Jan 312021
 

Somebody with an Algerian IP address has been trying to hack his way into this site. That’s a novelty. Ukrainian, US American, Russian and Indian IPs, sure – I’m used to them, but never Algerian. Is he trying to tell me something?

So what’s with Algeria? Well, for one thing, the country has had an excruciatingly bloody recent history. There are people out there, less well-informed than yourselves, who would echo a typically colonialist (frankly: racist) statement: “That just goes to show that Algerians are…” something-or-other. But you and I know that colonialism comes at a terrible price, for the colonised. Just how that price is paid, however, is less known to us; there seems to be a reticence to go into detail in our school textbooks.

So let me just start by urging you – imploring you – to watch the remarkable documentary Blood and Tears: French Decolonisation.

Like so many other former colonies, Algeria has not completely managed to turn a page. To quote one of the interviewees in the said documentary: “How can you turn a page that has yet to be written?”

For instance, the journalist Khaled Drareni was jailed last year and subsequently sentenced to two years’ imprisonment simply for covering protests in Algeria. This is yet another instance of attempts to throttle the press and hide information from us. Please sign Amnesty’s call to Free Khaled Drareni.

One of Algeria’s problems is that around here, we’re too Eurocentric to notice much outside our own garden. We simply don’t know enough. There are valuable sources, though, and I recommend two:

In “The Art of Losing”, the French novelist Alice Zeniter explores the fate of an Algerian “Harki” and his family after liberation in 1962. The novel earned her the prestigious Prix Goncourt.

Aljazeera’s in-depth analysis of current issues: Critics say the new constitution does not meet popular demands for an independent judiciary and empowered parliament.

Jan 312021
 

The word “transparency” is very much in vogue these days, particularly in the EU, which attempts to monitor financial transactions and disclose hidden accounts, for instance in tax havens. Personally, I would gladly see lightning strike all shell companies whose beneficial owners are filthy rich. We use the expression “filthy rich” when someone’s inordinate wealth may have been built on the backs of underpaid labour or thanks to otherwise unethical acts or un-exposed crimes, be they financial, environmental or political, crimes against humanity or disrespect of civil rights.

People like that tend to fiercely resist being exposed, and may go to extremes to silence whistleblowers.

Yes, the keyword here is “exposed”. Just by reading Wikipedia, we have no way of knowing whether for instance Elon Musk (the now richest man in the world) has played straight throughout his career. He is obviously very smart. Personally, I believe that Mozart – to pick a politically neutral example – should have been blessed with a beautiful palace and life-long comfort, although his remarkable brain was just a fluke of nature, presumably a mutation of some sort. In view of his extraordinary output, I would not have begrudged him wealth, which would have been deserved. Instead, he was destitute at his death.

Elon Musk, who has contributed significantly to innovation and technological development may, for all I know, be some kind of wizard, a techno-equivalent of Mozart. In Wikipedia, I see that he has been sued a number of times for his views and/or statements. He is certainly entitled to having and expressing views, even if I don’t like them. But has he played straight? Wikipedia does not tell.

So to my knowledge, no serious ethical wrongdoing has been exposed on the part of Elon Musk. Yes, again: exposed is the keyword. Is there any Navalnyj in the USA?

True, the USA had Edward Snowden. He exposed – revealed – that in his country (and many others, including mine) “big brother [NSA] is watching you [us]” (cf. “1984” by George Orwell).

No matter what country we inhabit, our futures depend on those who expose serious wrongs which may or may not be punishable by law. Laws are created by humans, who are not infallible. Legislators are informed by clerics, public opinion, pressure groups, powerful lobbies, etc. Legislators are only men, after all, and sometimes women.

I don’t know about you, but I definitely lack the skills to analyse anyone’s financial empire. Even if I had them, I would never be able to devote years of unpaid labour to such a pursuit. I have not personally witnessed the war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated in the Middle East and elsewhere. Even if I had, my indignant voice would not have been heard.

We, the general public, need – here, there and everywhere – to be informed of such wrongdoings so that we can demand whatever measures are necessary to put things right. That is what Democracy is all about, informed decision-making.

