Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’

New evidence of Qatar’s $1 billion ransom that funds terror

July 18, 2018

Damning new evidence has emerged to suggest that a $1 billion ransom paid by Qatar for the release of 28 Qataris kidnapped in Iraq has been used to fund terror.

Text messages and voicemails obtained by the BBC reveal communications between Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, Qatar’s newly appointed foreign minister, and Zayed Al-Khayareen, its ambassador to Iraq, as talks to release the hostages dragged on for 16 months.

In this April 21, 2017 file photo, the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani, second left in front row, welcomes released kidnapped members of Qatar’s ruling family at the Doha airport, Qatar. (AP)

In the end Qatar paid the biggest ransom in history: $1 billion plus $125 million in “side payments,” all paid to groups such as Al Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda affiliate now known as Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, and the Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite paramilitary group Kataib Hezbollah.

The ransom payment was a key factor in driving the Anti-Terror Quartet — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt — to close borders and sever diplomatic ties with Qatar.

The 28 Qataris were taken hostage on Dec 16, 2015, while hunting with falcons in southern Iraq, having ignored all warnings about not traveling to the area. The party included members of the ruling family.

The kidnappers were identified as members of Kataib Hezbollah but nothing was heard from them until three months later, when they offered to release three hostages in return for “a gesture of goodwill”  — money.

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing

Ambassador Al-Khayareen wrote in a text to the foreign minister: “This is a good sign for us, which indicates that they are in a hurry and want to end everything soon.”

As the months passed, however, the kidnappers kept upping their demands. As well as money they wanted Qatar to leave the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen, and demanded the release of Iranian soldiers held in Syria.

One Kataib Hezbollah negotiator, Abu Mohammed, wanted $10 million for himself. “All of them are thieves,” the ambassador wrote to the minister.

Two Iraqi mediators recruited by the ambassador asked in advance for $150,000 in cash and five Rolex watches when they visited Sheikh Mohammed. Who the “gifts” were for was not clear. Qatari officials admit the texts and voicemails are genuine but say they have been edited in a misleading fashion.

Arab News

http://www.arabnews.com/node/1340821/middle-east

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Egypt targets social media with new law

July 17, 2018

Egypt’s parliament has passed a law giving the state powers to block social media accounts and penalize journalists held to be publishing fake news.

Social media was seen as an important tool of dissent during the 2011 revolution. (File photo: Reuters)

Under the law passed on Monday social media accounts and blogs with more than 5,000 followers on sites such as Twitter and Facebook will be treated as media outlets, which makes them subject to prosecution for publishing false news or incitement to break the law.

The Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media, headed by an official appointed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, will supervise the law and take action against violations.

The bill prohibits the establishment of websites without obtaining a license from the Supreme Council and allows it to suspend or block existing websites, or impose fines on editors.

The law, which takes effect after it is ratified by Sisi, also states that journalists can only film in places that are not prohibited, but does not explain further.

Supporters of Sisi say the law is intended to safeguard freedom of expression and it was approved after consultations with judicial experts and journalists.

But critics say it will give legal basis to measures the government has been taking to crack down on dissent and extend its control over social media.

Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the vague wording of the law allows authorities to interpret violations and control the media.

“That power of interpretation has been a constant powerful legal and executive tool that was used to justify excessive aggressive and exceptional measures to go after journalists,” he told Reuters.

Hundreds of news sites and blogs have been blocked in recent months and around a dozen people have been arrested this year and charged with publishing false news, many of them journalists or prominent government critics.

Reporting by Cairo Bureau; Editing by Giles Elgood

Reuters

Israel tightens Gaza blockade as arson kites raise fears of war

July 17, 2018

Israel tightened its blockade of the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, partly over kites carrying firebombs to set alight Israeli farmland, as concerns mounted over whether the rudimentary devices could spark another war.

Days after the heaviest exchange of fire between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since a 2014 conflict, Israel said it was blocking until Sunday fuel deliveries to Gaza through its only goods crossing with the enclave.

The fishing zone enforced by Israel off the Gaza Strip was also reduced from six nautical miles to three.

The goods crossing, known as Kerem Shalom, will remain open for food and medicine on a case-by-case basis.

© AFP | Palestinian protestors in Gaza prepare an incendiary kite before trying to fly it over the border fence with Israel on April 20, 2018

It had already been closed to most deliveries since July 9, partly in response to the firebombs.

The move followed months of tension that has raised the possibility of a fourth war between Israel and Gaza militants since 2008.

