Bombing ISIS in Syria will not tackle extremism in Brussels

 
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By Khaled Diab

Rather than airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIS), Belgium should strike at the root causes of homegrown extremism.

Bruxelles est (Re)belle. Miguel Discart https://www.flickr.com/people/miguel_discart_vrac/

Bruxelles est (Re)belle.
Miguel Discart https://www.flickr.com/people/miguel_discart_vrac/

Tuesday 5 April 2016

When we moved from Europe back to the Middle East, some of our Belgian friends who were unfamiliar with the region were worried about us and expressed concern for our safety.

So it felt bizarre that my wife and I found ourselves checking on the well-being of friends in Belgium after the terrorist attacks at Brussels airport and in the capital’s metro system, which claimed at least 31 lives and left another 330 injured, some in critical condition. To add to the irony, colleagues and friends in Gaza, who have more than enough on their plates, contacted my wife to check that her family was all right.

The scenes of the destruction and slaughter seemed almost unreal when juxtaposed against the casual, everyday mundanity with which I have used both hubs over the years. However, although the onslaught was shocking, it was sadly not surprising, especially following the Paris attacks in November of last year. “We feared a terrorist attack, and it occurred,” declared the Belgian premier Charles Michel solemnly.

Brussels is, after all, not only the capital of Belgium, it is also the unofficial capital of the European Union and hosts NATO’s headquarters. It is also home to a pool of disillusioned and marginalised young Muslims who can be preyed upon by jihadist recruiters.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the fear is palpable, even for those who are determined not to allow terror to guide their lives. “It’s not easy not to have fear,” one Belgian admitted to me, “and I try not to fear, just love.”

Belgium’s Muslim minority is not only fearful of the terrorists but also the almost inevitable backlash from the mainstream. “It was always a dream for me to have a [trendy] beard,” recalls Hassan Al Hilou, a 16-year-old Iraqi-Belgian student and entrepreneur who has started up an online platform for youth. “But I am scared of my own hair and scared of my own name.”

Syrian refugees are also feeling the heat. “I have escaped from a war zone and now I am feeling threatened just walking down the street.” one refugee who has received threats was quoted as saying.

In addition to the solidarity, defiance and soul-searching has come the inevitable finger pointing, with reports of suspected intelligence failures and bungling, which prompted Justice Minister Jan Jambon to try to tender his resignation.

However, it is easy to find fault and condemn in hindsight, as happened previously in the United States after the 11 September attacks, or in Paris, London and Madrid, amongst others. But, at the end of the day, even after all the precautions are taken, determined killers will eventually locate a weakness or gap to exploit. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in Belgium’s defence.

Some criticism is also agenda-driven. It seems to have become almost routine for governments and interest groups to seize on every terror attack to roll back civil liberties and trample on our privacy.

The EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove hinted at this in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre when he urged European representatives to “never let a good crisis go to waste”. And true enough, Kerchove pounced on the Brussels bombings to try to blast through controversial legislation on airline passenger data.

This tendency has me and many others who value our hard-won freedoms worried. “We are gradually moving towards a state in which our security will come at a heavy price,” says my friend Jan, despite his concern about extremist activity in his neighbourhood, Molenbeek, an area of Brussels dubbed as “jihad central” by the more sensationalist segments of the media. “I hate the voices who say that it is either freedom or security.”

Just as occurred with the Front National in France following the Paris attacks, the latest atrocities have provided Belgium’s faltering far-right with a surge in support, with its ripple effects empowering everyone from Geert Wilders in neighbouring Holland to Donald Trump across the Atlantic.

The anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang claims that its support has grown by 25% since the attacks while the fringe white supremacist Voorpost says its membership doubled in just three days. Vlaams Belang’s leader Tom Van Grieken has already seized on the opportunity to demand a “water-tight” border policy and the “preventive detention” of known Islamic extremists, which sounds like far-right code for harassing Muslims.

Later, the far-right party went further to demand the reintroduction of the death penalty for Muslim terrorists and their accomplices (but preusambly not for non-Muslim ones) and, like Trump across the Atlantic, the VB wants to ban foreign Muslims from entering Belgium.

But some are hopeful that the combined power of young Muslim and mainstream moderates of the divide can overcome the religious and racial supremacists. “I believe in this generation,” insists Hassan Al Hilou. “We know how to accept everyone and their cultures, how to live together with love and not with hate.”

For its part, the Belgian government immediately unveiled plans to resume airstrikes against ISIS targets, as if bombing Syria or Iraq would somehow de-radicalise extremists in Brussels.

As I’ve argued in before, the government’s fixation on security and the “war on terrorism” diverts vital resources from the policies that would prevent the homegrown terrorist threat, which draws on the alienation, disenchantment, exclusion and marginalisation felt by inner-city Muslim youth, making them softer targets for extremist brainwashing.

The way to deprive jihadist recruiters of a fresh supply of young people willing to die would be to give youth greater reasons to live, by promoting respectful integration and mutual tolerance, as well as investing in education and job creation.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared in The National on 28 March 2015.

