The Panama Papers: Dirty Money or Dirty Media?

Panama PapersOn 3 April 2016, the first few of the so-called Panama Papers were published by mainstream media across the West. The Panama Papers are a collection of allegedly 2.6 TB of data and documents by and related to Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm providing offshore trust services.

The leak, given by an anonymous whistle-blower to Bastian Obermayer of the German Süddeutsche Zeitung, consists of 11.5 million documents created between the 1970s and late 2015 by Mossack Fonseca. A consortium of journalists, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) subsequently organised the research and review of the documents.

These documents allegedly provide proof of the rich and powerful in the world storing their massive stashes of money in tax havens across the world like the British Virgin Islands (BVI), Guernsey, The Netherlands, etc. This practice is called tax avoidance, and is usually not illegal. It is highly questionable from a moral standpoint though. Billions of euros or dollars flow through thousands of shell companies that provide no benefit to society in terms of services, goods and employment. And the country of residence of the billionaire in question doesn’t receive tax income which could be put to better use to improve society rather than sit on an anonymous bank account on the Cayman Islands.

Media Bias

Putin_mediaOne of the first things that struck me as odd, but that is sadly no longer surprising, was the incredibly one-sided reporting done on this by the media. On 3 April, lots of articles appeared about the Panama Papers, and they strongly implied that President Putin of Russia was mentioned in these documents. Even though Putin was not mentioned in the few actual documents released to this point, the mainstream media strongly implied (by using photographs depicting Putin, for instance), that Putin is personally involved with the arrangements mentioned in the documents by Mossack Fonseca. The BBC Panorama documentary entitled “Tax Havens of the Rich and Powerful Exposed” is also strongly biased in their editing, showing documents on-screen for only a few nanoseconds behind an unclear background. When you stop the video and zoom in you can clearly see that the documents shown are from the British Virgin Islands, while this British overseas territory is not mentioned even once in the documentary itself, while they are droning on about Putin and the Icelandic former Prime Minister Gunnlaugsson.

Why this massive media bias? Why is it necessary to remind us that leaders from countries like Russia, China, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Syria etc. are corrupt? We know that. That is not news. What would be news is to reveal hard evidence that Western billionaires like George Soros are just as corrupt, and worse, that they influence politics and world affairs using their massive stashes of money.

The reason why the bias is so strong is partly due to the methodology used, and partly because of other interests. The Süddeutsche Zeitung gives a detailed explanation on how these documents were searched for interesting titbits. One of the things they did is focus on countries that may be violating UN sanctions, which might explain in part why the bias is on non-Western countries as it is. Also note that these documents only come from one law firm in Panama. If there would be another leak from, say, a law firm on the BVI, then we might find other people involved.

As Craig Murray, former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan has written, Western journalists, the corporate media gatekeepers, are withholding the vast majority of the actual documents from the public. If we truly want to know what the impact of the Panama Papers is, without spin from the media, we should have access to the actual raw documents. Raw docs or it doesn’t exist, so to speak. If you don’t release 99% of the documents, you’re engaged in 1% journalism by definition. This is why I like the work that WikiLeaks is doing. They work very hard to publish the original source documents responsibly so that we can all learn how the world works from the original and authoritative source material. And then all journalists can read these documents on an equal standing. It’s been a pet-peeve of mine for many years that mainstream media don’t link to their sources like bloggers do. If a story is clearly based on documents like in this case the Panama Papers, just release the source documents together with your explanatory articles. Why is this such a problem?

Or are the journalists who have access to these documents afraid of possible blow-back if they report on the hand that feeds them?

Who is funding this?

Because that is the big elephant in the room. Who could be funding this propaganda extravaganza? Let’s have a look at the ICIJ’s site shall we?

Soros

George Soros at the Festival of Economics 2012, Trento. Photo by Niccolò Caranti.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is based in Washington, D.C, and is a project of the Center for Public Integrity. There, on the funding page, you can read that amongst the big institutional funders are names like the Omidyar Network (Pierre Omidyar, owner of The Intercept and founder of eBay), the Open Society Foundations (George Soros), the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Rockefellers, The Democracy Fund (again: Omidyar), and many others.

The OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption USAIDReporting Project) is also heavily involved with the Panama Papers project, and is sponsored, by (again) the Open Society Institute of George Soros, and also USAID, which is a US government agency and front organisation posing as a charity and frequently used as an instrument of regime change.

Is it strange that which such backers the very first news reports that came out were so incredibly biased? Given how much the US administration would like to see regime change in Russia, are these reports bashing the Russian President a surprise? No, sadly, I’m not surprised any more. What I find despicable, is that so many journalists who worked on this, like to think of themselves as independent and the ultimate arbiters of truth, when evidently, they are not.

