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Monday, February 01, 2016

UK scientists given permission to genetically modify human embryos for first time

Scientists in the UK will be allowed to genetically modify human embryos for the first time in history, after they received a licence to go ahead with groundbreaking research into the early stages of human life.
Permission has been granted to alter the DNA of embryos in the first seven days after fertilisation, and could provide clues in the short term as to what causes miscarriage in women.
It remains illegal for the scientists to implant the altered embryos into women, but the decision represents a huge landmark in the use of revolutionary gene-editing technology known as Crispr-Cas9.
The licence was granted by the UK's independent Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). The committee added a caveat that no gene editing can take place until the research receives separate approval from an ethics panel, which could be achieved by March.
The project is being led by Dr Kathy Niakan at the Francis Crick Institute in London, and colleagues said they were "delighted" her licence application had been approved.
Much of Dr Niakan's application was dedicated to addressing the ethical issues surrounding the editing of human embryos. After the passing of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act in 2008, the UK has some of the strongest legislation in the world in this field.
The research will see scientists cutting into the genetic code of embryos, isolating individual segments of DNA and assessing how they contribute to the early growth and behaviour of the embryos.
An embryo only has around 250 cells at the seven-day point of development, and a high proportion are simply absorbed into the placenta. Understanding which genes dictate this could dramatically improve IVF success rates in future.
The project will use surplus embryos from IVF treatment which would have been destroyed anyway, and women will be required to give specific consent for them to be used in this way.
Crispr-Cas9 is an immensely powerful technique invented three years ago which allows DNA to be "cut and pasted" using molecular "scissors".
It could lead to huge leaps forward in science and medicine but critics have warned that the pace of change is too fast.
They fear misuse of such technology could lead to potentially dangerous treatments and "designer babies".
One major concern is that making changes to embryonic DNA could have unknown harmful effects throughout an individual's body. There is also the risk of passing genetic "mistakes" on to future generations.
But scientists hailed the decision on Monday as an "encouraging step" in the road to Crispr-Cas9 producing clinical results.
Professor Peter Braude, an expert in obstetrics and gynaecology from King's College London, said: "I am delighted to hear that the HFEA have had the good sense to approve this important project.
"Gene editing tools will allow fresh insights into the basic genetic mechanisms that control cell allocation in the early embryo.
"These mechanisms are crucial in ensuring healthy normal development and implantation, and when they go wrong might result in failure to implant or miscarriage. I await results with interest."
Bruce Whitelaw, professor of animal biotechnology at the Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, said: "This project, by increasing our understanding of how the early human embryo develops and grows, will add to the basic scientific knowledge needed for devising strategies to assist infertile couples and reduce the anguish of miscarriage.
"More broadly, this approval is another example of the lead position UK scientists are taking in evaluating the exciting new genome editing technology - which ranges from advances in human reproduction, to controlling the spread of insect-borne diseases, to precision breeding in plant and livestock agriculture."
And Dr Sarah Chan, chancellor's fellow at the Usher Institute for Population Health Sciences and Informatics, University of Edinburgh, said: "This is an encouraging step as it demonstrates that good science and effective ethical oversight can go hand in hand.
"Dr Niakan's research into the biology of early human development is valuable both for scientific knowledge and the therapeutic applications it may eventually produce, for example in treating infertility and in stem cell therapies.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Gov’t: Shutdown at U.S. nuclear plant after 10 control rods accidentally fall into reactor core — Caused by ‘smoldering’ event, Fire Brigade on scene — Incident of this type could lead to overheating, potentially resulting in ‘supercriticality’

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Event Notification Reports, Dec 7, 2015 (emphasis added): MANUAL REACTOR TRIP INITIATED DUE TO MULTIPLE DROPPED CONTROL RODS — At 1731 [EST] on December 5, 2015, Indian Point Unit 2 Control Room operators initiated a Manual Reactor Trip due to indications of multiple dropped Control Rods. The initiating event was a smoldering Motor Control Center (MCC) cubicle in the Turbine Building that supplies power to the Rod Control System… The affected cubicle has ceased smoldering and is being monitored by on-site Fire Brigade trained personnel… The cause of the smoldering MCC is being investigated and a post reactor trip evaluation is being conducted by the licensee… The licensee has notified the NRC Resident Inspector and appropriate State and Local authorities.
The Journal News, Dec 7, 2015: One of Indian Point’s two nuclear reactors will remain shut down for the next couple of days following a power loss on Saturday, a company spokesman said Sunday. Unit 2 was powered down around 5:20 p.m. Saturday by operators after about 10 control rods “dropped” into the reactor core, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Committee… Neel Sheehan, a spokesperson for the NRC, said a preliminary investigation indicated the problem stemmed from a sudden power loss to the mechanism holding the rods. The plant’s control rods, made of materials that can absorb neutrons, are used to control the fissioning of atoms that generate power… Government inspectors visited Indian Point on Saturday and Sunday. “No immediate concerns were identified,” Sheehan said in an e-mail, adding that inspectors would return to the site “to follow up on troubleshooting, repair activities and restart planning.”
Gothamist, Dec 6, 2015: In a statement, Gov. Cuomo… said he’s sending a team from the Department of Public Service to investigate the incident and monitor the process of bringing the reactor back online.
Several control rods also appear to have dropped at Virginia’s North Anna nuclear power plant after an earthquake in 2011:
  • U.S. NRC Event Notification, Aug 29, 2011: EMERGENCY DECLARED… North Anna Power Station declared an Alert due to significant seismic activity
  • U.S. NRC email, Sept 2011: RE: North Anna… At this point, it appears that the grippers for several of the control rods deenergized and dropped.
  • Westinghouse patent: A dropped rodwill initially result in a reduction in the total power generated by the core. The reactor will then attempt to meet the load… by increasing power in the remainder of the core which could lead to local overheating elsewhere in the core.
  • Satoshi Sato, Nuclear Engineer, April 28, 2015 (emphasis added): “I don’t know if you remember, there was the earthquake in 2011 in Virginia. That was a big one… enough to cause vibration to the North Anna reactor resulting in a big spike of neutron fluxor reactor power… and somehow caused the additional radioactivity into the core. So that’s something scary, potentially resulting in a supercriticality.” (IEER: “The neutron spike accompanying a sudden supercriticality can lead to an explosion of the reactor core. It is this sort of event which occurred at the Chernobyl reactor”)

Friday, November 13, 2015

‘Extremists exploit Islam for political gains’

