Archive for February, 2010

Europe and Australia more worried about passport fraud than chasing Mossad murderers

While the much-publicised hunt continues into the Dubai fake passports affair, no European country has yet launched a manhunt for the killers of the Hamas man slain in the Gulf state despite an Interpol investigation into the crime. Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was murdered in Dubai on 19 January by Mossad operatives who then fled across Europe. The men are believed to have flown to Switzerland, Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands but none of the authorities of these countries have launched investigations. AP say this is because the hit was carried out by a friendly country and arresting Israeli agents or even digging up evidence that Israel was involved could be politically costly. “I would guess that it’s in the political interest of certain countries not to get proactive in this case,” said Victor Mauer, deputy director of the Centre for Security Studies at Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology.

The countries also say they have yet to receive a request of help from Dubai about the case. The murdered man Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was a senior Hamas commander. He was also one of the founders of the Qassam brigades which were responsible for the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and in the subsequent heavy fighting in the Gaza Strip following Israel’s incursion in December 2008. Al-Mabhouh was born in Gaza in 1960 and has been known to Israeli authorities since as far back as 1989 when he was involved in the abduction and murder of two IDF members. He has been the target of two previous assassination attempts: a car bombing and a poisoning. The poisoning took place in Beirut just six months ago and rendered him unconscious for 30 hours.

In recent years al-Mabhouh was a key negotiator between Hamas and Iran. On 19 January he flew from Syria to Dubai stopping off there on his way to Bangkok. He arrived in the early afternoon without bodyguards and booked into the Al Bustan Rotana hotel using a false identity. He left the hotel an hour later and returned around 8.25pm that evening. It was likely he was being tailed during his absence. His wife rang a half hour later but there was no answer. Israeli news agency Inyan Merkazi reported a four-member squad of Shin Bet and Mossad agents interrogated al-Mabhouh before executing him. Dubai Police say he was dead by 9pm. Hotel footage show suspects following him to his room in the afternoon before checking into the room opposite. Around 8pm they gained entry to his room and waited for his return.

Al-Mahmoud’s body was found the following morning and taken for a police examination. Burns from a stun gun were found under his ear, in his groin and on his chest. Pathologists discovered his nose bled before death. They found blood on a pillow they believe was placed over his nose and mouth to suffocate him. Results from a preliminary forensic report by the Dubai police found that al-Mabhouh was first paralysed via electric shock to his ears, legs, heart and genitals and then suffocated. Dubai police identified 11 people they suspected of involvement in the murder. Five of them carried out the crime while the remaining six served as lookouts. Another four were later added to the list and they all travelled on fake Western passports, six UK, five Irish, three Australian, one French and one German. The fact that many of the passports share names with people living in Israel reinforced widespread suspicion about Mossad involvement.

Reaction in the west to al-Mahmoud’s killing was initially muted. The subtext was here was a known terrorist who was simply getting his just desserts. But reaction quickly changed once it became apparent that Israeli agents used western passports in the hit. Foreign ministers of all the countries involved complained to Israel about the identity theft involved. The EU called the nature of the killing “profoundly disturbing”. Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith was also distinctly uneasy in criticising Israel but said it would not be considered the “act of a friend.”

UK Police are now in Israel investigating the passport theft. There they will interview six British-Israeli nationals whose identities were stolen by the suspected killers. Officers say they are being viewed as potential witnesses to a crime, which is the fraudulent use of a passport, and will not be questioned or interviewed as suspects. British authorities say they believe the Israeli secret service Mossad was involved which Israel has refused to confirm or deny.

In a penetrating article in New Matilda last week, Mark Steven skewered western reaction to the crime. Steven said the West’s response to the assassination was simply the result of their principal and shared interest in the expropriation of national identities rather than a horror of al-Mahmoud’s death.” While assassination is condemnable, it seems the requisition of a European or an Australian identity is utterly unforgivable,” he wrote. Stevens asked the question: “While life that coheres behind names printed on European passports is to be valued highly, what is the worth of life that only exists under collective labels, such as ‘Israel’ or ‘Palestine’?”

February 28, 2010 at 8:53 pm Leave a comment

Interrupted lives – A story of a Twitter Hack

Yesterday my Twitter account was hacked causing me to spam at last 100 of the people I follow with sexually suggestive Direct Messages. Apparently I was not alone in this phishing attack. There was also something similar recently in Facebook. In my case it was caused by rather stupidly clicking on a DM sent to me on Thursday night. I knew the person who sent it and had no immediate reason not to trust it. As Pete Cashmore said we’re less wary when a link appears to be from a trusted contact. The message read “Is this you?” and provided a link (via a deceptively meaningless short URL) which I clicked on almost without thinking.