Why are there not reports about the vast amount of wealth stashed away in tax havens by George Soros? Mark Zuckerberg? Warren Buffet? The journalists sacrificed a token Western leader like Gunnlaugsson from Iceland, so they can claim to be bias-free (“look, we’re also publishing on Western leaders!”), while in reality, their entire enterprise is funded by the rich and powerful in the West. So I think I can quite confidently predict that for instance George Soros’s financial arrangements in various tax havens will not be published. Mark my words.

The TTIP Tragedy

europeYesterday, the European Parliament passed a draft report containing the EP’s recommendations to the Commission on the negotiations for TTIP. TTIP is the “free trade” treaty that is being negotiated between the US and the EU. It is the latest chapter in a long range of abbreviations across the world, from ACTA, to CETA, to TPP, TISA, etc. The end goal for TTIP is to create a single, massive free trade area/single market between the United States and the European Union member states. In practice, this requires that our standards be lowered to theirs and American businesses given unfettered access to the European markets (and in name vice versa, but it remains to be seen whether that will be the case in reality.)

The negotiations with the United States are being conducted in secret. There are various MEPs who are regularly informed about the progress of the negotiations, but they are prevented from saying anything substantial about the actual contents of the documents currently on the table. The peoples of Europe have no influence and no say in what makes it in the final treaty. Most of the Members of the European Parliament also have no idea about the exact contents of the negotiating document, and what is currently on the table. The European Parliament will vote on TTIP when the treaty is completed, but does not have the power to make amendments to the final text. This is a massive shame, since this treaty will influence us in major ways. In practice, it will open up our markets to American big business, while the effect for European middle and small enterprises are almost non-existent (as the vast majority of SMEs will not make the step to export to the United States).

Negligible Economic Advantages

The long-term economic advantages of TTIP to Europe is in fact completely negligible. Karel De Gucht, the previous EU Commissioner for Trade until 2014, claimed that TTIP will create lots of jobs in Europe, when in fact, we’re looking at an increase of GDP of at most 0.4 to 0.5 percent over a time period of decades. Claiming that this treaty will be about job creation and creating opportunities for workers on both continents is just completely dishonest, as also claimed in a blog on the U.S. Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) website. According to various studies, the economic advantages are quite negligible. Incidentally, when De Gucht was confronted by some questions asked by the journalist regarding the alleged economic advantages of TTIP, he couldn’t provide an answer. And these are the sorts of people in charge of these things?

ISDS With A Different Name

ttip-2One important aspect that hasn’t been scrapped in the new resolution is the notorious ISDS provision (Investor-State Dispute Settlement). ISDS is a arbitration provision, that basically says that if a corporation thinks that a certain law passed by a nation-state’s parliament is hurting the profits of the corporation, they will have a way to sue the state for damages, in practice amounting to hundreds of millions of euro’s.

The most laughable thing about this arbitration commission is, that in the initial proposals, it consists of 3 lawyers, one of which will be from the company and another one from the nation state; the third one to be decided by the 2 parties. No legitimate judge would be asked to take this decision, and this provision has the potential to hurt democracy in a massive way. That this was even up for serious discussion is simply insane. When we as people can no longer decide for ourselves what we do and do not allow onto the market, because we should always take into account whether or not that will hurt someone’s business model, what independence do we have left? What will be left of the people’s sovereignty, granted to them by international law?

The ironic thing is that in the latest resolution passed by the European Parliament (P8_TA-PROV(2015)0252), the term “ISDS” has been replaced with: ‘a system for resolving disputes between investors and states’. Tell me: how is that different from “Investor-State Dispute Settlement”? This was just a different term used in the new resolution just so some fractions in the European Parliament can say: “Look people, we stopped ISDS!”, while at the same time the Commission and the negotiating team can say to the Americans that it’s still in. In effect, nothing has changed on this point. The entire concept of investors suing states for damages because legislation is a threat to their business model, and doing so in kangaroo courts, is an utter travesty to the legal system.

Another problem is that big corporations have an excessive influence on European policy-making. During the preparatory phase of TTIP, 590 meetings took place between the Commission and corporate lobbyists. 92% of these meetings were with representatives of big business. In fact, quite a few sentences in the proposals are directly written by the lobbyists, and made it in the proposals virtually unchanged. And this is not only a problem for TTIP, this happens all the time.

Consequences of Arbitrary Arbitration

An example of where this could lead to is the case of Achmea vs the Republic of Slovakia. In this case, Achmea (which is a major Dutch insurance conglomerate) sued the Slovak Republic for damages because they wanted to re-nationalise their health care system. Of course, Achmea stood to lose millions of euros in potential profits due to this policy change, so they sued, citing alleged breaches of the Treaty on encouragement and reciprocal protection of investments between the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic and the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Luckily, the arbitration committee in this case dismissed all of Achmea’s claims, and recognised the sovereignty of the Slovak Republic to make these kinds of policy decisions.

Now imagine what happens when TTIP is implemented, on a massive scale and in a vast area across many different industries? What sovereignty do we have left when we have to think about protecting the profits of huge corporations with each and every policy decision?

