Fundamental flaw of the Blair project

By flirting with the anti-liberal prejudices of the right-wing media, new Labour has alienated its c

Whether on Iraq, health reorganisation, schools reform or civil liberties, the relationship between Labour and millions of progressive voters has become sour and distrustful. It flourished in the mid-1990s and underpinned our landslide victory in 1997. Now fractured, it puts the party's chances of a historic fourth-term victory at risk, allowing the Conservatives back into power.

George Bush's two terms in the White House graphically demonstrate the danger. The Tories, fronted by a fresh face and projected with slick spin, promise a break with a deeply unpopular party's nasty past. Ominous echoes of the "compassionate conservative" governor of Texas as he campaigned for the US presidency seven years ago.

But scaring progressive voters with the image of David Cameron crossing the threshold of No 10 won't win Labour the next election. Instead, we need to understand why it is that - despite all the achievements of the past ten years - so many of those who enthusiastically supported us in 1997 are now so deeply hostile.

The progressive coalition that Labour so successfully assembled in 1997 has splintered because we have been careless, indifferent and, at times, needlessly offensive to the concerns and values of too many of our natural supporters.

This has not simply been a sin of omission. Instead, it has appeared a conscious strategy. Too often, the credo has been that winning the centre ground - itself unquestionably vital for electoral success - is, in part, achieved by Labour defining itself against the values of progressive Britain. This has always been a false choice. We proved in 1997 that it is possible to win both Middle Britain marginals and Labour heartlands; indeed, since then, we have lost support in both simultaneously.

The chase for headlines in the right-wing press is based on a fundamentally flawed calculation: that progressives have nowhere else to go but to vote Labour. This is a dangerous assumption. In 2001, some of those who had voted Labour four years earlier simply stayed at home. Only Tory weakness and a very low turnout prevented serious electoral damage.

In 2005, however, substantial defections from Labour to the Liberal Democrats not only produced losses from Cambridge to Cardiff Central, they also handed the Conservatives - often without raising their own vote at all - more than 30 seats. Labour ended up with a shaky win and a vote, at just 36 per cent, lower than when we lost to Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

What credit?

If this strategy was electorally risky in the face of a string of overtly right-wing and weak Tory leaders, it could be near-suicidal when we are up against today's reinvigorated Con servatives. Cameron's sidling up to progressive causes such as civil liberties, inequality and climate change is entirely synthetic, all spin and no substance. Nevertheless, it is cunningly calculated to make the Tories appear a whole lot less threatening - if not necessarily attractive - to large numbers of those who were willing to rally around Labour in 1997 in order to evict John Major from No 10. They might well not vote Tory, but equally they might not vote at all if the prospect of a Cameron victory doesn't overly bother them.

But flirting with the anti-liberal prejudices of the right-wing media is counterproductive in another way. When some at the top of the party have seemed at best sullen and at worst downright hostile to our progressive record, what chance do we have of asking people on the left to give us any credit for it?

The Human Rights Act is a case in point. Sometimes we have seemed more concerned with colluding in fantasies and fallacies than with robustly and proudly defending legislation that embodies our commitment to human rights. This has left the door open to Tory right-wing attacks; a stark contrast with other parts of our record that have been solidly defended, such as the minimum wage, civil partnerships, or the creation of devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and London, all of which the Conservatives have been forced to accept.

On the fight against terrorism, everyone understands that, after 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in London, we need to have a serious debate about the balance between liberty and security. But we have contrived, through government rhetoric and spin, to appear casual about, or even indifferent to, civil liberties, which itself undermines the fight against terrorism. We may not have encountered so much hostility and difficulty with our anti-terrorism laws if we had led the debate in a manner that suggested we cared both about the security of the country and the civil liberties of those who live in it, rather than appearing to suggest that the former can be achieved only by sacrificing the latter.

Gordon Brown's recent suggestion that any further anti-terrorism powers must be accompanied by stronger judicial and parliamentary oversight offers the prospect of a welcome new approach.

