Oct 192019
 

When Edward Snowden crashed into the media in 2013, the impact created more than a hiccup in the state of affairs. Do you remember what you were doing at the time? I do, and I can still feel the chill of horror that descended on the room where my colleagues and I ate our daily lunch packs. Disbelief quickly subsided as we realised that the evidence behind his story was overwhelming and that the implications were infinite. Mulling over them together, we chewed our sandwiches in near-silence, interrupted only by the occasional question that inevitably could be parsed as: “So now what?”

Given the initial impact, you might have thought that the Snowden revelations would be paradigmatic, that the world would turn slightly on its hinges and readjust its course through the ethers. After all, we don’t want to live in a global dystopia – remember Brave New World – do we?

Thinking back, there have been several moments in my lifetime which might have jolted our world enough to change its course. The Vietnam war, for instance, outraged a whole generation and brought it out onto the streets in protest. But then again, that was only in the West. Elsewhere, they had other problems. In Iran, faith in Democracy had already died, with the CIA-engineered coup against Mosaddegh. In South America, they were just starting to hope a better world was possible, when a series of CIA-engineered coups brought down one would-be democracy after another. What I’m saying is: We should long since have lost our innocence.

Yet, we go on doing what we were doing, out of habit, perhaps, or because: what else can we do? We continue watching the evening news, continue repeating the same fictions to our children. In Brave New World, people are inherently incapable of calling the authorities to account. I take the liberty of quoting Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death):

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

So after a bit of agitated humming – “look out, the NSA is watching you” – we all got back to business as usual, enmeshed as we all were – even back in 2013 – in the Google and/or Apple and/or Microsoft and/or Facebook universes. After all, how on earth could we extricate ourselves?

Personally, I have managed to stay clear of Apple, Microsoft and Facebook by using a Linux OS. But in the end, I am literally begging to be monitored by using Android, hence also Google contacts. I mean, the alternative would cost me hours of note-taking on slips of paper.

Ashamed, I bury my head in the sand and think “what the heck, I’ll be dead sooner or later, anyway”.

Edward Snowden’s book Permanent Record landed on my desk a few days ago. Let me tell you, It got my head out of the sand double quick. Even the preface jolts you.

He writes well, very well, in fact, and his line of thought is compelling, so that I follow him attentively even into descriptions of childhood minutiae. His prose is eloquent and clean, unlike that of Whitehouse spokesmen (witness the Whitehouse rendering of the run-in between Trump and Pelosi). And he has taught me a new word: conflation. It’s an important term because it refers to one of the tools used to manipulate “facts”.

This particular story is about spies and surveillance. One of the story’s main questions is: What are they for? Are they for keeping terrorists at bay or are they for consolidating the supremacy of overdogs? If you read Permanent Record, you will see it’s not just about the USA. And if you read the news (from decent outlets), you will see that what most of us consider “rule of law” is applied in only a minority of countries (source: World Justice Project)

I put to you that every one of us, even those of us who live in countries with a high rule-of-law-score, would benefit from reading Edward Snowden’s book.

Jun 162019
 

Let me admit at once that my news source is not normally The Intercept. I prefer a rather more chatty paper, one that is not too angry, one that helps me feel that I am a member of society, not a besieged and defenceless island.

The problem is that most such papers need sponsors and sponsors tend to have money, and those who have money are usually not all that keen on promoting equitable distribution of wealth (with, say, progressive taxes, and free health care and university education), not to put too fine a point on it.

We hear about “the wealthy” in all sorts of contexts, not least in statements about “the top ten percent” versus the remaining 90 percent. We know statistically who they vote for, how much they spend on lobbying activities and what media outlets they own. We also know that many rich people are “very nice”, love their children and spend vast sums on charity. But there is no doubt about it: disparities in almost all our countries are growing. They are growing sharply.

Nevertheless, we continue reading papers owned by members of “the top ten percent” and we hope all the bad things will just sort of disappear, just as we avoid reminders of the fact that we, yes, you and I, will die some day, maybe even someday soon, that climate change will deprive our grandchildren, maybe even our children, of most of the good things in life. It hurts to think about it, so we don’t; we don’t think.

Thus, our pusillanimity helps us make unsound choices, choices that will harm us and our children.

Sometimes the unsound choices we make can be downright dangerous. One such choice was made by the majority of the voting electorate in Brazil, when they raised the fascist-minded Jair Bolsonaro to the presidential throne. Now Brazil is already sometimes referred to as a “fascistoid” state. That spells d-a-n-g-e-r for a lot of innocent people.

Before he was elected, Bolsonaro was not the favourite candidate of the “wealthy”, but he was the only candidate on the right who had sufficient charisma to attract voters. So the press supported him and denigrated the left, as usual.

