Tag Archives: whistleblowing

Iceland as a Privacy Haven?

Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Plant, Iceland. Image from wikipedia

A former NATO airbase in Iceland  looks  like nothing more than a huge warehouse from the outside.  But the barbed-wire fence surrounding it and surveillance cameras atop its gates betray  its importance.  This facility, which began operating in February 2012, is one of several data centres in Iceland. It’s run by Verne Global, a company that allows its customers to store data on servers here.

Tate Cantrell, the company’s chief technical officer, explained why Verne Global favoured this tiny Nordic nation of all places. “In Iceland, you’ve got this ideal situation: energy, excellent connectivity for data, and a constant cool climate. So Iceland was an obvious choice.”  Iceland’s abundant renewable energy from geothermal and hydroelectric plants means the costs of running these data centres are low. And the Gulf Stream current keeps the temperature in Iceland more or less stable throughout the year, avoiding the need to provide cooling for the servers and computers.

Data centres based here have another advantage, too: Iceland is in the initial stage of implementing the most progressive data-privacy laws in the world, a major selling point especially after whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding widespread surveillance by the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA).  A recent paper published by Verne Global stated that Iceland was “uniquely positioned as a data privacy haven” because of the new regulations.

The International Modern Media Institute (IMMI), a non-profit organisation, has played an instrumental role in designing and promoting the legal framework for Iceland’s new data privacy laws….Birgitta Jónsdóttir is IMMI’s spokeswoman and now represents the Pirate Party in the Icelandic parliament.  In 2010, the IMMI, then known as the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, proposed a resolution to change Icelandic law to ensure data privacy and freedom of speech. The proposal includes protection for whistleblowers and journalists’ sources, as well as an “ultra-modern Freedom of Information Act” based on elements from existing laws in Estonia, the United Kingdom, and Norway.  The data centres would benefit from a clause in the law that ensures the protection of intermediaries such as internet service providers and telecommunications carriers.The resolution was passed by the Icelandic parliament that same year, and is now being implemented into law, piece by piece.  “A bit more than half of what IMMI proposed has been made into law – somewhere between 50 and 70 percent,” Jonsdottir said…

Despite the new measures, Icelandic journalist Jón Bjarki Magnusson said he thinks his country still has a long way to go when it comes to media freedom.  “IMMI for me is a bit like a fairy tale, reality on the ground is different from the idea,” he told Al Jazeera at a café in downtown Reykjavik. “I like the idea but Iceland is far from being a haven for free journalism.”Earlier this year, Magnusson worked on an investigative story for DV newspaper, in which he wrongly identified an assistant to Iceland’s interior minister as being under police investigation.  Magnusson and his colleagues quickly realised their mistake and issued an apology within a few hours of publishing. But that didn’t stop the official from pressing criminal libel charges against Magnusson and a colleague of his, Johann Pall Johannsson, demanding a sentence of up to two years in prison.

Watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has issued a statement condemning the steps against the reporters as disproportionate. The group said that freedom of information in Iceland has declined over the past two years, citing the libel case and budget cuts for public broadcasters.

Excerpt from Felix Gaedtke, Can Iceland become the ‘Switzerland of data’?, Al Jazeera, Dec. 28, 2014

International Policing: Interpol and human rights

Interpol_notice_logos

Excerpt from the Executive Summary of “Strengthening respect for human rights, strengthening INTERPOL” published by Fair Trials International, an NGO

‘Red Notices’, international wanted person alerts published by INTERPOL at national authorities’  request, come with considerable human impact: arrest, detention, frozen freedom of movement,  employment problems, and reputational and financial harm. These interferences with basic  rights can, of course, be justified when INTERPOL acts to combat international crime.

However, our casework suggests that countries are, in fact, using INTERPOL’s systems against exiled  political opponents, usually refugees, and based on corrupt criminal proceedings, pointing to a  structural problem. We have identified two key areas for reform.  First, INTERPOL’s protections against abuse are ineffective. It assumes that Red Notices are  requested in good faith and appears not to review these requests rigorously enough. Its interpretation of its cardinal rule on the exclusion of political matters is unclear, but appears to  be out of step with international asylum and extradition law. General Secretariat review also  happens only after national authorities have disseminated Red Notices in temporary form across  the globe using INTERPOL’s ‘i-link’ system, creating a permanent risk to individuals even if the  General Secretariat refuses the Red Notice. Some published Red Notices also stay in place  despite extradition and asylum decisions recognising the political nature of the case.

Full Report, Nov. 2013

Tax Evaders and Whistleblowers

HSBC Private Bank n London, image from wikipedia

What  Edward Snowden is to mass surveillance, Hervé Falciani is becoming to private banking. In 2008 the now 41-year-old native of Monaco walked out of the Geneva branch of HSBC, where he had worked for three years, clutching five CD-ROMs containing data on thousands of account holders. The theft lobbed a bomb into Europe’s private-banking market, spawning raids and tax-evasion investigations continentwide. In the latest, this week, Belgian agents swooped on the homes of 20 HSBC clients, including some with ties to Antwerp diamond dealers.

Mr Falciani went on the run when the Swiss charged him with data theft. After moving to Spain he was imprisoned, but freed when a judge denied a Swiss extradition request. At one point, he claims, he was kidnapped by Mossad agents who wanted a peek at the clients’ names. He has now taken refuge in France, where the government has offered him protection in return for helping it hunt for tax dodgers.

Several countries have used the data to bring cases against suspected evaders. Revelations that dozens of Greek public figures hid money offshore have magnified the tumult in that country’s politics. Spain and France have fingered hundreds of high-level cheats and retrieved €350m ($610m) in back taxes. Mr Falciani maintains that his CDs provided support for an American probe into weak money-laundering controls at HSBC, which led to a $1.9 billion settlement. HSBC disputes this.

Mr Falciani has said he still fears for his safety, despite round-the-clock protection from three armed guards provided by the French. At least he is not short of work. He has been helping France’s tax authorities develop long-term anti-tax-evasion measures. And he recently became an adviser to a new Spanish political party, Partido X (which, ironically, tries to keep its members anonymous).

He insists his motives have always been pure: to repel Switzerland’s “attack” on other countries’ tax laws and exchequers. HSBC says he is no high-minded whistle-blower. He tried to sell the data at first, the bank contends, and started to work with prosecutors only when he was jailed in Spain. It claims he has data on only 15,000 clients (Mr Falciani says it is eight times that) and that the stolen files contain errors.

Either way, many more tax-shy Europeans have reason to sleep fitfully. Other countries are said to want a look at the data, some of which are yet to be decrypted. When Mr Falciani first made the rounds with his discs, there was little interest. The fiscal strains produced by the euro crisis have changed all that.

Banks and tax evasion: Hervé lifting, Economist, Oct. 19, 2013, at 79

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