Beyond the kites and last weekend’s exchange of fire, mass protests and clashes along the Gaza border since March 30 have seen dozens of Palestinians shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip, was further backed into a corner by the Israeli closure, with humanitarian conditions in the enclave of two million people already badly deteriorating.

– ‘Playing with fire’ –

Gaza’s only other border crossing, with Egypt, was also closed on Tuesday, an AFP journalist reported, but there was no official statement explaining why.

That prompted speculation that Egypt, which has mediated between Israel and Hamas, had closed it to add to pressure on the Islamists to clamp down on the arson kites.

The crossing, known as Rafah, has been largely closed in recent years, though Egypt had kept it mostly open since mid-May.

Israel has in recent days pledged a firmer response to the hundreds of arson kites and balloons that Palestinians have flown over the border fence since April.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under political pressure over the issue, has ordered the military to stop the firebombs — raising the question of how that can be achieved.

The issue reportedly led to a debate between Israel’s military chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot and far-right Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a security cabinet meeting on Sunday.

Israeli media reports cited Bennett, a Netanyahu rival with ambitions to be prime minister, urging the military to open fire on anyone launching the kites.

Eisenkot was quoted as telling him there was a risk of firing at children, and that even in the case of adults, such an approach ran against his “operational and moral position”.

Hamas has slammed Israel’s closure of the goods crossing as a “crime against humanity” and accused Israel of exaggerating the threat from arson kites.

Palestinians in Gaza see the devices as legitimate resistance against Israel’s more than decade-long blockade.

“The Israeli occupation would be playing with fire if its warplanes targeted kite flyers,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement.

– Can Hamas stop them? –

Israel’s fire service says around 750 fires have burned some 2,600 hectares (6,400 acres), estimating the damage at millions of shekels (hundreds of thousands of dollars or euros).

The firebombs have mostly been transported by kites and balloons, but Israel’s nature authority said a falcon was found on Monday with flammable material tied to its legs.

Israel’s military signalled how it may try to stop the firebombs Monday when an aircraft struck two Hamas posts it said were near people launching them.

From Israel’s perspective, Hamas can halt the kite launches if it chooses.

“Nothing happens in Gaza without the consent of Hamas,” said Gabi Siboni of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies think tank.

Asked if the arson kites could lead to a military escalation, he said: “of course”.

Jamal al-Fadi, a political science professor in Gaza, agreed that Hamas could stop the firebombs, but said it wants to use them to pressure Israel to ease its blockade.

The Islamist movement is however limited in how it can respond militarily, he said.

“It does not have an interest in a (military) confrontation because the people don’t want a war,” Fadi said.

On Saturday, Israel carried out air strikes partially in response to the fires, but also over the border protests and clashes.

It accuses Hamas of seeking to use the protests as cover for attacks. Palestinians and rights groups say protesters are being shot by Israeli snipers while posing no real threat.

Israel hit dozens of sites it said belonged to militants in the Gaza Strip in Saturday’s strikes, killing two Palestinian teenagers.

The same day, around 200 rockets and mortars were fired at Israel from Gaza and four Israelis were wounded when a rocket hit a house in the nearby Israeli city of Sderot.

AFP

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Egypt Tells Hamas in Gaza To Stop Sending Burning Kites, Balloons Into Israel

July 17, 2018
After Israel announces closure of Kerem Shalom crossing, Ynet learns Cairo ramps up the pressure on Hamas terror group, warning it to completely stop or significantly reduce number of incendiary balloons and kites launched into Israel that have sabotaged an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire.
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Egypt has warned Hamas to significantly reduce or completely end within a few days the launching of incendiary balloons and kites into Israeli territory from Gaza, Ynet learned on Tuesday morning, giving the terror group an extended deadline to restore calm to the border.

 

The ultimatum came after Israel announced on Monday evening that it would be closing the commercial Kerem Shalom crossing to gas and fuel supplies after a ceasefire agreement was violated earlier in the afternoon when a rocket was fired into southern Israel.

Before the Israeli announcement, the Egyptians also announced the same evening that they were temporarily closing the Rafah crossing due to a technical malfunction. However, it was not immediately clear whether the Rafah closure was incidental or coordinated with Israel in a bid to pressurize Hamas to cease its terror activities that threaten to escalate the conflict on the border.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (Photo: AFP)

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (Photo: AFP)
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Ynet also learned that Hamas reiterated a message it had already conveyed to Cairo this week that it is unable to end the phenomenon.

However, Hamas has insisted to Egyptian intelligence officials, who are mediating between the sides, that its men are indeed working to reduce the number of incendiary balloons.

