The Associated Press reports: Syrians could soon overtake Afghans as the world’s biggest refugee population, with their numbers expected to pass 4 million by year’s end, a top U.N. official said Tuesday.
High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres spoke as the international community sharply urged Syria to comply with a new Security Council resolution demanding that President Bashar Assad and the opposition provide immediate access for humanitarian aid.
Opposition activists say more than 140,000 people have died in the conflict, which enters its fourth year next month. The U.N. says 9.3 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance.
The number of Afghan refugees was 2.6 million at the end of 2012, UNHCR says. Syrians, with nearly 2.5 million registered as refugees, should overtake that long before the end of the year. About one-half of the refugees are children.
The Associated Press reports: Unit 61398 of the People’s Liberation Army has been recruiting computer experts for at least a decade. It has made no secret of details of community life such as badminton matches and kindergarten, but its apparent purpose became clear only when a U.S. Internet security firm accused it of conducting a massive hacking campaign against North American targets.
Hackers with the Chinese unit have been active for years, using online handles such as “UglyGorilla,” Virginia-based firm Mandiant said in a report released Tuesday as the U.S. prepared to crack down on countries responsible for cyber espionage. The Mandiant report plus details collected by The Associated Press depict a highly specialized community of Internet warriors working from a blocky white building in Shanghai:
—RECRUITING THE SPIES: Unit 61398, alleged to be one of several hacking operations run by China’s military, recruits directly from universities. It favors high computer expertise and English language skills. A notice dated 2003 on the Chinese Internet said the unit was seeking master’s degree students from Zhejiang University’s College of Computer Science and Technology. It offered a scholarship, conditional on the student reporting for work at Unit 61398 after graduation.
—CYBERSPY WORKPLACE: Mandiant says it traced scores of cyberattacks on U.S. defense and infrastructure companies to a neighborhood in Shanghai’s Pudong district that includes the 12-story building where Unit 61398 is known to be housed. The building has office space for up to 2,000 people. Mandiant estimates the number of personnel in the unit to be anywhere from hundreds to several thousand. [Continue reading...]
Jonathan Cook writes: The 24-hour visit by German chancellor Angela Merkel to Israel this week came as relations between the two countries hit rock bottom. According to a report in Der Spiegel magazine last week, Ms Merkel and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been drawn into shouting matches when discussing by phone the faltering peace process.
Despite their smiles to the cameras during the visit, tension behind the scenes has been heightened by a diplomatic bust-up earlier this month when Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament and himself German, gave a speech to the Israeli parliament.
In unprecedented scenes, a group of Israeli legislators heckled Mr Schulz, calling him a “liar”, and then staged a walkout, led by the economics minister Naftali Bennett. Rather than apologising, Mr Netanyahu intervened to lambast Mr Schulz for being misinformed.
Mr Schulz, who, like Ms Merkel, is considered a close friend of Israel, used his speech vehemently to oppose growing calls in Europe for a boycott of Israel. So how did he trigger such opprobrium?
Mr Schulz’s main offence was posing a question: was it true, as he had heard in meetings in the West Bank, that Israelis have access to four times more water than Palestinians? He further upset legislators by gently suggesting that Israel’s blockade of Gaza was preventing economic growth there.
Neither statement should have been in the least controversial. Figures from independent bodies such as the World Bank show Israel, which dominates the local water supplies, allocates per capita about 4.4 times more water to its population than to Palestinians.
Equally, it would be hard to imagine that years of denying goods and materials to Gaza, and blocking exports, have not ravaged its economy. The unemployment rate, for example, has increased 6 per cent, to 38.5 per cent, following Israel’s recent decision to prevent the transfer of construction materials to Gaza’s private sector.
But Israelis rarely hear such facts from their politicians or the media. And few are willing to listen when a rare voice like Mr Schulz’s intervenes. Israelis have grown content to live in a large bubble of denial. [Continue reading...]
Bob Garfield writes: The devil walks into a bar and sits at a table with eight newspaper and magazine publishers plus one strange little fellow in shabby, dated robes. The devil says, “How’d you all like to get some advertising revenue at higher rates than what you’ve been fetching for the past five or six years?”
The publishers crowd in to hear to his offer. All they need do in exchange is make the advertising look similar to the surrounding editorial matter. “Can we label it as advertising?” one publisher asks.
“You can label it ‘sponsored content,’” the devil replies.
“And it will be worthy?” chimes in another publisher.
“Oh yes,” says the devil. “My clients don’t benefit if people don’t read the stuff.”
“But won’t this confuse our readers,” ventures another publisher, “and even deceive them into reading brand propaganda when they’re expecting arms-length journalism?”
The devil has an answer for that, too. “I repeat: the rates are higher than for the regular display ads that nobody ever looks at. What say we put this to a vote?”
One by one the publishers raise their hands. The Economist. Forbes. The Atlantic. The Huffington Post. The Washington Post. Time Inc. The New York Times. And, most recently, Yahoo. Nine people sit at the table, and eight hands eventually are raised. Only one, the strange fellow with the odd garments and a thick German accent, fails to accept the devil’s offer.
