Friday, September 30, 2016

Domain Awareness Centers

The technology grew out of a growing level of sophisticated computer analytics that combined visual data with avail weather and traffic information. Shippers were able to see their ships, trucks and planes, track them as they moved with highly organized containers across their designated routes, and plan accordingly. But as the maze of information exploded, analysts suffered from TMI-syndrome. Too much information. So data aggregation, tracking, and analysis needed to be simplified with automated recommendations. Hey, that’s just shipping.
But we all know that “national security” has created a whole lot more in access to data – like the Web and all of our phone connections – with a whole lot in the way of automated analytics. Thank you Edward Snowden and Wikileaks… if you think they are owed thanks. Yet should you think that all of this sophisticated data culling has been relegated to federal agencies, think again. How about your local cops, particularly in bigger cities with larger crime problems and lots of cyber-needs, particularly when these analytics can make up for staffing shortages from budget cuts. What exactly can they get on the open market?
Let’s start with this little description from NPR back on February 21, 2014: “Police are like the rest of us; they suffer from information overload. The data pour in from 21st century sources ranging from license plate readers to Twitter. But as the information comes in, it hits an old-fashioned bottleneck: human beings.
“‘They all have access to different databases,’ says Dave Mosher, vice president of program management at Microsoft Services. He describes the typical law enforcement command center as a room full of people at computers. ‘And they all stand up and walk around and talk to each other and they'll say, 'Tell me about this,' or 'Tell me about that.'’ ’
“Microsoft believes it solved that bottleneck when it helped the New York Police Department build something called the Domain Awareness System. It's software that combines data streams and lets the computers look for what's important.
‘If I'm an officer, it alerts me,’ Mosher says. ‘[It] says, 'You might want to take a look at this, based on the rules you put into the system. This looks suspicious, do you agree?' ’… Microsoft is marketing a version of this to other police departments under the brand ‘AWARE.’ And it's not the only company getting into the business.
“The appeal is obvious, especially for cash-strapped, high-crime cities such as Oakland, Calif. City leaders there say they simply don't have the tax base to pay for the number of police officers they need, so they've looked toward ‘domain awareness’ as a kind of force multiplier… ‘We're not ever going to have the police department that we used to have,’ says Noel Gallo, a member of the City Council. ‘We're at a different age, a new age, that we have to have some other tools to deal with crime.’
“For the past couple of years, the city of Oakland has worked with the Port of Oakland to build its own version of the system. It's called the Domain Awareness Center, or DAC. The federal government is paying for it with Homeland Security grants. But as the project grew, so did opposition.” After all, “Oakland is a high-crime city, averaging 109 homicides a year for the past 45 years. Many residents and businesses have invested in their own security cameras and are happy to share their contents with law enforcement.”, September 29th.
Opposition, eh? “A deprived port city, across the bay from San Francisco, with a history of high crime rates and radical politics, Oakland has seen its share of policing scandals over the years… Surveillance of ordinary citizens and protest groups - from the Black Panthers in the 1960s to Occupy Oakland in the 2000s - is nothing new in California's eighth largest city… ‘Police-community relations in Oakland are terrible,’ says Ali Winston, a reporter with the East Bay Express. ‘They have been terrible for a long time.’
“But Winston and his colleague Darwin BondGraham were still not fully prepared for what they would discover in the summer of 2012, when they were going through court records and council papers… ‘We saw some things that raised questions. Why are they running fibre optic cables out there? That kind of thing,’ says BondGraham… Winston recognised the name of a security company on a council agenda and knew immediately what they were dealing with - a Domain Awareness Centre.
“At some point, the city council decided to extend the system to cover the whole of Oakland and its population of 400,000 people… ‘The feeling from the port seemed to be, 'We are building these really cool systems, why don't we make them city-wide?',’ says BondGraham.
“Hundreds of new cameras would be installed across the city and data would be incorporated from licence plate readers, gunshot-detection microphones, social media, and, in later phases, facial recognition software and programmes that can recognise people from the way they walk.
“The city said it needed an early warning system to give ‘first responders’ a head start when dealing with emergencies like chemical spills and earthquakes, as well as major crime and terrorist incidents.
