Friday, August 23, 2013

Gang of four arrested for defaming Chinese cultural icon

China has once again proved itself to be a paranoid, Orwellian regime following the arrest of four people accused of “spreading rumours” about a man perceived as a hero and cultural icon [BBC / Shanhaiist].

Cultural icon

Lei Feng [雷锋] was a soldier of the People's Liberation Army of China and after his death was characterised as a selfless and modest person who was devoted to the Communist Party, Chairman Mao Zedong, and the people of China. In 1963, he became the subject of a nationwide, posthumous propaganda campaign "Follow the examples of Comrade Lei Feng" [向雷锋同志学习] and portrayed as a model citizen. The masses were encouraged to emulate his selflessness, modesty, and devotion to Mao. Even after Mao's death, Lei Feng remained a cultural icon representing earnestness and service; his name entered daily speech and his imagery appeared on t-shirts and memorabilia.

But in the Internet age many question the lies and propaganda spread by the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] and some are so bold as to air their thoughts on social media platforms.

However, to question the party line is dangerous in a totalitarian dictatorship. Views which question official history are not considered to be open and free debate. Instead individuals who deviate from official viewpoints are considered to be spreading rumours or even attempting to incite revolution.

Critics condemned

State media was quick to condemn the four individuals who have not been named. "Information that seriously harmed the image of Lei Feng was rapidly transmitted across the Internet," the People's Daily reported, "and Lei Feng's glorious image was quickly brought into question."

According to CNTV [Chinese] the individuals arrested had questioned how Lei Feng, who earned only around $6 per month in 1959, managed to acquire a leather jacket, woollen trousers and black leather black shoes which would have, they asserted, cost considerably more than Lei could have afforded.

It is not the first time the facts surrounding Lei Feng have been called into question. The New Yorker published an article earlier this year which raised a number of issues concerning the authenticity of many photographs taken of the Chinese ‘hero’. Much of Lei’s image has been built around his diary which was itself made public prior to his death in 1962. However many western historians, such as Orville Schell see the document as “almost certainly at least a partial forgery.”

The China scholar Michel Bonnin told the New Yorker correspondent Evan Osnos, “I had always harboured doubts about the reality of the existence of a soldier called Lei Feng, but I have now changed my mind.” Bonnin has since come to believe that “Lei Feng was real and fake.” He was a man, most likely, but also a myth. “This is testimony for the propaganda genius of Mao’s China,” Bonnin says. “It is a pity that Mao and his comrades were less inspired, at the time, in solving problems of the real world.”

Perpetuating myths & lies

Perpetuating the lies, myths, and false histories is important to the CCP. Their authority would be further undermined should all that people have been led to believe was revealed as a fabrication of the truth.

Many young netizens do question the history taught to them, and some have discovered the brutal truth of Mao, the millions he persecuted and countless millions he allowed to starve in a failed campaign to reassert his hold on power with the so-called Great Leap Forward, and which brought about the incident now often referred to as Mao’s Great Famine.

But while there are some who will privately call Mao a ‘fascist’ and a ‘disaster for China’, they recoil at airing such views publicly. The fear of the state is significant. “I wanted to donate money to Ai Weiwei,” one man told tvnewswatch, referring to the time when the dissident artist had run into trouble with Beijing authorities over alleged tax evasion. “But my wife was pregnant, so I feared for her and our unborn child.” This could in some countries be classed as paranoia. But in China it is a reality that should be realised.

Monitoring & surveillance

In fact China is very much a state almost perfectly modelled on George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The Telescreens may not exist, but with a massive state run surveillance system in operation watching almost every keystroke made over the Internet, every text sent by a mobile phone and with a growing number of ANPR and CCTV cameras dotted all over the country, China has become one of the most Orwellian states in the modern world.

For those living in China as Chinese citizens, and even some foreigners, every move is logged and monitored. All citizens, and those visiting the country, must register at their local police station, providing ID cards or passports as well as proof of where they are living. Most tourists do not see this red tape since details are taken at the hotel where they are staying and handed on to authorities later.

Memory holes

Orwell spoke of memory holes in his book, a way of deleting unwanted history or even persons. A memory hole simply refers to any mechanism that allows for the alteration or disappearance of inconvenient or embarrassing documents, photographs, transcripts, or other records, such as from a website or other archive, particularly as part of an attempt to give the impression that something never happened.

