I just read an article in Mail & Guardian titled ANC at pains to silence booing and noticed this stark reminder that the ANC sees itself as synonymous with the State and has no difficulty using national intelligence agencies to retain power:
At the time, ANC insiders said that a team of state intelligence operatives and police officers had been dispatched to Mpumalanga from as early as December to do groundwork and counter any move by Zuma’s detractors to embarrass him.
The ANC is not the government. It is a majority party and has the power to appoint the government but that government is responsible for protecting all South Africans’ interests.
Revelations about the American surveillance program called PRISM have been astounding, not so much because we have discovered that the US government has been spying on, well, everyone both within the United States and internationally, but because of the sheer scale of the program. This story initially broke on The Guardian when Glenn Greenwald reported that the US National Security Agency was collecting information on Verizon customers (Verizon is one of the US mobile networks) –
The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.
The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.
The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.
The program, code-named PRISM, has not been made public until now. It may be the first of its kind. The NSA prides itself on stealing secrets and breaking codes, and it is accustomed to corporate partnerships that help it divert data traffic or sidestep barriers. But there has never been a Google or Facebook before, and it is unlikely that there are richer troves of valuable intelligence than the ones in Silicon Valley.
James Allworth, in his article titled “Your Smartphone Works for the Surveillance State” drew a number of parallels between PRISM and the East German Stasi police which used a previously unprecedented network of informers and secret police officers to spy on East German citizens before the Berlin wall fell. One of the more interesting statements from lawmakers defending the program was quoted from the New York Times in Allworth’s article –
The defense of this practice offered by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who as chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee is supposed to be preventing this sort of overreaching, was absurd. She said on Thursday that the authorities need this information in case someone might become a terrorist in the future.
Of course this idea goes, in part, to the right to be presumed innocent and to an array of protections that relate to this presumption of innocence and a respect for a citizen’s privacy. President Obama commented in a press conference that the program was not being used to monitor US citizens, only people living outside the United States. This turns out to be false and emphasises the fact that everyone is exposed to this program and our use of social services on the Web only exacerbates the extent to which people’s privacy is being disregarded, seemingly indiscriminately. We are horrified at the extent to which former East German citizens were subjected to intense and pervasive scrutiny and yet the scale at which modern governments do the same thing far exceeds the Stasi’s hopes. As Allworth points out –
And yet, here we are. In terms of the capability to listen to, watch and keep tabs on what its citizens are doing, the East German government could not possibly have dreamed of achieving what the United States government has managed to put in place today.
At the same time, we are complicit. We generate tremendous amounts of data about our lives and publish this data on the social Web where it can be accessed and analysed –
Think about the proportion of our lives that are undertaken online and digitally. Every tweet, every interaction on Facebook, every photo on Instagram. You search for directions with a myriad of online mapping options. You check in your location on Foursquare. You review restaurants you’ve visited on Yelp. You speak to people all over the world using Skype. Every time you have a question, you type it into Google, or perhaps ask it on Quora. An increasing amount of your purchases are conducted on eBay or Amazon. You back up your laptop to the cloud. Almost everything you listen to or read is there too, or in iTunes. And while you might scoff at these as something that only early adopters use, even late adopters of digital technologies leave behind an incredibly detailed trail of their lives. Every minute you spend on the phone; in fact, every minute you carry it around in your pocket; every email you write; every instant message you send. Every transaction that passes through your credit card is recorded.
If I were a US citizen, and the NSA had half as much data on me as Google does, they’d be able to use that data to make a conclusive determination that I am not a person of interest… to anyone. Even my friends wouldn’t be interested in reading my emails. Most people’s lives aren’t interesting.
And if I were the sort of person the NSA were interested in, I should probably be locked up before I flew a plane into a building anyway… my privacy be damned.
I agree with him, to a point. As far as we are aware, these programs are intended to identify and track criminals and if we are living relatively honest lives, we probably need not be too concerned about our activities being tracked, stored and analysed. The problem is that these programs are typically opaque to public scrutiny. To quote Allworth again –
Now, if this was an ideological principle — a deep and profound belief in transparency, and the disinfecting power of sunlight — then, again, at least it would be understandable. But it’s not that, either. Simultaneously, while doing everything it can to watch you, the government is taking another page out of the East German playbook — doing everything it can to stop you from watching it.
Bringing this closer to home, we are still debating the Protection of State Information Bill which was recently passed by Parliament and is awaiting the President’s signature. It is likely still unconstitutional despite changes made to the Bill (read Pierre De Vos’ thoughts on this here). Irrespective of whether the so-called Secrecy Bill passes constitutional muster, the real challenge here in South Africa, as it appears to be in the United States, is an underlying culture of “secrecy” and a severe allergy to transparency even though improved transparency would introduce a much needed counter-balance to this increased scrutiny by governments.
