27 July 2021

In the "Middle East"

“Middle East”, (like the previous favourite, “Near East” as well as “Far East”) is a contemptible name that expresses the Eurocentric outlook of those who coined it. In that sense, it resembles the American word "Midwest". (If Los Angeles was the capital, maybe Chicago would be in the Mideast, like Cairo.)

West(ern) Asia is a better term, and is what people in other parts of Asia usually call it. Though perhaps people who live in parts of Siberia and Kazakhstan may object, and "South West Asia" would serve us better.

Then there is a question of whether there is justification for terms like MENA (Middle East - North Africa) or WANA (West Asia - North Africa). When one looks at the definition given to MENA by various UN agencies Wikipedia, we can see that Palestine is usually included, whereas Israel is more often excluded, though the rationale is usually economic. A UN agency or any world body, naturally has the prerogative to lump nations together in its programmes in whatever way it finds useful.

There is also the term, “the Arab world”, which usually means countries that are part of the Arab League. It does not include some countries that are usually included under MENA or WANA, such as Turkey and Iran, and also leaves out countries where Arabic is an official language like Israel, Somalia, Chad and Eritrea. But somehow, it seems more correct for example, to lump Tunisia together with Lebanon in "the Arab world", than to place them together in something called MENA or WANA. The latter pretend to be geographical terms, but are actually contrived, when the meaning is cultural rather than geographic.

Arab?

Arab is a linguistic or cultural definition, pretending to be an ethnic definition. In the Bible, there is hardly any mention of Arabs. At that time, individual tribes, like Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, were referenced. A Berber living in Southern Libya has little to do with a Marsh Arab in Southern Iraq. The two will find it difficult to converse, and are both genetically and culturally distinct. But they still have enough in common to be classified together as Arabs.

Jew?

Jew, as a definition is even worse than Arab. Arabs at least share a common language and broadly, a common culture. Jews can renounce all religious faith, but still remain Jewish. They can live in the Amazonas or China, have any concoction of genes, or speak any language on earth, but, as long as they claim some distant Jewish ancestry, they will be warmly accepted into the Jewish fold. And if a Jew comes to Israel from a family that has lived for a thousand years in Morocco, looks like a Berber and speaks Arabic, as soon as she comes to Israel she will instantly be regarded as a Jew, and not, heaven forbid, as an Arab.

American exceptionalism

Dave Winer: Something they don’t teach us in school in my country is that when we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, we are really pledging allegiance to each other. Because that’s all there is, the people. No dear leader, no state church, just us.

Naive?

Pegasus

I'm on the free list for “Continuing Ed” so receive his missals every couple of days. The latest one, The Insecurity Industry - by Edward Snowden - Continuing Ed — with Edward Snowden is powerfully and persuasively written.

Where Netanyahu went, NSO followed: How Israel pushed cyberweapon sales - Haaretz.com

Paywall alert, though much quoted article.

Democrats call for possible action against NSO over Pegasus revelations - The Guardian

Four Democrats in Congress tell Biden administration that such firms ‘should be sanctioned, and if necessary, shut down’
Democratic lawmakers in Washington have called on the Biden administration to consider placing NSO Group on an export blacklist and said recent revelations of misuse reinforced their conviction that the “hacking-for-hire industry must be brought under control”.

Pegasus | How to find out if your phone was infected with the spyware - The Hindu

Mobile Verification Toolkit works on both iOS and Android OS. It simplifies the process of acquiring and analysing data from Android devices, and analyses records from iOS backups and filesystem dumps to identify potential traces of compromise.

India

Explained | Pegasus and the laws on surveillance in India - The Hindu

Mr. Gupta is of the opinion that the use of Pegasus is illegal as it constitutes unauthorised access under Section 66 of the Information Technology Act.

Section 66 prescribes punishment to anyone who gains unauthorised access to computers and “downloads, copies or extracts any data”, or “introduces or causes to be introduced any computer contaminant or computer virus,” as laid down in Section 43.

Are India’s laws on surveillance a threat to privacy? - The Hindu
Lengthy article; saving the link.

After meet with Modi, Mamata says PM should call all-party meet on Pegasus row, wants SC probe - The Print

6 Assam policemen killed in border clash with Mizoram - The Hindu

These are two Indian states!

Tunisia president accused of staging coup after suspending parliament - The Guardian

Tunisia’s president imposes month-long curfew and bans gatherings - The Guardian

Tunisians will wake on Tuesday to draconian restrictions including a nationwide curfew from 7pm to 6am, and a ban on gatherings of more than three people in public places.

Billionaire tycoon named as Lebanese PM as economic crisis bites - The Guardian

As Lebanon has crumbled, its leaders have faced a growing threat of sanctions from France and the EU. European leaders do not see the return of Miqati as the breakthrough that was demanded. However, senior officials said they would reserve judgment until Miqati named a ministerial line-up.

I'll bet China will step in.

Doyen of particle physics Steven Weinberg passes away - The Hindu
I thought this was interesting:

Prof. Weinberg was a rationalist and spoke against irrational anti-science ideas without hesitation. He wrote the book Facing Up: Science and its Cultural Adversaries, exposing the harm done by irrational and religious ideas. In now, oft-quoted remarks, he said: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion. Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things”.

He was a self-declared atheist and firmly committed to science and expressed his view on religion and God fearlessly: “Science does not make it impossible to believe in God, it just makes it possible not to believe in God.”

26 July 2021

Privileged

The other day, the billionaire Jeff Bozo earned quite a bit of flack for thanking all his thousands of employees and millions of customers who had given him the opportunity of flying up to space.