In China this happens frequently. Comments posted on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular micro-blogging website, may be deleted within minutes or even seconds of having been posted. In fact some may never even get posted if certain keywords are identified beforehand.

People themselves might find themselves deleted from history too. There are many Chinese politicians, dissidents and so-called enemies of China whose names will not be found on any Internet search. In recent history Al Jazeera journalist Melissa Chan found herself disposed of in a memory hole only to become an unperson when she effectively told to leave the country when her reporting was deemed too sensitive and critical [tvnewswatch: Doubletalk & memory holes as Melissa Chan expelled - May 2012].

Newspeak & thoughtcrime

Newspeak, a controlled language created by a totalitarian state as a tool to limit free thought, and concepts that pose a threat to the regime such as freedom, self-expression, individuality, peace, etc., is also strongly evident in news broadcasts in China. The country does not have a Ministry of Truth but there does exist the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an organisation which provides briefings for journalists but rarely offers much truth and very little information.

Any form of thought alternative to the party’s construct is classified as "thoughtcrime", yet another idea dreamt up by Orwell. Thoughtcrime is merely is the criminal act of holding unspoken beliefs or doubts that oppose or question the ruling party. And it is the job of the Thought Police to search out those who may be guilty of such crimes. In China both phenomena exist, though of course they are not labelled as such.

Overseeing all this is of course Big Brother. In China his name is well known, though Xi Jinping is just one large cog in the large machinery which is the CCP.

Protecting the CCP

And to protect the CCP it has to at least be seen to be dealing with corruption. And so it is somewhat ironic that those questioning the truth about Lei Feng should be arrested in the same week as the fallen Chinese politician Bo Xilai stand before a Chinese court charged with corruption and possible complicity in the murder of British businessman Neil Heyward in November 2011.

Access to Bo Xilai’s trial has been strictly controlled with only a few hand picked journalists allowed to sit in on proceedings. There is an official Sina Weibo page but that has revealed very little so far as to what is being said behind closed doors.

Propaganda exercise

In many respects Bo Xilai’s court appearance is nothing less than a show trial,and an exercise in propaganda, an attempt to further promote President Xi Jinping's call for a crack down on high-ranking corrupt officials or "tigers" and not merely the "flies" or lower-level corrupt cadres [BBC].

Outside commentators have poured scorn on the official explanations and suggested that Bo is merely a scapegoat for other far more corrupt and high placed officials. There has also been some rather satirical reporting with the Hong Kong Apple Daily suggesting the trial was "The Chinese Communists' most absurd political farce since the fall of the 'Gang of Four' in 1976”.

It is likely Bo, like his wife, will be made an example of and sentenced to a significant time in prison, but the details surrounding the former Chongqing party chief are likely to remain hidden or consigned to a memory hole.

Related: tvnewswatch: Suspicious death of Briton with links to Bo Xilai March 2012 / tvnewswatch: Bo Xilai purge, a return to dark days of Mao March 2012 / tvnewswatch: Officials attempted cover up of Heywood murder April 2012 / tvnewswatch: Neil Heywood 'murdered', Bo Xilai's wife arrested April 2012 / tvnewswatch: Gu Kailai trial ends but suspicion remains Aug 2012 / tvnewswatch: Truth behind Heywood murder brushed under the rug Aug 2012 / tvnewswatch: Gu Kailai gets suspended death sentence for murder Aug 2012 / tvnewswatch: Rumours persist following Gu Kailai conviction Aug 2012 / tvnewswatch: Police chief Wang Lijun jailed in murder cover-up Sept 2012 /

tvnewswatch, Kunming, Yunnan, China

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Google remains silent over outage

Several days after Google's entire infrastructure became unavailable for a full 5 minutes, there is still no clear picture as to what happened. Google have yet to make any statement on the matter, and there silence is in itself creating a breeding ground for speculation.

While Internet dropped by a  massive 40% during the outage, not everyone would have been affected, or even have noticed. The outage occurred at around 15:55 PDT meaning that while much of America might have been affected by the glitch those in Europe would have likely been hitting the sack. Even many parts of Asia would likely not have seen any problems given the fact that the sun may only just have been peeking over the horizon.

