Hackers Wage War on 'Profiteering Gluttons'

Monday, 27 February 2012

In secretive online chat rooms, away from the glare of police, small groups of elite hackers plot attacks against multi-national corporations and governments. But in a quest to expose what they see as a conspiracy of high-level corruption, the hackers – affiliated to cyber-activist network Anonymous – have in recent months expanded their targets, becoming increasingly unpredictable and callous in the process.

2011 was a significant year for Anonymous, both in terms of activity and evolution. The chaotic collective, born out of online messageboard 4Chan in 2003, continued to grow, partly fuelled by the social unrest that has gripped the world.

Its members helped revolutionaries in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria counter government censorship, and temporarily disabled the websites of powerful financial institutions for refusing to process WikiLeaks donations. They have taken part in traditional protests as part of the worldwide Occupy movement and led a challenge against new laws that they say would stifle internet freedom .

At the same time, however, an aggressive and volatile faction within Anonymous has also flourished – and that is causing a degree of internal division.

Made up of a small highly skilled hacker team which carries out attacks under the name Operation Anti-Security – or AntiSec – it includes some of those previously involved with the group LulzSec, which for two months last year attacked a series of major targets including Sony and the US Central Intelligence Agency.

Unlike the majority of mainstream Anonymous participants, AntiSec's core members – numbering up to 10, with around three or four key hackers, according to sources close to the group – do not often participate in distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks that flood websites with traffic and force them offline for a temporary period.

Announced by LulzSec in June 2011 as part of an offensive against government agencies and what it called profiteering gluttons, AntiSec's elite – like a clandestine special-forces wing of Anonymous – devote themselves to far more precarious and controversial activity.

The group breaks into servers, exposing security vulnerabilities while mining data – often including passwords and credit card numbers – that it ultimately dumps onto the web for anyone to download.

Partly inspired by a 13-year-old hacking movement of the same name, since December 2011 AntiSec has embarked on a seemingly unstoppable rampage.

It has intercepted an FBI/Scotland Yard phone call, and attacked a well-known thinktank, a number of US police forces, a law firm and even US consumer watchdog the Federal Trade Commission. Almost nothing, it seems, is off limits.

"Generally we target government systems, police systems and evil corporations," says an AntiSec hacker, who asks not to be named ("I don't need the heat"). "But law firms do usually contain a wealth of private information, and when they are representing people who are already in our crosshairs, it's fair game."

On 24 December, AntiSec broke into the website of Stratfor, a US security and intelligence thinktank that specialises in geopolitical analysis.

Aiming to expose "rich and powerful oppressors", it stole a huge 200GB cache of data from Statfor's servers, including 5m emails and 75,000 credit card numbers belonging to the thinktank's subscribers. The emails were handed to WikiLeaks, which on Monday began publishing selections of them.

But the credit card details were simply dumped online for anyone to download, leaving thousands of Statfor's customers – among them ordinary citizens who paid to receive updates on world affairs – open to exploitation by fraudsters.

There had been more unwitting victims on 3 February, when AntiSec attacked law firm Puckett and Faraj, which represented Frank Wuterich, a US soldier convicted for involvement in the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians in 2005.

The hackers were outraged when Wuterich, who admitted issuing an order to shoot first and ask questions later, avoided a jail sentence for his role in the incident, winning leniency through a plea bargain that carried no punishment beyond a reduction in rank and a pay cut.

AntiSec broke into Puckett and Faraj's servers, obtained nearly 3GB of emails (numbering tens of thousands of messages and dating back two years), and posted them onto the internet "to expose the corruption of the court systems and the brutality of US imperialism".

The trove included emails showing how Wuterich's lawyer, Mark Zaid, planned to meet Republican congressman Duncan Hunter about "making this whole case go away". But it also contained a mass of highly sensitive information from an array of cases unrelated to the Wuterich incident, such as witness statements from victims of sexual assault.

This caused unease among some members of Anonymous, with a statement published online purportedly from a disenchanted group saying that a “silent majority” were “growing uncomfortable with this new and inaccurate meaning for Anonymous.” AntiSec, however, has remained unapologetic.

"When justice cannot be found in the courts, it will be found in the streets – or in this case, the internet," says a hacker involved in the attack on Puckett and Faraj, adding that the group still has access to a private email account used by Neal Puckett, the firm's founder.

"Generally, we do work to redact information on bystanders – for example, in all of our police attacks, we have carefully redacted prisoner/parolee information. [But] it is the firm's responsibility to protect the information of their clients."