The war in Iraq has, of course, also played a significant part in fracturing the progressive coalition. Like all my fellow deputy leadership candidates, I voted for the war. It does nothing to rebuild trust in politicians if, at the moment when it would be most politically expedient to do so, I followed the example of two of my colleagues, renounced my vote and tried to write myself out of the decision. I know only too well the damage to Labour and the anger the war has caused, not only on the doorstep, but over family dinners and in conversations with long-time friends who have felt unable to remain in the party.

Rather than trying to wriggle out of personal responsibility for our decision, I think people should ask that those they entrust to make decisions learn from those decisions. The lessons of Iraq are that military power alone is no substitute for winning the battle of hearts and minds, and that we need to reform and strengthen the capacity of the UN, Europe and other multilateral bodies, including the Arab League.

It is also vital that the left and wider progressive opinion does not, because of Iraq, abandon the internationalism that first brought me from the struggle against apartheid into the Labour Party. An isolationist foreign policy, usually favoured by the right, would not have saved the people of Sierra Leone from savage butchery, nor Kosovans from genocide. The ongoing suffering of the peoples of Burma, Zimbabwe and Darfur underlines why international intervention to protect democracy and human rights must always be high on the left's agenda. The failure to resolve the continuing, and often bloody, impasse between Israelis and Palestinians remains the principal failure of global diplomacy.

Unguarded flank

Forging a progressive internationalist foreign policy built on these lessons - coupled with a renewed drive to promote global social justice and tackle climate change - is the way to win back Labour support among progressive voters, by renewing confidence that we share the same values.

Domestically, we must prioritise tackling inequality. Top of our agenda must be the lack of affordable housing for rent and purchase, the need to ensure the proper enforcement of employment rights in the disturbing twilight world of agency, temporary and subcontract work, and a major push for free universal childcare. Coupled with greater individual empowerment, strengthened local government and finishing the job of democratic renewal - redistributing not just wealth, but also power - the drive against inequality should be the golden thread that runs through our entire agenda.

We leave our progressive flank unguarded at our peril. How on earth did we allow Cameron to steal a march on green issues, given the government's international and European leadership on climate change? The truth is that we failed for too long to prioritise the green agenda as the core Labour issue it so palpably is. If the Tories can attempt to steal progressive voters from us when they have barely any green policies, no record of prior commitment and, until very recently, zero credibility, then no territory is safe. We must challenge them with a red-green agenda that combines social justice and environmental protection, tackling climate change but ensuring that the responsibility for doing so is fairly shared.

However expedient their motives, the Conservatives have finally realised the electoral importance of Britain's progressive majority. A decade ago, so did we. It's now high time we did again. And that means we need to stop insulting it.

Peter Hain, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Wales, is a candidate for Labour's deputy leadership

His manifesto is available at http://www.Hain4Labour.org

Peter Hain is a former Labour cabinet minister and was MP for Neath between 1991 and 2015 before joining the House of Lords.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent

NEAL FOX FOR NEW STATESMAN
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They know where you live

Imagine your house being raided by armed police. That’s what happened to Mumsnet’s Justine Roberts after she fell victim to an internet hoaxer.

At around midnight on Tuesday 11 August 2015, a man dialled 999 to report a murder. A woman had been killed in her London home, he said, before hanging up without offering his name. A second call followed. This time, the man claimed to be the killer. He told the operator that he had now taken the woman’s children hostage at the Islington address. They were locked with him inside a room in the house, he said. The police responded with reassuring speed. Fifteen minutes later, eight officers, five of them armed with automatic weapons, accompanied by saliva-flecked dogs, arrived at the scene and took up position in neighbouring front gardens. When one officer banged on the front door of the house, the team was greeted, moments later, not by a masked murderer but by a blinking and bewildered au pair.