Almost instantaneously I regretted clicking although nothing happened immediately. Barely minutes later I saw someone’s Facebook warning that the “is this you?” message was malware and you shouldn’t click on the attached link. I was annoyed at my stupidity and hoped nothing further would come of it. But when I checked the Internet on Friday morning it was obvious a lot more had come of it.

Apparently what happens when you click on the link is that your Twitter password is sent to the attackers, permitting them access to your account. According to Cashmore, your friends receive the same message shortly after, which will look like it was sent out by you. I didn’t send out the same message (as far as I can tell) but the one I did send was a classic in its own right.

At approximate 7am yesterday morning, about a hundred DMs were unleashed from my account. Twitter has now cleaned out all the messages from my sent folder however someone however was kind enough to send me a screenshot of how it looked. In the message I was claiming to be “female/24/horny” and added “I have to get off here but message me on my windows live messenger name” It is unlikely that any of the messages would have fooled their recipients. For starters they were all sent out complete with my name and headshot avatar which makes it blatantly apparent I am neither female, 24 nor horny (unless, as I wrote later by ‘horny’ they meant ‘scaly’).

I was blissfully unaware of this activity while munching my weetbix for breakfast. When I logged on an hour later, I became aware of the problem when I checked my regular emails and noticed quite a lot of Twitter DMs sent to me in return. These were all genuine DMs sent to me by friends who were either laughing at the absurdity of the message (if they knew me well) or warning me I was hacked (if they didn’t). When I logged on to Twitter there were many more messages.

“excuse me?”

“Just got a DM from @derekbarry that makes me think his account has been hacked.”

“Time to change your Twitter passwd. Ur sending our “interesting” DM spam. eg “..hi, i’m 24/female/horny…message me on my…”

“unless you are leading a secret double life someone is using your account for spam”.

“Derek, your account has been compromised. Unless you really ARE 24 and horny.”

“You don’t look like a 24yo horny female to me…. :) I think you’ve been hacked!!”

“so u won’t hit any “is this you?” messages in future? :) was caught by one back at Xmas. Mine sent out colonic irrigation tweets :P”

One person wrote to tell me he had received one of female/24/horny messages but he also had been hacked and was “going nuts” about how to solve the problem. While I was sympathetic, this was not a reaction I shared. I was momentarily embarrassed so much spam had been sent out in my name but looking at how absurd it was, I found it funny. It was also unwittingly the cause of more real interaction with people than I would normally have had if I’d been left alone.

I sent out a few Tweets apologising for the spam, joked about being scaly rather than horny and immediately changed my Twitter password. This in turn got a lot of responses most of which saw the funny side of what had happened. Here, I hope my reputation in Twitter allowed me to turn a potentially nasty situation into one which people could laugh at. And as far as I know, no one stopped following me thinking I was a spambot.

Within a half hour, I got an email from Twitter saying they believed my account was compromised. They forced me to change my password again and hopefully I’m now clean until the next time I accidentally click on a safe looking link. I say “next time” because despitee my increased wariness I’m convinced it will happen again. Spammers are becoming more adept at mimicking convincingly real behaviours – though as my own messages proved they still leave a lot to be desired in matching physical attributes with the text!

February 27, 2010 at 10:23 pm Leave a comment

Australian media opens new front in Facebook wars

The issue of policing Facebook raised its ugly head again in Australia this week after the tribute sites to two murdered Queensland youths were defaced by pornography, bestiality and statements about one of the alleged killers that could be prejudicial to a fair trial. It didn’t help that the two crimes were extremely emotive. 12-year-old Brisbane student Elliott Fletcher was killed after being stabbed in a school playground brawl with a 13-year-old charged with his murder. And 350km north in Bundaberg, 8-year-old Trinity Bates was found murdered near her home after being abducted from her bedroom.

With an estimated eight million Australians (over a third of the population) now on Facebook, it was only natural the social networking site would be a central point of communal grief over the murders. Thousands of well-wishes and sympathisers flocked to the tribute sites of both children. However it wasn’t long before they descended into grubbiness. On the page dedicated to Fletcher, photos and messages started appearing of murder, child porn, race-hate and bestiality forcing the removal of the page. A similar thing happened to the Bates tribute page where posters also called for the death of the man accused of Trinity’s murder.