Will there be more attacks on law firms in the future? "If law firms stick their necks out in defence of notoriously corrupt corporations – especially if it is shown that wrongdoing was involved – then yes, I'd say that could be possible."

Adopting such an increasingly militant approach has gained AntiSec a number of vocal critics, most notably among organisations that in the past may have sympathised with the wider aims of the Anonymous movement.

Alex Hanff, managing director at consultancy firm Think Privacy and former communications project leader at civil liberties watchdog Privacy International, denounced the group earlier in February after it posted the source code of popular Symantec anti-virus software online, rendering it potentially unsafe. Hanff, who keeps in regular contact with those involved in Anonymous actions, was asked to endorse the Symantec release by AntiSec. When he refused, saying it could make thousands of computer users vulnerable to criminals, a Privacy International affiliated website came under attack.

"People who hold Anonymous's cause close to heart are incredibly aggravated by the actions of AntiSec," Hanff says. "There is a very significant lack of social responsibility, morals and ethics – they seem to be a group that are bent on only pursing their own course, for their own purposes, without any awareness or even any care for what the consequences of that may be."

Some believe the increasingly erratic attacks, perpetrated by small cells of hackers such as AntiSec, only serve to give governments justification for asserting greater control over the internet.

At present, though, it seems even the introduction of punitive legislation would prove futile, because the most skilled hackers – as volatile as they may be – are able to outsmart and outstep the authorities at almost every turn, and, perhaps most crucially, are committed to stop at nothing.

"I don't want come off as someone who's saying that our particular grievance is going to be the thing that ruins America – that finishes it off – but that's what it's looking like from our standpoint," says Barrett Brown, an activist who works closely with AntiSec.

"This is going to turn into an actual shooting war. It just looks to me like things are accelerating ... if you're mad at us now, just wait a couple of years. No one's burning down villages; no one's dropping bombs – yet."

This article first appeared at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/feb/27/anonymous-splinter-group-antisec-waging-war

Spies and their Masters

Monday, 20 February 2012

They slept with women under false pretences, used fake passports, and each cost the taxpayer an estimated £250,000 a year. In the last twelve months, police spies used to infiltrate and monitor protest groups have come under intense scrutiny after a series of exposés. Now, a new government review has recommended that undercover officers should be subject to greater independent oversight. Serious concerns remain, however, that the proposed changes do not go far enough.

The controversial spy tactics used by the police began to unfold in late 2010, when Mark Kennedy, a covert Metropolitan officer, was unmasked. Kennedy, who was known to activists as Mark ‘Flash’ Stone, had operated for years alongside protesters as a secret police intelligence gatherer. Tattooed and with long hair, he presented himself as a “freelance climber” and quickly became a key figure in the environmental movement with his easy access to money and transport.

Kennedy’s cover was eventually blown when the girlfriend he was seeing in his guise as an eco-warrior found his real passport. Shocked, she told her friends. Kennedy confessed, and it soon emerged he had infiltrated major environmental protests dating back to 2003, travelling to eleven countries across Europe meeting and befriending activists. Unbeknown to them, he had a tracking device fitted inside his mobile phone – and was constantly feeding information back to his police superiors in London.

Following the revelations about Kennedy, government police watchdog Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) reviewed the use of undercover officers by the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), the specialist “domestic extremism” outfit he worked for.

Authored by HMIC chief Sir Denis O'Connor, the review, published earlier this month, criticised the lack of oversight of Kennedy’s activities, noting that “the full extent of his activity remains unknown.” O’Connor recommended that future long-term deployments of undercover police officers should be "pre-authorised" by independent body the Office of Surveillance Commissioners, which oversees MI5 and other state agencies that use clandestine surveillance techniques.

But according to campaign group The Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol), the HMIC review has failed to address fundamental issues.

“On the basis of this report, undercover police officers can continue to target a range of political and protest groups,” says Val Swain, spokesperson for Netpol. “The report is not even able to deliver an agreed definition of the term ‘domestic extremism’, meaning there are still no real limits on how the targets of undercover policing are decided upon.”

Swain points to the case of an 87-year-old artist, John Catt, who launched a legal challenge against police in 2011 after he was branded a domestic extremist and put under surveillance during a number of anti-arms trade demonstrations.

“Mr Catt had no criminal record, and spent his time at protests sketching, but the police have been adamant in asserting their right to hold details of his vehicle, his family, his appearance and his movements... There is no justification for the invasive surveillance of this kind of political activity, either through undercover officers or other means.

