The Roundup for December 1-31, 2019 Edition

Alone Amongst Ghosts by Christopher Parsons

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.


This month’s update is late, accounting for holidays and my generally re-thinking how to move forward (or not) with these kinds of posts. I find them really valuable, but the actual interface of using my current client (Ulysses) to draft elements of them is less than optimal. So expect some sort of changes as I muddle through how to improve workflow and/or consider the kinds of content that make the most sense to post.


Inspiring Quotation

Be intensely yourself. Don’t try to be outstanding; don’t try to be a success; don’t try to do pictures for others to look at—just please yourself.

  • Ralph Steiner

Great Photography Shots

Natalia Elena Massi’s photographs of Venice, flooded, are exquisite insofar as they are objectively well shot while, simultaneously, reminding us of the consequences of climate change. I dream of going to Venice to shoot photos at some point and her work only further inspires those dreams.

Music I’m Digging

I spent a lot of the month listening to my ‘Best of 2019’ playlist, and so my Songs I Liked in December playlist is a tad threadbare. That said, it’s more diverse in genre and styles than most monthly lists, though not a lot of the tracks made the grade to get onto my best of 2019 list.

  • Beck-Guero // I spent a lot of time re-listening to Beck’s corpus throughout December. I discovered that I really like his music: it’s moody, excitable,and catchy, and always evolving from album to album.
  • Little V.-Spoiler (Cyberpunk 2077) (Single) // Cyberpunk 2077 is one of the most hyped video games for 2020, and if all of the music is as solid and genre-fitting as this track, then the ambiance for the game is going to be absolutely stellar.

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • 99% Invisible-Racoon Resistance // As a Torontonian I’m legally obligated to share this. Racoons are a big part of the city’s identity, and in recent years new organic garbage containers were (literally) rolled out that were designed such that racoons couldn’t get into them. Except that some racoons could! The good news is that racoons are not ‘social learners’ and, thus, those who can open the bins are unlikely to teach all the others. But with the sheer number of trash pandas in the city it’s almost a certainty that a number of them will naturally be smart enough and, thus, garbage will continue to litter our sidewalks and laneways.

Good Reads

  • America’s Dark History of Killing Its Own Troops With Cluster Munitions // Ismay’s longform piece on cluster munitions is not a happy article, nor does the reader leave with a sense that this deadly weapon is likely to be less used. His writing–and especially the tragedies associated with the use of these weapons–is poignant and painful. And yet it’s also critically important to read given the barbarity of cluster munitions and their deadly consequences to friends, foes, and civilians alike. No civilized nation should use these weapons and all which do use them cannot claim to respect the lives of civilians stuck in conflict situations.
  • Project DREAD: White House Veterans Helped Gulf Monarchy Build Secret Surveillance Unit // The failure or unwillingness of the principals, their deputies, or staff to acknowledge they created a surveillance system that has systematically been used to hunt down illegitimate targets—human rights defenders, civil society advocates, and the like—is disgusting. What’s worse is that democratizing these surveillance capabilities and justifying the means by which the program was orchestrated almost guarantees that American signals intelligence employees will continue to spread American surveillance know-how to the detriment of the world for a pay check, the consequences be damned (if even ever considered in the first place).
  • The War That Continues to Shape Russia, 25 Years Later // The combination of the (re)telling of the first Russia-Chechen War and photographs from the conflict serve as reminders of what it looks like when well-armed nation-states engage in fullscale destruction, the human costs, and the lingering political consequences of wars-now-past.
  • A New Kind of Spy: How China obtains American technological secrets // Bhattacharjee’s 2014 article on Chinese spying continues to strike me as memorable, and helpful in understanding how the Chinese government recruits agents to facilitate its technological objectives. Reading the piece helps to humanize why Chinese-Americans may spy for the Chinese government and, also, the breadth and significance of such activities for advancing China’s interests to the detriment of America’s own.
  • Below the Asphalt Lies the Beach: There is still much to learn from the radical legacy of critical theory // Benhabib’s essay showcasing how the history of European political philosophy over the past 60 years or so are in the common service of critique, and the role(s) of Habermasian political theory in both taking account of such critique whilst offering thoughts on how to proceed in a world of imperfect praxis, is an exciting consideration of political philosophy today. She mounts a considered defense of Habermas and, in particular, the claims that his work is overly Eurocentric. Her drawing a line between the need to seek emancipation while standing to confront and overcome the xenophobia, authoritarianism, and racism that is sweeping the world writ large is deeply grounded on the need for subjects like human rights to orient and ground critique. While some may oppose such universalism on the same grounds as they would reject the Habermasian project there is a danger: in doing so, not only might we do a disservice to the intellectual depth that undergirds the concept of human rights but, also, we run the risk of losing the core means by which we can (re)orient the world towards enabling the conditions of freedom itself.
  • Ghost ships, crop circles, and soft gold: A GPS mystery in Shanghai // This very curious article explores the recent problem of ships’ GPS transponders being significantly affected while transiting the Yangtze in China. Specifically, transponders are routinely misplacing the location of ships, sometimes with dangerous and serious implications. The cause, however, remains unknown: it could be a major step up in the (effective) electronic warfare capabilities of sand thieves who illegally dredge the river, and who seek to escape undetected, or could be the Chinese government itself testing electronic warfare capabilities on the shipping lane in preparation of potentially deploying it elsewhere in the region. Either way, threats such as this to critical infrastructure pose serious risks to safe navigation and, also, to the potential for largely civilian infrastructures to be potentially targeted by nation-state adversaries.
  • A Date I Still Think About // These beautiful stories of memorable and special dates speak to just how much joy exists in the world, and how it unexpectedly erupts into our lives. In an increasingly dark time, stories like this are a kind of nourishment for the soul.