While such claims are difficult to prove in the current volatile climate, particularly as several fires caused by the flaming kites and balloons broke out throughout Monday, a notable drop has been recorded in the number of launches since the major flare-up that took place between Israel and Hamas over the weekend.

“Hamas cannot stop the launching of the balloons in one go because it will damage its position in the eyes of the Gaza residents and those who support it who will see it as a collapse. Therefore, it has to do it gradually,” once source in Gaza told Ynet.Israel’s announcement that the Kerem Shalom crossing would remain shut only until Sunday also possibly indicates to Hamas that it prefers to give an opportunity to restore calm than to engage in another round of violence.

Meanwhile, Hamas evacuated forces on Monday which were deployed along the entire border of the Gaza Strip, guarding against rocket fire by rogue elements and preventing infiltration into Israel.

Sources in the strip told Ynet that the decision was taken after the IDF attacked two military observation posts on Monday that belonged to the forces, fearing more casualties.

Kerem Shalom crossing (Photo: Reuters)

Kerem Shalom crossing (Photo: Reuters)

 

A rocket launched from Gaza landed in open space in south Israel on Monday evening, despite a Sunday announcement from Hamas and Islamic Jihad that a ceasefire had been reached with Israel after the region witnessed a wave of violence over the weekend.

 

Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who serves as an observer in the Political-Security Cabinet, welcomed the Egyptian ultimatum, but said that Hamas’s response was “unacceptable.”

 

“Hamas says we’ll burn you, but more slowly. This isn’t acceptable,” he said in an interview with Ynet. “It can be stopped immediately. Everything is coordinated, funded and organized by Hamas and as long as the fire terror continues, so will the blows that were deliver to Hamas.”

 

Egypt, the minister continued, was making positive efforts in the conflict, “but they appear not to be succeeding in making it clear to Hamas the price of this tactic that we will not accept.”

 

Minister Hanegbi (Photo: Ohad Zwigenberg)

Minister Hanegbi (Photo: Ohad Zwigenberg)

 

Asked what would happen if the ping-pong violence continued until Sunday when Israel said it would reopen the Kerem Shalom crossing, Hanegbi explained that Hamas had only recently changed its policy towards Israel.

 

“It’s important to understand things over time. For three-and-a-half years there was unequivocal deterrence. Hamas not only stopped firing but it also acted against rogue cells that fired from time to time,” he said.

 

“In the last half a year, we have seen a new policy to challenge us again and again. It began with marches and breaching the fence. It ended with 147 dead Palestinians. It seems that they are not bothered by the fact that there are funerals again and again in Gaza.”

 

Regarding Israel’s decision to close the Kerem Shalom crossing, Hanegbi said that it was a necessary step to make clear to Hamas that there is a price to be paid for its actions.

 

“The extent to which this will be effective is not clear, but we cannot sit idly by. That’s why what was chosen were measured responses,” he said.

“Hamas has chosen to make two million people miserable who are, in practice, in the biggest prison in the world. The Palestinian public isn’t rising up against Hamas and I agree that the chances of them doing so are slim, but we have a basket of actions and they deserve no perks,” Hanegbi continued.

First published: 07.17.18, 11:54 

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https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-5311533,00.html
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Israel and Gaza militants agree ceasefire to end flare-up of violence

July 15, 2018

Israel and Gaza militant groups agreed a ceasefire on Saturday, a Palestinian official said, after Israel launched dozens of air strikes against the Palestinian enclave’s ruling Hamas group and gunmen fired more than 100 rockets across the border.

© Mahmud Hams, AFP | A picture taken on July 14, 2018 shows a bomb landing during Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City.

Palestinian health officials said two teenagers had been killed by one air strike in what was one of the worst flare-ups since the 2014 Israel-Gaza war. A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not respond to a request for comment.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told Reuters: “Efforts by many parties have continued since the beginning of the escalation and the Israeli bombardment on Gaza. They were crowned by the success of the Egyptian effort to restore calm and end the escalation.”

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group said in a separate statement that a truce had been reached.

A senior Israeli defence official said: “Only the facts on the ground will dictate our further response.”

The surge in violence followed mounting public criticism of Netanyahu over failure to counter a new Palestinian tactic: incendiary kites and balloons launched from Gaza that have burned crops and scrubland in southern Israel.

Two Palestinian teenagers were killed on Saturday, Gaza health officials said, in one of more than 40 air strikes carried out in Gaza by the Israeli military since Friday.

Over 100 rockets

The military said some 100 rockets were launched from Gaza at southern Israel, where many residents have reinforced rooms in their homes but only seconds to reach them between the time sirens blare and missiles land.

