In much of Europe, walking wherever you want is perfectly legal. Not in America

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Ken Ilgunas writes: A couple of years ago, I trespassed across America. I’d set out to hike the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline, which had been planned to stretch over a thousand miles over the Great Plains, from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast. To walk the pipe’s route, roads wouldn’t do. I’d have to cross fields, hop barbed-wire fences and camp in cow pastures — much of it on private property.

I’d figured that walking across the heartland would probably be unlawful, unprecedented and a little bit crazy. We Americans, after all, are forbidden from entering most of our private lands. But in some European countries, walking almost wherever you want is not only ordinary but perfectly acceptable.

In Sweden, they call it “allemansrätt.” In Finland, it’s “jokamiehenoikeus.” In Scotland, it’s “the right to roam.” Germany allows walking through privately owned forests, unused meadows and fallow fields. In 2000, England and Wales passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which gave people access to “mountain, moor, heath or down.” [Continue reading…]

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Decriminalize all drugs, business and world leaders tell UN

The Guardian reports: A British billionaire, three former presidents and a renowned Aids researcher have called for all drugs to be decriminalized at a press conference that was sharply critical of the United Nations’ latest drug policy agreement, adopted this week.

Leaders of the Global Commission on Drug Policy said the UN’s first special session on drugs in 18 years had failed to improve international narcotics policy, instead choosing to tweak its prohibition-oriented approach to drug regulation.

“The process was fatally flawed from the beginning,” said Richard Branson, the head of the Virgin Group, adding that it may “already be too late” to save the international drug law system.

This week’s United Nations general assembly special session, UNgass, clearly displayed the deep divisions between member states over narcotics: while a growing number of countries, including several states in the US, have moved towards decriminalizing or legalizing drugs, others continue to execute people convicted of drug crimes. Three UN conventions prohibit drug use that is not medical or scientific.

The meeting, held Tuesday through Thursday in New York City, was billed as a forum to debate drug laws, called for by Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala in 2014. All three countries suffered disproportionate violence from cartels controlling drug supplies to the north. In Mexico alone, the government estimates 164,000 people were the victims of homicide related to cartel violence between 2007 and 2014. [Continue reading…]

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How French secularism became fundamentalist

Robert Zaretsky writes: For nearly a century, laïcité [which originally assured “the liberty of conscience” for all French citizens] worked well enough. It ensured public space for both those who believed — not just Catholics and Protestants, but Jews as well — and those who did not. But with the 1980s and 1990s came a growing number of immigrants, most of whom were Muslim, from North Africa. And so a different kind of conflict between the French state and established religion began to take shape.

Emblematic of this new tension was a series of battles over a simple strip of clothing. In 1989, a few Muslim girls were expelled from school when they refused to take off their hijabs, or headscarves, which the principal believed was an assault on the secular character of public schools. Shortly after, the French administrative court, the Conseil d’État, ordered them to be reinstated. But two years after 9/11, when similar incidents were repeated at other schools, the court reversed its original finding. While all “ostentatious” signs of religious faith — be they Jewish yarmulkes or Sikh turbans — were declared verboten in public schools, everyone knew that the principal target of the law was the hijab.

In the subsequent sound and fury, the banner of laïcité was unfurled in ways that would surely have been unrecognizable to the 19th-century statesmen like Jules Ferry and Aristide Briand, who helped write the original law. The once-straightforward guarantees of “freedom of conscience” and “free exercise of religious faiths” — rooted in and restricted to the constitutions of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Republics — were transformed under the forces of political passion and mounting existential anguish into the defining French values, and any form of retreat from a fundamentalist interpretation was a failure to defend the republic.

Today, public intellectuals like Alain Finkielkraut, Régis Debray, and Elisabeth Badinter, when discussing laïcité, invoke the very future of France. Badinter, a renowned feminist philosopher, as if in anticipation of the Charlie Hebdo editorial, declared in January that she was not afraid to be called an Islamophobe, arguing that accusations of racism are a weapon against secularism. In a recent essay on secularism, diversity, and national identity titled L’identité malheureuse (“Unhappy Identity”), Finkielkraut confounds myth with history when he declares his sympathy for those “who miss the good old days when native-born Frenchmen and women (Français de souche) mingled with their own kind and who are now shedding a tear over their sepia-colored France that has lost its homogeneity.”