I was thinking of this while lying on the sofa after waking, still half somnolent, from my afternoon nap. In the background was the hum of the airconditioner, electric fans, the fridge, three computers and my silent phone. And I'm just lying here, and all this stuff is buzzing and whirring to keep me comfy and in symbiotic connection with the rest of the planet. And it's not only what I can hear: people are slogging-away 24/7 to ensure my coffee supply, fill my fridge with basic foodstuffs, pump my energy, water and gas, pipe in news, music and movies, and all the while I'm being served like a master by complete strangers working diligently for my general welfare, devoting themselves to discovering new vaccines and meds for my latent diseases, rolling out roads, guarding my gates, and schooling my grandchildren.

So much is going on, just while I lie here with my ears buzzing with the sounds of electronics and possibly with the background noise of all that human activity taking place just for me. I'm like the endpoint of an entire ecosystem about which I'm only dimly aware but without which I'd quickly drop dead. So I want to join Jeff in saying thanks to friends everywhere. Maybe I'm not a billionaire. But I've always depended on the kindness of strangers.

Links

UK economy growing at fastest rate in 80 years, says forecaster - The Guardian
Yes, that will be a comfort to many Brits who hadn't noticed.

Foreign journalists harassed in China over floods coverage - The Guardian

Rising nationalism in China and hostility towards foreign media have made reporting increasingly difficult and risky for foreign outlets.

In the past 18 months at least 16 US journalists have been expelled, and at least four journalists – including the BBC’s John Sudworth and two Australian journalists – were forced to flee. Two others – Australian TV anchor Cheng Lei and Chinese Bloomberg journalist Haze Fan – were arrested and detained on undefined national security accusations.

They only sent John to China because he was complaining too much about flooded tube stations in London

Global phone hacks expose darker side of Israel's 'startup nation' image - CNN

Despite the ominous title, the Israeli-born writer is chuffed; she ends the article with a sweet note which is quintessential Israel:

"I think sometimes people come to curse and the outcome is there is a blessing because what happened at the end of the day, people remember that the best technology is Israeli technology, NSO," Bachar said. "That's what people three months from now will remember."

24 July 2021

Bitter melons

There's a funny story in The Guardian about courgette poisoning. Apparently ordinary zuccinis can, if they happen to cross-pollinate with wild members of the same family, become poisonous, causing stomach cramps, vomiting, internal bleeding, hair loss, death (though the latter is quite rare). Tim Dowling says "Now I’ve experienced this poisoning first-hand, it seems weird to me that people are even allowed to grow courgettes."

The gustatory sign of such poison is bitterness. All members of the Cucurbitaceae family, including cucumbers, gourds, melons, etc. contain cucurbitacins, which are responsible for such poisoning, as a self defence mechanism, but usually, in the edible varieties, the amount is very small.

But then I remembered that in India they often use a vegetable (botanically a fruit) called bitter gourd (in Hindi, karela), so looked this up on the web. Apparently it has long been popular not only in India but in China (a slightly different variety) and South East Asia. When I find it on my plate, I move it to one side, because, like most Westerners, I hate bitter tastes. Humans in general are conditioned to avoid such flavors, since they are usually a warning of a potential poison.

Besides karela, there is another bitter gourd, the bottle gourd (lauki in Hindi), which is consumed. Both of these foods are reputed to have amazing therapeutic properties and health effects. Yet an Indian scientist died after consuming lauki juice, prompting articles like: Bitter bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria): Healer or killer? in the International Journal of Nutrition, Pharmacology and Neurological Diseases:

In a recent magazine, an article reported the death of a well-known scientist of Delhi, who consumed fresh juice of bitter bottle gourd. [6] Similar cases were also reported at Dehradun, Mehasana, other parts of India, and the globe. An article in a leading journal reports of fifteen such cases. [7]

The above-mentioned patients developed severe hematemesis, dizziness, and sweating, and collapsed. However, timely management saved some of them. [7],[8],[9]

Bottle gourd, which belongs to the cucumber family (Cucurbitaceae) can also turn toxic and dangerous like mushrooms. Cucurbitacins are complex compounds found in plants belonging to the Cucurbitaceae family. The tetracyclic triterpenoid Cucurbitacin compounds are responsible for the bitterness in vegetables like cucumber, squash, eggplants, melon, pumpkin, and gourds.

High levels of Cucurbitacin compounds are triggered by high temperature, wide temperature swings, low pH, very little water, low soil fertility, and also due to improper storage of vegetables or over-matured vegetables. These compounds are highly toxic to mammals. These toxins, when absorbed into the blood could cause hepatitis, pancreatitis, cholecystitis, and renal damage. This in turn can lead to multiorgan dysfunction, which could be fatal. [4],[6],[7],[8],[9]

It is advisable to consume cooked bottle gourd. Once cooked, the bottle gourd becomes harmless, offering health benefits. A small piece of bottle gourd should be tasted (from both ends); to make sure that it is not bitter. Bitter bottle gourd should be discarded and not be used even after cooking.

An article about a related foodstuff in India, the bottle gourd, has the following:
GREEN POISON? - Indian Express:

It is commonly believed that bitterness is nature's protection for mammals from natural toxins in vegetables and fruits. However, bitterness needs to be qualified. A certain amount of bitterness in vegetables like karela (bitter gourd), fenugreek or the cucumber family (cucumber, squash, eggplants, melon, pumpkin and gourds) is normal and we are all accustomed to it. Tetracyclic triterpenoid cucurbitacins, complex compounds found in the cucumber family, are responsible for the bitterness in these vegetables. These are highly toxic to mammals, however, at what levels are they toxic need to be established. Higher levels of these chemicals are triggered by wide temperature swings, low pH, high temperature, too little water, low soil fertility and improperly stored or over-matured vegetables.

Where they are consumed, bitter vegetables like karela and lauki are apparently appreciated, and people apparently grow used to their bitter taste. So the question should probably be what level of bitterness is a sign that we should stay away from them? To me, karela already tastes awfully bitter - I cannot bear it. So the problem is solved for me.

