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 paris928love@hotmail.com” 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

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