We live in a time when it’s never been easier for people to get detailed information about us. We don’t think twice about adding endless nuggets of facts about our lives to social networks, signing up to endless newsletters and allowing websites to track our moves over the web, so they can serve us up the same targeted ad time and time again.
But it’s not just on the web that we are being tracked. Step out your front door and into any city and your every move is being monitored by CCTV. All of this makes ‘going dark’ extremely hard to do but it is possible, according to ex MI5 agent Annie Machon.
On the run
TechRadar recently met up with Machon for the launch of Blacklist: Season 3 on Blu-ray. In the show, Raymond ‘Red’ Reddington (James Spader) and Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) are on the run, so who better to speak to about this than someone who absconded from the MI5 and went on the run herself?
Back in the ’90s, this is exactly what Machon and her partner at the time, David Shayler, did. They ran because Shayler turned whistleblower, releasing myriad MI5 secrets to a journalist, because he felt there was inherent wrong-doing in the agency.
Once they were given the call that the secrets were to be published in the Sunday newspapers, Machon and Shayler fled the country to Amsterdam and went dark.
“We had a month on the run, moving hotel to hotel every night, paying in cash and if we needed to get more cash, we would make sure we withdrew it from a city then got the hell out of there within the next hour, as they could easily trace you that way,” explained Machon.
Having been at the heart of the MI5 and been in constant contact with other European agencies, Machon used the skills she had required during her time at the MI5 to her advantage.
She had investigated targets before and knew the tricks that were used. Both her and Shaylor were gamekeepers turned poachers and it meant they knew how to evade capture.
“We thought ‘okay, if I was sitting behind a desk investigating me, what would I do? What would be the tricks of the trade?’
“There was one time in Amsterdam early on, when David did his first TV interview and we just didn’t trust the journalist. And, it turned out, the journalist went off and immediately contacted the MI5 about our whereabouts.
“At this point, I said we had to go right now and we did. They arrived at the hotel soon afterwards. We knew this would happen as we knew how quickly the MI5 can react to these things.”
Machon and Shayler managed a full month ‘dark’ by going the remotest parts of France, never paying for anything other than with cash, only using trains to get around and changing the way they looked. At any point they felt they had been rumbled, they just kept moving.
But this was 20 years ago. The world, and the world of technology, has changed significantly since then, so much that it’s hard to ever stay completely anonymous.
“There are ways to go dark now but it’s difficult because we are now in an endemic surveillance state – a global surveillance panoptic is probably the best way to put it,” says Machon, who now spends some of her time in the Berlin hacker scene.
“Back in the ’90s the MI5 could do everything that’s done now but it was very labour intensive so you could only do it against one target. Now, with the internet and this huge ‘flick a switch’ surveillance that goes on, they can track you easily. But if you know the tech then you can protect yourself a little bit.”
This is the technology that Machon recommends:
Don’t use proprietary software
“Get off Apple, get off Microsoft and use Linux open source software, because you can at least check the code to see if there is anything bug-wise built into it.”
But if you are, then get this program…
“If you are using a proprietary software then there are a suite of tools you can use. One is called Tails and this is a secure operating system. You can just put it on a flash drive and it means that your computer is empty of anything until you put this flash drive in and then that is what your computer runs off. That is fairly safe and fairly new.”
When browsing the web and texting, go REALLY private
“To web browse securely then always use the onion router (TOR) and if you want secure instant messaging then there is something called OTR, which is ‘off the record’ messaging. I always think it means ‘on the run’ as that’s what OTR stands for in MI5 terminology.
“If you want to hide where you are connected to the internet, then always use a VPN and always use email encryption. The best one to use is PGP – Pretty Good Privacy – which you can just download from the internet and install. Then you should install a Bitcoin wallet so you can make transactions anonymously.”
Use computer hardware that’s pre 2008…
“According to Edward Snowden’s revelations, all hardware post 2008 has backdoors built into it. That means computers, telephones, even USB cables post 2008 can have bugs in them.
“There’s is a raging hot market across Europe at the moment for pre-2008 ThinkPads. If you have an old computer and an old burner phones, then they should be safe and secure as well.
“That is the tech stuff that, if I was going on the run now, would give me a fighting chance to not be traced by technology.”
The Blacklist: Season 3 is out on Blu-ray & DVD now
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