Daily Archives: October 13, 2011

Invasion of the body scanners

Privacy could soon be a thing of the past, even at stations

Observer | Oct 1, 2011

by Victoria Coren

At Bath railway station last weekend, passengers were offered a free chicken risotto that tasted faintly of plastic. They were handed tiny cans of Coke and tiny peanuts, before being advised to buckle up in case of turbulence. Then they sat back as the train roared upwards into the sky.

That didn’t happen. The commuters would have been quite alarmed if it had. But should they have been any less alarmed to find themselves, on arrival at Bath, instructed to walk through a 7ft body scanner? Because that did happen.

It wasn’t widely reported. I spotted it on about page 12 of a newspaper: a little colour story. It might have squeaked in for a lighthearted couple of minutes on the TV news. Quite odd for such a huge, significant and sinister change to our national culture. I’d have put it on the front page.


Full Body Scanner Used at Bath Train Station

Since when did we surprise the public with electronic body searches, randomly as they go about their daily lives, without any reason to suspect them of anything? Have search warrants also been abandoned while I wasn’t looking? May the police now turn up on a whim and rootle around in our drawers?

We seem to have swallowed the security nightmare of airports without much fuss. Someone uttered the magic words “international terrorism” and we accepted (in traditional British manner: grumbling passivity) that we must now queue for several hours, remove shoes and belts, pick up a few verrucas from the airport floor, submit to any indignity suggested and abandon all hope of travelling with hand luggage only because shampoo and toothpaste have suddenly turned fatal: if we don’t surrender them at check-in and wait four hours to pick them up at the other end, PEOPLE WILL DIE.

Fine. I never liked flying anyway. But if that’s now going to happen at railway stations and on ordinary streets, delaying and degrading us without even a holiday at the end of it, should we not have a little chat first? Just to make sure this isn’t a massive assault on our civil liberty?

I’m not saying anyone currently intends us to live in a totalitarian state, but Lord knows they’re making it easy for somebody to slip one into place later on. I don’t currently intend to get fit, but putting a tracksuit in the wardrobe certainly increases the risk that I might find myself squat-thrusting a few years from now.

A lot of guff is talked about how, if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you should have no objection to random searches, body scanners and CCTV. That is missing the point entirely – the point being to preserve our beautiful principle of “innocent until proven guilty”, our respect for privacy and our relatively healthy power balance between ordinary citizens (subjects) and the police/government. Fiddle with any of that at your peril.

True, people are now so terrified by the thought of hidden knives that we’re reluctant to speak up when we see threatening behaviour on public transport or domestic violence in the street. A certain liberty is being lost anyway, along with courtesy. Still, would you really feel safer in Bath town centre for seeing a scanner at the railway station? When you see a bouncer outside a pub, do you think it’s less likely to be a “trouble pub” than if you don’t see one?

But these are well-rehearsed arguments and people rarely swap sides in the freedom v security debate. The flaw in my reasoning – the weakness I’d challenge if I were debating against myself in the Oxford Union (as I so frequently do, in my dreams) – is not: “Why should law-abiding folk have anything to fear from monitoring?” but: “Why do you accord privacy an absolute value?”

Let’s assume that these are the last years of privacy, a concept that will die out by the end of the century. Why shouldn’t it? We’re all opting out anyway, with blogs, tweets, Facebook updates and mobile phone cameras. (If you eschew all that, don’t kid yourself: the phone alone means you are traceable at all times, whether using it or not.)

This delights the government, as it sets the right social mood for crime-spotting cameras, passport checks for “identity fraud” and stop-and-search policies.

Rio Ferdinand loses his case against the Sunday Mirror, so the idea that people’s sex lives are their own business is going out the window again. Amazing that he brought the case at all, really: a friend of mine who spent the summer in Malibu tells of truly A-list celebrities in arranged paparazzi encounters while on holiday. That sounds like mental illness to me. At the very least, having your picture taken is evidently as addictive as nicotine.

In 100 years’ time, will discretion be a forgotten historical curio, like the crinoline? Or will it creep back in as a retro fashion for romantic occasions, like the candle? (“For a cute novelty this Valentine’s Day, why not make love to your partner without broadcasting it live on the webcam?”)

