Friday, December 19, 2014 

What lies beyond.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014 

An open letter to Alex Willcock, CEO of VisualDNA.

As a digital stick in the mud, one of those people who enjoys the benefits of the internet but doesn't feel the need to share his every waking moment and feeling with a bunch of strangers, it falls to me to state that the wankery expressed in your Graun advert is even by the usual standards of the guff produced by marketers and advertising agencies quite something to behold.

It's also an extraordinarily pretentious way of saying that you're going to continue sucking up people's data regardless of whether you have permission to do so or not, as your company does currently, boasting of how you can tell your customers of the "Demographics Interests Intent and Personality (DIIP) data of almost 450m people worldwide" (sic).  This is obviously a load of utter crap, but then what else is the point of businesses like yours?

Hopefully this response to your attempt to spark "discussion and debate" reaches you well. Now do everyone a favour and poke your "understanding economy" up your arse.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014 

Unpleasant reading for all concerned.

In keeping with recent events, reading the Al-Sweady report by Sir Thayne Forbes is not a pleasant experience.  It reaches almost the exact opposite conclusions of the previous inquiry into alleged mistreatment in Iraq by British forces, finding that while some of those detained after the Battle of Danny Boy were mistreated, they were certainly not subjected to the beatings that led to the death of Baha Mousa.  Unlike Mousa, Forbes also finds beyond doubt that all 9 of those detained and whom subsequently alleged they were mistreated were either members of or volunteers with the Mahdi army, as were the 28 Iraqis killed by British forces that day following the ambush.  Forbes additionally finds Leigh Day solicitors knew as early as September 2007 that their clients were insurgents, having obtained a document from the Office of the Martyr Al Sayyed Al Sadr which detailed their positions within the Mahdi army.

Whether the inquiry would have came into being had the document been disclosed early we can't know.  Certainly, it's likely the detainees would not have received legal aid for their original claim in the administrative court had the full truth been in the open.  That doesn't however excuse the Ministry of Defence's failure to disclose their own documentation on the events of the 14th and 15th of May 2004 fully back in 2009, which led to then defence secretary Bob Ainsworth setting up the full independent inquiry.  Had that happened the allegations could have been disproved far sooner, with the cost of the inquiry, estimated at £31m, much reduced.

It's easy nonetheless to understand why so many ordinary Iraqis believed the claims that rather than being killed on the battlefield, some of those who died that day were tortured and then executed back at the British base, Camp Abu Naji.  Tensions had risen in the area following an incident that resulted in the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf being damaged, allegedly by US forces engaging the Mahdi army.  The ambush at Danny Boy (as the checkpoint on the road between Basra and Al Amarah was known by call sign) was in apparent direct retaliation for the attack, despite British forces not having been involved.  Forbes notes the assault was responded to with exemplary courage, resolution and professionalism, with only injuries to the British side despite the ferocity of the attack.  The Iraqis were also not subject to a bayonet charge as had been claimed, with all injuries to the attackers a result of either bullet or shrapnel wounds.

Had the bodies of the attackers been left where they fell, it's likely fewer local civilians would have believed the claims subsequently made.  Instead, a highly unusual order came through for the soldiers to identify the bodies.  The original intention was for the bodies to be photographed, but this apparently then morphed into taking them back to the base, as this would be the best way of doing so.  The idea was to check whether one of the men thought responsible for the killing of six Royal Military Police the previous year, Naseer Zachra Abd Rufeiq, was among the dead, as it was believed he could be.  Predictably, he wasn't.

How much in the way of further damage was caused to the bodies by the transfer isn't clear.  Forbes accepts it was possible some was done, not least as due to the room taken up by the corpses some had to be stood on for the soldiers to be able to take up the usual "top cover" positions.  Once unloaded, they were then moved again before they were photographed.  Blood samples were additionally taken, leaving puncture wounds which could also have given the impression of abuse.