Justine Roberts, the woman whom the caller claimed to have killed, was in fact nearly 2,000 kilometres away – in Italy, holidaying with her husband and children. After explaining this to the police, the au pair called Roberts, who assumed that the incident was an unfortunate misunderstanding, one that could be unpicked after the vacation. It was no mistake. Roberts had been the victim of “swatting”, the term given to a false emergency call designed to bait an armed unit of police officers to storm someone’s home. It wasn’t until a few days later, as the family was preparing to return to London, that Roberts discovered that she had been the target of a planned and sustained attack, not only on her household, but also on her business.

Roberts is the founder of Mumsnet, the popular British internet discussion forum on which parents share advice and information. A few days before the swatting incident, members of 8chan, a chat room that prides itself on being an open, anonymous platform for free speech, no matter how distasteful, had registered accounts on Mums­net with the aim of trolling people there. When legitimate Mumsnet users identified and then ridiculed the trolls, some retreated to 8chan to plot more serious vengeance in a thread that the police later discovered. Roberts wasn’t involved in the online skirmish but, as the public face of the site, she was chosen as the first target.

After the initial armed response, Roberts’s perception was that the police were unconcerned about the swatting attack. “We were told that there was no victim, so there was not much that could be done,” she told me. The hoax caller, however, was not finished. In the days after the incident, there was chatter on Mumsnet and Twitter about what had happened. A Mumsnet user whom I will call Jo Scott – she requested anonymity for her own safety – exchanged heated messages with a hacker who claimed responsibility for the 999 call.

“It descended into jokes and silliness, like many things do,” Scott said. “I didn’t take it seriously when the hacker said he had big surprises in store.” She doesn’t believe that what happened next was personal. “I think I was just easy to find.”

A few days after police were called to Roberts’s home, Scott was in her bedroom while her husband was sitting downstairs playing video games. At 11pm, she heard a noise outside. “I looked out of the window and saw blue flashing lights in the street,” she recalled. “I could hear shouting but I didn’t pay it much notice.” Then she heard her husband open the front door. Police rushed into the house. An armed officer shouted upstairs, asking Scott if she was hurt. When she replied that she was fine, he told her to fetch her two young children: he needed to see them. Scott shook her sons awake, explaining, so as not to alarm them, that the police had come to show the boys their cars. As the three of them went downstairs, the officers swept up through the house, repeatedly asking if there were any weapons on the property.

“I was beyond confused by this point,” Scott said. “Everyone was carrying a gun. They had little cutaway bits so you could see the bullets. My eldest asked one of the officers if he could have a go on his gun and went to touch it.”

As Scott sat with an officer downstairs, she asked what had happened to her husband. “I later found out that the noises I’d heard were the police calling for him to come outside,” she said. “He dropped the PlayStation controller as he left the room. It was only later that we realised it’s a good job he did: in the dark, the controller might have looked like a weapon.”

Outside, Scott’s husband had been surrounded and arrested. Other police ­officers were on the lookout in the front gardens of nearby properties, having warned the couple’s neighbours to stay indoors, away from their windows. “One of the officers said it was beginning to look like a hoax,” Scott said. “Then he mentioned swatting. As soon as he said that word, I twigged that I’d seen the term that day on Twitter in relation to the Mumsnet hack.”

***

The term “swatting” has been used by the FBI since 2008. “Swat” is an acronym of “Special Weapons and Tactics”, the American police squads routinely called to intervene in hostage situations. It is, in a sense, a weaponised version of a phoney order of pizza, delivered as a prank to a friend’s home, albeit one that carries the possibility of grave injury at the hands of police. For perpetrators, the appeal is the ease with which the hoax can be set in motion and the severity of the results. With a single, possibly untraceable phone call, dialled from anywhere in the world, it is possible to send an armed unit to any address, be it the home of a high-profile actor whom you want to prank or that of someone you want to scare.

In America, where swatting originated, the practice has become so widespread – targets have included Tom Cruise, Taylor Swift, Clint Eastwood and the Californian congressman Ted Lieu – that it is now classed as an act of domestic terrorism. In the UK, where Justine Roberts’s was one of the first recorded cases, swatting is classed as harassment, though that may change if these and other forms of internet vigilante attacks, such as doxxing, become increasingly commonplace.