“But privacy campaigners in the city were alarmed at the thought of the Oakland Police Department having access to an all-pervasive real-time surveillance network. Particularly one that did not have a policy on what data would be stored and for how long… The public backlash began in the summer of 2013, just as Edward Snowden's first leaks about the National Security Agency's spying activities were hitting the headlines.
“Snowden ignited a ‘huge’ public debate about privacy and data, says Brian Hofer, a former civil rights attorney who led efforts to curb the DAC, which had barely registered as an issue when the plan to expand it citywide had first come before the city council… Hofer was a relative latecomer to the Oakland Privacy campaign, deciding to get involved after reading a December 2013 article in the East Bay Express, based on thousands of leaked emails between city officials, which suggested that the real purpose of the DAC was not to combat violent crime but to monitor and track political protesters.
“He was among dozens of Oakland residents to speak out against the DAC at a marathon city council meeting on 4 March, 2014, at which the fate of the system would be decided… By now, stopping the Oakland ‘spy centre’ had become a cause celebre among former Occupy protesters. Some of them waited their turn, their faces covered by masks, to vent their anger.

“The meeting also heard from members of the African American community, who argued that the DAC would be used to justify police violence in black neighbourhoods, and from Oakland's large Muslim community, who were concerned that the DAC would be used to spy on them.
“What linked them all was a visceral distrust of the authorities and a feeling that they did not want to live in a city where they would be constantly monitored as they went about their business. A PowerPoint presentation by city officials on the alleged benefits of the DAC did nothing to mollify them.
“With the city council tied on the issue, Oakland's then mayor Jean Quan, who had originally been in favour of the DAC, used her casting vote to back a motion that would dramatically scale it back so that it would be focused solely on the port, as originally planned… The public gallery erupted with cries of ‘shame’ - the majority of those present that night had wanted the DAC scrapped altogether.” The battle is anything but settled, as forces on both sides of the issue re-ignite the controversy, playing out rather nastily in the local press.
If you believe that digging into personal data is all conducted for social good, the Associated Press, as reported on CBS on September 30th, produced evidence that hundreds of police officers have been disciplined for using their search capacity for personal reasons, ranging from tracking romantic interests (and some using that information to harass and badger them), family members, and people against whom they harbor a grudge. Those are just the ones who were caught and punished. In some cases, officers were even encouraged to “practice” searches on people they knew. There has to be a balance somewhere. Who looks out for “us”? No easy answers.
With guns everywhere and terrorism mounting, Americans have some very tough questions to deal with. The real battle is between individual rights and someone’s perceived notion of what’s best for society at large. Surveillance does not sit well under the cold eyes of the U.S. Constitution (between the 4th and 14th Amendments), but without drilled-down surveillance, terrorism has a much better free hand.
We are going to be able to see just about everything that someone in a connected world says, does and experiences. Computers easily turn into two-way cameras; data can be sucked out of hard drives and large servers with little in the way of barriers. Privacy is vaporizing fast. Is that OK with you? Are you remotely concerned that “someone” you do not know, with an agenda you cannot find, is going to use that data to make decisions about you, your livelihood and possibly your freedom.
I’m Peter Dekom, and living on an island off the grid is sounding increasingly appealing to me.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Where God and Freedom Clash

The obvious collision between personal liberty and the mandate of God is everywhere. We can see the most obvious sacrifice of individual liberty in ISIS-held territory or in another parallel, although less pernicious, theocracy in Iran, where a body of religious leaders trump (I know, I know) elected representatives. Even in the severely conservative monarchy, Saudi Arabia, great deference is given to the decisions and opinions of the religious council, the Imam. Religious police in these states have great power, and the application of religious law imposes powerful restrictions on individual liberties. Bottom line, religious dictates can define both national leadership and even the entire legal system.
It is almost impossible to excise religious beliefs from legal systems; even not-particularly-religious Thomas Jefferson who wrote so many of the original documents that created the United States relied in part on Judeo-Christians teachings. The addition to the Constitution reflected in the Bill of Rights passed in 1789 (ratified in 1791, and extended to states under the 14th Amendment in 1868) contained a very significant departure from the notion of a state religion in the 1st Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
Notwithstanding that prohibition, religious groups within the United States have made declarations ranging from “the United States is a Christian nation” to lobbying hard to impose their interpretation of biblical passages as legal mandates for all Americans. Political lives rise and fall on a willingness to embrace political positions that clearly violate the above constitutional proscriptions. Notwithstanding the fact that these extreme religious positions hardly represent a majority perspective (unless you believe that only straight white Anglo-Saxon Protestants should pass laws), there are large swaths of this country where imposing strict Evangelical Christian “values” on all Americans is a basic prerequisite for any local politician to get elected. This is a very big part of the polarization of America.