Arrangements were made for the bodies to be handed over to the Iraqis the following day.  For reasons Forbes wasn't able to properly ascertain, some of the medics and ambulance drivers at the Al Majar al’Kabir hospital came to believe they were also to collect some Iraqis merely injured.  After the handover, the bodies were first taken to Al-Sadr Hospital, where footage was recorded showing in Forbes' words how "clearly even before the bodies had been properly examined, conclusions were being reached about how some of the deceased had sustained their injuries".  The bodies were then moved again, to Al Majar al’Kabir hospital, where they were examined by Dr Adel Al-Shawi and Dr Jafar Nasser Hussain Al-Bahadl.  Death certificates were issued, some of which observe the bodies show signs of torture, beatings and mutilation.  Even taking into account the bodies may have been further damaged in transit, the evidence, including the photographs taken at Abu Naji, discount those observations.   Forbes concludes the doctors "were so caught up in the emotional turmoil and hostility to the British Military then prevailing" that they failed  "to apply the professionally rigorous and objective judgment" expected of them.

The one part of the report the MoD won't be pleased with is on how those detained on the battlefield were subsequently treated during their detention.  Despite the death of Baha Mousa the previous year, it finds three of the detainees were forcibly strip-searched, and kept blindfolded for too long; they were not expressly authorised as being healthy enough to undergo "tactical questioning"; the soldier undertaking the questioning was poorly trained, and believed throwing a chair during interrogation was authorised behaviour; and that the training itself was still lacking.  Taken out of context, some of the ill-treatment Forbes identifies seem minimal; these were insurgents after all, are we really meant to be shocked or appalled by how they had their necks blown on?  When you learn the blowing comes in a sequence of events, which began with the detainee entering the room blindfolded, left seemingly alone for a while until suddenly the interrogator either drummed his fingers or whistled, before circling the detainee, blowing on his neck and banging a metal peg on the table, only then removing the prisoner's plastic handcuffs and blindfold, it's a little different.  Forbes also finds the men were sleep deprived, again like Mousa, as well as being denied adequate food and water.

Phil Shiner in a piece for the Graun claims there are a further 30 Baha Mousa-type cases and that by January the high court will have heard of up to 1,100 cases of mistreatment or worse by UK troops.  The obvious question following the Al-Sweady inquiry is how many of these are similarly based on deliberate lies.  Not all of the claims are however purely one side against the other: Forbes deals a number of times in the report with soldiers themselves alleging they were witness to mistreatment, or having concerns about what they saw or heard.  He discounts each one, but that doesn't alter the fact.  It could be the response of the defence secretary Michael Fallon, angrily denouncing the lawyers involved, is based less on the particulars of this inquiry and what might still be ahead.  It could also be that Public Interest Lawyers, having found one horrific example of abuse in the case of Baha Mousa went to see if there were others, and has been misled by the Iraqis themselves.  This doesn't explain why the document in the possession of Leigh Day proving the 9 men were insurgents didn't come to light earlier though.

Whatever the case, it doesn't excuse the MoD for its failures to anticipate exactly the kind of conditions and situations the military were going to have deal with once tasked with maintaining security in the south of Iraq.  The Al-Sweady report while debunking the most serious claims against the military underlines how much was still the same almost nine months on from the death of Baha Mousa, with the recognition something had gone badly wrong in that instance only dragged out by a similar public inquiry.  One hopes the recommendations made by Sir William Gage in his report have been implemented, as will be the additional ones made today by Forbes, if they haven't already.  We also still await the Chilcot report and its conclusions on Iraq in general, now highly unlikely to be published before the election.  It's probably best we don't mention how by then UK military personnel will be officially back in the country.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014 

Two nations, the same words, the same outcome.

I can't breathe.  The words spoken by Eric Garner after a NYPD officer placed him in a chokehold, before he was then slammed to the ground.  Within minutes he was dead.  The decision by a grand jury not to indict the officer who placed him in the chokehold, coming just a week after a grand jury similarly declined to indict the officer who shot dead Michael Brown, sparking riots in Brown's hometown of Ferguson, has led to protests by sportsmen and celebrities.

