served. Either the Israelis or the Americans, or both together, appear to have temporarily crippled the Iranian nuclear programme with the Stuxnet virus; for all we know they stroked the vanity of a careless Iranian physicist with the promise of an entry in International Who’s Who.  Even President Hollande, despite his synthetic anti-American anger at the US Prism operation, turns out to have a “vrai Prism a la francaise.” No doubt Islamist organisations would happily reciprocate if they were able.

In such a world it is absurd to imagine that the United States National Security Agency or for that matter our own GCHQ would or should submit to being out-spied by potential or actual enemies. It is quite right that they should be devoting huge resources to monitoring internet activity in all countries, including friendly ones. Indeed, I would be alarmed if they were not doing so. It is trite to say that the internet recognises no national boundaries. A geeky Russian agent can do as much harm in Dusseldorf as in Dnepropetrovsk and a Chinese spy can operate in Woking as effectively as in Wenzhou. It is equally certain that Russian, Chinese, and many other intelligence agencies are trying to monitor as much of the internet as they can with no regard at all to legality. I only hope our own GCHQ and our friends in America are doing a better job of it than they are. Their task will have been made harder by Mr Snowden’s actions.

Of course there are laws that regulate such activity and we must hope that the US and our own government keep their activity within them. Mr Snowden may well be a decent and idealistic man as well as, no doubt, a very clever one but, like many idealists, especially clever ones, he is capable of doing great harm. The chances are that whatever the FSB extracts from him as its price for shelter from the US authorities, it will ensure that he continues to do more harm in the future. Mr Snowden is not a hero of freedom. He may have become of Putin’s useful idiots.

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Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

4 thoughts on “Edward Snowden, Putin and the crawling bots: I prefer GCHQ”

  1. Thanks for the interesting link George – I didn’t know where the phrase came from but it is most often used to describe nincompoops like George Bernard Shaw and the Webbs – very clever people who were idiotic in their descriptions of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and useful to it as a result. Even if Lenin didn’t coin the phrase it’s still a handy one.

  2. Broadly agree with you re Snowden – I suspect his actions are more egotistical than morally driven – but do you show some flexibility for Bradley Manning? I think his case is different, given that he witnessed US war crimes and wanted to expose them, albeit in an unorthodox way.

    1. I don’t know much about the war crimes Bradley Manning says he witnessed, but the extent of his disclosures to Wikileaks went far beyond anything to do with them. If all he did was to reveal war crimes then I might have more sympathy with him. Whether he acted for selfish reasons or out of a sense of morality doesn’t make a crucial difference. The worst crimes are often committed in the name of morality.

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