The incidents caused Queensland Premier Anna Bligh to write a letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg asking whether he could do anything to prevent a recurrence of these types of incidents. Bligh said the posting of pornography and illegal messages on tribute sites for Bates and Fletcher had compounded the grief over their deaths. “To have these things happen to Facebook pages set up for the sole purpose of helping these communities pay tribute to the young lives lost in the most horrible way adds to the grief already being experienced,” Bligh wrote. “And it is something no parent should have to deal with when coming to terms with the loss of their child.”

Facebook have yet to formally respond to Bligh. But Facebook’s Director of Communications and Public Policy Debbie Frost said the site had rules to check content and reviewers were quick to respond to any reports of hate or threats against an individual, pornography, or violent photos or videos, and would remove the content, and either warn or disable the accounts of those responsible.”Facebook is highly self-regulating, and users can and do report content that they find questionable or offensive,” Frost said. In the Fletcher case, the most Facebook could do was remove the groups and disable the accounts of the people responsible. “It is simply not possible to prevent a person with a sinister agenda from undertaking offensive activity anywhere on the Internet where people can post content,” said Frost. “Nor is it really possible in real life.”

Meanwhile News Ltd’s The Punch pointed out inconsistencies in the calls for the death of the person charged for the murder. “If this happened in a newspaper or on a major news website,” The Punch’s editor Paul Colgan wrote, “the editor would be at risk of going to jail.” Colgan was alluded to vexed issue whether social network entries can be considered as publications under the law. He also raised several questions related to “the ongoing safety of general Facebook users and what the company is doing to protect the public from being exposed to unsolicited pornographic or obscene material”.

But social networking maven Laurel Papworth launched a vigorous defence of Facebook today and said they cannot be held responsible for the actions of people using the site. Papworth told the ABC she was “actually quite scared of Facebook starting to act as censors of our discussions.” She said other people created the pages and with 400 million members worldwide it is similar to asking Australia Post to be responsible for letters that they deliver or telcos to be responsible for dodgy SMS messages. “It’s not their responsibility to be the police of humanity,” she said. “We still get spam, but we have learnt now to put it into the spam folder and move on.”

Papworth is right. Attitudes and the law will adapt to the way people use new technologies. A moral panic against the technology will sell newspapers but it won’t solve the problem highlighted by the Fletcher and Bates cases. That’s not to say Facebook are blameless. Their tendency to treat privacy issues in cavalier fashion will come back to haunt them as the worldwide user base rapidly approaches saturation point. The final word should go to Daniel Solove who wrote about the issue in his seminal text The Future of Reputation

“Although the internet poses new and difficult issues, they are variations on some timeless problems: the tension between privacy and free speech, the nature of privacy, the virtues and vices of gossip and shaming, the effect of new technologies on the spread of information, and the ways in which law, technology and norms interact. New technologies do not just enhance freedom, but also alter the matrix of freedom and control in new and challenging ways”

February 25, 2010 at 9:10 pm Leave a comment

US continues to dominate world military spending

I stumbled across a revealing pie chart today of global distribution of military expenditure in 2008. The source was the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Yearbook of 2009 and showed that the US spending alone was over two fifths of the entire total. China, France, the UK and Russia (the other members of the UN Security Council) account for another fifth, as do the next 10 countries with the rest of the world accounting for the last fifth. Among other things it confirms the old Eisenhower line that the US remains under the influence of the military-technological complex. And its dominance of world affairs is not about to end any time soon – unless it is undone Soviet-style by budget woes.

US military spend continues to rise. Earlier this month President Obama sought congressional approval for $708b in defense spending. The request included a 3.4 percent boost in the Pentagon’s base budget and $159b for missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. The president’s spending freeze on other parts of the budget, designed to rein in the massive deficit, clearly did not apply to the military. The defense department said the funds are needed for a variety of costs including everything from health care to nuclear missiles. Obama said the budget proposal included cuts of “unnecessary defence programs that do nothing to keep us safe” but Defence Secretary Robert Gates claimed the overall increase was due to “broader range of security challenges on the horizon.”

As Chinese news agency Xinhua reasonably asks Why Does US Defence Spending Keep Growing? At a time of economic uncertainty and a national deficit of $1.6 trillion, and a scaled down presence in Iraq and Afghanistan the Pentagon remains immune from cutbacks. Xinhua notes Obama sought congressional approval for $708b in defense spending so it could keep up its role of “global policeman”.