I can't breathe.  The words spoken by Jimmy Mubenga, after three G4S guards meant to be supervising his deportation forced him forward in his seat, despite his already being handcuffed from behind.  Except, it's now difficult to know if that's what happened as the jury at the manslaughter trial brought following the unlawful killing verdict at Mubenga's inquest found all three not guilty, and within hours of their being sent out to consider their verdict.

This isn't the first time the verdict of an inquest and the subsequent manslaughter trial have differed.  Most notably, an inquest jury found Ian Tomlinson had been unlawfully killed, dying not long after he was pushed to the ground by PC Simon Harwood.  The jury at his trial similarly was not convinced beyond reasonable doubt he was responsible for Tomlinson's death, a decision which could be rationalised by how there was a difference of opinion between the pathologists who carried out consecutive autopsies.  The first post-mortem was performed by Freddy Patel, an incompetent who was suspended at the time of the trial and has since been struck off, details the jury were not told as they were deemed prejudicial.  Patel also poured away the liquid he found in Tomlinson's abdomen, which could have determined beyond doubt the cause of death.

The jury at the Mubenga trial were not told of the inquest's unlawful killing verdict, rather more understandably, nor that two of the guards had "racist" jokes on their phones.  We can't of course know which parts of the evidence the jury accepted and those they didn't: the guards denied hearing Mubenga crying out that he couldn't breathe, something that passengers seated much further away on the plane did and testified they had.  They also denied putting Mubenga into a position known to have the potential to cause breathing difficulties, which again witnesses testified they had.  The prosecution case also included reconstructing the alleged restraint placed on Mubenga, with a section of a Boeing 777 constructed in the court, members of the jury placed in the same position as Mubenga was.

We can then only surmise at how they reached their verdict.  We know juries are reluctant to convict police officers or others in positions of authority, whether they be British or American.  Just last week a jury cleared two officers of attacking a man with autism in Luton, despite hearing a recording of one of the pair referring to him as a "fucking Paki" moments prior to the altercation.  The jury seemingly accepted the injuries Faruk Ali sustained were due to his falling into bins when grabbed by one of the officers, not the punches claimed by Ali's family.  This giving of the benefit of the doubt is perhaps explained somewhat by polls showing a healthy majority retain trust in the police, one survey finding 65% would generally trust officers to be truthful.  Only teachers, doctors and judges are trusted more.  Journalists and politicians rank along the bottom.

Jimmy Mubenga wasn't only black; he was also being deported following a conviction for actual bodily harm.  All three of the guards found not guilty are white, the youngest 39.  The jury accepted their argument they were simply "trying to do a very difficult job in difficult circumstances, to the best of their ability".  You have to suspect that Mubenga, unlike Garner, will not have footballers or say, Idris Elba, donning t-shirts featuring some of his last words in protest.

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Monday, December 15, 2014 

Oh the joy (of the next 5 months).

There are a couple of reasons why l spend inordinate amounts of time slamming away at a keyboard instead of advising the Labour party.  First off, I'm not American, nor have I been parachuted into a safe seat, more's the pity.  Second, I cannot for the life of me work out why you would effectively launch your general election campaign in the middle of fricking December when most people's minds are even further away from politics than usual.  Presumably, and I'm really clutching at straws here, the idea is to get a head start on the other parties and begin the process of drilling the 5 key pledges Labour has decided upon into everyone's skulls.  Come May, all concerned will march to the polling station, their minds focused on controlling immigration fairly and cutting the deficit every year while securing the future of the NHS.

The words under and whelming come to mind, as they so often do when the topic shifts to Labour.  If you wanted to be extremely charitable, you could say it's an indication of just how spectacularly the coalition has failed that Labour seems to have pinched wholesale two of the Conservatives' pledges from 2010.  Alternatively, you could point out it's spectacularly unimaginative and an indication of Labour's chronic lack of ambition for it to be defining itself in the exact same way as the hated Tories did.  5 fricking years ago.