We need – here, there and everywhere – to protect those who expose serious wrongdoings and inform us of them. Some of them have risked everything to do so, for instance in Italy, where the Mafia still has vastly more financial muscle than the State, and in Russia, where the State and the mafia appear to be one.

We need – in my country and in yours – people
like Navalnyj,
like Julian Assange and
like Edward Snowden
to expose what you and me cannot see,
what media that depend on wealthy sponsors are unwilling to see.

We need them; we desperately need them. We need, in fact, more like them, not as presidents, not to govern our countries, but to expose and continue to expose what is terribly wrong.

And we need to defend them when they need us.

Jan 242021
 

I’m getting off the US’s back now. I’m hoping that after having agonised, day in and day out for four interminable years, over “how we got into this mess”, even the Democratic Party finally understands that Trump wasn’t its cause, only its regrettable result.

So I’ll cross over to another superpower: Russia. Not that Russia normally bothers me much – after all, Russia doesn’t call the shots, NATO does. Still.

But now, Russia is starting to bother me. I happen to like Navalnyj’s style, and I definitely don’t approve of killing political opponents, particularly not when the said opponents expose massive corruption – i.e. risk their lives by challenging criminal big shots. After he was poisoned, I angrily wrote that for Putin, killing political opponents seemed to be a “cup of tea” and fervently hoped health workers would be able to save Navalnyj’s life. They managed, and Navalnyj returned home to Russia.

… where he was promptly arrested.

Russia is starting to bother me.
Russia is starting to bother me in a big way.

Today, I read in the news that Navalnyj’s team has published what the Washington Post calls a “bombshell video” on Youtube, one that actually kicks Putin in the teeth.

Before I continue, let me introduce you, in case you don’t know it, to the little icon at the bottom right under Youtube videos. If you click this icon, you can chose subtitles + language.

So I looked for the famous “bombshell video”, but before I found it, I listened to Navalnyj’s own investigation into the attempted murder of his own person. This is terrific entertainment, mind you, and the translation is good:

FSB – murder attempted

Now for the kicking of Putin’s teeth. Here is a carefully prepared nearly two-hour long documentary, signed Navalnyj and his team, about how Putin became one of the world’s richest men. Two hours is a long time, but believe me, this is extremely interesting. I put to you that Mafia bosses around the world will seem like small fry in comparison. Again the translation is excellent:

Navalnyj’s bombshell video

Russia is not Putin and his gang, but 146 million people. I believe most Russians love their country passionately, I mean really passionately. Their country has been raped.

What about the prosecutors?
What about the judiciary?
What about Russia’s Federal Assembly?

Have they all been bribed?

СТЫДНО!

20 February 2021:

Bill Browder’s take on Putin’s wealth.

So who is Bill Browder? Well, apparently he’s quite a colourful character. I won’t tell you whether he is a good guy or a bad guy — personally I never trust financiers — but he is certainly more closely and unhappily acquainted with Russian powers-that-be than most.

Here is Wired’s take on the adventures of Bill Browder. Not boring at all, I assure you.

And here is the Huffington Post’s angry story about the demise of Sergei Magnitsky, Browder’s close associate; you know, the guy whose death triggered the creation of the Magnitsky Act.

From the above two linked articles, written long before Navalnyj hit the headlines, it seems clear that Putin is an extortionist who spares no effort to increase his wealth, and that murder is truly a cup of tea for him. It would thus appear that the President of Russia is a rapacious predator.

And if you feel like practicing your Russian, here is a very good place to start: The Insider. If you prefer to get a peek behind the scenes, but in English go here: https://theins.ru/en

Oct 302020
 

There is absolutely nothing I can do about the shoot-out between Trump and Biden, other than to commiserate with US citizens in both camps who have had to watch their American dream go down the drain.

Had I been a US citizen, I would have voted, sure, but as I am not, I do not intend to sit up all night, every night of this last week, waiting for the election results, so please have me excused. Nor do I intend to incur headaches, hypertension, muscular pains, insomnia, or psychosis by following the news byte by byte. It is nearly all about Trump and Covid, even in my country. You could almost envy the people in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, who have issues that take their mind off Covid-Trump.