Will we miss it when it’s gone, like Joni Mitchell’s trees? Or will we forget it was ever there, like Steve Brookstein’s career?

The answer is: I don’t know. It’s an old, old thing. Quite some time ago, humans decided that we’d eat in front of each other but not defecate. The ancient soul reached for moments of seclusion and solitude.

The truth is, I have no idea why it did that, or whether privacy is something we need to stay sane. I don’t know that anything valuable would actually be lost if it disappeared completely. But I do know that I don’t want to find out.

I’ll carry on trying to work out why, while staring at the chilling image of innocent people passing through a full-body metal detector on a British street.

Government Aims to Build a ‘Data Eye in the Sky’

Some social scientists and advocates of privacy rights are deeply skeptical of the project, saying it evokes queasy memories of Total Information Awareness, a post-9/11 Pentagon program that proposed hunting for potential attackers by identifying patterns in vast collections of public and private data: telephone calling records, e-mail, travel data, visa and passport information, and credit card transactions.

NY Times | Oct 10, 2011


More than 60 years ago, in his “Foundation” series, the science fiction novelist Isaac Asimov invented a new science — psychohistory — that combined mathematics and psychology to predict the future.

Now social scientists are trying to mine the vast resources of the Internet — Web searches and Twitter messages, Facebook and blog posts, the digital location trails generated by billions of cellphones — to do the same thing.

The most optimistic researchers believe that these storehouses of “big data” will for the first time reveal sociological laws of human behavior — enabling them to predict political crises, revolutions and other forms of social and economic instability, just as physicists and chemists can predict natural phenomena.

“This is a significant step forward,” said Thomas Malone, the director of the Center for Collective Intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We have vastly more detailed and richer kinds of data available as well as predictive algorithms to use, and that makes possible a kind of prediction that would have never been possible before.”

The government is showing interest in the idea. This summer a little-known intelligence agency began seeking ideas from academic social scientists and corporations for ways to automatically scan the Internet in 21 Latin American countries for “big data,” according to a research proposal being circulated by the agency. The three-year experiment, to begin in April, is being financed by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or Iarpa (pronounced eye-AR-puh), part of the office of the director of national intelligence.

The automated data collection system is to focus on patterns of communication, consumption and movement of populations. It will use publicly accessible data, including Web search queries, blog entries, Internet traffic flow, financial market indicators, traffic webcams and changes in Wikipedia entries.

It is intended to be an entirely automated system, a “data eye in the sky” without human intervention, according to the program proposal. The research would not be limited to political and economic events, but would also explore the ability to predict pandemics and other types of widespread contagion, something that has been pursued independently by civilian researchers and by companies like Google.

Some social scientists and advocates of privacy rights are deeply skeptical of the project, saying it evokes queasy memories of Total Information Awareness, a post-9/11 Pentagon program that proposed hunting for potential attackers by identifying patterns in vast collections of public and private data: telephone calling records, e-mail, travel data, visa and passport information, and credit card transactions.

“I have Total Information Awareness flashbacks when things like this happen,” said David Price, an anthropologist at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Wash., who has written about cooperation between social scientists and intelligence agencies. “On the one hand it’s understandable for a nation-state to want to track things like the outbreak of a pandemic, but I have to wonder about the total automation of this and what productive will come of it.”

Iarpa officials declined to discuss the research program, saying they are prohibited from giving interviews until contract awards are made later this year.

A similar project by their military sister organization, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, aims to automatically identify insurgent social networks in Afghanistan.

In its most recent budget proposal, the defense agency argues that its analysis can expose terrorist cells and other stateless groups by tracking their meetings, rehearsals and sharing of material and money transfers.

So far there have been only scattered examples of the potential of mining social media. Last year HP Labs researchers used Twitter data to accurately predict box office revenues of Hollywood movies. In August, the National Science Foundation approved funds for research in using social media like Twitter and Facebook to assess earthquake damage in real time.

The accessibility and computerization of huge databases has already begun to spur the development of new statistical techniques and new software to manage data sets with trillions of entries or more.

