Intercepting mobile communications: A cogent case for truth-seeking and slow news?

Even if most of us are powerless to completely evade it completely, the pitfalls of mobile phone intercepts are well documented and known. However, two articles recently published on the web can be read as somewhat justifying the use of material thus collected for truth seeking after an act of terrorism. Whether such use justifies ab initio the clandestine harvesting of voice and data from consumers is a debatable point, particularly in regimes significantly less democratic than the US and India.

England’s Guardian newspaper reports on its blog an experiment by Wikileaks to place on public record more than 500,000 intercepted pager messages, many from US officials, at the time of the World Trade Centre attacks in New York on 9th September 2001.

The experiment by whistleblowing website Wikileaks includes pager messages sent on the day by officials in the Pentagon, the New York police and witnesses to the collapse of the twin towers. Wikileaks said the messages would show a “completely objective record of the defining moment of our time”.

Emphasis mine. In a similar vein, the Lede of the New York Times reports almost a year after the horrific terrorist attacks in Mumbai that,

… Channel 4 News in Britain had obtained and broadcast excerpts from those intercepted phone calls, between the attackers and people apparently directing them. This audio was also used in a documentary produced by Channel 4 and HBO, which was broadcast last summer in Britain is airing in the United States this week.

The Channel 4 video is chilling, demonstrating clearly how mobile phone communications were central to the terrorist attacks.

Distracted by wide screen monitors?

Implications for advocacy against mobile phone and communications monitoring
We know that the terrorists in Mumbai used Blackberry’s to communicate with home base and monitor news reports. Does this knowledge justify the Indian government’s threat to hack into Blackberry communications a few months before the attacks last year?

Both examples above point to extremely sophisticated, wide ranging signals and communications intelligence regimes in both countries, able to access the communications of specific mobile devices and numbers post facto. As noted in the Lede,

Wikileaks would not reveal the source for the leak, but hinted: “It is clear that the information comes from an organisation which has been intercepting and archiving US national telecommunciations since prior to 9/11.

This strongly suggests that both data and voice of a wide range of numbers (maybe even of all consumers?) are being recorded either by the telcos themselves and / or by government intelligence agencies.

Given the increasing sophisticated and ubiquity of signals and communications intelligence, it is reasonable to expect that every terrorist act today gives cause for more encroachment into private communications. For example, this is clear even in the United Kingdom, when in 2008 it was brought to light that it was the intention of the British Government to create a database to record every phone call, e-mail and time spent on the internet by all citizens.

A common argument will be that these measures are necessary to protect the public in a context where terrorism relies on the same public infrastructure and communications channels to plans its attacks as ordinary citizens.

Will then a mark of democracy in the future be the open knowledge and contestation of these signals and communication intelligence regimes in the media by civil society, such as we find in the UK and US? If not, how can we discern between the ostensibly pro bono publico monitoring of communications in more robust democracies and the more sinister, parochial monitoring of communications in regimes like Iran, Saudi Arabia and China?

A case for slow-news?
Finally, I go back to the justification of Wikileaks to publish the records of pager messages sent after the World Trade Centre attacks. What it refers to as an objective record is actually a plethora of hugely subjective, partial and inaccurate messages. Any real time analysis of these messages could not have in any meaningful way contributed to situational awareness or policy decisions. As the Guardian notes, the messages “…show how panic and rumour began to spread on the day, and are likely to fuel conspiracy theories about the attacks.”

Dan Gillmor, using the more recent example of the shootings in America’s Fort Hood, writes about the need for a ‘slow news’ movement. As he notes,

I rely in large part on gut instincts when I make big decisions, but my gut only gives me good advice when I’ve immersed myself in the facts about things that are important. This applies, more than ever, to news, where we need to be skeptical of just about everything we read, listen to and watch, though not equally skeptical. A corollary to that is increasingly clear: to wait a bit, for evidence that is persuasive, before deciding what’s true and what’s not.

It comes down to this: The faster the news accelerates, the slower I’m inclined to believe anything I hear — and the harder I look for the coverage that pulls together the most facts with the most clarity about what’s known and what’s speculation. Call it slow news. Call it critical thinking. Call it anything you want. Give some thought to adopting it for at least some of your media consumption, and creation.

Dan’s full blog post, which refers to the work of Ethan Zuckerman as well, is linked to national security, in that policy decisions to counter terrorism taken on the basis of communications intelligence may be based on information that’s inaccurate, partial and in some cases, deliberately misleading. This is especially the case in a context where with a shocked and enraged citizenry, a government is forced to act upon, and rate more highly, intelligence it knows is suspect. There is also the flip side, where in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack known to have been coordinated using public telecoms infrastructure and channels, an unscrupulous government can more easily justify and embed communications monitoring for its own ends.