Efforts must be made to counter groups using religion as a foil for politics says academic professor
Several groups that claim to act in the name of Islam are in fact un-Islamic and are only using religion as a means to legitimise their activities, a visiting academic scholar said in the capital on Wednesday.
During a lecture organised by the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, Dr Mohammad Saadi, an associate professor at the University of Mohammad the First, Morocco, spoke on the dynamics of politics and religion.
“Islam needs to be liberated and purified from groups that are using the religion for political gains. These groups foster a very narrow-minded totalitarian ideology and share no resemblance to Islam,” he said.
Dr Saadi explained that much of the violence currently being witnessed in the Arab world is a result of extremist groups trying to fuse their ideology within the realms of politics.
“The problematic relationship between religion and politics is at the heart of current conflicts tied to the intellectual and political decision-making in the Arab and Muslim world,” he said.
“The slogans that have been advocated by groups that are trying to use Islam for their political goals has led to the prevalence of terrorism and violence,” he added.
Combating such groups requires a strong intellectual response according to Dr Saadi. “The ideological aspects behind extremist groups cannot be ignored and must be met head on. The battle is an intellectual one, unless we achieve an intellectual response there will not be a political solution,” he warned.
“Now more than ever, we need to enter an Islamic enlightened period, to lighten the heart of the Muslim world and to free it from the grip of extremists,” he added.

Glasgow cinema criticised for cancelling screening of Islam-themed film

The Islamic Society of Britain speaks out against the cancellation of the screening of The Message following the receipt of a petition signed by fewer than 100 protestors

Anthony Quinn in The Message
Mired in controversy … Anthony Quinn in The Message. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Tarik Film
A Scottish cinema has been criticised for cancelling a screening of the 1977 Islam-themed film The Message, despite receiving fewer than 100 complaints, reports the Scotsman.
The Grosvenor Cinema in Glasgow was due to screen Moustapha Akkad’s Oscar-nominated film about the prophet Muhammad and the birth of Islam, next month. But officials decided to withdraw it after receiving an anonymous petition signed by 94 people, some of whom are from as far away as Nigeria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
The withdrawal has been criticised by the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB), which had organised the screening, and the National Secular Society (NSS). The latter wrote to the cinema protesting what it called “a climate of censorship brought on by the unreasonable and reactionary views of some religious extremists”.

A spokesman for the ISB said: “As Scottish Muslims, we believe in the principles of freedom of speech and have worked for decades to promote the rights of people to make Islam relevant to British society. These protestors demonstrate the worst elements of our community, as they are imposing their beliefs on others.
“We will not be bullied by these people. We are also appealing for the Grosvenor to stick to the original agreement, and show the film.”
The Message, which stars Anthony Quinn and exists in both English and Arabic versions, has been mired in controversy ever since Akkad announced plans to shoot the film in the mid-1970s. It was ultimately financed by Moroccan, Saudi Arabian and Libyan leaders, after Hollywood refused to fund it and the Muslim World League spoke out against it.
In deference to some readings of Islam, the film avoids any depiction of Muhammad on screen, with Quinn playing the prophet’s uncle, Hamza. Scenes were occasionally shown from Muhammad’s perspective, but his voice was not heard and the only indication of his presence was the playing of light organ music. Even so, the film drew anger from some Muslims who had believed that Quinn was playing Muhammad.
Organisers of the petition against the screening of The Message, which had been due to take place on 15 November, are concerned over the film’s depiction of Muhammad’s companions by non-Muslims. They also object to the movie’s inclusion of occasional scenes featuring music and dancing.
Earlier this year, the big budget Iranian film Muhammad, Messenger of God drew criticism after including shots of the prophet’s hands and legs as a baby, and his back as a teenager. The film by Majid Majidi, who was the subject of a fatwa from Indian clerics in September, was chosen by Iran as its contender for the 2016 Oscars.
The Grosvenor Cinema has not made any public comment on the cancellation of the screening.

Edward Snowden Explains How To Reclaim Your Privacy

LAST MONTH, I met Edward Snowden in a hotel in central Moscow, just blocks away from Red Square. It was the first time we’d met in person; he first emailed me nearly two years earlier, and we eventually created an encrypted channel to journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, to whom Snowden would disclose overreaching mass surveillance by the National Security Agency and its British equivalent, GCHQ.
This time around, Snowden’s anonymity was gone; the world knew who he was, much of what he’d leaked, and that he’d been living in exile in Moscow, where he’s been stranded ever since the State Department canceled his passport while he was en route to Latin America. His situation was more stable, the threats against him a bit easier to predict. So I approached my 2015 Snowden meeting with less paranoia than was warranted in 2013, and with a little more attention to physical security, since this time our communications would not be confined to the internet.
Our first meeting would be in the hotel lobby, and I arrived with all my important electronic gear in tow. I had powered down my smartphone and placed it in a “faraday bag” designed to block all radio emissions. This, in turn, was tucked inside my backpack next to my laptop (which I configured and hardened specifically for traveling to Russia), also powered off. Both electronic devices stored their data in encrypted form, but disk encryption isn’t perfect, and leaving these in my hotel room seemed like an invitation to tampering.
Most of the lobby seats were taken by well-dressed Russians sipping cocktails. I planted myself on an empty couch off in a nook hidden from most of the action and from the only security camera I could spot. Snowden had told me I’d have to wait awhile before he met me, and for a moment I wondered if I was being watched: A bearded man wearing glasses and a trench coat stood a few feet from me, apparently doing nothing aside from staring at a stained-glass window. Later he shifted from one side of my couch to the other, walking away just after I made eye contact.
Eventually, Snowden appeared. We smiled and said good to see you, and then walked up the spiral staircase near the elevator to the room where I would be conducting the interview, before we really started talking.
It also turns out that I didn’t need to be quite so cautious. Later, he told me to feel free to take out my phone so I could coordinate a rendezvous with some mutual friends who were in town. Operational security, or “opsec,” was a recurring theme across our several chats in Moscow.
In most of Snowden’s interviews he speaks broadly about the importance of privacy, surveillance reform, and encryption. But he rarely has the opportunity to delve into the details and help people of all technical backgrounds understand opsec and begin to strengthen their own security and privacy. He and I mutually agreed that our interview would focus more on nerdy computer talk and less on politics, because we’re both nerds and not many of his interviews get to be like that. I believe he wanted to use our chats to promote cool projects and to educate people. For example, Snowden had mentioned prior to our in-person meeting that he had tweeted about the Tor anonymity system and was surprised by how many people thought it was some big government trap. He wanted to fix those kinds of misconceptions.
Our interview, conducted over room-service hamburgers, started with the basics.

