Will there be a half-pint Pulitzer for The Guardian’s Snowden job, like the Paul Foot ‘special investigation award’? … & A Guardian overseer acknowledges ‘mass surveillance’ of readers

Secret, shadowy, tunnels into our lives, 2 - photograph: postgutenberg@gmail.com

Secret, shadowy tunnels into our lives, 2
– photograph: postgutenberg@gmail.com

‘Our tap’s been phoned.’ Neil Bennet, 1989, Private Eye: A Cartoon History

‘Our tap’s been phoned.’ Neil Bennet, 1989, Private Eye: A Cartoon History
– ( the subject of a staged National Theatre conversation: video clip)

In Britain the question of whether the barrage of banner headlines about the Snowden leaks deserves the highest journalistic honours has already been decided – but only, on the evidence, with deepest ambivalence.

No, we do not know any of the judges behind the 2013 Paul Foot Award ‘for campaigning and investigative journalism,’ established in memory of a legendary Private Eye investigative reporter who died in 2004. When we thought to look up its winner, after last week’s post about the argument over a possible Pulitzer for the Snowden story, we made the brow-raising discovery that although the Paul Foot prize was awarded last month to David Cohen of The Evening Standard for a series about London’s criminals, a ‘special investigation award’ went to The Guardian’s Snowdenia saga.

How in Hades could that have happened? Private Eye has had strikingly little – mostly, nothing — to contribute in any form of commentary (not even as cover cartoons or inside drawings) to the Snowden brouhaha. And yet anyone can see that the saga has an infinitude of giggly possibilities. The prize-givers made the predictable nod, in their citation, to ‘one of the biggest stories of the decade.’ But it seemed bizarre that as a compromise between handing The Guardian’s surveillance-consciousness-raising team the £5,000 main prize and the £1,000 that four shortlisted finalists took home, a £2,000 consolation prize had to be specially invented to placate … someone or other.

We took the logical next step, which was to look into the source of the prize money. Ah. The Paul Foot Award is co-sponsored by the Eye and … none other than The Guardian. … Just fancy that. … For anyone as mesmerised as we have been by the hopelessly confused allegations of ‘Orwellian mass surveillance’ – a misplaced cliché that seems mercifully to have been put to bed, in most coverage – the recording of Ian Hislop, the Eye’s editor, summing up l’affaire Snowden on Have I Got News for You, is a must-see. His body language telegraphed irrepressible glee, last October, as he delivered an explanation that seemed to account for his magazine’s lack of interest in the story:

The new head of MI5 has said that The Guardian has acted really irresponsibly in pointing out that we’re spying on people. It’s pointed out that we’re all being spied on all the time. [ … ] It’s a matter of consent, really. You can debate this and say, ‘Yes, I’d like to be spied on.’ I know I would. Anyone showing any interest in my life would be terrific. [Howls from live audience.] I’d be very, very, happy with that. But it’s a matter for public debate. And if we want to pass laws saying we can spy on people, we can. […] It’s just what The Guardian did was point out this is happening and nobody knows it.

Nobody would have needed telling if, as this blog has pointed out with tedious frequency, papers like The Guardian and The New York Times had only been listening to their own technology correspondents – instead of treating them as back-room bores. The public would have been educated about the all-pervasive ‘surveillance business model’ keeping track of everything we do on the internet, all the better to manipulate us for profit.

We complained earlier this month about the failure of the journals of record for the Snowden fount of classified information to acknowledge that it was corporate spying – as by internet giants of the likes of Google and Microsoft and most newspapers – that led to copycat government spying in the UK and US. The lead story in the business section of last Thursday’s New York Times by Nick Wingfield and Nick Bilton on the paper’s technology reporting team was titled, ‘Microsoft Software Leak Inquiry Raises Privacy Issues’. Its opening paragraphs said:

Technology companies have spent months denying they know anything about broad government spying on people who use their Internet services.

But a legal case filed this week against a former Microsoft employee shows the power these companies themselves have to snoop on their customers whenever they want to.

That is still a long way short of shouting about the government’s adoption of people-tracking tools routinely used by businesses, but it reveals Microsoft’s and other technology companies’ protests against NSA monitoring as resoundingly hollow.

Shortly before that, on 17 March, came a virtual admission of reader surveillance by Emily Bell, one of twelve non-executive directors of Scott Trust Limited, which owns The Guardian, and a former director of digital content for that newspaper who is now a senior academic in New York. We suggest reading past her obligatory parenthetical softening of what she had to say last Tuesday:

Using NSA-style techniques (although naturally much more benignly), the Guardian or any other publisher can track every movement you make on an online piece, where you come from, where you go to, whether you are actively reading or whether you have tuned out.

We do not think it mad to insist that it is time for both our corporate and government spies to admit that they are all equally guilty and proceed to the public debate about solutions — just as Ian Hislop said.

