In late 2014, a group of the world’s most renowned privacy activists, whistleblowers, technologists and legal experts joined forces to work on the development of a global initiative to fight surveillance.
Led by privacy veteran Simon Davies and former MI5 intelligence officer Annie Machon, the project has developed into the Code Red initiative. Its aim is to create the next evolutionary step in the growing movement to curb excessive government power.
The project will build bridges between the technology, media, legal and policy worlds and will become a strategic hub for the many activists working in this arena. Code Red will also create a clearing house for information in the anti-surveillance movement and will support whistleblowers and sources.
The genesis of Code Red reaches back more than three years, at a time when privacy activists were informally discussing potential strategies to stem the increasing leakage of privacy rights at the hand of governments. However in June 2014 – one year after the first revelations by Edward Snowden – privacy veteran Simon Davies published a report (PDF) on the tangible impact of those disclosures on legislation and public opinion. The report, featuring contributions from 42 experts across the world, concluded that only a handful of governments had responded to the disclosures in any meaningful way (reform efforts in the US were prominent). Most countries had either ignored the Snowden material or had responded with a mix of obfuscation and denial.
Importantly, the report also discovered that media coverage of the Snowden material was absent in most countries. It had become primarily an Anglo-American issue, with the notable exception of extensive German press coverage. Even EU countries such as Italy barely reported the disclosures, evidenced by a straw poll of university students in Rome, sixty percent of whom had not heard of Snowden.
Prospects for national security reform (legal compliance, transparency, accountability etc) since the publication of the report have deteriorated further. Commitments to reform in the US appear to have stalled, while the outgoing head of GCHQ gave a farewell speech in October 2014 that essentially denied the substance of the revelations. Meanwhile, countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Denmark and Spain have responded to heightened terrorist threats with security legislation that could best be described as draconian.
The birth of Code Red
The report’s findings sparked substantial dialogue within civil society about the need for a more strategic approach to international reform activity. There was general agreement that the answer lies beyond conventional funding for legal cases. One of the most critically important needs was to build stronger bridges between the technical, legal, whistleblower, media and the policy worlds. Currently, relatively few people straddle these dimensions and information and cooperation between those spheres is patchy. A second need is to find a way to make information on reform activities much more accessible and useful through a clearinghouse utility. Finally, improved strategic and tactical advice was needed by reform campaigners.
This discussion solidified into an initiative called “Code Red”. Its 35-member advisory group contains a wide spectrum of prominent and experienced campaigners, legal and security experts and whistleblowers including Tor’s Jacob Appelbaum, former NSA technical director William Binney, crypto pioneer Whitfield Diffie and security guru Bruce Schneier. The project is led by Simon Davies – father of the international privacy activist movement, and Annie Machon – former MI5 intelligence officer turned whistleblower,
Currently reform activity is principally focused on two activities. The first of these is legal work (notably NGO’s such as Privacy International, EFF and Privacy First – to name but a few). The second principal focus is technology solutions (crypto and circumvention innovation by technologists such as those in CCC and C-Base). There is also a considerable amount of privacy activity at the corporate and start-up level. More general campaigning is being conducted by around two hundred privacy organisations.
Code Red does not intend to replicate the work of these organisations. Its aim is to provide new information and cooperative conduits between them to enhance the integrity and effectiveness of their activities.
The conceptual and evidentiary stages of Code Red have been completed. Considerable work has been achieved in outreach and consultation, including public meetings in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Brussels, Berlin, Perugia, Vienna and Rome. The advisory group has been appointed and staff are being recruited.
The next immediate step for Code Red will be infrastructure development, including creation of a legal entity, financial arrangements and an appropriate governance structure. Over this period, funding will be sought to build the organisation, including a crowdfunding project.