Now Brazil is a country of extreme inequality – and the overwhelmingly numerous poor would probably have voted for Lula da Silva if Lula hadn’t happened to be in jail. Why was Lula in jail?

Well, that is really the magician’s trick, you see. This is where The Intercept comes in.

The Intercept — the Political Earthquake in Brazil

I’m not here to tell you The Intercept’s story. You should read it yourself.

What I do want to point out, however, is that somebody provided The Intercept with the evidence. I would not like to be that somebody. Whoever it is, is a hero, but if the Brazilian or US authorities ever get their hands on him or her, … I say no more.

And as for my country, your country, the UK, Equador, and Sweden and all the countries that are kowtowing to the US in the Julian Assange case and who refused to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, they are accessories before and after the fact to the crimes Assange and Snowden exposed.

Whatever the identity of the hero who provided The Intercept with the evidence, you and I had better be prepared to demand that not a hair be touched on his or her head, and that no legal or other steps be taken against The Intercept.

Dec 112018
 

President Macron has just addressed the French people for the first time since 1 December. After weeks of violent protests, his address was anxiously awaited, not least after last Saturday when, according to Le Monde, some 136 thousand protesters of all ages and backgrounds took to the streets of France.

What did you expect from the President? What did I or the yellow-vested protesters?

Ah, but the man is no fool! Rather than scold the demonstrators, he made a sweeping apology on behalf of the establishment for having forgotten the suffering of so many of his countrymen, giving moving accounts of the uphill struggle of untold men and women straining to reconcile work, parenthood (or old age and/or illness) and low income. His examples were numerous and vivid enough to sound sincere. He promised there would be change, plenty of change, starting with a 100 EUR hike of minimum wages from 1 January.

President Macron must have read his Piketti! Have you, Mrs Clinton? I am pretty sure Mrs Merkel has, conservative though she may be. As for the right-wing, so-called populist leaders of Eastern European countries slipping into autocracy, they have evidently only grasped what serves them best, the fact that a majority of voters are disaffected, disappointed and feel disadvantaged.

The question is, will the French president be able to deliver on his promises? Can any president deliver on such promises? I very much doubt it. For instance, how on earth can one sole president put an end to global so-called “tax avoidance” and the use of ugly, if not illegal, tax shields. The way things are, no president can satisfy any electorate in the long run.

Companies need investors. Investors want to be remunerated. After all, investing in a company is not as safe as putting your money in the bank. The company therefore needs to pay sufficiently high dividends to be able to dissuade people from putting their savings in the bank. To do so, the company has to cut more corners than the bank, i.e. pay less tax. If that involves hiring experts, offshore entities, fictitious companies, nominee directors and dodgy accounting firms, all of which will take a cut in the avoided tax, so be it. The outcome is less money to the state, and survival of the company.

Since we all want employment for as many of our citizens as possible, we dare not normally rock the boat. There is just one problem: As a result of tax avoidance, the state has insufficient means to care for its constituents. And large swathes of many populations are growing very disillusioned, even angry. Very angry.

Now in Europe, we tend to disagree with people in the US about the value of “state” and human constituents. Whereas in the US, where disadvantaged human beings and their offspring (excepting younger than 12-week-old embryos) tend to be disparaged, Europeans have invested heavily in the so-called “welfare society”. The term basically embodies the concept that all and sundry should have the right to education according to proclivity, healthcare according to need, and sustenance according to circumstance.

In other words, in Europe, states need income. The problem is, however, that a lot of money is being tucked away. Putting taxable money away is expensive, so only those who are very rich can afford to use the available “loopholes” to do so. One such loophole involved defrauding several European states of a total of 55 billion (yes, billion) euros. Here it is explained by Deutsche Welle. This was the largest tax evasion scam  ever to have been uncovered in Europe. One reason why theft of so much of our (the taxpayers’) money has attracted only limited attention is that some very prestigious banks were among the culprits (e.g. Santander and Deutsche Bank).

You and I, the French yellow vests, the long-suffering Spanish unemployed, the ill-advised Bolsonaro voters in Brazil, the innumerable abused women of Latin America and Somalia, the underpaid teachers and health workers of the world, we are all being outmanoeuvred by companies that manage to avoid paying their fair share of taxes, (such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon) and by financial acrobats. It was the financial acrobats who brought down the global house of cards in 2008, trading in futures and shorts and whatnot, and they will do so again, because, basically, nothing has changed, because, basically, those who control the rules of the game DON’T WANT THINGS TO CHANGE, because, basically, they are inevitably the ones to win. This is not just a matter for France or the US. This is a global trend and it applies, I suspect, even to Russia, China and Iran.