Investor-State Dispute Settlement is wholly unnecessary

Protecting investments by means of arbitration committees only makes sense if your trading partner is a country without a well-developed and functioning legal system. It does not make sense whatsoever in the context of a free trade deal between the United States and the EU, since European countries do have functioning legal systems. It isn’t a union of banana republics. At least not yet. So any investment arbitration mechanism in the TTIP treaty that circumvents the nation states’ legal system is wholly unnecessary. The only reason it will make it into the treaty is to give big business a lot more power to overrule the decisions made by our elected representatives. One step closer to a United States of Europe, which in the vision of eurocrats the likes of Guy Verhofstadt is only complete when it stretches from California to the Caspian Sea.

Benito Mussolini, the fascist Italian dictator during WWII, once defined fascism as: the merger of the corporate with the state. When TTIP is passed, the corporate is the state! We will open our European markets up to American multinationals who, as we know, have little concern for labour standards, food safety regulations, and more. It will amount to us lowering our standards to theirs in the interest of “free trade”.  If we don’t lower our standards, that would imply that the United States would raise theirs, which is extremely unlikely to happen in the current political climate. It will introduce a dispute settlement system that is actively hostile to the very principle of democracy. And our parliaments will have no say in the matter. Despite what the average eurocrat says, these are very real dangers. But there are even more reasons not to want this trade agreement with the United States.

Free Trade? With the people who spy on their allies?

nsaRecently, news came out that the United States NSA spied on the German Chancellor and her most senior officials and also on the last 3 Presidents of the French Republic. These documents on WikiLeaks also reveal that the US has a decade-long policy of economic espionage, and is intercepting all French corporate contracts and deals valued over $200 million.

Two years after Edward Snowden’s revelations were made public, we have seen a move towards more secrecy, more surveillance, and more corporatism, and a lot less transparency and accountability. Transparency and accountability is also a major issue within the EU institutions and in particular the TTIP negotiations, but I’ll get to that it a bit.

Over the last 2 years we have seen moves by various European intelligence agencies to imitate the NSA and GCHQ in their capabilities. Just recently, the Dutch government released for public consulting a proposal aimed to give the AIVD, more power, authorising them to start tapping cable-bound communications.

Also, the FBI by means of James Comey and others in the US and UK (Cameron, May) are desperately trying to ban encryption, against all expert advice. Banning encryption makes us less secure, preventing, for example, banks and corporations from protecting our personal data against interception by criminals. Without encryption we cannot securely shop online, we cannot message online, businesses cannot keep their trade secrets confidential, etc. Encryption is essential to the internet, and essential to innovation.

The important point is this: Do we really want to increase cooperation in the areas of trade and industry, across all sectors, with the country that has been spying on us and disregards its own Constitution and rule of law? Do we really think that is in the interest of European citizens?

I wonder what would happen in the following hypothetical situation. Let’s say for the sake of argument that it is revealed that the Bundesnachrichtendienst (Germany’s foreign intelligence agency) has been spying on the last 3 US Presidents. Would the US then take the initiative and start negotiating a trade deal and much closer cooperation with the Europeans? Or would these actions be strongly condemned and action taken to prevent these actions in the future? I think we know what the response of the US in this hypothetical situation would likely be. However, in the real world, the US has been spying on the Europeans for decades on a massive scale, and we still don’t reconsider who our allies are?

verhofstadt_van_baalenWe still mindlessly follow the US lead when it comes to demonising Russia, we don’t consider what actions are in the best interest of European businesses, we continue to give the US great advantages as they continue to stir up trouble, start revolutions and regime changes in Ukraine, hurting stability in the entire region, with MEPs Verhofstadt & Van Baalen joining in, calling for regime change on Maidan square.

The fact that US foreign policy is not a force of good in the world would already be grounds to scrap this entire treaty altogether.

Europe’s democratic deficit

ostrakon

An Ancient Greek ὄστρακον (ostrakon), mentioning Megacles, son of Hippocrates (inscription: ΜΕΓΑΚΛΕΣ ΗΙΠΠΟΚΡΑΤΟΣ), 487 BC. In the ancient Athenian democracy, ὄστρακον were pieces of discarded pottery that people would scratch a name into to cast their vote of who to banish from the city.

Some people may accuse me of being Eurosceptic. That is not the case: I like the concept of European cooperation and integration, I have many clients across Europe, I like the fact that I am able to travel, live, and work anywhere in the European Union. That is not the problem, and in fact, one of the greatest achievements of close European cooperation.

What is the problem, however, is the clear lack of democracy and transparency at the European level at various European institutions. European elections are held to elect Members for a small piece of the pie that is the European Parliament (depending on the country you’re from the piece may be bigger or smaller), but other than that, the European institutions are completely closed from all meaningful interactions with European citizens. The Commission is not elected, and all other European institutions that make or influence European policy also have unelected officials who decide on things. We have 4 different Presidents responsible for God knows what, and all unelected. This is the major problem with the Union, and the thing in my opinion needs to be fixed before we start thinking about further expansion, or the transfer of even more powers to Brussels.

