Monthly Archives: June 2011

Lutz Security and Lack of Transparency: the AntiSec Movement

Only a little more than a month and a half ago, the merry pranksters of Lulz Security began their quest to wreak havoc on the computer systems of the world, all in the name of lulz. Today, that anarchic campaign has come to an abrupt end. The group announced via a statement posted to Pastebin that it will permanently disband, dropping the Lulz Boat anchor for good. As a parting gift, LulzSec also released a trove of data stolen from companies like AOL and AT&T, evidence that the group hacked the website of the US Navy, plus a variety of other illicit goodies.

“For the past 50 days we’ve been disrupting and exposing corporations, governments, often the general population itself, and quite possibly everything in between, just because we could,” writes LulzSec. “All to selflessly entertain others – vanity, fame, recognition, all of these things are shadowed by our desire for that which we all love. The raw, uninterrupted, chaotic thrill of entertainment and anarchy.”

The group confirmed its retirement on the LulzSec Twitter feed, which managed to amass 277,540 followers during its short stint online.

During its 50-day reign of digital terror, LulzSec hacked PBS.org, a variety of websites owned by Sony, Nintendo, FBI affiliate Infragard Atlanta, 50+ porn sites, Bethesda software, 4Chan.org, CIA.gov, Senate.gov and a variety of law enforcement agencies in Arizona….

While the group says that the brief duration of its existence was planned from the beginning, some have already begun to argue that the pressure on LulzSec simply became too much for them to handle. And they might have a point. In the past two weeks alone, Scotland Yard arrested a 19-year-old with ties to the group; hacker group Web Ninjas published names, photos and other personal data related to people it claims are members of LulzSec; and another hacker group, TeaMp0isoN, defaced the website of an alleged LulzSec member.

Excerpt, LulzSec calls it quits after 50 days of hacks, Yahoo News, June 27, 2011

Again, behind the mask, behind the insanity and mayhem, we truly believe in the AntiSec movement. We believe in it so strongly that we brought it back, much to the dismay of those looking for more anarchic lulz. We hope, wish, even beg, that the movement manifests itself into a revolution that can continue on without us. The support we’ve gathered for it in such a short space of time is truly overwhelming, and not to mention humbling. Please don’t stop. Together, united, we can stomp down our common oppressors and imbue ourselves with the power and freedom we deserve.”  From the Press Release of Lutz Security

Obama v. Assange, secret information and transparency

Forty years ago this week the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, the largest leak of classified documents in American history until WikiLeaks came along.

Julian Assange’s outfit is Barack Obama’s problem, and though the current administration lacks the vindictiveness and criminality of the Nixon White House, it has pursued leakers with just as much vigour. After promising the most transparent administration in history, Mr Obama and his Justice Department have pressed criminal charges against five suspected leakers under the Espionage Act, more than all other administrations combined, including Nixon’s.

Its efforts, so far, have had mixed results. Three cases are still pending, including that of Bradley Manning, who is accused of leaking a trove of classified documents to WikiLeaks, which itself is under investigation by a grand jury. Mr Assange may be the administration’s great white whale, but last year it netted a smaller fish when it sent an FBI linguist, Shamai Leibowitz, to prison for 20 months for passing secret documents to a blogger.

More recently, though, the government has watched its case against Thomas Drake collapse. Mr Drake, a former official at the National Security Agency (NSA), tried to report mismanagement and illegalities at the agency to government officials, but was ignored. He then went to the press. The government charged him with misappropriating classified material, though he denied he had shared any secrets. Prosecutors, wary of revealing sensitive material in court, tried to tempt him with a generous plea deal, but he held out until last week. Originally facing up to 35 years in prison, he will now receive a much milder sentence, perhaps including no time in jail.

The government’s aggressive pursuit of Mr Drake confounded advocates of open government. In the eyes of many, his attempts to expose waste and wrongdoing at his agency make him a whistleblower. And although the law does not compel the government to differentiate between good leaks and bad leaks, Mr Obama has praised whistleblowing in the past, arguing that “such acts of courage and patriotism…should be encouraged rather than stifled.”

Others accuse the administration of having a double standard. Among the three cases still pending, Stephen Kim, a former State Department contractor, is accused of passing classified information about North Korea to Fox News. But his disclosures pale beside those in Bob Woodward’s book “Obama’s Wars”, which were evidently leaked by far more senior officials. “How can it be in the US government’s interest to pursue Mr Kim in the manner it has and allow this much more blatant event to go unaddressed?” asked Abbe Lowell, Mr Kim’s lawyer, in a letter to the Justice Department.