The xenophobic and anti-immigration National Front, too, has weaponized laïcité, turning it into an ideological cudgel to be used against French Muslims. Last year, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the party’s rising star — and granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen — asserted that the National Front is “laïque,” or secular. Yet she then offered an interpretation of the state of religion in France that had very little to do with laïcité as most of the world understands it, exposing the cognitive dissonance shared by the extreme right and left: “If French Muslims wish to practice their faith, they need to accept the fact that they are doing so on soil that is culturally Christian. This means that they cannot have the same rank as the Christian religion.”

Then, last week, the minister for families, children, and women’s rights, Laurence Rossignol, lambasted fashion designers for offering lines of Islamic wear-inspired clothing, including the so-called “burkini,” a full-body bathing suit sold by Marks and Spencer. These brands, Rossignol declared, had “irresponsibly” lent their prestige to clothing designed to oppress women. As for those Muslim women who freely choose to wear religious garb, Rossignol shrugged her shoulders: “There were also American negroes who favored slavery.”

In a single phrase, Rossignol not only let drop a racial slur, but also let slip the implications of how she — a member of government — sees the meaning of laïcité today: No normal French woman, Rossignol seems to believe, would choose to wear Islamic dress as a sign of her religious faith. Tellingly, Rossignol’s use of the word “négre” sparked more outrage in the media than her claim that burkini-wearing women have no place in a truly secular society. [Continue reading…]

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Is access to our phones a step toward the police wanting access to our minds?

By Nathan Emmerich, Queen’s University Belfast

We use our smartphones so much these days, it almost feels like they have become extensions of ourselves, boosting our capacity to calculate and remember. What might come of this closer union of human and technological device? If police can serve a warrant to search your phone, and we see these devices as extensions of ourselves, how long until investigators one day serve a warrant to search your mind?

This line of thinking was roused by the FBI’s legal efforts to force Apple to help them access an iPhone that belonged to a suspected terrorist – something Apple says would undermine the security of its products. This is one of several similar cases, and part of a larger effort by the FBI and intelligence agencies, to ensure they can access a variety of now common devices.

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Living under business surveillance in America

One of the ironies of Libertarianism in America is its soft-spot for Capitalism — as though anything that brands itself free, like free-enterprise, actually promotes freedom. Libertarians never tire of warning about the threats posed by the NSA and other intrusive government agencies, while the coercive and covert power of commerce generates far less fury.

Yet anyone who is genuinely concerned about infringements on civil liberties through electronic systems of surveillance, probably needs to be more wary of business than they are of government.

Most of the data the government collects gets poured into digital black holes — the data being collected for business applications, however, is constantly being mined to extract all its value.

Government might be watching you, but business is telling you where to go.

The New York Times reports: Pass a billboard while driving in the next few months, and there is a good chance the company that owns it will know you were there and what you did afterward.

Clear Channel Outdoor Americas, which has tens of thousands of billboards across the United States, will announce on Monday that it has partnered with several companies, including AT&T, to track people’s travel patterns and behaviors through their mobile phones.

By aggregating the trove of data from these companies, Clear Channel Outdoor hopes to provide advertisers with detailed information about the people who pass its billboards to help them plan more effective, targeted campaigns. With the data and analytics, Clear Channel Outdoor could determine the average age and gender of the people who are seeing a particular billboard in, say, Boston at a certain time and whether they subsequently visit a store. [Continue reading…]

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Pursuing critics, China reaches across borders. And nobody is stopping it.

The Washington Post reports: China’s campaign against dissent is going global.

Amid extraordinary moves to rein in criticism at home, Chinese security personnel are reaching confidently across borders, targeting Chinese and foreign citizens who dare to challenge the Communist Party line, in what one Western diplomat has called the “worst crackdown since Tiananmen Square.”

A string of incidents, including abductions from Thailand and Hong Kong, forced repatriations and the televised “confessions” of two Swedish citizens, has crossed a new red line, according to diplomats in Beijing. Yet many foreign governments seem unwilling or unable to intervene, their public response limited to mild protests.