Again, to be fair, we're promised Labour is getting the less pleasant of its pledges out first, with the more unique ones to follow, defined by those all time classic Labour values.  Quite why Labour has decided upon the pledge approach in the first place is a difficult one to ascertain: presumably modelled on the 1997 pledge cards (and Christ alive, the photo of Tone on the card is easily as terrifying as this year's Christmas effort), is it meant to bring to mind the good old days when Labour could win a vast majority on the most vacuous of aspirations?  They're not even pithy, as the actual pledges amount to three sentences of deathly prose.  Cutting the deficit every year while protecting the NHS would be great, if the exact same message hadn't been plastered around the country accompanied by Cameron's suspiciously taut forehead.

Dear old Ed today gave what must rank as one of the briefest speeches of his career, outlining the second pledge, emphasising how he wouldn't repeat Cameron's promise of getting migration down to a specific point, only that Labour would control it, and fairly, that distinction apparently intended for both those pro and anti to interpret as they see fit.  Call me picky, but saying you'll control something you cannot still makes you a hostage to fortune in my book.  Miliband's audience helped by moving the debate swiftly on, similarly to how the campaigning against UKIP document leaked to the Torygraph suggested Labour candidates do when the topic is broached on the doorstep.

As pointed out by Andrew Sparrow, the briefing paper is about the most sensible thing Labour has said about immigration in months if not years, recognising they're not going to win over the virulently opposed while also suggesting for most immigration is "used as a means to express other concerns".  Except as it sort of implies people aren't steaming about immigration directly, and the party for whatever reason has decided to so much as suggest this is the equivalent of not taking legitimate concerns seriously, shadow ministers have all but disowned their own strategy.  It's also meant the media can talk about the distraction rather than a boring old policy Labour are only re-announcing anyway.

Still, what a jolly 5 month long general election campaign we have to look forward to.  Already the dividing lines are set between Labour, Tories and Liberal Democrats on the economy and the deficit, and they are of course the most absurd caricatures of actual stated policy imaginable.  Special marks for dishonesty must go to David Cameron, who managed to scaremonger about a difference between his party and Labour of about £25bn in borrowing terms in the most hyperbolic way possible.  Just imagine if there was another crash and Labour was once again racking up the debt!  Except, err, if there's another crash and borrowing is only falling by as much as the Tories are projecting it will, there will still be problems, although nothing as compared to elsewhere.

Labour meanwhile is making as much as possible out of the 1930s comparison on everyday spending, which is technically correct, again if the Tories mean what they say, just not particularly illuminating.  A better approach would be, as Ed Miliband somewhat tried last Thursday, to set out exactly what sort of state it is most people want.  If George Osborne carries through and magics into existence his surplus, parts of government will be left barely functioning, which really isn't to scaremonger: cutting the budgets of departments other than health, education and foreign aid (which surely won't continue to be ringfenced) by as much as needed doesn't look remotely plausible.  When the best minds are baffled by what the chancellor is up to, apart from mischief, it deserves highlighting.

Even if we look at Labour's plans in the most flattering light, Ed Balls is still promising to run a surplus as soon as possible, not because it's good economics but as a result of the way the debate has been framed.  Doing so is still going to require huge cuts, savings which the party has done the least of the main three to outline.  In the grand scheme of things, as Chris and Alex Marsh have so persuasively argued, this doesn't really matter.  The real issues affecting the economy are the collapse in productivity, and with it the decline in wages growth.  We are though operating in a climate where the difference is between "colossal" and merely "eye-watering" cuts, where the Tories claim to have succeeded on the basis they've more or less reduced the deficit to the level Alistair Darling pledged to, except they've done so on the backs of the poorest, and where it seems personal taxes will never have to rise again, despite government having apparently decided not to bother taxing companies properly either.

There's a third reason I'm not advising Labour.  I'd be even worse at it than the current lot.

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Friday, December 12, 2014 


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Thursday, December 11, 2014 

"Nowhere to hide".

Call me a stick in the mud, but there really is something extraordinarily aggravating about the use of hashtags, in you know, real life.  They're bad enough online, especially when campaigns such as #CameronMustGo are like, totally indicative of the feeling of the general public and for it to be ignored is a typical example of the old media's systemic bias.  Or it could be no one cares about this particular circle jerk for a good reason.  Doesn't excuse them for the ones they do, mind.  Have the Chibok girls been rescued yet, incidentally?