Links

Rwandans have long been used to Pegasus-style surveillance - The Guardian

Former intelligence chief and RNC co-founder Kayumba Nyamwasa – who has survived repeated attempts on his life in South Africa – notes that the RPF has enjoyed extremely close military and intelligence ties with Israel since the genocide, and that the line between Israel’s military and spin-off firms selling intelligence equipment is distinctly blurred.

Israel has a history of cozying up to repressive regimes and selling them weapons. Maybe in the early years of the state, it felt a need to cultivate such connections. One would think that by now it could allow itself to be more discerning in choosing its customers - if it cares at all. But then, the same arguments could be made against selling weapons technology to Israel.

Russia names Bellingcat reporting partner a ‘foreign agent’ - The Guardian

Delta variant: Pfizer Covid vaccine 39% effective in Israel, prevents severe illness - CNBC

23 July 2021

Yesterday we went to a musical retrospective, "Broken Prayer" on Leonard Cohen, held outdoors in the nearby town of Nataf. The atmosphere, under an almost-full moon, was wonderful, and the musicians (Avraham Cohen, Bat Hen Edri are the names that I remember) were good. They offered some interpretations and original compositions of their own, besides the well-known songs. Their rendition of the latter was sometimes flawed, notwithstanding, and there were some technical problems, but this did not affect our enjoyment. Their topic was Cohen's "continual dialogue with the Creator." They managed to bring to the forefront, some of Cohen's roots in traditional Jewish liturgical songs, etc.

Who cannot love Leonard Cohen and his peculiar mix of existential questioning and sensuality? But the audience were mostly older people of around our age; younger people are often completely unaware of him, which is a pity, because he brought something unique, precious and magical to his music.

Links and reflections

Covid-19 antibodies detected in 67% of India’s population - The Guardian

The US, the other day, removed India from its red list of countries, whereas Israel has kept it there. Although I had been thinking that it is either "political" or quite arbitrary that Israel has kept India on its red list, while placing the UK, for example, on its orange list, in light of these statistics, the Israelis probably have understood the situation better.

Parliament proceedings | No deaths reported due to lack of oxygen, Health Ministry tells Rajya Sabha - The Hindu

According to various reports in Indian media, no one believes him.


In 2019, IT House panel unsuccessfully tried to probe Pegasus breach - The Hindu

This is also true today.:

Centre Rejects Demand for Probe Into Snooping Allegations, IT Minister Calls Reports 'Over the Top' - The Wire

The BJP has been trying to use senior leaders including multiple party chief minister to try and change the narrative. As The Wire has reported, these leaders made wild claims about how these revelations are some sort of “international conspiracy” to “defame India”. However, none of them have categorically denied that the Indian government paid for Pegasus spyware.

Instead, they are saying:

Ban Amnesty over Pegasus leaks role... - The Guardian

Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal who recently defeated the BJP in state elections, urged the opposition parties of India to unite to challenge the “surveillance state” of the Modi government, and called Pegasus “dangerous” and “ferocious”.

“Three things make democracy: media, judiciary and the Election Commission – and Pegasus has captured all three,” said Banerjee, whose own nephew’s phone number was on the leaked data list.


India tax authorities raid media companies critical of Modi gov’t - Al Jazeera

Modi’s government has long been accused of attempting to stifle critical reporting in the world’s biggest democracy, something it denies. On Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 Press Freedom Index, India ranks 142nd out of 180 countries

Why India's Process for Authorising Surveillance on Citizens Is Deeply Flawed - The Wire

The alleged use Pegasus is only the latest example of how government has trampled on the individual rights of citizens using the excuse of fighting terrorism.

What this Wire story points out is that although the BJP has been more more brazen, earlier ruling parties have used the same tactics, and similarly surveilled their adversaries.

Likewise, Indian sensitivity towards outside criticism has a long history. India is not exceptional in that. Many countries bristle at criticism and “interference” from outside. Israel is a very good example - for example the current furor over Ben & Jerry's decision not to allow sales of its products in Israeli West Bank settlements.

The grain of truth in such sensitivity is that outsiders really do have a hard time understanding the complexities of any country's internal processes and needs. We can see how our outsider assumptions worked for us in the case of Burma. Aung San Suu Ki is probably the same person, the same politician, when she is at the mercy of the generals or at the head of the government. But at one time she is the world's darling and in the next moment maligned as a cruel oppressor of minorities (although she has been locked up for a second time, the world's reaction has been more muted this time).

When our outsider dreams for a given country come true, we are often disappointed that the long hoped-for happy end eludes us, and other problems that we didn't anticipate or had zero knowledge of, rear their ugly heads.

While staying true to our values, we also need to take time to understand complexity, and always maintain an attitude of humility, with relation to our comprehension of the situation in other countries. The knowledge and experience that we bring from our own home environment is not necessarily relevant to other places.

Telegram founder listed in leaked Pegasus project data - The Guardian

In his blog, on Telegram itself, Durov says a couple of interesting things:
He claims that Pegasus takes advantage of the same, or similar backdoors that Apple and Google deliberately built in their system, based on demands of the US government:

According to the Snowden revelations (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_surveillance_disclosures_(2013%E2%80%93present)) from 2013, both Apple and Google are part of the global surveillance program that implies that these companies have to, among other things, implement backdoors into their mobile operating systems. These backdoors, usually disguised as security bugs, allow US agencies to access information on any smartphone in the world.

The problem with such backdoors is that they are never exclusive to just one party. Anybody can exploit them. So if a US security agency can hack an iOS or Android phone, any other organization that uncovers these backdoors can do the same. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what has been taking place: an Israeli company called NSO Group (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/18/revealed-leak-uncovers-global-abuse-of-cyber-surveillance-weapon-nso-group-pegasus) has been selling access to the spying tools that allowed third parties to hack tens of thousands of phones.