Europe should embrace democracy, not eschew it, like we could see yet again prior to the latest Greek referendum, when various European leaders made threats to the Greek people about the consequences should they not agree to more austerity. Even the President of the European Parliament, Mr. Martin Schultz has made such threats, which is wholly unbecoming of a President of a poor excuse of a Parliament, who should be above all parties, and adhere to independence from such political opinions.

Democracy is a great concept, invented in the 5th century BCE by the ancient Athenians in Greece. We should do more of it!

The Sad Truth

The sad truth regarding TTIP is that — based on the resolution just passed by the EP — I can already make the prediction regarding the final verdict of the European Parliament when the TTIP final document is finally presented to them: they will pass it, and it’ll probably include some sort of ISDS provision. There will probably be time pressure involved, requiring MEPs to read and interpret thousands of pages of legalese in a very short time-frame, which ensures that no MEP will actually read the document they vote on.

And when TTIP is passed, corporate fascism in Europe has won.

Belgian Privacy Commission Found Facebook in Violation of EU and Belgian Privacy Law

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About two weeks ago KU Leuven University and Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium published a report commissioned by the Belgian Privacy Commission about the tracking behaviour of Facebook on the internet, more specifically how they track their users (and non-users!) through the ‘Like’ buttons and Share buttons that are found on millions of websites across the internet.

Based on this report and the technical report, the Belgian Privacy Commission published a recommendation, which can be found here. A summary article of the findings is also published.

Findings

The results of the investigation are depressing. It was found that Facebook disregards European and Belgian privacy law in various ways. In fact, 10 legal issues have been found by the commission. Facebook frequently dismisses its own severe privacy violations as “bugs” that are still on the list of being fixed (ignoring the fact that these “bugs” are a major part of Facebook’s business model). This allows them to let various privacy commissioners think that privacy violations are the result of unintended functionality, while in fact it is, the entire business model of Facebook is based on profiling people.

Which law applies?

Facebook also does not recognise the fact that in this case Belgian law applies, and claims that because they have an office in Ireland, that they are only bound by Irish privacy law. This is simply not the case. In fact, the general rule seems to be that if you focus your site on a specific market, (let’s say for example Germany), as evidenced by having a German translation of your site, your site being accessible through a .de top-level domain, and various other indicators as well (one option could be the type of payment options provided, if your site offers ways to pay for products or services, or maybe marketing materials), then you are bound by German law as well. This is done to protect German customers, in this example case.

The same principle applies to Facebook. They are active world-wide, and so should be prepared to make adjustments to their services such that they comply with the various laws and regulations of all these countries. This is a difficult task, as laws are often incompatible, but it’s necessary to safeguard consumers’ rights. In the case of Facebook, if they would build their Like and Share buttons in such way that they don’t phone home on page load and don’t place cookies without the user’s consent, they would have a lot less legal problems. The easiest way to comply if you run such an international site, is take the strictest legislation, and implement it such that it complies with that.

In fact, the real reason why Facebook is in Ireland is mostly due to tax reasons. This allows them to evade taxes, by means of the Double Irish and Dutch Sandwich financial constructions.

Another problem is that users are not able to prevent Facebook from using the information they post on the social network site for purposes other than the pure social network site functionality. The information people post, and other information that Facebook aggregates and collects from other sources, are used by Facebook for different purposes without the express and knowing consent of the people concerned.

The problem with the ‘Like’ button

Special attention was given to the ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ buttons found on many sites across the internet. It was found that these social sharing plugins, as Facebook calls them, place a uniquely identifying cookie on users’ computers, which allows Facebook to then correlate a large part of their browsing history. Another finding is that Facebook places this uniquely identifying datr cookie on the European Interactive Digital Advertising Alliance opt-out site, where Facebook is listed as one of the participants. It also places an oo cookie (which presumably stands for “opt-out“) once you opt out of the advertising tracking. Of course, when you remove this cookie from your browser, Facebook is free to track you again. Also note that it does not place these cookies on the US or Canadian opt-out sites.

As I’ve written earlier in July 2013, the problem with the ‘Like’ button is that it phones home to Facebook without the user having to interact with the button itself. The very act of it loading on the page means that Facebook gets various information from users’ browsers, such as the current page visited, a unique browser identifying cookie called the datr cookie, and this information allows them to correlate all the pages you visit with your profile that they keep on you. As the Belgian investigators confirmed, this happens even when you don’t have an account with Facebook, when it is deactivated or when you are not logged into Facebook. As you surf the internet, a large part of your browsing history gets shared with Facebook, due to the fact that these buttons are found everywhere, on millions of websites across the world.