Financial impacts

The down time is significant nonetheless since this was not just a run of the mill website. This was Google, a multinational Internet giant which stores petabytes of data for millions of users around the world. In business, time is money and even a few minutes of downtime can result in lost trade resulting in financial losses.

Google is said to have lost around $500,000 during the minutes-long window according to one marketing executive. However, such a sum is relatively insignificant for a company that generates $40 billion. Furthermore spike of web activity that occurred once services were restored likely replaced any losses.

For smaller companies the losses were potentially more significant. People searching for products may have failed to navigate through Google searches or even Google's own Adsense and Adwords programs.

Safety concerns

The most concerning aspect for some is the fact that Google went down at all, and whether data stored on Google's servers is safe.

The fact that Google managed to bring everything back online so quickly should be of some comfort. In fact some have expressed surprise that outages don't occur more frequently.

"I'm not surprised Google drops off the planet for 5 minutes," wrote one commentator, "I'm surprised it doesn't happen more often, and I'm astonished they get it back online in 5 minutes."

Whatever caused the problem, Google's recovery programs certainly proved to be a lot faster that those seen by certain large banking giants, such as NatWest which saw its computer systems crashing for nearly a week in 2012 [BBC], or other Internet companies including software giant Microsoft which has had its fair share of outages, some lasting several days.

Up time guarantees

Google offers paying customers of its services 99.9% up time and offers a certain amount of free days of service in each billing cycle if it cannot meet the level of availability. And while last week's outage was significant Google is doing better than some of its rivals in providing a reliable cloud service. In fact in 2011 the UK's advertising agency began investigating Microsoft regarding its claims that the software giant "can guarantee 99.9 percent uptime" of its Office 365 cloud service [ZDNet]. Microsoft saw outages lasting several hours in 2011 [ZDNet] and in 2012 [CNET].

A guarantee of 99.9% up time amounts to a possible outage of 8.76581277 hours, a far cry from the 5 minutes or so Google was down on Friday last week. In fact that amounts to less than 0.001%, equating to an up time guarantee of 99.999%. However, promising such guarantees would inherently increase running costs.

Previous outages

Google has suffered outages before, though they have generally only affected single services. In April 2012 its Gmail service went dark leaving more than 35 million without access to their email [tvnewswatch - April 2012] In some ways the effects were far more significant in that the effects lasted for nearly 2 hours. Prior to the April 2012 crash, Gmail had only been down seven times since its 2005 launch. At that time Google reported that Gmail was available 99.984% of the time in 2010, and 99.99% in 2011.

The year before and bloggers were left unable to post or access their accounts after Google's Blogger service went down for a full 20 hours [tvnewswatch - May 2011]. Concerning the cause Google only said they had "experienced some data corruption" during scheduled maintenance.


Google's silence over this most recent outage has prompted all sorts of theories. Most analysts were confident the outage was not the result of hackers, but many posted jokes on Twitter about the cause.

"Google went down because it was told it could no longer have 20 percent time and didn't like it," wrote Danny Sullivan, editor of the Search Engine Land blog, referring to the time Google employees are given to work on projects outside their job description.

"Somebody in Mountain View probably unplugged something, then plugged it back in," Greg Sterling, a researcher with Sterling Market Intelligence, wrote. On newspaper websites some joked that Skynet had just come online, a reference to the film the Terminator where computers become self aware and wage war against mankind. Others suggested that Google may have done it deliberately to "prove a point".

There were, however, more serious suggestions. Greg Sterling, a researcher with Sterling Market Intelligence, told The Financial Times, "This individual outage doesn't matter. The idea that Google could go down is unsettling to people but it doesn't create a problem for the company unless it starts to happen more frequently."

Most analysts said the black-out was unlikely to have been caused by hacking, but said it could not be ruled out. Most seemed to think the outage was caused by a physical infrastructure problem or human error. But this in itself unsettling.

Single point of failure?

Matt Oxley, head of creative technology at Tribal Worldwide, told Sky News, "To have a complete outage points to a single point of failure, but what are the single points of failure in a multi-national organisation such as Google?"