As Dan notes, the answer could lie in media literacy. But media literacy is pegged to the freedom of expression, sufficient literacy, education and access to alternative media. Fabrice Florin’s NewsTrust.net offers one compelling model of news reporting that fosters critical appreciation of online content. There are others. Coupled with an education in critical thinking, they can be a solid defense against mobs and riots instigated by disinformation, misinformation and misguided government policies that exacerbate conflict and act as a force-multiplier to terrorism.

Online dissent and the future of extremism in Sri Lanka

“… Thus while the government is trying to position Singapore as a Media Hub for the fast-growing new media technology and development, home grown talent often face harsh official harassment. Singapore’s netizens are moving to redefine the terms of the island state’s political discourse – whether the government welcome them or not”.

Kalinga Seneviratne, Asia Media Report 2009

Kalinga’s sentiments are resonant in Sri Lanka as well, in this our official year of ICT and English. Over the course of 2009 alone, I have been informed of and visited over two dozen websites and web based social networking initiatives that highlight facets of the war and humanitarian concerns in Sri Lanka. They are all very well designed and most of them are compelling narratives that, at first, do not at all appear to be what they essentially are – partial narratives serving parochial ends. A select few are show signs of emerging as effective platforms for engaging the unlike-minded online. For example, a few readers may know Pissu Poona, an anonymous identity on Facebook – one of the world’s best known and most used online social networks – that has befriended nearly 200 individuals at the time of writing and regularly points to content on the web that critiques and analyses the Sri Lankan conflict. Pissu Poona is a site for some interesting debate and as a post which generated a lot of responses noted,

“just a reminder that this space is our space for debate and discussion. it is to challenge you (and me) to think about issues and perhaps question our own beliefs and prejudices. Let us not lose sight of the fact that our communities are polarized now more than ever and unless and until the dialogue is started again the mistrust and suspicion will continue to grow. Pissu Poona is an attempt to re-initiate the dialogue that war has cost us.”

On the other hand, as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Dayan Jayatilleke recently noted,

“Pro-Tiger Tamil students, mainly from Canadian campuses are walking from Toronto to Chicago in order to get on the Oprah Winfrey show. Now that’s a pretty neat gimmick. They have a well designed website. The Sinhala students who have the sophistication to pull something like this off are uninvolved in the struggle because they are alienated by the elements that tend to dominate equivalent networks, while those who are heavily involved in the “patriotic” struggle do not make the most Oprah-friendly material.”

Given that the peaceful negotiation of conflict and amplification of critical dissent on and through the web is an area of significant personal interest, I found Dayan’s encapsulation of the current growth spurt of web based pro-LTTE advocacy very interesting. Ironically however, for the pedestrian apparatchiks of the Rajapakse regime as much as the trade unionist fighting for her rights, the human rights defender, the traditional journalist and the Tamil nationalist vehemently opposed to the LTTE yet unequivocally committed to the equal treatment of all Tamil peoples – the web poses a real challenge.  Equally and for all of these types, the web is alien terrain. Its unfamiliarity breeds hubris, which in turn leads to the gross under estimation of the web’s potential for transforming polity and society, for better or worse.

Read the full article in my Sunday Leader column today.

Citizen journalism on Groundviews and Vikalpa’s YouTube channel interrogates assassination of Lasantha Wickremetunge

Lasantha

The Editor in Chief of the Sunday Leader and one of Sri Lanka’s best known journalists Lasantha Wickremetunge was murdered on 8th January 2009 en route to work. He was beaten and shot repeatedly and succumbed to his injuries in hospital. The first post on Groundviews on the assassination can be read here.

Lasantha was 50 at the time of his assassination. No group to date has claimed responsibility. In a tremendously powerful and moving editorial published posthumously the Sunday after he was killed, Lasantha notes that “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.

For its part, the Rajapakse administration points to a mysterious armed force hell bent on discrediting the government. It has done what it does best – expressed outrage, ordered a full investigation and appointed a committee to investigate the attacks. Yet it conveniently forgets, inter alia, that the Cabinet subcommittee to look into the grievances of journalists set up in June 2008 is largely forgotten today. No one knows whether it exists, how to reach it, what it does, or came up with as recommendations to protect journalists. Journalist J.S. Tissanaiyagam still languishes in jail on the most ludicrous charges under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The government is silent on his plight and on-going case, despite widespread local and international condemnation and calls for his release.

Well over eleven thousand came to Groundviews from 8th to 13th January alone to read and actively engage with content published on Lasantha’s assassination and what it portends for independent media and democracy in Sri Lanka.