Some of the projectiles were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system, but police said three people had been wounded in the southern town of Sderot.

“After consultations with the defence minister, the chief of staff and Israel’s top defence officials, we decided on powerful action against Hamas terrorism,” Netanyahu said in a video statement.

“The Israeli armed forces delivered the strongest blow against Hamas since (the 2014 Gaza war) and we will increase the intensity of our attacks as necessary.”

But Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said the Israeli attacks should not be seen as the start of a military campaign against the Palestinian territory of 2 million, devastated by seven weeks of war with Israel four years ago.

“We are not in a (military) operation. The activity we are engaged in now sends a message that Israel will not tolerate rockets, explosive devices, mortar bombs or (incendiary) kites,” Katz said on Israel’s Channel 12 TV.

“The action we are taking draws a clear red line: that from now on, we will not allow this.” Blasts from Israel’s air strikes shook homes and shattered windows in Gaza, where plumes of smoke rose from the sites of the explosions.

Building bombed

The Israeli military said one air strike had hit a high-rise building in al-Shati refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, describing the target as a Hamas urban warfare training facility with a tunnel underneath.

Health officials in Gaza said the building was empty, but two Palestinians aged 15 and 16, among a crowd in a nearby public park, were killed. Around 10 other passers-by were wounded, the officials said. Nearby houses were damaged.

Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said the military had warned people before the attack to leave the area. “We have no intention to harm anyone who is not a terrorist,” he said.

Rocket warning sirens went off in the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon, about 12 km (7 miles) from the enclave, further north than in recent attacks. A police spokesman said no hits had been recorded in the city.

Hamas stopped short of claiming responsibility for the rocket fire, but Barhoum earlier called it “an immediate response by the resistance to the escalation” by Israel and a deterrence to further Israeli attacks. “Bombardment for
bombardment,” he said.

The fighting began on Friday, when thousands of Palestinians gathered at the Israel-Gaza border area for weekly protests that have now entered their fourth month.

The Israeli military said Friday’s protesters were throwing burning tyres, stones, explosive devices and fire bombs at its soldiers and that one of its officers was wounded by a Palestinian grenade hurled across the border fence.

Hours later, Israel launched air strikes in Gaza.

Israel says Hamas has been orchestrating the weekly protests to distract from governance problems and provide cover for militants’ cross-border attacks. Hamas denies this.

More than 130 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in the protests. There have been no Israeli fatalities during the so-called “Great March of Return” demonstrations.

(REUTERS)

Microsoft urges regulation of facial recognition technology

July 14, 2018

Microsoft on Friday called for government regulation of facial recognition technology and for laws governing its acceptable uses.

“We believe Congress should create a bipartisan expert commission to assess the best way to regulate the use of facial recognition technology in the United States,” Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote in a blog post.

In May, civil liberties groups had called on Amazon to stop offering facial recognition services to governments, warning that the software could be used to target immigrants and people of color unfairly.

Smith said while Microsoft appreciates the calls for tech companies to make decisions over facial recognition, it is more sensible to ask an elected government to oversee the technology.

“Facial recognition technology raises issues that go to the heart of fundamental human rights protections like privacy and freedom of expression,” he wrote.

Reuters

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https://nypost.com/2018/07/13/microsoft-urges-regulation-of-facial-recognition-technology/
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A video showing facial recognition software in use at the headquarters of the artificial intelligence company Megvii in Beijing. Credit Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times

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US to focus on reconstructing Gaza as Israel-Palestinian peace plan stalls — report

July 8, 2018

Officials tell Washington Post the Trump administration hopes that by helping with humanitarian crisis it will be harder for PA President Abbas to reject future initiatives

Palestinian children at home reading books by candle light due to electricity shortages in Gaza City, June 13, 2017. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

Palestinian children at home reading books by candle light due to electricity shortages in Gaza City, June 13, 2017. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

The Trump administration is reportedly focusing on improving humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip and putting their so-far unveiled peace plan on a back burner after the Palestinian Authority rejected overtures from US President Donald Trump’s negotiation team.

A senior US official told the Washington Post that by helping to relieve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the US hopes that it will demonstrate a commitment to the well-being of Palestinians, making it harder for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to reject future initiatives from the United States.

“We definitely have a Gaza focus right now because the situation is the way it is, and we want to try to help,” the official told the newspaper. “But it’s not as though we think we need to fix Gaza first before we would air the peace plan.”

White House officials have been effectively blackballed by Ramallah, which was angered by Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his decision to move the US embassy there in May. The Gaza Strip is controlled by the terrorist group Hamas, rivals to the Fatah-led Palestinian cabinet in the West Bank.