Micah Lee: What are some operational security practices you think everyone should adopt? Just useful stuff for average people.
Edward Snowden: [Opsec] is important even if you’re not worried about the NSA. Because when you think about who the victims of surveillance are, on a day-to-day basis, you’re thinking about people who are in abusive spousal relationships, you’re thinking about people who are concerned about stalkers, you’re thinking about children who are concerned about their parents overhearing things. It’s to reclaim a level of privacy.
  • The first step that anyone could take is to encrypt their phone calls and their text messages. You can do that through the smartphone app Signal, by Open Whisper Systems. It’s free, and you can just download it immediately. And anybody you’re talking to now, their communications, if it’s intercepted, can’t be read by adversaries. [Signal is available for iOS and Android, and, unlike a lot of security tools, is very easy to use.]
  • You should encrypt your hard disk, so that if your computer is stolen the information isn’t obtainable to an adversary — pictures, where you live, where you work, where your kids are, where you go to school. [I’ve written a guide to encrypting your disk on Windows, Mac, and Linux.]
  • Use a password manager. One of the main things that gets people’s private information exposed, not necessarily to the most powerful adversaries, but to the most common ones, are data dumps. Your credentials may be revealed because some service you stopped using in 2007 gets hacked, and your password that you were using for that one site also works for your Gmail account. A password manager allows you to create unique passwords for every site that are unbreakable, but you don’t have the burden of memorizing them. [The password manager KeePassX is free, open source, cross-platform, and never stores anything in the cloud.]
  • The other thing there is two-factor authentication. The value of this is if someone does steal your password, or it’s left or exposed somewhere … [two-factor authentication] allows the provider to send you a secondary means of authentication — a text message or something like that. [If you enable two-factor authentication, an attacker needs both your password as the first factor and a physical device, like your phone, as your second factor, to login to your account. Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, GitHub, Battle.net, and tons of other services all support two-factor authentication.]
We should not live lives as if we are electronically naked.
We should armor ourselves using systems we can rely on every day. This doesn’t need to be an extraordinary lifestyle change. It doesn’t have to be something that is disruptive. It should be invisible, it should be atmospheric, it should be something that happens painlessly, effortlessly. This is why I like apps like Signal, because they’re low friction. It doesn’t require you to re-order your life. It doesn’t require you to change your method of communications. You can use it right now to talk to your friends.
Micah Lee and Edward Snowden, Moscow, Russia.
Photo: Sue Gardner
Lee: What do you think about Tor? Do you think that everyone should be familiar with it, or do you think that it’s only a use-it-if-you-need-it thing?
Snowden: I think Tor is the most important privacy-enhancing technology project being used today. I use Tor personally all the time. We know it works from at least one anecdotal case that’s fairly familiar to most people at this point. That’s not to say that Tor is bulletproof. What Tor does is it provides a measure of security and allows you to disassociate your physical location. …
But the basic idea, the concept of Tor that is so valuable, is that it’s run by volunteers. Anyone can create a new node on the network, whether it’s an entry node, a middle router, or an exit point, on the basis of their willingness to accept some risk. The voluntary nature of this network means that it is survivable, it’s resistant, it’s flexible.
[Tor Browser is a great way to selectively use Tor to look something up and not leave a trace that you did it. It can also help bypass censorship when you’re on a network where certain sites are blocked. If you want to get more involved, you can volunteer to run your own Tor node, as I do, and support the diversity of the Tor network.]
Lee: So that is all stuff that everybody should be doing. What about people who have exceptional threat models, like future intelligence-community whistleblowers, and other people who have nation-state adversaries? Maybe journalists, in some cases, or activists, or people like that?
Snowden: So the first answer is that you can’t learn this from a single article. The needs of every individual in a high-risk environment are different. And the capabilities of the adversary are constantly improving. The tooling changes as well.
What really matters is to be conscious of the principles of compromise. How can the adversary, in general, gain access to information that is sensitive to you? What kinds of things do you need to protect? Because of course you don’t need to hide everything from the adversary. You don’t need to live a paranoid life, off the grid, in hiding, in the woods in Montana.
What we do need to protect are the facts of our activities, our beliefs, and our lives that could be used against us in manners that are contrary to our interests. So when we think about this for whistleblowers, for example, if you witnessed some kind of wrongdoing and you need to reveal this information, and you believe there are people that want to interfere with that, you need to think about how to compartmentalize that.
Tell no one who doesn’t need to know. [Lindsay Mills, Snowden’s girlfriend of several years, didn’t know that he had been collecting documents to leak to journalists until she heard about it on the news, like everyone else.]
When we talk about whistleblowers and what to do, you want to think about tools for protecting your identity, protecting the existence of the relationship from any type of conventional communication system. You want to use something like SecureDrop, over the Tor network, so there is no connection between the computer that you are using at the time — preferably with a non-persistent operating system like Tails, so you’ve left no forensic trace on the machine you’re using, which hopefully is a disposable machine that you can get rid of afterward, that can’t be found in a raid, that can’t be analyzed or anything like that — so that the only outcome of your operational activities are the stories reported by the journalists. [SecureDrop is a whistleblower submission system. Here is a guide to using The Intercept’s SecureDrop server as safely as possible.]
And this is to be sure that whoever has been engaging in this wrongdoing cannot distract from the controversy by pointing to your physical identity. Instead they have to deal with the facts of the controversy rather than the actors that are involved in it.
Lee: What about for people who are, like, in a repressive regime and are trying to …
Snowden: Use Tor.
Lee: Use Tor?
Snowden: If you’re not using Tor you’re doing it wrong. Now, there is a counterpoint here where the use of privacy-enhancing technologies in certain areas can actually single you out for additional surveillance through the exercise of repressive measures. This is why it’s so critical for developers who are working on security-enhancing tools to not make their protocols stand out.
Lee: So you mentioned that what you want to spread are the principles of operational security. And you mentioned some of them, like need-to-know, compartmentalization. Can you talk more about what are the principles of operating securely?
Snowden: Almost every principle of operating security is to think about vulnerability. Think about what the risks of compromise are and how to mitigate them. In every step, in every action, in every point involved, in every point of decision, you have to stop and reflect and think, “What would be the impact if my adversary were aware of my activities?” If that impact is something that’s not survivable, either you have to change or refrain from that activity, you have to mitigate that through some kind of tools or system to protect the information and reduce the risk of compromise, or ultimately, you have to accept the risk of discovery and have a plan to mitigate the response. Because sometimes you can’t always keep something secret, but you can plan your response.
Lee: Are there principles of operational security that you think would be applicable to everyday life?
Snowden: Yes, that’s selective sharing. Everybody doesn’t need to know everything about us. Your friend doesn’t need to know what pharmacy you go to. Facebook doesn’t need to know your password security questions. You don’t need to have your mother’s maiden name on your Facebook page, if that’s what you use for recovering your password on Gmail. The idea here is that sharing is OK, but it should always be voluntary. It should be thoughtful, it should be things that are mutually beneficial to people that you’re sharing with, and these aren’t things that are simply taken from you.
If you interact with the internet … the typical methods of communication today betray you silently, quietly, invisibly, at every click. At every page that you land on, information is being stolen. It’s being collected, intercepted, analyzed, and stored by governments, foreign and domestic, and by companies. You can reduce this by taking a few key steps. Basic things. If information is being collected about you, make sure it’s being done in a voluntary way.
For example, if you use browser plugins like HTTPS Everywhere by EFF, you can try to enforce secure encrypted communications so your data is not being passed in transit electronically naked.
Lee: Do you think people should use adblock software?
Snowden: Yes.
Everybody should be running adblock software, if only from a safety perspective …