“The domestic extremism unit lacks any real accountability or transparency, and ultimately lacks any credibility. It is a shadowy unit that has been allowed to set its own rules for spying on legitimate political activity and dissent, and has no place within British society, or British policing.”

In recent months, a further eight undercover officers, whose secretive operations date back to the 1980s, have been exposed. Of these, six are believed to have had sexual relationships with women they were spying on – despite this being considered "grossly unprofessional" under existing police rules. On two occasions, the covert officers even secretly fathered children with activists before vanishing from their lives.

A catalogue of serious misconduct allegations involving the officers – including claims that they gave false testimony in a court case – is now being investigated by twelve separate inquires, set up by police chiefs and prosecutors. But all are being held behind closed doors, prompting calls for a full and open public inquiry.

“The reason you need public scrutiny is that more and more we see examples of the police unjustifiably criminalising peaceful protest,” says Katherine Craig, a solicitor at law firm Christian Khan. “When the state has been left to regulate itself it has failed. Absolutely the presumption should be for maximum transparency and accountability.”

Craig expresses concern that there has been a “cultural shift” in the way protests are policed, with authorities increasingly targeting activist groups. The revelations around the conduct of undercover officers, she believes, show the failures of a system that has for decades been allowed to function behind a veil of intense official secrecy.

“You can’t simply rely on individual officers or even on police forces as a whole to act responsibility and that’s really been borne out in these cases that have come to light,” Craig says. “The fact that there isn’t a proper system [of regulation] is obscene.”

Though the HMIC review recommended that a new structure of independent regulation is put in place for undercover officers, critics say this is insufficient. Human rights group Liberty has called for judicial oversight to be introduced, which would mean a judge would have to authorise the use of covert police officers.

“If a judge has to sign off a warrant to search your premises, why on earth should the police be able to self-authorise the far greater intrusion of putting a mole amongst your colleagues and friends?” says Rachel Robinson, policy officer for Liberty. “The report says that judicial sign off would compromise independence without any proper reasoning for this assertion. Only legislation will prevent more Kennedys playing James Bond and abusing our trust."

The Association of Chief Police Officers, a private company which leads the development of policing in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, has backed the idea of introducing judicial oversight of undercover operations. However, in the short term this looks an unlikely proposition. The home secretary, Theresa May, has remained non committal, saying only that the government would “consider carefully the recommendations [made by HMIC] to ensure enhanced control of these undercover police officers in the future.”

Meanwhile, after a year of disclosures about undercover police infiltrating protest groups, concern has heightened in activist communities. Protesters at the Occupy London encampment at St Paul’s Cathedral have spoken openly about how they believe police officers are living among them, and at an Occupy demonstration in December a number of men were accused of being agent provocateurs.

The protesters’ fears are well founded. In an interview with the Daily Mail last year, Kennedy claimed he knew of at least 15 other officers who had infiltrated activist groups – four of whom remained undercover.

“The world of undercover policing is grey and murky – there is some bad stuff going on,” he said. “I wasn't the only undercover police officer doing this kind of work and I'm quite sure that there may be operations still running.”

Syria: Crisis and Intervention

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Syrian forces’ bombardment of Homs reached new levels of brutality last week, posing a major dilemma for Western governments. With reports of indiscriminate attacks on civilians sparking international outrage, there were clear echoes of the civil war in Libya a year ago. But as revolutionary fighters in the region have repeatedly asked for outside assistance, nations including Britain and America have been hesitant to directly intervene. This, some believe, means "back-channel" covert action from Western forces is increasingly inevitable - and could already be underway.

The situation in Syria hit crisis point two weeks ago, when embattled leader Bashar al-Assad’s military began shelling the city of Homs in the west of the country. Though Assad denied responsibility, activists said hundreds of civilians – including many children – died in the attacks, while some of the few journalists on the ground reported seeing some of the most gruesome scenes since unrest began in the country in January 2011.

Shortly after the wave of bombings commenced, on 4 February, a United Nations (UN) resolution to remove Assad from power was tabled. The resolution was quickly vetoed by China and Russia, allies of the Assad regime, dashing hopes of a quick solution. Yet while the international community failed to reach a consensus on how to respond, some reports have suggested unofficial, secret efforts are already underway to assist revolutionary forces – known as the Free Syrian Army – on the outskirts of the country.