"The simplest and most obvious would be the Domain Name System (DNS). Did someone manage to hack/attack their DNS? Or did someone make a mistake and push an update (internal or external) that caused a cascading error through their name servers?"

"The other possibility is they do actually have a single point of failure in their infrastructure that has been exposed either by external or internal circumstances (attack or mistake). If it was either of these cases then they won't want to publicise it before they fix the error. If it is the latter, then it could be embarrassing and damaging to their business/reputation."

Perhaps by staying quiet Google believes the whole issue will blow over and be forgotten

More reports:  Sky News / FT / Forbes / Daily Mail / CNET / ITProPortal / Marketing Pilgrim / ZDNet

tvnewswatch, Kunming, Yunnan, China

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Google outage prompts concern and speculation

Internet traffic plunged on Friday for between one and five minutes after Google suffered an unexplained outage on all its services.

The event began at approximately 16:37 Pacific Time and lasted between one and five minutes, according to the Google Apps Dashboard. All of the Google Apps services reported being back online by 16:48.

The incident apparently blacked out every service Mountain View has to offer simultaneously, from Google Search to Gmail, YouTube, Google Drive, and beyond.

Google has experienced outages before affecting a single service, sometimes for more than an hour. But the fact that this outage affected all of Google's services has left many puzzling as to why as well as raising concerns over reliance of cloud-based services.

According to web analytics firm GoSquared, Internet traffic around the world fell by around 40% during the blackout, reflecting Google's massive grip on the web.

"That's huge," GoSquared developer Simon Tabor told Sky News. "As internet users, our reliance on being up is huge."

Computer website writer Neil McAllister added said technical experts would be 'nervous' as they sought to find out what happened. "Exactly how an operation like Google's can even go dark like that, all at once, is anybody's guess," he said.

Bulletin boards and news websites were full of speculation from the funny to the paranoid. One person jokingly suggested someone accidentally knocked out a plug at the Chocolate Factory while others pointed to solar activity. There was also the speculation of hacking or a cyberattack. "I wonder if China perhaps has anything to say about this?", wrote thinker1983 on the Daily Mail website. Such a glitch even prompted some to suggest it was the beginning of a "fire sale" a term used to describe a possible scenario where hackers might bring down the entire Internet and everything connected with it.

While there were many 'experts' willing to air their opinion, Google were less than forthcoming. "We're aware of a problem with Gmail affecting a significant subset of users. The affected users are able to access Gmail, but are seeing error messages and/or other unexpected behavior," the company said of one of it's services at the time. A similar message was posted concerning all it's other services.

A later message said, "Between 15:51 and 15:52 PDT, 50% to 70% of requests to Google received errors; service was mostly restored one minute later, and entirely restored after four minutes."

More reports: NY Daily News / D Mail / Register

tvnewswatch, Kunming, Yunnan, China

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The growing machine of state surveillance

While there has been much furore over the NSA's surveillance of US citizens and those around the world since fugitive Edward Snowden made details about PRISM and other projects public, there is also a sense of pragmatism that such surveillance is perhaps necessary in the wake of 9/11 and the ongoing threat of terrorism.

Internet giant denials

There have of course been denials by major Internet giants concerning the assertion by the Guardian that the NSA, under the umbrella of PRISM, had access to the vast data bases belonging to the likes of Google, Facebook and Microsoft.

These companies have denied giving access to the NSA or any other governmental body except in clear cases where a warrant or subpoena is submitted.


In fact since the first reports, published in the Guardian, emerged, there has been some scepticism as to how deeply the NSA can probe into people's online activity.

An article published by The Week suggested the claims were somewhat over-egged. The revelations about the NSA had been published by The Guardian and the Washington Post. However within days the Washington Post had quietly revised the story, backing down from the sensational claims it made originally. The Guardian meanwhile maintained its line that the US government was spying on everyone's online activity.

ZDNet went so far as insinuating that the stories were a fall in standards of proper investigative journalism, publishing the story before facts were clearly established. The story did not start with the PRISM revelations. In February 2013 The Guardian published a story about how defence firm Raytheon had designed software, called Riot, that allowed authorities to track people on social media. Then in early June The Guardian reported that Verizon, one of the United States' largest telecoms companies, had handed over mountains of data to the NSA having been obliged to do so by a court order.

