Category Archives: Europe

2016 proved a black year for personal privacy


In brief, new laws and executive orders have given uintelligence agencies in the U.S. and U.K. unprecedented powers to gather a near-infinite harvest of the digital traces of our lives.

And in the U.S., gleanings once accessible only to a handful of political, military, and diplomatic elites will now be open to a host of law enforcement agencies.

From the New York Times:

In its final days, the Obama administration has expanded the power of the National Security Agency to share globally intercepted personal communications with the government’s 16 other intelligence agencies before applying privacy protections.

The new rules significantly relax longstanding limits on what the N.S.A. may do with the information gathered by its most powerful surveillance operations, which are largely unregulated by American wiretapping laws. These include collecting satellite transmissions, phone calls and emails that cross network switches abroad, and messages between people abroad that cross domestic network switches.

The change means that far more officials will be searching through raw data. Essentially, the government is reducing the risk that the N.S.A. will fail to recognize that a piece of information would be valuable to another agency, but increasing the risk that officials will see private information about innocent people.

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch signed the new rules, permitting the N.S.A. to disseminate “raw signals intelligence information,” on Jan. 3, after the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., signed them on Dec. 15, according to a 23-page, largely declassified copy of the procedures.

Previously, the N.S.A. filtered information before sharing intercepted communications with another agency, like the C.I.A. or the intelligence branches of the F.B.I. and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The N.S.A.’s analysts passed on only information they deemed pertinent, screening out the identities of innocent people and irrelevant personal information.

More from the Intercept:

The change was in the works long before there was any expectation that someone like Trump might become president. The last-minute adoption of the procedures is one of many examples of the Obama administration making new executive powers established by the Bush administration permanent, on the assumption that the executive branch could be trusted to police itself.

Executive Order 12333, often referred to as “twelve triple-three,” has attracted less debate than congressional wiretapping laws, but serves as authorization for the NSA’s most massive surveillance programs — far more than the NSA’s other programs combined. Under 12333, the NSA taps phone and internet backbones throughout the world, records the phone calls of entire countries, vacuums up traffic from Google and Yahoo’s data centers overseas, and more.

In 2014, The Intercept revealed that the NSA uses 12333 as a legal basis for an internal NSA search engine that spans more than 850 billion phone and internet records and contains the unfiltered private information of millions of Americans.

In 2014, a former state department official described NSA surveillance under 12333 as a “universe of collection and storage” beyond what Congress has authorized.

And a Snooper’s Charter takes effect in the U.K.

It’s called the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, more familiarly known as the Snooper’s Charter [full text here].

The Guardian reported on the measure’s passage on 19 November:

A bill giving the UK intelligence agencies and police the most sweeping surveillance powers in the western world has passed into law with barely a whimper, meeting only token resistance over the past 12 months from inside parliament and barely any from outside.

The Investigatory Powers Act, passed on Thursday, legalises a whole range of tools for snooping and hacking by the security services unmatched by any other country in western Europe or even the US.

The security agencies and police began the year braced for at least some opposition, rehearsing arguments for the debate. In the end, faced with public apathy and an opposition in disarray, the government did not have to make a single substantial concession to the privacy lobby.

US whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted: “The UK has just legalised the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. It goes further than many autocracies.”

One major organization, the National Council for Civil Liberties [counterpart of the American Civil Liberties Union in the U.S.], is on the legal offensive.

From their website:

Liberty is launching a landmark legal challenge to the extreme mass surveillance powers in the Government’s new Investigatory Powers Act – which lets the state monitor everybody’s web history and email, text and phone records, and hack computers, phones and tablets on an industrial scale.

Liberty is seeking a High Court judicial review of the core bulk powers in the so-called Snoopers’ Charter – and calling on the public to help it take on the challenge by donating via crowdfunding platform CrowdJustice.

Martha Spurrier, Director of Liberty, said: “Last year, this Government exploited fear and distraction to quietly create the most extreme surveillance regime of any democracy in history. Hundreds of thousands of people have since called for this Act’s repeal because they see it for what it is – an unprecedented, unjustified assault on our freedom.

“We hope anybody with an interest in defending our democracy, privacy, press freedom, fair trials, protest rights, free speech and the safety and cybersecurity of everyone in the UK will support this crowdfunded challenge, and make 2017 the year we reclaim our rights.”

The Investigatory Powers Act passed in an atmosphere of shambolic political opposition last year, despite the Government failing to provide any evidence that such indiscriminate powers were lawful or necessary to prevent or detect crime. A petition calling for its repeal

Liberty will seek to challenge the lawfulness of the following powers, which it believes breach the public’s rights:

  • the Act lets police and agencies access, control and alter electronic devices like computers, phones and tablets on an industrial scale, regardless of whether their owners are suspected of involvement in crime – leaving them vulnerable to further attack by hackers.
  • the Act allows the state to read texts, online messages and emails and listen in on calls en masse, without requiring suspicion of criminal activity.