That's why I have been calling upon the governments of the world to start acting against the Apple-Google duopoly in the smartphone market and to force them to open their closed ecosystems and allow for more competition.

Regardless of the so-called security of his messaging system, phones can never be trusted. He himself doesn't trust his phone:

Since at least 2018, I have been aware that one of my phone numbers was included in a list of potential targets of such surveillance tools (although a source from the NSO Group denies it). Personally, I wasn't worried: since 2011, when I was still living in Russia, I’ve got used to assuming that all my phones were compromised.

That kind of makes comparisons of the relative security of Telegram, Signal and WhatsApp, a bit redundant.


Israel launches commission to probe Pegasus spyware: Legislator - Al Jazeera

Israel's cyber-security industry is a lucrative cash cow, and much bigger and more important than any single company. When Israel takes action on such things, it is more likely to be motivated by public relations concerns than by a genuine wish to rectify the situation.

20 July 2021

We are living in a dystopian hellscape where democratic freedoms, institutions, politicians, governments, civil society and basic infrastructure are all under unremitting attack. A kind of high-tech warfare is being waged by state actors both against other nations and their own citizens. No one is safe. Off-gridders seem to be right: the less dependence we have on technology, infrastructure and systems of distribution, the better. But Edward Snowden is even more right in saying that the problems cannot be solved at an individual level. If we want something to change, people need to get together and take action.

National governments, leaders and ruling parties, when censured, try to deflect criticism by denial, claims of partisanism, or foreign bias. Thus, the BJP in India, says that Amnesty International, which conducted the forensic analysis of phones for Pegasus spyware, is "anti-Indian", and that the Congress Party is angry because they are losing. China and Russia angrily deny being responsible for cyber-attacks. Israel denies conducting diplomacy through cyber-weapon sales.

As citizens of the planet, we have to recognize that the issues we are facing are common to all of us. Our adversaries are not particular parties, polities or nations, but the misuse of power, by any group, in order to undermine democratic freedoms, civil society, and the systems upon which we rely. We need to oppose the misuse of power even when it is not our own group that is under attack, because there can only be democracy when the rights of all citizens are respected and protected. There can only be peace between nations when the welfare of all nations is our common goal.

Links

The Guardian view on spyware sales: the proliferation risks are real - The Guardian

Revealed: murdered journalist’s number selected by Mexican NSO client - The Guardian

India

Pegasus spyware used to ‘snoop’ on Indian journalists, activists - The Hindu

17 media groups across world collaborated to expose secret surveillance via victims’ phones
Indian ministers, government officials and opposition leaders also figure in the list of people whose phones may have been compromised by the spyware, The Wire, which conducted the investigation along with international partners, claimed.

Modi accused of treason by opposition over India spyware disclosures - The Guardian

“This is clearly treason and total abdication of national security by the Modi government, more so when the foreign company could possibly have access to this data,” said the Congress statement, which labelled Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government as the “Bharatiya Jasoos [spy] party”.

“This is an unforgivable sacrilege and negation of constitutional oath by the home minister and the prime minister,” it added.

“Pegasus is a cyber-weapon, a controlled defence export from Israel under 2007 Act as per Wassenaar [Arrangement], with strict EUMA,” said Sushant Singh, an Indian journalist whose phone was examined by Amnesty’s Security Lab, the technical partner to the project.
It found proof that his phone had been compromised using Pegasus. “That [weapon] has been used in India against its own citizens,” he said. “Imagine if a fighter jet or missile of same category was used against Indians similarly. That’s it.”

Prashant Kishor Hacked by Pegasus, Mamata’s Nephew Also Selected as Potential Snoop Target

This is the first iron-clad piece of evidence that the deadly spyware is being used in India by an as yet unidentified agency to gather political information from rivals of the ruling BJP.

Leaked Snoop List Suggests Surveillance May Have Played Role in Toppling of Karnataka Govt in 2019 - The Wire

Regional Newspapers Have More Detailed Coverage of Pegasus Than National, Business Dailies - The Wire

Most English newspapers, including Hindustan Times and Mint covered the news report as a single column on their front pages. The Economic Times – India’s largest business daily – published the report on page 3. The Times of India, The Financial Express and Indian Express carried the story as the lead on their front flap/pages. The Telegraph carried it as lead on page 2, headlined “Judge and ministers on ‘hack wish list'”. Business Standard has not carried the report, but they have published a PTI copy on their website. The Hindu decided not to give it space on the front page, and carried the story on page 8 in a double column.
Most of the news stories didn’t have any infographics. When covering Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcements or other government-related reports, they usually do use graphics and other visual aids.

Sedition and the Supreme Court: Justice Delayed, but Not Justice Denied - The Wire

The almost simultaneous entertainment by three benches of the Supreme Court of petitions seeking declarations that Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code is unconstitutional indicates that the apex court finally realises that sedition is a draconian provision and needs to be done away with.

It is welcome because if the petitions succeed, a colonial provision designed to crush nonviolent social movements against the British Crown, which is now being used to suppress democratic dissent in an independent country, will go, making prosecutions for free speech difficult. Thousands, including the CAA protestors and the tribal supporters of the Patthalgadi movement, journalists, artists, farmers, trade unionists, students and others will have the yoke of this oppressive provision lifted.

Let us hope that the Supreme Court will now take up with alacrity the other provisions of law such as criminal defamation and the infamous Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which deserve to be put in the dustbin of history. Before that is done, however, judges have to introspect on the tolerance of tyranny, which is so prevalent in our country.