The Filter BubblePersonal data points

A major problem of personalisation technology, like used by Facebook, but also Google, and others, is that it limits the information users are exposed to. The algorithm learns what you like, and then subsequently only serves you information that you’re bound to like. The problem with that is, that there’s a lot of information that isn’t likeable. Information that isn’t nice, but still important to know. And by heavily filtering the input stream, these companies influence our way of how we think about the world, what information we’re exposed to, etc. Eli Pariser talks about this effect in his book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You, where he did a Google search for ‘Egypt’ during the Egyptian revolution, and got information about the revolution, news articles, etc. while his friend only got information about holidays to Egypt, tour operators, flights, hotels, etc. This is a vastly different result for the exact same search term. This is due to the heavy personalisation going on at Google, where algorithms refine what results you’re most likely to be interested in, by analysing your previously-entered search terms.

The same happens at Facebook, where they control what you see in your news feed on the Facebook site, based on what you like. Problem is that by doing that a few times, soon you’re only going to see information that you like, and no information that’s important, but not likeable. This massively erodes the eventual value that Facebook is going to have, since eventually, all Facebook will be is an endless stream of information, Facebook posts, images, videos that you like and agree with. It becomes an automatic positive feedback machine. Press a button, and you’ll get a cookie.

What value does Facebook then have as a social network, when you never come in touch with radical ideas, or ideas that you initially do not agree with, but that may alter your thinking when you come in touch with them? By never coming in touch with extraordinary ideas, we never improve. And what a poor world that would be!

Dutch Data Retention Law Struck Down

Good news on privacy protection for once: after an 11 March 2015 ruling of the Court of The Hague in the Netherlands in the case of the Privacy First Foundation c.s. versus The Netherlands, the court decided to strike down the Dutch data retention law. The law required telecommunication providers and ISPs to store communication and location data from everyone in the Netherlands for a year. The court based its decision on the reasoning that a major privacy infringement of this magnitude needs proper safeguards. The safeguards that were put in place were deemed insufficient by the court. There is too much room for abuse of power in the current law, which was the reason for the The Hague Court to strike it down, effective immediately.

An English article by the Dutch Bits of Freedom foundation explains it in more detail here. An unofficial translation of the court’s decision in English can be found here.

The question remains what will happen now. The law has been struck down, so it seems logical to scrap it entirely. Whether that will happen, or whether the decision stands should the Ministry of Security and Justice appeal the decision, time will tell.

RT Going Underground Interview About Regin

I recently did an interview with RT‘s Going Underground programme, presented by Afshin Rattansi. We talked about the recently-discovered highly sophisticated malware Regin, and whether GCHQ or some other nation state could be behind it. The entire episode can be watched here. For more background information about Regin, you can read my article about it.

With Politicians Like These, Who Needs Terrorists?

The text on the cover says: "Love is stronger than hate."

The text on the cover says: “Love is stronger than hate.”

Last week, on the 7th of January 2015, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo‘s office in Paris was attacked by Islamic fundamentalists. Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical magazine featuring jokes, cartoons, reports etcetera. that is stridently anti-conformist in nature. They make fun of politics, Judaism, Christianity and Islam and all other institutions. Like all of us they have every right to freedom of expression. But alas, fundamentalists did not agree, and opted to violently attack their office in Paris with assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades, leaving 12 people killed and 11 wounded. This was a terrible attack, and my heart goes out to the families and their colleagues and friends who have lost their loved ones.

After the attack, there was (rightly so) worldwide condemnation and the sentence “Je suis Charlie,” French for “I am Charlie,” became the slogan of millions. What I am afraid of however, is not the terrorists who perpetrate these attacks. What frightens me more, is the almost automatic response by politicians who immediately see reasons to implement ever more oppressive legislation, building the surveillance state. After all, the goal of terrorism is to change society by violent means. If we allow them to, the terrorists have already won. Their objective is completed by our own fear.

Hypocrites At The March

When I was watching footage of the march in Paris for freedom of expression I saw that a lot of government leaders were present, most of whom severely obstructed freedom of expression and freedom of the press in their home countries. Now they were were at the march, claiming the moral high ground and claiming to be the guardians of press freedom.

Here’s an overview of some of the leaders present at the march and what they did in relation to restricting press freedom in their own countries, courtesy of Daniel Wickham, who made this list and published it on his Twitter feed:

Politicians like the ones mentioned above, but also the likes of May (UK Home Secretary), Opstelten (the Netherlands’ Justice Minister) and many others are jumping on the bandwagon again to implement new oppressive laws limiting freedom of expression and the civil and human rights of their peoples. With leaders like these, who needs terrorists? Our leaders will happily implement legislation that will severely curtail our freedoms and civil liberties instead of handling the aftermath of tragic events like these as grown-ups. It would be better if they viewed participating in the march as a starting point to start improving the situation in the areas of freedom of expression and freedom of the press at home.