We’ve seen internet providers like ComcastAT&T, or whoever it is, insert their own ads into your plaintext http connections. … As long as service providers are serving ads with active content that require the use of Javascript to display, that have some kind of active content like Flash embedded in it, anything that can be a vector for attack in your web browser — you should be actively trying to block these. Because if the service provider is not working to protect the sanctity of the relationship between reader and publisher, you have not just a right but a duty to take every effort to protect yourself in response. Lee: Nice. So there’s a lot of esoteric attacks that you hear about in the media. There’s disk encryption attacks like evil maid attacks, and cold-boot attacks. There’s all sorts of firmware attacks. There’s BadUSB and BadBIOS, and baseband attacks on cellphones. All of these are probably unlikely to happen to many people very often. Is this something people should be concerned about? How do you go about deciding if you personally should be concerned about this sort of attack and try to defend against it?
Snowden: It all comes down to personal evaluation of your personal threat model, right? That is the bottom line of what operational security is about. You have to assess the risk of compromise. On the basis of that determine how much effort needs to be invested into mitigating that risk.
Now in the case of cold-boot attacks and things like that, there are many things you can do. For example, cold-boot attacks can be defeated by never leaving your machine unattended. This is something that is not important for the vast majority of users, because most people don’t need to worry about someone sneaking in when their machine is unattended. … There is the evil maid attack, which can be protected against by keeping your bootloader physically on you, but wearing it as a necklace, for example, on an external USB device.
You’ve got BadBIOS. You can protect against this by dumping your BIOS, hashing it (hopefully not with SHA1 anymore), and simply comparing your BIOS. In theory, if it’s owned badly enough you need to do this externally. You need to dump it using a JTAG or some kind of reader to make sure that it actually matches, if you don’t trust your operating system.
There’s a counter to every attack. The idea is you can play the cat-and-mouse game forever.
You can go to any depth, you can drive yourself crazy thinking about bugs in the walls and cameras in the ceiling. Or you can think about what are the most realistic threats in your current situation? And on that basis take some activity to mitigate the most realistic threats. In that case, for most people, that’s going to be very simple things. That’s going to be using a safe browser. That’s going to be disabling scripts and active content, ideally using a virtual machine or some other form of sandboxed browser, where if there’s a compromise it’s not persistent. [I recently wrote about how to set up virtual machines.] And making sure that your regular day-to-day communications are being selectively shared through encrypted means. Lee: What sort of security tools are you currently excited about? What are you finding interesting?
Snowden: I’ll just namecheck Qubes here, just because it’s interesting. I’m really excited about Qubes because the idea of VM-separating machines, requiring expensive, costly sandbox escapes to get persistence on a machine, is a big step up in terms of burdening the attacker with greater resource and sophistication requirements for maintaining a compromise. I’d love to see them continue this project. I’d love to see them make it more accessible and much more secure. [You can read more about how to use Qubes here and here.]
Something that we haven’t seen that we need to see is a greater hardening of the overall kernels of every operating system through things like grsecurity [a set of patches to improve Linux security], but unfortunately there’s a big usability gap between the capabilities that are out there, that are possible, and what is attainable for the average user.
Lee: People use smartphones a lot. What do you think about using a smartphone for secure communications?
Snowden: Something that people forget about cellphones in general, of any type, is that you’re leaving a permanent record of all of your physical locations as you move around. … The problem with cellphones is they’re basically always talking about you, even when you’re not using them. That’s not to say that everyone should burn their cellphones … but you have to think about the context for your usage. Are you carrying a device that, by virtue of simply having it on your person, places you in a historic record in a place that you don’t want to be associated with, even if it’s something as simple as your place of worship?
Lee: There are tons of software developers out there that would love to figure out how to end mass surveillance. What should they be doing with their time?
Snowden: Mixed routing is one of the most important things that we need in terms of regular infrastructure because we haven’t solved the problem of how to divorce the content of communication from the fact that it has occurred at all. To have real privacy you have to have both. Not just what you talked to your mother about, but the fact that you talked to your mother at all. …
The problem with communications today is that the internet service provider knows exactly who you are. They know exactly where you live. They know what your credit card number is, when you last paid, how much it was.
You should be able to buy a pile of internet the same way you buy a bottle of water.
We need means of engaging in private connections to the internet. We need ways of engaging in private communications. We need mechanisms affording for private associations. And ultimately, we need ways to engage in private payment and shipping, which are the basis of trade. These are research questions that need to be resolved. We need to find a way to protect the rights that we ourselves inherited for the next generation. If we don’t, today we’re standing at a fork in the road that divides between an open society and a controlled system. If we don’t do anything about this, people will look back at this moment and they’ll say, why did you let that happen? Do you want to live in a quantified world? Where not only is the content of every conversation, not only are the movements of every person known, but even the location of all the objects are known? Where the book that you leant to a friend leaves a record that they have read it? These things might be useful capabilities that provide value to society, but that’s only going to be a net good if we’re able to mitigate the impact of our activity, of our sharing, of our openness.
Lee: Ideally, governments around the world shouldn’t be spying on everybody. But that’s not really the case, so where do you think — what do you think the way to solve this problem is? Do you think it’s all just encrypting everything, or do you think that trying to get Congress to pass new laws and trying to do policy stuff is equally as important? Where do you think the balance is between tech and policy to combat mass surveillance? And what do you think that Congress should do, or that people should be urging Congress to do?
Snowden: I think reform comes with many faces. There’s legal reform, there’s statutory reform more generally, there are the products and outcomes of judicial decisions. … In the United States it has been held that these programs of mass surveillance, which were implemented secretly without the knowledge or the consent of the public, violate our rights, that they went too far, that they should end. And they have been modified or changed as a result. But there are many other programs, and many other countries, where these reforms have not yet had the impact that is so vital to free society. And in these contexts, in these situations, I believe that we do — as a community, as an open society, whether we’re talking about ordinary citizens or the technological community specifically — we have to look for ways of enforcing human rights through any means.
That can be through technology, that can be through politics, that can be through voting, that can be through behavior. But technology is, of all of these things, perhaps the quickest and most promising means through which we can respond to the greatest violations of human rights in a manner that is not dependent on every single legislative body on the planet to reform itself at the same time, which is probably somewhat optimistic to hope for. We would be instead able to create systems … that enforce and guarantee the rights that are necessary to maintain a free and open society.
Lee: On a different note — people said I should ask about Twitter — how long have you had a Twitter account for?
Snowden: Two weeks.
Lee: How many followers do you have?
Snowden: A million and a half, I think.
Lee: That’s a lot of followers. How are you liking being a Twitter user so far?
Snowden: I’m trying very hard not to mess up.
Lee: You’ve been tweeting a lot lately, including in the middle of the night Moscow time.
Snowden: Ha. I make no secret about the fact that I live on Eastern Standard Time. The majority of my work and associations, my political activism, still occurs in my home, in the United States. So it only really make sense that I work on the same hours.
Lee: Do you feel like Twitter is sucking away all your time? I mean I kind of have Twitter open all day long and I sometimes get sucked into flame wars. How is it affecting you?
Snowden: There were a few days when people kept tweeting cats for almost an entire day. And I know I shouldn’t, I have a lot of work to do, but I just couldn’t stop looking at them.
Lee: The real question is, what was your Twitter handle before this? Because you were obviously on Twitter. You know all the ins and outs.
Snowden: I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of other Twitter accounts.