In the December issue of Le Monde Diplomatique, Secretary General of Amnesty International Kumi Naidoo stresses that human rights are not just a matter of legal rights and freedom of speech. Economic and social rights are equally important. Kumi Naidoo apologises on behalf of the organisation for having so long delayed in understanding that one of the most important reasons why we need the one is to defend the other. I was very glad to see that apology!

What can the French president do? If he raises taxes on big business, he will be out of work tomorrow. He cannot possibly do anything about tax avoidance, because then companies will simply leave the country. There are plenty of other countries. It’s all interlocked, as Kumi Naidoo pointed out in his article celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, today, 10 December.

Although the German authorities managed to uncover much of the cum ex scam, it was only thanks to painstaking efforts laid down by a network of reporters from various news outlets, that the extent of the scam came to light. They also uncovered that it is STILL GOING ON. Read about it. I promise you, this is hot stuff.

My point is that in this case the press actually served the purpose it can and should serve, as a corrective: It exposed what we were not supposed to see.

However, in many countries, most media are owned by the powers that be. Hence they are not free. Hence people will make ill-informed electoral choices and will accept slashes to their legal rights and freedom of speech. Discovering, too late, that they are the ones to go on paying the austerity bill, they will be put in jail for voicing their discontent.

You can just imagine what conflagrations we will see when the climate bill has to be paid. We have just seen a small hint of that scenario in France.

Jun 282017
 

You may have heard – and then again, you may not have – that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have issued an ultimatum against Qatar, the 13 so-called “demands” the country must meet within ten days, “or else”.

If Qatar meets the demands, it will have ceased to be a state: It will merely be a vassal of Saudi Arabia, since what is demanded is in reality that the country surrenders its sovereignty.

It all started with an economic and diplomatic blockade launched in the wake of the US emperor’s visit to Saudi Arabia, and since the Saudis evidently feel confident about US support, goodness knows where it will end. For that very same reason – i.e. US support – nobody even mentions this issue around here. In Europe you don’t talk back to the US! Not in this country, not in any European country, least of all in the UK.

Now I was brought up with the BBC. I feel warmth and gratitude to the BBC. I know the names of many of their foreign correspondents. I download BBC podcasts and listen to them. But let us not delude ourselves: BBC is a British broadcasting company, and Britain is very cosy with the USA. As for the USA, well, need I remind you …? No, I won’t remind you, because that would require not a website but many tomes of modern history. However, take a look at Reporters without borders. If you click the map you will see that the USA ranks no higher than 43 out of 180 states as far as freedom of the press is concerned.

My country is also uncomfortably cosy with the USA, if not quite as cosy as the UK, but certainly cosy enough for its national broadcasting company to refrain from ever quoting Al Jazeera. Yet, I suspect that all good foreign correspondents – be they from my country or from the BBC – consult Al Jazeera more than almost any other outlet, at least about Middle East issues. Why? Because Al Jazeera is good, very good! And they are not bound by the US Patriot Act.

One of the 13 “demands” is that Qatar close down Al Jazeera. Now I don’t know whether you watch Al Jazeera, but what I do know is that whether you do or don’t, the news outlet will have considerable impact on what is revealed to you about world affairs. If it were not for Al Jazeera, the US and the UK could tell their side of the story, and nobody would know the difference.

I wish to quote another Guardian article of today (also quoted, by the way, by Al Jazeera):  Asked whether the closure of al-Jazeera was a reasonable demand, the UAE envoy said:

We do not claim to have press freedom. We do not promote the idea of press freedom. What we talk about is responsibility in speech.

I ask you, could any quote be clearer?

Dec 212016
 

This post is indented as a sequel to the previous one, which I believe should apply to everyone. I repeat: If we all look after our digital privacy, as we look after our health, say, we shall be protecting the social scientists and journalists who are sticking their neck out to tell us what we need to know.

This post, however, will be for those who are actually at risk, i.e. the social scientists, journalists and non-violent political activists who provoke the political powers that be.

***

To send a file to somebody else, when you want to be sure that only the intended recipient can read it, you could of course simply password protect it, but passwords can easily be cracked. Besides you would have to send the password, and the message in which you send it could be intercepted.

An alternative is to use 7zip  – which is available to  all major operating systems. With 7zip you can encrypt the file. You would do this if you want to transfer a large file, or several files, via your cloud service. You would still have to convey the password though.

The most commonly used way to protect the privacy of email is with PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). The program PGP itself is not free, but there is a free alternative, based on the so-called OpenPGP standard.

Now if you use an email client that provides PGP support — and yours may very well do so, although you do not know it — you should study its documentation. If not, you should consider changing your email client. 

