Archives for May 2012

America’s spy state: How the telecoms sell out your privacy

David Rosen writes: You need to know one simple truth: you have no privacy with regard to your electronic communications.

Nothing you do online, via a wireline telephone or over a wireless device is outside the reach of government security agencies and private corporations. Your ostensible personal communication — whether a phone call, an email, a search, visiting a website, a credit card purchase, a 140 character Tweet, a movie download or a Facebook friending — is a public commodity, subject to the dictates of the security state and market opportunists.

Corporate surveillance has begun to raise consumer, Congressional and regulatory concerns – a major case, Amnesty v. Clapper, is now before the Supreme Court. One can only wonder why it is not an issue in this year’s election?

Corporate spying takes a variety of forms. GPS tracking over a wireless device is widespread. Google’s efforts to commercialize its users’ keystrokes resulted in a $25,000 fine from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Potentially more consequential, a growing chorus of criticism over its recently introduced data-harvesting program seems to have contributed to a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation of Google; the FTC retained Beth Wilkinson, a high-powered outside counsel, to oversee a possible anti-trust prosecution of the company. On March 1st, Google introduced a new program that collects user data from its 60 services. Google stores “cookies” (i.e., code that compiles a record of an individual’s web browsing history) on a growing number of communications devices, whether a home PC, tablet, smartphone and a growing number of TV sets. These cookies track every website a person visits or function s/he uses. As the New York Times wrote, “The case has the potential to be the biggest showdown between regulators and Silicon Valley since the government took on Microsoft 14 years ago.

The surveillance state is a multi-headed hydra. Corporate spying is intimately linked to the surveillance state, an omnipresent system consisting of federal, state and local security agencies. This spying system is made up of many of the leading private telecommunications and Internet companies working closely with the Department of Justice (DoJ), NSA, FBI, DHS, FCC and still other entities. This increasingly integrated federal system is complemented by an ever-growing army of state and local police “intelligence” agencies. Individual entities work either on their own, together with others and/or with private companies, many that financially benefit from commercial data harvesting. [Continue reading…]


Video: Pakistan — Imran Khan: Next man in?


Paul Fussell: The culture of war


Energy assets in front line of cyber war

Reuters reports: Global energy infrastructure is more vulnerable than ever in an escalating cyber war thanks to “sons of Stuxnet” electronic missiles, which can be created from the virus designed to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programme.

Cyber espionage is on the rise, with Chinese hackers stealing field data and cutting-edge technology from energy companies around the world since at least 2009, according to leading security firm McAfee (part of Intel Corp ).

But the biggest threat to everything from power grids to digital oilfields may come from malware based on the Stuxnet worm, widely thought to have been sponsored by western government agencies, security experts say.

Cyber weapons like Stuxnet that can take control of plants appear to be more of an operational danger than the recently-discovered Flame virus, which seems designed to gather data.

“Stuxnet really showed people you could do this, that is the problem. I cannot imagine any major government agency not developing an offensive capability,” Eric Byres, a leading authority on critical infrastructure security, told Reuters.

Byres, who advises governments and multinationals on cyber security, said government agencies could seek to infiltrate energy infrastructure in case of political tension. “That is one of the risks, that we are weaponizing our entire energy industry, or leaving weapons inside it, just in case.”

Governments are concerned that energy and communications networks would be the first victims of any conflict with a cyber-savvy aggressor.

“It is believed that would be part of any form of warfare – that they would take out private sector infrastructures as part of knocking out a country,” said Paul Dorey, who managed BP’s digital security until 2008 and is now professor of information security at the University of London.

The stable relationship between the United States, Russia and China, means there seems little chance of they will try to disrupt one another’s energy networks any time soon.

But Iran has been bombarded with cyber bugs during its intense nuclear standoff with the west, with the virus known as Flame detected in April and a worm called Duqu, designed to gather intelligence on industrial infrastructure for future attacks, found last year.


Was Flame virus that invaded Iran’s computer networks made in USA?

NBC News reports: As the United Nations and Iran warn that the newly discovered Flame computer virus may be the most potent weapon of its kind, U.S. computer security experts tell NBC News that the virus bears the hallmarks of a U.S. cyber espionage operation, specifically that of the super-secret National Security Agency.

The Flame virus, which is intended to gather intelligence — not destroy equipment or data, as was the case with the notorious Stuxnet virus — is too sophisticated to be the work of another country, said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It was U.S.,” said the official, who acknowledged having no first-hand knowledge of how the virus operates or was introduced into the Iranian computers.

The U.S. was also believed to have a hand in the creation and insertion of the Stuxnet virus, which targeted Iran’s uranium-enriching centrifuges.