Late last year, an article appeared in respected Paris publication Le Canard Enchaîne – France’s version of British investigative magazine Private Eye – containing leaked information. Quoting senior military intelligence sources, it reported that British and French secret services were already at work in northern Lebanon and Turkey, establishing contacts with Syrian soldiers who had fled after defecting from Assad’s army. It added that French special operations teams were “already prepared, in Turkey, should they get the order, to train these deserters in urban guerrilla warfare.”

This revelation was compounded by a series of details divulged by former US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer Philip Giraldi in December. Citing insider sources, Giraldi, who served in the CIA for 18 years, wrote in a US magazine that the agency was actively assisting Syrian dissidents and rebels in the region, and that unmarked planes had been used to fly in small arms seized from toppled Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. According to him, the arms were distributed to Syrian anti-government fighters from a US airbase in Adana, southern Turkey, near the Syrian border.

“I’m fairly confident that there has been what the intelligence community calls ‘a finding’ on Syria, which has authorised the intelligence and special ops elements to undertake operations basically against the Syrian government,” Giraldi says, speaking to me on the phone from Virginia in eastern America. “That means the White House is on board saying that we will be doing things that will be deniable but which we approve of.”

America is known to have wanted regime change in Syria for some time, as it considers the country a state sponsor of terrorism. A secret US government document published by whistleblower organisation WikiLeaks in 2011 revealed that as recently as 2006 the US was plotting to undermine the Assad regime. The document, authored by a US diplomat in Damascus, noted: “If we are ready to capitalize, they [the Syrian regime] will offer us opportunities to disrupt his [Assad’s] decision-making, keep him off balance, and make him pay a premium for his mistakes.”

With this in mind, Giraldi believes it is “implausible” to think US special forces are not already operating in Syria, and cites it as one of what he calls America’s “secret wars”, which cause him concern. Questioning the wisdom of getting involved in a conflict in the country, he argues that very little is known about the fragmented Syrian rebel forces and their motivations. This reflects a much wider fear that, if Assad is to fall, the militias – made up of differing religious groups – could turn on each other in the struggle for power, leading to even greater bloodshed.

“When you don’t know what you’re getting in to, you would probably be better served by not doing it,” Giraldi says. “It could well be that the British, French and American governments know a lot more about Syria than we do, but I don’t know about that. I was in the intelligence profession and I know how thin this stuff can be.”

The pattern developing in Syria appears similar to how the civil war unfolded in Libya last year. Both before and after a UN resolution imposed a no fly zone over the country, secret intelligence agents from both Britain’s MI6 and America’s CIA were known to be on the ground. MI6, accompanied by elite Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers, reportedly helped direct airstrikes, met with Libyan rebel leaders and gathered information about the locations of key Gaddafi military sites.

According to former SAS officer Robin Horsfall, the role of elite British soldiers was crucial in helping rebels topple Gaddafi. Horsfall, who served for six years as part of the elite unit and took part in the Iranian Embassy Siege in London in 1980. He believes, like in Libya, UN forces or “subversive support” will be essential for any successful overthrow of Assad. But he doubts British special forces are currently engaged directly in helping Syrian fighters given the current stalemate over the UN resolution.

“To be seen to be training a cadre of revolutionaries and supplying them with information and weapons in a place like Turkey, where there is free movement of the press, would be a huge political risk and I don’t think they’d be inclined to do that right now,” he says. “There may well be special forces, as there always are, moved close to any flashpoint in the world. But in reality they’re not doing anything. They’re probably close to the theatre [of war] practicing for any eventuality.”

Though Horsfall thinks there is not likely to be British soldiers within the country, he says the presence of British spies is likely. “One of the eventualities that they [the SAS] will be preparing for without any doubt is the evacuation of any diplomats, any VIPs... Also agents – people use the word 'diplomats' but often they are agents working for MI6, who are intelligence gatherers.”

He adds: “The great thing now is with mobile phones and the internet, the risks that spies have to take are far less difficult. The main reason being that information is freely available and transmittable from every street in Syria, which is to the great disadvantage of Assad and his regime.”

As bombs continue to rain down on Homs at the time of writing, one of the few certainties about the unfolding Syrian crisis is that there will be more violence. Anti-Assad fighters say they will settle for nothing less than his removal from power – but Assad himself shows no sign of leaving without an almighty fight. If the conflict continues on this path, and a peaceful solution is not negotiated, it certainly seems likely that small teams of elite western soldiers – if they have not yet done so – will help train, arm and coordinate rebel fighters.

“The reality is, I would be very surprised if that sort of back-channel activity wasn’t already happening,” Lord Williams, formally the UN’s most senior official in the Middle East, told the BBC last week. “I would expect the services of some countries to be involved... I think that, in consultation with Turkey, there is scope for further action in that regard.”