'Similarities Between Hitler's Third Reich and Modi's India Growing Everyday': Avay Shukla - The Wire

India's working women: It has taken a pandemic and remote work to crack the glass ceiling - CNN

The coronavirus pandemic appears to have given an unexpected boost to a small — but influential — cohort of India's working women.

Coronavirus live news: 4 million excess deaths in India, study suggests, as official Covid toll passes 414,000 - The Guardian

China

China drafts new cyber-security industry plan - The Hindu

US condemns China for ‘malicious’ cyberattacks, including Microsoft hack - The Guardian

Blinken added in a statement that China’s “Ministry of State Security (MSS) has fostered an ecosystem of criminal contract hackers who carry out both state-sponsored activities and cybercrime for their own financial gain”.

UK

How a proposed secrecy law would recast journalism as spying | Duncan Campbell and Duncan Campbell - The Guardian

Priti Patel seems to be at the heart of so many bad news stories

Israel - Palestine

Pegasus project turns spotlight on spyware firm NSO’s ties to Israeli state - The Guardian

A recent transparency report released by NSO Group acknowledged the company was “closely regulated” by export control authorities in Israel. The Defense Export Controls Agency (DECA) within the Israeli defence ministry “strictly restricts” the licensing of some surveillance products based on its own analysis of potential customers from a human rights perspective, the company said, and had rejected NSO requests for export licences “in quite a few cases”.

Moreover, NSO was also subject to an “in-depth” regulatory review by Israel on top of its own “robust internal framework”.

Within NSO, the process Israel uses to assess whether countries can be sold the technology is considered a “state secret”. A person familiar with the process said officials in both Israel’s national security council and prime minister’s office had been known to give their input.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, sources familiar with the matter said the kingdom was temporarily cut off from using Pegasus in 2018, for several months, following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but was allowed to begin using the spyware again in 2019 following the intervention of the Israeli government.

the 10 countries that the forensic analysis for the Pegasus project suggests have actually been abusing the technology all enjoy trade relations with Israel or have diplomatic ties with the country that have been improving markedly in recent years.

In two NSO client countries, India and Hungary, it appears governments began using the company’s technology as or after their respective prime ministers met the then Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in high-profile encounters intended to boost trade and security cooperation. It is understood no countries that are considered enemies of Israel – such as Turkey – have been allowed to buy NSO’s wares.

What remains unclear is whether Israel’s intelligence agencies might have special privileges with NSO, such as access to surveillance material gathered using its spyware. One person close to the company, who asked to remain anonymous, said it was a frequent topic of speculation. Asked whether Israel could access intelligence gathered by NSO clients, they replied: “The Americans think so.”

That view was supported by current and former US intelligence officials, who told the Washington Post, a partner in the Pegasus project, that there was a presumption that Israel had some access – via a “backdoor” – to intelligence unearthed via such surveillance tools.

For Israel, few clients whom it has approved to use Pegasus have been as problematic as Saudi. Weeks ago, NSO cut the kingdom off once more, following allegations that Saudi had used Pegasus to hack dozens of Al Jazeera journalists.

I'm thinking that journalists and activities in countries that Israel didn't agree to sell to, like Turkey, have a lot to be thankful for.

Ben & Jerry’s to stop sales in occupied Palestinian territories - The Guardian

Vermont-based company says sales in the occupied lands were ‘inconsistent with our values’

Why did Netanyahu vote against a law he wholly embraces? - Al Jazeera

Those who cannot carry out crimes of apartheid including the separation of spouses and children from their parents are, in his perverse world, unworthy of remaining in power.

Surveillance capitalists

WhatsApp

The updated multi-device experience allows people to use the messaging service on up to four devices, excluding their smartphone, simultaneously and without requiring a constant connection with the phone. This means, even if their phone is switched off, users will be able to connect over WhatsApp, using the devices linked to their account.

Google has introduced a new ‘quick delete’ option

in its app that allows users to erase the last 15 minutes of saved Search history with the single tap of a button. Users can access the feature from the Google account menu, just below Search

Jeff Bezos to donate $200 million to Smithsonian

Billionaire entrepreneur Jeff Bezos will donate $200 million to the Smithsonian. It is the largest gift to the Smithsonian since the Institution’s founding gift

The Hindu'

Google Meet to limit time on group calls for free accounts - The Hindu
Google didn't manage to eradicate Zoom by offering the same service for free

Microsoft announces Windows 365, a computer that runs on its cloud - The Hindu

Facebook often removes evidence of rights atrocities – but we can preserve it - Scroll

We need a decentralised platform, without gatekeepers or potential single points of failure, to gather incriminating material.

18 July 2021

Affairs of the day

Apart from getting a puncture fixed in the morning, I spent the day mostly reading. In the afternoon I had to film two people for a short video that I will handle tomorrow. I also spent time fixing a CSS problem on one of the websites I handle.

This summer seems hotter than usual. Summer is usually the time I go to South India, where it is even hotter, and muggier, and I live without A/C. But I manage that mainly because I don't really do very much. Summers in Palestine are hot and dry; the evenings are a little more bearable. But lately, we have often been keeping the A/C on even at night.

The Life of Palestinians under the Citizenship Law

In the village today, we had an important evening highlighting the issue of thousands of stateless Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who are married to Israeli citizens and live here without papers of basic rights. They are unable to drive, open a bank account, purchase health insurance, etc. The law - an emergency regulation that has to be periodically renewed - was recently the subject of a political crisis when the ruling coalition did not obtain enough votes to renew it. This presents something of a window of opportunity for many couples; but it might be shortlived.

Links

I was reading about Automattic, the owner of WordPress, which, over the last couple of years, has been acquiring various other companies like Tumblr, and now a journaling App, Day One. The only ethical consolation I can get from using WordPress, is that it is a free open source product that doesn't need my support. They seem to be doing just fine.