The Political Consequences Of Terrorist Attacks

What frightens me is the fact that people like Andrew Parker, head of MI5, the kind of person who normally never makes headlines, is given all the space he needed to explain to us “why we need them,” to put it in the words of High Chancellor Adam Sutler, the dictator from the film “V for Vendetta,” which is set in a near-future British dystopia. UK Chancellor George Osborne immediately said in response to the piece by Andrew Parker that MI5 will get an extra £100 million in funding for combating Islamic fundamentalism. David Cameron has confirmed this.

Politicians are using the tragic events in Paris as a way to demand more surveillance powers for the intelligence community in a brazen attempt to curtail our civil liberties in a similar way to what happened after the 9/11 attacks.

All the familiar rhetoric is used again, how it’s a “terrible reminder of the intentions of those who wish us harm,” how the threat level in Britain worsened and Islamic extremist groups in Syria and Iraq are trying to attack the UK, how the intelligence community needs more money to gather intelligence on these people, how our travel movements must be severely restricted and logged, the need for increased security at border checks, a European PNR (Passenger Name Record) (which, incidentally would mean the end of Schengen, one of the core founding principles on which the EU was founded — freedom of movement). The list goes on and on.

A trend can be seen here. UK Home Secretary Theresa May wants to ban extremist speech, and ban people deemed extremist from publicly speaking at universities and other venues. The problem with that is that the definition of extremist is very vague, and certainly up for debate. Is vehemently disagreeing with the government’s current course in a non-violent way extremist? I fear that May thinks that would fit the definition. This would severely curtail freedom of speech both on the internet and in real life, since there are many people who disagree with government policies, and are able to put forward their arguments in a constructive manner.

Before we can even begin to implement laws like these we need to discuss what extremism means, what vague concepts like “national security” mean. There are no clear definitions for these terms at this point, while the legislation that is being put into place since 9/11 is using these vague notions intentionally, giving the security apparatus way too much leeway to abuse their powers as they see fit.

I read that Cameron wants to ban all encrypted communications, since these cannot be decrypted by the intelligence community. This would mean that banks, corporations and individuals would leave themselves vulnerable to all kinds of security vulnerabilities, including identity theft among others, vulnerabilities which cryptographic technologies are meant to solve.

Cryptography is the practice of techniques for secure communication in the presence of adversaries. Without cryptography, you couldn’t communicate securely with your bank, or with companies that handle your data. You also couldn’t communicate securely with various government agencies, or health care institutions, etcetera. All these institutions and corporations handle sensitive information about your life that you wouldn’t want unauthorised people to have access to.  This discussion about banning cryptography strongly reminds me of the Crypto Wars of the 1990s.

Making technologies like these illegal only serves to hurt the security of law-abiding citizens. Criminals, like the people who committed the attacks at Charlie Hebdo, wouldn’t be deterred by it. They are already breaking the law anyway, so why worry? But for people who want to comply with the law, this is a serious barrier, and restricting cryptography only hurts our societies’ security.

Norwegians’ Response to Breivik

Instead of panicking, which is what these politicians are doing right now, we should instead treat this situation with much more sanity. Look for instance to how the Norwegians have handled the massacre of 77 people in Oslo and on the Norwegian island of Utøya by Anders Behring Breivik on July 22nd, 2011.

Breivik attacked the Norwegian government district in Oslo, and then subsequently went to Utøya, where a large Labour Party gathering was taking place. He murdered 77 people in total.

The response by the Norwegians was however, very different from what you would expect had the attack taken place in the UK, the US or The Netherlands, for instance. In these countries, the reaction would be the way it is now, with the government ever limiting civil liberties in an effort to build the surveillance state, taking away our liberties in a fit of fear. The Norwegians however, urged that Norway continued its tradition of openness and tolerance. Memorial services were held, the victims were mourned, and live went on. Breivik got a fair trial and is now serving his time in prison. This is the way to deal with crises like this.

Is Mass Surveillance Effective?

The problem with more surveillance legislation is the fact that it isn’t even certain that it would work. The effectiveness of the current (already quite oppressive) surveillance legislation has never been put to the test. Never was a research published that definitively said that, yes, storing all our communications in dragnet surveillance has stopped this many terrorist attacks and is a valuable contribution to society.

In fact, even the White House has released a review of the National Security Agency’s spy programmes in December 2013, months after the first revelations by Edward Snowden, and this report offered 46 recommendations for reform. The conclusion of the report was predictable, namely that even though the surveillance programmes have gone too far, that they should stay in place. But this report has undermined the NSA’s claims that the collection of meta-data and mass surveillance on billions of people is a necessary tool to combat terrorism.

The report says on page 104, and I quote:

“Our review suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of Section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional Section 215 orders.”

And shortly after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the existence of some of these programmes were published, former director of the NSA Keith Alexander testified to the Senate in defence of his agency’s surveillance programmes. He claimed that dozens of terrorist attacks were stopped because of the mass surveillance, both at home and abroad. This claim was also made by President Obama, who said that it was “over 50.” Often, 54 is the exact number quoted. Alexander’s claim was challenged by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO), who said that they “had not seen any evidence showing that the NSA’s dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records has produced any valuable intelligence.” The claim that the warrant-less global dragnet surveillance has stopped anywhere near that number of terrorist attacks is questionable to say the least, and much more likely entirely false.