LOOKALIKE ( with thanks to Private Eye for vision-sharpening )


20 thoughts on “Will there be a half-pint Pulitzer for The Guardian’s Snowden job, like the Paul Foot ‘special investigation award’? … & A Guardian overseer acknowledges ‘mass surveillance’ of readers

  1. “The public would have been educated about the all-pervasive ‘surveillance business model’ keeping track of everything we do on the internet, all the better to manipulate us for profit”. Your link to the quoted phrase takes us to Michael Wolff. Is ‘surveillance business model’ his coinage? That’s quite good!
    In fact I am more interested in yours: “… all the better to manipulate us for profit”. Could you explain where and in what form this manipulation occurs?
    Whilst once upon a time I paid to have the berliner in question, along with several other journals, delivered to my door, I now visit the their website. It’s quite obvious that they track my browsing. They say as much. And they say why — mercifully without disguising it in jargon like ‘behavioural advertising’ and ‘retargeting’ that I’ve noted in other disclosures of online policy. In their privacy disclaimer, in which they talk about how they collect information about me, by what means and to what end, I see no apparent denial of this practice. Profit is clearly the aim, or an aim. But manipulation as such — I’m afraid I’m not spotting that. Perhaps you could elaborate.
    That they, like any other online newspaper or corporation or retailer, avail themselves of the very same technology used by governments to spy on us means what exactly? They also avail themselves of the very same biology.

  2. What an interesting comment, W. Bonnet …

    You say, about The Guardian‘s monitoring and tracking of its readers’ behaviour,

    In their privacy disclaimer, in which they talk about how they collect information about me, by what means and to what end, I see no apparent denial of this practice.

    No, of course not, but there has also been no attempt by The Guardian to link the practice to its criticism of the spying agencies. Readers plainly do not understand the implications of agreeing to allow tracking cookies, etc. — above all, the incontestable fact that newspapers like The Guardian are using several monitoring technologies exactly like the NSA’s tools. ‘Cookies’ sound sweet, inconsequential and harmless to the average reader. If readers did understand any of this, the Snowden leaks could not have been spun as evidence of ‘Orwellian mass surveillance’ by governments (alone). If you scroll down the home page of this blog or type its name into a search engine with ‘surveillance business model,’ then follow the links embedded in at least half a dozen posts here, I believe you will find detailed answers to your questions.

    You also say,

    … In fact I am more interested in yours: “… all the better to manipulate us for profit”. Could you explain where and in what form this manipulation occurs?

    Have you never heard of this classic exposé of consumer marketing tactics? (from its Wikipedia entry:)

    In The Hidden Persuaders, first published in 1957, Packard explores the use of consumer motivational research and other psychological techniques, including depth psychology and subliminal tactics, by advertisers to manipulate expectations and induce desire for products, particularly in the American postwar era.

    Your own email host, Fmail, which apparently uses a UK server, is actually part of

    Computer Data Networks [which] is a member of e-Portal Holding Group of IT companies. Since 1983, CDN has been providing clients in Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Qatar and Bahrain with complete range of IT solutions, with particular focus on Local and Wide Area Networks, Wireless Communications, Physical and Data Security, Structured Cabling Systems and IT Infrastructure projects.

    Have you looked up its ‘privacy’ policies, W. Bonnet?:

    DomainSponsor Legal Policies

    Information Use and Sharing

    PLEASE NOTE THAT WE MAY USE THE INFORMATION THAT WE COLLECT ON THE SITE, AND IN THE COURSE OF PROVIDING THE SERVICES, FOR ANY PURPOSE IN OUR SOLE DISCRETION. We may match any of the information we gather to any personally identifying information or other information we have obtained from or about you to improve the content of the Site and Services for you. Examples of some of the ways we use or share information that we collect about you include, but are not limited to, the following:

    providing you with products or services, including the display of customized content, advertising, and services;


    Personal Information. Unless you have opted out where available, we may rent, sell, or share any of your information, personal or otherwise, with third parties, including without limitation for the following purposes:

    Service providers: We may share your personal information, alone or in combination with non-personal information, with third party service providers in connection with the Services we provide …

  3. ‘Spying’ on your curious email address, W. Bonnet. I had never heard of Fmail.co.uk, you see…. And then, to find its owners based in the mysterious Middle East …hmm, all the more intriguing.

    Btw, to answer another of your questions, I think it most likely that Andrew Leonard at Salon.com was the first to mention the ‘surveillance business model.’ Not sure.

  4. Is it whacky? Horrors. I’ve had it since the fading moments of the 20th Century, when it was among the first IMAP-enabled email services. Perhaps eventually I’ll get one of these Google things you all use now — though not without trepidation, if, as I infer from your column, they employ that same infamous Tempora technology used by GCHQ and the aforementioned online manipulator. Then again, who wouldn’t know by now that one is known to bounce on one’s mattress from time to time in a pair of Wallace & Gromit knickers while lip-synching to Adele hits?