Matt Mullenweg: Collaboration Is Key - FS

I believe all proprietary software to be an evolutionary dead end. Maybe it’ll take 50 or 100 years, but what happens, just like what happened fairly quickly with Encyclopedia Britannica and other encyclopedias and Wikipedia is that the thing which is open to all and gets everyone working together if it truly gets that humanity working together on the same shared resource, you get the opposite of the tragedy of the commons, versus the field being overrun, each person operating in their own self-interest kills the environment or kills the shared thing, and in digital world, we can do that because we have economics of abundancy versus economics of scarcity. That’s why open source will eventually win every market it’s in.
-- Matt Mullenweb (co-founder of WordPress)

The Guardian's scoop on NSO's Pegasus

A couple of days ago, there was the report about the notorious Israeli spyware company Candiru. This is all about it's bigger and better-known Israeli sister NSO and yet another despicable spyware product. The buyers of these products are mainly governments who are eager to spy on journalists, critics and dissidents.

Revealed: leak uncovers global abuse of cyber-surveillance weapon| The Guardian

Human rights activists, journalists and lawyers across the world have been targeted by authoritarian governments using hacking software sold by the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group, according to an investigation into a massive data leak.
The investigation by the Guardian and 16 other media organisations suggests widespread and continuing abuse of NSO’s hacking spyware, Pegasus, which the company insists is only intended for use against criminals and terrorists

FT editor among 180 journalists identified by clients of spyware firm - The Guardian

Other journalists who were selected as possible candidates for surveillance by NSO’s clients work for some of the world’s most prestigious media organisations. They include the Wall Street Journal, CNN, the New York Times, Al Jazeera, France 24, Radio Free Europe, Mediapart, El País, Associated Press, Le Monde, Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse, the Economist, Reuters and Voice of America.

This is creating a lot of interest in India, which, unlike many of the countries on the NSO's client list, is traditionally regarded to be a democratic country. The situation has been worsening under Modi.

List of Indian journalists, activists allegedly put on surveillance using Pegasus - The Print

Pegasus Project: How Phones of Journalists, Ministers, Activists May Have Been Used to Spy On Them The Wire


Meanwhile in America

Man Jailed for Traffic Ticket Dies in Cell After 17 Days of Torture. Officers Watched It HappenReason.com

David Stojcevski, a 32-year-old resident of Roseville, Michigan, was arrested for failing to pay a $772 fine stemming from careless driving. A court ordered him to spend a month in the Macomb County jail.

Denied clothing, denied treatment for his drug addiction, died in agony while under bright lights and surveillance cameras intended to prevent self-injury.

17 July 2021

A concert

We have a husband and wife team of professional pianists in the village, who also teach piano and, at least once a year, arrange a concert in their home for their students; who may be either conservatory students or local children. We attended one of these this evening. The musicians were great; the western classical piano music, for the most part is mildly boring, sometimes irritating. I have less appreciation for it than for Middle Eastern and Indian classical music. It isn't the instrument that I dislike; I love the Keith Jarrett concerts, for example. But I came home and immediately put Cafe de Anatolia on. That's what I mainly listen to these days.

Federation

I have gradually come to the understanding that I'm interested in long-form blogging, and not at all in social networking or microblogging. I'm no good at the latter. I've never been able to build much of a network. My interactions are poor; fraught with inhibitions, sometimes cringe-worthy, and I've never been able to sustain interest for very long. I've had various false starts on the mainstream and the alternative networks. I enjoy writing, but it's mainly for my own benefit. Blogging helps me to process my experiences and develop my thoughts. In spite of that, blogging is a public form of writing. I could write offline in my journal, or in Cherrytree, where I often begin my posts. In Cherrytree, starting a day entry is as simple as pressing the F8 key. I could also choose to use one of the more obscure forms, such as Genesis, or establish an Onion site, use the Interplanetary File System, or start a Dat site on Beaker browser. I've thought about all of these possibilities, but I am writing online in order that my writing will be available, so it doesn't make sense to create obstacles to reading it unless I want to connect to a cabal of like-minded cranks, which I don't. I want the blog to be generally available.

On the other hand, I don't want to thrust what I write deliberately under the nose of those who came upon it by chance. The Fediverse, in order to build its popularity, has large instances with public threads. Those who have not yet established a network of friends and followers can follow the public timeline with posts from everyone who is on a given network instance. Joining one of those instances means that automatically, one's posts appear in the public stream, unless one elects to keep them semi-private and restricted to followers. I don't, or no longer, want either of those options. I want a publicly available blog that doesn't get put into a public timeline. But I want to announce posts to those who may be interested to read them, using a variety of means (see the About page). This year, I started auto-posting blog post notices - just the WP excerpt and a link - to Twitter and Tumblr. There is also the RSS news feed, and I found a way of enabling mailings of complete posts to anyone who wished to subscribe. I still had a dilemma regarding the Fediverse, and how I wanted to appear there. I am currently on three Fediverse instances; a Mastodon instance (Fosstodon); my Hubzilla channel, hosted on the same home server, and Disroot.org, where my Hubzilla channel is cloned.

Despite these options, I decided that the easiest solution could be to enable Matthias Pfefferle's WP Activity Pub plugin. The latter allows, in the simplest way possible, anyone on Mastodon or the majority of the other Fediverse sites, to follow my WordPress.org blog, without the additional step of posting it to any Fediverse instances. The blog itself becomes a valid member of the Fediverse. That's the solution with the least overhead.

All of this is fairly academic. I actually expect no one to follow the blog, far less to actually read it. The way that I've set things up, I probably won't actually know if they do. Comments are turned off, mail subscriptions are handled through a third party, RSS feed subscriptions are anonymous, and I am not active on any of the networks where blog posts are announced. Till now, signs of "engagement", as Facebook calls it, have been close to zero. That's all fine with me.