On a related point, I read an article by Michael Schrage titled “When Digital Marketing Gets Too Creepy” which highlights a similar trend in the commercial world. This article focuses on how brands are using increasingly detailed collections of personal information about their customers to customise their experiences. This is the value we, as consumers, receive in exchange for disclosing our personal information and preferences but this question Schrage asks, presupposes that this is beneficial. On balance, I think it is but it does come with quite a hefty price: we essentially forgo privacy as a form of secrecy and we move closer to what Jeff Jarvis referred to as “radical transparency” in his book, Public Parts, in which he explores the benefits of greater publicity as opposed to secrecy (a counterpoint to Jarvis’ arguments is Andrew Keen’s book, Digital Vertigo).
The problem we face, whether it be from government programs like PRISM, legislation like the Secrecy Bill or marketing initiatives driven by more and more personal information which we disclose on a daily basis as we share our lives on the social Web is that we have limited control over the personal information we disclose (probably none once it enters national security databases) and we have even less insights into the many ways our personal information is being collected, used and the conclusions that are being drawn about us as a result. Wide ranging programs collecting our data to prevent terrorism, crime or irrelevant ads have their merits but until we are empowered to make informed choices about those programs, we may as well be back in East Germany or Apartheid South Africa and subject to the whims of over-reaching politicians who have forgotten the old adage that “with great power, comes great responsibility”.
You are a minister of the South African government, appointed to advance the interests of the Republic and the people of South Africa in an impartial and rational manner. As a citizen and as a national religious leader of South Africa, I object to the way in which you are abusing your high office to promote your own personal agenda. You obviously have a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to Israel; you lose your sense of objectivity and rationality when dealing with the Jewish State.
Your actions hark back to apartheid-style control of information and censorship. Why would you try to prevent South Africans from travelling to Israel and seeing the situation for themselves? Do you think, Mr. Ebrahim, that the South African people are not as clever as you are, that they cannot think for themselves and that they need to be protected from the facts?
It is a terrific letter and worth reading because, as with most criticisms of Israel regarding Palestinians, the point of view Ebrahim promotes ignores a number of inconvenient facts about how the State of Israel treats its Arab citizens. One popular piece of propaganda the Chief Rabbi tackles is the patently absurd notion that Israel is an Apartheid state.
Maybe you are afraid – and rightly so – that if people go to Israel and see the situation for themselves their perspective will be completely different. Are you worried that they will see that, in fact, there is no apartheid in Israel? South Africans visiting Israel will find a multi-racial, multi-ethnic vibrant society where more than 1.5 million Arabs live as full and equal Israeli citizens, vote as part of a single national voters’ roll and have full legal rights in all areas of society. Are you concerned that when South Africans travel on buses, visit parks, malls, hospitals and university campuses, attend the Israeli Parliament and the Supreme Court they will find Jews and Arabs living and working together in complete equality? They may hear, for example, that, in fact, it was an Arab judge who convicted former Israeli president Moshe Katsav on rape charges.
Accusing Israel of being an Apartheid state has always been and remains a convenient and emotionally-charged accusation designed to leverage a shameful government’s policy towards non-whites who were discriminated against and mis-treated for decades in South Africa and apply that metaphor to a country that doesn’t discriminate against its multi-cultural citizens who observe a variety of faiths and comprise a variety of racial groups. It’s not that different to the metaphor wars the entertainment industry wages on so-called “pirates” although the campaign against Israel isn’t very entertaining. It is also somewhat hypocritical for the Deputy Minister to point fingers at this phantom Apartheid state when our own government is resembling the oppressive regime it replaced more and more each day.
I’ve been reading a couple more stories both anticipating and discussing yesterday’s shameful vote to pass the Protection of State Information Bill in Parliament. There are some terrific quotes in these articles, all of which are worth reading:
A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution.
It is only such a free press that can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen. It is only such a free press that can be the vigilant watchdog of the public interest against the temptation on the part of those who wield it to abuse that power. It is only such a free press that can have the capacity to relentlessly expose excesses and corruption on the part of government, state officials and other institutions that hold power in society.