“Big data allows one to move beyond inference and statistical significance and move toward meaningful and accurate analyses,” said Norman Nie, a political scientist who was a pioneering developer of statistical tools for social scientists and who recently formed a new company, Revolution Analytics, to develop software for the analysis of immense data sets.

Some scientists are skeptical. They cite the Pentagon’s ill-fated Project Camelot in the 1960s, which also explored the possibility that social science could predict political and economic events, but was canceled in the face of widespread criticism by scholars.

The project focused on Chile, with the goal of developing methods for anticipating “violent changes” and offering ways of averting possible rebellions. It led to an uproar among social scientists, who argued that the study would compromise their professional ethics.

In recent years, however, academic opposition to military financing of research has faded. Since 2008, a Pentagon project called the Minerva Initiative has paid for an array of studies, including research at Arizona State University into political opponents of radical Muslims and a University of Texas study on the effects of climate change on African political stability.

Social scientists who cooperate with the research agencies contend that, on balance, the new technologies will have a positive effect.

“The result will be much better understanding of what is going on in the world, and how well local governments are handling the situation,” said Sandy Pentland, a computer scientist at the M.I.T. Media Laboratory. “I find this all very hopeful rather than scary, because this is perhaps the first real opportunity for all of humanity to have transparency in government.”

But advocates of privacy rights worry that public data and the related techniques developed in the new Iarpa project will be adapted for clandestine “total information” operations.

“These techniques are double-edged,” said Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy rights group based in Washington. “They can be used as easily against political opponents in the United States as they can against threats from foreign countries.”

And some computer scientists expressed skepticism about efforts to predict political instability with indicators like Web searches.

“I’m hard pressed to say that we are witnessing a revolution,” said Prabhakar Raghavan, the director of Yahoo Labs, who is an information retrieval specialist. He noted that much had been written about predicting flu epidemics by looking at Web searches for “flu,” but noted that the predictions did not improve significantly on what could already be found in data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“You can look at search queries and divine that flu is about to break out,” he said, “but what our research has highlighted is that many of these new methods don’t add a huge lift.”

Other researchers are far more optimistic. “There is a huge amount of predictive power in this data,” said Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, a physicist at Northeastern University who specializes in network science. “If I have hourly information about your location, with about 93 percent accuracy I can predict where you are going to be an hour or a day later.”

Still, the ease of acquiring and manipulating huge data sets charting Internet behavior causes many researchers to warn that the data mining technologies may be quickly outrunning the ability of scientists to think through questions of privacy and ethics.

There is also the deeper question of whether it will be possible to discern behavioral laws that match the laws of physical sciences. For Isaac Asimov, the predictive powers of psychohistory worked only when it was possible to measure the human population of an entire galaxy.

German Luftwaffe Unveils New Super Drone

Image: Defense Daily

businessinsider.com | Oct 13, 2011

by Robert Johnson

Looking to expand its electronic surveillance capabilities, Germany has unveiled its new ‘Euro Hawk’ super drone.

A joint venture between EADS and Northrop Grumman, the monster UAV weighs 15 tons, has a wingspan of 120 feet, and is capable of flying non-stop for 15,000 miles over 30 hours.


In rare admission, Air Force explains and downplays drone computer virus

A big step up from the country’s current reconnaissance fleet of 1972 twin-turbo prop planes, the drone is built around the U.S. RQ-4B Global Hawk platform and cost more than $1.6 billion to develop.

Where child sacrifice is a business

A BBC undercover reporter is told: “We can bury the child alive on your construction site”

BBC | Oct 11, 2011

By Chris Rogers BBC News, Kampala

The villages and farming communities that surround Uganda’s capital, Kampala, are gripped by fear.

Schoolchildren are closely watched by teachers and parents as they make their way home from school. In playgrounds and on the roadside are posters warning of the danger of abduction by witch doctors for the purpose of child sacrifice.

The ritual, which some believe brings wealth and good health, was almost unheard of in the country until about three years ago, but it has re-emerged, seemingly alongside a boom in the country’s economy.

Stephen's decapitated body was found in a field

The mutilated bodies of children have been discovered at roadsides, the victims of an apparently growing belief in the power of human sacrifice.