The Department of Defense doesn’t use such emotive language. It said the funding increase allows them “to address its highest priorities, such as the president’s commitment to reform defense acquisition, develop a ballistic missile defense system that addresses modern threats, and continue to provide high quality healthcare to wounded service members.” There is a focus on increasing funding of unmanned aircraft while the Pentagon strategy also moves away from the old focus on developing the capability of fighting two major wars simultaneously.

The other big reason for the increase is across the board pay rises. In the 2010 budget, Congress authorised an increase of 3.4 percent, which was 0.5 percent more than requested. This year defence officials will ask Congress to keep the pay raise capped at 1.4 percent. The Army’s base budget request of $143.4 billion is designed to support a force of 547,400 active-duty soldiers, 358,200 National Guardsmen and 205,000 Army Reservists. There is also an ongoing 22,000-soldier expansion of the active component that could bring the service’s personnel strength to nearly 570,000 by the end of 2011.

However nearly all of the increased spending of the last decade can be directly attributed to the impact of 9/11. The average Defense Department budgets has gone up by more than two thirds since the era between 1954 and 2001 according to Carl Conetta at the Project on Defense Alternatives at the Commonwealth Institute in a report titled “An Undisciplined Defense: Understanding the 2-trillion-dollar Surge in U.S. Defense Spending.” It is difficult not to draw the conclusion that fighting the supposed bogey of terrorism has been good business for the Pentagon.

February 24, 2010 at 9:45 pm Leave a comment

Sudan about to sign Darfur agreement with Jem

The Sudanese Government is about to sign a peace treaty with Darfur’s largest opposition group the Justice Equality Movement (Jem). Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir arrived in Doha, Qatar to sign a ceasefire and “framework” deal, listing agreements to be fleshed out in further negotiation, with Jem leader Khalil Ibrahim. The deal follows a preliminary framework agreement which both parties signed in Ndjamena in Chad. According to a French draft of the document seen by Reuters the deal involves Jem members taking positions in the Sudanese Government. It also includes humanitarian issues, Internally Displaced Persons, wealth and power sharing, and release of Darfuri war prisoners.

(photo of Jem fighter by Gallo/Getty)

If the deal holds it will be a major breakthrough in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts of the 21st century. Over 300,000 people have died in genocidal fighting and almost three million people displaced with both parties guilty of war crimes. The Sudanese Government has inflicted the most casualties with its superior firepower and its co-opting of Janjaweed militias. However the deal with Jem does not guarantee the bloodshed will stop.

There are two other major groups in Darfur not covered by the agreement: Abdelwahid Sudan Liberation Army (mainly composed of Fur tribespeople) and Minni Minnawi Sudan Liberation Army (Zahawa people). The Minnawi faction signed a separate deal with Khartoum in 2006 however the hardline Abdelwahid faction has yet to come to terms with al-Bashir’s administration.

But Jem is by far the largest of the anti Khartoum forces in Darfur. Its leaders claim they have as many as 35,000 well-armed fighters in the region. The group was founded in 2000 following the publication of The Black Book: Imbalance of Power and Wealth in the Sudan. Jem members say northern Sudanese Arabs are disproportionately represented within the Khartoum government and political elite, leaving southern Africans and western Arabs disenfranchised and impoverished.

Two years ago Jem fighters launched the first rebel attack on the Sudanese capital itself. They intended to topple the government and were only defeated once they had already reached the outskirts of Omdurman, near Khartoum. Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president was sufficiently unnerved by the attack to instigate peace talks with Jem. On the weekend he cancelled death sentences handed out to more than 100 men accused of taking part in the Khartoum attack and promised to free 30 percent of them “immediately”.

He will be hoping that an agreement will come in time for elections in April – the country’s first multiparty elections in 24 years. He is also facing a referendum next year on independence for South Sudan. However the Sudan Tribune is reporting that Egypt is asking the two major partners in Sudan’s national unity government to delay both the elections and the referendum until the North-South disputed items are resolved and there is a peaceful settlement in Darfur. It is unlikely Khartoum will agree to these demands but the Tribune says Jem may make it a pre-condition of the Doha signing.

The other tricky issue for al-Bashir is how it will affect his status at the International Criminal Court. The ICC chief prosecutor issued a warrant for al-Bashir’s arrest in 2009 on crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity. However the court ruled the Sudanese president could not be prosecuted for genocide, saying the prosecutor failed to reasonably prove al-Bashir had genocidal intent. Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo appealed the ruling and earlier this month the ICC’s appeals chamber ordered the court to reconsider its decision to omit genocide from al-Bashir’s list of charges, saying the initial ruling had been affected by “an error of law” for setting the threshold of evidence too high. This means the court’s pre-trial judges will have to rule again on the matter.