Disclosure: Snowden and I are both directors of Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Netanyahu Has Never Actually Supported a Palestinian State, Despite What He Told Obama

IN A MEETING with President Obama today, Benjamin Netanyahu went through the familiar motions of expressing rhetorical support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Stating, “I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples,” Netanyahu said that he wanted “make it clear that we have not given up our hope,” for achieving a two-state solution to the conflict. Just a day before this statement, however, the Israeli government took steps to ensure such a vision could never become reality, moving to authorize the construction of an additional 2,200 housing units in the occupied territories in the face of Palestinian opposition.
The reason behind this apparent discrepancy between word and deed is that Netanyahu does not, and has essentially never, supported the creation of an actual Palestinian state. Last year, during the Israeli election, Netanyahu briefly acknowledged this fact himself, explicitly stating to voters that there would not be a Palestinian state during his tenure as prime minister if he was reelected. Despite this, the convenient fiction that the Israeli prime minister supports a “two-state solution” continues to linger in the United States. Why?
In his 2000 book, A Durable Peace, Netanyahu outlined his vision for any future self-governing Palestinian territory, one that bore little resemblance to actual statehood. “Many in the world have blithely accepted the notion that the Palestinians must have their own independent state,” Netanyahu wrote. “When I am asked about a Palestinian state, I answer in the negative.” Instead of statehood, Netanyahu proposed the creation of a “Palestinian entity,” a governing body with some rights of limited self-governance but not full independence.
In a video recorded the year following the release of the book, Netanyahu bragged that during his first term as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, he had “de facto put an end to the Oslo Accords,” the agreement that had been negotiated with the Palestinians by his predecessor, and which intended to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
For many years, this brazen opposition to Palestinian statehood remained Netanyahu’s public position. While he moved on to other pursuits, including helping pitch the Iraq War to the U.S. Congress, his stance on Palestinian self-governance remained more or less static. Indeed, in the absence of any American pressure, a public evolution on this issue was not even necessary.
In 2009, however, that began to change. In June of that year, newly elected President Barack Obama, who had made rebuilding ties with the Muslim world a part of his foreign policy platform, gave a landmark speech in Cairo in which he said the United States “does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” going on to describe them as contrary to previous agreements and an impediment to peace in the region.
Israeli media would report at the time that Obama’s words “resonated through Jerusalem’s corridors.” In seeming recognition of shifting American sentiments on this issue, 10 days later Netanyahu gave what was billed as a landmark speech at Bar-Ilan University near Tel-Aviv, dealing in part with the subject of Palestinian statehood.
In his address, hailed by the White House as an “important step forward,” Netanyahu endorsed for the first time the creation of what he called “a demilitarized Palestinian state” in the occupied territories. But the same speech added stipulations that, in sum, turned this so-called state into a rebranded version of Netanyahu’s 2000 “Palestinian entity,” with only limited autonomy. In private, just three months before the speech, Netanyahu was even more blunt about the limits he required for a more independent Palestinian territory, stipulating he could only support one “without an army or control over air space and borders,” according to diplomatic cables later released by WikiLeaks.
In a speech two years later to Congress, Netanyahu would go into more detail about the ridiculous conception of Palestinian “statehood” he was imagining, one in which the West Bank would be essentially bifurcated by massive Israeli settlement blocs, the prospective Palestinian capital of East Jerusalem would be surrounded by settlements, and the Israeli Defense Forces would continue to have “a long-term military presence” inside the newly independent “state.” Needless to say, such a proposal was unlikely ever to be accepted by the Palestinians, nor did it bear much resemblance to the independent statehood they had actually been seeking.
Netanyahu let the mask drop even further in July 2014, when he stated in a press conference that “there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan,” essentially outlining a position of permanent military occupation of Palestinian territories. In the run-up to the 2015 election, when he publicly disowned the idea of Palestinian statehood, Netanyahu would specifically repudiate his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, stating that “there will be no withdrawals and no concessions,” and that the speech was “not relevant.” As recently as last week, Netanyahu told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that “we need to control all of the territory for the foreseeable future,” before adding darkly that Israel “will forever live by the sword.”
In light of all this, it’s difficult to take seriously Netanyahu’s most recent claim that he supports the creation of a Palestinian state. At best, he has in the past expressed support for a Palestinian “entity” with some features of self-governance (an idea that has well-known historical precedents), but certainly not one that affords genuine independence, freedom or statehood to its inhabitants. At his most brazen, he has denied the possibility of even that limited form of self-determination, stating bluntly that Israel will control the entire West Bank and keep its inhabitants under indefinite military subjugation.
Netanyahu has nonetheless been allowed to maintain a convenient fiction that he supports the negotiated goal of Palestinian self-determination. In reality, he has never really supported it. Thanks in large part to Netanyahu’s leadership, a Palestinian state will likely never emerge. Due to his own obstinance, as well as American indulgence, a binational state or a formalized Apartheid regime have now become the most probable remaining outcomes to this disastrous, decades-long conflict.

