Hacks/Hackers Brighton - making Matter and exposing eavesdropping

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Bobbie Johnson – making Matter matter

Bobbie Johnson

About a year ago – he got pissed off. He came from The Guardian which has a “troubled” relationship with profit. Why does the meaty, good in-depth investigative stuff he likes not really exist online? Why does it need paper subsidy to make it work. And he wasn’t the only one who was feeling that way. These stories are hard – they need time and legal backup to do well. He talked to his friend Jim who lives in San Francisco – he’s a science writer who writes for New Scientist et al. They want to find a way to do long-form investigative journalism that’s build for the web. Blogs are brilliant. He owes his career to them. And it’s become the native format for news on the web. But long stories look and feel the same on the web – and that bores you.

They saw the prices for journalism dropping – but they saw the rise of Kindles and the iPad as new avenues for people to read. The browser is better than its ever been before – particularly with HTML. And pretty much all devices that people use for reading use webkit as the underlying browser technology. So, the obvious answer seemed to be to sell people the long-form content via these new channels, as people has shown a wiliness to pay.

Matter: lean, distributed journalism

Matter will be a lean, distributed journalism organisation that only produces long, deep pieces of journalism – ideally once a week. The age of journalism businesses doing all forms of journalism are done. They ran the business ideas past some people “who knew what they were doing”. They recommended testing and experimentation. They got some feedback on potential Kindle sales. So how do they get started? They needed money. Bobbie’s Guardian redundancy money was long spent. They both have babies on the way. The roadblock to getting investors on-board was the need for proof of the concept. And so they decided to try out Kickstarter, the US crowd-sourcing services. They aimed for $50k to commission three big pieces. The most ever raised  on Kickstarter for journalism was $55k. They wanted to be “number two by a little”. They called in favours from friends to get their video done, e-mailed everyone they knew. They hit the thousands of dollars out of the gate. Overnight they hit $25,000, and hit their goal in 38 hours. Kickstarter gives you a month to hit the funding target… By the end of the month they had $140,000 – making it the most successful publishing project on Kickstarter.

It’s changed his idea of crowd funding – it suddenly became a much more powerful idea. They have no other shareholders, thanks to crowd funding – but the have 2,500 with an emotional attachment to it.

They’re no longer building a bare-bones service, but they’re building something that will look beautiful over all devices. They’re working with Clearleft to build it, and they hope to launch in September. The first three are neuroscience, cyber-crime and environmental stories.

They’ve got a great group of journalists – people from the New Yorker, Wired and Harpers as freelance editors. Each story is being treated as a publication, with their own team. It’s like a small book. They’ll commission art for it. It’s not a magazine. It’s not a website. It’s Matter.

People thought he was going to run off to Brazil with the money – but their aim is to build a dedicated journalism start-up that can keep its head above water. It might become an umbrella for events and the like. There’s another form of crow-funding called payment… They’ve crowd funded their way to the starting line.

Bobbie Johnson: Q&A on Matter

Q. Since they have a business plan, are they worried that they won’t be taken seriously by the tech world.

A. VCs want them to have a “big plan”. Getting people to pay for journalism is a big plan!

Q. Has there been much success with Kindle Singles?

A. There are a lot of requirements for Kindle Singles – at leads 5000 words, pre-sight by the Amazon team. There are about 200 titles. The average sell is 15,000 copies. Matter is targeting $0.99 price – once everyone has taken their cut you might get $10,000 back. Finding those numbers was the “lightbulb” moment.

Marketing is their big challenge. They’ll sell through iBooks and Amazon, but they’re hoping people will want to write about their stories, and that their 2,500 supporters will help promote them.

Duncan Campbell – the culture of surveillance

Duncan Campbell

His story started in Brighton 40 years ago. This is a tale about the secret world of surveillance, a biographical tale about journalism, and a call to action about what the government are about to launch against us. There’s a small rocky island in the North Atlantic where once all information was owned by the government and publishing it could land you in jail for six months. The 1911 Official Secrets Act was antithetical to journalism and asking questions. Indeed, you could be jailed for asking questions. He was prosecuted in 1977 for a crime which could have landed him in jails for 30 years. That law was eventually repealed in 1989. But now we face a similar situation…

Data journalism is a new opportunity for journalism. He’s involved in what he thinks is the biggest data journalism exercise ver. The bill launched by Theresa May a few weeks ago – the Draft Communications Data Bill –  is a monstrosity that allows everything on the internet to be data mined by the government. They want access to every layer of the internet – and they’re selling on the basis that the next terrorism atrocity could be planned by two avatars talking in World of Warcraft. Since 9/11 a vast industry has grown up selling interception kit to every form of government that allows them to monitor the internet. It’s known as “Signals Intelligence”.

40 years ago GCHQ in Cheltenham was an absolute secret. When he proposed a feature to Time Out, he phoned up GCHQ, and amazed the receptions hit by the sheer fact of knowing it.

The government wants all our information

David Orman 2010 book. Protint – protected information intelligence – all our private information will be available to the Government, under special conditions. Travel bookings, passport and biomentric intelligence and so on… The former director or public prosecutions has said that this is information no government should be trusted with. The 1976 GCHQ article caused shock across Whitehall, because what they thought was a well-protected was splashed across a listings mag in London. His telephone was tapped shortly afterwards. He was followed by MI5 – whom he never noticed – and the special branch – whom he lead a merry dance across Brighton. Whitehall saw his article in the alight of Watergate – as a threat that needed to be contained. He was arrested for doing an interview with a former solider. The transcript was marked secret. Then “top” was added. And then it was stamped “Top Secret” again. The trial failed, and the law had to be changed. It had exposed the fact that much of what GCHQ was doing was illegal. The tapping work had started 40 years ago, and continues with the new act.