I sometimes think of the days prior to social networking. Writers would publish their creations with much less interaction with the reading public. Even today, when we read a book by a living author, be it a novel or a work of non-fiction, we do not expect to enter into a dialogue with her. Some writers have taken advantage of this separation in order to cultivate an elaborate fiction. For example, when we read Annie Dillard's famous Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (for which she won a Pulitzer), we are sure that this is an actual record of life in a wilderness area, and do not suspect that the author is writing from a college library while living on the fringes of a small town. The mystique is helpful to the book's success, and not just its commercial success. The mystery regarding the identity of the narrator is partly responsible for its transformative power.

Links

Pluralistic: 16 Jul 2021 – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow

The Tower of Babel: How Public Interest Internet is Trying to Save Messaging and Banish Big Social Media

16 July 2021

Links

John Biewen: Ted Talk, “The lie that invented racism”

Dave Winer recommended this. The "lie that invented racism" was a claim made in Portugal during the age of empires that black Africans, being an inferior race, can be enslaved with impunity. The man in oversimplifying, surely. Europeans don't have a monopolism on racism based on skin pigmentation. For example, it's quite likely that India's caste system (varna) is based upon it (the word itself means "colour"). And then, skin colour is only one of the differences that we rely upon to create or deny entitlement. Humans always find frivolous reasons to discriminate against some and entitle others. Every flimsy basis for discrimination is backed up by wrong notions, projections and stereotypes. Belonging to the right group will always be the key to success, belonging to the wrong group, a recipe for failure.

If we want to create a more equal society, we will need to eradicate many more bases for prejudice and entitlement, but discovering them is like whacking moles. Unless we go to the root cause and find out what motivates and fuels our tendency towards discrimination in the first place, our prejudices will always be with us.

‘Excess deaths’ in Haryana seven times official COVID-19 toll - The Hindu

India largest source of government information requests, says Twitter - The Hindu

Sedition law | Supreme Court sends strong message to government - The Hindu
Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana’s remarks in open court on Thursday sends a strong message to the government that the Supreme Court is prima facie convinced that sedition is being misused by the authorities to trample upon citizens’ fundamental rights of free speech and liberty.

Israeli spyware firm linked to fake Black Lives Matter and Amnesty websitesThe Guardian

The team also identified more than 750 domain names that appeared to be linked to Candiru and its customers. In addition to the sites masquerading as not-for-profits, the researchers found URLs that appeared to impersonate a left-leaning Indonesian publication; a site that publishes Israeli court indictments of Palestinian prisoners; a website critical of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman; and a site that appeared to be associated with the World Health Organization.

“Candiru’s apparent presence, and the use of its surveillance technology against global civil society, is a potent reminder that the mercenary spyware industry contains many players and is prone to widespread abuse,” the report said. “This case demonstrates, yet again, that in the absence of any international safeguards or strong government export controls, spyware vendors will sell to government clients who will routinely abuse their services.”

Protecting customers from a private-sector offensive actor using 0-day exploits and DevilsTongue malware - Microsoft Security Blog

Hooking Candiru: Another Mercenary Spyware Vendor Comes into Focus - The Citizen Lab

A leaked Candiru project proposal published by TheMarker shows that Candiru’s spyware can be installed using a number of different vectors, including malicious links, man-in-the-middle attacks, and physical attacks. A vector named “Sherlock” is also offered, that they claim works on Windows, iOS, and Android.

Not Mac or Linux, though. Activists and journalists should stay away from Windows. And they so love their phones! I feel awkward and uncomfortable whenever I use the thing, and I'm not even signed into Google or the manufactor's services. I avoid Chrome and location services, and use only FDroid apps, but still feel uncomfortable, like big brother is always watching. On my computer at least, I have the illusion of being in control. Not on Windows, of course.

As part of their investigation, Microsoft observed at least 100 victims in Palestine, Israel, Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, Spain, United Kingdom, Turkey, Armenia, and Singapore. Victims include human rights defenders, dissidents, journalists, activists, and politicians.

We are still reversing most of the spyware’s functionality, but Candiru’s Windows payload appears to include features for exfiltrating files, exporting all messages saved in the Windows version of the popular encrypted messaging app Signal, and stealing cookies and passwords from Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Opera browsers.

The €16 million project proposal allows for an unlimited number of spyware infection attempts, but the monitoring of only 10 devices simultaneously. For an additional €1.5M, the customer can purchase the ability to monitor 15 additional devices simultaneously, and to infect devices in a single additional country. For an additional €5.5M, the customer can monitor 25 additional devices simultaneously, and conduct espionage in five more countries.

The price point is obviously for nation states and governments.

15 July 2021

Playing with Darktable and GIMP

I spent a few hours with these programs again today, trying to improve some old photo scans of our community's founders, Fr. Bruno Hussar and Anne Le Meignen. Though I still feel new and unexperienced with Darktable, I can see a clear improvement to the images I put through it - especially with regard to the general appearance of photos that are overly dark, have a wrong colour temperature, etc. I haven't learned how to do re-touching with Darktable, however, and for that I need GIMP. Here are the photos I worked on today (I've reduced the sizes):


Here I used darktable to improve the colours, then GIMP to create a depth of field blur. I made two false starts with YouTube GIMP tutorials: one used an effect that gave poor results; one required a plugin that isn't in GIMP by default. The tutorial that worked well for me was : https://youtu.be/GpGfcHcSX4s. I confess that I've used it before but had forgotten the steps. Now I have jotted them down carefully in my Cherrytree notes.


Here, after a couple of improvements in Darktable the main thing was to get out a few ink stains on the original (using GIMP's healing tool) I didn't spend very much time on it.