How did Anonymous hack the FBI?

Friday, 10 February 2012

In the last twelve months it has attacked government websites in Syria, declared cyber war on a brutal Mexican drug cartel, and exposed an anti-WikiLeaks "dirty tricks campaign" allegedly plotted by a prominent US security firm. But on Friday, Anonymous, a diffuse network of internet hackers, reached a new level when it intercepted and leaked a conference call between FBI agents and Scotland Yard detectives.

The astonishing feat - confirmed as genuine by the FBI - was apparently carried out after the hackers breached email accounts belonging to the authorities. In doing so, they were able to snoop on communications being exchanged between forces involved in a joint international anti-hacking operation across England, Ireland, Holland, France, Denmark, Sweden and America. In a piece of surreal real-life theatre, the tables were embarrassingly and dramatically turned. The investigators became the investigated; the watchers became the watched.

The call in question, which lasts around 16 minutes, is one of the boldest leaks ever produced by the hackers, and it may also be one of the most revelatory. A fascinating glimpse into a highly classified world, it shows the extent to which the Metropolitan police is willing to collaborate with its foreign counterparts as part of cyber-crime investigations, even if doing so means interfering with the British judicial process. At one point during the call, for instance, one of the Scotland Yard detectives tells his FBI colleagues that they secretly delayed an ongoing court case involving two UK-based suspected hackers - Jake Davis and Ryan Cleary - at America's behest.

"Following some discussion with the New York office, we're looking to try and build some time in to allow some operational matters to fulfil on your side of the water," the Scotland Yard detective is quoted as saying. "We've got the prosecution making an application in chambers, i.e. without the defence knowing, to seek a way to try and factor some time in, that won't look suspicious." He goes on: "Hey, we're here to help. We've cocked things up in the past, we know that."

The FBI has previously declined to comment on whether it would pursue extradition of Cleary or Davis, both of whom are facing a series of charges in Britain for their alleged involvement with Anonymous and its affiliated offshoot, LulzSec.

The call suggests, however, that the US could indeed be building its own case against the hackers. Davis in particular, who stands accused of being the audacious LulzSec spokesperson known online as "Topiary", would no doubt be wanted by the Americans. Over a two-month period in 2011, LulzSec perpetrated a series of high-profile attacks on the websites of US-based multi-national corporations and state agencies - including the CIA and the US senate - making it a prime target for cyber-crime investigators within the FBI.

Prior to the leaked call, it was clear that Davis's legal team already suspected US involvement on some level. This was made apparent last month, during a short hearing at Southwark Crown Court, when Gideon Cammerman, Davis's lawyer, expressed concern about outside interference, asking prosecutors that any "letters of request from a foreign jurisdiction" are presented to him when evidence is formally exchanged on 30 March, prior to Davis and Cleary entering pleas on 11 May. (A letter of request is a method used by a foreign court to seek judicial assistance, such as to obtain information or a witness statement from a specified person.)

Responding to concerns raised by Cammerman, a source within the Crown Prosecution Service said that they could not officially comment on the matter of foreign involvement until after 30 March, but stressed both prosecution and defence had a "common interest in the case being tried here [in the UK] effectively," hinting that any possible US extradition request could hinge on the outcome of the British trial.

In the meantime, the key question is whether Anonymous is sitting on more hacked information as explosive as the conference call, which, depending on its content, could have potentially massive repercussions.

To some extent, the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have now been put on the back foot. Likely rattled and aghast that their own private conversations were hacked by the very hackers they are paid to investigate, they will be apprehensive about what could come next.

Cleary's lawyer, Karen Todner, has starkly warned that "whole cases could be blown apart" as a result of future security breaches; Anonymous, as ever, has promised more revelations are yet to come.

"You think we're done? Fuck no," tweeted one of its most prominent hackers, Sabu, on Friday. "Truth is we're still in the agents (sic) mailbox right now."

This article originally appeared at: http://www.newstatesman.com/the-staggers/2012/02/hackers-fbi-davis-call

Human Rights and 'Bulldog Spirit'

Monday, 6 February 2012

It was a watershed moment when prime minister David Cameron controversially vetoed a European Union economic treaty in December. For the first time since joining the European community in 1973, Britain would not be a signatory of an important pact between nations. Lauded by some of his Tory peers for showing “bulldog spirit” – though criticised by others for isolating the UK – Cameron has now embarked on a new crusade to pull powers back from an overseas institution. This time his target is the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

There has long been unease within the Conservative party about the ECHR’s role. Established in 1959 and based in Strasbourg, France, the court aims to protect the civil and political rights of around 800 million people in 47 countries. It considers cases brought by individuals, organisations and states bound by the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty that the UK and other European countries spearheaded after the Second World War in an attempt to prevent the reoccurrence of atrocities committed by the Nazis.