The National Editors’ Forum released a statement anticipating the vote on the bill which included this quote:
Every MP who presses the green button to vote ‘yes’ for the Protection of State Information Bill will at that moment take personal responsibility for the first piece of legislation since the end of apartheid that dismantles an aspect of our democracy – a betrayal that will haunt them forever
I have also collated a number of stories leading up to the bill’s passing and subsequent analysis on Storify:
I came across a campaign called the It Gets Better Project which is intended to give despondent LGBT youth hope for their future. It seems to have been created after a rash of gay teen suicides recently and its a project I thought I’d mention on this blog:
Many LGBT youth can’t picture what their lives might be like as openly gay adults. They can’t imagine a future for themselves. So let’s show them what our lives are like, let’s show them what the future may hold in store for them.
Justin Aeberg. Billy Lucas. Cody Barker. Asher Brown. Seth Walsh. Raymond Chase. Tyler Clementi. All the names of American teenagers who in recent months have taken their own lives after being bullied in school.
For too long, LGBT youth have been forced to struggle through their formative years suffering from bullies in their schools, churches and homes — and with no support system to provide them any help.
Noted writer and media pundit Dan Savage founded the It Gets Better Project in September 2010 as a unique way for supporters everywhere to tell LGBT Youth that — it gets better.
Closed-minded school administrators and parents may not let LGBT adults talk directly to their children about their futures, but we don’t have to get permission to tell kids that life gets better. That’s why we’re compiling a video archive to share the stories of people overcoming bullying and finding happiness.
ItGetsBetterProject.com is a place where young people who are gay, lesbian, bi, or trans can see with their own eyes how love and happiness can be a reality in their future. It’s a place where LGBT adults can share the stories of their lives, and straight allies can add their names in solidarity and help spread our message of hope.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to be gay and growing up in an environment which may not be as supportive as it could be but a number of LGBT people who have faced the same challenges gay teens face today and they have submitted some inspiring videos. Here are two videos from Google and LinkedIn employees sharing their experiences:
Improved public service delivery tailored to citizen and business needs, as envisioned in the e-Government Strategic Framework: Accelerating Service Delivery 2014, published in 2007, requires the seamless flow of information across all tiers of Government. The Minimum Information Interoperability Standards (MIOS) sets out the Government’s technical principles and standards for achieving interoperability and information systems coherence across the public sector. The MIOS defines the essential pre-requisite for joined-up and web enabled Government. Next to security, it is an essential component in the overall e-Government strategy.
Adherence to the MIOS standards and policies is mandatory as set out in the proposed chapter five of the Public Service Regulations. They set the underlying infrastructure, freeing up public sector organizations so they can concentrate on serving the customer through building value added information and services. It is the responsibility of individual departments to improve their business processes so that they are more effective, and to take advantage of the opportunities provided by increased interoperability.
The main thrust of the framework (in line with international best practice), is the adoption of a structured approach with regard to information systems. To achieve this approach, and to ensure the enhancement of interoperability across Government, a minimum set of standards are included in this document as a required Government-wide standard. To this end, this updated version of MIOS contains an explicit definition of Open Standards as well as the inclusion of the ISO (International Standards Organisation) Open Document Format.
The objective of achieving interoperability must be managed as a long-term ongoing initiative. In this regard the Government Information Technology Officers Council, (GITOC) which consists of representatives from all Government Departments including provincial and local Government, are crucial and instrumental in carrying this objective forwards and through to implementation.
It is also essential to ensure that MIOS remains up to date and aligned to stakeholder requirements, so that it can embrace the potential of new technology as well as market developments. In this instance, collaboration becomes a critical success factor for the formulation of strategic synergies.
What this all comes down to is that the government is phasing in technologies that support open standards which is, in turn, the cornerstone of this policy framework:
2.3 Open Standards
2.3.1 There are number of definitions of open standards which emphasise different aspects of openness, including of the resulting specification, the openness of the drafting process, and the ownership of rights in the standard. The list below contains frequently cited indicators of the openness of a standard. For the purposes of the MIOS, a standard shall be considered open if it meets all of these criteria. There are standards which we are obliged to adopt for pragmatic reasons which do not necessarily fully conform to being open in all respects. In such cases, where an open standard does not yet exist, the degree of openness will be taken into account when selecting an appropriate standard:
it should be maintained by a non-commercial organization
participation in the ongoing development work is based on decision-making processes that are open to all interested parties.
open access: all may access committee documents, drafts and completed standards free of cost or for a negligible fee.
It must be possible for everyone to copy, distribute and use the standard free of cost.
The intellectual rights required to implement the standard (e.g. essential patent claims) are irrevocably available, without any royalties attached.
There are no reservations regarding reuse of the standard.
There are multiple implementations of the standard
While this document may not explicitly say so, it pretty much excludes Microsoft’s Office Open XML as a candidate for acceptance in terms of this framework barring some fundamental changes to the OOXML specification and how it is maintained and developed. This decision is fantastic news for open access advocates and even better news for South Africans who don’t have access to expensive, proprietary software.
At the outset I just want to point out that this post is written in my personal capacity. I am also involved now in my professional capacity and I won’t really comment on that side of the matter.
I received a message from Guy McLaren from the contact form on this blog yesterday. Here it is (I have masked his email address and IP address to prevent spam or other attacks):
[Apologies, the extract was lost in the sands of time and data migrations]
I have posted a couple times about Guy McLaren in the last few days and you can see my posts right here. I have been debating how to respond to McLaren’s message (which, by the way has been sent to other bloggers too) and while I initially felt outraged about the notice, the more I thought about it the more this is about McLaren’s efforts to censor me and blatantly infringe on my Constitutionally protected rights including the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion, belief and opinion. Here is what these two rights provide for:
The enquiry in a matter such as the present envisages recognition of the constitutional importance of the rights to freedom of expression and to receive and impart information and ideas, entrenched in Section 16 of the Constitution. The SCA has recently dealt with a matter where these two competing constitutional rights come into conflict, ie. the right to freedom of expression and the right to dignity. The SCA stated that where two competing constitutional rights come into conflict each invoked by different parties, and seeking to intrude on the other right a court must reconcile them. All constitutional rights have equal value and therefore this reconciliation is achieved by recognising a limitation upon the exercise of one right to the extent that it is necessary to do so in order to accommodate the exercise of the other according to what is required by the particular circumstances and within the constraints that are imposed by Section 36 of the Constitution. In other words, one weighs the extent of the limitation against the purpose, importance and effect of the intrusion and this entails weighing the benefit that flows from allowing the intrusion against the loss that that intrusion will entail. The SCA thereafter held that when a ban on publication is sought there must be a demonstrable relationship between publication and the prejudice it is alleged will be caused. In summary a publication will be unlawful, and thus susceptible to being prohibited, only if the prejudice that the publication might cause to the administration of justice is demonstrable and substantial and there is a real risk that the prejudice will occur if publication takes place. Mere conjecture or speculation that prejudice might occur will not be enough. Even then publication will not be unlawful unless a court is satisfied that the disadvantage of curtailing the free flow of information outweighs its advantage. The SCA held that the reason for this was that it is not merely the interests of those associated with the publication that need to be brought to account but, more important, the interests of every person in having access to information.
The court would not accept the Minister’s efforts to censor the Sunday Times’, even as it expressed its displeasure with the paper’s methods of obtaining information about the Minister’s stays at her clinic. This case is the latest in a line of cases that explore the parameters of the right to freedom of expression and the principles are fairly well established. In the case of my posts about McLaren, I intentionally steered clear of any personal attacks on McLaren because I just don’t know the guy (excuse the pun) and I don’t really think that is the way to go. I initially heard about the controversy over McLaren the other day at a braai and took a look the following day. Although what I saw put me off, I decided to post some of my thoughts about the controversy. These are my opening paragraphs to my initial post:
Ok, I know I said I wouldn’t comment on this saga publicly at the risk of being sued but sometimes I have to just get my thoughts out there. I read the posts on Muti about McLaren’s offering to his clients including Nic’s post and the initial post on The Colony. I also watched two of his videos on YouTube (I couldn’t bring myself to watch more). On the one hand I think his work should be exposed because I have serious concerns about what he is saying and what his clients are buying from him. On the other hand, when I read what people are syaing about him and his work and how seriously it is all being taken, my only comment is “you have got to be kidding!”.
If what he says is true and he has a thriving business based on his offering to his clients, then those people who buy his product and his thoughts about the Web and things like Flash and who benefit in the process should just keep doing what they are doing. It is obviously working for them. The rest of us see value in all the stuff he condemns and wouldn’t touch his content builder with a virtual barge pole (well, except the so called “script kiddie” who walked in through McLaren’s open back door (aka his admin area on his site) and did some damage to the site). We may all be hopelessly misguided in our slavish use of Flash and “wow factor” design elements but that stuff tends to work on the Web today. Besides, I like that sort of thing.