It went on to publish an 18 page dossier outlining President Obama's order to draw up a list of cyber targets. And following the PRISM allegations the paper asserted that the United Kingdom was also complicit in storing, analysing and collecting data [Guardian]. Cyber tracking is nothing new. In 2011 German politician Malte Spitz made public his findings that Deutsche Telekom was gathering and storing data from his mobile phone, logging his whereabouts, text messages sent and phone calls made. His findings were published online by Zeit with an informative interactive map, though at the time the story gained little attention [NY Times].

Damage control

While the Washington Post toned down its articles, the US government and its politicians were engaged in a process of damage control. Libertarians, and those in defence of free speech, felt they were being dragged further into a police state.

However, politicians insisted that the reports were highly exaggerated. Representative. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that Snowden and Greenwald had no idea what they were talking about [YouTube].

PRISM merely a GUI

From some people's assessment, PRISM was no more than a graphic indicating how data is cross checked and analysed, and made no indication that it had 'back-door access'.

"PRISM is a kick-ass GUI [graphical user interface] that allows an analyst to look at, collate, monitor, and cross-check different data types provided to the NSA from internet companies located inside the United States," Marc Ambinder at The Week said. The data is stored on US servers, but "a lot of foreign intelligence runs through American companies and American servers."

Targeting individuals

Under the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, the NSA and the attorney general can apply for an order allowing them to access some of the material that a company such as Facebook stores on its servers. Such an order could apply to all Facebook accounts opened up in Abbottabad, Pakistan. These accounts are being updated in real-time and Facebook may be obliged to create a mirror of this data that only the NSA can access. The selected/court-ordered accounts would thus be updated in real-time on both the Facebook server and the mirrored server. PRISM is the tool that puts this all together. Facebook would have no idea what the NSA is doing with the data, and the NSA would not inform them. Similar situations might apply to other companies such as Microsoft, which also has Skype in its portfolio, Google, and others.

But selective monitoring of certain accounts is a far cry from the monitoring of every Facebook, GMail and Skype account. Indeed to monitor and sift through such large amounts of data would be cumbersome to the point of impossible. To suggest as such would be like putting individuals under constant surveillance with an undercover policeman following them and monitoring their every move. Such surveillance does indeed happen, but it is targeted, and initiated after receiving other intelligence such as tip-offs [Daily Banter].

Much of what PRISM and other surveillance technologies applied by the NSA and other bodies does is almost certainly automated. Data from targeted accounts will be sifted through by computer programs, looking for patterns and key words. And while technology has certainly advanced, it is a far easier job to sift through a series of targeted accounts than to wade through millions of accounts belonging to ordinary, and likely law-abiding, citizens.

Fears of a Police State

Of course, this should not distract from the fact that the state, be it the United States government or others in the west, may possibly spying on many innocent citizens. The US and western countries are hardly police states, but one should nonetheless be on guard for any shift away from an accountable democracy.

What is more disquieting is the the fact that many countries' citizens are under far greater surveillance. In Iran, China, Russia and North Korea, the state monitors or obliges companies to monitor Internet and telecommunications traffic. This is less to do with keeping the country sagfe than it is to do with keeping its citizens in line.

Foreign monitoring

For an average westerner, it has been of little concern that China, for example, monitors its citizens online activity, telephone calls and other movements. But the situation is changing with the advent of VoIP [Voice over Internet Protocol] and other Internet based communications.

While many social networks are blocked in China, there are other methods through which those outside the country can communicate to those living inside. Weixin, more well known as WeChat, has become increasingly popular, not just amongst the Chinese but also for those outside China's borders.

WeChat is a cross platform application somewhat similar to WhatsApp, whereby users join by registering their mobile phone number, connect to other people and send message, pictures and even voice recordings for free, given they have an available Internet connection.

But herein lies the catch. Every Internet company in China, both foreign and domestic, is held legally liable for all content shared through their various platforms, as are telecom operators, on grounds related to guarding state secrets [CECC].

Censorship & data mining

As such Tencent does and must censor WeChat messages shared within China. It claims rules are different for content exchanged outside of China. But in January, reports indicated certain Chinese characters in WeChat's international messages were being censored, too. Within 24 hours, the company put out a statement that the "glitch" was being resolved, but the news highlighted the problems associated with using an app created and run by a company constrained by a totalitarian dictatorship [BBC / Tech in Asia / Tech President / Motherboard / RNW].