The European Union is divided and appears uncertain about what to do. Hong Kong is in an uproar, with free speech under attack, activists looking over their shoulders and many people saying they feel betrayed by a lack of support from Britain. [Continue reading…]

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The war on freedom of expression across the Middle East

Rami G Khouri writes: It is useful to spot meaningful patterns that help us make sense of our bewildering world, and to acknowledge positive developments to be continued alongside negative ones to be avoided.

Applying this principle to the last year in the Middle East reveals several troubling trends that have made life difficult for hundreds of millions of people. One in particular stands out, and strikes me as a root cause of many other negative trends that plague our region. This is the tendency of governments to use increasingly harsh measures to restrict the freedoms of their citizens to express themselves and meaningfully to participate politically and hold power accountable.

Several aspects of this behavior make it especially onerous. It is practiced by all states in the region—Arab, Israeli, Iranian, and Turkish—leaving few people in this part of the world who can live as fully free and dignified human beings. It is justified on the basis of existing constitutional powers, so governments can jail tens of thousands of their citizens, rescind their nationality, or torture and kill them in the worst cases, simply because of the views they express, without any recourse to legal or political challenge. It shows no signs of abating, and indeed may be worsening in lands like Egypt, Turkey, and others. And, it is most often practiced as part of a “war on terror” that seeks to quell criminal terror attacks, but in practice achieves the opposite; the curtailment of citizen rights and freedoms exacerbates the indignities and humiliations that citizens feel against their government, which usually amplifies, rather than reduces, the threat of political violence. [Continue reading…]

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A Russian sentiment familiar to Americans: ‘It doesn’t concern me’

Zhanna Nemtsova writes: A public opinion survey recently asked Russians: “What was the main political event of the year?”

Events in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria featured prominently, but the most brutal political murder in modern Russia – the assassination of my father, Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition figure – didn’t even figure in the responses.

Another survey conducted by the independent Levada Centre in March, soon after he was shot dead on a bridge close to the Kremlin, found that one-third of the Russians polled had “no particular feelings” about his murder.

Taken together, these responses illustrate a broader problem with the current condition of Russian society, characterised by moral numbness and best illustrated by the popular Russian sentiment – “it doesn’t concern me”.

This climate has also compromised the quality of the opposition itself and made it a heroic feat to even take part in the opposition movement in Russia.

The political system that President Vladimir Putin has built relies on a lack of public thought, and on people’s reluctance to ask questions, formulate positions or remember the past. Putin’s Russia has no need of people who think for themselves. [Continue reading…]

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Israeli ministers approve new restrictions on human rights groups

The Associated Press reports: Israeli Cabinet ministers on Sunday gave preliminary approval to a bill that imposes new disclosure requirements on nonprofit groups that receive foreign funding — drawing accusations it is cracking down on pro-peace groups, rattling relations with Europe and deepening an increasingly toxic divide between liberal and hawkish Israelis.

Critics said the regulations are meant to stifle dovish organizations critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government policies toward the Palestinians, since such nonprofits tend to rely heavily on donations from European countries.

In contrast, pro-government and nationalistic nonprofit groups tend to rely on wealthy private donors, who are exempt from the measures under the bill. The legislature is expected to approve the bill as early as this week.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog quickly blasted the bill as a “muzzling law” that would bring about “thought police.” [Continue reading…]

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The ‘No Fly List’ operates in secret, and its power to exclude is vast

Jeffrey Kahn writes: The No Fly List is not a government program easily challenged. Indeed, it operates in secrecy, from an undisclosed location, administered by an office – the Terrorist Screening Center – that doesn’t accept public inquiries. When challenged in court, the watchlisters routinely declare their methods safe but secret and fight the disclosure of their standards and criteria for inclusion.

The British Muslim family recently denied travel to Disneyland might soon discover this, despite the fact that Prime Minister David Cameron has been called upon to examine the case.

The Guardian reported that, despite prior US approvals, the entire family was turned away from Gatwick’s departure lounge. Without warning or a hearing, their freedom to travel was stripped away at great expense and deep humiliation. Instantly, they were reduced to the status of suspected terrorists by anonymous US officials working without any judicial oversight.