While the court is separate from the EU – overseen instead by the distinct Council of Europe – it has been subject to similar criticism. In particular, it has been accused of attempting to exert more and more power over member nations by overturning domestic judgements in cases where it should not have the right to intervene. In Britain, such criticism has heightened in recent years following a string of divisive rulings against the government on, for instance, prisoners’ right to vote and the police’s national DNA database.

Last month, speaking before the council in Strasbourg, Cameron made clear his desire to curtail the court’s powers. Comparing it to a “small claims court,” he warned that by making controversial rulings and taking on “trivial” cases, it was having a “corrosive effect on people’s support for human rights” and proposed that most final decisions should be made nationally. Because the ECHR is dealing with a huge backlog of cases – 151,000 at the end of 2011 – he argued it should only take on cases involving the most flagrant abuses of human rights or else risk failing to prevent serious violations because they end up “stuck in the queue.”

But human rights campaigners disagreed with the prime minister’s comments, and have expressed serious reservations about any proposals to scale back the ECHR’s powers.

“Comparing the Strasbourg court to a small claims court damages our public commitment to the international rule of law,” says Angela Patrick, human rights policy director for campaign group Justice. “Our concern is that what’s really coming out of the messages from central government is that they’re looking to set up a twin-track procedure, where they want to encourage the court to look at Russia and Turkey, and back off of states like the UK.

“We don’t really see how that is going to work in practice. These standards that are in the European Convention on Human Rights are meant to be universal. They were set up after the Second World War to reflect the real core of rights that you or I would expect to enjoy whether we’re in the UK, or Belgrade, or Italy. That universality is something we can’t see would continue to have credibility across Europe if what we’re really talking about is an Us and Them approach to rights.”

According to Justice, the high number of claims being made to the court shows that not enough is being done within member nations to address human rights issues – the court itself in a sense becoming a victim of its own success. The organisation points out that of all the 151,000 cases pending in the court at the end of 2011, over half were from four states with particularly bad human rights records – Russia, Turkey, Italy and Romania – with around 2.4 per cent (3,650) from the UK.

Some of the criticisms levelled at the ECHR, specifically around the scale of the case backlog, have already been taken on board. New reforms, agreed during conferences in 2010 and 2011 that led to what became known as the Interlaken and Izmir declarations, are attempting to reduce the number of applicants via a series of measures, such as through the proposed introduction of application fees. Key elements of the changes, however, face opposition from a broad range of organisations including Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists who say they could inhibit equal access to the court.

On the opposite side of the fence is right-leaning London think tank the Policy Exchange, which believes that the Interlaken and Izmir declarations do not go far enough. In February 2011 Policy Exchange published Bringing Rights Back Home, a report on European human rights law that influenced the position of those in government calling for a reduction in the ECHR’s ability to overrule British court rulings. The report called in to question the competency of some of the judges serving in the ECHR, and suggested that the UK should withdraw from its jurisdiction completely if attempts to negotiate substantial reforms fail.

“We are critical of the way in which the European court has grown in influence and has shown a lack of deference to our own supreme court on controversial human rights cases,” says Blair Gibbs, head of crime and justice at Policy Exchange. “We are very sceptical about the notion that the Strasbourg court alone decides what constitutes a breach of human rights and indeed what issues are human rights.

“We think it’s really important that we have a mature debate about how public opinion and parliamentary democracy can be compatible with judgements from an international court that go against laws debated and decided upon in individual countries.”

As the government steps back from Europe over the economic crisis, it now appears ever more likely that it will do the same on other issues – including human rights. Last year, the coalition initiated a commission that is looking into introducing a UK Bill of Rights, which it says will protect and extend liberties in Britain under the principles of the European Convention. But strong fears remain about the implications of what some see as a gradual move to pull out of the Strasbourg court altogether.

"Human rights, the rule of law and justice seem to be slipping down the political agenda in the current economic climate,” said Nicolas Bratza, president of the ECHR, in January. “It is in times like these that we must remember that human rights are not a luxury and that the burden of their protection must be a shared one. We must continue to ensure that the court remains strong, independent and courageous in its defence of the European Convention on Human Rights."