On the other hand, we are seeing extreme efforts to push secularism all over Western Europe – such as bans on religious symbols, mostly Muslim-mandated headscarves and “burkinis” – just as there is a new religious pushback against secularism in modern Islamic nations like Turkey. The notion of “God in politics” – once thought of as a product of earlier, less evolved, political structures – seems to have revived with a vengeance all over the globe. But wait, there’s more from a very interesting part of the world that we do not associate with fundamental Christian values. Just as we tend to focus on local Evangelical politics or global efforts to Islamisize the earth, we tend to skip over the relevance of religion in modern Russia.
But the Russian Orthodox Church has been very much on the forefront of supporting Vladimir Putin’s agenda. The Church was staunchly behind Putin’s commitment to support the brutal Assad regime in Syria… as Bashir al-Assad pledged to protect minority Christians, many of them Orthodox. The Church has been far more deeply involved in a values “push-back” where conservative hierarchical respect for institutions and authority is proselytized against what is described as the failure of rise of liberalism in the West. Putin’s strongman values, his willingness to arrest protestors – like the band Pussy Riot for taking their issues into or against the Church or his prosecution of gays – and his intolerance of “disruptive” dissent have been lauded by most Russian Orthodox clerics. To many, the once-fine-line between church and state has blurred in modern Russia. The Church is now a powerful Russian political tool.
What is particularly disturbing to Western leaders, who are torn between wanting better relations with Russia and a strong revulsion at Putin’s violent and aggressive authoritarianism, is the possible expansion of Russian power into their countries under the guise of freedom of religion. The September 13th New York Times explains: “Thanks to a close alliance between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin, religion has proved a particularly powerful tool in former Soviet lands like Moldova, where senior priests loyal to the Moscow church hierarchy have campaigned tirelessly to block their country’s integration with the West. Priests in Montenegro, meanwhile have spearheaded efforts to derail their country’s plans to join NATO.
“But faith has also helped Mr. Putin amplify Russia’s voice farther west, with the church leading a push into resolutely secular members of the European Union like France… The most visible sign of this is the new Kremlin-financed spiritual center here near the Eiffel Tower, now so closely associated with Mr. Putin that France’s former culture minister, Frederic Mitterrand, suggested that it be called ‘St. Vladimir’s.’ [Almost completed and pictured above]
“But the Russian church’s push in Europe has taken an even more aggressive turn in Nice, on the French Riviera, where in February it tried to seize a private Orthodox cemetery, the latest episode in a long campaign to grab up church real estate controlled by rivals to Moscow’s religious hierarchy.
“‘They are advancing pawns here and everywhere; they want to show that there is only one Russia, the Russia of Putin,’ said Alexis Obolensky, vice president of the Association Culturelle Orthodoxe Russe de Nice, a group of French believers, many of them descendants of White Russians who fled Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. They want nothing to do with a Moscow-based church leadership headed by Kirill, patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, a close ally of the Russian president.”
The effort to seize “Church property” under the guise of a long-felt religious tradition was one of the justifications for Russian expansion into former CIS territories, from Georgia to the Ukraine. There are those in the French government who believe that the golden domes of the new Paris-built Orthodox “spiritual center” pictured above (dubbed “Moscow-sur-Seine”) will cover-up clandestine opportunities for espionage and anti-democracy activities. Putin’s power has only grown with his deeply-religious constituents, and the Church’s blessing of his actions has only reinforced his popularly with traditional conservatives.
There is fear in the air… everywhere around the world. Rising terrorism, new epidemics, extreme economic polarization and the very real consequences of global climate change are accelerated and exacerbated in a thick soup of growing third world populations facing dwindling resources. Governments trying to find harmonious balance against diverse constituencies are struggling. Look at the election landscape here in the United States. The greatest modern economic miracle – ironically in a nominally “Godless” state – is the People’s Republic of China, hardly the bastion of liberal democracy.