So, for the most part, my intention was to first highlight the controversy and speak to some of the aspects of it that concern me. I was, and remain concerned, about some of the things McLaren has been saying about site design and about how to market businesses online, particularly through his network of sites. Nevertheless, I don’t go as far as saying he is a fraud, or anything like that. Ultimately I take the line that if his methods work for his clients then good for them. They don’t appeal to me at all and a number of developers who made it this far don’t agree with him either so it is important to publish another perspective. This is especially important because McLaren puts himself out there as an expert in effective web site development and an expert on contemporary web development trends. Saying you are an expert in something means you are going to have to defend your expertise from time to time. People who don’t know much about web development tend to believe experts in the field and if that expert’s methods and techniques are controversial there is bound to be some debate about them. Of course the fact that McLaren is so public with his views (in addition to his many blogs, he also posts videos to YouTube). This last week saw that happen, first with the flurry of activity on Muti and then on some of the individual blogs.
I closed off my second post with this comment which I still believe is fair comment:
Guy, if you feel strongly about your methods and techniques then at least be confident enough in them to allow them to speak for themselves. You obviously have a number of customers who you have helped and good for them and for you. There are, however, a large number of people who think you are up a creek without a paddle and they won’t be going to you for advice. That is their choice too. It really shouldn’t cause you to doubt yourself enough to resort to these sorts of attacks. Apparently they do though.
So, how does McLaren respond to all of this? Well, although there is a link to his blog in one of his comments on this blog, you won’t find those comments on his site because he removed them a few hours after he posted them. It is a good thing Google has such a good memory because I managed to find these items about me, Charl van Niekerk and Nic Haralambous. McLaren has complained that my posts are “inflammatory and slanderous”. I don’t think McLaren is approaching this matter with clean hands and although I was going to ignore his comments about me and even have a laugh (my wife still things the alley cat/slug/dead chicken comment is hilarious), I may reconsider if McLaren decides to take further action. I think it is safe to say I have a bigger presence on the Web than he does. I won’t comment on Charl’s or Nic’s positions because I haven’t spoken to Charl and because I have been asked to represent Nic in my professional capacity.
There is another thing I want to show you although I won’t comment on it much more. Take a look at the url in my browser window and the text on the page. All of those links point to another one of McLaren’s blogs.
You can see a higher resolution version if you click on the image.
The site has been taken down and this message was in its place:
I noticed that Mr Haralambous faileed to register his .co.za domain, so in the interests of saving him the trouble of some unscrupolous sod hijacking it I registered it. Nic just let me know where you want it transferred to.
So what we have here is a person who doesn’t hesitate to defame people who criticise him and who then similarly doesn’t hesitate to demand that any critical comments are removed immediately. As you may gather, I take serious issue with this because it is little more than censorship. I have a right to express myself and while there are limits to that right, I am far from those limits. The press has made much of the damage bloggers can do when they defame people online, in part because that sort of drama sells papers. In this case, the damage that could be done if McLaren is allowed to silence me and other people who have passed fair comment about his business will far outweigh the impact of that comment. I would go so far as to say that there are solid pubic policy reasons for resisting this sort of tyranny. This is one of the reasons why blogs are so important and why they are such valuable tools for the freedom of expression. Sure some bloggers abuse their blogs but there are many more bloggers out there who are the only thing between the light and the darkness (if you will excuse the drama). Bloggers have exposed many hidden wrongs and rather than censoring them, they should be protected and encouraged to keep going. I accept that if I overstep the bounds of the exercise of my rights that I should be made to take that content down. Again, this is not one of those times … cue flag flapping in the breeze and deeply patriotic music …
I published my posts because there are issues here which I believe people should know about. I have participated in a conversation about controversial methods and that conversation ought to be protected (and I believe it is protected) by our Bill of Rights. Now after my last post I was pretty much done with this topic and then I received McLaren’s demand. I think it is fair to say that the other bloggers who wrote about it were pretty much ready to move on to other things. McLaren obviously feels this matter has not been fully ventilated so I am happy to continue the conversation. In fact, I think this could be a good time for those of us bloggers who do pass fair comment about important issues like this to debate how we, as a community, ought to respond to these sorts of demands.
McLaren has threatened me with a take down notice in terms of section 77 of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act. That section provides for a special notice where content has been published and is unlawful. This includes content that violates copyright and other rights. I suspect McLaren’s argument is that I have defamed him and therefore my posts must be taken down. The take down notice is supposed to set out the details of the alleged offence so I would like to see that notice. Guy, please feel free to copy me on the take down notice. I’ll get right back to you.
For the time being, these posts are staying up on this blog and this blog aint going nowhere. I will not be censored.
Postscript (2016-12-05): I have updated this post a little by inserting a text-based quote from the Minister of Health court case to replace the lost screenshot of the text and added the featured image. This was more of a maintenance update to fix broken thumbnails and mitigate data loss.