Bulk acquisition of everybody’s communications data and internet history

  • the Act forces communications companies and service providers to hand over records of everybody’s emails, phone calls and texts and entire web browsing history to state agencies to store, data-mine and profile at its will. This provides a goldmine of valuable personal information for criminal hackers and foreign spies.
  • the Act lets agencies acquire and link vast databases held by the public or private sector. These contain details on religion, ethnic origin, sexuality, political leanings and health problems, potentially on the entire population – and are ripe for abuse and discrimination.

The secret agreements giving those new laws more power

From a review [open access] of the implications of revelations contained in the Snowden leaks in the International Journal of Law and Information Technology:

The US and UK’s signals intelligence agencies, National Security Agency (NSA) and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), have gained access to very large volumes of Internet communications and data, for extremely broad ‘foreign intelligence’ purposes. A declassified 2011 US court order shows that NSA was already accessing more than 250 million ‘Internet communications’ each year. GCHQ is recording 3 days of international Internet traffic transiting the UK and 30 days of ‘metadata’ about these communications, and has gained access to ‘the majority’ of European Internet and telephone communications. NSA and GCHQ ‘collection’ of data is via intercepts of Internet traffic flowing through international fibre optic cables operated by telecommunications companies, and through automated searches carried out by Internet companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook on their internal systems, as well as the provision of complete records of all US telephone calls by AT&T, Verizon and others. NSA Director Keith Alexander asked his staff in 2008: ‘Why can’t we collect all the signals all the time?’—and they have set out to implement this vision.

The US and UK laws compel this cooperation by telecommunications and Internet companies (including ‘cloud computing’ providers that increasingly provide the infrastructure for Internet services).5 Other European governments cooperate with the USA–UK–Canada–Australia–New Zealand ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance, notably an additional four countries in a ‘9-Eyes’ group (France, The Netherlands, Norway and Denmark) and a further five (Germany, Sweden, Spain, Belgium and Italy) in a ‘14-Eyes’ configuration.

NSA has further bugged EU offices and computer networks in Washington DC and New York, and gained access to UN internal videoconferencing systems. It has interception equipment and staff (jointly with the CIA) at 80 US embassies.

NSA has compromised at least 85,000 ‘strategically chosen’ machines in computer networks around the world; each device ‘in some cases … opens the door to hundreds or thousands of others.’ A new automated system is capable of managing ‘potentially millions’ of compromised machines for intelligence gathering and ‘active attack’. NSA conducted 231 ‘offensive operations’ in 2011, which represents ‘an evolution in policy, which in the past sought to preserve an international norm against acts of aggression in cyberspace, in part because U.S. economic and military power depend so heavily on computers’. NSA is spending $250 million each year to sabotage security standards and systems so that it can maintain access to encrypted data. GCHQ has developed methods to access encrypted data communications to Hotmail, Google, Facebook and Yahoo!

And if is those international agreements that magnify the impact of the increased panoptical powers in the United States and Great Britain.

And foremost among those pacts in the UKUSA Agreement, an accord granting London and Washington unparalleled access to each others intelligence gleanings.

Nicotine-based pesticides, bees, and the deniers


Nicotine, as we all know by now, is a powerful poison.

blog-black-leafSo powerful that on 22 November 1963 [yes, that day] the Central Intelligence Agency once sent an agent to kill Fidel Castro with a syringe disguised as a fountain pen and filled  Black Leaf 40, a powerful nicotine-based insecticide that our father used the stuff to kill mites on his roses.

Black Leaf 40 is no longer with us, following a 1992 ban on its use by the Environmental Protection Agency — you know, the department Trump wanted to eliminate — because of its widespread long-term environmental hazards as well as it’s propensity to poison people.

But the ban on Black Leaf 40 didn’t stop the widespread current use of nicotine-based insecticides, using nicotine-based chemicals called neonicotinoids.

How widespread is their use here in the U.S.?

Consider this chart from How Neonicotinoids Can Kill Bees — The Science Behind the Role These Insecticides Play in Harming Bees, a very informative new report from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation:

Estimated Annual Agricultural Use of Neonicotinoids in the United States: 1994–2014

Estimated Annual Agricultural Use of Neonicotinoids in the United States: 1994–2014

More from the report’s Executive Summary:

Neonicotinoids have been adopted for use on an extensive variety of farm crops as well as ornamental landscape plants. They are the most widely used group of insecticides in the world, and have been for a decade. Developed as alternatives for organophosphate and carbamate insecticides, neonicotinoids are compounds that affect the nervous system of insects, humans, and other animals. Although less acutely toxic to mammals and other vertebrates than older insecticides, neonicotinoids are highly toxic in small quantities to many invertebrates, including beneficial insects such as bees.

