Archives for April 2019

Made in China, exported to the world: The surveillance state


The New York Times reports:

The squat gray building in Ecuador’s capital commands a sweeping view of the city’s sparkling sprawl, from the high-rises at the base of the Andean valley to the pastel neighborhoods that spill up its mountainsides.

The police who work inside are looking elsewhere. They spend their days poring over computer screens, watching footage that comes in from 4,300 cameras across the country.

The high-powered cameras send what they see to 16 monitoring centers in Ecuador that employ more than 3,000 people. Armed with joysticks, the police control the cameras and scan the streets for drug deals, muggings and murders. If they spy something, they zoom in.

This voyeur’s paradise is made with technology from what is fast becoming the global capital of surveillance: China.

Ecuador’s system, which was installed beginning in 2011, is a basic version of a program of computerized controls that Beijing has spent billions to build out over a decade of technological progress. According to Ecuador’s government, these cameras feed footage to the police for manual review.

But a New York Times investigation found that the footage also goes to the country’s feared domestic intelligence agency, which under the previous president, Rafael Correa, had a lengthy track record of following, intimidating and attacking political opponents. Even as a new administration under President Lenín Moreno investigates the agency’s abuses, the group still gets the videos.

Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has vastly expanded domestic surveillance, fueling a new generation of companies that make sophisticated technology at ever lower prices. A global infrastructure initiative is spreading that technology even further. [Continue reading…]

Xi Jinping wants to restore China’s former glory through expanding military power

An extended Reuters special report says:

During his period as China’s paramount leader, President Jiang Zemin handpicked Xi [Jinping] for senior office because the younger man was perceived to lack ambition, according to sources with close ties to the Chinese leadership. Xi was also thought to be a pliable candidate because he lacked a power base, one source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But as China’s top leader, he has shown a willingness to impose radical change at the top of the party, government and military.

“When I talk to my mainland friends, they all say he is a risk taker,” said Andrew Yang Nien-Dzu, former defense minister of Taiwan. “You never know what his next move will be.”

From the beginning, Xi’s corruption purge and promotion of loyal officers made it clear he had big plans for the PLA [People’s Liberation Army]. Then, in mid-2015, he cut 300,000 mostly non-combat and administrative personnel before launching a sweeping overhaul of the military structure.

He broke up the four sprawling, Maoist-era “general departments” of the PLA that had become powerful, highly autonomous and deeply corrupt, said Li [Nan] from the National University of Singapore. Xi replaced them with 15 new agencies that report directly to the Central Military Commission he chairs.

He also scrapped the seven geographically based military regions and replaced them with five joint-service theater commands. These new regional commands, comparable to those that govern the U.S. armed forces, are responsible for military operations and have a strong focus on combining air, land, naval and other capabilities of the Chinese armed forces to suit modern warfare.

Xi also promoted favored commanders, many of them officers he knew in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, where he served the bulk of his early career as an official, according to Chinese and Western observers of the PLA. Others hail from his home province of Shaanxi or are fellow princelings.

At the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Xi further tightened his grip over the top military leadership, paring the Central Military Commission from 11 members to seven and stacking it with loyalists. Xi knew most of them from Shaanxi and Fujian.

As he burnishes his military credentials, Xi draws on his early service in uniform. In speeches to military audiences, he describes himself as a soldier-turned-official, according to reports in the state-controlled media. In distinctive PLA camouflage fatigues, cap and combat boots, he has overseen some of the biggest military parades since the 1949 Communist victory. In the most recent of these displays, Xi has taken the salute from the troops without sharing the podium with the usual line-up of fellow party leaders and elders.

In a massive naval exercise in April last year, Xi boarded the guided-missile destroyer Changsha to review the Chinese fleet of 48 warships in the South China Sea. State-run television showed the navy commander, Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong, and navy political commissar, Vice Admiral Qin Shengxiang, standing to attention as they reported to Xi and saluted. Xi then gave the order for the exercise to proceed.

Both navy chiefs are Xi protégés. Shen has been rapidly promoted under Xi, leapfrogging other, more senior officers, according to Chinese and Western analysts. Qin had worked closely with the Chinese leader in a top post in the Central Military Commission before his promotion in 2017 to his navy role, China’s official military media reported.

Xi was also in fatigues again in July 2017 at a massive military parade to mark the 90th anniversary of the PLA at the Zhurihe training ground in Inner Mongolia. He took the salute from the parade commander, General Han Weiguo, an officer who served in Fujian while Xi was a party and government official in the province. Han has enjoyed a meteoric rise under Xi, being promoted to command China’s ground forces shortly after this parade.

