Sunday, March 27, 2016

Brussels attack raises more security questions

The attacks in Brussels which left at least 31 dead and nearly 300 injured has raised the issue once again as to how such attacks might be prevented in the future.

Terrorists affiliated to ISIL set of explosives in an airport check-in area and at a Metro station, both soft targets and areas which until now have been left relatively unguarded.

Growing security

Following aircraft hijackings and the threat of bombs being placed on board planes airline security has been significantly tightened.

After 9/11 knives and sharp objects were banned. Soon after restrictions increased further with passengers being forced to remove their shoes for inspection after the so-called Shoe Bomber Richard Reid attempted to detonate explosives in his footwear. That incident also precipitated the ban on matches and lighters.

A plot uncovered by British and American investigators suggesting terrorists might be planning to use liquid explosives smuggled on board aircraft disguised as soft drinks resulted in a ban on all liquids being carried.

Some restrictions have been relaxed slightly. Some airlines, though not all, allow a single lighter to be carried on one's person. And liquids in small quantities such as a 100ml tube of toothpaste, may now be carried in carry-on baggage. Knives and other sharp objects remain on the banned list, however.

Such restrictions have undoubtedly prevented attacks. But they have had had other effects. The increased security has made travelling more difficult and often confused. The tight controls have merely forced terrorists to look for easier targets.

Moving goalposts

Tuesday's attack at Zaventem Airport was a clear indication of such a shift in methods. Unable to breach airport security and target an aircraft, terrorists simply switched to the check-in area.

In some respects the attack was more devastating than if they had managed to bring down or destroy a plane. While more lives would certainly have been lost should a plane have been destroyed, as was seen following the downing of a Russian aircraft last year, the disruption caused by this week's Airport terminal bombing could have far reaching implications.

One of Belgium's main airports has essentially been shut for weeks, if not longer. And now security officials around the world may have to find ways to prevent similar attacks from happening again.

Security rethink

This is easier said than done. Though it is not impossible. The simplest method might be to implement screenings at the entrance to the main terminal itself.

Such screenings can already be seen in China. At Chengdu's international airport armed security personnel check people's luggage as they enter the building, wiping bags with swabs.

How practical this might be in Western airports is unclear. Indeed such security measures may only shift the terrorists' focus, perhaps to the drop-off area, parking lots or even the main roads into the airport.

Do we then employ road blocks and check points? How long before a whole country becomes a fortress? Or do we change our focus and instead target Islamic terrorism more seriously and strike them before they strike us? Even this might be easier said than done.

Blinkered governments

As Andrew Neil from the BBC politics program This Week pointed out there may be between 400 and 600 ISIL trained terrorists deployed across Europe, ready to strike and bring more death and terror to the streets of capital cities.

"When the same Islamist scumbags who'd brought carnage to Paris in November visited their barbarous death cult on the people of Brussels," they left "our politics parochial, even pathetic in its wake," Neil said.

"It's far from clear even after Paris and Brussels, that Europe's powers that be have any real idea of the scale of the threat and the daunting counter insurgency task before us; and it's something that we shall have to pay our part in addressing."

Fears and reactions

The attacks in Paris and Brussels and the threat of another attack in another European city has certainly raised fears amongst regular travellers. However most people say they refuse to let the fear of attacks cower them since this only hands a victory to the terrorists.

Nonetheless, the terrorists have already won tacit victories in that our lives have changed significantly with increased security checks and armed forces deployed upon our streets. And while Belgians have been resolute in their opinion not to let the terrorists win, organisers of a "March against fear" have were forced to call off a planned rally in Brussels this weekend for security reasons, at the request of authorities [BBC].

It is easy to recoil against the kneejerk reaction of increased security, more bombing raids in Syria and Northern Iraq and more surveillance. But we have to acknowledge there is a war being waged against the West and its interests by extreme Islamic groups. These groups must be identified, sought out and destroyed. And uncomfortable as it may be Europe's security and intelligence services must ignore any politically correct sensibilities and seek out the insurgents who are hiding in plain sight within Muslim communities across Europe. Peaceful Muslims too must be more proactive too and help identify any amongst their community who have strayed towards violent Jihad and pass along the information to authorities.

No-one can ignore the threat, be it governments, security services, ordinary citizens and indeed Muslim communities amongst which these terrorists attempt to hide. And all must play a part in rooting them out.

tvnewswatch, Yunnan, China

Saturday, March 19, 2016

China's Intranet becomes more a reality

Most people are perhaps aware that apart from North Korea, where there is no Internet at all, China is probably the worst place in the world if you want to get online - that is if you want to access Western websites and pretty much anything that isn't based in China.

And things aren't getting any better. In fact it's definitely worse than it's ever been.

It's been two years since I last visited China, and of course, like any seasoned traveller to the Middle Kingdom, one comes prepared with a paid for and reliable VPN.

Without a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, your phone, iPhone, tablet or PC may as well have no Internet capability at all.