‘Sacrifice business’

Many believe that members of the country’s new elite are paying witch doctors vast sums of money for the sacrifices in a bid to increase their wealth.

At the Kyampisi Childcare Ministries church, Pastor Peter Sewakiryanga is teaching local children a song called Heal Our Land, End Child Sacrifice.

To hear dozens of young voices singing such shocking words epitomises how ritual murder has become part of everyday life here.

“Child sacrifice has risen because people have become lovers of money. They want to get richer,” the pastor says.

“They have a belief that when you sacrifice a child you get wealth, and there are people who are willing to buy these children for a price. So they have become a commodity of exchange, child sacrifice has become a commercial business.”

The pastor and his parishioners are lobbying the government to regulate witch doctors and improve police resources to investigate these crimes.

Commissioner Bignoa Moses Anti-Human Sacrifice Task Force

According to official police figures, there was one case of child sacrifice in 2006; in 2008 the police say they investigated 25 alleged ritual murders, and in 2009, another 29.

The Anti-Human Sacrifice Police Task Force, launched in response to the growing numbers, says the ritual murder rate has slowed, citing a figure of 38 cases since 2006.

Pastor Sewakiryanga disputes the police numbers, and says there are more victims from his parish than official statistics for the entire country.

The work of the police task force has been strongly criticised by the UK-based charity, Jubilee Campaign.

It says in a report that the true number of cases is in the hundreds, and claims more than 900 cases have yet to be investigated by the police because of corruption and a lack of resources.

‘Quiet money’

Allan with his father
Allan was left for dead after a vicious attack.
Tepenensi led me to a field near her home where she found the body of her six-year-old grandson Stephen, dumped in the reeds. She trembled as she pointed out the spot where she found his decapitated body; he had been missing for 24 hours.Clutching the only photo she has of her grandson, Tepenensi sobbed as she explained that although the local witch doctor had admitted to sacrificing Stephen, the police were reluctant to pursue the case.
“They offered me money to keep quiet,” she says. “I refused the offer.”

No-one from the Ugandan government agreed to do an interview. The police deny inaction and corruption.

The head of the Anti-Human Sacrifice Police Task Force, Commissioner Bignoa Moses, says the police are doing all they can to tackle the problem.

“Sometimes, they accuse us of these things because we make no arrests, but we are limited. If we get information that someone is involved in criminal activities like human sacrifice, we shall go and investigate, and if it can be proven we will take him to court, but sometimes the cases are not proven.”

Boy castrated

At Kampala main hospital, consultant neurosurgeon Michael Muhumuza shows me the X-rays of the horrific injuries suffered by nine-year-old Allan.

They reveal missing bone from his skull and damage to a part of his brain after a machete sliced through Allan’s head and neck in an attempt to behead him; he was castrated by the witch doctor. It was a month before Allan woke from a coma after being dumped near his village home.

Allan was able to identify his attackers, including a man called Awali. But the police say Allan’s eyewitness account is unreliable.

Some children are cut to collect blood for rituals

A child with a scarred arm 

Local people told us that Awali continues to be involved with child sacrifice.

For our own inquiries, we posed as local businessmen and asked around for a witch doctor that could bring prosperity to our local construction company. We were soon introduced to Awali. He led us into a courtyard behind his home, and as if to welcome us he and his helpers wrestled a goat to the ground and slit its throat.

“This animal has been sacrificed to bring luck to us all,” Awali explained. He then demanded a fee of $390 (£250) for the ritual and asked us to return in a few days.

At our next meeting, Awali invited us into his shrine, which is traditionally built from mud bricks with a straw roof. Inside, the floor is littered with herbs, face masks, rattles and a machete.

The witch doctor explained that this meeting was to discuss the most powerful spell – the sacrifice of a child.

“There are two ways of doing this,” he said. “We can bury the child alive on your construction site, or we cut them in different places and put their blood in a bottle of spiritual medicine.”

Awali grabbed his throat. “If it’s a male, the whole head is cut off and his genitals. We will dig a hole at your construction site, and also bury the feet and the hands and put them all together in the hole.”

