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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Wesley Clark calls for internment camps for ‘radicalized’ Americans

The Intercept reports: Retired general and former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark on Friday called for World War II-style internment camps to be revived for “disloyal Americans.” In an interview with MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts in the wake of the mass shooting in Chatanooga, Tennessee, Clark said that during World War II, “if someone supported Nazi Germany at the expense of the United States, we didn’t say that was freedom of speech, we put him in a camp, they were prisoners of war.”

He called for a revival of internment camps to help combat Muslim extremism, saying, “If these people are radicalized and they don’t support the United States and they are disloyal to the United States as a matter of principle, fine. It’s their right and it’s our right and obligation to segregate them from the normal community for the duration of the conflict.”

The comments were shockingly out of character for Clark, who after serving as supreme allied commander of NATO made a name for himself in progressive political circles. In 2004, his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was highly critical of the Bush administration’s excessive response to the 9/11 terror attacks. Since then, he has been a critic of policies that violate the Geneva Convention, saying in 2006 that policies such as torture violate “the very values that [we] espouse.” [Continue reading…]

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Laura Poitras sues U.S. government to find out why she was repeatedly stopped at the border

The Intercept reports: Over six years, filmmaker Laura Poitras was searched, interrogated and detained more than 50 times at U.S. and foreign airports.

When she asked why, U.S. agencies wouldn’t say.

Now, after receiving no response to her Freedom of Information Act requests for documents pertaining to her systemic targeting, Poitras is suing the U.S. government.

In a complaint filed on Monday afternoon, Poitras demanded that the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence release any and all documentation pertaining to her tracking, targeting and questioning while traveling between 2006 and 2012. [Continue reading…]

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UK prepares to blacklist non-violent extremists

The Guardian reports: David Cameron is to press ahead with Theresa May’s controversial counter-extremism strategy which includes blacklisting “extremists” from appearing on the airwaves and speaking at universities.

The home secretary’s plan will form part of the “full-spectrum response” Cameron promised after the terror attacks in Tunisia on Friday. “The whole strategy is currently being finalised,” a Whitehall source told the Guardian.

The prime minister told the BBC’s Today programme on Monday it was time to recognise that non-violent extremists could provide a “gateway” to terrorism and said it was time public bodies and civil society refused to engage with “anyone whose views condone the Islamist extremist narrative”. There had to be some basic rules over who was and was not beyond the pale.

“We have to deal with this appalling radical narrative that’s taking over the minds of young people in our country,” he said, drawing comparisons to the “battle against communism during the cold war”. The prime minister hinted that the first non-violent group to be banned could be Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was first targeted by Tony Blair in 2005.

The agreed definition of extremism, which the Home Office will use to decide who to blacklist, is this:

The vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also regard calls for the death of members of our armed forces as extremist.

Fears of a Tunisia-style attack in Britain were raised after a report by the National Crime Agency last week which reported evidence of an “increased threat” of Czech-made Skorpion submachine guns being imported by street gangs in London and the south-east. But police sources said there was no evidence such weapons had reached extremist groups.

Cameron’s intervention in the wake of the Tunisia attack shows that the prime minister is now prepared to press ahead with the counter-extremism strategy despite the fact that it led to objections from no fewer than seven Conservative cabinet ministers and their departments when May first proposed it in March. [Continue reading…]

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FISA Court skips talking to privacy advocates

National Journal reports: The secretive court that oversees U.S. spying programs selected to not consult a panel of privacy advocates in its first decision made since the enactment earlier this month of major surveillance reform, according to an opinion declassified Friday.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opted to forgo appointing a so-called “amicus” of privacy advocates as it considered whether the USA Freedom Act could reinstate spying provisions of the Patriot Act even though they expired on June 1 amid an impasse in the Senate.

The Court ruled that the Freedom Act’s language — which will restore the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of U.S. call data for six months before transitioning to a more limited program — could revive those lapsed provisions, but in assessing that narrow legal question, Judge Dennis Saylor concluded that the Court did not first need confer with a privacy panel as proscribed under the reform law. [Continue reading…]

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What sort of wunderkind was Aaron Swartz?

Ed Lake writes: Who was Aaron Swartz? I never met him, though I’ve had dealings with friends of his over the years. The outline of his biography is a matter of public record: teenaged computer whizz gets rich, becomes a political activist and ends up in his 20s facing decades in jail for murky charges related to the misappropriation of academic journal articles. That much is on Wikipedia.

If that isn’t intimate enough, perhaps his character comes through in the tributes that poured onto the internet following Swartz’s suicide in 2013. The signature notes of tenderness, exasperation and awe, in reminiscences from Tim Berners-Lee, Lawrence Lessig, Cory Doctorow and many other notable mentors, certainly conjure a fleeting presence. Nevertheless, in the end, the person is irrecoverable, and those of us who weren’t lucky enough to know him never will.

What was Aaron Swartz?’, on the other hand, seems like both a tractable and a worthwhile question, not least because a decent answer ought to say something about where we are now. Swartz positioned himself at the exact spot where technology and politics press noses and glare at one another. It’s a Silicon Valley joke (or perhaps just a Silicon Valley joke) that every idiot with a dating app says he wants to change the world, but Swartz seems really to have meant it. He quit money the way PayPal’s co-founder Peter Thiel wants smart kids to quit college. He became a white-hat hacker among the levers of state power.

And things ended, not just badly, but dismally, in a sulphurous halfworld of G-men, prosecutorial intimidation and forced betrayals. It is, I suspect, impossible to learn anything about the young activist’s story without starting to see it as a symbol of something ominous in our present chunk of history. But what? [Continue reading…]

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