Amongst regular voices was the former President of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, who wrote in to the site in response to a comment left by Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva. You can follow this conversation here. This was the first comment by the former President on Lasantha’s murder featured in any local and international media.

Also significant was the thrust and parry of debate between Indi Samarajiva, Sri Lanka’s best known and perhaps most read blogger (and architect of the country’s leading blog aggregation site Kottu) and Dayan Jayatilleke. Follow the conversation thread through to its interesting denouement here.

Groundviews was also honoured to receive strong protests in verse from award-winning and internationally acclaimed Sri Lankan poets. Vivimarie Vanderpoorten, winner of the Gratiaen Prize in 2007, Malinda Seneviratne and Indran Amirthanayagam wrote strong poems against violence and Lasantha’s assassination. They were joined by Cry Lanka, an anonymous poet. Most recently, Francesca wrote in from the US. Born in Sri Lanka, Francesca was moved to write about Lasantha’s killing from the point of view of someone from the diaspora. Her poem is here.

Several others wrote in expressing their disgust, shock, sadness and concern. Lionel Bopage, a former General Secretary of the JVP states that,

These assassinations and the repressive culture being imposed upon the Sri Lankan society, culminating with the killing of Mr Wickramatunga, should provide the impetus to stimulate all political forces and individuals in Sri Lanka and overseas, who are committed to protecting the human and democratic rights of its people, to come together and oppose this state of fascism.

Prof. Sumanasiri Liyanage, who teaches political economy at the University of Peradeniya, suggests an alternative proposal for our consideration when he notes that,

Attack on Sirasa and killing of Lasantha Wickramatunga have made me convinced once again my earlier proposal that any protest and opposition to the present government should be a part of a bigger political exercise aiming at naming a non-party peoples’ candidate with minimum transitional program that include the change of the constitution in order to make the state more accommodative, power-dispersed and the politicians more accountable through built-in checks and balances.

Groundviews also featured several videos on Lasantha’s assassination taken from the Vikalpa YouTube video channel. These videos include interviews with civil society, coverage of his funeral as well as the first hours after he was admitted to the Kalubowila hospital.

As a mark of protest and respect Groundviews changed its homepage on the day of Lasantha’s burial to black, featuring links to key articles on his murder.

Groundviews on Lasantha

This site exists to demonstrate that it is possible, using web media strategies, to create spaces for voices at risk to be heard and archived for posterity. In a small but significant way, the original content and conversations on Lasantha’s assassination on this site rigorously interrogated issues of culpability, impunity, democratic governance, media freedom and violence.

At the end of the day, Lasantha’s dead and gone. Yet through these evolving and vital conversations on the web and Internet, he will continue to inspire us.

Sanjana Hattotuwa
Editor
Groundviews

Waiting for the Guards – Amnesty International’s video on torture

Unsubscribe is Amnesty International’s new campaign against human rights abuses (by Western Governments including the US and UK) under the guise of the war against terror. 

The following video, featuring Jiva Parthipan as the prisoner, is shocking and one of the most compelling videos against HR abuses I have seen on the web. As the AI website notes,

Waiting for the Guards is not a normal film. What you are watching is a real person going through the excruciating pain of Stress Positions over a period of 6 hours. We decided that the only way to show the horror of this “enhanced interrogation procedure” used by the CIA and others was to show you the reality of it. There is no acting from the prisoner. He is in pain. Real pain. 

The video on YouTube alone has been viewed over 44,000 times. You should also not miss the story behind the production of the film.

I think AI, in depicting the sheer brutality of torture through this video, creates outrage against torture. This is no mean feat. Grabbing the attention of those who in a media rich world are bombarded with information on HR abuses is tremendously difficult. We normalise violence, and egregious HR abuses such as Abu Graib and Guatanamo are media stories for consumption in the morning en route to office, an RSS feed on our desktops or at night on evening news. 

AI’s video and the larger unsubscribe web campaign creates that sense of outrage that is necessary and vital to take actions against government’s that aid and abet torture. 

What I’m interested in is whether, over time, AI and other HR organisations have be more and more visceral in their depiction of torture to combat the inevitable erosion of interest and commitment to stop torture by those moved to action by this campaign. Put another way, over 44,000 people have watched Waiting for the Guards, but how many of them have signed up for AI’s campaign, participated in virally marketing it and raising awareness against torture? And while web campaigns have long tails, it’s also the case that they have a very limited active life – people move on, life goes on, attention is scattered, competing initiatives steal participants, social networks evolve and move on. 