To a sizeable portion of this planet, existing governments, democracy and temporal solutions don’t work anymore. Relying on strongmen (yeah, men), asking for divine intervention, or a combination of both, seems to be an alternative path that might just succeed to an increasing number of people… because the other paths seem to have failed or are in the process of failing. And if you think that the American political model for democracy is going to attract new adherents in third world nations looking for a future, you should read the local descriptions of our current election and the depiction of Donald Trump as a representative spokesperson for a very large segment of the American population.
I’m Peter Dekom, and in a fearful and confusing world, people concerned about their future survival are capable of doing almost anything if they believe that they are operating under a sanction from God.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


The dodo is gone. Elephants are on their way out. The African white rhino is literally on the edge of extinction. Black rhino are close behind. I’ve had the privilege to have traveled to sub-Saharan Africa – from Namibia and Botswana to Congo, from Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe to Rwanda and Zambia – to Java (Indonesia) to see vanishing orangutan, to Komodo (Indonesia) to see the rare “dragon,” Assam (India) to observe the disappearing one-horned Indian rhino and numerous other game parks in India to trek and photograph all kinds of wondrous creatures.
My journeys to see what I knew as “zoo animals” as a little boy, accelerated by documentaries and nature-oriented television programs, began shortly after my graduation from law school in the 1970s and continued to the present day. I wanted to see these creatures in their native habitat, where I was the visitor (mobile protein supplement?) and they were at home. I’ve been charged by elephant, rhino, and crocodile and played with baby gorillas in the wild. The memories bring tears to my eyes. I have a deep respect for this incredible creatures.
Every trip back revealed fewer and more elusive wildlife. Cheetah were decimated by disease. Elephant and rhino were poached for their horns, gorilla for mementos made from their hands and feet… even as their rangeland were ravaged by farmers in search of more land and armies fighting each other in these former animal paradises. Guns. Traps. Even explosives. Poor people seeing paths to relatively decent pay by decimating earth’s heritage.
But today is perhaps an epitaph for an animal I have never seen and will never see. A precious animal that was here – alone and looking for a place to live – probably this year… but is gone now… forever. The September 21st tells this sad story: “In the dense, hilly jungles of southwest Vietnam, a lone rhino once wandered. She was the last of her subspecies [pictured above] and this was her home.
“Cat Loc, a northern sector of Cat Tien National Park, is a part of the world once ravaged by Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Today it is better known as a wildlife conservation area – but also a place where some of those efforts have failed.
“The last rhino spent her days roaming across thousands of hectares, a much wider range than was thought natural for these herbivores. But then again, she had the run of the place. There were creeks and rivers where she could wallow and there was also plenty of food – like rattan, a woody climbing plant found all over the area.
“But one day, a hunter peered at her through the sights of a semi-automatic weapon – and pulled the trigger. We do not know if the rhino saw her killer and we do not know how many times she was shot. But as that gunshot cracked out in echoes across the forest, the extinction of Javan rhinos in Vietnam was sealed. However, it did not happen immediately. The rhino, though wounded, managed to escape. And so, for a time, she disappeared into the thick greenery that sustained her.
“[When her remains were found, a] photo of the skull, separated from the rest of the animal's bones, clearly showed that the horn had been removed. In fact, it had been crudely hacked off. Poaching.
“The park had already issued a statement saying that the rhino's death was the result of natural causes, but [a conservationist for the World Wide Fund for Nature] was not so sure. And, upon checking the bones a few weeks later in May, [the WWF tracker] discovered a bullet lodged in the left foreleg.”
Mankind is a selfish and uncaring species, it seems. That there are vast numbers of people on this earth who believe that unchecked exploitation of natural resources is their God-given right. That God’s living creatures are expendable, that life expectancies of residents over over-polluted cities are dropping fast and that we are witnessing a wholesale reshaping of the earth’s land masses, oceans, climate and the sustainability of animal and plant life, alike, is intolerable to me. But there are still climate-change-deniers, those who believe that they can take nature’s creations without the slightest accountability, and illicit merchants in the wildlife trade who benefit by such distorted values. These is no morality in these twisted values. There is no respect for God’s creations.
I’m Peter Dekom, and we are all diminished by each and every species that disappears from the earth forever… and perhaps we will eventually suffocate ourselves in this wallowing excess.

