Des­per­ate May ‘has no moves left’ Fo­cus,

We can no longer count on our gov­ern­ments to pro­tect us from a tide of dis­in­for­ma­tion. Our se­cu­rity rests in the hands of open source in­tel­li­gence.

The Observer - - News - By Ca­role Cad­wal­ladr

When the story of 2018 is told, his­to­ri­ans may be hard pressed to say which was weird­est: that a deadly nerve agent was de­ployed in a quiet cathe­dral town on the edge of Sal­is­bury Plain, at the heart of our mil­i­tary es­tab­lish­ment. Or that the Rus­sian sus­pects were iden­ti­fied not by Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence but a group de­scribed last week as “arm­chair in­ves­ti­ga­tors”.

Be­cause we now know not just the iden­ti­ties of the two men who trav­elled to Sal­is­bury with a mil­i­tary-grade chem­i­cal weapon but also the arm of the Rus­sian army that de­ployed them – thanks to Belling­cat, a ci­ti­zen in­ves­ti­ga­tion site founded by Eliot Hig­gins, a for­mer blog­ger who started it from a lap­top on his sofa in breaks from car­ing for his daugh­ter.

Taken sep­a­rately these sto­ries are gob­s­mack­ing but what’s been lost in the re­port­ing is how they are two sides of the same story: dis­in­for­ma­tion, the cen­tral role of the tech­nol­ogy plat­forms in dis­sem­i­nat­ing it, and the in­ad­e­quacy of gov­ern­ments to counter it.

Be­cause the sleuthing of the iden­tity of these men is a truly re­mark­able tale that shows how the power of the crowd and a suite of open­source tech­niques can achieve feats that re­mind us of how we thought

the web used to be, the tech-utopian dreamspace that has taken such an ex­is­ten­tial battering in the last two years. Belling­cat’s pi­o­neer­ing achieve­ments are an in­spir­ing re­minder of what is still pos­si­ble.

But it’s also a win­dow into the dark­ness that the web has be­come – a site of pro­pa­ganda, dis­tor­tion, sub­ver­sion. Be­cause last week Belling­cat iden­ti­fied the sec­ond sus­pect as Alexan­der Mishkin, an of­fi­cer in Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence ser­vice, the GRU. And that’s the clue. It’s the key that un­locks both the grav­ity and the au­dac­ity of what we are wit­ness­ing. It’s the GRU that is at the very heart of the at­tack on western democ­ra­cies.

It’s the GRU that has learned how to weaponise the tech plat­forms that we use ev­ery day and that un­der­pin our news and in­for­ma­tion sys­tems in ways we have sin­gu­larly failed to pro­tect. It’s the GRU that re­ports have claimed at­tacked Nato, the Ger­man par­lia­ment and the French pres­i­den­tial election. And it’s the GRU that was named in the spe­cial prose­cu­tor Robert Mueller’s re­cent in­dict­ments into the at­tack on the US pres­i­den­tial election.

On Fri­day 13 July, the day hun­dreds of thou­sands took to Lon­don’s streets to protest against Pres­i­dent Trump’s visit to his ea­ger new ally, Mueller re­leased the in­dict­ments of 12 GRU of­fi­cers for hack­ing into the com­put­ers of the Clin­ton cam­paign and the Demo­cratic na­tional con­ven­tion, an ex­tra­or­di­nary piece of work that gives a blow-by-blow ac­count of pre­cisely how the GRU tar­geted more than 300 peo­ple and leaked tens of thou­sands of stolen doc­u­ments that would go on to play a hugely con­se­quen­tial role in the pres­i­den­tial poll.

The same agency that we now know has tar­geted Bri­tain.

Mueller un­der­stands what he is deal­ing with. James Comey, for­mer FBI chief, un­der­stood it too. He was sacked af­ter con­firm­ing, more than 18 months ago, a “coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence mis­sion” to in­ves­ti­gate “the Rus­sian govern­ment’s ef­forts to in­ter­fere in the 2016 election”.

But what has be­come plain is that the Bri­tish govern­ment shows no sign of even ac­knowl­edg­ing the scale or com­plex­ity of the na­tional se­cu­rity threat we face, let alone how to deal with it, as Hil­lary Clin­ton – the tar­get of the GRU’s op­er­a­tion – ap­peared to ac­knowl­edge when she spoke in Ox­ford last week.

She de­scribed how the foun­da­tion of western lib­eral democ­racy is un­der as­sault and made pointed re­marks at both the na­ture of Rus­sia’s at­tacks on Bri­tain and Bri­tain’s fail­ure to in­ves­ti­gate, name-check­ing both Damian Collins, head of the se­lect com­mit­tee for the Depart­ment for Dig­i­tal, Cul­ture, Me­dia and Sport, for warn­ing of “a cri­sis in Bri­tish democ­racy” and Tom Wat­son, the deputy Labour leader, who have both called for a pub­lic in­quiry with “Mueller-style” pow­ers.