More oppressive dragnet surveillance measures aren’t helping with making the intelligence community any more efficient at their job. In fact, the more intelligence gets scooped up in these dragnet surveillance programmes, the less likely it becomes that a terror plot is discovered before it occurs, so that these may be stopped in time. More data needs to be analysed, and there’s only so much automatic algorithms can do when tasked with filtering out the non-important stuff. In the end, the intel needs to be assessed by analysts in order to determine their value and if necessary act upon it. There is also the problem with false positives, as people get automatically flagged because their behaviour fits certain patterns programmed into the filtering software. This may lead to all sorts of consequences for the people involved, despite the fact that they have broken no laws.

Politicians can be a far greater danger to society than a bunch of Islamic terrorists. Because unlike the terrorists, politicians have the power to enact and change legislation, both for better and for worse. When we are being governed by fear, the terrorists have already won.

The objective of terrorism is not the act itself. It is to try and change society by violent means. If we allow them to change it, by implementing ever more oppressive mass surveillance legislation (in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)), or legislation that restricts the principles of freedom of the press and freedom of speech, enshrined in Article 10 of the ECHR, freedom of assembly and association enshrined in Article 11, or of freedom of movement which is one of the basic tenets on which the European Union was founded, the terrorists have already won.

Let’s use our brains and think before we act.

Talk at Logan Symposium 2014, London

A few weeks ago, I was in London at the Logan Symposium 2014, which was held at the Barbican Centre in London from 5 to 7 December 2014. During this event, I gave a talk entitled: “Security Dilemmas in Publishing Leaks.” (slides, PDF) The event was organised by the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London.

The audience was a switched-on crowd of journalists and hacktivists, bringing together key figures in the fight against invasive surveillance and secrecy. and it was great to be there and to be able to provide some insights and context from a technological perspective.

The Ukrainian Veto: Why The MH17 Report Will Not Reveal The Truth

On November 26, 2014 it was revealed by the Dutch news outlet RTL Nieuws that there exists a confidentiality agreement that was signed by the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia and the Kiev regime in Ukraine that gives each of the signatories a veto on any information that comes out of the investigation.

The existence of this confidentiality agreement is confirmed by the Australian Government, more specifically by Melissa Stenfors, Acting Director of the Crisis Management & Contingency Planning Section of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade:

Veto_Australia_Ukraine_MH17Later, the authenticity of this letter was confirmed by the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the following statement to RTL Nieuws:

“The letter to which you refer is authentic. Australia, The Netherlands, Belgium and Ukraine have signed a non-disclosure agreement with respect to the criminal investigation into the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

This agreement requires consensus among the parties before information regarding the investigation can be released. The non-disclosure of information is important to avoid jeopardising the investigation or prejudicing a future judicial proceeding arising from the investigation.

The Joint Investigation Team non-disclosure agreement was communicated in confidence by foreign governments, and, as a result, cannot be made public.”

(emphasis mine)

An Elsevier magazine Freedom of Information Act (Wob) request to reveal the contents of the confidentiality agreement mentioned above, along with 16 other documents concerning the investigation was denied by the Dutch cabinet.

geweigerd

Unanswered Questions

So far, the investigation into the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 is poorly done. The Dutch Safety Board (Onderzoeksraad voor Veiligheid) published a preliminary report about MH17 on 9 September 2014. This report was unsatisfactory for many parties. Basically it only says that the damage to the front section of the fuselage and the cockpit indicates that the plane was hit by a large number of high-energy projectiles coming from outside the aircraft, and that the damage pattern does not match with any damage one would expect in case of failure of the aircraft’s engines or other systems. In any case, there are no indications of any technical or operational problems with the aircraft or its crew prior to the CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder) and FDR (Flight Data Recorder) stopping their recordings at 13:20:03 hours.

Important questions still remain unanswered, like whether the damage was caused by an air-to-air missile (which would support the Russians’ claims of a Ukrainian fighter jet near the Malaysian airliner), or surface-to-air (which supports the Buk weapons system theory). In the case of a surface-to-air missile, it still remains to be seen who fired the weapon at the time. Satellite pictures that claim that the Buk was operated by the rebels and then transported out of eastern Ukraine into the Russian Federation are very grainy, and one cannot discern any important details, let alone confirm their authenticity. These questions have not yet been answered, let alone asked by the investigation team (at least as far as we know).