The newly discovered Flame virus essentially “colonizes” the targeted computers, giving hackers control over critical data stored on them, according to cybersecurity experts who spoke with NBC News.

U.S. intelligence officials declined to discuss the virus. “We have no comment,” said one. Israeli officials, suspected in previous attacks, denied involvement.

ABC News reports: Clues in the code, such as the names of processes like “Beetlejuice” and “Platypus,” led some experts to believe it could have been written by native English-speakers, but others pointed out that English is a common coding language in many countries.

Roel Schouwenberg, a senior researcher at Kasperky Labs, told ABC News today some monikers used in coding mean nothing at all or are just inside jokes among the programmers.

“We are talking about a very high stakes operation here, covert cyber ops, but that doesn’t mean these guys aren’t just having fun sometimes,” he said.

Another possible clue in the code, Schouwenberg said, is that even though the program’s structure and capabilities are very different, Flame shares some sophisticated techniques and geographical targets with another infamous cyber weapon, Stuxnet. Stuxnet was an offensive cyber weapon that was only discovered in 2010 after it had reportedly infected and caused physical damage to an Iranian nuclear facility.

Schouwenberg said Kaspersky Labs is operating under the theory that Stuxnet and Flame were created by different development teams but likely under the direction from the same backer and with access to each other’s work. A researcher with the U.S.-based cyber firm Symantec told ABC News that scenario was a “definite” possibility and in its report Crysys said it could not be ruled out.


Iraq’s ‘kingmaker’ will back no confidence vote in Maliki

Middle East Online reports: Influential Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said on Wednesday that his parliamentary bloc would back a motion of no confidence in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki if that gave it the support of a majority of MPs.

In the latest twist in a political crisis that has dogged Iraq ever since US troops completed a pullout in December, Sadr denied that he opposed moves by MPs of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya faction to bring down the Shiite premier.

“This is not true,” Sadr said in a written answer to a question from one of his followers.

“I promised my partners that if they got 124 votes, I will complete the 164 votes,” he added, referring to the 40 MPs who belong to his parliamentary bloc.

Under the Iraqi constitution, a no confidence motion can be put before parliament either by the president or by 50 MPs. To pass, it must be approved by an absolute majority in the 325-seat parliament.


Do secular Egyptians now fear Islamists more than the military?

Issandr El Amrani writes: There’s been some buzz over the last day or so over a proposal for a national charter by secular, liberal, non-felool forces (aka most of the small parties in the Egyptian parliament) as well as several ideas over some kind of deal with the remaining presidential candidates on the shape of government. I keep seeing stipulations such as “no MB prime minister” or “vice-presidents from outside the MB” that makes it clear that these initiatives are largely targeted at candidate Mohammed Mursi. I barely see anything about negotiating with candidate Ahmed Shafiq.

I also — and I believe this is a big omission — see no details about restricting the powers of the military, getting rid of SCAF and retiring the generals who currently serve on it, overhauling the General Intelligence Services, or anything else that has been considered largely beyond the pale of political and media discourse since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. It kind of reinforces the feeling that a) most political activists seem to think the greatest threat is the Islamists, since many of the points are about preserving a secular state, b) there is not much courage out there (at least among the professional politicians) about raising the issue of the deep state, the military and the security services. Is this resignation, perception of what’s realistic, of lack of imagination?


Iran nuclear talks succeed just by continuing

Daniel Levy writes: The economic and political news out of Europe may be grim, but on the diplomatic front Europe is leading what may be the most consequential negotiations of 2012 – the so-called E3+3 talks with Iran. Those talks are being managed by the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and shepherded by the European External Action Service’s trouble-shooter, Helga Schmid.

Accounts from all sides suggest that Ashton and Schmid are making rather a good fist of it – the Iranians are still at the table (with a third round of talks scheduled for Moscow in mid-June) – and that the countries participating have remained sufficiently united to avoid descending into mutual recriminations. No easy task given how high the stakes are, the history of failed talks, the tensions within participants and the curveballs that Israel, the US Congress and Iran itself have a habit of throwing.

That’s all good and dandy, but the Europeans may soon have to make a decisive call on substance rather than management. What does Europe want out of these talks? At the Pollyanna-ish end of the spectrum would be a definitive, implementable and sustainable deal laying to rest nuclear suspicions towards Iran and opening a door to western-Iranian co-operation across a range of issues (think Afghanistan, Horn of Africa security, and possibly Syria and Iraq; but even Pollyanna might balk at co-operation on Israel/Palestine or democracy promotion). While the contours for such a deal exist (variations on Iran’s right to enrich being recognised, being limited and being verified), the political realities in 2012 – notably in the US and Iran – decisively undermine this prospect.