However, there are actually enjoyable pieces of news out there, would you believe it? True, my country’s national broadcasting company did not see fit to inform us about the outcome of the 25 October plebiscite in Chile, but we still have internet. (By the way, did you know that in Kashmir they don’t, thanks to “Democratic” India’s rabid PM Narendra Modi’s having slapped a one-year-long internet blackout on Kashmir.) So I watched a Chilean TV channel for – yes, for a whole night.

General Pinochet, whose US-assisted dictatorship had engaged in a particularly sadistic effort to exterminate the regime’s political opponents, stepped down in 1990 following a plebiscite he had allowed, believing that it would grant his dictatorship legitimacy. To everybody’s surprise, it didn’t. See the film No! directed by Pablo Larrain (trailer).

However, Chile was not rid of Pinochet. He left his mark in a Constitution (adopted back in 1980, when people were too terrified to oppose it), a constitution that seemed a hymn to Milton Friedman’s market fundamentalism.

Subsequent legislative efforts to protect the population from the effects of that constitution have been a seemingly hopeless uphill battle.

Milton Friedman often proudly referred to “the miracle of Chile”. Moreover, the father of Neoliberalism (albeit Neoliberal economists indignantly declare there is no such thing as Neoliberalism) Friedrich Hayek, visited Pinochet. If you are an economist, and if you still adhere to the “classical” economic precepts of Hayek, I suggest you take a look at Wikiquotes and search “Chile”.

Chile’s economy has been a model of stability, the darling of the IMF, with steady and uninterrupted growth in terms of GNP. But let me declare loudly, let me stand on a chair, let me shout, let me scream, as the Chilean protesters have been screaming: GNP does not reflect the welfare of the vast majority of a country’s inhabitants.

True, the number of people defined as living in extreme poverty has declined markedly from year to year. However, how do you define poverty? I put to you, that the majority of Chile’s population is living in what I consider poverty. I am sure you would agree if you were put to the test.

I quote from the think tank www.americas.org:

Fifty percent of the economically active population earns less than 550 dollars per month, with the minimum wage equivalent to 414 dollars. Overwhelmed by the narrow strip that separates it from poverty, an important part of the population lives in fear of seeing their income fall. In Chile, downward social mobility is greater than upward social mobility, and downward mobility is more highly correlated to political protest than poverty itself.

The biggest factor that exacerbates inequality is probably the nation’s pension system, in force since 1982. Designed during the military government, the pension mechanism has not met Chileans’ expectations. According to the group No + AFP (No More Pension Fund Managers), which in 2016 organized a march of 600,000 people, these are “undercover banks of the richest entrepreneurs in our country who use the pension funds to expand their investments and further concentrate capital in a few hands”. The average pension for retirees is $286 per month, and 80% receive pensions below the minimum wage. The amount of pensions is on average close to 40% of people’s income at the time of retirement.

Education is the second major source of inequality. In 2006 and 2011, students organized massive demonstrations calling for profound reforms in the education system. Chilean education is characterized by the huge gap between public and private education. The withdrawal of the State from its functions as generator, regulator and supervisor of the education sector led to the gap as part of neoliberal reforms beginning in the 1980s.

The above quote is far too polite, in my mind. (The NY Times does a better job of it.) Then again, I suspect that working and living conditions for more than half the population in the USA is not very much better than for the majority of the population in Chile.

Now back to the night when the votes were being counted. The below link will take you to the infamous Stadium in Santiago during the last minutes before voting ends. Then you will see how counting starts at various polling stations, how amazed silence follows the first signs of what seems to be happening,

If you go on watching, you will see that dazed spectators surrounding the polling stations (las mesas) start to understand that they may actually have won. Eventually, they will find themselves in the streets, deliriously celebrating, and although there is a curfew, neither the police nor the army intervenes.

What emerges when all the votes have been counted is that only 5 of the 346 electoral districts were opposed to the trashing of Pinochet’s constitution. Two of them are so small they are statistically insignificant. Three of them, however, constitute the part of Santiago that houses the top of the social pyramid, the epicentre of political and economic power: Vitacura, las Condes and Lo Barnochea. In an interesting article, BBC explains that Santiago consists of two distinct universes. What is clear is that from the top of a pyramid, you don’t see the ants swarming down below.