The prospect of a foreigner's data "being processed and monitored on China-based servers," as PandoDaily put it, could be rather unappetizing to many.

"The Chinese government could in theory gain access to anything stored on a server in China," says Jeremy Goldkorn, founder and director of Danwei, a research firm that tracks Chinese media and Internet. "Furthermore, the Chinese government could in theory apply pressure on a company whose major operations and revenue are in China to hand over data stored outside China."

With WeChat facilitating the linking up of Facebook accounts and the scanning of address books in order to check for others using WeChat and provide suggestions of other users, this is particularly unnerving.


One could theoretically find oneself barred from visiting China because data collected by such means could be cross-referenced with other information provided on a visa application. A post on WeChat about the Dalai Lama, Falun Gong or other sensitive subject may or may not be deleted for a western user, but would nonetheless be stored. Even if using a pseudonym, WeChat might have a list of that user's contacts, their Facebook name and other details as well as their mobile phone number. One is of course obliged to provide a phone number when applying for a visa, and perhaps an email address. These could easily be entered into a database whereby the Chinese state could swiftly make a decision as to whether the individual applying should be allowed to visit.

This is of course pure speculation. There are, as yet, no recorded or substantiated cases to show that such methods are being employed to vet visa applications. But historically China has proved that it is capable of using its powers to subpoena information in order to target and apprehend undesirables. In 2006, Yahoo, an American company, came under fire for handing over data to the Chinese government, which resulted in the jailing of several dissidents.

Yahoo!, as well as other search engines, had cooperated with the Chinese government in censoring search results. In April 2005, dissident Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years in prison for "providing state secrets to foreign entities" as a result of being identified by IP address by Yahoo! The extent of Yahoo!'s foreknowledge of Shi's fate was disputed by the company's General Counsel and human rights organizations. Human rights groups also accused Yahoo! of aiding authorities in the arrest of dissidents Li Zhi and Jiang Lijun.

In September 2003, dissident Wang Xiaoning was convicted of charges of "incitement to subvert state power" and was sentenced to ten years in prison. Yahoo! Hong Kong connected Wang's group to a specific Yahoo! e-mail address. Both Xiaoning's wife and the World Organization for Human Rights sued Yahoo! under human rights laws on behalf of Wang and Shi [Wikipedia].

Skype surveillance

It is not just WeChat that has the potential to hand over foreigner's data. Users of Skype in China have long been monitored as Skype tracks politically sensitive text messages on its Chinese videophone and texting service, known as TOM-Skype, a joint venture formed in 2005 with majority owner TOM Online, a Chinese wireless Internet company.

Any attempt to access the international Skype web address in China results in the user being redirected to the TOM-Skype page. As such it is virtually impossible for Internet users in China to download a clean unmonitored version of Skype.

All well and good, except that for any foreign user calling or receiving a call from one based in China runs the risk of themselves too being monitored by the Chinese state. While address books might not be accessed, the Chinese authorities could nonetheless compile any written conversations between users as well as creating a log of parties who communicate with each other. With Microsoft having tied in its new Outlook mail service into Skype, and also having to play ball with the Chinese government, should information be requested, the risks to those using such programs could be significant [].

Differing risks

For non-Chinese citizens the risk is perhaps less, though one could, as suggested, find oneself under greater scrutiny and even banned from entering China. The risk to Chinese citizens is of course much greater.

Tencent, the makers of WeChat, and Microsoft and its Skype offering, might have more to worry about concerning their complicity in Chinese state surveillance than Google, Facebook and others do concerning the possibly spurious links to NSA surveillance.

State surveillance is no doubt increasing. Mobile phones can be tracked through GPS or GSM triangulation, though they can of course be switched off. Text messages and call logs can be stored and the data handed to governments. Internet usage can be monitored with IP addresses stored and the data made available to authorities. And as discussed there are programs which can monitor social network activity. Only this week there were reports that there would be greater monitoring of Internet and telecoms traffic in Thailand an indication that surveillance is not just something conducted by the big players [Tech in Asia].