Wikipedia has an article comparing email clients. Search on the page for PGP and you will find a table that might be useful to you. If you normally only use Webmail, you might consider starting to use a dedicated email program (“email client”).

PGP’s alternative to the issue of passwords is a set of “keys”: One “private key” which only the sender possesses, and one “public key”, which can be published openly on the net yes, on the net! The sender AND the recipient must know each other’s public keys, and this is where your software comes in.

Your software should  be able to generate both keys and store them. It imports and stores also the public keys of people with whom you want to communicate, and keeps track of what messages are to be sent to or received by whom. Finally it should check incoming keys, and encrypt and decrypt as needed.

The hitch is obviously that the recipient must also be using PGP encryption. But PGP has grown pretty universal, cross-platform and is inherent in many application. However, as with all software, new versions tend to be incomprehensible to older ones. (Compatibility issues can often be solved by altering settings.)

Most of us are not yet used to using PGP for email, though, so though it can easily be handled by our email programs, it may take a while before we all catch on.

At any rate, do not be discouraged, because once you have your keys properly stored and have understood how to use them, encrypting your stuff (with the proper software) is not difficult at all!

Dec 182016
 

To me, the word “encryption” sounded sinister until very recently, when I realised I’d have to take the consequences of what we are seeing these days. And guess what: digital protection – even encryption – isn’t difficult at all. There are programs that do it all for us. I believe that what I am proposing in this and the following post need not even make a dent in anybody’s wallet.

In view of the medieval state of race relations in the US, and bearing in mind Mr Trump’s penchant for decisive action, I think we should not place too much trust in the rule of law in the US, for instance. It’s a good idea to be prepared.

In general, in a world that is increasingly being governed by individuals who label political opponents as “criminals” or even “terrorists”, we should think of the consequences of such labels, not necessarily for ourselves – at least not yet – but for reasons that I will return to a few paragraphs further down.

Many of our rulers are willing to resort to what we in the west recently (i.e. pre-Snowden) considered “the unthinkable”, to stay in power and, in many cases, to improve their financial leverage.

There is also a rising number of people who are learning the tricks of cybercrime. For all you know, your next-door neighbour might be one of them, in which case he or she may be particularly interested in your WIFI network.

Most of us are not terrorists or criminals, although we might be leftist or Moslem or environmentalist or black or even Mexican. We might, however, be deeply dissatisfied with our rulers, and we might even be organised, say in an activist civil rights group. Organised opposition has always been regarded as a threat, or at least a nuisance, by the powers that be, and is now becoming increasingly risky. In many countries, of course, it has always been deadly dangerous. What’s new is that the number and potency of tools to penetrate people’s private (digital) worlds have grown exponentially over the past years.

What’s new, too, is that year by year, in all countries, law enforcement and secret services are being given wider powers to use these tools. This is quite understandable because, after all, there is a real threat of terrorism, and there is a real and growing threat of serious cybercrime.

Meanwhile, political improvement is contingent on our all understanding as much as possible of what goes on. Some journalists, social scientists and whistle blowers are putting their necks out to protect us by uncovering the crooked acts of cynical rulers and magnates. By doing so, they risk their lives in many countries, and in others, including mine, they risk finding themselves without a job.

We need them. We desperately need them! Only by knowing what is actually going on, by being able to dismiss false rumours, libel and “post-truth” propaganda (see Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year), do we have any chance of improving the world we live in. They – the journalists and social scientists – hopefully know how to protect themselves, but by doing so, they will inevitably seem suspicious: “Why is NN encrypting his stuff? Why is that woman using a VPN server? Are they terrorists?”

Since they are trying to protect us, the least we can do is to try to protect them, in essence by protecting ourselves.

If only to protect our bank account information, password lists, copies of passport and driving licence, intimate letters and pictures etc., we should start thinking about digital personal protection. When we started using email, in my case in the late eighties, it seemed very difficult. We had to put a lot of effort into it. These days, it’s all so easy that kids are social media experts before they can add and subtract. Did we think this was the way it would always be? If so, our thinking was flawed: Sic transit gloria mundi.

Sooner or later, the alternative to using only pen-and-paper may well be to encrypt everything; computers, phone calls, email, social networking – the lot!

Meanwhile, there are a few very basic steps we should take, apart from everything we hear every day (e.g. being wary of links in emails and on websites). The measures cost us a few extra seconds, but then again – let us not forget how very, very much more time-consuming everything was, just ten years ago.