A bigger problem still is overclassification. Americans have been able to read most of the Pentagon Papers for 40 years, but the documents were declassified only this week. Similarly, many of the dispatches allegedly leaked by Mr Manning are still considered government secrets. And the Obama administration has only made things worse. According to the Information Security Oversight Office, a government agency, the administration created 224,734 new secrets in its first year in office, up 22.6% on the year before.

Even as the administration strives to keep secrets, it can still claim to have made some progress towards greater openness. Government agencies are putting more information online, and many have cut into the backlog of Freedom-of-Information-Act requests. Last year Mr Obama declassified the size of America’s nuclear arsenal and this year he revealed his intelligence budget request.

Excerpts, Classified information:Return of the plumbers, Economist, June 18, 2011, at 38

The Arrogant v. the Incompetent: US troops v. Afghan forces

In late May, a NATO soldier was killed as he emerged from his tent. Two weeks earlier, two NATO soldiers were killed while eating a meal. In late April, eight U.S. troops were shot dead at a meeting at Kabul airport.  The attacks had one thing in common: The killers all wore Afghan military or police uniforms.  Foreign troops serving in Afghanistan say they’re increasingly concerned about the “enemy within.” Yet they emphasize the importance of keeping anxiety in check amid a climate of deepening mutual distrust….

Since March 2009, at least 57 foreign troops, including 32 Americans, have been killed in 19 attacks by Afghan service members. More than half occurred this year….Maj. Gen. James Mallory, deputy commander for NATO training, said threats may include Taliban “sleeper” recruits who infiltrate the Afghan ranks; militants who use acquired uniforms to sneak onto bases; Afghan soldiers “turned” by blackmail, ideology or financial desperation; and stress-related cases in which a perceived insult or misunderstanding turns deadly.  Although the Taliban frequently claims responsibility for the attacks, fueling a myth of invincibility, the vast majority of cases involve stress or cultural differences, Mallory said.  “This is a society that for 30 years has been at war,” he said. “Only now are we coming to terms with the effects of stress on the force.”  Most Afghan and foreign troops get along well, he said, pointing out that the recent rise in killings dovetails with a proportionate rise in troops operating in the field.

Thomas Barfield, an anthropology professor at Boston University and author of a book on Afghanistan’s cultural history, said the U.S.-Afghan cultural gap is enormous.  “It’s like oil and water,” said Barfield, who has been paying visits to the country since the 1970s. “Neither side knows what [angers] the other. American soldiers are fairly foul-mouthed. Afghans are from an honor-based society and feel disrespected.”  A classified U.S. Army study based on 600 troop interviews, first reported in the Wall Street Journal, said “fratricide-murder” cases are provoking a crisis of confidence among Westerners working with Afghan forces. Recruits from the lower echelons of Afghan society are “somewhat prone to turning on and murdering their Western trainers,” the report said.

Many Afghans interviewed for the report saw American troops as arrogant, culturally insensitive bullies who humiliated them by searching and disarming them in public and frequently violated women’s privacy.And American forces often characterized their Afghan counterparts as drug abusers and thieves who were also incompetent, corrupt and lazy with “repulsive hygiene.”

Lt. Cmdr. Colette Murphy, spokeswoman for the NATO force in Afghanistan, said the report was systemically flawed and sensational, and relied on an inadequate sample, adding that “there will always be points of friction when cultures are forced to share close quarters and dangerous situations.”  Despite Taliban boasts of responsibility, commanders in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said there’s little direct evidence of sleeper cells or even much infiltration.

Still, they have stepped up countermeasures, including tougher screening for new Afghan recruits using iris scans, fingerprinting, drug-testing and database searches. And they’ve stationed more U.S. counterintelligence experts in Afghanistan to work with Afghan experts adept at recognizing cultural cues.

These include requiring that two elders vouch for every potential recruit, ensuring that they are well-known in the community, and flagging behavioral changes, such as when a moderately religious Afghan soldier becomes more hostile toward foreigners after time off, when he is most likely to face Taliban pressure.

By claiming responsibility for uniformed attacks, militants accomplish several objectives…The attacks stir up suspicion between Afghan and foreign forces…They make the Afghan people distrust symbols of state authority. And they deter job-seekers from joining the uniformed services, because Afghan police or soldiers are so often victimized by those posing as uniformed security personnel.  “It’s very effective,” he said. “Fear is a very important tool.”