President Piñera deserves praise for at least not having declared a civil war on the night when it became clear that 78.2 % of the population of Chile, had declared the country’s constitution worthless.

Look to Chile, my friends. Change is indeed possible.

Sep 202020
 

No, I’m not done yet. And the extradition hearing isn’t over. Its outcome is crucial not only for Assange, but for us all.

For many people, the Trump period has been a watershed, a scales-falling-from-the-eyes event. For others, the turning point came much earlier, with Wikileaks, which is why the US authorities hate Assange so vehemently. Moreover, many honest US American citizens have clung at length to the hope that the Iraq war and Bush had merely been aberrations, so defence of Julian Asange has therefore not been deafening in the USA, a country where brave men and women are willing to risk their lives in the great “Black Lives Matter” battle, and where many firefighters are loosing their lives in the fight against climate devastation. There is no lack of bravery in the USA, just a lack of information. Julian Assange attempted to provide some of the missing information. He was not thanked.

Daniel Ellsberg‘s Pentagon Papers in 1971 were also a scales-falling-from-the-eyes event from which we have unfortunately not learned enough. I recommend listening to Daniel Ellsberg’s explaining why he is a witness for the defence of Julian Assange. What he says applies specifically to the prosecution’s hypocritical charges that Assange put people’s lives at risk with Cablegate.

European authorities, fearing US backlashes, appear to be discouraging the media from highlighting the ignoble (i.e. illegal ) conditions of Julian Asange’s lengthy captivity and the parody of the legal proceedings against him. In any civilised court, illegally obtained evidence would not be acccepted. Not so, in this case, it seems; see example of illegal surveillance of Julian Assange.

I have just discovered, that there is a small newspaper in my own small country, that has been granted access to the preposterous extradition hearing and is diligently covering it. I expect it has been granted access because it is not widely read.

Saturday’s issue includes an article about a US torture victim who had just witnessed for Assange. If I have understood correctly – after all, I wasn’t there – the US tried and eventually succeeded in blocking the witness’s appearance. In the end, however, his written statement was read to the court. The witness stated that diplomatic notes among Wikileaks’s “Cablegate” were instrumental as evidence in his own legal battle for justice (in Europe, that is, not in the USA).

Since I’m sure you may be as ignorant as I was about the legal battle in question, I would like to direct your attention to the Wikipedia article that covers it. However, since there is a risk that the article will be tampered with in the wake of the Assange hearing, I think I had better just paste a quote from Wikipedia as at 20/09/2020 (without the reference numbers).

Khaled El-Masri … ,[born] 1963, is a German and Lebanese citizen who was mistakenly abducted by the Macedonian police in 2003, and handed over to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). While in CIA custody, he was flown to Afghanistan, where he was held at a black site and routinely interrogated, beaten, strip-searched, sodomized, and subjected to other cruel forms of inhumane and degrading treatment and torture. After El-Masri held hunger strikes, and was detained for four months in the “Salt Pit”, the CIA finally admitted his arrest and torture were a mistake and released him. He is believed to be among an estimated 3,000 detainees whom the CIA abducted from 2001–2005.

In May 2004, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, Daniel R. Coats, convinced the German interior minister, Otto Schily, not to press charges or to reveal the program. El-Masri filed suit against the CIA for his arrest, extraordinary rendition and torture. In 2006, his suit El Masri v. Tenet, in which he was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), was dismissed by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, based on the U.S. government’s claiming the state secrets privilege. The ACLU said the Bush administration attempted to shield its abuses by invoking this privilege. The case was also dismissed by the Appeals Court for the Fourth Circuit, and in December 2007, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

On 13 December 2012, El-Masri won an Article 34 case at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The court determined he had been tortured while held by CIA agents and ruled that Macedonia was responsible for abusing him while in the country, and knowingly transferring him to the CIA when torture was a possibility. It awarded him compensation. This marked the first time that CIA activities against detainees was legally declared as torture. The European Court condemned nations for collaborating with the United States in these secret programs.