But being monitored by a democratic state, in order to protect its citizens from a terror attack, is one thing. Being monitored by a one-party dictatorship which is calling for a return to Maoist principles is another [SCMP / India Today / LA Times /]. The real threat comes when states become less democratic, and laws are tightened such that what was once a misdemeanour becomes a capital offence. With the machine of state surveillance already in place, escaping from the law might prove less easy.

tvnewswatch, Kunming, Yunnan, China

Friday, August 09, 2013

UK teenagers attacked with acid in Zanzibar

There has been shock and condemnation following the disturbing acid attack on two British teenagers in Zanzibar this week.

The pair were attacked by two men on a motorcycle as they walked through the historic capital Stone Town on the east African island of Zanzibar on Wednesday night. The acid splashed over their faces, chests, backs and hands.

Katie Gee and Kirstie Trup, both 18, had been working as charity volunteer teachers on the Muslim island and the attack came in the last week of their trip.

Similar attacks

While the attack has been described as an isolated incident there have been similar attacks in the past. CNN reported that a shopkeeper had also been subjected to a similar attack for selling western goods that were deemed "un-Islamic". There have also been several protests in the past year where supporters of an Islamic group have clashed with police [Islam in Zanzibar]. 

The attack came at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan as people began to celebrate the Eid holiday. Both young women were fully aware of the customs of a Muslim country and how to behave, according to friends and family.

Islamic sensitivities

However, from a tweet posted by in July it was clear that some inhabitants were more sensitive to foreigners' behaviour than others. " A Muslim woman just hit me in the street for singing on Ramadan. Is that normal," Katie Gee wrote. The post has since been deleted from her Twitter account.

According to Bashir Ismail, of Art in Tanzania, the two women were teaching at St. Monica nursery school, linked to the Catholic church. The Daily Telegraph also reported that the pair had argued with a nearby shop owner a few days before the acid attack when they went for groceries.

Whether their behaviour, or their links to Catholic school had any bearing on the attack is as yet unclear, however Ismail said the motorcyclists appeared to target the women specifically. "The two attackers passed by several white tourists in the area and threw acid after reaching closer to them which raises suspicion of a planned attack," he said.

However, Deputy Police Commissioner Mkadam Khamis told Sky News that the two Britons were not the intended targets and that the motorcyclists had missed their actual intended target of a nearby man.

The Zanzibar authorities were swift to condemn the attack, saying that it was "shameful" and that such acts would only harm the small island's economy. The island depends heavily on tourism and the high profile reporting of the attack as well as the way it was carried out could be devastating to Tanzania's economy as a whole.

Families' shock

Katie Gee's father Jeremy spoke of the family's shock and devastation after seeing photographs of her injuries, describing them as "absolutely horrendous".

"The level of the burns are beyond imagination," he told reporters. Kirstie Trup's father Marc, 51, a multi-millionaire dental surgeon and property developer, told reporters how a passer-by had come to the girls' assistance following the acid attack and that he had spoken to Kristie shortly after saying she was "inconsolable".

Injuries "quite mild"

Following the attack the girls were flown to hospital in Dar es Salaam on the Tanzania mainland where they were treated for their injuries. As the pair returned to the UK, doctors said that the damage from the acid may not be as serious as first thought and that it may not have penetrated as deeply as first believed.

"We suspect that whatever the liquid was, it was not true acid, it may have been diluted," one of the doctors at the Aga Khan Hospital said. "They have burns on their hands from wiping the liquid off. They have minor injuries on their chests and their necks. Considering it could have been very bad, what they have is quite mild. They were shocked, of course, but they are not feeling very bad."

Meanwhile the government has put up a $6000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the two attackers.

More reports: BBC / ITN / Sky News / CNN / Telegraph / Guardian / D Mail

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Snowden gets asylum amid more leaks & terror threats

This last week has brought more revelations about the United States' surveillance on people's online activities. But there were also details released about a possible terror threat aimed at western interests across the Middle East. The news came in the same week that Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, obtained permission to enter Russia after having applied for asylum.

Surveillance revelations

The Guardian once again published details of operations conducted by the US in which the NSA is said to collect "nearly everything a user does on the Internet" [Guardian].