Doxxing involves the publication of someone’s personal details – usually their home address, phone numbers, bank details and, in some cases, email address – on the internet. It is often the prelude to swatting: after all, the perpetrator of a hoax cannot direct the police to the target’s home address until this is known. (During the week of the Mumsnet attacks, one of the perpetrators attempted to locate another target using their computer’s IP address, which can identify where a person is connected to the internet, often with alarming precision. Their calculation, however, was slightly out; police were called to a neighbour’s address.)

Though doxxing has a less dramatic outcome than swatting, the psychological effects can be just as severe. For victims – usually people who are active on the internet and who have outspoken opinions or who, in the eyes of an internet mob, have committed some kind of transgression – the mere threat of having their personal information made available on the web can cause lasting trauma. A Canadian software developer whose home address, bank details, social security number and email history were published online in 2014 told me that he now keeps an axe by his front door. “I still don’t feel safe here,” he said. “It’s terrifying.”

Christos Reid, a social media manager for a software company, was doxxed last year. Reid’s information came from a website he had registered seven years earlier. “I woke up one morning to find a tweet announcing my personal details,” he told me. When he asked the Twitter account holder to take down the address, he was told to commit suicide. Reid said he was “OK for about half an hour”; but then, after he went out, he broke down in the street. “I’ve become more paranoid,” he said. He no longer gives out business cards with personal information.

Reid lives in London, but at the time of the doxx he was attending an event in Nottingham, home to the British police’s largest cybercrime division. He was impressed with the police response, even though they told him that they had not heard of the term “doxxing” before. “I was interviewed by two separate people about my experiences who then compiled everything into a case file and transferred it to the Met. When I arrived home, an officer visited me to discuss what happened and my options.”

The policeman explained harassment law to Reid, and offered advice on how to improve security at his flat and what to do if someone hostile turned up at the address. Reid shouldered the repercussions of what had happened alone; no suspects were identified. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police similarly said that although detectives from Islington CID have investigated the swatting attacks made on Roberts and Scott, no suspects have been identified “at this time”, even as “inquiries continue”.

Doxxing may seem to be a mild form of harassment but it carries with it an implicit threat of impending violence; the worrying message is: “We know where you live.” Unlike swatting, which is always malicious, doxxing is sometimes viewed by its perpetrators as virtuous. In November 2014, hackers claiming to be aligned with the internet group Anonymous published personal information allegedly belonging to a Ku Klux Klan member from Missouri. The hackers said that their action was a response to the KKK’s threat to use lethal force against demonstrators in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, protesting against the killing of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer. In January 2015 hackers claiming to be from Isis took over US Central Command’s Twitter account and posted information about senior military officers, including phone numbers and email addresses. In each case, those carrying out the doxxing believed, however mistakenly, in the virtue of their actions and hoped that the information could be used to bring punishment or ruin to the subject.

The term “doxxing” may be new but the practice is an old one. The Hollywood blacklist revealed the political beliefs and associations of actors and directors in the late 1940s as a way to invite shame, deny employment and dissuade others from following their example. “But it has become a lot easier to find people’s private details with the help of the internet,” Jeroen Vader told me. Vader owns Pastebin, a website that allows users to upload and distribute text documents, and where much of the personal data is anonymously uploaded and shared. “People post their private information on social networks,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t aware that their information is so easily available to others.”

In Justine Roberts’s case, the perpetrator may not even have needed to look at social networks to mine her personal information. “If you’re on the electoral roll, you’re easy to find,” she said. “There’s not much you can do to stop people getting hold of your data one way or another, whether it’s for nefarious reasons or simply to better advertise to you. We live in a world that is constantly trying to gather more information about us.”

Jeroen Vader said he has noticed an “upward trend” in the number of doxxing posts uploaded to Pastebin in recent months, but insisted that when someone uses the site’s abuse report system these offending posts are removed immediately.