Cool Things

  • The Deep Sea // This interactive website that showcases the sea life we know exists, and the depths at which it lives, is simple and spectacular.
  • 100 Great Works Of Dystopian Fiction // A pretty terrific listing of books that have defined the genre.
Link

Privacy experts fear Donald Trump accessing global surveillance network

Thomas Drake, an NSA whistleblower who predated Snowden, offered an equally bleak assessment. He said: “The electronic infrastructure is fully in place – and ex post facto legalised by Congress and executive orders – and ripe for further abuse under an autocratic, power-obsessed president. History is just not kind here. Trump leans quite autocratic. The temptations to use secret NSA surveillance powers, some still not fully revealed, will present themselves to him as sirens.”

Bush and Cheney functionally authorized the NSA to undertake unlawful operations and actively sought to hinder authorizing courts from understanding what was going on. At the same time, that administration established black sites and novel detention rules for persons kidnapped by the CIA from around the world.

Obama and Biden developed legal theories that were accompanied by authorizing legislation to make the NSA’s previously unlawful activities lawful. The Obama presidency also failed to close Gitmo or convince the American public that torture should be forbidden or that criminal (as opposed to military) courts are the appropriate ways of dealing with suspected terror suspects. And thoughout the NSA deliberately misled and lied to its authorizing court, the CIA deliberately withheld documents from investigators and spied on those working for the intelligence oversight committees, and the FBI continued to conceal its own surveillance operations as best it could.

There are a lot of things to be worried about when it comes to the United States’ current trajectory. But one of the more significant items to note is that the most sophisticated and best financed surveillance and policing infrastructure in the world is going to be working at the behest of an entirely unproven, misogynistic, racist, and bigoted president.

It’s cause to be very, very nervous for the next few years.

Link

Congress Needs to Press the Pentagon, Saudi Arabia on Abuses in Yemen War

Just Security:

The panel also said the coalition should have warned medical staff at the Doctors Without Borders-supported Haydan hospital in Saada governorate before bombing it six times. But the panel dismissed the seriousness of attacking a hospital by concluding there had been no “human damage.” Besides the two patients who the aid group’s country director told me were injured, the attack destroyed the emergency room of the hospital, which had received about 150 cases a week. It was the only medical facility within an 80-kilometer radius, making the “human damage” of the attack incalculable.