“Xi Jinping is obsessed with military parades,” said Willy Lam Wo-lap, a veteran observer of personnel movements in China’s military and political elites and a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “He loves these demonstrations of raw power.” [Continue reading…]

Deregulation and climate change result in growing number of Americans breathing polluted air

CNN reports:

More Americans are breathing air that will make them sick, according to the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report.

The country had been making progress in cleaning up air pollution, but during the Trump administration, it has been backsliding, the report says. Deregulation and climate change are largely to blame.

President Donald Trump made a pledge in his 2017 State of the Union address to “promote clean air and water,” but his administration has reversed or proposed rollbacks to major air pollution protections, emissions standards and drilling and extraction regulations. He’s also slashed the EPA budget; the current proposal is to cut the budget by a third. [Continue reading…]

ISIS still has global reach despite the caliphate’s collapse

Robin Wright writes:

Exactly a month after losing its final piece of territory, the Islamic State is giving notice that it can still surprise the world—this time in Sri Lanka. On Tuesday, it claimed responsibility for Easter bombings of three churches and three popular hotels which killed more than three hundred innocent civilians, including more than forty children, and injured another five hundred. “The perpetrators of the attack that targeted nationals of the coalition states and Christians in Sri Lanka were from the ranks of the fighters of the Islamic State,” the ISIS news agency, Amaq, claimed in its chat rooms on Telegram, a social-media app. “Coalition” refers to an international alliance of more than seventy countries that ousted ISIS from its territory in the Middle East. A second ISIS communique included a video of eight men standing in front of the black-and-white ISIS flag, seven with their faces covered by black-and-white kaffiyehs, as they pledged bayat, or allegiance, to the Islamic State. The communique identified each man who targeted each site on an “infidel holiday.”

Evidence beyond the claim is far from definitive. But Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said, at a press conference, that government officials had early suspicions about ties between ISIS and two local Muslim extremist groups. So did U.S. counterterrorism officials. “Everyone believes there was some kind of external link because of the sophistication of the attack,” a U.S. official told me.

The scope of the attacks in Sri Lanka reflects the ongoing danger from extremist movements, whether ISIS, Al Qaeda, their offshoots, or their wannabes. The routing of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, in 2001, and the death of Osama bin Laden, a decade later, did not eliminate Al Qaeda. Today, the group has active branches in the Arabian peninsula and North Africa, and it controls a strategic Syrian province on the border with Turkey. In the past two years, ISIS has lost territory the size of Britain inside Syria and Iraq, but it still has eight official branches and more than two dozen networks regularly conducting terrorist and insurgent operations across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, according to the U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism. [Continue reading…]

Official efforts to raise alarm about Russian threat to 2020 elections, stymied by Trump

The New York Times reports:

In the months before Kirstjen Nielsen was forced to resign, she tried to focus the White House on one of her highest priorities as homeland security secretary: preparing for new and different Russian forms of interference in the 2020 election.

President Trump’s chief of staff told her not to bring it up in front of the president.

Ms. Nielsen left the Department of Homeland Security early this month after a tumultuous 16-month tenure and tensions with the White House. Officials said she had become increasingly concerned about Russia’s continued activity in the United States during and after the 2018 midterm elections — ranging from its search for new techniques to divide Americans using social media, to experiments by hackers, to rerouting internet traffic and infiltrating power grids.

But in a meeting this year, Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff, made it clear that Mr. Trump still equated any public discussion of malign Russian election activity with questions about the legitimacy of his victory. According to one senior administration official, Mr. Mulvaney said it “wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below his level.”

Even though the Department of Homeland Security has primary responsibility for civilian cyberdefense, Ms. Nielsen eventually gave up on her effort to organize a White House meeting of cabinet secretaries to coordinate a strategy to protect next year’s elections.

As a result, the issue did not gain the urgency or widespread attention that a president can command. And it meant that many Americans remain unaware of the latest versions of Russian interference. [Continue reading…]

Trump’s thirst for Mueller revenge could land him in legal trouble

Politico reports:

Special counsel Robert Mueller may be done, but President Donald Trump and his team are still adding to an already hefty record of evidence that could fuel impeachment proceedings or future criminal indictments.

Team Trump’s bellicose tweets and public statements in the last few days are potentially exposing Trump to fresh charges of witness intimidation, obstruction of justice and impeding a congressional investigation — not to mention giving lawmakers more fodder for their presidential probes — according to Democrats and legal experts.

Already, a fusillade of verbal assaults aimed at former White House counsel Don McGahn, a star witness in the Mueller report, have sparked questions about obstruction and witness intimidation as Democrats fight the Trump White House to get McGahn’s documents and testimony.