No Google, no Internet

For iPhone and iPad users things are a little easier since at least the iTunes store is not blocked, though one may have the same problem using many of the apps as Android users. Android users from outside of China have the hardest time since Google is hardwired into almost everything. And if you weren't aware China and Google had a bit of a row - to put it mildly - back in 2010 and relations have not improved. Indeed they have worsened considerably to the point that almost every Google service is throttled by the Great Fire Wall.

Thus Android users are unlikely to get app updates since Google Play is inaccessible. Gmail too is off limits, as is Google's search engine, Google Drive and even Google Maps. YouTube has been blocked for some time, but Google's other entertainment platforms are also blocked or almost impossible to use. Google Movies doesn't work at all, though if you had the foresight to download content it will of course play fine. Google Music suffers from similar issues. Downloaded content plays OK but streaming continually brings up an error saying the app "Couldn't play the track you requested".

Books are also off limits and while downloaded content is accessible, any new bookmarks and notes will fail to sync across devices until you connect to an IP address outside of China.

Indeed it is the syncing, or lack thereof, that can prove to be very tiresome especially if you regularly use several devices.

Photos won't upload or sync to other devices. Bookmarks will not appear on your tablet soon after finishing with your smartphone. And Gmail can look very confused, should it work at all.

While Drive does not work Google Keep does, though it only works locally. In other words it won't sync to Google servers. Translate is also scuppered leaving travellers well and truly lost unless they downloaded the appropriate language packs for offline use.

So where does that leave you? According to Android devices it leaves you with a connection but no Internet as the device sees its inability to connect with Google servers as having an Internet connection.

VPNs and alternatives

There are alternatives. Bing search for example. And there are other map apps, though none as good as Google's offering. But should you rely heavily on many Western services you could find yourself on a network that is little more than an intranet.

Even with a VPN things can be be frustrating with slow speeds, disconnections and other issues. For example while a VPN may allow traffic to flow through a web browser the Google Drive for desktop may fail to connect.

The mounting censorship and control is all part of Xi Jinping's effort to control not only the flow of information, but also to maintain his position as one of China's most authoritarian leaders in recent years.


However, President Xi Jinping's administration has run into mounting resistance to its efforts to tighten its vice even more completely over the country's printed works, its airwaves and digital networks, while it strengthens the Great Firewall to keep out foreign content [WSJ / Johnib Wordpress].

But to be outspoken can bring its own problems. Western websites that push too far are simply blocked but Chinese websites and individuals can face harsher punishment. Recently, China's government stripped prominent and outspoken businessman Ren Zhiqiang of his social media accounts after he issued a rare direct challenge to President Xi Jinping over the loyalties of state-controlled news media.

The influential business publication Caixin ran into trouble too when it hit back after authorities forced it to take down an article posted on its Chinese-language website that quoted one of the government's own advisers, the Shanghai professor Jiang Hong, defending the right to free speech. In response, Caixin posted an account of the censorship on its English-language website, illustrated by a picture of a mouth taped shut. However, that article also disappeared.

Meanwhile, China's propaganda machine is revelling in what many see as the political circus currently ongoing in the United States as the controversial Republican hopeful Donald Trump battles towards the White House [Guardian].

"The rise of a racist in the US political area worries the whole world," the party-controlled Global Times crowed this week.

"He has even been called another Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler by some western media," the state-run paper continued adding that, "Mussolini and Hitler came to power through elections, a heavy lesson for western democracy."

However as many Guardian readers pointed out democracies tend to have checks and balances, unlike one party dictatorships.

"So the Chinese Communist Party reckon the ballot-box is a problem? Well, in the last hundred years, the bullet put Vladimir Lenin and Jozef Stalin in charge of Russia, Mao-Tse-Tung as chairman of China and Pol Pot as #1 in Cambodia. They only managed to murder or starve over 100 million of their own beloved people. What's not to like about dictators staring down the barrel of a gun?" one comment read.

Nonetheless, many readers conceded that Trump was a concern and that western democratic methods - as well as a lot of money - were helping him achieve success. That said there were few who proclaimed they would adopt China's political system.

Democracy vs a one party state

Winston Churchill once said this; "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." and indeed the West is far from perfect. There are economic problems - which it could be argued have resulted partly from globalisation and farming industry off to the Far East, including China. There has been an erosion of freedom in the US and many European countries, partly due to terror threats. But there is no comparison to the freedoms experienced by most in the West and the restrictions faced by those living in a one party states like China.

China is seeing human rights tightened and freedom is being eroded at a faster rate than at any time in the last 20 years. And the tightening censorship perhaps epitomises the way things are going in the Middle Kingdom.

UPDATE: In late March new regulations were announced which proposed even greater restrictions on the internet in China. Draft laws posted by one of China’s technology regulators said that websites in the country would have to register domain names with local service providers and with the authorities. Should the rules be applied to all websites, it could have major implications that would effectively cut China out of the global Internet [NYT / WSJ / BloombergDaily Mail / Quartz].

tvnewswatch, Yunnan, China

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

China financial woes hit world markets

The FTSE 100 fell for the second session in a row on Wednesday 9th March following overnight figures which showed a 25% fall in Chinese exports last month. The fall in stocks was a further indication how world markets are affected by China's growth and decline.