  5. Perhaps the problem is more Mores than Tempora — eg., taste that runs to dressing up in Wallace and Gromit.

    Fmail: since you expressed no surprise about the extracts from this email host’s voyeuristic terms of service, you must know about and accept them. But that’s impossible to believe of someone obviously equipped with a functioning grey cell or two — and supports pG’s hypothesis that fmail is something you only invented two days ago, for unfathomable reasons. …If it weren’t intended to have a lifespan only slightly longer than a firefly’s, if it had really been around for remotely as long as you say it has, why would the spell checker on this tablet have altered its name to ‘gmail’ five times in a row? Why wouldn’t we have come across the name before?

    I suppose you will now insist that we have fallen under the influence of an fmail-shaped bee, but that would be impossible, as we neither wear nor are a [B]onnet …

    If we do have an obsession, these days, it is with persuading some of our correspondents to join us in experimenting with encryption, or at least stop patronising sites like Facebook until they can be run as user-owned cooperatives. But despite the great fuss over Snowden, almost anyone to whom we have suggested encrypted email exchanges either says, in dubious tones, ‘Well, if you like …,’ or looks at us very oddly indeed. … Just one more reason for asking, what good has the Graun done the world by broadcasting the surveillance story back-to-front? The NSA isn’t going to stop spying any more than GCHQ or the companies are, and no one wants to do anything serious about giving back our fig-leaves.

  6. Have I understand you correctly — you think that I’ve invented fmail?
    Fastmail.fm (or fmail for those of us who acquired these accounts abroad) was at the time a Melbourne-based company. Among free-of-charge web-mail services available then — such as hotmail, yahoo, and so on — it was thought by us spies to be comparatively hack-resistant. I believe they’ve been bought and sold several times since those heady, innocent days. No doubt they’re as crackable now as any other. Yet trusting them with my privacy was never in the picture.
    My café are shutting in two minutes; must button up my Ozwald Boateng and lean into the Westminster drizzle.

  7. Well okay, you didn’t start it last week, then, and it’s just one of those addresses we all need for cloak-and-dagger commenting expeditions. … Doesn’t rule out, say, you and an old Saudi mate dreaming up fmail sipping Pimms and floating in his gelt-lined Sydney swimming pool. He took charge of the financing – told Daddy what to write on the cheque — and you told the lawyers what the rules should say. … Anything is possible. Here on the net, we know that you could be not just that New Yorker dog but a puss-in-boots, loup-in-a-bonnet, batman … and just as likely to be leaning into a Westminster mizzle as bounding into a crepuscular rendezvous at, say, 27-35 W. 44th St.. … Yet any objective observer considering those shocking scraps pulled out of the user agreement is bound to concede that pG is right to find it odd that you either (a) put up with fmail’s terms as a user, occasional or frequent; or (b) virtually wrote them into being. … We might nosily insist on knowing why, but the Wikipedia says that Ozwald Boateng has been able to ‘draw in a younger demographic,’ and this is not the sort of blog that discourages underage visitors. … Fascinated by Boateng — apparently financed by Tommy Nutter.

  8. ‘ … You may have my number, you can take my name,
    But you’ll never have my heart’ … (tra-la-la).

  9. So, may the casual reader of this blog infer from the highly entertaining repartee above concerning fashion, swimming, Adelle, Bees in Bonnets, FastMail, spy vs. spy, and other sundry topics that postgutenberg and W. Bonnet are actually acquaintances?

  10. The truth is, I don’t have enough clues, Aine — sometimes it seems to be someone I know, sometimes not. Certainly not anyone I know well, because no one in that category could mistake me for an Adelista. (Hope you are reading this, o W.B.)… Glad that you are enjoying the entertainment as much as pG. The legions who detest pseudonymous commenting have no idea of its constructive possibilities …. Are you pro- or anti-? … And do you have an opinion on fmail’s terms of service?

  11. If our paths have crossed, I couldn’t say where or when.

    Looking through FastMail.FM’s privacy policy [see link], I find nothing resembling what you’ve posted above, which may mean only that I’m searching in the wrong place. I don’t recognize “DomainSponsor” as anything to do with FastMail.FM. I’m curious where and how you located that connection, if it is a true connection. Wikipedia’s entry for FastMail.FM reveals no connection either, though this is hardly bankable proof of anything. While they were owned briefly by the Norwegian browser Opera, my impression is that FastMail’s founders have recently reacquired their company outright.

    The email service has been bug-free and spam-free for the fifteen years I’ve used it. I obtained it in the first place in order to keep a separate email presence that I would employ only on computers that were not my own, particularly when travelling. This address has never been cross-referenced with my home-based email account, browser, or hardware.


  12. W. Bonnet, realisation dawns at a snail’s pace, sometimes. About two years ago, an Adele song was indeed quoted here — without making it clear that that was part of a mild protest about the commercialisation of chocolates-and-flowers day. It’s true that pG prefers Edith Piaf, Janis Joplin or Patsy Cline for a torch singer — their voices have either the rawness, grit or depth that Adele’s has yet to acquire — but it is our fault for misleading you. … Thanks for stopping in, in your IMAPped, fmail cloak of many mysteries, and for raising the standard of entertainment here, just as Aine says, or implies.

  13. I posted my last reply to you, W. Bonnet, before I found your latest comment waiting for approval in my email queue, as it should not have been. Strange goings-on — the system was treating you as a new commenter. Anyway, I think I saved the fmail-DomainSponsor page I found, so will be back soon, with a URL, if I find one.

  14. If this is all in jest, it certainly is a good joke – whose unravelling could take days … I haven’t been able to replicate the steps that led me to the pages linked to my original Fmail.co.uk query, but I do have copies of these pages – except for the registration form for Fmail, the first discovery. … I mean, pages linking the email service to Computer Data Networks and the DomainSponsor legal and privacy notices. If it mattered – and it obviously doesn’t – someone could look at the coding – meta-tags – for each page, and confirm that one did indeed lead me to the next, on the day I looked. … There is no way to send them to you from this comments box, and nothing would induce me to use anyone’s Fmail address, not even if it belonged to Pope Francis or the Dalai Lama. Being a Gmail user is frightening enough.

    To the uninitiated, networking technology seems to work something like a dynamic cat’s cradle – or even Rubik’s Cube. I’m afraid it’s a bit rude, but Fmail is referred to as a ‘tosser’ in a Wikipedia entry about something called FidoNet – the crudest understanding of whose purpose seems to be, storing and bouncing email around the world. That could explain its usefulness to you, on your travels. … It is not easy for a non-expert to see how any one service that lives on a network is connected to other parts of it, and other network services. … Some part of the CDN conglomerate could own Fmail, which appears to have its HQ in the Netherlands – and Fmail could simply be using the standard DomainSponsor user policy, whether or not it’s a client of the DS platform.

    … A remarkable combination, anyway:

    Internet Service Provider
    Since 1996, CDN has been bringing the latest in wireless technologies to the entire region. From our city-wide WiFi deployment in Southern Iraq, to one of world’s largest and most advanced city-wide Wireless Video Surveillance Systems, CDN has been called upon to deliver complete, integrated indoor and outdoor wireless solutions.

    Attn: Privacy
    515 S. Flower Street, Suite 4400
    Los Angeles, California 90071
    Privacy [at] domainsponsor.com

  15. As I say I’m not necessarily denying the connection you believe you’ve found. You saw what you saw. I simply can’t seem to find it myself, or, starting where you started, trace my way through any plausible series of links that would bring me to this larger CDN/DomainSponsor operation. Meanwhile I can only hope that to cool Silicon Valley types ‘tosser’ means something different to the meaning I’m familiar with.

    But here’s the thing. I know a lad who can tell you not only which tube station I set off for each morning, and at what time, but also which of my wife’s buttocks I tend to pinch on the way out the door and whether she tends to pinch back or to take offense. With a precisely cocked ear this lad may also pick out bits of the odd sweet nothing. All of this precious intel he gathers as he drops off paper-and-ink editions of The FT, The Guardian, and The Times. Privacy is as privacy does.

  16. Mrs Bonnet, too, now … well-met at daybreak! … We are imagining you and Mr. B reading this at the same screen on your breakfast table, muesli bowls touching.

    W.B. : You say, ‘Privacy is as privacy does.’ Quite, and why restrict your audience to your paper delivery boy when you could post your real-life social media coordinates with us?

    About seeing what we saw. If you click the legal policy link at the bottom of the fmail page we saved in trying to work out just who might be hiding behind your email address, you arrive at the DomainSponsor page quoted in our first reply. This page shows Fmail linked to Oversee, which lives at the same address as DS: http://myip.ms/info/whois/ … You said you thought that Fmail.co.uk is owned by Opera. It was, for about two years, and then its employees are thought to have bought it back, to regain complete control over its destiny. … This Wikia page shows Fmail as one of 107 Fastmail domains: http://fastmail.wikia.com/wiki/FastMailDomains.

    It has become fascinatingly difficult to know where anyone actually is, these days — and because goodies, not just baddies, are using anonymisers and every other disguise they can to hide from intrusive users of the surveillance business model and spooks, hiding in an impenetrable thicket of internetworking is no longer automatic proof of villainy. … So, we still don’t know about you, but thank you for introducing us to the missus. Perhaps she will comment, too?

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