Here, obviously I must have worked on a slightly different original. I played with the colors using Darktable, then cleaned up the image a little in GIMP, again with the healing brush tool.

None of these results are amazing and, for all I know, there is probably proprietary software out there that can get superior results instantly. But I do what I can with the tools that I have and, hopefully, the results are a bit better than the originals.

Kdenlive

Yesterday I had to make another short video, so for the first time (at least, in memory), I used Kdenlive. It wasn't too difficult. There were some things that were annoying. For example, I needed to superimpose an image on a clip, and wanted to employ a fade-in, fade-out transition effect to the image. But Kdenlive uses fade-in and fade-out from black, whereas what I actually needed was a fade to and from transparency. There are some complicated instructions on how to do that, but by that stage I just gave up on the transitions. But, as with GIMP, there are some good tutorials on YouTube, and I really needed those, because there are changes to settings, etc. that are non-intuitive. The result was OK - I can't show it here, because it was for a particular audience.

Share on Mastodon

The "share on Mastodon" WP plugin has been giving poor results - adding only my uninformative blog post titles and a link - but now I see there is some documentation that I need to read. I wonder if it allows the inclusion of excerpts, as does the WP Twitter auto-publish plugin? I will check this when I have time.

Links

Haryana police evokes sedition charges against protesting farmers - The Hindu

Amazon rainforest now emitting more CO2 than it absorbs - The Guardian

The Amazon rainforest is emitting a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, according to a study. The giant forest had been absorbing the emissions driving the climate crisis but is now causing its acceleration, researchers said.
Most of the emissions are caused by fires, many deliberately set to clear land for beef and soy production. But even without fires, hotter temperatures and droughts mean the south-eastern Amazon has become a source of CO2, rather than a sink.

Bolsonaro in hospital as hiccups persist for more than 10 days - The Guardian
The temptation to make funny remarks about the poor man is all too strong.

14 July 2021

It's 2 A.M. and I can't, for now, get back to sleep. The warm weather can serve as an excuse. So I have made myself a mug of tea and am listening to the crickets sing their night song.

The Serpent

Earlier, we watched the last two episodes of the BBC- Netflix mini-series on the life of Charles Sobhraj, "The Serpent". I was not previously aware of him. At the time that hippies were making their way across Iran to India, Thailand and beyond, he was living as a criminal, engaging in scams, robberies and frauds. He would drug and poison lonely backpackers and foreign couples, sometimes drowning them in the ocean, or burning them alive. It's thought that around twenty may have suffered this fate. After killing them he would use their passports to move between countries. A charming man, literally - as charm seems to have been the secret of his success. The TV series is fictionalized, because the real story was even wilder and too difficult to wrap tidily into a mini-series. According to Wikipedia, while serving out his sentence in an Indian jail:

"Sobhraj's systematic bribery of prison guards at Tihar reached outrageous levels. He led a life of luxury inside the jail, with television and gourmet food, having befriended both guards and prisoners. He gave interviews to Western authors and journalists, such as Oz magazine's Richard Neville in 1977 and Alan Dawson in 1984.

He's still alive and serving a long sentence in Nepal.

While watching the series, I thought of Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, of Papillon by Henri Charrière, and of Paul Bowles's books about Morocco. I also remembered my own journeys to the east at about the same time as of Sobhraj. I met young people who could easily have been characters in the series, in Istanbul, Teheran, Kabul and Delhi.

A scam from the '70s

While in Delhi I was nearly scammed in a tale involving travellers cheques. My Canadian roommate in Pahar Ganj had met a man who said that he could obtain for him a fantastic rate on travellers cheques. He'd arranged to meet the guy at a cafe to discuss the matter, and invited me to come along. We took an auto-rickshaw to the appointed place, where we met a middle-aged Indian who described the illegal deal to my roommate. While there, a young American came over and told us that he too had made a lot of money in this deal, and recommended it to us. We later realised that this American must have been an accomplice.

A time was set for the next day, the Canadian met the Indian guy and went with him in a taxi. At a certain point, the Indian guy told him to give him the double-signed cheques and wait in the taxi, while he took them up to his uncle in a nearby building. Of course, that was the last the Canadian saw of the man or his travellers cheques. He came back to the hotel room highly distraught. He had lost all his money, on top of which, he was worried that the authorities might be after him for illegally handing over travellers cheques. He immediately packed all his things and was going to try to get back to Europe overland, with $19 in his pocket.

The reason I myself did not fall for the scam is that I had practically no money. Going to India had been a last-minute whim. I'd decided while in Greece. When I reached Teheran, I had ordered funds to be delivered to me in Delhi via American Express. It was supposed to be waiting for me on arrival. However, nothing came through. I would go to the AmEx building every day to inquire, while meanwhile my financial situation grew ever more precarious.

That money never did reach me in Delhi. Instead, I had to ask my father to have another sum sent to me, this time to Thomas Cooks. That amount arrived duly, after two or three days. The other funds were returned much later, when I was no longer in India. Afterwards I learned that this was a common ploy. Banks in India would receive the money sent to foreign travellers, but hang onto it - I suppose foreign currency must have been scarce at the time. Many people fell afoul of the system during that period.

Today's links

India's billionaires Ambani and Adani got richer while coronavirus pushed millions into poverty CNN

An alarming 90 per cent of respondents ... reported that households had suffered a reduction in food intake as a result of the lockdown," the researchers wrote in a May report examining the impact of one year of Covid in India. "Even more worryingly, 20 per cent reported that food intake had not improved even six months after the lockdown.

Now, as India braces for a potential third wave of Covid-19, researchers hope the government can introduce some bold measures to cushion the impact on the world's weakest.

Twitter is a mess in India. Here's how it got there - [CNN]](https://edition.cnn.com/2021/07/09/tech/twitter-india-strategy-intl-hnk/index.html)