New Year, New Relationships

Posted April 21st, 2011 at 3:01 pm (UTC-4)
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Bun Tharum | Phnom Penh

As in past, this year’s Cambodia’s New Year celebrations saw many of that nation’s young traveling home, visiting old friends and catching up with their families. This is a time-honored tradition.

But now that the festivities are concluded and people return to their modern lives, Cambodia’s youth are returning to the cities, and  increasingly grappling with social relationships that take place online.

Young Cambodians dominate the online space of social networking sites like Facebook.  A large number of Cambodia’s Facebook users are aged between 18 and 34.

Relationships are changing as a result, and that includes romance.

In Cambodia, parents traditionally have much say in their children’s marriage. They believe they’ve been through years of experience in building and maintaining family lives, and think their choices are better for the future of their children.

But more and more youth are finding their personal lives conducted inside the walled gardens of the Internet,  on sites like Facebook, or local dating site Angkor One – both of which are only accessible to registered users and among those one chooses to admit.  Meaning: a space where parents are often excluded.

The result is that social networks have become a comfortable virtual space for people to meet with their old classmates, as well as to build and break relationships, away from their parent’s eyes. Read the rest of this entry »

More Internet, Less Freedom?

Posted April 18th, 2011 at 4:36 pm (UTC-4)
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The Web’s Spread Doesn’t Mean A Freer Internet

This is the story of “Ammar” and his online activities in Tunisia just before the recent fall of the government of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.  It’s a tale of how social networks, and the spread of the Internet, have come to play a significant role in the life of a nation.

But it may not end how you imagine.

Much has been made recently of how the web is changing the social dynamics in countries around the worldparticularly those in the Middle East experiencing unrest.  It’s common now for news reports to highlight the web as a tool for social change, allowing activists to share video, organize protests and build mass movements.   Some have gone even further, adopting terms such as the “Twitter revolution” or the “Facebook revolution.”

Which brings us to “Ammar”.  For years, the government of Ben Ali ran one of the world’s most repressive Internet censorship programs – routinely imprisoning bloggers and slicing off access to large swaths of the Net.  So pervasive was the blocking that Tunisians decided to give the anonymous censors an identity – and “Ammar” was born.

In the weeks leading up to January’s protests, as activists rallied online “Ammar” was quietly busying himself on Facebook.  Specifically, as Alex Madrigal notes in The Atlantic, regime authorities were swapping out identifying information of thousands of Tunisian Facebook users, simultaneously deleting their pages while stealing valuable personal and contact information. The breech compromised thousands of online users, leading to an unknown number of arrests and even a counter-attack by Anonymous.

The government eventually fell, spurred in part by activists’ use of digital media.  However, as the story of “Ammar” demonstrates, what the Internet gives, it can take back as well. Read the rest of this entry »

Leaping Over the Censors

Posted April 13th, 2011 at 3:15 pm (UTC-4)

JulieAnn McKellogg | Washington

While it’s hard to generalize across the nations, it seems apparent the Internet and digital networks continue to play a serious role in helping pro-democracy activists organize and communicate.  This, despite efforts by a growing number of governments to limit, censor, or totally block portions of the web.

This week the non-profit human rights group Freedom House released a report detailing which online circumvention tools are best for helping activists break through the censors’ walls.*

Not surprisingly, determining the best tool to use depends on where you are, and what you’re doing.

Based on a survey of Internet users in Iran, Azerbaijan, China and Burma, the report found 11 circumvention tools to be effective, and outlines the  advantages and disadvantages of each.  But the report authors go further, providing a matrix to allow users to pick which tool would be best for them based on their activities, amount of privacy and security desired, and devices used.

For example, someone wanting to access or download material already on the web who doesn’t need much privacy should consider Freegate, while another wanting more privacy should look at Tor or Ultrasurf.  On the other side, Psiphon might best serve a user wanting to upload text or video with minimal security demands, but JonDonym is better tailored to those with high security concerns but slow processing ability. Read the rest of this entry »

Russians Battle Over Internet Freedom – UPDATE

Posted April 11th, 2011 at 3:30 pm (UTC-4)

UPDATE: 19 hours UTC Monday – Author and cyber-security expert Jeffrey Carr reports on his blog “Digital Dao” that lists of the sites attacked, and the botnets employed, are now being released.  Additionally, he reports suspicions are now turning to a group known as “the Nashi.”

Who are the Nashi?  Carr writes:

“The Nashi was the brainchild of Vladislav Surkov, Chief Ideologue and First Deputy Chief of Staff of the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev. Shortly after the Russia Georgia War of 2008, Surkov reportedly told a roomful of Russian spin doctors that “August, 2008 was the starting point of the virtual reality of conflicts and the moment of recognition of the need to wage war in the information field too.

Carr is tracking this story very closely – head on over to his blog for all the latest.


James Brooke | Moscow

A massive hacker attack knocked Russia’s most popular opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, off the internet Friday.  Earlier that week, three days of hacker attacks repeatedly knocked out LiveJournal, the nation’s main platform for blogs.

As Russia’s roughly 40 million Internet users digested these attacks, the nation’s top communications security official proposed Friday to ban Skype, Hotmail, and Gmail as uncontrolled threats to Russian security.  It is unclear if the official from Russia’s FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet KGB, will get his way.

With Russia’s Internet users expanding by 10,000 people a day, security officials fret about the internet – a vast, uncontrolled cyberspace.

After the youth revolts spread through the Arab world, the FSB proposed that every Russian user of Facebook and other social networks be required to sign user contracts that included passport information and home addresses.

“A direct consequence of the events in the Middle East and North Africa, in Tunisia, in Egypt,” said Andrei Soldatov, author of “The New Nobility“, a book on the FSB.  “Because for many experts and for many politicians, it seems that social networks played a crucial role.” Read the rest of this entry »

Protecting Arabs Online

Posted April 9th, 2011 at 1:48 pm (UTC-4)
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…And Taking Armenia Off

Two items recently caught our eye.  There’s not much on our part to add, but in retrospect they both seem to speak to a similar theme – that of how fragile our online worlds can be.

First, the nonprofit Access Now – a loose group campaigning for expanded online freedom and access – has released new report designed to protect pro-democracy activists in the Arab world.  “Protecting Your Security Online” comes in both Arabic and English versions, and includes many ideas and pointers for anyone wanting to protect their online activities from prying eyes.

Topics include secure browsing, circumvention technologies, encryption and many others, including this helpful tip that we think can’t be repeated enough:

“There are increasing options for utilizing GPS technology in order to demonstrate your physical location when online. This can be a powerful tool when used as part of a coordinated campaign to map out reports from the ground using mobiles during a crisis or key event, but it also gives out incredibly sensitive information about your location and activities. We recommend you turn GPS tracking off for programs such as Twitter and Bambuser unless it’s temporary and critical to an activist project you’re working on. Even if the GPS is not displayed, it is critical to disable the collection of this information in your web browser or other client.”

Beyond this specific report, the Access Now site is a rich cache of news, events, and projects focused on expanding Internet access and use, and well worth spending some time exploring.

The second item comes from Armenia, but actually begins in neighboring Georgia.  As reported here by the Guardian newspaper, it seems an elderly Georgian woman who was scavenging for old, unused copper pipes accidentally cut through an underground cable.

The cable that provides nearly all Internet access to Armenia.  Oops.

Seems nearly all of Armenia’s Internet traffic is routed through Georgia, and that particular cable.  Severed with a simple shovel, it threw Armenia’s businesses, government and 3.2 million residents  temporarily offline.  ZDNet adds this incredulous comment:

“I cannot understand how this lady managed to find and damage the cable,” Giorgi Ionatamishvili, head of marketing for Georgian Railway Telecom, told AFP in the report.  “It has robust protection and such incidents are extremely rare,” he added.

Apparently, not robust enough for a spade wielded by a 75-year-old pensioner.  The woman’s name has not been released, but wags in Georgia have already begun referring to her as “the spade-hacker.”

The connection has been repaired, and all appears well.  However, we  worry this may give Anonymous new ideas.

Hitting the Panic Button

Posted April 7th, 2011 at 3:30 pm (UTC-4)
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…And Whom It Might Benefit Most

There’s been a certain amount of buzz following a series of stories on the development of what’s being termed a “cell phone panic button.”  At first view, it may seem like a sensible, even helpful idea for democracy advocates.  But there are growing worries that it may not just be the “good guys” who stand to benefit.

In essence it would work like this: imagine  pro-democracy activists are working in a repressive nation.  Their mobile phone is most likely a valued tool – serving as an address book, document library, camera, connection to the Internet and access to social networks.   In the right hands, a smart phone can be powerful – and in the wrong ones, it can be exquisitely vulnerable.

Say now this imaginary activist is arrested by security forces.  Before the police can get access to everything stored on the phone, the activist hits an app – a “panic button” – that sends out an alert to all his or her contacts before entirely wiping the phone’s memory clean. Read the rest of this entry »

The Conspiracy Factory

Posted April 4th, 2011 at 5:39 pm (UTC-4)
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How the Web Spreads and Amplifies Conspiracy Theories

It began earlier this year,when WISC-TV anchor Sarah Carlson, back on-air just four months after brain surgery, began garbling her words.  As she continued, her face grew taut and her words no more than gibberish before the director could switch to her alarmed co-anchor.

A few weeks later, entertainment correspondent Serene Branson was covering the Grammy Awards for the CBS-TV affiliate in Los Angeles.  The anchor threw her an easy question live on-air, but Branson didn’t get very far.

“Well, a very very heavy…bertation, tonight,” she stumbled. And like Carlson before, Branson’s words rapidly slid into nonsense before the director could switch to something else.

Then, during a live segment on Libya, Global News Toronto’s Mark McAllister became disoriented, struggling to make sounds that were even words.  And just last week, syndicated TV-judge Judith “Judge Judy” Sheindlin began speaking what was  called “nonsensical language” during a taping of her program.

That’s when the conspiracy theorists pounced. Read the rest of this entry »

Filtering the Mideast Web

Posted March 28th, 2011 at 3:44 pm (UTC-4)
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And Shuttering One Channel of American Public Diplomacy

Paul Sonne and Steve Stecklow at the Wall Street Journal have an eye-opening feature today, and the headline says it all:  “U.S. Products Help Block Mideast Web.”

Sonne and Stecklow document how the governments of Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, among others, have been acquiring web-filtering software made by firms such as McAfee and Blue Coat Systems, both of California.  They report that software designed for parents to filter the web for their children  is apparently being used by officials to block local access to a variety of websites – including political opposition and human rights groups.

Graphic by the Wall Street Journal mapping Middle East nations that use US softward for web filtering (courtesy the Wall Street Journal)

In a test run by the Journal, online users in Bahrain tried to access various news and political websites via the Bahraini ISP Batelco.   Batelco uses a variety of filtering products, including McAfee’s “SmartFilter.”  The Journal  reports that “…online community forums for Shia villages and the websites of at least two human rights groups were censored” as well as other sites. Read the rest of this entry »

Alive In Benghazi

Posted March 23rd, 2011 at 2:48 pm (UTC-4)
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Libyans Sharing Stories From The Front Lines

The video is as direct as its story is powerful.

A young Libyan, Ali Salem Ali Milad Shaoud, looks directly into the camera – and, by extension, into the eyes of everyone watching him online.  He’s wearing a kafiya, a black t-shirt, a green flak vest…and a bandage wrapping his right hand and arm.

“This is from the days of the Fedeel Katiba in the Keesh area,” he says.  Shaoud is a Libyan rebel fighter, and in the recent battle against pro-Gadhafi forces in Katiba, Shaoud was armed with only a “jalateena” – a can filled with gunpowder:

“I was running with it to light it. It was like a fire in Katiba – there was a lot of smoke.   I threw the jalateena, I was hit in the hand.   I was running and still didn’t know.   Then someone said, ‘Your hand. Blood, you know?‘  I looked at my hand and saw the blood.  That was the day Katiba fell.”

Shaoud’s story didn’t grab headlines or make the international news broadcasts.  Told simply and cleanly, it’s just one moment in a complex, chaotic situation.

But Shaoud’s tale doesn’t just stand alone.  It’s part of a growing Internet archive of those of his fellow countrymen, and together they tell the story most journalists can’t – what Libyans actually think, experience, and desire in the battle for their nation. Read the rest of this entry »

Transcending Man

Posted March 18th, 2011 at 7:03 pm (UTC-4)

The Works and Ideas of Futurist Ray Kurzweil

There’s a moment near the end of “Transcendent Man,” a new documentary about futurist Ray Kurzweil.  The camera follows Kurzweil to the lip of a seashore as he silently watches the waves churning in and out.  “What are you thinking about?” an off-camera voice asks.  “I’m thinking about computation,” he says, smiling.

Ray Kurzweil is not an easy man to understand.

And neither are his ideas regarding the future, most fully articulated in his latest book “The Singularity Is Near.” Long an innovator in the field of computer science and pattern recognition, Kurzweil has turned his attention to genetics, nano-technology and artificial intelligence and asks, ‘What comes next?’

His answers can be dazzling…and a little unnerving.  Just a few:

  • “We’ll reprogram our genetics away from disease and aging.”
  • “We will have blood cell-sized devices that go in your brain and allow us to merge with non-biological intelligence.”
  • “In about 20 years  a computer will be able to match human intelligence and surpass it.”
  • “We will merge with these machines be able to download our brains, and in effect live forever.”

All this and more…by the year 2029.  Welcome to the Singularity. Read the rest of this entry »

What’s Digital Frontiers?

What’s Digital Frontiers?

The Internet, mobile phones, tablet computers and other digital devices are transforming our lives in fundamental and often unpredictable ways. “Digital Frontiers” investigates how real world concepts like privacy, identity, security and freedom are evolving in the virtual world.

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