February 23, 2010 at 9:05 pm Leave a comment

The Polyphonic Spree perform in Brisbane

My second visit to the Powerhouse on Friday was to see the American band the Polyphonic Spree. The Spree is a Texan outfit with anything from 17 to 27 members on stage at any one time. Possibly due to the difficulties of playing in Australia (though this was their second visit in two years) they were down to the “bare bones” 17 that took the stage in New Farm. This included two percussionists, two guitarists, a bassist, three piece brass section, four piece Polyphonic Choir, a flautist, a keyboard player, two piece strings and front man and lead singer Tim DeLaughter. DeLaughter and fellow Polyphonics Pirro and Bryan Wakeland were in the band Tripping Daisy which disbanded in 1999 after the drug overdose death of guitarist Wes Berggren.

I always wondered how DeLaughter and co managed to make money out of touring given the number of band members and they went further in this tour handing out hundreds of free hats, Indian chief headgear, necklaces, masks and bracelets. It made for a colourful audience who expectantly waited for the Spree to emerge from behind the screen.

The foliage was dense.

Finally the band did emerge and put on a terrific show with their own music interspersed by such eclectic offerings as Paul McCartney’s Live and Let Die,Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline and Nirvana’s Lithium.

Went upstairs to get a better view. This was a restricted ticket area only but I mumbled something about being a journalist and was allowed to take a few photos before being booted out.

foliage heaven.

Cowboys entertaining Indians.

A clue to how the band pays for its expenses. Apparently DeLaughter also makes big money from UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s use of “Light and Day / Reach For the Sun” for its advertising.

Tim takes centre stage.

Tim takes side stage.

Stuck in the middle again with you.

Mad balloon time.

End of Act 1. Just Tim left on stage with half the Polyphonic Choir.

More balloons yet to fall.

The Interval shows the foliage in all its glory.

Back for Part 2 in traditional kafkan garb.

Now its paper time and the venue briefly resembles an Argentinian football game.

I loved the Polyphonic parapharnalia over the stage.

More paper lace.

Finally the white balloons are released.

As Tim takes the final encore.

Time for a victory salute.

Before bowing to the audience.

And lining to say farewell. An enjoyable (and eventful) gig is over.

February 22, 2010 at 10:02 pm Leave a comment

Walkley Photo award exhibition at the Powerhouse

On another enjoyably busy weekend in Brisbane I went to the New Farm Powerhouse twice on Friday for different events. The first was the Walkley Press Photo 2010 exhibition and the second was a gig by American band the Polyphonic Spree (which I’ll feature tomorrow night). Every year more than 1000 photographs are judged for selection in the Walkley Press Photo Awards. This exhibition showcases over 100 works by Australia’s best photojournalists selected on the short list nomination for the Walkley Award. The photos chronicle the news, events, elation and tragedy of the year in media. Sorry about the glare in the photos of the photos. While I take photos as part of my job, I doubt if I’ll be worrying the Walkley panel on this evidence.

Renee Nowytarger of The Australian won the 2009 Nikon-Walkley Press Photographer of the Year. This was one of her photos called Tears of Stolen Love. The woman in the photo is 33-year-old Essina Sullivan who was a member of the Stolen Generation. Essina was captured crying as she spoke of her removal from her family in Northern NSW aged just two. It was her last memory of her grandmother who was beating her hand on the boot of the car that removed Sullivan from her family.

This photo “Displaced Future” is by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Kate Geraghty who was a finalist for best photographic essay in the 2009 Walkley Awards. Geraghty flew to the DRC where five million have died and another million displaced making it the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II. Geraghty visited the displacement camps near Goma in eastern DRC. Conditions inside the camps are dire, rows and rows of banana humpies housing entire families with nothing but volcanic rock to sleep on. Thousands queue for food and water and diseases such as dysentery and cholera spread throughout the camps filling the mass graves in near by banana plantations. Geraghty said “many I photographed had lost everything, were terrified, in shock and in mourning but I also encountered dignity and hope where one would expect to find anger and bitterness.”

“Bekasi Waste” by Kate Geraghty. This haunting image is of 91-year-old Muchitar walking down a mountain of rubbish as the day breaks over the Bantar Gebang rubbish dump in the Jakarta suburb of Bakasi. Muchitar scavenges for rubbish, among 5,000 people doing the same at the dump.