Exceprts, By Mark Magnier,Attackers in uniform add to anxiety in Afghanistan, Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2011

Carbon Footprint Labels

Do you look for carbon-footprint labels on goods when shopping? If you do, you are in a small minority. The practice of adding labels to foods and other products, showing the quantity (in grams) of carbon-dioxide emissions associated with making and transporting them, began in 2007 when the world’s first such labels were applied to a handful of products sold in Britain. The idea was that carbon labels would let shoppers identify products with the smallest carbon footprints, just as other labels already indicate dolphin-friendly tuna, organic milk or Fairtrade coffee. Producers would compete to reduce the carbon footprints of their products, and consumers would be able to tell whether, for example, locally made goods really were greener than imported ones.

Carbon labels have yet to become as widely recognised by consumers as other eco-labels, however. A survey carried out in 2010 by Which?, a British consumer group, found that just a fifth of British shoppers recognised the carbon footprint label, compared with recognition rates of 82% for Fairtrade and 54% for organic labelling. This is understandable, because carbon labelling is a much more recent development—organic labelling dates back to the 1970s, and Fairtrade to the late 1980s—and the right ways to do it are still being worked out. Adding a carbon label to a product is a complex and often costly process that involves tracing its ingredients back up their respective supply chains and through their manufacturing processes, to work out their associated emissions. According to 3M, an American industrial giant that makes over 55,000 different products, this can cost $30,000 for a single product. To further confuse matters, different carbon footprinting and labelling standards have emerged in different countries, preventing direct comparisons between the various types of label.

Even so, proponents of carbon labels now see encouraging signs of progress. In Britain, a pioneer in carbon labelling, nine out of ten households bought products with carbon labels last year, albeit mostly unwittingly, and total sales of such products exceeded-

Divide and Conquer: China and the South China Sea

In 2002 China and the ten-member Association of South-East Asian Nations agreed to a “declaration” on a code of conduct for the South China Sea. This is a promise to formalise a code minimising the risk that disputes between fishermen or other users of the sea might escalate into conflict. The code has not emerged. But optimists point to the restraint parties have shown since 2002 in not occupying uninhabited islands or specks of rock (though they have been energetically fortifying the places where they already had a presence). Similarly, some were cheered when China’s most recent statement of its claim did not include the contentious map, and could even be construed as accepting (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) UNCLOS principles.

..But in late May 2011 a Vietnamese ship exploring for oil and gas in the Sea had its surveying cables cut by Chinese patrol boats..Around the time when the Vietnamese survey ship had its lines cut, the Philippines reported that Chinese vessels had been spotted unloading building material on an uninhabited reef, known as the Amy Douglas Bank, in waters it claims, apparently to build an oil rig. If so, this would undermine the declaration’s one big achievement. “It could be the final nail in its coffin,” says Ian Storey of the Institute for South-East Asian Studies in Singapore, author of a new book on China’s rise and South-East Asian security.

Even if China does not build on the reef, the perception has taken hold that it is intent on picking off the South-East Asian claimants one by one, starting with the Philippines, one of the weakest.

Excerpts, Banyan: Not littorally Shangri-La, Economist, June 11, 2011, at 50

Uncontacted tribe in Amazon Rainforest

Brazilian authorities say they have pinpointed the location of a community of uncontacted tribespeople in one of the remotest corners of the Amazon rainforest.  Fabricio Amorim, a regional co-ordinator for Brazil’s indigenous foundation, Funai, said the indigenous community had been found after three small forest clearings were detected on satellite images. Flyovers were carried out in April, confirming the community’s existence.  Four straw-roofed huts, flanked by banana trees and encircled by thick jungle, can be seen in photographs taken during the flyover.  The community is likely to be home to about 200 people, probably from the Pano linguistic group which straddles the border between Brazil, Peru and Bolivia, according to Funai.  Amorim said the region — known as the Vale do Javari — contained “the greatest concentration of isolated groups in the Amazon and the world” but warned of growing threats to their survival  “Among the main threats to the well-being of these groups are illegal fishing, hunting, logging, mining, cattle ranching, missionary actions… and drug trafficking,” he said. Oil exploration over the border in Peru could also have a negative impact on indigenous tribes in region.  Officially, Funai recognises the existence of 14 uncontacted tribes in the Vale do Javari, making up a total of at least 2,000 people… Government officials currently seek to avoid direct contact with Brazil’s uncontacted tribes… Many believe limited contact may become necessary in order to protect the groups from external threats.