Details about the top secret program dubbed XKeyscore were the latest in a series of leaks coming from fugitive Edward Snowden who was given temporary asylum in Russia on Thursday. The decision to give Snowden was hailed by the Russian press [BBC]. However, across the pond in Washington, the news was not so welcome and there were hints that the US might pull out of an upcoming summit.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration was "evaluating the utility" of a scheduled summit with President Putin in Moscow in September in advance of a G20 meeting in St Petersburg.

"We are extremely disappointed that the Russian government would take this step despite our very clear and lawful requests in public and private that Mr. Snowden be expelled and returned to the United States," Carney told reporters [Telegraph / Reuters / FT].


Snowden left the territory of Sheremetyevo airport for an undisclosed location after receiving the visa which was issued on Wednesday. The 30-year-old had been living in a transit zone at the airport since he arrived in late June on a flight from Hong Kong.

Snowden has claimed he released details about America's surveillance programs because he saw such operations as being a threat to people's personal freedom and privacy. His cause has been championed by some newspapers such as the Guardian, and in particular the journalist Glen Greenwald.

However, while there is undoubtedly a concern amongst ordinary citizens that they are being 'watched' by the NSA, there are many who are pragmatic given the constant and ongoing threat from terrorism.

"Significant threat"

In a post 9/11 world governments around the world and particularly in the west are fearful of another major attack. And in it's War on Terror surveillance is an important tool.

The importance of such surveillance were made clear this weekend when the US and Interpol released warnings of possible imminent Al Qaeda attacks aimed at western interests.

Whilst the US State Department have not revealed how it unveiled the plot, it said "intercepted Al Qaeda messages" had tipped them off to a "significant threat" of attack.

General Martin Dempsey, the 18th and current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC News that the "intent seems clear … to attack western, not just US interests".

Al Qaeda affiliates

The rare decision by the US State Department to close more than a dozen embassies across the Muslim world on Sunday [4th August] followed the discovery of a serious threat from a branch of Al Qaeda known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP.

AQAP is seen as one of the most dangerous affiliates to Al Qaeda, especially in the Middle East where the US and many European countries have significant interests [Telegraph].

The threat was however also connected to mass prison breakouts across the Middle East which saw some 1,500 prisoners freed [Daily Mail / Guardian].

Gathering intelligence

The way the intelligence was obtained about the latest threat has not been divulged, but it may well have been as a result of the intensive surveillance operations that the US conducts on the Internet including PRISM and XKeyscore.

If indeed the case it further reinforces the case for such operations. Moreover, the fact that such operations could be undermined by their being public make Snowden's whistleblowing all the more treacherous. Indeed, as well as as being labelled as 'spy' he could easily be charged with aiding and abetting the enemy, whether or not that was his intention.

Questionable motives

His motives have already been called into question as he proclaims he stands for "freedom" and "privacy" whilst seeking sanctuary in China and Russia, countries that have appalling human rights records, restrictions on free speech and with respect to China almost constant surveillance on its citizens.

There maybe some, such as the likes of Alex Jones, who will see the announcement of this weekend's terror threat as no coincidence, and indeed a false flag or deliberate attempt to discredit Snowden. Indeed within hours of the terror threat being made public Alex Jones' website Infowars launched a critical opinion based article. The report was cynical of both the timing and the fact that the threat assessment appeared to reinforce the justification for surveillance operations.

New threats, new methods

While it is important to remain vigilant and defend the freedoms and rights to privacy that have been hard fought for in western democracies, it must also be recognised that there are threats from both terrorists and nation states. These can and do come in the form of cyberattacks and real attacks. To discover and thwart threats the US and its allies need to step over uncomfortable lines.

In the past, surveillance was relatively low tech. The security services might attempt infiltration, placing moles inside the ranks of terrorist groups such as the IRA. Mail might have been opened and telephone lines tapped, and indeed individuals might have been put under physical surveillance or had bugs placed in their homes, cars or places of work. While such methods still have a place, as communications shift into cyberspace the rules of engagement have also changed for the security services. To keep both citizens and countries safe it is arguably necessary to use extreme methods revealed by the likes of Snowden. To not do so could leave us open to another 9/11 or worse.

tvnewswatch, Kunming, Yunnan, China