Monday, November 09, 2015

How Law Enforcement Can Use Google Timeline To Track Your Every Move

THE RECENT EXPANSION of Google’s Timeline feature can provide investigators unprecedented access to users’ location history data, allowing them in many cases to track a person’s every move over the course of years, according to a report recently circulated to law enforcement.
“The personal privacy implications are pretty clear but so are the law enforcement applications,” according to the document, titled “Google Timelines: Location Investigations Involving Android Devices,” which outlines the kind of information investigators can now obtain.
The Timeline allows users to look back at their daily movements on a map; that same information is also potentially of interest to law enforcement. “It is now possible to submit a legal demand to Google for location history greater than six months old,” the report says. “This could revitalize cold cases and potentially help solve active investigations.”
The report was written by a law enforcement trainer, Aaron Edens, and provides detailed guidance on the wealth of historic location information available through Google Timeline and how to request it. A copy of of the document was obtained by The Intercept.
The expansion of Google’s Timeline feature, launched in July 2015, allows investigators to request detailed information about where someone has been — down to the longitude and latitude — over the course of years. Previously, law enforcement could only yield recent location information.
The 15-page document includes what information its author, an expert in mobile phone investigations, found being stored in his own Timeline: historic location data — extremely specific data — dating back to 2009, the first year he owned a phone with an Android operating system. Those six years of data, he writes, show the kind of information that law enforcement investigators can now obtain from Google.
The document also notes that users can edit or delete specific locations in their history, or an entire day, stressing the importance of preservation letters for criminal investigators involving Android phones. “Unfortunately, Google has made it very easy to delete location history from a specific date,” he wrote.
There is no indication data is recoverable from Google once it has been deleted by the user, the report says.
Location data is only stored in users’ Google accounts if they enable the feature. Individual Android users can turn it off, but users often don’t.
The ability of law enforcement to obtain data stored with privacy companies is similar — whether it’s in Dropbox or iCloud. What’s different about Google Timeline, however, is that it potentially allows law enforcement to access a treasure trove of data about someone’s individual movement over the course of years.
The report also advises investigators to remember there is a significant amount of other information retained by Google.
“Consider including Gmail, photos and videos, search history, contacts, applications, other connected devices, Google Voice and Google Wallet, if they are relevant to the investigation,” the report suggests. Investigators are also advised to include a non-disclosure order with their search warrants for Google data, which prevents the company from notifying the account holder that their data is being provided to law enforcement.
It’s impossible to know how many of these requests for historic Timeline location information have been made by law enforcement, since Google does not specify what types of requests it gets from law enforcement. Google’s transparency report provides information on the number of requests received from law enforcement, and the most recent requests go up to the end of 2014 and do not cover the time period after the expanded Timeline was launched. (In the first half of 2014, Google received 12,539 criminal legal requests in the U.S. and in the second half it received 9,981.)
The major barrier law enforcement faces is that Google does not provide any additional advice or help on deciphering data, once it is turned over under subpoena or warrant. “Based on conversations with other law enforcement investigators and prosecutors, they have resisted attempts to bring them into court to discuss the issue,” Edens wrote.
“Google does not provide expert witness testimony,” Edens said in response to The Intercept’s questions, noting that this is a similar practice to that of other companies, like Facebook. His report, he added, was written to help law enforcement in the absence of assistance from Google.
“Google has always been wary of any perceived cooperation with law enforcement, even before [Edward] Snowden,” he said.
“We respond to valid legal requests, and have a long track record of advocating on behalf of our users,” a Google spokesperson told The Intercept.
Research: Micah Lee
Update: November 9, 2015
In an email, the Google spokesperson notes that the company requires a warrant to obtain detailed user data such as that available in Timeline. “A subpoena,” the  spokesperson writes, “is not and has never been sufficient to get it.” The article has been updated to reflect this.