  • Text messaging encryption. Thanks to Edward Snowden, Signal has become quite a hit. It’s so seamless that once you’ve installed it, you won’t notice you are no longer using your phone’s stock SMS app, except that it’s faster and doesn’t hang.
  • Wifi router protection
    Wifi routers must be new enough to yield so-called WPA2 protection (at least).
  • “Anti-virus” software
    You should not rely entirely on Defender, if you are using Windows. There are several excellent and powerful anti-virus protection schemes that are free.
  • VPN (Virtual Private Network)
    If privacy protection is an issue for you — and to my mind it should be, if only for the reasons given above  conceal your IP address.  This is probably one of the most important steps to take if you are a fact-hunting dissident. Many services provide access to VPN servers in various countries, and competition is fierce. Most of the best services are no entirely free, though, or rather, those that are tend to plague you with adds or restrict your bandwidth. On the bright side, most of them now require no technical know-how, just that you press a button. There are numerous lists of “best VPN” services, free and non-free.
  •  
  • Storage on external drives
    Store as little as possible on computers, tablets and smartphones. (Plug in your external drive and move private stuff to it, then remove the external drive at once.) If you don’t use cloud storage, this should do (assuming your computer doesn’t have digital parasites lodged in its entrails, your external hard drive is securely stored and never leaves the house, and the house never burns down).

Cloud storage

Most people use cloud services these days, if only to transfer files. Besides, people are often more or less unwittingly constantly connected to their operating systems’ “Store”, storage spaces, sharing services, etc.and to social services.

  • TLS/SSL protocol
    Respectable cloud storage services use a TLS/SSL protocol for data transfer (HTTPS://). That isn’t much, but better than nothing.
  • Encryption
    Some services encrypt your stuff already before it leaves your computer. They say that you risk nothing and that they have “zero-knowledge” (about you and your stuff). This sort of service is used by companies. But why not do your own encryption before uploading anything to your cloud. with good software, it’s a cinch! So:

     

    • What is good software? Since good encryption depends not on your software, but on the algorithm used by the software, the software you want will depend on whether it is easy to use, can relate to your operating system and serves your needs in other respects. Leading encryption programs all use basically the same algorithms, the best known of which is AES (developed some 20 years ago).
    • Veracrypt is one such (free) cross-platform program (i.e. for Mac, Windows, Linux, but not for mobile systems). I am mentioning it not least as it is the program used in the following link which I am including to demonstrate how very easy it is to encrypt whatever files you want to keep out of any private or public eye: encouraging demonstration

Phones and tablets

Being an open system, Android is more vulnerable to malware attacks than are IOS devices. Over the past two years or so Android has been rocked by some pretty serious security issues, e.g. “Stagefright”. So serious were they, in fact, that phones that come with Marshmellow (or newer) installed are supposedly encrypted by default (!) Yes, you read correctly, by default. In other words, Android is not taking any chance, nor should you, so encrypt!

  • Encryption
    Older phones, with Android versions from Gingerbread up, can optionally be encrypted. Details about how to do this may vary depending on your phone and version, but  this guide gives an idea.
    IOS phones have been encrypted by default for a while. Older phones can also easily be encrypted.

Flash drives

Some people will want to encrypt their entire computer. If so, they will probably have used their operating system’s tools for doing this. (BitLocker on Windows, and FileVault on MACs). Encrypting flash drives is, if anything, all the more important since they tend to get lost or forgotten.

  • The same tools as for computers
    BitLocker (Windows), FleVault (Mac)and, again, Veracrypt, can encrypt flash drives (USB sticks).
    Here is one of many guides.

In my next post I shall touch upon sharing (most importantly by email) with PGP.

 

 

Nov 052016
 

You do have your password ready, don’t you?

Do you have more than one email account? Each requires a password, of course. So do your websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter accounts… And your bank account – that goes without saying – each of your bank accounts.

Take comfort, it’s just a matter of time before banks will give up providing online services: too risky. Too many accounts are being hacked, and banks can’t endlessly afford to cover their clients’ losses.

And where is your internet service provider? At a café? You’re in luck then, because you won’t have to remember the very intricate password of a private router. Only, you may be out of luck, because there are a lot of accomplished hackers waiting and watching over open networks, ready to send you a key logger with which to capture the password to your bank accounts. You won’t even notice, most probably, but from then on, your PC will be remote controlled.

True, your cloud service looks after you and sends you reassuring messages: Not to worry, everything you write on your screen will be carefully stored. If you throw a temper tantrum and hurl your device at someone, or if a hacker ruins it, don’t worry, be happy, nothing is lost.

You log in with a password at work, I suppose, and if you make purchases on the Internet, each of them has to be confirmed with a password, two in fact – one to the company from which you are making the purchase, and one for your bank. They’d better not be identical, you know, and they’d better be “strong”. Strong passwords are per definition impossible to remember, non-pronounceable, non-readable and defying all mnemonic tricks, the sort of thing only a sadistic teacher would ask a pupil to memorise.