According to the paper, one proposal under discussion with Israel is for a solution to the electricity and water crises plaguing the coastal enclave.

A Palestinian youth walks towards the Gaza strip’s sole electricity plant, which provides a fifth of the embattled region’s power needs, after it stopped working at midnight the previous night due to lack of fuel as per local officials, on February 15, 2018. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP)

Gaza faces a lack of electricity, drinkable water, and food. Israel and Egypt maintain a blockade on the Strip which they say is designed to prevent Hamas from importing weapons and other goods that could be used to build fortifications or tunnels.

The situation has been exacerbated by an ongoing dispute between Hamas and the PA, which has cut the salaries it pays to workers in Gaza and imposed various sanctions, including cutting of payments for electricity supplies to Gaza.

The US State Department this year cut some $250 million from the budget of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA. Trump tweeted on the issue in January, seemingly angered by the Palestinians’ failure to embrace his policy for the Middle East.

“We pay the Palestinians HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” he tweeted. “But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

A senior Israeli official told the paper that focusing on Gaza was a stop gap measure.

“It’s providing support to people in Gaza as a first stage,”  the official told the Washington Post. “They know the Palestinians are not willing to consider [the larger proposal], so they are starting to put more attention on the humanitarian situation in Gaza.”

However, Israel has said the humanitarian situation will not improve in Gaza until Hamas returns the bodies of two IDF soldiers and the two civilians captives it holds. It blames Hamas for the dire situation, charging the terror group with diverting millions in aid to purchase weapons, dig tunnels, manufacture rockets and train its military wing, instead of using it for the welfare of the people.

A tunnel reaching from Gaza into Israel, seen in a picture released by the IDF on April 18, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

The Israeli official told the Washington Post that it remains unclear whether Hamas would agree to returning the Israelis in exchange for humanitarian aid.

In June, an aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, alleged that a reported effort by the US administration to raise over $500 million from Arab states for Gaza was designed to create further divisions between the West Bank and Gaza.

The US official denied to the Washington Post that the US is planning to create a Palestinian state in Gaza and thus sideline the Palestinian Authority.

“That’s ludicrous,” the official said. “We are not trying to do this. We think that the solution under a peace agreement would be a united Gaza and West Bank, under one Palestinian leadership

Proposals recently reported in Israeli and Arab media have indicated Israel is willing to take a number of steps to ease the humanitarian situation in Gaza. In June, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is working to prevent a “humanitarian collapse” in Gaza and blamed the recent border violence on economic conditions in the Palestinian enclave.

Recent months have seen an uptick in violence at the border between Gaza and Israel, with weekly violent Palestinian protests, ongoing rocket attacks, and the new phenomenon of incendiary kites and balloons flown over the border, sometimes at a rate of several dozen each day.

On a recent trip to the region, US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt and senior White House official Jared Kushner met with leaders to discuss the Trump administration’s efforts to put forward an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan with allies in the region.

However they did not meet with Palestinian officials while on the trip. Ramallah has already rejected the nascent Trump peace proposal and cut off contacts with administration officials following the White House decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd from right) meets at his Jerusalem office with the ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer (right); White House adviser Jared Kushner (center); US Ambassador David Friedman (second left); and special envoy Jason Greenblatt, on June 22, 2018. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Palestinians claim East Jerusalem for the capital of their own future state and say the US move showed Washington is not an honest broker.

A June interview given by Kushner to the East Jerusalem-based Al Quds newspaper was seen as an attempt by the Trump administration to reach out to the Palestinian people, despite the official boycott.

“If President Abbas is willing to come back to the table, we are ready to engage; if he is not, we will likely air the plan publicly,” said Kushner.

“There have been countless mistakes and missed opportunities over the years, and you, the Palestinian people, have paid the price,” Kushner said, according to a transcript of the interview provided by the White House. “Don’t let your leadership reject a plan they haven’t even seen.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

https://www.timesofisrael.com/us-to-focus-on-reconstructing-gaza-as-peace-plan-stalls-report/

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As facial recognition use grows, so do privacy fears

July 8, 2018

The unique features of your face can allow you to unlock your new iPhone, access your bank account or even “smile to pay” for some goods and services.

The same technology, using algorithms generated by a facial scan, can allow law enforcement to find a wanted person in a crowd or match the image of someone in police custody to a database of known offenders.

Image may contain: one or more people

Facial recognition came into play last month when a suspect arrested for a shooting at a newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, refused to cooperate with police and could not immediately be identified using fingerprints.