The impact of this class of insecticides on pollinating insects such as honey bees and native bees is a cause for concern. Because they are systemic chemicals absorbed into the plant, neonicotinoids can be present in pollen and nectar, making them toxic to pollinators that feed on them. The potentially long-lasting presence of neonicotinoids in plants, although useful from a pest management standpoint, makes it possible for these chemicals to harm pollinators even when the initial application is made weeks before the bloom period. In addition, depending on the compound, rate, and method of application, neonicotinoids can persist in the soil and be continually taken in by plants for a very long periods of time.

Across Europe and North America, a possible link to honey bee die-offs has made neonicotinoids controversial. In December 2013, the European Union significantly limited the use of clothianidin, imiadcloprid, and thiamethoxam on bee-attractive crops. In the United States, Canada, and elsewhere, local, state, and federal decision makers are also taking steps to protect pollinators from neonicotinoids. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service phased out all uses of neonicotinoids on National Wildlife Refuges lands starting in January 2016.

The European Union has banned the used of three neonicotinoids —  clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid — and restricted the use of a fourth, fipronil.

Given that bees are responsible for pollinating much of the food we eat, impacts on apians is a cause for deep concern.

A Colorado city bans nicotine-derivative insecticides

More on the good reasons for concern, as summarized in the following, taken from  Boulder, Colorado city government website section on protecting pollinators:

One group of pesticides, the neonicotinoid insecticides (also called neonics), stand out as a major contributing factor to the catastrophic loss of bees and other animals. Neonicotinoid insecticides are extremely toxic to pollinators at very low doses. They are absorbed and taken up by the plant, ending up in all plant tissues, including the nectar and pollen collected by pollinators and the seeds, fruits, and leaves eaten by other animals. These products are often applied as soil treatments in the form of granules or drenches, where they can persist for many years and continue to contaminate plants, kill earthworms and other important beneficial soil organisms, and run off into surface water where they can kill aquatic invertebrates. An  analysis by a consortium of independent scientists from around the globe reviewed more than 800 peer-reviewed studies and concluded that neonicotinoid insecticides pose a significant risk to the world’s pollinators, worms, birds and other animals and that immediate action is needed. Studies conclude that pesticide application rates that regulatory agencies consider protective to the environment actually harm aquatic organisms found in surface waters (dragonflies mayflies, snails and other animals that form the base of the food chain and a healthy, clean watershed) and build up in soils to levels that can kill soil organisms.

The city was so concerned that in May 2015, the city banned use of the chemicals on city land and urged similar actions by individuals, corporations, and state and federal government as well.

Canada to ban a popular neonicotnoid

One of the most widely used neonicitinoids in imidacloprid, and back in November CBC News reported that the Canadian government’s health agency is proposing a nationwide band on the substance based on its impacts on bees:

“Based on currently available information, the continued high-volume use of imidacloprid in agricultural areas is not sustainable,” the assessment states.

It proposes phasing out all agricultural uses of imidacloprid, and a majority of other uses, over the next three to five years.

“I’m really surprised,” said Mark Winston, a professor of apiculture at Simon Fraser University and senior fellow at the university’s Centre for Dialogue.

“To take an action to phase out a chemical that is so ubiquitous, and for which there is so much lobbying pressure from industry, I think that’s a really bold move.”

After the jump, impacts from use on one crop, the industry denial machine, and bee behavioral impacts. . . Continue reading

Headline of the day: A question of theodicy?


From El País:

Supreme Court judge blames violence against women on “evil”

  • Antonio Salas started a Twitter war by denying that such attacks are an educational problem.
  • Teresa Franco, a delegate for women’s affairs with the Spanish association of military personnel AUME, argued that men do not kill women because they are “wicked (biologically)” but “because they have learned that women belong to them.”
  • Salas replied: “So, those who abuse and kill do so because of an educational problem, not because they are intrinsically bad. I don’t believe that’s how it is.”

Obama’s revenge: Russian diplomats expelled


Angered over those alleged Russian hacking attacks on his party, President Barack Obama has ramped up the pressure on Moscow, today expelling a host of Russian diplomats.

Cold War 2.0 is escalating once again, though we suspect the new Oval Office occupant will do what he can to damp it down, perhaps the one silver lining in a very dark cloud.

Form teleSUR English:

The United States expelled 35 Russian diplomats and closed two Russian compounds in New York and Maryland in response to an alleged campaign of harassment against American diplomats in Moscow, a senior U.S. official said on Thursday.