You probably purchase all your airline and train tickets online. Guess what: You will need passwords each time. And you’d better have a printer ready, because if you don’t you wont be able to access your tickets when you need them, i.e. at the airport – unless of course, you remember the password.

I have to log on to my library every once in a while. It demands not only a password but a user name I never remember. Speaking of user names, one of my electricity suppliers insists on using my long- deleted passport number as my user name and will not allow me to change it. Needless to say, it requires a password too. In fact all my electricity accounts do – I have three of them.

I also have Kindle and iTunes accounts, each requiring passwords, and Goodness knows how many tablets and computers on which to read my Kindle books, all password protected, as is my mobile phone. Mind you I have four phone service accounts – depending on where I am in the world. And I look up words in various dictionaries that require passwords. Many people use Spotify, Netlix and or other streaming services. Guess what they demand: PASSWORDS.

My bicycles are locked with passwords – keys get lost. Believe it or not, I can still get into my car with a key, though.

I haven’t tried dying yet, but I am sure I will need a password to do so. What really worries me, though, is that my poor children will need a password to get rid of my earthly remains.

But hope on the way. On Wednesday, the US will have a new president. Regardless of who that president will be, he or she will probably inaugurate a near password-free era. Unless you are terminally ill or get run over by a reckless driver – you are likely to live to see the lifting of the password tyranny that haunts us all.

Fingerprints on touchscreens will replace passwords, and people will be glad – nay, relieved – to submit their fingerprints and be free of the password tyranny.

If your next president has a pronounced dislike of Russians, Mexicans, homosexuals, leftists, Wikikileakists, rightists, Kurds, Iranians, Moslems or Jews, not to mention critics, universal fingerprinting will be very useful, won’t it.

Apr 212016
 

I hear on the news that Edward Snowden is taking my country to court, or rather, he is asking the judiciary of my country to consider what his rights would be as a visitor to Norway.

I find the question fair and timely. Much as I keep insisting that the rule of law is, by and large, taken very seriously here, I fear that Norway’s NATO membership entails some unpleasant obligations, between friends, as it were.

Forcing the judiciary to consider his legal rights before he takes the chance of coming here, Edward Snowden has acted wisely. The judiciary is supposedly independent of the executive powers. Now its independence will be put to the test.

From a statutory perspective, the case is pretty clear pursuant to section 5 of the Extradition Act: No extradition for political offences. Political offences are primarily defined as acts targeting a state and its organisation [“samfunnsordning”], whereas prosecution for war crimes and “serious” terrorist acts are not exempt from extradition.

However, as we all know, a court can easily turn into a hockey field if the players are sufficiently insolent. And on a hockey field almost anything goes, I’ve been told. I beg pardon if I am insulting anybody.

Nov 092015
 

So, am I being watched? I mean, am I subject to more scrutiny on the part of western intelligence agencies than the average man and woman? Are you, who are reading me, being watched?

Because we are all being watched, remember? Not only by the NSA, which appears to have assumed extra-judicial powers and which, incidentally, collaborates with any number of states.

In case you don’t remember, allow me to remind you of the EU Data Retention Directive, the formal purpose of which is to make it harder for criminals to escape. No matter who that criminal is, no matter how anonymous, the Data Retention Directive will make it very hard for him or her to hide in Europe for any length of time.

If the sole purpose of the Directive were to bring heinous criminals to justice, I would be all for it! I very much want the big bad guys brought to justice. In fact I am all for the directive in principle, but I am worried about certain nefarious side-effects. One of them being that we do not all always agree about who the really, really big, bad guys are. Not so very long ago, for instance, homosexuals were considered very bad. I mean really “bad”!

I for my part am of the opinion that one really bad guy is Benjamin Netanyahu and that another is George Bush. Were it not for them, I doubt there would have been a 9/11 (Netanyahu was not the PM at the time, but he had been).

Bush and Netanyahu do not bear all the blame for Israel’s expansionism, to be sure, but a big chunk of it, and thus for much of the ghastly global consequences of Israel’s crimes against humanity. (IS terrorism is just the first pixel of the rather dim picture.) Will Bush and Netanyahu ever be brought to justice?

So much for bad guys. As for the good ones, Edward Snowden tops my list. Without research and its shared results, humanity would never have got this far, obstructed as it has been from time immemorial by power mongers. Snowden has uncovered a weapon that was and still is being used to throttle investigative journalism, on which we so desperately depend for the defence and development of the common good. The US authorities, on the other hand, would do practically anything to get hold of him and put him away for ever, as they have with Brian Manley, who has more or less given his life to help us understand the gravity of the crimes against humanity committed by Bush in his war on Iraq.

