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.

Al Jazeera questions media freedom in post-war Sri Lanka

Al Jazeera’s path-breaking The Listening Post programme looks at enduring challenges facing media freedom in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan media war continues critically looks at the video broadcast by Channel 4, the sentencing of journalist J.S. Tissainayagam and the continued violence against independent media. This programme features at the end very short submissions made by one of Sri Lanka’s leading bloggers, Indi Samarajiva, and myself.

Neda Agha-Soltan’s mother speaks out

The murder of Neda Agha-Soltan is one of the most watched and viral videos and viscerally compelling stories that came out of Iran this year. Neda’s mother was interviewed by the BBC recently. This is one answer.

How would you like your daughter to be remembered?

I don’t want people to forget her. People – Iranians – have all been very supportive. They come to me and congratulate me for having had such a brave daughter. And now I want you to do something for me. I want you, on my behalf, to thank everyone around the world, Iranians and non Iranians, people from every country and culture, people who in their own way, their own tradition, have mourned my child… everyone who lit a candle for her – every musician, who wrote songs for her, who wrote poems about her… you know, Neda loved the arts and music. I want to thank all of them.
I want to thank politicians and leaders, from every country, at all levels, who remembered my child.

Her death has been so painful – words can never describe my true feelings. But knowing that the world cried for her… that has comforted me.

I am proud of her. The world sees her as a symbol, and that makes me happy.

Poetry, Prose and Satire: Exploring violence, war, religion and peace in Sri Lanka

In light of a Government unable and unwilling to investigate violence against journalists and independent media, satire is one way in which violent events, processes and individuals can be held up for public scrutiny more frequently. In the first submission to the site, Banyan News Reporters publishes a piece on how TV Remote Controllers are a threat to National Security. The submission notes that,

“The television remote controller poses a serious threat to the country’s national security, the government has determined. A new law will soon be introduced to register and regulate this electronic item. The ubiquitous gadget helps unpatriotic persons to change the channel when matters of national importance are being broadcast on state TV channels. This, in turn, deprives the government its rightful opportunity to address and inform all its citizens, security advisors have pointed out.”

Read Remote Controllers a threat to National Security.

Writing in for the first time, Valkyrie in From the ‘sole representative’ to the ‘sole alternative’: Justice for, and within the Tamil Community asks pertinent questions and ends on a thought-provoking note,

“What kind of future do Tamil politico-armed groups have? Since the usefulness of these groups to the government is dependent upon the existence of the LTTE, what would their position be in a world without the LTTE? We can venture to guess that it is unlikely they will be able to eschew government patronage and become legitimate advocates for the rights of the Tamil people and at the same time survive politically within a majoritarian state that is unwilling to acknowledge the concerns and fulfill the legitimate demands of its minorities.”

Continue reading

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

Video Games and Gender

As video games perpetuate the status quo, they also reinforce and extend gender-based inequalities. This element of video games should be taken seriously precisely because these technologies are toys. Children learn ideas about gender through video games – and, many children at that!

These ideas about gender are harmful and are intimately connected with the systematic oppression of women to men in this country and in the world. As women are objectified in the virtual world of gaming, they are objectified in the real world. As men are privileged over women in the design of video games, they are privileged over women in the realm of computer science and the larger economic world. Video games are cultural artifacts that must be taken seriously.

That excerpt is from Technologies of Play: Video Games and Gender, a very interesting site that offers insight and analysis into video games from a gendered perspective. A turgid new report from the European Parliament released recently examines the same issue and avers (take deep breath),

“They believe that there is a need to eliminate messages contrary to human dignity and conveying gender stereotypes from textbooks, toys, video and computer games, Internet and the new information and communications technologies (ICTs), as well as advertising through different types of media.”

Ars Technica, which covered this report, suggests that gender stereotyping is actually much less of a problem than this new report makes it out to be. After listing a number of games where women are as depraved as men (and as capable of redemption) and are realistically depicted (not all of them have Jolie’esque body types), Ars Technica notes that,

Sexist and degrading imagery is common in all forms of media, but this report is coming a little late for video games. As the acceptance of gaming as a hobby grows, so does the width of games made available, including games that treat women with respect instead of seeing how large their breasts can be rendered and what the minimum amount of clothing is necessary to cover them.

The study should not be belittled, nor should the sentiments behind it, although it reads more like an act of political pandering than anything else. 

An engendered mainstream gaming industry is a pipe-dream – the market does not demand it. The massive market for GTA IV even with all the controversy about the hidden sex scenes of GTA III suggests that gender is not even the last thing on gamers minds. It’s not an issue at all. That’s sad, but the answer isn’t nanny legislation or policy-makers turning gender police.

It’s a combination of a lot of other factors, including good parenting, that suggest to the boy or girl child that games they play (and not just PC games, has anyone read fairy tales or seen Disney?) aren’t necessarily how the world is, or indeed, should be. 

This video is taken from the Technologies of Play website. I’ve played almost all of the games here, with Wolfenstein 3D, Doom (the entire series), Quake (the entire series), Duke Nukem 3D as some of my favourites in the by-gone days of DOS games and VESA local bus graphics!

I don’t attribute my work today in peacebuilding to having played any of these games, or not. They were just that for me – games. They didn’t inspire any behaviour, positively or negatively. I would still play them given a chance, knowing that playing them – killing all manner of life on screen and watching their visceral demise now rendered in hyper-real graphics – does not make me any less capable of imagining and creating ICT architectures for peacemaking, reconciliation and negotiations. 

So what’s at play here? 

As I noted Technologies of Play: Video Games and Gender (over time, one of my most read blog posts), 

In reality, gender roles and the development of non-violent approaches to conflict are inextricably entwined with, inter alia, parenting styles, the general socio-political climate, existing gender role stereotypes promoted by media and an individual’s own life choices. While studies may help us better understand the linkages between in-game violence, gender and real life conflict, I don’t think that any study I’ve come across to date help me understand how it is possible for someone to blow themselves up to kill and maim others while others, no less discriminated against, continue to promote non-violent dialogue with their opponents.

Quick takes: Using technology to combat violence

Two news stories, both from the United States, point to the use of citizen generated content as well as new surveillance technologies that are being leveraged to bring down violent crime.

Reuters reports on the New York Police Department’s decision to allow citizens to upload mobile video and photos directly to them to help in combatting crime as well as Police brutality and corruption.

TechCrunch reports on the efforts of Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, who is using extremely sophisticated cameras to police violent neighborhoods. The capabilities of the cameras employed in Newark are astounding, though I’m not entirely convinced that a purely technocratic approach to combatting violent gun and drug crime actually resolved the root causes of the issue.