The move against the diplomats from the Russian Embassy in Washington and consulate in San Francisco is part of a series of actions announced on Thursday to punish Russia for a campaign of intimidation of American diplomats in Moscow and interference in the U.S. election.

The Obama administration was also announcing on Thursday a series of retaliatory measures against Russia for allegedly hacking into U.S. political institutions and individuals and leaking information to help President-elect Donald Trump and other Republican candidates, two U.S. officials said.

Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, has called for better relations with Russia. It was not clear if he will be able to immediately overturn the measures announced on Thursday.

The Russian diplomats would have 72 hours to leave the United States, the official said. Access to the two compounds, which are used by Russian officials for intelligence gathering, will be denied to all Russian officials as of noon on Friday, the senior U.S. official added.

And on a related note. . .

Lori Harfenistis a Manhattan-based punk artist who did a show cal The Resident for the weekly show for the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, a public access channel, then moved it over to RT America in 2003.

In this brief segment she points out a conflict for the news medium that’s been doing so much on the alleged Russian hacking of the American political system. You might even call it financial hacking.

It’s short and well worth watching:

WaPo refuses to add disclosure about $600M CIA contract

Program notes:

In 2013, Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million. Only 4 months later, he was awarded a $600 million contract with the CIA. So the CIA has a direct connection to the Washington Post, the paper of record in our nation’s capital, but they refuse to add a disclosure to stories they write about the CIA.

Greek Christmas trees are dying of austerity


If there is one single story that epitomizes neoliberalism and its ruthless agenda, consider this one from the nation hardest hit by the Wall Street-bankster initirated Great Recession and the austerity regime imposed by the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank, and the European Commission.

From Kathimerini:

Demand for real Christmas trees has been declining steadily since the start of the crisis in Greece, and this year the Environment Ministry has approved the felling of around 17,000 fewer firs than last year, figures show.

Last year, 124,976 fir trees were cut down in the country, and in 2014 the number was 153,728. This shows a marked reduction from before the crisis, when the number of Christmas trees harvested came to above 200,000 a year on average.

The majority of the Christmas trees sold (85,935) last year came from cultivated forests around the country and the remainder from private farms.

And see the comments below for more.

Troikarchs continue to ramp up heat on Greece


No extra help for pensioners, they declare, even though a series of more than ten pension cuts have pushed half of elderly Greek below the poverty line,

From Kathimerini:

The institutions involved in Greece’s aid program have issued a “critical” report assessing whether unilateral measures announced by Athens are compatible with its bailout obligations, a German Finance Ministry spokesman said on Friday.

“The report is preliminary and it is quite critical,” spokesman Dennis Kolberg said, adding that the German government would evaluate the content in detail next week.

Germany had asked the institutions involved in Greece’s aid program on Wednesday to assess whether a planned pre-Christmas payout to poor pensioners was compatible with Greece’s bailout obligations.

More from Reuters:

Under Greece’s latest bailout, Athens can spend more on social programs if it exceeds its fiscal targets, provided it consults its creditors first. Earlier this year, Greek lawmakers approved a social justice bill providing health insurance to vulnerable citizens and offering jobs for the unemployed.

But political experts say the bonus was calculated to garner public support ahead of a big showdown with Greece’s emergency lenders, the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

>Snip<

Almost a dozen pension cuts have pushed nearly half of Greece’s elderly to below the poverty line with income of less than 665 euros a month. After rent, utility bills and health care, they barely make ends meet.

Germany censors its own poverty report


And what they took out were sections dealing directly with the disenfranchisement of the nation’s poorest:

From Deutsche Welle:

According to a report in the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” (SZ) newspaper, the German government has watered down passages from the fifth edition of its Report on Poverty and Wealth. The report won’t be officially published until 2017, but a draft was leaked to the press earlier this week.

The passages concern assertions that wealthy people in Germany have more political influence in Germany than poorer ones. The SZ article will only add fuel to the fire of critics of the report, which concludes that the number of poor people in Germany is growing.

The SZ says that the following passage was excised from an earlier version of the document: “Political change is significantly more likely if it’s supported by people with higher incomes.”

The document originally warned of a “crisis of political representation,” concluding that “people with lower incomes forgo political participation because in their experience, politicians take them into account to a lesser extent when making their decisions.”

Another deleted passage states that “not only do people in Germany with different incomes take part in politics to various degrees, but there is clearly a non-level playing field, to the detriment of the poor, in political decision-making.”

Mentions of “the influence of special interest representatives and lobbyism” were also omitted.

And from the article, a look at just where Germany’s poorest are located, most of them in the former East Germany:

blog-poor-germans