I believe, and I hotly maintain, that in most normal circumstances you have to be a crook in order to reach the highest echelons of power, not only in the USA. I used to think Obama was an exception, but now I merely think that even crooks can have a few decent items on their agenda. Certainly, even crooks can love their children or their dogs. To get to the top, you have to be able to cross lines that no decent person can even imagine crossing. In other words, if you get to the top, look at yourself in the mirror and ask: “Where did I go wrong?” If you get to the top, make arrangements at once to bribe a biographer into painting a flattering portrait of you. If you are lucky, investigative journalists won’t discover the bribe, and the flattering portrait will confuse posterity for ever.

With such views I very much doubt I would be granted a visa to the USA, if I applied. Obviously the authorities to which I applied would have had to examine more than my passport and my empty criminal record (to which they officially have no access, by the way) to know that I abhor US foreign (or for that matter domestic) policy. And they would be sure to know.

I actually don’t think that I am the target of particular attention on the part of my own country’s anti-terrorist intelligence efforts. It’s not as though I were the Huffington Post. But I put to you that anybody in any country, in the EU or elsewhere, who is considered a potential political threat by the powers that be (political and corporate) could risk being subjected to extraordinary scrutiny simply because advanced tools of mass surveillance are in place. And where they are in place, they can be abused, as Snowden has so forcefully demonstrated.

Now if you believe that in your country they would never abuse those tools for political purposes, I congratulate you: State your views without fear, and with a little luck, you will not be made to suffer. But if you distrust your national authorities, you might consider shutting up.

That is what many critical journalists do. They have learnt to shut up. Journalists need to consider their future, their careers, their families, etc. They need to earn incomes like the rest of us.

No need to refer to Egypt or Saudi Arabia. In fact, no need to look further than to Spain, where an authoritarian and mendacious PM has been holding forth for some years now. He has nothing to offer the voters except strident references to Spanish glory. And since I actually read Spanish papers – at least I did – I have found that even El Pais has lost its spark. Its journalists now devote their literary verve on accounts about bickering and intrigues within opposition parties.

There is nothing glorious about Spain, these days. The country is as riddled by corruption as a Swiss cheese. We know about this, because the press revealed it. One by one, many of the ruling party’s crown princes have been dragged before the courts – not sentenced, it is true, because the courts are partial – but exposed to the public. (Nor have they been acquitted. The cases are merely protracted for years and years, frozen.) Even the King’s sister faces very serious charges (yes, of putting public money in her darling husband’s pocket).

The New York Times (and apparently also Amnesty International) have been rather heavy-handed in their  criticism of Spain recently. Apparently, the Spanish press is being straight-jacketed not only because of the structural challenges facing newspapers everywhere, but also because the PM now has the power to rein in freedom of the press. Whether due to restructuring or for political reasons, 11,000 journalists have lost their jobs in Spain in recent years. Those who are still hanging on are not likely to stick our their necks.

NYT about curtailment of freedom of the press in Spain

or

NYT about so-called “gag-law” in Spain

When mainstream newspapers have lost their bite, when they no longer do their job – i.e. to tell the public what the public needs to know in order to make informed decisions, for instance that Mr Rajoy, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Bush are crooks – others will have to pick up the banner and continue the race. Those others could be bands of laid-off journalists who form small subscriber-based internet “newspapers”. Or they could be well-informed citizens who maintain their own open websites.

Whoever they are, we need them. And because we need them, we must protect them. We must adamantly oppose surveillance of our private correspondence (including who we correspond with) orally or in writing. The contents of our correspondence must not be stored anywhere, except by court order and when there are “reasonable grounds” to suspect that we have committed a crime punishable by a long custodial sentence. Obviously, we must also be on the alert against “gag laws” (cf. NYT in the second link) that turn expression of certain views in certain places into punishable offences.

Equally important is the protection of you, the reader.  Make no mistake. The websites you visit, the books you read, even the pornography you secretly enjoy – it is all your private business and should remain so. Google and Apple do not agree, but you might consider leaving Google and Apple.

It is sickening to hear members of the public exclaim, “why should I oppose the prohibition to film the activities of the police during demonstrations? I never take part in demonstrations, and I certainly have no interest in filming the police.” Maybe you have never taken part in a demonstration, Mister / Lady, but believe me: had you been a Spaniard living in Spain these past years, you might very well have done so. In Spain, I have seen grey-haired demonstrators wearing kid gloves, Italian shoes or mink.

What happened in Spain could happen in your country, too. In fact, as we speak, country after country in Europe is reeling under the burden of a tsunami of refugees. The ramifications of this mass movement of desperate people may be well-near devastating. I have known for years, and warned, that this would happen, so I am not surprised. What I don’t know is what happens now.