The Julian Assange case (not to mention the El Masri case before him) is critical for all Europeans, not to mention US nationals. It is a demonstration of the bullying our governments submit to from the USA. Our European governments are accessories to US government-sponsored outrageous acts of every conceivable flavour. The extradition case is also an example of how due process is being eroded in the UK.

Sep 182020
 

In country after country, critical press coverage is becoming risky. Very risky. It has always been risky in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, China… If Julian Assange, an Australian national living in Europe, is extradited to the US, freedom of the press will have become a figment of the imagination also in Western Europe and the USA. I use the cliché to indicate that many of us will not even know that we no longer enjoy freedom of the press, if indeed we ever really did.

In my country, the national broadcasting company now basically tells us what our government wants it to, which is mostly just to observe social distancing, to distrust the Russians and hate the Chinese, and to have fun.

Still, as far as I know, progressive or environmentalist media outlets are not being hobbled here. Not yet. But they don’t have the economic clout to send reporters all over the world to pick up and analyse news outside our borders, to challenge mainstream press and to expose financial and political overlords.

There is one news outlet that has the necessary clout and dedication to do just that: Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera is no more progressive or environmentalist than your Aunt Julia, but it has a freer rein than most other news outlets and its reporters are extremely competent.

Obviously, a much respected and fearless outlet will have many enemies. I would like to direct your attention to a post on this site written back in June 2017: The Rat is out of the Hole. (A related post, also written in June 2017, discusses the disconcerting relationship between the Trump administration and the Arabian peninsula. ) You will particularly notice the UAE statement (as quoted by the Guardian):

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.

Beautiful, that, no? If all autocrats could be as frank, we’d be spared a lot of claptrap.

Now the UAE has finally succeeded in partially hobbling Al Jazeera. From CNN’s rendition of the matter, you will see that US authorities are not very fond of Al Jazeera, which according to a letter from the Justice Department obtained by CNN aims “to influence audience attitudes with its reporting” with, CNN adds, “policies such as calling the Israeli Defense Forces the Israeli army instead of the IDF and not using the words terrorist or terrorism.”)

Meanwhile my own country’s national broadcasting company has not yet mentioned the bridle put on Al Jazeera. Nor does it appear to care much about the outcome of Julian Assange’s extradition hearing in London.

However, I find in El Pais a letter to that paper’s readers dated 3 March 2020 from no lesser a personage than the famous judge Baltasar Garzón, who humbled Dictator Pinochet and who directed the world’s attention to the shameful post-dictatorial silence (about mass graves, stolen babies etc.) in Spain. The title of the letter: Assange, la prensa en peligro. If you understand Spanish, read it! If you don’t understand Spanish, learn the language.

Jun 032020
 

It’s not about Trump, you know, or at least I hope you know. In 2015, US police officers killed at least 104 unarmed black people. Out of all the unarmed people killed by the police that year, 36% were black, although black people made up only 13% of the US population. Trump was not yet president in 2015.

No, it’s not about Trump. It’s about ingrained institutional injustice. Take a look at the trial in 1978 of Debbie Sims Africa and her companions from “Move”, a trial so farcical that even a child would have have done better.

Or the 1985 aerial bombing of a neighbourhood in Philadelphia, when 11 people were killed, five of them children.

It’s about the unofficial yet – alas, ingrained – idea that not all people are people. It’s also about the unofficial, deep-seated, subconscious conviction that other people have to follow the rules, not me. Boris Johnson’s pet aide Dominique Cummings did not have to comply with Covid-19 rules. The British population has been up in arms about his driving a few miles to his family’s country estate while the rest of them were enduring lockdown. You’d think that was a fairly innocuous breach of rules, but no, the British were stung at the injustice.

In 99% of the killings committed by police officers in the US from 2013 to 2019, nobody has been prosecuted.