U.K. Government Proposes More, Not Less, Electronic Snooping

Two years after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the vast reach of U.S. and U.K. surveillance, the U.S. Congress rolled back the most manifestly unconstitutional element: the bulk collection of domestic phone data.
The U.K. government, on Wednesday, chose to double down instead.
The newly unveiled text of what critics are calling a proposed “Snooper’s Charter” or “Hacker’s License” would explicitly authorize the bulk collection of domestic data, require telecommunications companies to store records of websites visited by every citizen for 12 months for access by the government, approve the government’s right to hack into and bug computers and phones, severely restrict the ability of citizens to raise questions about secret surveillance warrants or evidence obtained through bulk surveillance presented in court, and oblige companies to assist in bypassing encryption.
Prime Minister David Cameron has said terrorists should have no “safe space” to communicate online, and Britain’s Home Office — charged with law enforcement, prisons, and border security — has presented in recent years several draft bills with that idea in mind.
The United Kingdom’s Home Secretary Theresa May, who is similar to the secretary of state for the U.S., insisted that the engines of Britain’s spy agencies would hum along as usual — just more efficiently, and with even more oversight, if the law passed. She answered questions from Parliament about the bill in the House of Commons in London on Wednesday.
There are some new limits in the bill. For example, if police wanted to use phone call information to try and track down a journalist’s source, those efforts would now have to be approved by a judicial commissioner. In fact, most warrants would need approval by a judicial commissioner, after the U.K. secretary of state signs off.
But overall, the bill, which May described as “world-leading” in its oversight provisions, remains a concern for privacy advocates because of its massive surveillance authorities and vague language and loopholes.
David Winnick, a parliamentarian from the Labour party and one of the few to offer criticism, told May that he was still “concerned” about the “excessive powers” being given to Britain’s spy agencies — a “bitter blow to civil liberties.”
Bulk Collection By Law
First, the bill explicitly authorizes bulk collection of domestic data, as long as it is “foreign focused,” “necessary in the interests of national security,” and approved by the secretary of state and the judicial commissioner. If an agency wants to actually examine domestic data, it has to get a targeted warrant — but massive amounts of data will have already been seized at that point.
“Powers for bulk interception that the government has long undertaken in secret have finally been explicitly avowed, but the case for them remains uncritically examined and evidentially weak,” wrote Privacy International in its initial statement about the bill.
May insisted that bulk collection is not a new power — that it was previously authorized under the Telecommunications Act.
However, the new standard is incredibly far-reaching. The United States Second Circuit ruled earlier this year that bulk collection of domestic communications data is so exceptionally broad as to be illegal, and in 2013 a District Court judge in Washington, D.C., found the program likely violated the U.S. constitution’s prohibition on general warrants. Congress ultimately decided to end the program and force the National Security Agency to replace it with something less intrusive.
Collection of Browsing History
Additionally, the bill would authorize British intelligence agencies to access a year’s worth of information about what websites British people visit without prior court approval. May did acknowledge this was a new power, but insisted it wasn’t all that intrusive, because a warrant would still be required to access specific browsing history for every page on every website visited, instead of just the homepage URL (like the Intercept homepage versus a specific article).
Anne Jellema, CEO of the Web Foundation, expressed concerns about the bill’s mass surveillance of Internet records.
“It will hurt U.K. businesses, create new vulnerabilities for criminals to attack, and ride roughshod over the right to privacy,” she wrote. “It will be possible to paint an incredibly detailed picture of a person’s hopes, fears and activities, and will create a data pool rife for theft, misuse or political persecution.”
British citizens also aren’t confident the government will protect all that new data it would now be entitled to. According to a poll conducted by British human rights group Big Brother Watch in 2012 — when a more severe surveillance bill was on the table — 71 percent of people said they didn’t think the government could keep their data, like websites visited, secure. Though the new bill isn’t as intrusive, this new power over website history remains.
License to Hack
The government will also create a new “regime” that will be granted authority to “interfere” with “electronic equipment” — basically to hack into devices and insert malware in order to covertly access information about the device or the user during an investigation of “serious crimes.”
Currently, the secretary of state approves the technique for intelligence or military agencies, while a chief police officer or “chief constable” authorizes a request made by law enforcement to hack. With the new bill, a judicial commissioner would also have to approve.
The U.S. government, including the FBI, also uses malware to access suspects’ devices, but the practice is much more secretive and unclear. Most warrants granted to law enforcement agencies to hack are sealed, making it hard to determine how often it happens.
Cooperating Companies and Encryption Restrictions
And companies, both abroad and domestically, would be under new pressures to comply with warrants issued by the U.K. government. For example, executives of foreign technology firms served with interception warrants from any “senior official” in the U.K., including local authorities, could be jailed or fined for ignoring a warrant.
And communications providers would be required to “remove any encryption applied” from communications when requested.
Though the U.K. government says companies were previously required to comply with warrants by decrypting messages, there’s a question as to whether that’s actually the case. The government wrote in February in its Interception of Communications Code of Practice that communications providers need to provide a “permanent interception capability” — or way to access communications through a warrant. However, there is no explicit mention of decrypting text or providing plaintext.
“It’s clearly not the same thing,” said Amie Stepanovich, U.S. policy manager for international digital rights group Access Now. The U.K. government is “reinterpreting current law” by saying companies “have to actually provide a way to decrypt communications.”
She said the new language would effectively eliminate forms of encryption that companies cannot decrypt upon request, namely end-to-end encryption where only the sender and receiver hold the key to read it — technology Apple provides. With the new bill, Apple could be pressured to comply with U.K. law or pull out of the market entirely.
No Questions Asked
Finally, some privacy advocates are worried that new protections would not be effective because of the bill’s provisions for challenging surveillance practices.
Under the new law, it would be illegal for anyone even to ask questions in court about whether or not evidence was obtained through bulk surveillance, or to talk to anyone about a surveillance warrant received — much like U.S. policy on national security letters issued to companies by intelligence agencies.
Amnesty International, the human rights group that learned it was being spied on by GCHQ this summer, wrote that the bill’s “wider powers” would “take U.K. closer to becoming a surveillance state.”
“Just a few months ago the government admitted through gritted teeth that they’d been spying on Amnesty International and another NGO,” wrote Alice Wyss, a U.K. researcher for Amnesty. “They were only caught out then because they broke their own rules and kept our communications too long, and that’s likely to have been just the tip of the iceberg.”
Correction: November 4, 2015
An earlier version of this story conflated two judicial rulings into one. A panel of the U.S. Second Circuit ruled bulk collection illegal, but did not rule on its constitutionality. D.C. District Court Judge Richard Leon raised the constitutional concerns.

Seven Major Takeaways From the U.K.’s Proposed Surveillance Rules

THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT on Wednesday published a proposed new law to reform and dramatically expand surveillance powers in the United Kingdom. The 190-page Investigatory Powers Bill is thick with detail and it will probably take weeks and months of analysis until its full ramifications are understood. In the meantime, I’ve read through the bill and noted down a few key aspects of the proposed powers that stood out to me — including unprecedented new data retention measures, a loophole that allows spies to monitor journalists and their sources, powers enabling the government to conduct large-scale hacking operations, and more.

Internet connection records

In the days prior to the publication of the Investigatory Powers Bill, the British government’s Home Secretary Theresa May claimed that the law would not be “giving new powers to go through people’s browsing history.” However, the text of the bill makes clear that this is precisely what the government is trying to do.
Under the proposed law, Internet companies in the U.K. would be forced to record and store for up to 12 months logs showing websites visited by all of their customers. The government has tried to present this as “not a record of every web page” accessed (emphasis added). This is technically true, but it’s also extremely misleading. The logs will show every web site you visited — for example, bbc.com — as opposed to the specific pages on that website, for example, bbc.com/news.
This information, especially when accumulated over a period of a year, would still be highly personal, potentially revealing your political preferences, sexuality, religion, medical problems, and other details that could be used to draw inferences about your private life.
The attempt to obtain this power is a politically radical move. As far as I am aware, no other Western democracy has implemented a nationwide data retention regime that encompasses all citizens’ annual web browsing habits. The British government says the data will only be looked at to determine, for example, “whether someone [has] accessed a communications website [or] an illegal website.” But there are only limited safeguards in place to ensure these conditions are not breached by overzealous authorities. Police will be able to access the records without any judicial approval; a person’s website browsing records can be obtained after a “designated senior officer” grants an authorization.
Notably, British surveillance agency Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, already has systems it uses to sweep up and monitor people’s website browsing histories in bulk, as The Intercept reported in September. You can make it much harder for the government and Internet companies to monitor your browsing habits by adopting the anonymity tool Tor.

Spying on journalists

The draft bill includes a welcome safeguard that will force police to obtain judicial authorization if they are seeking to use metadata to identify a journalist’s confidential sources. However, the provision protecting journalists from arbitrary police spying contains a gaping loophole that exempts British intelligence agencies, meaning they still have carte blanche to monitor journalists’ communications without any judicial approval. The law will also ensure that the surveillance is kept secret from journalists and their legal representatives, unlike the stronger system that is in place in the United States for journalists when it comes to government surveillance.

Leading oversight?

The British government claims that new measures contained in the bill amount to “world-leading oversight.” Unfortunately, this is nonsense. While it is true that the proposed law would to some degree strengthen the extremely lax surveillance safeguards currently in place in the U.K., the changes would not amount to the creation of a world-leading system.
Warrants for the interception of the content of communications are presently signed off by a government minister; under the new legal regime, the government minister would sign off the warrant and then it would go to a “judicial commissioner” (likely a current or former judge) who would review it and decide whether to grant final approval.
This additional layer of judicial scrutiny on its face seems like a significant change, but in practice, as some British legal experts have pointed out, it is not clear whether the judicial commissioner would have a great deal of power to properly scrutinize or formally “authorize” the warrants in anything other than a supervisory role. Moreover, the government minister would retain the power to bypass the authority of the judicial commissioner if there were deemed to be an “urgent need” to approve a warrant.