This was Brad Hunter’s Lin Family Funeral. The quiet Sydney suburb of Epping was shocked when an entire family was murdered last July. Newsagency owner Min Lin and his family were found bludgeoned to death in their beds. On 8 August over a thousand mourners from the local community paid their respects to the five Lin family members at the Badgery Pavilion in Homebush. Hunter is a photographer at the Northern District Times and he took this shot at the Pavilion.

This was the press photo of the year by Renee Nowytarger. Called “Party Blues” it captures then Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull at a retirement home the day after an unfavourable news poll. The photo epitomises Turnbull’s position (and self-pity) which was soon to become untenable. See a better version of the photo here.

This was one of the many iconic photos from Black Saturday when 179 people died in bushfires in Victoria on 7 February 2009. The Age’s Jason South took this photo of an exhausted firefighter at an unknown location.

This was another Black Saturday moment captured by Alex Coppel of the Melbourne Herald-Sun as firefighters are forced to retreat as a giant wave of flame approaches. The photo was infamously used by a London tabloid (the Daily Mail if memory serves) with the odious headline “hey Bruce the fire is that way”.

February 21, 2010 at 9:20 pm Leave a comment

Iceland aims to become the Caymans of journalism

A group of Icelandic MPs have launched an exiting new collaboration to turn the country into a haven of investigative journalism. The MPs are collaborating with Wikileaks to amend laws to grant protection for journalists, sources and whistleblowers. The plan would also provide data storage facilities as well as combating “libel tourism”, the practice of bringing defamation charges wherever the law is most attractive for the plaintiff. The intention is to provide a comprehensive Freedom of Information Act, whistleblower and source protections, limited prior restraint, protection for ISPs and protection from the insidious act of “libel tourism”.

The proposal submitted to the Althing (Icelandic Parliament) yesterday asks the government to find ways to strengthen freedoms of expression and information freedom in Iceland, as well as providing strong protections for sources and whistleblowers. The proposal requests changes to law, and an examination of the legal environments of other countries to get a “best of breed” law in freedoms of expression and information. It also recommends the establishment of an international prize to be called The Icelandic Freedom of Expression Award.

The aim is to turn the island nation of 350,000 people into the world’s first “offshore publishing centre.” According to Mother Jones, the proposals could turn Iceland into the Cayman Islands of journalism. It says the proposal is based on the business model of offshore financial centres like Switzerland, which attracts investors with an enticing combination of low taxes and strict bank secrecy laws. Iceland could be the equivalent for investigative journalists if, as expected, it passes what would be the strongest source protection and freedom of speech laws in the world.

The proposal is the brainchild of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative which addresses the key issues for freedom of expression in the digital age. The IMMI say Iceland is “at a unique crossroads”. The IMMI is feeding of the sense of change in the electorate as a result of the economic meltdown in the banking sector, in order to prevent it from taking place again. It also quotes Reporters Sans Frontiers who say Iceland dropped from first in the world for freedom of expression in 2007) to 9th last year. “It is time,” say IMMI’s founders, “this trend was rectified”.

The IMMI was drafted with help from Julian Assange and Daniel Schmitt, two of the founders of Wikileaks. WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange has been in Iceland for the past two months, consulting parliamentarians on the project. Assange says Wikileaks has fought off more than 100 legal attacks over the past three years by spreading assets assets, encrypting everything, and moving telecommunications and people around the world. He says the Iceland will adopt the strongest press and source protection laws from around the world.

Assange said the move was driven by Icelandic people who have just suffered the largest economic meltdown of any country per capita in the GFC. He said Icelanders believe fundamental change was needed in order to prevent such events from taking place again including better bank regulation and better media oversight of dirty deals between banks and politicians. He quotes the “libel tourism” of Iceland’s largest bank Kaupthing which brought a successful suit against a Danish tabloid, Ekstra Bladet, in London where the costs of fighting libel is prohibitive. Iceland’s second largest bank Landsbanki also sued a Danish media outlet over its Russian mafia connections.

Icelandic writer and blogger Alda Sigmundsdottir says the aim of the proposed legislation is not to allow people to publish freely any old rubbish and get away with it. “The point is not to make Iceland a haven for tabloids, paedophiles or similar low-level activities,” she said. Sigmundsdottir said the idea was to create a framework wherein investigative journalism and free speech can flourish. “Anything that is illegal will still be illegal,” she said. “The amendments will not change that.

However the Citizen Media Law Project says that while the laws are well-intentioned, they probably won’t achieve much because of the principle that publication happens at the point of download, not the point of upload. It quotes the famous (or more correctly infamous) case of Dow Jones v Gutnick where Melbourne tycoon Joe Gutnick sued Barron’s Online for publishing a supposedly defamatory article about him. Gutnick applied the writ in Victoria where only a handful of people read the article but the Australian High Court ruled this was where Gutnick’s reputation was and ruled against Barron’s.