The opposite end of that scale would see talks as intended to expose Iranian malfeasance, helping to maintain international commonality of purpose as sanctions are ratcheted up further. If the ultimate goal is regime change induced by economic strangulation or Iranian capitulation (as opposed to negotiated compromise), or even to provoke Iran as a justification for military intervention, then this makes sense. Yet it is hard to view this as being the desired European outcome.

Which brings us to what is desirable and achievable in 2012. The best, realistic prognosis for these talks is that they deliver a partial enrichment freeze in return for partial sanctions relief. Short of that, the goal is more talks – improving mutual understanding for when there is greater political room for compromise – in Iran, the US or both. Crucially, military action is averted. [Continue reading…]


Video: U.S. 2012 — What happened to hope and change?


Yemen must not be allowed to become another Somalia

David Hearst writes: If there is one constant in a crisis-strewn world, it is that the humanitarian situation in Yemen just gets worse. This time last year, Yemen’s dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh was beating a long rearguard retreat against his eventual ouster. Oxfam had just issued a report saying that one third of Yemenis suffered from hunger and chronic malnutrition.

Today, Saleh is out and his relatives are in the process of being prised from the key positions he put them in. Shortly after al-Qaida’s attack on a rehearsal for a military parade on Monday, from which over 100 soldiers have now died, two of Saleh’s relatives were demoted from the central security forces and the interior ministry, including Saleh’s nephew Yahya. In April, it took 19 days of defiance, before Saleh’s half brother, General Mohammed Saleh al-Amar resigned his command of the Yemeni air forces. If anyone is in charge of Yemen these days its most likely to be the US ambassador who regularly heaps praise on the man they made president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

But whether Hadi turns out to be his own man or another Hamid Karzai makes little difference to the general suffering. This week, seven aid agences (Care, International Medical Corps, Islamic Relief, Merlin, Mercy Corps, Oxfam and Save the Children) said that 44% of the population – 10 million people – were going hungry. One quarter of them were in need of urgent emergency aid. Wherever you turn, another red light flashes. The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) said that nearly a million children under five were suffering from acute malnutrition and over one quarter of them could die.


Obama gambling that Syria won’t be election liability

Reuters reports: President Barack Obama is gambling that his administration’s failure to act forcefully to stem the bloody crisis in Syria won’t become an election-year liability – and that looks for now like a good bet, with Americans weary of war and focused on the struggling U.S. economy.

A weekend massacre of civilians in Syria has again laid bare the lack of appetite on the part of Washington and many of its allies for military action against Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

It has also given presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney a new opening to try to paint Obama as soft on U.S. foes and timid in asserting American global leadership.

But with most Americans opposed to another large-scale U.S. military commitment overseas and the Syria crisis barely registering for many U.S. voters, Obama’s aides and supporters believe he can weather attacks on the issue.

Polls in recent months have shown between two-thirds and three-quarters of voters opposed to U.S. intervention. Not even human rights groups are demanding major military action.

And Republicans themselves are divided on the right course of action in Syria and how much political capital Washington should invest there.

“Americans are war-weary, Americans are focused on our own economy, Americans want us to invest in our future,” Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Udall said in a conference call with reporters during a trip to the Middle East. “I don’t think this is at the top of Americans’ list of concerns.”


Few good options remain to end Syrian attacks


Families herded ‘like sheep’ to die in Houla massacre

Reuters reports: The gunmen arrived shortly before dusk, some in uniform and some in plain clothes, before herding whole families into rooms and killing them in cold blood, according to survivors.

“They entered our homes … men wearing fatigues herding us like sheep in the room and started spraying bullets at us,” said an apparently injured woman in a video released by activists.

“My father died and my brother, my mother’s only son. Seven sisters were killed,” the woman said, lying next to another injured woman and near a baby with a chest wound.

The United Nations says 108 people were killed in the May 25 massacre, nearly half of them children, outraging a world long numbed by 14 months of relentless bloodshed since the start of a popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The events are disputed. The West blames Assad’s forces, while Syria accuses its opponents, whom it refers to as Islamist “terrorists”.

But video footage and accounts of activists, survivors, rights groups and United Nations observers in Syria, provide a harrowing narrative of the violence in the Houla region, about 20 km (13 miles) northwest of the city of Homs.

Crucially, the U.N. monitors say the evidence appears to contradict the government’s denial that its forces and allied militia were behind the slayings.

Activists and survivors said soldiers and pro-Assad “shabbiha” militiamen from the president’s minority Alawite sect carried out the onslaught on the Sunni Muslim villagers.


Moscow pledges to block UN over foreign intervention in Syria

The Guardian reports: Russia has made clear that it will block UN support for foreign military intervention in Syria, scotching slim hopes that the massacre of more than 100 people at Houla would break the impasse in the international response to the continuing violence.