Imagine your family in their shoes. If you can’t, then you don’t understand the power of the US No Fly List. [Continue reading…]

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Brave New China: The most disturbing tech story of 2015

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The New Republic reports: China wants to get in on the credit racket. At the moment, most Chinese citizens don’t have credit scores, unlike in the United States, where they have been part of the consumer landscape for decades, led by the big three credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. The Chinese government aims to fix that and fast, establishing a nationwide credit scoring system, known as the Social Credit System (SCS), by 2020.

As with China’s vast construction projects, this scoring system is fiercely ambitious, authoritarian, technologically sophisticated, and likely to disrupt the lives of millions of people. And although it is a deeply capitalist undertaking, the SCS is being positioned as a socialist effort. A 2014 planning document states that “a social credit system is an important component part of the Socialist market economy system” and that “its inherent requirements are establishing the idea of an sincerity culture, and carrying forward sincerity and traditional virtues.” That vague phrasing actually speaks to the scope of the project. With “social credit,” the Chinese authorities plan to do more than gauge people’s finances; they want to rate the trustworthiness of citizens in all facets of life, from business deals to social behavior. Eventually, all Chinese citizens will be required to be part of the SCS.

As of now, the Chinese government is allowing select companies to roll out test projects designed to rate individuals’ trustworthiness. These include efforts by Baidu and Alibaba, respectively the country’s largest search engine and e-commerce site. The involvement of these tech companies is key. Credit scoring in the U.S. has long graduated beyond simple matters of credit card debt or bankruptcy history. The credit bureaus now double as some of the country’s biggest data brokers, and they consider a range of consumer activity when creating their proprietary scores. The scores themselves have grown in value, now being used for anything from rating credit worthiness to evaluating one’s fitness for a job (some states, including New York, have banned the use of credit scores in job screenings). As a consequence many forms of consumer scoring now lie outside existing consumer protections, as a World Privacy Forum report found last year.

China’s Social Credit System promises to build on these techniques, using the vast behavioral records of its people to rate them — as consumers, as citizens, as human beings. According to that same planning document, the SCS will be used “to encourage keeping trust and punish breaking trust,” which includes violations of the “social order.” In other words, everything Chinese citizens do, especially online, may be incorporated into their scores. Doctors, teachers, construction firms, scientists, and tourism employees will be scored. So will sports figures, NGOs, companies, members of the judicial system, and government administrators.

Approved behaviors and purchases will raise a score; other activities may lower it, perhaps drawing the unwanted attention of authorities in the process. Scores in turn will be used for employment, disbursing credit, and determining eligibility for social benefits. While the Chinese government has frequently touted its desire to create “a culture of sincerity” and “trust,” the plan uses surveillance, data collection, online monitoring, and behavioral tracking to render practically all of its citizens’ affairs in market terms. Rather than being equal, China’s citizens will be in fierce competition with one another, jostling for rankings better than their peers. [Continue reading…]

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Pete Seeger’s FBI file reveals how the folk legend first became a target of the feds

David Corn writes: From the 1940s through the early 1970s, the US government spied on singer-songwriter Pete Seeger because of his political views and associations. According to documents in Seeger’s extensive FBI file—which runs to nearly 1,800 pages (with 90 pages withheld) and was obtained by Mother Jones under the Freedom of Information Act—the bureau’s initial interest in Seeger was triggered in 1943 after Seeger, as an Army private, wrote a letter protesting a proposal to deport all Japanese American citizens and residents when World War II ended.

Seeger, a champion of folk music and progressive causes—and the writer, performer, or promoter of now-classic songs, including as “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” Turn! Turn! Turn!,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “Goodnight, Irene,” and “This Land Is Your Land”—was a member of the Communist Party for several years in the 1940s, as he subsequently acknowledged. (He later said he should have left earlier.) His FBI file shows that Seeger, who died in early 2014, was for decades hounded by the FBI, which kept trying to tie him to the Communist Party, and the first investigation in the file illustrates the absurd excesses of the paranoid security establishment of that era. [Continue reading…]

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After Paris attacks, CIA director rekindles debate over surveillance

Scott Shane writes: A diabolical range of recent attacks claimed by the Islamic State — a Russian airliner blown up in Egypt, a double suicide bombing in Beirut and Friday’s ghastly assaults on Paris — has rekindled a debate over the proper limits of government surveillance in an age of terrorist mayhem.