Uncertainty over the state of China's economy is unsettling investors and has done for many months. "Global markets have been rattled by the sharp decline in China's exports which reinforced the lingering concerns over the slowing pace of growth in the world's second largest economy," said FXTM research analyst Lukman Otunuga [BBC].

It wasn't just London that was reeling markets in Asia and the rest of the world were also rocked [Bloomberg / FT].

The fall in Western markets came as new data revealed that Chinese exports saw their sharpest drop in almost seven years. Exports dropped sharply by 25.4% from a year earlier, while imports fell 13.8%. It has fuelled concerns over the health of the world's second largest economy and comes on the heels of Beijing registering the slowest economic growth in 25 years [BBC / BBC].

The newly released figures also coincide with the China's National People's Congress, currently underway in the capital Beijing, which has just revised the 2016 growth target down, predicting a "battle for growth" [BBC].

But while Western markets reacted negatively to the recent financial data coming out of China, Chinese stock markets have risen, shrugging off the fresh government data [BBC].

There are fears in some circles that China is heading for a fall. However not everyone is so pessimistic. Perhaps predictably China's chief economic planner said the world's second biggest economy will "absolutely not experience a hard landing" despite growth forecast cuts.

Predictions of an abrupt economic slowdown were "destined to come to nothing", said Xu Shaoshi, head of China's state planning agency.

China's National People's Congress on Saturday meanwhile lowered the economic growth target for 2016 to a range of 6.5%-7% [BBC].

It's not just economic news that is raising concerns. There is a fear that Beijing is making a sharp turn to increased authoritarianism [BBC].

There have been further clampdowns on free speech in recent days with Caixin a top financial magazine target over an ill-advised article on censorship [Guardian / BBC].

But President Xi Jinping's crackdown on free speech is also being criticized by advisers to China's Communist Party. Indeed, an unusual number of CPPCC members, who serve as advisers to the party from industry and academia, are openly advocating broader freedom in China [QZ].

Such calls have come after recent increased controls on cyberspace and a crackdown on human rights [CNBC / QZ].

China was recently ranked the world's worst abuser of internet freedom and its system of heavy censorship is now well known outside of the country []. However many people living in China are not so aware how censored information is.

And there appears to be no sign that Beijing will yield to calls for any relaxation on such censorship. In fact during last December's 'World Internet Conference', held in Wuzhen, China championed its vision of a new set of rules for cyberspace, by which any sovereign power can claim the right to keep its people in ignorance [BBC].

With an uncertain economy, tightening Internet restrictions, and further erosions of human rights perhaps it's no wonder there is a gradual but growing exodus from the country. But it is capital outflow that is the biggest concern for authorities. Thus Chinese officials are trying to slow the unprecedented money exodus from the country, clamping down on individuals seeking to flee the yuan and making life tougher for companies that need to trade the currency for dollars to do business [WSJ].

No-one thought Xi Jinping would offer an easy ride. But his authoritarian approach has perhaps exceeded even his worst critics.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Crazy stuff some people try to take on planes

People are rightly concerned about airport security, especially after events such as the downing of the Metrojet Airbus 321 on 31st October with the loss of 224 lives [Wikipedia].

It is suspected that Islamic militants managed to load a bomb onto the aircraft after breaching airside security checks at Sharm el-Sheikh airport.

That incident resulted in the grounding of flights to Egypt and prompted some airports in the US to rethink their security measures.

Such measures are employed to thwart terror attacks. However security officials often come across naive passengers attempting to take prohibited items on planes.

Only this week TSA officials at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport found a woman trying to board a plane with a pair of gun-shaped stiletto heels. The shoes were in the woman's carry-on luggage, along with bracelets lined in faux bullets, and whilst harmless, the TSA officials were not amused since the agency prohibits passengers from carrying "replica guns or ammunition" through airport security checkpoints [Fox News].

It's not the only incident where someone has attempted to board with fake or even real weapons however.

In one incident last year, security officials in China detained a woman attempting to board a flight in Kunming with a knife disguised as a hair pin [Daily Mail / SCMP]

In another bizarre incident, also in China, a man was arrested after trying to board with a disused bomb in his luggage [Daily Mail].

And in September last year bomb disposal units were called to Toronto Pearson International Airport in Canada after a teenager tried to board a plane with an alarm clock designed to look like an explosive.

The 15-year-old was travelling to Vancouver and was reportedly going through security when officials noticed the 'device' in his luggage.

The explosive disposal unit was dispatched to Terminal 3, the screening area was shut down, and the surrounding area was evacuated for about three hours [Daily Mail / CBC].

In July 2015 a woman sporting a handbag embossed with a gun was stopped at Bremen Airport in Germany by officials for arousing suspicion.

The fashionable accessory, popularised by celebrity owners such as Rhianna, is part of the Guardian Angel collection by Dutch designers Vlieger & Vandam.

Following the incident, Bremen Police in Germany have issued a photograph of the handbag and warned passengers not to travel through Bremen Airport carrying the item as hand luggage [Daily Mail].

Whilst most of these items might be harmless, or pose little risk to passenger safety, it beggars belief that some travellers seem to have little or no common sense when packing their suitcase.

tvnewswatch, London, UK