What Belling­cat ex­poses is how ci­ti­zen in­ves­ti­ga­tions are not only sur­pass­ing tra­di­tional main­stream or­gan­i­sa­tions, they also seem streets ahead of govern­ment agen­cies. In­ves­ti­ga­tors who use pub­licly avail­able sources have been qui­etly join­ing a ci­ti­zen’s bat­tle against this flood not just of dis­in­for­ma­tion, but of cor­po­rate se­crets, dark money think­tanks, net­works of po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence, Trump-Rus­sia col­lu­sion, over­spend­ing in the ref­er­en­dum, up to and in­clud­ing mass mur­der.

This month, BBC Africa Eye pub­lished a stun­ning in­ves­ti­ga­tion us­ing tech­niques Belling­cat has devel­oped, iden­ti­fy­ing the lo­ca­tion and iden­tity of men who’d killed two women and two young chil­dren through foren­sic anal­y­sis of on­line sources.

And, less hi-tech but also hugely valu­able, the en­tire Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica in­ves­ti­ga­tion owes a huge debt to open source in­ves­ti­ga­tors. Af­ter Harry Davies pub­lished his first ar­ti­cle in the Guardian about the firm in 2015, it was Paul-Olivier De­haye, a pro­fes­sor of maths in Geneva, who was pro­foundly trou­bled by the way per­sonal data was be­ing abused, who took it upon him­self to pro­duce an open-source doc­u­ment that he made freely avail­able to jour­nal­ists.

And when the firm threat­ened to sue the Guardian, it was the pi­o­neer­ing work of an­other open-source in­ves­ti­ga­tor, Wendy Siegel­man, work­ing with US jour­nal­ist Ann Mar­lowe, who cre­ated a chart of its many com­pli­cated cor­po­rate struc­tures that the Ob­server and

Guardian’s lawyers drew upon in our re­sponse..

For 18 months Mueller has in­ves­ti­gated how Rus­sia tar­geted the US via in­for­ma­tion space; an in­for­ma­tion space that we in Bri­tain share. In Fe­bru­ary, he un­sealed in­dict­ments of 13 Rus­sians and three com­pa­nies that re­vealed how in 2014, Moscow launched a so­phis­ti­cated op­er­a­tion to tar­get US cit­i­zens by sub­vert­ing their own so­cial me­dia plat­forms against them.

It was a key mo­ment in our un­der­stand­ing of this brave new world. A world that we see ev­ery day – on our screens, Face­book pages, Twit­ter feeds, YouTube sug­ges­tions, Google searches – but re­mains murky and com­pli­cated. It’s no­table that the counter-of­fen­sive is tak­ing place on these same plat­forms that en­abled it. That ded­i­cated Twit­ter sleuths, like @RVA­wonk and @con­spir­a­tor0 and @MikeH_PR, track the bots and trolls.

But then, in the ab­sence of any govern­ment be­ing able to hold Face­book to ac­count – Mark Zucker­berg has re­fused three re­quests from par­lia­ment to ap­pear – it’s all there is. A ci­ti­zen-fu­elled ef­fort that com­bines counter-dis­in­for­ma­tion, counter-in­tel­li­gence and even counter-at­tacks.

The GRU an­swers to the chief of the gen­eral staff of Rus­sia’s armed forces, Gen­eral Valery Gerasi­mov, who has de­scribed how this new world works. How “the very ‘rules of war’ have changed”. How “mil­i­tary means of a con­cealed char­ac­ter” are not just sup­ple­men­tal means of war. They are war, he says, de­scrib­ing how through the use of pro­pa­ganda, dis­in­for­ma­tion and sub­ver­sion “a per­fectly thriv­ing state” can, in months “sink into a web of chaos, hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe and war”.

This is what hap­pened in Ukraine. Where we now know – again thanks to Belling­cat who tracked their travel logs – the two Sal­is­bury sus­pects were pre­vi­ously de­ployed.

But then, it was Belling­cat that in an­other tri­umph of open-source in­ves­ti­ga­tion, trumped western in­tel­li­gence agen­cies in track­ing down the Rus­sian unit that launched the mis­sile that brought down flight MH17 in east­ern Ukraine, killing 298 peo­ple. And by iden­ti­fy­ing the sus­pects, Belling­cat has helped draw our at­ten­tion to what the Skri­pal at­tack per­haps re­ally was: an in­for­ma­tion op­er­a­tion.

This wasn’t sim­ply a hit job on an old ad­ver­sary. The mea­sure of the at­tack’s suc­cess was not whether Skri­pal did or didn’t die. It made no dif­fer­ence. It’s the head­lines across the world that were the real mea­sure of its suc­cess. Suc­cess, only now dented by the ef­forts of Belling­cat.

Be­cause if there’s one les­son to take from this it’s that we can­not count on the govern­ment to pro­tect us. It won’t even ac­knowl­edge what has hap­pened. It won’t back par­lia­ment’s de­mands to Face­book. Or even an­swer its ques­tions. We are in the ex­tra­or­di­nary po­si­tion that our na­tional se­cu­rity ap­pears now to rest in our own hands.

They have qui­etly joined bat­tle against net­works of in­flu­ence, col­lu­sion and dark money think­tanks

Belling­cat iden­ti­fied GRU agents Ana­toly Chep­iga, top, and Alexan­der Mishkin as the Sal­is­bury at­tack sus­pects.

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