José Carlos Meirelles, a veteran Funai official who has spent more than two decades working in the Javari region, said in 2009: “If this situation continues, contact will become inevitable, and it is better that it happens with us than with loggers or goldpanners.”

Uncontacted tribe found deep in Amazon rainforest, Guardian, June 22, 2011

Disaster Dams, China and Myanmar

Opponents of the colossal edifice [of  the Three Gorges dam in China] have been emboldened by rare government admissions of environmental and other “urgent” problems caused by the dam.  In private, officials have worried about the project for some time and occasionally their doubts have surfaced in the official media. But the government itself has refused to acknowledge them. When the project was approved by the rubber-stamp parliament in 1992, debate was stifled by the oppressive political atmosphere of the time, following the Tiananmen Square massacre three years earlier. Last July, with the dam facing its biggest flood crest since completion in 2006, officials hinted that they might have overstated its ability to control flooding. On May 18th, with the dam again in the spotlight because of the drought, a cabinet meeting chaired by the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, went further in acknowledging drawbacks.

Having called the dam “hugely beneficial overall”, the cabinet’s statement said there were problems relating to the resettlement of 1.4m people, to the environment and to the “prevention of geological disasters” that urgently needed addressing. The dam, it said, had had “a certain impact” on navigation, irrigation and water-supply downstream. Some of these problems had been forecast at the design stage or spotted during construction. But they had been “difficult to resolve effectively because of limitations imposed by conditions at the time.” It did not elaborate.

The confession has triggered a flurry of articles in official newspapers about the dam’s deficiencies. Some recalled a warning given by one of China’s most famous critics, Huang Wanli, before his death ten years ago that the dam would silt up the reservoir basin and sooner or later have to be blown up. The Oriental Morning Post even filled its front page with a picture of Mr Huang, who was persecuted by Mao Zedong for his criticism of the Sanmenxia dam on the Yellow River. Sanmenxia was the nation’s pride until its reservoir silted up. On June 7th Shanghai Daily, an English-language paper, called the Three Gorges “that monstrous damming project”.

Its effect on the drought is difficult to prove. Officials deny assertions that the dam and its more than 600-km (370-mile) reservoir might have affected the regional climate. But one official, Wang Jingquan of the Yangzi’s Water Resources Committee, conceded that the dam had lowered water levels in two of the country’s biggest freshwater lakes, making the impact worse. The rapid lowering of the reservoir’s level has also raised fears of landslides and earthquakes. Probe International, a Canadian NGO, published a report on June 1st by Chinese government experts saying the dam had caused “significantly increased” seismic activity.

Excerpt, China and opposition to dams: Choking on the Three Gorges, Economist, June 11, 2011, at 43

The Myitsone hydropower project,-

Dumping Waste at Sea: China

Explosive economic growth in China’s coastal regions has led to levels of ocean pollution that threaten human and marine life, a government report concluded.  The State Oceanic Administration of China says 18,000 square miles of Chinese coastal oceanic territory is seriously polluted, an increase of 7,000 square miles from last year, Inter Press Service reported Monday.

As expanding coastal centers dispose of a growing amount of industrial and domestic waste at sea, about 56,000 square miles of the country’s coastal waters failed to meet standards for “clear water” in 2009, the SOA reported.  Overall, 14 of the 18 ecological zones monitored by the SOA were found to have unhealthy levels of pollution. SOA’s 2010 China Marine Environment Bulletin reported that 86 percent of China’s estuaries, bays, wetlands, coral reefs and seaweed beds were below what the agency considers “healthy.”

Excerpt, Marine pollution problem for China, UPI.com, June 20, 2011

Nuclear Power: Japan and Germany

Responding to the nuclear disaster is even harder [for Japan]. Mr Kan had initially sought to stay in power until the Fukushima nuclear plant has stabilised its reactors and reached a state of “cold shutdown”. But the timetable for that may already have slipped into 2012, which is too distant for those trying to oust him.  Not only is Fukushima Dai-ichi’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), struggling to keep the plant under control. It is also stretched by the demands for compensation from people whose livelihoods, at least for the time being, have been ruined by the disaster. The government has patched together a compensation scheme, but experts believe this may have been a sop to let the company’s book-keepers approve the end-of-year accounts. As fears of bankruptcy mount, TEPCO’s shares hit a new low on June 6th.