The panel also concluded that a February 27, 2016 attack on a village marketplace didn’t kill any civilians, while we documented10 civilian deaths, including a woman and four children. In an attack on another marketplace on March 15 that United Nations research and ours found that 97 people died, the panel incredibly said it saw no proof of civilian casualties. One man told us he lost 17 relatives and another lost 16.

The coalition’s examination of attacks is a reversal of past practice, but there’s a long way to go before its investigations can be considered credible, transparent, and impartial. Since the Saudis haven’t released details about the panel members or the actual reports on each incident, it’s hard to know why their findings are so different from what we and the UN found on the ground.

There are also many more airstrikes that need to be investigated. It is unclear how the panel chose these 8 strikes over the more than 70 apparently unlawful airstrikes that we and Amnesty International have documented, and the more than 100 that the United Nations has. These documented coalition strikes have killed nearly 1,000 civilians.

For instance, a March 30, 2015 strike on a camp for internally displaced people killed at least 29 civilians and another strike a day later on a dairy factory near the Hodaida port killed at least 31. On May 12, the coalition struck a civilian prison in the western town of Abs, killing 25 people.

That same day, aircraft dropped at least five bombs on a marketplace in the town of Zabid, killing at least 60. A July 4 attack on another marketplace in the village of Muthalith Ahim killed at least 65. On October 7, the coalition bombed a triple wedding in the village of Sanaban, killing 43 civilians, including 13 women and 16 children.

There is an ongoing human rights crisis in Yemen, supported by Western technology systems and implicitly backed by the world’s largest superpower. And, at the same time, Canada is selling armoured vehicles to nations known to engage in similar types of human rights abuses.

Link

Waiting for Android’s inevitable security Armageddon

Waiting for Android’s inevitable security Armageddon:

Android has around 75-80 percent of the worldwide smartphone market—making it not just the world’s most popular mobile operating system but arguably the most popular operating system, period. As such, security has become a big issue. Android still uses a software update chain-of-command designed back when the Android ecosystem had zero devices to update, and it just doesn’t work. There are just too many cooks in the kitchen: Google releases Android to OEMs, OEMs can change things and release code to carriers, carriers can change things and release code to consumers. It’s been broken for years.

This editorial was written over a year ago. And it’s as true, today, as it was the day it was written. Imagine if car companies just kept releasing the same dangerous, flawed, and fixable devices despite rampant car crashes, accidents, and other mishaps.

That’s Google today, as it continues to push flawed versions of Andrew, and today’s OEMs (e.g. Samsung, HTC) and carriers (e.g. Rogers, AT&T, Vodafone). The insecurity of Android constitutes a basic safety and human rights issue at this point given how states exploit Android vulnerabilities to target dissidents, journalists, academics, writers, and the public more generally. And yet none of the core parties reponsible for these major security failures are making genuine efforts to actually fix the problem because they don’t think they have to care.

Quote

The argument for human rights is based upon protection for individuals against one-sided, deceitful, inefficient, oppressive, arbitrary, cowardly, and bullying government. They are the rights that are necessary for our individual integrity, for our acceptance by the state and civil society as full members of that community, of our right to belong … We are not treated as full members when government does not provide us with information about the effect of [its] decisions, the outcomes of such decisions, or the use of resources that made the exercise of power possible.

* Patrick Birkinshaw, “Freedom of Information and Openness: Fundament Human Rights?” Administrative Law Review 58(1), 2006.
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Although some of the core supporters of that group are prone to violence and criminal behaviour, Catt has never been convicted of criminal conduct in connections to the demonstrations he attended. Nonetheless, Catt’s personal information was held on the National Domestic Extremism Database that is maintained by the National Public Order Intelligence Unit. The information held on him included his name, age, description of his appearance and his history of attending political demonstrations. The police had retained a photograph of Mr Catt but it had been destroyed since it was deemed to be unnecessary. The information was accessible to members of the police who engage in investigations on “Smash EDO”.