“We would have been much longer in identifying him and being able to push forward in the investigation without that system,” said Anne Arundel County police chief Timothy Altomare.

Facial recognition is playing an increasing role in law enforcement, border security and other purposes in the US and around the world.

© AFP/File | A display shows a facial recognition system for law enforcement during the NVIDIA GPU Technology Conference in 2017 in Washington

While most observers acknowledge the merits of some uses of this biometric identification, the technology evokes fears of a “Big Brother” surveillance state.

Heightening those concerns are studies showing facial recognition may not always be accurate, especially for people of color.

A 2016 Georgetown University study found that one in two American adults, or 117 million people, are in facial recognition databases with few rules on how these systems may be accessed.

A growing fear for civil liberties activists is that law enforcement will deploy facial recognition in “real time” through drones, body cameras and dash cams.

“The real concern is police on patrol identifying law-abiding Americans at will with body cameras,” said Matthew Feeney, specialist in emerging technologies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

“This technology is of course improving but it’s not as accurate as science fiction films would make you think.”

– ‘Aggressive’ deployments –

China is at the forefront of facial recognition, using the technology to fine traffic violators and “shame” jaywalkers, with at least one arrest of a criminal suspect.

Clare Garvie, lead author of the 2016 Georgetown study, said that in the past two years, “facial recognition has been deployed in a more widespread and aggressive manner” in the US, including for border security and at least one international airport.

News that Amazon had begun deploying its Rekognition software to police departments sparked a wave of protests from employees and activists calling on the tech giant to stay away from law enforcement applications.

Amazon is one of dozens of tech firms involved in facial recognition. Microsoft for example uses facial recognition for US border security, and the US state of Maryland uses technology from German-based Cognitec and Japanese tech firm NEC.

Amazon maintains that it does not conduct surveillance or provide any data to law enforcement, but simply enables them to match images to those in its databases.

The tech giant also claims its facial recognition system can help reunite lost or abducted children with their families and stem human trafficking.

– ‘Slippery slope’ –

Nonetheless, some say facial recognition should not be deployed by law enforcement because of the potential for errors and abuse.

That was an argument made by Brian Brackeen, founder and the chief executive officer of the facial recognition software developer Kairos.

“As the black chief executive of a software company developing facial recognition services, I have a personal connection to the technology, both culturally and socially,” Brackeen said in a blog post on TechCrunch.

“Facial recognition-powered government surveillance is an extraordinary invasion of the privacy of all citizens — and a slippery slope to losing control of our identities altogether.”

The Georgetown study found facial recognition algorithms were five to 10 percent less accurate on African Americans than Caucasians.

– Policy questions –

Microsoft announced last month it had made significant improvements for facial recognition “across skin tones” and genders.

IBM meanwhile said it was launching a large-scale study “to improve the understanding of bias in facial analysis.”

While more accurate facial recognition is generally welcomed, civil liberties groups say specific policy safeguards should be in place.

In 2015, several consumer groups dropped out of a government-private initiative to develop standards for facial recognition use, claiming the process was unlikely to develop sufficient privacy protections.

Cato’s Feeney said a meaningful move would be to “purge these databases of anyone who isn’t currently incarcerated or wanted for violent crime.”

Jennifer Lynch, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that the implications for police surveillance are significant.

“An inaccurate system will implicate people for crimes they did not commit. And it will shift the burden onto defendants to show they are not who the system says they are,” Lynch said in a report earlier this year.

Lynch said there are unique risks of breach or misuse of this data, because “we can’t change our faces.”

Evan Selinger, a philosophy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says facial recognition is too dangerous for law enforcement.

“It’s an ideal tool for oppressive surveillance,” Selinger said in a blog post.

“It poses such a severe threat in the hands of law enforcement that the problem cannot be contained by imposing procedural safeguards.”

AFP

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France aiding Egypt repression through arms sales: NGOs

July 2, 2018

France has “participated in the bloody Egyptian repression” for the past five years by delivering weapons and surveillance systems to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, rights groups charged in a report released Monday.

Commissioned by four French and Egyptian human rights groups, the study found French arms sales to Egypt had leapt from 39.6 million to 1.3 billion euros ($1.5 billion) between 2010 and 2016.

© AFP/File | A new report claims at least 8 French companies have “profited from (Egyptian) repression” despite a European Union declaration in 2013 that member states had suspended export licences to Egypt for equipment that could be used for domestic repression

In addition, “by supplying Egyptian security services and law enforcement agencies with powerful digital tools, they have helped establish an Orwellian surveillance and control architecture that is being used to eradicate all forms of dissent and citizen action,” the groups said.