“And you, sir,” says the prince of darkness. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Faust,” answers the holdout.
“And may I ask why you did not accept my bargain, Mr Faust?”
The odd fellow nods. “Sure,” he says to the devil. “To tell you the truth, I don’t see much of an upside.” [Continue reading...]
Following Facebook’s $19 billion dollar acquisition of WhatsApp, Reuven Cohen writes: In November 2013, a survey of smartphone owners found that WhatsApp was the leading social messaging app in countries including Spain, Switzerland, Germany and Japan. Yet at 450 million users and growing, there is a strong likelihood that both Facebook and WhatsApp share the majority of the same user base. So what’s driving the massive valuation? One answer might be users attention. Unlike many other mobile apps, WhatsApp users actually use this service on an ongoing daily or even hourly basis.
“Attention,” write Thomas Mandel and Gerard Van der Leun in their 1996 book Rules of the Net, ”is the hard currency of cyberspace.” This has never been truer.
WhatsApp’s value may not have much to do with the disruption of the telecom world as much as a looming battle for Internet users rapidly decreasing attention spans. A study back in 2011 uncovered the reality for most mobile apps. Most people never use an app more than once. According to the study, 26% of the time customers never give the app a second try. With an ever-increasing number of apps competing for users attention, the only real metric that matters is whether or not they actual use it. Your attention may very well be the fundamental value behind Facebook’s purchase.
In a 1997 Wired article, author Michael H. Goldhaber describes the shift towards the so called Attention Economy; “Attention has its own behavior, its own dynamics, its own consequences. An economy built on it will be different than the familiar material-based one.” writes Goldhaber.
His thesis is that as the Internet becomes an increasingly strong presence in the overall economy and our daily lives, the flow of attention will not only anticipate the flow of money, but also eventually replace it altogether. Fast-forward 17 years and his thesis has never been more true.
As we become ever more bombarded with information, the value of this information decreases. Just look at the improvements made to Facebook’s news feed over the years. In an attempt to make its news feed more useful, the company has implement-advanced algorithms that attempt to tailor the flow of information to your specific interests. The better Facebook gets at keeping your attention, the more valuable you become. Yes, you are the product. [Continue reading...]
To the extent that corporations are in the business of corralling, controlling, and effectively claiming ownership of people’s attention, the only way of finding freedom in such a world will derive from each individual’s effort to cultivate their own powers of autonomous attention.
Reuters has a report which is really a repeat, which is to say, it elevates to the status of “news,” an item in the Sunday edition of Germany’s Bild — a newspaper which is not renowned for the quality of its reporting.
The National Security Agency (NSA) has stepped up its surveillance of senior German government officials since being ordered by Barack Obama to halt its spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel, Bild am Sonntag paper reported on Sunday.
Revelations last year about mass U.S. surveillance in Germany, in particular of Merkel’s mobile phone, shocked Germans and sparked the most serious dispute between the transatlantic allies in a decade.
Bild am Sonntag said its information stemmed from a high-ranking NSA employee in Germany and that those being spied on included Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, a close confidant of Merkel.
“We have had the order not to miss out on any information now that we are no longer able to monitor the chancellor’s communication directly,” it quoted the NSA employee as saying.
This is silly.
Firstly, how likely is it that a “high-ranking NSA employee in Germany” is going to talk to Bild? Not likely.
Secondly, how likely is it that surveillance of Angela Merkel’s phone was occurring in isolation and thus, having been curtailed, now needs to be supplemented by broader surveillance?
Assuming that the NSA’s bugging efforts are designed for gathering intelligence as opposed to irritating the people being bugged, it’s hard to imagine that an interest in Merkel’s communications would overshadow an interest in the communications of the officials who brief her. Indeed, it’s reasonable to assume that an intelligence agency conducting surveillance on any head of state will actually be more interested in the communications going on around that individual than those that directly involve the individual her or himself. That being the case, what the NSA is doing in Germany now is probably very close to what it was doing before — except they are now more nervous about getting caught.
Carol Rosenberg reports: A military judge held a secret war court session Saturday on defense lawyers’ efforts to uncover evidence of what the CIA did to the alleged USS Cole bomber across years in the agency’s clandestine overseas prison network.
Both the public and the alleged terrorist were excluded from the 111-minute hearing in the case that seeks the execution of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri as mastermind of the Oct. 12, 2000 terror attack that killed 17 U.S. sailors off Aden, Yemen.
Only prosecutors and defense lawyers attended the hearing with the judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, and a court recorder creating a classified transcript of the proceedings.
Nashiri, 49, spent four years in secret CIA prisons where, according to declassified reports, agents waterboarded him and interrogated him nude with a hood on his head and handcuffs on his wrists. One U.S. agent threatened to kill the Saudi with a power drill and handgun, and threatened to have his mother raped. [Continue reading...]