Moscow’s crucial support for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has not changed after confirmation from a UN human rights body that 108 people, including 49 children under the age of 10, were killed in the weekend incident near Homs, mostly in summary killings by the feared shabiha militia, linked to the Assad regime.

“We have always said that we are categorically against any intervention in the Syrian conflict from the outside, as this would only worsen the situation and would lead to unpredictable consequences both for Syria itself and the region on the whole,” said Gennady Gatilov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister.

UN security council pressure on Syria was “premature,” Gatilov said, adding that Russia would use its veto to block any initiatives on foreign military interference.


America’s murderous drone campaign is fueling terror

Seumas Milne writes: More than a decade after George W Bush launched it, the “war on terror” was supposed to be winding down. US military occupation of Iraq has ended and Nato is looking for a way out of Afghanistan, even as the carnage continues. But another war – the undeclared drone war that has already killed thousands – is now being relentlessly escalated.

From Pakistan to Somalia, CIA-controlled pilotless aircraft rain down Hellfire missiles on an ever-expanding hit list of terrorist suspects – they have already killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians in the process.

At least 15 drone strikes have been launched in Yemen this month, as many as in the whole of the past decade, killing dozens; while in Pakistan, a string of US attacks has been launched against supposed “militant” targets in the past week, incinerating up to 35 people and hitting a mosque and a bakery.

The US’s decision to step up the drone war again in Pakistan, opposed by both government and parliament in Islamabad as illegal and a violation of sovereignty, reflects its fury at the jailing of a CIA agent involved in the Bin Laden hunt and Pakistan’s refusal to reopen supply routes for Nato forces in Afghanistan. Those routes were closed in protest at the US killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers last November, for which Washington still refuses to apologise.

Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Pakistan’s high commissioner in London, describes the latest US escalation as “punitive”. But then Predators and Reapers are Barack Obama’s weapons of choice and coercion, deployed only on the territory of troublesome US allies, such as Pakistan and Yemen – and the drone war is Obama’s war. [Continue reading…]


Obama moves to expand drone warfare

Reuters reports: President Barack Obama’s administration appears set to notify the U.S. Congress of plans to arm a fleet of Italian MQ-9 Reaper drones, a step that may spur a wider spread of remotely piloted hunter-killer aircraft.

The administration could move ahead within two weeks on the proposal to let Italy join Britain in deploying U.S. drones with weapons such as laser-guided bombs and Hellfire missiles, U.S. officials said.

Italy has a fleet of six Reapers. The sale of the technology to arm them, including bomb racks and “weaponization” kits costing up to $17 million, would help the United States redistribute the burden of its global military operations as the Pentagon’s budget is being squeezed by deficit-reduction requirements.

Aides to Obama have been informally consulting the House of Representatives’ and Senate’s foreign affairs committees about the proposed sale to Italy since last year, congressional staff said.

The latest such period of “pre-consultations” ended May 27 without a move to block the sale, according to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the coming formal notification to lawmakers.

A transfer to Italy would make it harder for the United States to deny armed-drone technology if asked for it by other members of the 28-country NATO alliance or by close U.S. partners such as South Korea, Japan and Australia, arms-sale analysts said.

“I think that if you sell armed drones to Italy, you will very likely make a decision that any member of NATO that wants them can also get them,” said a former congressional staff member who followed the issue.

Some lawmakers fear that a decision to arm Italian drones may spur overseas sales of related technology by Israel, Russia and China.


Video: Is Egypt’s revolution under threat?


Minister hints at Israeli role in ‘Flame’ virus

The Jerusalem Post reports: In comments that could be construed as suggesting that Israel is behind the “Flame” virus, the latest piece of malicious software to attack Iranian computers, Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon on Tuesday said that “whoever sees the Iranian threat as a serious threat would be likely to take different steps, including these, in order to hurt them.”

Speaking in an interview with Army Radio, Ya’alon further hinted that Jerusalem was behind the cyber attack, saying “Israel is blessed to be a nation possessing superior technology. These achievements of ours open up all kinds of possibilities for us.”

The virus, dubbed “Flame,” effectively turns every computer it infects into the ultimate spy. It can turn on PC microphones to record conversations taking place near the computer, take screenshots, log instant messaging chats, gather data files and remotely change settings on computers.

Security experts from the Russian Kaspersky Lab, who announced Flame’s discovery on Monday, said it is found in its highest concentration in Iranian computers. It can also be found in other Middle Eastern locations, including Israel, the West Bank, Syria and Sudan.

The virus has been active for as long as five years, as part of a sophisticated cyber warfare campaign, the experts said.

It is the most complex piece of malicious software discovered to date, according to Kaspersky Lab’s senior security researcher Roel Schouwenberg, who said he did not know who built Flame.