Bulk hacking

A section of the bill proposes new powers to allow police to perform what is euphemistically termed “equipment interference.” In normal language, this means hacking. In recent years, British authorities have been very anxious about adopting hacking techniques, fearing that such methods could violate the U.K.’s computer misuse laws. However, under the powers contained in the new surveillance law, police would be handed the authority to launch hacking operations in cases involving “serious crime” and where a judicial commissioner approves a warrant that has already been signed off by a senior officer.
Notably, the bill also contains a clause designed to allow British spy agencies to perform “bulk equipment interference” — in other words, large-scale hacking of computers or phones to covertly collect data or monitor communications. Prior to the Edward Snowden disclosures, it would have been unthinkable for the British government to admit that it performed any kind of hacking, so to see powers for this tactic formalized in such a way is quite remarkable. It represents an attempt to institutionalize, broaden, and perhaps in some cases even retroactively legalize the tactics the agencies have been deploying in recent years on dubious legal footing under cover of secrecy.

Anti-whistleblower clause

The bill includes a clause that seeks to criminalize any “unauthorized disclosure” by telecommunications employees of any details about government surveillance. The clause appears designed to stifle leaks and deter whistleblowers. A breach of this section of the proposed law would result in a 12-month jail term and a fine.

Encryption ban

In the lead-up to the publication of the bill, there was speculation that the British government may try to impose a ban on strong encryption. The bill does not seek to ban encryption, but it does make clear that the government will have powers to serve companies with a “technical capability notice” for the “removal of electronic protection applied by a relevant operator.” The government says this measure does not go beyond the powers it already has to compel Internet companies to remove encryption from communications or data they process. But the phrasing of the technical capability clause is vague and it remains unclear whether it could in practice be used to attempt to force companies to place surveillance backdoors in their encryption products — such as, for instance, smartphone apps offering encrypted chats.

Domestic spying

In September, The Intercept reported that British spy agency MI5 was conducting extensive domestic surveillance within the U.K. as part of a program named DIGINT. But the publication of the Investigatory Powers Bill brought with it the first official confirmation: The British government admitted that MI5 has been involved in bulk surveillance of domestic communications.
Announcing the proposed new law on Wednesday, the home secretary referred to the “use of bulk communications data” in relation to a domestic terrorist plot that was said to have been aimed at the London Stock Exchange. The bulk surveillance was authorized under the Telecommunications Act, a 1984 law that has been used to secretly obtain communications from companies when doing so is deemed to be “in the interests of national security or international relations.”
If the new Investigatory Powers Bill is passed into law, it will replace this power, ensuring that the bulk domestic surveillance continues unabated.

Last British Detainee At Guantánamo Goes Home — Eight Years After Being Cleared for Release

ALMOST 14 YEARS after he was first detained by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Shaker Aamer, the last British detainee held at Guantánamo Bay, was released from the prison today and repatriated back to his home in England. In a statement issued by a spokesperson for British Prime Minister David Cameron, the government indicated that it had no plans to detain him upon his release, and that “he is free to be reunited with his family.”
Aamer’s release today concludes a long legal ordeal that had raised the ire of human rights groups around the world. Despite spending nearly a decade and a half in U.S. custody, Aamer was never charged with any crime, and was cleared for release from the prison on separate occasions in both 2007 and 2009. In a statement issued today through the prisoner advocacy organization CAGE, Moazzam Begg, another former British detainee at Guantánamo and a longtime friend of Aamer, said, “The day has finally arrived. … [Aamer’s] family, friends, lawyers, campaigners and well-wishers have fought a battle to free an innocent man and finally, that battle has been won.”
Aamer, 48, is a Saudi citizen and resident of the United Kingdom, whose British-born wife and four children, the youngest of whom he has never met, still live today in London. In 2001, he was among the many Arabs detained in Afghanistan by local bounty hunters following the American invasion of the country, before being rendered into the custody of U.S. troops. The bounty system set up by the American occupation would later be criticized by Amnesty International for effectively creating a market for local opportunists to capture people of Arab descent, brand them as terrorists, and sell them to American forces in exchange for lucrative cash rewards. This system would later be blamed for helping contribute to the imprisonment of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent people who would later be transferred to Guantánamo Bay and other detention sites around the world.
Following his capture in late 2001, Aamer himself would be held for two months at the prison facility at Bagram Air Field, before being transported to Guantánamo Bay. At both sites he alleges that he was subject to torture by American military personnel. In some instances, Aamer has also said that this torture occurred in the presence of agents of the British intelligence service MI5, a politically explosive allegation about the extent of that agency’s complicity in post-9/11 torture.
During the years of his detention, Aamer’s case has become a minor cause célèbre in England, with politicians, celebrities and prominent civil society figures advocating publicly for his release and repatriation. Earlier this month, many such public figures even held a hunger strike on his behalf to help build pressure for his release.
Aamer, who emerged as something of a leader among Guantánamo prisoners during his incarceration, had frequently taken part in such strikes at the prison, despite the deleterious impact it had on his health and mental state. In the midst of one such strike in 2013, Aamer would tell the legal advocacy organization Reprieve, “I am losing my mind, I am losing my health, I am losing my life. They are trying to do as much damage to us as they can before we leave here,” adding that “this is a living death here in Guantánamo, so if I have to risk death for a principle, that is what I want to do.”
Through his lawyers and sympathetic human rights organizations, Aamer, a fluent English speaker, has managed to give eloquent and emotional testimony about the various episodes of mistreatment he has been subject to over the years of his incarceration, including constant beatings and humiliations by prison guards and interrogators, sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures, shackling in stress positions, and threats to sexually assault his young daughter.
In a 2014 report issued by an independent psychologist who met with Aamer at Guantánamo, he described the effect of some of this mistreatment, saying, “I was not a human being anymore. I meant nothing to them. I lost my dignity, my pride. I had to take off my underwear and hand it to them. I had sleep deprivation for 11 days. That made me crazy. They poured cold water over me. They kept me standing for 20 hours a day. I had to hold my hands and arms out.” In another letter published in part by British newspaper The Independent in 2012, Aamer would plead with captors to “torture me in the old way,” adding that “here they destroy people mentally and physically without leaving marks.”
Among many of his supporters, a widespread belief lingers that part the reason Aamer has remained behind bars so long after being cleared for release is that as an English-speaking resident of a Western country, he would serve as an effective public witness against those responsible for human rights abuses in U.S. detention facilities. In his statement issued today through CAGE, Moazzam Begg alluded to this, saying, “His qualities have been acknowledged by his tormentors, and I’m certain he won’t disappoint when he’s ready to tell his side of the story.”


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