It could be I just despise social media.  All the same, when a group uses a hashtag offline and combines it with an incredibly self-aggrandising statement, such as #WeProtectChildrenOnline, good cause or otherwise, it rather sets my teeth on edge.  Perhaps it's that protecting children so often means infantilising adults, or indeed, the state taking responsibility for that which should be left to parents to decide upon.  We're almost a year on from the universal rollout of "on by default" filtering, and spank me silly if it's made kids safer online by as much as a fraction, the vast majority deciding they prefer the internet uncensored, thank you very much.  Not that most do anything beyond going to Facebook with the odd surreptitious glance at insert your favoured porntube site here anyway.

Ministers regardless of party tend to be at their sanctimonious worst on all matters connected with child safety and the interwebs, understandable when you consider the legitimate concerns surrounding the danger posed by sexual predators online, less so when they're often responding to exaggerated and occasionally plain wrong coverage and campaigning in the media.  You then also have people like the former head of Ceop, Jim Gamble, who seems to imagine he's fighting a one man campaign ala Frank Castle against the evil of paedophilia, only without the guns.  Or the subtlety, for that matter.

Co-opting GCHQ fully into the battle against those particularly devious perverts who hide and exchange material via the dark nets, whether it be Tor, i2p or Freenet, is then a no-brainer.  Anything that makes people forget about things like Tempora, or Optic Nerve, which must have sucked up a fair share of exactly the material David Cameron now wants GCHQ to crack down on the better.  Except, as James Ball points out, GCHQ has been doing exactly this for quite some time already, and politicians have also been flagging up their work ever since the Snowden revelations.

If Cameron's speech really does signal a new offensive by the police and GCHQ against the paedophile forums on Tor, then clearly it's to be welcomed, at least up to a point.  There are reasons to be doubtful however, not least that if the intelligence agencies have found a way to identify both users and where the servers of dark net sites are hosted, the decision to first go after some of the drug markets was a curious one.  Operation Onymous didn't so much as seize a single child porn .onion, leading most to conclude the raids were down to sloppiness on the part of admins rather than flaws in Tor itself.  It might seem counter-intuitive that admins of drug markets are less security concious than paedophiles, until you realise they've still probably got less to lose if they're exposed than paedophiles have.

The other concern is that if Tor is broken, the knowledge of how to identify users will quickly become known to other, less enlightened security agencies, with the activists whom rely on Tor for anonymity the first in the firing line.  It also suggests that despite the encouraging comments from Simon Bailey, the Association of Chief Police Officers' lead on child protection, who said it was realism to admit it was impossible for the police to go after every person viewing child abuse, and that those caught who are determined not to be a risk to children should be treated as patients rather than go before a court, politicians and others are still pretending all those who do so will be brought to justice.  They won't be, not only as the resources aren't there considering the numbers of people estimated to have a sexual attraction to children, but also as combined with a VPN, the use of Tor or i2p offers fairly substantial protection.  Most paedophiles are caught not through being tracked down via the web but due to their cache of child abuse material being discovered by someone accessing their computer in person.

The recognition that a good percentage of those who view child abuse imagery will not themselves abuse children is at least a start.  If we can help those who fear they could act on their urges by not considering every paedophile as an abuser by default, encouraging others like Eddie to come forward, we might be on the way to further preventing abuse before it happens.  Despite the suggestions there isn't any help for paedophiles in this country unless they offend, I suspect if someone was to go to their GP and tell them about their problem they might well be referred either to a psychiatrist or for CBT, but that obviously also sets up the potential for precisely the exposure most paedophiles fear.

What doesn't help is the language of there "being nowhere to hide".  It's both false and encourages paedophiles to seek out the exact "refuges" which do so much to perpetuate the abuse politicians so desperately want to prevent.  Surely, in this post-Savile era, it's time for the debate to become more informed.

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