Child in Uganda The attacks have created a climate of fear

Awali boasted he had sacrificed children many times before and knew what he was doing. After this meeting, we withdrew from the negotiations.

We handed our notes to the police. Awali is still a free man.

‘No voice’

Allan’s father, Semwanga, has sold his home to pay for Allan’s medical treatment, and moved to the slums near the capital.

Sitting on the steps of their makeshift house, built from corrugated sheets of metal, I showed the footage of our meeting with the witch doctor to Allan on my laptop. He pointed to the screen and shouted “Awali!” confirming he is the man who attacked him.

Pastor Sewakiryanga says without the full force of the law, there is little that can be done to protect Uganda’s children from the belief in the power of human sacrifice.

“The children do not have voices, their voices have been silenced by the law and the police not acting, and the people who read the newspapers do nothing, so we have to make a stand and do whatever it takes to stamp out this evil, we can only pray that the government will listen.”

UN extends 130,000-strong Afghan force

Members of the UN Security Council, presided by Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, meet on ‘The situation in the Middle East at the United Nations headquarters in New York

The resolution calls on all countries to contribute personnel, equipment and other resources to the International Security Assistance Force.

Security Council cites ongoing terrorism, criminal activities, civilian casualties

MSNBC | Oct 13, 2011


UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Wednesday to authorize the 130,000-strong NATO-led force in Afghanistan for another year, expressing serious concern over ongoing terrorist and criminal activities in the country and the increase in civilian casualties.

The resolution adopted by the U.N.’s most powerful body calls for increased training of the Afghan army and police to accelerate progress toward their self-sufficiency and meet the target of gradually transferring security responsibility from the coalition force to the Afghan government by the end of 2014.

The resolution calls on all countries to contribute personnel, equipment and other resources to the International Security Assistance Force, known as ISAF, and continue efforts to support security and stability in Afghanistan.

Declaring that the situation in Afghanistan “still constitutes a threat to international peace and security,” the council extended ISAF’s mandate until Oct. 13, 2012.

Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reiterated complaints that many NATO nations have failed to provide needed trainers and money to the war in Afghanistan. While the war is being run under NATO’s flag, the U.S. has carried the bulk of the load, deploying nearly 100,000 troops there during the difficult years of the surge in order to tamp down Taliban violence.

The Security Council stressed “the interconnected nature of the challenges in Afghanistan” — ensuring security, good governance, human rights, rule of law, accountability and development while fighting the narcotics trade and corruption.

It expressed “serious concern about the security situation in Afghanistan, in particular the ongoing violent and terrorist activities by the Taliban, al-Qaida, other illegal armed groups and criminals, including those involved in the narcotics trade … and the strong links between terrorism activities and illicit drugs, resulting in threats to the local population.”

The council also expressed serious concern “with the increased high number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan,” especially among women and children. It said an increasingly large majority of civilian casualties “are caused by Taliban, al-Qaida and other violent and extremist groups.”

The council strongly condemned attacks against humanitarian workers, and Afghan and international forces, singling out the use of civilians as human shields by the Taliban and al-Qaida.

It also condemned recent terrorist attacks on the Inter-Continental Hotel, British Council, ISAF headquarters and the U.S. Embassy in the Afghan capital, Kabul, as well as the assassination of former Afghan president Burhannuddin Rabbani, who was appointed by the government to try to broker peace with the Taliban.

The Security Council reiterated “its firm commitment to support the government … in its efforts to advance the peace and reconciliation process,” noting that an increasing number of Taliban have rejected al-Qaida, reconciled with the government, and now support a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Coming winter among coldest in 20 years

City of Calgary employees erect a snow fence along McKnight Blvd. near 19 St N.E. in preparation for winter snow. (Photo by JIM WELLS/Calgary Sun)

calgarysun.com | Oct 11, 2011

With memories of last year’s harsh winter still fresh, weather forecasters say southern Albertans should brace for more chillier-than-normal months ahead.

Meteorologists for a U.S.-based weather service say we can expect one of the coldest winters in the past two decades with average temperatures up to 5C cooler than the norm.

AccuWeather.com’s Andy Mussoline said Calgarians can expect to feel the Arctic’s wrath a few times in the coming months.