Meanwhile, AFP reports: Five former Guantanamo detainees are seeking damages for what they say were years of sexual, mental and physical abuse at the US detention center, where they were held without charge or trial.
The men from Turkey, Uzbekistan and Algeria, who are now settled in other countries, alleged Friday at a US appeals court that they were subjected to torture that included forced nudity, sexual harassment and beatings, first in Afghanistan and then at the military jail in Cuba.
Justices will make their ruling in several weeks, but one of them, Judge David Tatel, said military and civilian officials at the Pentagon had failed in their duty.
“Their job is to protect the detainees from abuse, they failed to do so,” he said.
Rome lived upon its principal till ruin stared it in the face. Industry is the only true source of wealth, and there was no industry in Rome. By day the Ostia road was crowded with carts and muleteers, carrying to the great city the silks and spices of the East, the marble of Asia Minor, the timber of the Atlas, the grain of Africa and Egypt; and the carts brought out nothing but loads of dung. That was their return cargo.
– The Martyrdom of Man by Winwood Reade (1871)
Mike Lofgren writes: There is the visible government situated around the Mall in Washington, and then there is another, more shadowy, more indefinable government that is not explained in Civics 101 or observable to tourists at the White House or the Capitol. The former is traditional Washington partisan politics: the tip of the iceberg that a public watching C-SPAN sees daily and which is theoretically controllable via elections. The subsurface part of the iceberg I shall call the Deep State, which operates according to its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power.
During the last five years, the news media has been flooded with pundits decrying the broken politics of Washington. The conventional wisdom has it that partisan gridlock and dysfunction have become the new normal. That is certainly the case, and I have been among the harshest critics of this development. But it is also imperative to acknowledge the limits of this critique as it applies to the American governmental system. On one level, the critique is self-evident: In the domain that the public can see, Congress is hopelessly deadlocked in the worst manner since the 1850s, the violently rancorous decade preceding the Civil War.
As I wrote in The Party is Over, the present objective of congressional Republicans is to render the executive branch powerless, at least until a Republican president is elected (a goal that voter suppression laws in GOP-controlled states are clearly intended to accomplish). President Obama cannot enact his domestic policies and budgets: Because of incessant GOP filibustering, not only could he not fill the large number of vacancies in the federal judiciary, he could not even get his most innocuous presidential appointees into office. Democrats controlling the Senate have responded by weakening the filibuster of nominations, but Republicans are sure to react with other parliamentary delaying tactics. This strategy amounts to congressional nullification of executive branch powers by a party that controls a majority in only one house of Congress.
Despite this apparent impotence, President Obama can liquidate American citizens without due processes, detain prisoners indefinitely without charge, conduct dragnet surveillance on the American people without judicial warrant and engage in unprecedented — at least since the McCarthy era — witch hunts against federal employees (the so-called “Insider Threat Program”). Within the United States, this power is characterized by massive displays of intimidating force by militarized federal, state and local law enforcement. Abroad, President Obama can start wars at will and engage in virtually any other activity whatsoever without so much as a by-your-leave from Congress, such as arranging the forced landing of a plane carrying a sovereign head of state over foreign territory. Despite the habitual cant of congressional Republicans about executive overreach by Obama, the would-be dictator, we have until recently heard very little from them about these actions — with the minor exception of comments from gadfly Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Democrats, save a few mavericks such as Ron Wyden of Oregon, are not unduly troubled, either — even to the extent of permitting seemingly perjured congressional testimony under oath by executive branch officials on the subject of illegal surveillance. [Continue reading...]
IPS reports: An estimated 400 million acres of farmland in the United States will likely change hands over the coming two decades as older farmers retire, even as new evidence indicates this land is being strongly pursued by private equity investors.
Mirroring a trend being experienced across the globe, this strengthening focus on agriculture-related investment by the private sector is already leading to a spike in U.S. farmland prices. Coupled with relatively weak federal policies, these rising prices are barring many young farmers from continuing or starting up small-scale agricultural operations of their own.
In the long term, critics say, this dynamic could speed up the already fast-consolidating U.S. food industry, with broad ramifications for both human and environmental health.
“When non-operators own farms, they tend to source out the oversight to management companies, leading in part to horrific conditions around labour and how we treat the land,” Anuradha Mittal, the executive director of the Oakland Institute, a U.S. watchdog group focusing on global large-scale land acquisitions, told IPS.
“They also reprioritise what commodities are grown on that land, based on what can yield the highest return. This is no longer necessarily about food at all, but rather is a way to reap financial profits. Unfortunately, that’s far removed from the central role that land ultimately plays in terms of climate change, growing hunger and the stability of the global economy.”
In a new report released Tuesday, the Oakland Institute tracks rising interest from some of the financial industry’s largest players. Citing information from Freedom of Information Act requests, the group says this includes bank subsidiaries (the Swiss UBS Agrivest), pension funds (the U.S. TIAA-CREF) and other private equity interests (such as HAIG, a subsidiary of Canada’s largest insurance group). [Continue reading...]