He continued researching this, and then the BBC and Panorama followed suit. Disclosures under the 30 years rules give an insight into how the Government reacted. The government worried about the BBC making Campbell’s activities respectable. The documents show an extraordinarily paranoid view amongst the most powerful people in Britain. He wasn’t trying to bring down Britain – they knew that – but he was branded as an unaffiliated revolutionary. Robin Cook was one of them branded in this way – and he ended up running the security services! The net result was the government was forced to bring the intelligence services into the rule of law – and the country afield to collapse. Campbell went to work for the BBC, and started a series called Secret Society – and did a story about the first government spy satellite: Zircon. The show was promptly banned, but the story got out through a magazine. The magazine, Campbell’s house, and the BBC’s office in Scotland were raided. The director general of the BBC was sacked. By 1988 Campbell was exposing Echelon in the New Statesman – it was already 20 years old by then.

From data journalism to legislation

Capenhurst “ETF” – microwave communication around Britain. The Dublin to Manchester link was the backbone of Ireland’s communication internationally. At the cost of £20m the government built an interception tower near Birkenhead – even those they weren’t legally allowed to intercept. It was decommissioned in 2002. He proposed to Channel 4 that they make an offer to buy it. They were allowed in. The equipment was gone, but they knew the pattern of holes in the floor that would be needed if they were intercepting the signals – and they were there sure enough. Once again, this lead to putative changes in legislation. It was taken to European Court of Human Rights by Liberty – and they won. But the Government never made the relevant changes in the law.

He wrote a report for the European Union in 2000 in Interception Capabilities – a set of laws were passed by the EU parliament in September 2001 – but were buried by the appalling events of 9/11 just a few days later. Then came a series of attempts to provide means to monitor the internet. They focus now on deep-packet inspection. Vast amounts of data can be extracted from communication systems and fed into analysis software. People’s movements can be tracked via their mobile phones. Automated number-plate readers are spreading – and they are much more serious than CCTV – which needs to be analysed by human beings. The number-plate readers are automatically banking records of all journeys passing these checkpoints for up to 10 years.

The later, greatest and most serious move is direct access to the internet. Very sophisticated semantic traffic analysers are being placed in major internet switching points. Narus. Both Bush and Obama have legislated to stop court cases against this for breach of privacy. All of the tapping was done in the early part of 2003 – but the plans go back to 1998. It *was not *triggered by 9/11. As far as can be told, the same is true in Britain. As far as threats to national security go – they already have the access. So why do they need the new legislation?

Just like drone operators, surveillance operators have suburban commuter jobs in comfortable offices in country locations.

The establishment have more paranoia than even radicals of the left. They want all data to be theirs, and are legislating to make this happen. The value of human rights and of privacy is fundamental to our integrity and is worth fighting for.

Duncan Campbell Q&A

Q. Bruce Scheinder is big on the fact that kids don’t care about privacy any more.

A. It’s a fair summary – but that’s how they’re inculcated to think by Google, Facebook et al. If the product costs nothing – you are the product. The country that understands this best is Germany, possibly through their process of de-Mazification.

*Q. The constant cat and mouse that goes on — presumably the new bill is about making things legal that they’re already doing. Is there ever and end to it? *

A. There is s central journalistic problem in telling this story – the can be dry as dust. What you need is a victim who has been hurt by surveillance. It’s hard to do theism – it’s very limited. And there’s a chilling effect – people don’t feel free to be who they are because of surveillance. Things they’re trying to do now – like accessing Skype – are harder to do now. The case is being absurdly over-stated. It’s about hanging on to power, not about understanding what they need to keep us safe. The mobile phone hacking we’re talking about at Leveson is all PIN-based voicemail hacking. They couldn’t get phone records. However, we are at risk of a financial collapse, a 1930s style environment where people will want access to data.

It doesn’t look like they have lines in ISPs yet – that’s what the black boxes in the new legislation are about. They want direct access to new forms of communication that aren’t e-mail, like Facebook messages. They want an ultimate trojan so they can identify who anonymous people actually are.

Q. The phone “hacking” stuff isn’t really hacking. It’s a party trick. Who here has signed the Official Secrets Act?

About four or five have: people who have served in the forces, who have worked for BT.

A. Signing it amounts to nothing apart from the fact you’ve read the act. If the duty of confidence to the government – if that has been improperly claimed, I hope journalists will breach it.

Q. Is Theresa May just a mouthpiece for what the security services want?

A. Minsters always are. The justification that the new bill meets the European human rights regulations is so badly written he suspects that all the hard-core civil servants have been sacked. I hope that this amateurism might allow a collation of interested parties to defeat the bill.

Q. Is this anything to do with Wikileaks?

A. I don’t think so. Wikileaks is a happy harbinger of the sort of journalism we’re starting to be able to do. But this is the historical tentacle of the British state – the same people who built communications tapping operations in Cornwall to monitor its own citizens.

Campbell was never locked away for 30 years – he believes that the state is still stronger than the secret state. But 9/11 is being used to beat us over the head. They tried to tap the internet then – but didn’t manage, possibly because they had no budget. This is the latest attempt – and it reflects things they’ve been asking for for 10 to 12 years. The FBI are talking about the “world going dark” in terms of information – but things have always been dark. People have planned things in meetings like this – people talking in rooms above pubs.

He’s looked a lot at terrorist’s computers and communications. Do they use cryptology as people claim? None of the planners of 9/11 used any encrypted communications. That’s true in the majority of the cases of terrorist plots in the UK – but not all. They us etchings like e-mail dead drops – free e-mail accounts with shared passwords, where they never send the e-mails, just leave messages in the account. That was established art early as 2000 by Al Queda. Now they use the cloud.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.