“We anticipate several Arctic outbreaks which will keep the overall temperatures below normal,” said Mussoline.

“It’s going to be cold, cold conditions.”

The culprit is the weather system La Nina, which forms in the south Pacific and opens the door for extreme cold air to flow south from Alaska and northwest Canada.

But he said that doesn’t necessarily mean constantly cold conditions, adding the average temperatures across the winter will be impacted largely by extremely frigid events.

And Mussoline said those chillier temperatures shouldn’t mean above-average snowfall in southern Alberta prairies, though there could be a silver lining for skiers.

“The mountains to your west could receive above-average as far as snowfall is concerned,” he said.

That’s because a predicted northeast wind could drive more snow into southern Alberta’s Rockies, he said.

La Nina should set the stage for a slightly colder-than-average winter for Calgarians, said Environment Canada Meteorologist David Wray.

But he cautioned about predicting extremely frigid months ahead.

“We’re not sure if it’s going to be a fraction of a degree cooler or a few degrees, which would be quite significant,” said Wray.

“I’d be hard-pressed to say 5C colder.”

But expected lower mercury may mean less snow for Calgarians, who tangled with lofty snow drifts last winter, said Wray.

“Colder temperatures generally mean clearer skies,” he said.

US food supply threatened: Foreign insects, diseases got into US post 9/11

Agriculture specialist Mark Murphy, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, examines bags of rice during an inspection in Oakland, Calif., in August, 2011. Eric Risberg  /  AP

‘Whether they know it or not, every person in the country is affected by this,’ scientist says

MSNBC | Oct 12, 2011


FRESNO, Calif. — Dozens of foreign insects and plant diseases slipped undetected into the United States in the years after 9/11, when authorities were so focused on preventing another attack that they overlooked a pest explosion that threatened the quality of the nation’s food supply.

At the time, hundreds of agricultural scientists responsible for stopping invasive species at the border were reassigned to anti-terrorism duties in the newly formed Homeland Security Department — a move that scientists say cost billions of dollars in crop damage and eradication efforts from California vineyards to Florida citrus groves.

The consequences come home to consumers in the form of higher grocery prices, substandard produce and the risk of environmental damage from chemicals needed to combat the pests.

An Associated Press analysis of inspection records found that border-protection officials were so engrossed in stopping terrorists that they all but ignored the country’s exposure to destructive new insects and infections — a quietly growing menace that has been attacking fruits and vegetables and even prized forests ever since.

“Whether they know it or not, every person in the country is affected by this, whether by the quality or cost of their food, the pesticide residue on food or not being able to enjoy the outdoors because beetles are killing off the trees,” said Mark Hoddle, an entomologist specializing in invasive species at the University of California, Riverside.

Homeland Security officials acknowledge making mistakes and say they are now working to step up agricultural inspections at border checkpoints, airports and seaports.

While not as dire as terrorism, the threat is considerable and hard to contain.

Many invasive species are carried into the U.S. by people who are either unaware of the laws or are purposely trying to skirt quarantine regulations. The hardest to stop are fruits, vegetables and spices carried by international travelers or shipped by mail. If tainted with insects or infections, they could carry contagions capable of devastating crops.

Plants and cut flowers can harbor larvae, as can bags of bulk commodities such as rice. Beetles have been found hitchhiking on the bottom of tiles from Italy, and boring insects have burrowed into the wooden pallets commonly used in cargo shipments.

Abrupt shift post-9/11
Invasive species have been sneaking into North America since Europeans arrived on the continent, and many got established long before 9/11.

But the abrupt shift in focus that followed the attacks caused a steep decline in agricultural inspections that allowed more pests to invade American farms and forests.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, The Associated Press obtained data on border inspections covering the period from 2001 to 2010.

The analysis showed that the number of inspections, along with the number of foreign species that were stopped, fell dramatically in the years after the Homeland Security Department was formed.

Over much of the same period, the number of crop-threatening pests that got into the U.S. spiked, from eight in 1999 to at least 30 last year.

The bugs targeted some of the nation’s most productive agricultural regions, particularly California and Florida, with their warm year-round climates that make it easy for foreign species to survive the journey and reproduce in their new home.

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