Yesterday, former MI5 officer Annie Machon gave students at Leicester the rare opportunity to hear the inside story on the British security services. As a former-intelligence-officer-turned-whistleblower, Annie was able to share her relatively unique perspective on the inner workings of governments, intelligence agencies and the media, and it was truly eye opening and completely fascinating.
When Annie Machon arrived to the talk, I was immediately struck with how much she gave off the vibe of everything I’d expected an MI5 officer to be like (think classy Bond girl meets quick witted, intelligent Spooks agents). After spending most of my younger life drawn in by the endlessly exciting allure of spy fiction, it was more than amazing to hear Annie talk about her time spent ‘on the run’ in Europe with her also MI5 boyfriend, spending their days at Parisian restaurants avoiding potentially bugged private rooms. However, Annie’s account included the harsh undertone of the reality of issues in our security services. At this point, it’s important to remember that Annie identifies as a whistleblower, and this occupation is due to her observations of illegal and questionable practice whilst working for MI5. It is also due to the subsequent treatment, invasion of privacy, and false representation by media she received whilst ‘on the run’ after having broken her declaration to the Official Secrets Act in order to expose government malpractice. And this is primarily what she came to talk to us about yesterday. Annie spoke of the ‘good guys’ label that fictional depictions like James Bond portray, which was certainly relevant to my previous understanding of the security services, and this made me even more grateful to be able to hear the real first-hand account of someone so close to the reality.
Annie used her knowledge of media/government relationships, MI5 surveillance techniques, and the changes that are coming to investigatory powers as a result of society’s transition from the analogue to the digital era, to analyse the implications for democracy, security and intelligence. Annie called upon the need for increased openness and accountability in public and private sectors, and gave us a long list of suggestions for how to increase our real life privacy settings, recommending that the more ‘normal’ this practice of increasing our privacy becomes, the less the government will push moral boundaries. One of the easiest suggestions is to encrypt all your e-mails using PGP.
And the main message I have taken from the talk is to question everything even more so than I already do. The entanglement of power between the media and the government has already resulted in countless flipped truths, in some cases causing the imprisonment of innocent people. This elitist theory is a topic already touched upon in my Criminology degree’s study of media and crime, but the real life account of how this happens adds to this incredibly.
Annie Machon’s book ‘Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers‘ describes her experiences and perspectives in further detail if you’re interested in learning more about this. Similarly, Edward Snowden’s programmes such as ‘Optic Nerve’, ‘Prism’ and ‘Tempera’ and Peter Wright’s book ‘Spy Catcher‘ further illuminate the truths of the security services.