Killings committed by police officers from 2013 to 2019 (source):

  • 2013: 1782
  • 2014: 1714
  • 2115: 1607
  • 2116: 1595
  • 2117: 1767
  • 2018: 1848
  • 2019: 1795

I repeat: 99% of those killings have not been prosecuted and there have been massive and often violent protests again and again when the powers-that-be decided not to charge the killers. Evidently, rule of law does not apply when police officers kill. And rule of law certainly doesn’t protect non-whites. This has been an issue for decades. No wonder the Chinese and Iranians are laughing.

Forget Trump; in the first place, he never pretended to care about civil rights or justice. He doesn’t even know the meaning of the concepts. Ask instead: What has the Democratic Party done to rectify the racial imbalance?

Now you might not like the Black Panther movement or Move. So? At least they were brave enough to stand up for basic human rights, which they maintained should also apply to non-whites. They had the gumption to raise a fist or two in defence of their communities and they were persecuted. On the other hand there are a lot of criminally irresponsible organisations, companies and world leaders out there who will never be subjected to anything near what ordinary non-white citizens in the US need deal with.

You probably do not approve of the devastation of entire neighbourhoods currently being carried out by irate protesters. But can you honestly blame them? What would you have done if you lived cooped up in an overcrowded, underprivileged Covid-infested neighbourhood constantly being ostracised by police officers? This article in the Los Angeles Times merely gives a faint outline of the lifelong stress to which the majority of non-white U.S. Americans are being subjected.

A more complete picture is provided by the Marshall Project. I quote Wikipedia as at 03.06.2020:

The Marshall Project is a nonprofit, online journalism organization focusing on issues related to criminal justice in the United States, founded by former hedge fund manager Neil Barsky and with former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller as its first editor-in-chief. Its website states that it aims to “create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.”

The Marshall Project provides interesting articles about police brutality in the US from various news outlets.

May 222020
 

Maybe you don’t care whether or not your movements on the Internet are being watched because you’re “not doing anything wrong”. If so, I won’t pick a quarrel with you. After all, why should you draw your curtains at night? Haven’t they seen a naked man/woman before?

Or maybe you will agree that the idea of being watched while sitting on the toilet is disagreeable, but if that is what it takes to put a few drug dealers behind bars, it’s an idea you can live with, even though you realise that if there’s one thing drug barons can do better than just about anybody else except other big-time criminals, it’s to protect their privacy. After all, they can buy all the expertise they need.

So, no, I won’t argue with you. You will hear more than you can bear about privacy in months to come. Covid has unleashed an army of young talented developers who are now all clicking away at their keyboards to satisfy governments’ and industry’s vast demand for ways and means to monitor our actions and influence our attitudes. If that’s fine with you, I repeat, I won’t argue… except to remind you of one thing:

There are investigative journalists out there, sticking their necks out to dig up the dirt we need to know about so that we don’t go off and elect the likes of Trump and Bolsonaro again and again and again. There are tens of thousands of human rights activists and their lawyers and honest judges who risk being stuffed into jails without trials or killed for defending their co-citizens. These people’s privacy must be protected at all cost! How can we help? By defending our own privacy so that their defended privacy doesn’t stick out like a row of sore thumbs.

I’m so very far from being an expert in this field that I would urge you to leave this page at once to go and read somebody else’s advice. But I haven’t found any comprehensive self-help guidance to direct you to. The Privacy Rights Clearing House, for instance, provides very sound insight at the general level, but the bottom line there, as I understand it, is that we should all stay away from the Internet in any way, shape, or form.

True, you can find valuable practical snippets on sites like this one from Kaspersky, but bear in mind that here Kaspersky is also trying to sell us its own products.

So I will do my best to indicate how we can protect our privacy from various kinds of intrusion. Of course, if you run a business, you should probably invest in professional services not only to protect your data but also to minimise your vulnerability to malware.

Your device’s location gets shared

The good news is that your device’s GPS is not telling anybody where you are.

The bad news is that the apps that have access to your GPS might do just that. And commercial use is made of the information.

So you should disable location access for the apps on your phone, and you should disable location storage in your Google or Apple account. PCMag outlines how to do so.

You should consider whether you absolutely need to use Facebook, and if you really do, you ‘d better hone your privacy settings there. Kaspersky tells you how.