Across social media companies, action is more often reactive than proactive. Victoria Taylor, a former director at Reddit, one of the largest community-driven websites in the world, said that the rule against publishing other users’ personal information has been “consistently one of the site’s most basic policies” and that “any violation of this rule is taken extremely seriously by the team and community”. Still, she was only able to recommend that victims of doxxing send a message to the site’s administrators. Similarly, when asked what a person can do to remove personal details that have been published without permission, a Twitter spokesperson said: “Use our help form.”

The spokesperson added: “There has def­initely been an overall increase in doxxing since 2006, both on Twitter and on the internet more generally.” She attributed this rise to the emergence of search engines such as Intelius and Spokeo, services designed to locate personal information.

***

The surge in the number of dox­xing and swatting attacks is in part a result of the current lack of legal protection for victims. Confusion regarding the law on doxxing is pervasive; the term is even not mentioned in either US or European law. In a tutorial posted on Facebook in 2013, the writer claims: “Doxxing isn’t illegal as all the information you have obtained is public,” and adds: “But posting of the doxx might get you in a little trouble.”

Phil Lee, a partner in the privacy, security and information department of Fieldfisher based at the law firm’s office in Silicon Valley, said that differing privacy laws around the world were part of the problem. “Various countries have laws that cover illegal or unauthorised obtaining of data. Likewise, some of the consequences of releasing that data, such as defamation or stalking, cover elements of what we now term doxxing. But there is no global law covering what is a global phenomenon.” Indeed, Roberts believes that her London address was targeted from America – the 999 call was routed through a US proxy number.

One challenge to creating a law on doxxing is that the sharing of personal information without permission has already become so widespread in the digital age. “If a law was to state something like, ‘You must not post personal information about another person online without their consent,’ it wouldn’t reflect how people use the internet,” Lee said. “People post information about what their friends and family members have been doing all the time without their consent.

“Such a law could have a potentially detrimental effect on freedom of speech.”

Lee believes that a specific law is unnecessary, because its potentially harmful effects are already covered by three discrete pieces of legislation dealing with instances where a person’s private information is obtained illegally, when that information is used to carry out illegal acts and when the publication of the information is accompanied by a threat to incite hatred. However, this does not adequately account for cases in which the information is obtained legally, and then used to harass the individual in a more legally ambiguous manner, either with prank phone calls or with uninvited orders of pizza.

Susan Basko, an independent lawyer who practises in California and who has been doxxed in the course of her frequent clashes with internet trolls, believes that the onus should be on the law, rather than the public. She points out that in the US it is a crime to publicise information about a government employee such as their home address, their home and cellphone numbers, or their social security number, even if the information is already online. “This law should apply to protect all people, not just federal employees,” she said. “And websites, website-hosting companies and other ISPs should be required to uphold this law.”

Basko said that doxxing will continue to increase while police have inadequate resources to follow up cases. For now, it is up to individuals to take preventative measures. Zoë Quinn, an American game designer and public speaker who was doxxed in 2014, has launched Crash Override, a support network and assistance group for targets of online harassment, “composed entirely of experienced survivors”.

Quinn, who spoke about the problem at a congressional hearing in Washington, DC in April last year, recently posted a guide on how to reduce the likelihood of being doxxed. “If you are worried you might some day be targeted,” she wrote, “consider taking an evening to stalk yourself online, deleting and opting out of anything you’re not comfortable with.”

Both Scott and Roberts have changed their privacy habits following the attacks. Scott is more careful about interacting with strangers online, while Roberts uses scrambler software, which ensures that she never uses the same password for more than one online site or service.

For both women’s families, the effects of their encounters with armed police have also lingered. When one day recently Roberts’s husband returned home early from work, the au pair called the police, believing it was an intruder. And Scott is haunted by what happened.

“What if my husband had made a sudden move or resisted in some way? What if my eldest had grabbed the gun instead of gently reaching for it? What if people locally believed that my husband did actually have guns in the house?” she asks. “I don’t think the people making these sorts of hoax calls realise the impact.” 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism