The security establishment has used the Paris attacks as an opportunity to push their agenda of total surveillance. Union activists need to defend encryption.

Edward Snowden exposed the extent of state spying on citizens

Edward Snowden exposed the extent of state spying on citizens

In the wake of the Paris attacks, there has been a renewed attempt to increase surveillance on citizens and ban messaging systems like WhatsApp that use encryption. Despite the fact that the attackers didn’t use encryption to plan the assault, the security establishment seized the opportunity to push their agenda. While bodies were still lying on the street, they began to ramp up the fear, and to smear people like Edward Snowden for exposing how our governments spy on us.

As Greg Greenwald argues, the CIA were quick to blame Snowden and encryption to cover up their own failings. But terrorists have always used codes and encryption to protect their messages. Nothing they learned from Snowden helped them. Instead, the security establishment is manufacturing consent for a global surveillance super state that can monitor every aspect of people’s lives, and put union activists and other dangerous radicals like anti-cuts protesters on a database.

In the UK, Theresa May has been trying to get her Snoopers’ Charter through parliament since 2012. It’s been blocked so far because it’s a terrible assault on our freedom, and will provide the British government with far greater surveillance powers than the Stasi in East Germany ever dreamed of. The day after the attacks, the UK Government was making the case to have it urgently passed.

The media drumbeat has been relentless, culminating in a ridiculous article in the Telegraph by a speechwriter for Cameron, blaming tech developers for the attacks.

Spying on union activists

We know that union activists are targets for surveillance, both by state security services, and by private companies like Walmart who spy on their workers to prevent industrial action and root out union activists. Union activists have their private emails leaked in order to smear them. In the UK, we have the blacklisting scandal: thousands of union activists were put on an illegal, secret database by construction companies, and denied employment as a result.

Global attacks on unions

There has been a new round of attacks on unions around the world. Employer bodies at the ILO have been trying to undermine the right to strike at a global level. Unions fought them off successfully in February, but they will be back.

In the US, Republican politicians like Scott Walker have ended collective bargaining for state employees, and propose further restrictions on union. The UK is currently in the process of passing a new Trade Union Bill, which will severely curtail the rights of unions to organise. Collective bargaining is under attack in Finland, traditionally one of the strongest outposts of the movement. Trade deals like TTIP, TPP, CETA and TISA will give more power to corporations, and the Korean government is engaged in a full scale assault on its union movement. In countries like Guatemala and Colombia, the murder of union activists is common.

We can expect more of this: the rich and their servants in government are using the financial crisis to impose austerity and fundamentally shift the balance of power away from democratic oversight. Unions are a major obstacle to these plans. We can expect our communications to be monitored.

What should we do?

Ideally, union IT departments should set up secure systems for staff and activists, using PGP-encrypted email. But there is a lot you can do on your own. Encryption can be complicated, and if you’re doing serious political work that you need to keep secret, it’s worth taking the time to learn how to do it properly.  Download the booklet Information Security for Journalists, which provides detailed explanations.

If you have a little less time, but you want to brush up on your InfoSec skills, have a look at Security in a Box, the EFF or Reset the Net.

However, if you’re not plotting global revolution, but just need some everyday tools that will make it really signal logodifficult for the security services or corporate spies to read your messages, there are a few easy to use apps available:

Signal is a free app for iPhone or Android that allows you to send encrypted messages, and have encrypted phone calls.

Telegram_logo.svgTelegram works on phones and desktops, and can be used to send totally secure secret chats, with picture and file attachments, that can be set to self-destruct after they have been read. You can also create groups or broadcast channels to send out messages. If you’re planning a picket, you’re much better off sending a message to a group of activists on Telegram than using text messages or email.

There’s no excuse! The success of your campaign – or even your personal safety – might depend on keeping your messages secure. Get into the habit of using secure apps.


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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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