In the ruling the Court of Appeal departs from earlier judgments by mentioning that the “reasonable expectation of privacy” is not the only factor to take into account in determining whether an individual’s Article 8 (1) right has been infringed. In surveying ECtHR case law, the Court noted that it is also important to check whether personal data has been subjected to systematic processing and if it is entered in a database. The rationale to include consideration of the latter two categories is that in this way authorities can recover information by reference to a particular person. Therefore, “the processing and retention of even publicly available information may involve an interference with the subject’s article 8 rights.” Since in the case of Catt, personal data was retained and ready to be processed, the Court found a violation of Article 8 (1) that requires justification.

The removal of Mr. Catt’s data from these databases is a significant victory for him and all those involved in fighting for citizens’ rights. However, the case acts as a clear lens through which we can see how certain facets of the state are actively involved in pseudo-criminalizing dissent: you’re welcome to say or do anything, so long as you’re prepared to be placed under perpetual state suspicion.

Quote

Over the last forty years, a strong and principled argument that privacy is a fundamental human right deserving special protection in an age of high technology has confronted more pragmatic considerations from a variety of interests. The messy twists and turns of this international struggle have produced a sort of consensus on what it means for an organization to process personal data responsibly. But it is an uneasy consensus, hedged by exemptions and qualifications, and regularly shaken by monumental shifts in the processing powers of technology, and by game changers like the 9/11 attacks.

This conflict is now being played out again with respect to a new Draft Regulation on privacy protection from the European Union. We have heard that this Regulation is too burdensome, that it will block innovation, that it will cost jobs, trade, and investment, that it will kill the online advertising industry, that it will unreasonably extend the reach of European law beyond European borders and exacerbate the transatlantic divide between a more protectionist and regulatory Europe and a more open and innovative United States.

These views are simplistic and misleading. The same fears were expressed twenty years ago when the first set of European privacy rules were proposed. The Internet developed and flourished since that time, and within that framework of national and international privacy law. Privacy protection did not constrain innovation then, and it will not do so today.

* Colin Bennett, “The Geo-Politics of Personal Data

parislemon: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

I agree with parislemon’s general take on the targeting of Apple and labour: Apple isn’t alone, and we can’t ignore the role of local government in (not) regulating the state of affairs at Foxconn (or other large manufacturing) plants. This said, language like the following in unacceptable and intentionally uncritical:

 While this report brings such an issue to the forefront, similar pieces and stories surface quite frequently, actually. Guess what changes? Nothing. It’s shitty to say, but it’s the truth. And we all know it.

The fact of the matter is that we live in a world that demands amazing technology delivered to us at low costs and at great speed. That world leads to Foxconn.

We say we care about the means by which the results are reached when we read stories such as this one. But then we forget. Or we chose not to remember. We buy things and we’re happy that they’re affordable. And then we buy more things. And more. With huge smiles on our faces. Without a care in the world.

In the above quotation, Siegler obfuscates the real role that our governments could have in shaping the supply chain. Imagine: if there were a requirement  that certain imported products (e.g. electronics) had to be certified to meet standardized ethical and human rights requirements. Would that increase the price of goods/prevent some from coming to market, initially? Certainly. As a result Chinese (and other foreign national) companies would dramatically increase labor standards because it would no longer be a competitive advantage to have such incredibly low standards. Prices would stabilize and we could buy iPhones, Blackberry devices, and the rest without sleepless nights.

What must happen, however, is that the West must see beyond itself. Citizens must recognize that they can shape the world, and refuse to just give up on the basis that change would threaten the existing, ethically bankrupt, neo-liberal economic practices that surround our lives. If the EU and North America refused to import ethically suspect electronics and gave significant preferential advantage to companies that were ethical in the production and disposal of goods, then significant change could occur.

It is our choice to adopt, or refuse, to enforce basic human rights in the economic supply chain. Technology – it’s production, usage, and disposal – is rife with ethical quandaries. We have to serious address them if we are to remedy intolerable behaviours the companies like Foxconn perpetuate.