The existence of the confidentiality agreement however, is very problematic. Especially if it contains, as sources seem to indicate, a veto right for all parties, including Ukraine. What if the investigation does reveal something that might point to the Ukrainians being behind the MH17 disaster? Would that ever get published? I think not, given the fact that they have a veto. Basically, the way this investigation was set-up, almost guarantees an outcome that will absolve the Ukrainians of any blame in the disaster. When the report does come out eventually, it will no doubt serve as new fuel on the pyre, with the West trying to blame Russia for the downing of MH17. Another reason why the investigation might be slow-going, besides the obvious difficulties in collecting all the evidence, is because the release of the final report might need to be carefully timed, released only when there’s a lull in the anti-Putin rhetoric, and this could then serve to ignite people’s anger and play on emotions to start a war with Russia. Which is a horrible thought, and I certainly do not hope things will play out this way.

But just as we have been stumbling into World War One, some of the signs are seen again nowadays. For instance, just look at the sheer level of propaganda found in the mainstream media, impervious to facts and reason. We are stumbling into another World War before we realise what happened. As the distinguished journalist John Pilger so brilliantly said during his speech at the Logan Symposium in London this month, “the most effective propaganda is not found in the Sun or on Fox News, but beneath a liberal halo.” We need to find the counter-narrative, figure out what is really going on to try and prevent this tragedy from happening.

It pains me to see how the U.S. is using Europe as its playground, themselves safely removed far away across the Atlantic Ocean, and we Europeans are allowing them to. Why should we be so subservient to a nation whose foreign policy in the past 70 years has only contributed to igniting crises and wars across the world? South America was ravaged by U.S. foreign policy, as was Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Cuba, and countless of other countries. Innocent citizens across the globe now have to live with the very real and daily fear of extra-judicial murder in the form of drone strikes, personally ordered and authorised by President Obama every Tuesday, extraordinary renditions (kidnapping) to “black sites” in countries like Poland and Romania where people are subject to CIA torture, as the executive summary of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Torture Report (PDF) recently revealed.

And the sad thing is, I’m not seeing any significant change in the US, where pundits the likes of Dick Cheney are still trumpeting torture (euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation”). When the Nazi’s were defeated after the Second World War, they were brought before the court during the Nuremberg trials, and some of the people deemed mainly responsible for the crimes against humanity and war crimes committed under Hitler’s regime were executed for their crimes. In the US, there isn’t even the slightest hint of a criminal investigation into the people responsible for the torture committed by CIA personnel and contractors, either directly or indirectly.

The Second Cold War

The coup in Ukraine was used to try and lure Russia into a second Cold War. A massive misinformation campaign was mounted in the Western press which totally ignored the real cause of the current crisis in Ukraine, namely the US putsch to oust the pro-Russian Yanukovich from power and install the pro-US Yatsenyuk. Yanukovich was democratically elected, Yastenyuk was not. On Maidan square, snipers attacked both the pro- and anti-Yanokovich protesters. The telephone conversation Victoria Nuland (Assistant Secretary of State) held with Geoffrey Pyatt (U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine) that was intercepted and posted to YouTube was blacked out from the mainstream media. This offered compelling evidence that the Ukrainian crisis was a U.S. led coup.

I have written extensively about the coup previously, explaining that NATO expansion after the Cold War ended has put Russia on edge, as they are obviously concerned about their national security. When the Soviets did a similar thing in Cuba, this led to Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Why is it OK for the U.S. to respond by blockading Cuba, but when it’s Russia’s national security that is being threatened by NATO’s military bases, these legitimate concerns are hand-waved away and ignored? American exceptionalism has no place in the 21st century, or in fact, in any century.

After the referendum on the status of the Crimea, where the vast majority of the (mostly ethnic Russian) population (96.77% in fact) voted to re-join the Russian Federation, after the separation of the Crimea from Russia by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, the Russians were immediately blamed for annexing the area. However, there were no such outcries when Kosovo declared itself independent from Serbia (without a referendum, mind you). In the case of Kosovo, it suited the Western powers, in the case of the Crimea, it did not.

The Crimea is of strategic importance to the Russians, as their Black Sea Fleet is based in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. When the Ukrainian coup started, Russia was getting increasingly concerned about whether it would be able to continue its lease of the military base, which was set to expire in 2042. Losing access to the base would be difficult, as Sevastopol’s warm water port, its natural harbour and the extensive infrastructure already in place there currently makes it one of the best-outfitted naval bases in the Black Sea. Sevastopol also allows the Russians relatively quick and easy access to the Mediterranean. The Russian Mediterranean Task Force, which is based in Sevastopol, was previously used to remove Syrian chemical weapons and conduct anti-piracy operations near Somalia.

All I hope is that the current crisis will be resolved quickly, as the path we currently seem to be on (one almost inevitably leading to war), is a foolish endeavour, and we need to realise that talking and diplomacy will get us much further than empty threats and baseless allegations. We’ve previously seen what US interference does to countries, like in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the sanctions that were put in place before that. Millions of people have been displaced and killed in that conflict alone. We need to stop this madness and start the dialogue to understand and hear the valid concerns put forward. Only then can war be avoided.