Tatsuo Hatta, an economist at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, believes TEPCO may have to sell off its power plants to international operators to remain solvent. That could set in motion what he and a few outspoken commentators consider a long overdue overhaul of the energy market in Japan, which could have an immense impact on national politics. He says that executives at TEPCO and the other oligopolistic electricity utilities have stifled argument about Japan’s nuclear-energy programme, both by pouring money into politics and by muffling the media through their huge advertising budgets…

The huge swathes of land destroyed by the tsunami or depopulated because of radiation could become wind, wave or solar farms.

Excerpt, Japan’s recovery: Who needs leaders?, Economist, June 11, at 27

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Everyone was horrified by the earthquake and tsunami that killed 24,000 Japanese and caused three nuclear meltdowns. But in Germany the feeling was laced with terror. Suspicion of nuclear power became mass revulsion. At a recent race in Berlin sponsored by Vattenfall, which generates nuclear power, many runners carried no-nuke flags.

The response of Chancellor Angela Merkel has been called the swiftest change of political course since unification. Only last year her government overturned a decade-old decision to phase out nuclear power by 2022. After Japan she suspended that policy and yanked seven of Germany’s 17 reactors off the electricity grid. On May 30th she completed her U-turn. The plan to keep nuclear plants operating for 12 more years was scrapped; the seven reactors will be shut for good. Germany will be “the first big industrial country to shift to highly efficient and renewable energy, with all the opportunities that offers,” Mrs Merkel promised. Industry is less thrilled about losing nuclear, which provides 23% of Germany’s electricity reliably and cheaply. It “fills me with worry,” said Hans-Peter Keitel, president of the Federation of German Industries.

The “energy transformation” is neither as revolutionary as Mrs Merkel suggests nor as hazardous as industry fears. Germany is returning to its policy of seven months ago. It has surplus generating capacity and low prices that are unlikely to rise much in the next few years, notes Mark Lewis of Deutsche Bank. Mrs Merkel’s shift was already under way. In 2000 30% of electricity came from nuclear. Since then, renewables like solar and wind have expanded their share from 6.6% to 16.5%.

The new plan is meant to make it easier to raise this share. But Mrs Merkel is also using Germans’ nuclear fears to smash their aversion to new infrastructure. The Bundestag is due to approve eight laws by the end of June to facilitate this. Yet the task depends also on citizens’ participation. “What is your contribution?” Mrs Merkel asks people…The nuclear reversal burnishes her credentials as a moderniser. Whether it will help Europe’s strongest economy is less clear. The rise in fickle solar and wind power increases the risk of instability in electricity supplies; with the closure of seven reactors, “we are really going to the limits,” says Christian Schneller of TenneT, a Dutch-German transmission company. Congestion on lines carrying power from north to south raises the risk of blackouts.

Germany promises neither to increase imports from nuclear neighbours nor to emit more greenhouse gases than planned. That will be hard. “You can’t have a liberalised energy market and close the border,” says Manuel Frondel of RWI, a research institute. Germany will emit an extra 370m tonnes of CO2 as it replaces nuclear with gas- and coal-fired plants. Europe’s emissions are capped by an emission-trading scheme, but the costs will now rise for everybody. Germany’s own goal is more ambitious: a 40% reduction from 1990 by 2020. This will not be met, says Mr Frondel.

Mr Schneller says the pace of progress on infrastructure must dictate the energy mix, not the other way around. Of the 3,500km (2,175 miles) of transmission lines that are needed to carry renewable power from (largely northern) sources to southern and western consumers, just 90km have been built. “Monster masts” provoke almost as much opposition as nuclear reactors. To shift fully to renewables, Germany needs to boost storage capacity by a factor of 500.

The government plans to speed up planning and licensing, as it did after unification. Progress is to be monitored, perhaps by a new parliamentary watchdog. The government may set up a “national energy transformation forum” to enlist citizens. If greenhouse-gas emissions rise faster than planned, says Mrs Merkel, conservation will have to improve.

Germany cannot do all this on its own, argues Ottmar Edenhofer of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Big efficiency gains will come only if Europe’s carbon cap includes housing and transport. Ramping up renewables would make more sense if Germany tapped into sunnier and windier parts of Europe, which requires a pan-European electricity grid. “Scaling up can only be done on a European level,” says Mr Edenhofer.

Excerpts, German energy: Nuclear? Nein, danke, Economist, June 4, 2011,at 62