For better or worse, says the CMLP, the poorly thought-out Australian ruling has set the precedent in similar cases around the world since. So while Iceland’s protections will suit Wikileaks they will not be useful for multi-national media companies. Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain believes it was unclear how broadly the laws could be applied should they pass. “Unless the executives behind a particular media company are themselves prepared to move to Iceland, I’m not sure how substantial the protections can be,” he said. “A state can still demand that someone on its territory answer questions or turn over information on pain of fines or imprisonment.”

February 18, 2010 at 1:23 pm Leave a comment

Scammers use Haiti earthquake for online fraud

The Haiti earthquake had an unintended consequence of driving up phishing and scam attacks across the Internet in the first month of this year. In the days after the Haiti quake, scammers asked users to donate money to a charity however any donation disappeared into an offshore bank account. Building on this, spammers began to send phishing messages, pretending to be from legitimate organisations like UNICEF. Hackers also took advantage of the tragedy to deliver malware. In one example, users download a Trojan when they click on the link to view a supposed video of the earthquake damage. The findings were in the monthly State of Spam and Phishing report from Symantec.
(photo by alex_lee2001)

The report found both scam and phishing categories doubled as in percentage of all spam in January 2010 compared to a month earlier. The total of scam and phishing messages came in at 21 percent of all spam, which is the highest level recorded since the inception of the report. As well as Haitian scams, the report found the well-known Nigerian 419 scam (named for the section of the Nigerian penal code which addresses fraud schemes) was on the rise again as was online pharmacy spam.

Symantec say spammers have changed their tactics regarding online pharmacy spam. They have now taken to using subject lines such as “Must-Know Rules of Better Shopping” and “You Must Know About This Promotion” which are vaguer than “RE: SALE 70% OFF on Pfizer.” Other misleading subject lines such as “Confirmation Mail” and “Special Ticket Receipt” were also used for online pharmacy spam messages.

They also say phishing attacks are getting more and more targeted in nature and are focused on attacking major brands rather than being mass attacks. Symantec observed a 25 percent decrease from the previous month in all phishing attacks. The decline was primarily due to a decrease in the volume of phishing toolkit attacks which have halved from the previous month. A 16 percent decrease was observed in non-English phishing sites as well. More than 95 Web hosting services were used, which accounted for 13 percent of all phishing attacks, a decrease of 12 percent in total Web host URLs when compared to the previous month.

The US remains the most likely point of origin of spam. Approximately one in four of all spam is American-based with Brazil next most likely far behind in second place with just 6 percent. India, Germany and Netherlands are responsible for 5 percent each. The US is even more dominant in the categories of geo-location of phishing lures and hosts with 52 percent of the former category and 49 percent of the latter. Germany is second far behind with 6 percent in both categories.

Symantec notes that China has clamped down on spamming by suspending new overseas .cn domain registrations. The China Internet Network Information Center stated this suspension will allow them to implement a better procedure to verify registrant information from overseas registrations. This was a follow-up action to a related move in mid-December that required additional paperwork with registrations. As a result, spam messages with .cn domain URL dropped by more than half in January, compared to December with a steep drop towards end of January.

The report also found a new trend in adult oriented phishing. The phishing site tempts the unwary by promising free pornography after logging in or signing up. These scams affect users who enter their credentials in the hopes of obtaining pornography. Upon entering login credentials, the site redirects to a pornographic website before leading to a fake antivirus site containing malicious code. An incredible 92 percent of adult phishing scams were on social networking sites. The phishing sites were created using free webhosting services.

The report offers advice so familiar it beggars belief so many people are still falling victims. It talks about unsubscribing from lists, keeping your mail address secret, deleting all spam, avoid clicking on suspicious links and email attachments or replying to spam, don’t fill in forms online that ask for personal information and finally don’t forward virus warnings which are usually hoaxes. Spamming is a multi-billion dollar industry that relies on the truth of the hoary phrase that “there’s a sucker born every minute”. 

February 16, 2010 at 10:45 pm Leave a comment

2010 election: Much ado about nothing

Sometime later year Australia will go to the polls to elect a federal government. Following previous precedents, the incumbent Labor administration will be returned to office with a similar majority it gained in 2007 or slightly less. Both sides of politics will portray this is a victory. For Kevin Rudd, there is the obvious success of being returned as Prime Minister a second time at an election – a feat only ever achieved by three Labor leaders (Andrew Fisher, Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke). Meanwhile the Coalition will paint a narrow defeat as success for their strategy of appealing to the right-wing base when it handed Tony Abbott the leadership in a three-way ballot on 1 December last year.