There will be trouble. There will be demonstrations and anti-demonstrations. But freedom of the press must not – NOT – be curtailed in any – I repeat – ANY – way.

Jul 052013
 

Of course I cannot be silent about an issue that seems to have jolted the planet. I will not be silent even though the matter has had its fair share of press coverage – and thank goodness for that! I want to join the chorus of angrily clamouring voices from all over the globe, although I must add that Snowden’s revelations came as no surprise to me. Not that I accept what Obama would have us believe: that everybody does it.

If you lived right across the street from a couple who make heady love every night without drawing their curtains, would you watch? Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn’t. I am prepared to concede that many people would indeed watch, but they would not like others to know they were doing so. They would draw their own curtains, so that nobody could see them peeping. On the other hand, if you happened to know that the couple across the street were making heady love behind thick, drawn curtains, and you happened to know that they had a laptop in that same room, would you use a computer program you knew about that could turn on the webcam of that laptop?

There are applications that can do that, and there are people who use them. We call such programs malware, and we call the people who use them criminals. Most of us are not criminals.

I was not surprised because in my mind, USA has had an inglorious history since WWII, a history that would have been impossible unless the powers that be were prepared to break every rule in the book. I won’t go into that, since it would require the writing of a very long text, and such texts already exist, many of them admittedly published in the United States, which means that opposition has not yet altogether been silenced even in that country. Thank goodness for that, too. There is still a long way from USA to North Korea! But a lot of legislation has been put in place since 9/11 that demands considerable courage from citizens who want to speak up.

Fear appears to be woven into the fabric of the US constitution, if the firearms debate is anything to go by.

Many commentators maintain that fear is what has persuaded the nation’s population to allow its democratically elected governments to systematically commit crimes against humanity, to disregard international treaties, and to dismantle transparency.

They must have been afraid from the very outset. Afraid of the “reds”, of course, whose human rights the entire “white” world was not at the time ready to embrace. The US had every reason to be afraid of the colonial power that continued to bully them even after the country had won its independence (War of 1812). Many of the settlers were Calvinists fleeing from religious persecution and thus doubly afraid: born and bred to be afraid of God and the powers that be. There were and there are, still, a lot of preachers. To this day, politicians speak like preachers, oratorically.

They were afraid not so much of Sin as of God’s wrath that punishes not only he/she who sins but the entire community that allows Sin to persist (Sodom and Gomorrah). In this fear, Calvinists were joined by Catholics and Jews. Needless to say, everybody dreaded poverty even more than the Black Death. Nowadays, they are terrified of crime, of hurricanes, of genetically modified foodstuffs, of serial killers, insanity, communists, immigrants, terrorists, Sin and the State, and this is just the top of the list.

Fear is not encoded in their genetic make-up, but the rhetoric of fear has been adroitly nurtured decade after decade, war after war, crisis after crisis, by the people they elected.

Today, the embattled country has every reason to be afraid. Having alienated their allies by supporting ruthless dictators, by refusing to endorse (referring to their right to defend their interests) inter alia the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol, by demanding support for wars most of their allies found nearly impossible to justify to their own populations, they now face a far more formidable foe than they have ever known. “Terrorism” is the elastic term they have coined for this foe. Their definition of the word seems to encompass quite a range of activities, depending on the stakes, just as their definition of “communist”, a word that was used to justify so much injustice a few decades back, was adroitly adapted to fit every context. To this day, many frightened US nationals refer to my peaceful and eminently democratic country as “communist”.

Few of the articles I have read about Edward Snowden vs USA dispute that USA has a case against Snowden. However, most grant Snowden the moral high ground, to say the very least. To quote El País of 7 July  (my translation):

The general public and politicians in the UK and USA may never be willing to comprehend fully the magnitude of the torrent of revelations about the intervention of communication all over the world from the fugitive former spy Edward Snowden. For the rest of the world, however, especially for Europe, this is a transcendental moment….Political leaders in Europe will need to ask themselves a whole series of questions. Since when are human rights no longer universal?

Of all the presidents of USA we have known since Kennedy, Obama appears to be the most intelligent. He may yet be able to convince us all that “everybody does it”, not least as it now appears to have been established that the UK is no better. If so, we will all be much the worse off. We will all lose faith in our governments, in “democracy”, in transparency and in everything else that we have believed in and hoped for these past 150 years. I can only hope that the loser of this international moral battle will be USA, and that the rest of us will regain some faith in democracy. In the very long run, this would benefit also USA.

Allow me to add as my purely personal opinion: USA has clearly demonstrated that its agenda is not, repeat not, peace, justice and the welfare of the greatest possible number of its inhabitants. BUT is there any great power that honestly pursues such lofty objectives? I put it to you that we all have a long way to go to attain real democracy.