Monday, September 26, 2016

May the FARC Be with You

Although there is a required popular referendum (congressionally-approved and set for October 2nd) for Colombian voters to ratify a momentous treaty between the Colombian government and the rebel FARC group, most truly believe that the violence is over. This would end the longest conflict in the Western Hemisphere, a civil war that began back in 1964 that has claimed an estimated 220-250,000 lives (80% of whom were civilians) and displaced 5 million people. Rebel Farc members have already voted in support of the treaty. Yet there are still many in Colombia who consider the Farc murderers, kidnappers, rapists and drug dealers, unworthy of forgiveness. The ceasefire that began on August 29th is now codified in a full treaty signed in Cartagena on September 26th between President Juan Manuel Santos and the head of the FARC, Timoleon Jimenez. 
Even as a UN-supervised Farc surrender of arms is part of the settlement, and there will be criminal inquiries with fairly limited “sanctions” against the most serious proven perpetrators – restricted freedom and service in the communities where the crimes were committed – there are deep concerns that the cease-fire is a gift to the Farc and that they will not give up their narcotics trade or truly surrender all their weapons. Will the Colombian people ratify the treaty, notwithstanding the bitterness? Most feel that Colombia is simply exhausted by the seemingly never-ending conflict and will overwhelmingly support this agreement. But who are the Farc, and what have then done? The Encyclopedia Britannica explains (although it will have to be corrected into the past tense soon):
FARC, abbreviation of Spanish Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (‘Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’), Marxist guerrilla organization in Colombia. Formed in 1964 as the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party (Partido Comunista de Colombia; PCC), the FARC is the largest of Colombia’s rebel groups, estimated to possess some 10,000 armed soldiers and thousands of supporters, largely drawn from Colombia’s rural areas. The FARC supports a redistribution of wealth from the wealthy to the poor and opposes the influence that multinational corporations and foreign governments (particularly the United States) have had on Colombia.
“The FARC has carried out bombings, assassinations, hijackings, and other armed attacks against various political and economic targets in the country; it has also kidnapped foreigners for ransom, executing many of its captives. The FARC’s links to drug trafficking have brought hundreds of millions of dollars annually into the organization from taxes it imposes. The FARC has received some external support for its activities from other paramilitary organizations and sympathetic governments, such as the Cuban government of Fidel Castro. In 1985 the FARC and other left-wing groups, including the PCC, established a political party, Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica; UP), in a cease-fire agreement with the government. The UP participated in elections beginning in 1986 and won a large portion of the votes. In subsequent years, however, thousands of UP members, including three of the party’s presidential candidates, were killed by right-wing paramilitary groups. Many UP leaders were forced into exile. Political violence decimated the party, and it had virtually disappeared by 2002.”
The government did not make many political concessions to the Farc – a group that championed old-world socialism/Marxism – now recognized as just one more political party. They have been accorded a limited right to sit in Colombia’s congress, a token and extremely minor, unelected body of representatives, but there have been no changes in Colombia’s political system. The disarmament process will take time, and no one really expect 100% of those guns to be surrendered.
Marixst rebellion seems almost an anachronism in the 21st century as “communist” China has gone rather dramatically capitalist, as Cuba is burying a long-standing hatchet with its American nemesis and as Venezuela’s experiment with socialism has produced a failed state. Will those who made their rebellious fortunes in the coca trade turn to less-valuable cash crops like coffee and cocoa beans? How will this treaty change the local drug trade? What is the future of rural Colombia?
“In a symbolic gesture, the pens that [were] used to sign the historic peace deal, years in the making, have been made from recycled bullets once used in the conflict. An inscription on the side of the pens reads: ‘Bullets wrote our past. Education, our future.’”, September 26th. There are still pockets of Colombian rebels who are not part of the Farc settlement, although they are vastly less significant. “The second most powerful group following the FARC, the National Liberation Army (ELN), has announced interest in the peace deal but refused to end its practice of kidnapping.” Still, this is one of the most significant accords of its kind in recent memory.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I wonder if this peace accord, mirrored on parallel settlements in Northern Ireland and South Africa, will provide any lessons to the combatants in Syria or Iraq… or will we need that many decades to achieve a solution as did Colombia?