On Monday, in unusually raw language, John Brennan, the C.I.A. director, denounced what he called “hand-wringing” over intrusive government spying and said leaks about intelligence programs had made it harder to identify the “murderous sociopaths” of the Islamic State.

Mr. Brennan appeared to be speaking mainly of the disclosures since 2013 of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance of phone and Internet communications by Edward J. Snowden, which prompted sharp criticism, lawsuits and new restrictions on electronic spying in the United States and in Europe.

In the wake of the 129 deaths in Paris, Mr. Brennan and some other officials sounded eager to reopen a clamorous argument over surveillance in which critics of the spy agencies had seemed to hold an advantage in recent years.

“As far as I know, there’s no evidence the French lacked some kind of surveillance authority that would have made a difference,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “When we’ve invested new powers in the government in response to events like the Paris attacks, they have often been abused.”

The debate over the proper limits on government dates to the origins of the United States, with periodic overreaching in the name of security being curtailed in the interest of liberty. This era of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in some ways resembles battles that American and European authorities fought in the late 1800s with anarchists who carried out a wave of assassinations and bombings, provoking a huge increase in police powers, said Audrey Kurth Cronin, a historian of terrorism at George Mason University.

Since then, there were the excesses of McCarthyism exploiting fears of Communist infiltration in the 1950s, the exposure of domestic spying and C.I.A. assassination plots in the 1970s, and the battles over torture, secret detention and drone strikes since Sept. 11, 2001. [Continue reading…]

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How policing in the U.S. is relentlessly being militarized

GQ reports: Last month, the local press in New York confirmed what civil rights advocates had been saying for years: the NYPD has been driving around in unmarked vans chock full of X-ray equipment and scanning for… something.

It was a major story, mostly because not much is known about “Z Backscatter” vans other than that they cost somewhere between $729,000 and $825,000. Yet, there’s no way to know for sure what they’re capable of because the NYPD refuses to talk about them, even though the ACLU won a lawsuit that required the department to reveal records about the vans (including their potential health impacts on people who might be exposed to X-rays without knowing it). “The devices we have, the vehicles if you will, are all used lawfully and if the ACLU and others don’t think that’s the case, we’ll see them in court — where they’ll lose!” Commissioner Bill Bratton told the New York Post.

The X-ray vans bring up all kinds of concerns about privacy, health, and general ickiness — no one wants to walk around New York wondering whether some bored cop in a van is checking out your skivvies — but by today’s police tech standards, the vans are actually relatively low-tech and benign. Departments large and small are using a host of new gadgets — from laser light weapons that can induce vomiting to surveillance systems that can predict crimes before they happen.

And what’s scariest of all is the majority of these technologies are being funneled down from the U.S. Military, down into neighborhoods that are most definitely not war zones. “After 15 years of war, there’s a demand for all these companies to find new markets for all these technologies,” said Joel Pruce a professor of human rights at the University of Dayton who studies police technology. “So it trickles down from the military to police.” The revelations about the backscatter vans were just one more sign that the future of policing is here, and it’s terrifying. [Continue reading…]

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Activists want more transparency in counterterrorism efforts

The Associated Press reports: Muslim groups and civil rights activists across the nation Thursday called for greater transparency in a program by President Barack Obama’s administration that’s aimed at countering homegrown terrorism.

Organizers, including representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, spoke out at coordinated events in Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis — the three cities where the Countering Violent Extremism program is being piloted.

Among their concerns is that organizers still refuse to share basic information about what the localized efforts will actually look like. They also object to federal authorities conducting invitation-only discussions about the program, referred to as CVE, to the exclusion of dissenting groups.

Last week, more than 200 academics, terrorism experts and government officials gathered for a conference in Arlington, Virginia, sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. It was titled “Radicalization and Violent Extremism: Lessons Learned from Canada, the UK and the US.”

Among the attendees and panelists were leaders of the CVE efforts in the pilot cities, according to a copy of the program provided to The Associated Press.

“This isn’t a community-based process,” Nadeem Mazen, a city councilor in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and board member of the local CAIR chapter, said during a small gathering in front of Boston City Hall. “This is a whole different level of federally coordinated assault on our civil liberties.” [Continue reading…]

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