They charged that French companies were also complicit in what they called a “relentless crackdown” since Sisi overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

The report notably cited companies selling technology used for mass data interception and crowd control, used for a surveillance system under which tens of thousands of opponents and activists had been arrested.

“The Egyptian revolution of 2011 was driven by an ultra-connected ‘Facebook generation’ that knew how to mobilise crowds,” said Bahey Eldin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), one of the group’s behind the report.

“Today France is helping to crush this generation through the establishment of an Orwellian surveillance and control system aimed at nipping in the bud any expression of protest,” he said.

The report charges that at least eight French companies have “profited from this repression” despite a European Union declaration in 2013 that member states had suspended export licences to Egypt for equipment that could be used for domestic repression.

The companies include Arquus — formerly Renault Trucks Defense — as well as major defence supplier DCNS.

“Our organisations seek from French companies and authorities an immediate end to these deadly exports,” the groups said.

The report was commissioned by the CIHRS alongside the French-based International Federation for Human Rights, Human Rights League and Armaments Observatory.

AFP

Turkey: Erdogan Wanted an Empire but Must Settle for an Unloved Country

July 1, 2018

Turkey’s alliance with Iran, Qatar and Russia, and its incursion in northern Syria versus the Kurds are just some of the moves that ruined its ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and officials at an opening ceremony for a mosque at a military school in Ankara, June 29, 2018.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and officials at an opening ceremony for a mosque at a military school in Ankara, June 29, 2018. Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Palace/Reuters

The Sheraton Hotel in the Qatari capital of Doha was lit up in the colors of the Turkish flag Sunday. Qatar’s ruler, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, was one of the first to congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his electoral victory and that of his party.

Erdogan and the emir are close friends. Turkey was the first country to offer assistance to Qatar a year ago when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates imposed a brutal economic boycott on it. Turkey lambasted the boycott, rushed goods to Qatar and beefed up its military presence in the emirate to warn the other Gulf states not to attack it. Ankara also pressured Washington to mediate between Qatar and the Gulf states.

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The economic benefits of Turkey’s ties with Qatar aren’t substantial for a country whose gross domestic product is almost $900 billion. But its close relationship with Doha, an Iranian ally, is an important element of Erdogan’s effort to boost Turkey’s status as an influential power in the Middle East.

Turkey’s strategy of seeking to shape, or at least be party to shaping, a new Mideast order wasn’t born with Erdogan’s election as president. Its ties with Qatar are part of a network of relationships Ankara has been working on for almost eight years since the Syrian civil war began.

Before the war, Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy was supposed to turn it into a bridge between East and West, between Europe, America and the Middle East, and thereby into a country capable of leading moves in the region. But the war taught it the limitations of this strategy.

Erdogan’s severance of his personal ties with Syrian President Bashar Assad and his new policy of trying to oust the Assad regime due to its massacre of its own people symbolized the revolution in Erdogan’s approach. It also put Turkey in opposition to Iran.

Yet the expected rift between Turkey and Iran was avoided, mainly due to shared economic interests. Iran, at that time still under harsh international sanctions, needed an ally like Turkey, which skirted the sanctions by buying oil from Iran and paying it in gold via the UAE. Both countries also had a long-standing interest in blocking Kurdish aspirations for independence and agreed on the need to fight the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK.

.The emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, May 2018.

The emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, May 2018.AP

Nevertheless, Erdogan’s ties with Tehran created a dilemma for him. In 2015, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman formed a “Sunni coalition” against Iran and embarked on a war in Yemen, led by his son Mohammed. Salman then recruited Turkey into the coalition, giving it, for the first time, the status of a partner in the Arab Middle East, which had traditionally seen Turkey as alien at best and hostile at worst. The common denominator between the secular Turkish republic and the Wahhabi kingdom was loathing for Assad and a desire to oust him.

Saudi and Egyptian enmity

But Turkey never agreed to serve as a brake on Iran, it didn’t join the war in Yemen, and Salman soon realized that their partnership empowered Turkey without making any real contribution to advancing his own interests. The Saudi media began “reconsidering” the alliance with Turkey and describing Erdogan as an authoritarian ruler. Recently, a UAE ambassador even declared Turkey a threat to the region and said the Americans didn’t understand the gravity of this threat.

Arab hostility to Turkey was led by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. Shortly after taking over the presidency in July 2013, Sissi not only began persecuting the Muslim Brotherhood, but also imposed an economic boycott on Turkey, which refused to accept his rule as legitimate. Erdogan said Sissi had taken power in a military coup and demanded the restoration of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Sissi canceled Egypt’s trade agreements with Turkey, urged Egyptians not to travel to Turkey or fly with Turkish airlines, and blew up Turkey’s hopes of using Egypt as a commercial bridge to Africa.