“This is risky,” said William Jeffress, a prominent Washington defense attorney who represented President Richard Nixon after he left the White House. “I find it surprising because he’s taking these shots at witnesses who gave information to Mueller, and I think he’s got to be careful because there’s an explicit federal statute punishing retaliation against witnesses.” [Continue reading…]

Experiments that make quantum mechanics directly visible to the human eye

Rebecca Holmes writes:

I spent a lot of time in the dark in graduate school. Not just because I was learning the field of quantum optics – where we usually deal with one particle of light or photon at a time – but because my research used my own eyes as a measurement tool. I was studying how humans perceive the smallest amounts of light, and I was the first test subject every time.

I conducted these experiments in a closet-sized room on the eighth floor of the psychology department at the University of Illinois, working alongside my graduate advisor, Paul Kwiat, and psychologist Ranxiao Frances Wang. The space was equipped with special blackout curtains and a sealed door to achieve total darkness. For six years, I spent countless hours in that room, sitting in an uncomfortable chair with my head supported in a chin rest, focusing on dim, red crosshairs, and waiting for tiny flashes delivered by the most precise light source ever built for human vision research. My goal was to quantify how I (and other volunteer observers) perceived flashes of light from a few hundred photons down to just one photon.

As individual particles of light, photons belong to the world of quantum mechanics – a place that can seem totally unlike the Universe we know. Physics professors tell students with a straight face that an electron can be in two places at once (quantum superposition), or that a measurement on one photon can instantly affect another, far-away photon with no physical connection (quantum entanglement). Maybe we accept these incredible ideas so casually because we usually don’t have to integrate them into our daily existence. An electron can be in two places at once; a soccer ball cannot.

But photons are quantum particles that human beings can, in fact, directly perceive. Experiments with single photons could force the quantum world to become visible, and we don’t have to wait around – several tests are possible with today’s technology. The eye is a unique biological measurement device, and deploying it opens up exciting areas of research where we truly don’t know what we might find. Studying what we see when photons are in a superposition state could contribute to our understanding of the boundary between the quantum and classical worlds, while a human observer might even participate in a test of the strangest consequences of quantum entanglement. [Continue reading…]

Music: Rob Araujo — ‘Appl’


To stop global catastrophe, we must believe in humans again

Bill McKibben writes:

Because I am concerned about inequality and about the environment, I am usually classed as a progressive, a liberal. But it seems to me that what I care most about is preserving a world that bears some resemblance to the past: a world with some ice at the top and bottom and the odd coral reef in between; a world where people are connected to the past and future (and to one another) instead of turned into obsolete software.

And those seem to me profoundly conservative positions. Meanwhile, oil companies and tech barons strike me as deeply radical, willing to alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere, eager to confer immortality.

There is a native conservatism in human beings that resists such efforts, a visceral sense of what’s right or dangerous, rash or proper. You needn’t understand every nuance of germline engineering or the carbon cycle to understand why monkeying around on this scale might be a bad idea. And indeed, polling suggests that most people instinctively oppose, say, living forever or designing babies, just as they want government action to stabilise the climate.

Luckily, we have two relatively new inventions that could prove decisive to solving global warming before it destroys the planet. One is the solar panel, and the other is the nonviolent movement. Obviously, they are not the same sort of inventions: the solar panel (and its cousins, the wind turbine and the lithium-ion battery) is hardware, while the ability to organise en masse for change is more akin to software. Indeed, even to call nonviolent campaigning a “technology” will strike some as odd. Each is still in its infancy; we deploy them, but fairly blindly, finding out by trial and error their best uses. Both come with inherent limits: neither is as decisive or as immediately powerful as, say, a nuclear weapon or a coal-fired power plant. But both are transformative nonetheless – and, crucially, the power they wield is human in scale. [Continue reading…]

Melting permafrost in Arctic will have $70tn climate impact, study predicts

The Guardian reports:

The release of methane and carbon dioxide from thawing permafrost will accelerate global warming and add up to $70tn (£54tn) to the world’s climate bill, according to the most advanced study yet of the economic consequences of a melting Arctic.

If countries fail to improve on their Paris agreement commitments, this feedback mechanism, combined with a loss of heat-deflecting white ice, will cause a near 5% amplification of global warming and its associated costs, says the paper, which was published on Tuesday in Nature Communications.

The authors say their study is the first to calculate the economic impact of permafrost melt and reduced albedo – a measure of how much light that hits a surface is reflected without being absorbed – based on the most advanced computer models of what is likely to happen in the Arctic as temperatures rise. It shows how destabilised natural systems will worsen the problem caused by man-made emissions, making it more difficult and expensive to solve. [Continue reading…]