But first to Rudd, for whom the result will be the end product of three year’s of communications discipline and dedication to the task. This is something he learned from his predecessor John Howard, an equally ruthless electioneerer. Nothing else – be it the GFC, climate change, or reform in education and industrial relations – has come remotely close in Rudd’s everyday calculations. Ever since 25 November 2007, Rudd’s Government has been devoted to one task: how to stay in office in 2010.

Rigid control of communications is the key and Rudd’s closest acolytes are in is PR machine and kitchen cabinet (Gillard, Swan and Tanner). The downside of such a tightly-run communication strategy is that it has left Rudd looking inflexible, remote, humourless and without charisma. Having personally seen Rudd in action at one of the community cabinets in 2008, I can confirm that he is flexible, engaging, and humorous though he is never quite charismatic. But Rudd has been perfectly willing to sacrifice these attributes when dealing with the medium that still most decides elections: television.

His Government deserves credit too for mastering the strategy. With the possible exception of Peter Garrett (whose previous life allows him frequent gaffe credit points which he continues to spend at an inordinate rate), they have been a superbly efficient team that has also managed to successful communicate the message du jour. And despite the fact that Rudd is a somewhat isolated figure within the party and not attached to any of the factions, they have offered resolute and unquestioning support for his leadership.

It is the matter of leadership which has been the Achilles Heel of the Opposition and a direct consequence of Peter Costello’s refusal to go down with the ship in 2007. Brendan Nelson was a lightweight who offered only comic value as leader. Malcolm Turnbull was a brilliant mind but too out of touch with the zeitgeist of the party and too arrogant to even see there was a problem. Joe Hockey ruled him out with his ETS conscience vote (though I happen to agree with him voting on climate change ought to be a primary matter of conscience) and fell between the two precarious stools of the party room.

That left Tony Abbott as last man standing. But Abbott has enjoyed a good run in the media which is keen to run with his pitch as a virile outdoorsy leader standing in stark contrast to the nerdy PM. It is a risky strategy that could alienate as much as it attracts but so far it is working well. Each photo op of Abbott’s pre-dawn lycra excursions or weekend “budgie smuggling” manages to exude an air of virility that was lacking in previous Liberal leadership teams. It also acts as a distraction to the fact that the extreme right has taken over the party and he is surrounded by a bunch of ageing has-beens that looked tired in the Howard era and don’t look any more inviting five years later.

Abbott is the same age as Rudd so will feel he has plenty of mileage ahead of him. It is unlikely he will want to stand aside as leader in defeat and if he manages to keep the majority of his comrades in office he will be regarded with affection by sitting MPs who thought they were heading to the slaughterhouse as recently as six months ago. But the net result of Abbott retaining power in the party is to make a Coalition victory in 2013 more unlikely. Though the 2010 political narrative has been about the success of Abbott’s aggressive “opposition to everything” approach, it cannot be sustained in the longer run and will make the party seem obstructionist and negative. No one will be listening to him in 2012 if he is still spouting on about a “great, big tax”.

Of course on one level, Abbott is on the money: an Emissions Trading System is indeed a “great, big tax”. But working properly, that is what it is designed to do. It is designed to make traditional means of creating power more expensive so that we move away to non-carbon alternatives. If he was really serious about tackling this problem, Abbott could go further and attack Labor’s hypocrisy over nuclear energy it is prepared to sell but not use. But Abbott is heart a populist without the stomach for a campaign against the large NIMBY opposition it would attract.

Make no mistake, if Australia is to have any chance of getting to 2050 with 80 percent emissions reductions it has to go nuclear – and soon, given the long lead times to build power stations. It may only be a temporary measure for 20 to 30 years while the technology to convert solar or wind energy for mass baseload is ironed out. But that doesn’t make it any less urgent. Or unfortunately any more likely. Rudd is perfectly aware of nuclear possibilities but his dedicated eye to election mechanics stops him from looking too closely at it. The Greens are also too blinded by their environmental purity to actually do anything concrete to solve the problem (witness how they dealt themselves out of the ETS debate last year). And so when scholars of the future look back on the 2010 election, all they will see is squandered opportunity and rank political hypocrisy across the spectrum. Happy voting.

February 14, 2010 at 10:18 pm Leave a comment

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