Not much was left of the “zero problems with neighbors” policy created and led by a political science professor, Ahmet Davutoglu, who served as Erdogan’s foreign minister and then, after Erdogan became president in 2014, as his prime minister. Turkey’s rift with Syria and Egypt, its chilly relations with the Gulf states and its hostile relations with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which stemmed from its support for Hamas, all distanced Erdogan’s dream of becoming a pivotal country, if they didn’t utterly destroy it.

It’s simplistic to say Erdogan aspired to reestablish the Ottoman Empire and make himself sultan. Still, Turkey’s poor relationships with other countries in the region, its declining influence on regional conflicts, its alliance with Iran, Qatar and Russia – which at least for now are considered the nemeses of the Arab Middle East – and its takeover of land in northern Syria in its battle against the Kurds have all made Arab states increase their efforts to thwart Ankara. Thus no new Ottoman Empire will ever be born of Erdogan’s dream; his “sultanate” will end at Turkey’s borders.

But it’s not only Mideast leaders who loathe Erdogan. He has also been engaged in a bitter feud with the United States that has descended into mutual threats. In fact, “duel” would be a better word than “relationship” to describe the ties.

.Celebrants in Istanbul after the election victory of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, June 24, 2018.

Celebrants in Istanbul after the election victory of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, June 24, 2018.Aris Messinis / AFP

Turkey’s list of grievances starts with the refusal of both the Obama and Trump administrations to extradite preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses of plotting the failed coup against him in July 2016. Next, Erdogan assailed the American legal system and the U.S. administration over a court ruling convicting the vice president of Turkey’s state bank of circumventing sanctions on Iran. And finally, Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy there drove Erdogan wild.

Russian missiles for Turkey

But the heart of Erdogan’s spat with Washington is the assistance America gave the Syrian Kurds in the war against the Islamic State. Erdogan sees this close relationship as a plot to abet Kurdish terror against Turkey.

He could make a similar accusation against Russia, which also sees the Kurds as essential allies in any diplomatic process to end the Syrian civil war. But having been burned by the economic boycott Russia imposed on Ankara after Turkey downed a Russian plane near the Turkish-Syrian border three years ago, Erdogan has been very careful not to antagonize Moscow. To reconcile with Russia, he had to withdraw his adamant opposition to Assad remaining in power and join the coalition Moscow formed with Tehran to launch a diplomatic process in Syria.

Washington, which didn’t get too upset over Erdogan’s suppression of intellectuals and political rivals or his massive violations of human rights, was furious when Turkey signed an agreement to buy Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system. A battle is now being waged on Capitol Hill to prevent Turkey from buying the F-35 fighter jet in order to punish Ankara for the S-400 purchase, which Turkey’s American opponents say will undermine NATO’s defense coordination.

The one ray of light in Turkey’s relations with Washington in recent weeks was a deal over control of the Syrian city and province of Manbij, which had previously been controlled by the Kurds. Under this agreement, Turkish and American forces will conduct joint patrols of the city and the province once the Kurds, whose presence was the reason Turkey threatened to capture the city, have withdrawn.

The city and province of Afrin, however, are still under Turkish control, and Turkey even opened a branch of Harran University there, staffed by Turkish and Syrian faculty. The Kurds had to accept the American dictate, but they found a way to even the balance. With Russia’s support, they began direct negotiations with the Assad regime over their future in Syria. One likely result is that the Kurdish minority, acting in cooperation with the Syrian government, will deprive Turkey of its pretext for being in Syria.

Turkey’s intervention in Syria has also enraged Iran, which rejected Ankara’s request for cooperation in its war against the PKK in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains. “Military action against the territory of another state is illegal,” Iran said in a statement, hinting broadly that it also considers Turkey’s military presence in Syria unacceptable.

Thus Erdogan’s electoral victory won’t help him conduct a foreign policy that could extricate him safely from the thicket of regional interests that has entangled him. For now, Turkey’s international relevance rests on its role in the Syrian war and on the European Union’s dependence on an agreement with Ankara that largely blocked the flow of Syrian refugees to its member states.

Yet even Europe is sick of Turkey. “Turkey has been moving further away from the European Union,” EU foreign ministers said in a statement after a recent meeting in Brussels. “Turkey’s accession negotiations have therefore effectively come to a standstill,” and “no further work … is foreseen.”