Websites you visit share more information about you

You prevent this if you use a VPN service.

Doing so not only hides your IP address; it encrypts the re-routing of your internet traffic. So whatever information the websites or ISPs have stored will be illegible to them.

There are many free VPN services, and even more websites that compare them. Take a look.

“Free” always comes at a cost:

  • You don’t want “speed throttling”.
  • You want a large data allowance.
  • You want to cover all the devices you use.
  • For normal privacy protection, you don’t need access to many countries.

So as not to excceed my data allowance, I try to remember to turn off VPN when video streaming (legally).

Another advantage of VPN is that it also protects you against hackers when you are away from home. But if you yourself are engaged in serious criminal activity, the web service can hand over your identity to law-enforcement.

Many repressive regimes consider political opposition “terrorism” and some unnamed countries penalise whistle blowing. If you are from or living in such a country you might opt for a VPN service in a country that is not likely to pander to, for instance, the Saudi or Israeli governments.

You do not need to use a VPN to block cookies and adverts. There are other ways of doing that. Some browsers do so and there are plugins or “extensions”, such as Ghostery.

Your browser

If you use VPN, your browser isn’t a big issue. But if you turn off VPN …

I would not use Chrome or Safari, and Opera has been sold to a Chinese group.

On Android devices I currently recommend Brave. For computers, consult e.g. Wired or Digital Trends. If you use Firefox, you should at least learn how to fine-tune the browser’s security and privacy settings.

Messaging

WhatsApp is owned by Facebook and its main source of income is based on users’ contact lists. I put to you that Facebook’s track record is less than respectable. Signal is widely recommended. and is pretty impressive in terms of privacy.

Contacts, calendarsand email are our weekest point!

If you, like me, let Google or Apple manage your contacts and calendar, not to mention your email, you really have a problem. We have a problem. Or rather, our contacts have a problem. A lot of other apps on our phones will have access to the contacts, not least Facebook. Yes, Google and Apple enccrypt our email, but not end-to-end.

Oh dear, oh dear.

There is no way I am going to take my contacts and calendar back to a paper notebook. The blessing of having all my devices synchronised cannot be exaggerated. But what if I regularly meet with political refugees from, say, Saudi Arabia or with Russian political activists opposed to Putin… Yes, what then? If the Saudi or Russian authorities are seriously tracking them, my writing in my calendar that I’ll be having lunch with them at so and so time/place and their phone numbers in my contact list may endanger them.

How do I know what Google hands over to state prosecutors who may or may not be hounding people from minority groups and other disadvantaged areas?

What I need is an email service (and local client) that provides end-to-end encryption and that also stores and synchronises a contact list and a calendar.

I googled “privacy alternative to gmail and contacts” (without the quotes). You’d be surprised by the number of hits. Three of the top five, including two from VPN service providers (and they should know) all coincided pretty well in their conclusions. (NordVPN, RestorePrivacy and PureVPN).

As far as I can judge, only one of the email clients they recommend also provides a contact list and calendar: Tutanota. Now, I don’t much like the name, but I do like the look of it. The hitch is, of course, that all email sent from this email service gets encrypted. So you won’t want to use it to ask your dentist for an appointment. But you could use it to communicate with Saudi refugees and with good friends, not to mention if one of them is a married colleague with whom you are having an affair. You would, in other words, leave your dentist’s number on your visible contact list and move your shrink to your private list, using only Signal to communicate with him/her.

So this is as far as I get without using PGP, which many email clients do allow, but which is a little too cumbersome for most of us – and it still leaves us with an unprotected contact list and calender.

The last word has not yet been written, never will be. But for the moment, if you really make an effort, you can still communicate pretty safely online.

Apr 292020
 

This is to remind you of the Amnesty International petition in defence of freedom of expression. I quote AI:

Julian Assange’s publication of disclosed documents as part of his work with Wikileaks should not be punishable as this activity mirrors conduct that investigative journalists undertake regularly in their professional capacity. Prosecuting Julian Assange on these charges could have a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression, leading journalists to self-censor from fear of prosecution.

People from all countries are urged to sign here.

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.