To this end I wonder if AI has any statistics on just what impact unsubscribe has made in the policies of the governments to which the campaign is aimed at and those most at risk of torture the campaign intends to protect. Further down the line, it would be interesting to hear AI’s take on web media and HR campaigns conducted on the web. Far as I can gather, this film is not one that AI will show widely in terrestrial / cable TV networks around the world. In using the web as the primary source of information dissemination and activism, this campaign is accessible by those in the West, but not as easily by those without broadband access in other parts of the world.

Snooping into mobile communications in India

Research in Motion (RIM), the folks behind the Blackberry, are reportedly close to finalising a deal with India’s Home Ministry to allow it to monitor communications and access customer data.  As Ars Technica notes,

The issue first became public in early March, when the ministry threatened to ban BlackBerry service entirely, unless it was given unconditional access to any and all of the information passing across RIM’s network at any given time, for any given person… The ministry claimed it needs access to customer data in order to protect the country from terrorists operating in Kashmir, who may be using BlackBerrys to communicate with each other.

In 2006 India noted that it was using mobile phones to track insurgents and terrorists in Kashmir. 

“Earlier, we thought it would help terrorists in their communications and help their subversive activities,” army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel V.K. Batra said. “But it is proving counterproductive to them.”

Two years on the the government now seems to think that the interception of Blackberry communications will help in its struggle against terrorism. There are conflicting reports on the status of negotiations with RIM, with some newspapers suggesting that RIM has agreed to conditionally turn over all customer records and others suggesting that RIM is unwilling to budge on the issue of customer privacy

As the Ars Technica article notes however,

It may be a month or two before Research In Motion announces the details of its agreement with the Union Home Ministry, but the information coming out of India is at least plausible. RIM has yet to state, point-blank, that it will not allow the Indian government to access its network traffic in some form or another, and until that happens, all bets are off. 

The rise of Big Brother in the UK

It’s disturbing to read about the intention of the British Government to create a database to record every phone call, e-mail and time spent on the internet by the public as part of “the fight against crime and terrorism”. It’s this kind of mindless sleepwalking into a surveillance society that reminds me of Orwells 1984. Conrad’s The Secret Agent and V for Vendetta. There’s a necessary debate on how much of our civil liberties we need to sacrifice in the name of public security, but this is surely a nonsensical overkill? As reports indicate, it’s also fundamentally a problem of data analysis and storage.

“About 57 billion text messages were sent in Britain last year, while an estimated 3 billion e-mails are sent every day.”

How on earth the government is going to extract from this information the semantic connections necessary to identify that which threatens the British public is not entirely clear. Or it’s ability to keep these records securely. Or the period of time it will keep these records. Or who exactly will have access to them. Or as the opposition noted succinctly,

David Davis, the Shadow Home Secretary, said: “Given [ministers’] appalling record at maintaining the integrity of databases holding people’s sensitive data, this could well be more of a threat to our security, than a support.”

It’s also unclear as to how invasive this technology will be. Clearly, if it only records emails SENT or RECEIVED, there’s huge gaping security loophole in the form of DRAFT emails. Simply share an account / password combination over coffee and voila, you have a totally secure form of email communications without ever sending an email (simply update each other’s drafts). It’s also unclear whether this database will tap into instant messaging and if so, just how? What about Skype VOIP that’s encrypted? And how about Blackberry’s? Or the walled gardens of social networks and the IM systems they employ?

For a country clearly obsessed with surveillance, this latest and incredibly absurd step in the guise of “public security” is itself a terrorist’s dream. How many masterminds does the British Government actually think it will take to break into or disable the database in a day and age where DDOS attacks can actually be bought over the web?

To borrow a phrase from Conrad, the future of the proletariat seems very bleak indeed!

Mobile phones against terrorism

So while Sri Lanka clamps down on the use of mobile phones to prevent terrorism, researchers at Purdue University are working with the state of Indiana to develop a system that would use a network of mobile phones to detect and track radiation in order to help prevent terrorist attacks with radiological “dirty bombs” and nuclear weapons.

Such a system could eventually blanket the nation with millions of mobile phones equipped with radiation sensors able to detect even slight residues of radioactive material. Because mobile phones already contain global positioning locators, the phone-based network would serve as a tracking system, says physics professor Ephraim Fischbach.

Great.

Every single hospital’s X-Ray room just became an Al Qaeda hideout. One other problem of course – I doubt any deranged folks who actually went into the trouble of assembling and transporting dirty bomb or nuclear device, caught driving around say New York city are actually going to clamber out and hold up their hands when dozens of cell phone totting citizens point accusingly at them with their iPhones.

Mobile phones can actually combat terrorism by helping communities communicate, reconcile differences and transform conflict.

But I guess a radiation fighting, hazmat detecting, mobile phone sounds far more sexy.