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Political baggage and state insecurity at Ben Gurion airport

 
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By Khaled Diab

Ethnic profiling at Israel’s airport is not about state security but the insecurity of the state, and is an infringement of fundamental rights.

Six has been my unlucky number ever since the first time I visited Israel in 2007.

Six has been my unlucky number ever since the first time I visited Israel in 2007.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

Although I like to travel light, when it comes to Israel, I always seem to be weighed down by generations of excess political baggage. And being a frequent flyer does not seem to provide me with any extra allowances or concessions.

This was driven home to me, yet again, when I recently went on a short, work-related trip to London from Jerusalem, where I currently live. Though I found myself surrounded by a large tourist group entering Ben-Gurion airport, the hawk-eyed security guard outside the terminal caught sight of my complexion and asked to see my passport.

His suspicions were confirmed when he read my Arab name, even though it was cunningly disguised inside the pages of a European passport. When I asked him in feigned innocence, as I sometimes do, why he had stopped me and no-one else, he gave me the standard response: “I’m just doing my job.”

After his boss deigned to allow me into the terminal, the security interviewers who act as the check-in’s gatekeeper also did their jobs and gave me a number six security label – the highest – which [currently] means that all my hand baggage is searched with a fine-tooth comb and high-tech gadgetry, I must stand in a body scanner, and get a complimentary security massage.

For those who are not convinced that this is a part of ethnic or racial profiling, consider the fact that when I travel to or from Israel with my European wife and/or blond son, I am not exposed to this level of scrutiny.

But in terms of intrusiveness, my return from London several days later was possibly the worst since I first started living in Jerusalem in 2011, though the wait was far longer on my first visit in 2007. After tapping at her computer and whispering into her phone, the passport control officer told me I had to wait.

Though I have become familiar with this drill, and I usually bear through it in silence, I informed her politely that the visa in my passport had already come with a security clearance. She too told me that she was just doing her job.

As I dawdled a little outside the designated area – for those familiar with the procedure, by the drinks vending machines in a darker corner of the arrivals hall – a heavily built plain-clothed officer full of rage and hostility approached me and yelled: “Stand inside. Now!”

Taken aback by this uncustomary aggression – usually, my interlocutors are polite but distant, even cold but sometimes friendly – I asked him politely to speak to me with respect. He repeated his order and I repeated my request, whereupon he threatened to deport me if I did not take the two steps back into the designated area within 10 seconds. I acquiesced while noting that I did not appreciate his tone.

A little while later, he returned in a calmer mood and led me into a non-descript office. “Do you know where you are?” he asked cryptically.

“An interrogation room,” I offered.

“And do you know why you’re here?” he continued mysteriously.

“Because I asked you to be respectful outside,” I suggested.

“You were rude to me but that’s not the reason,” my questioner said. He then proceeded to interrogate me about my work and about my wife’s work.

“And what makes you a journalist?” he asked, his voice dripping cynicism and derision.

I responded simply that I’d been working as one for over 15 years. The officer then did something which I have personally never witnessed in the many times I have entered and exited Israel, though I have heard of others who have. He turned to his computer and presumably Googled my name, quoting from one of my articles doubtfully.

“Do you believe this?”

“I did when I wrote it, but I am not here to discuss my journalism or opinions,” I countered.

Changing track, he asked me about who I knew and who my friends were, adding his trademark, “Do you know why I’m asking?”

Miffed and offended by his question, I sidestepped answering it by admitting I hadn’t a clue. “If you’re trying to work out whether I have Israeli as well as Palestinian friends, well I have both and from many different walks of life,” I volunteered.

After asking me to write down my Israeli and European phone numbers and my e-mail address (another intrusion to which I objected but acquiesced), he told me I was free to go. By way of a farewell, he informed me that they reserved the right to stop me and my wife for questioning at any point on entry and exit in the future.

I don’t know if this greater scrutiny has anything to do with the recent Israel-Gaza war or whether I had been flagged personally, or whether it was purely random based on my ethnicity.

Whatever the case, it is a violation of my fundamental rights (such as equality before the law and freedom of expression) and an encroachment of my privacy, as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Israel is a signatory.

I fully understand Israel’s need to protect the security of its citizens, especially on something as potentially vulnerable as airlines. But its gruelling and exacting airport security, unmatched anywhere in the world, is more than up to that task.

An Israeli friend pointed out that she and her family underwent similar interrogations in America. To my mind, that is equally unacceptable. Governments have no right to intrude into our private lives – and when they do, it usually ends badly.

There is no justification for racial, ethnic or other forms of profiling, nor for intrusive questioning. Granting the state and its officials with arbitrary powers often means they will be exercised or abused arbitrarily. Ultimately, this is not about state security – but the state’s insecurity.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 30 October 2014.

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Is Facebook sinking or swimming?

 
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By Ray O’Reilly

Like an ocean predator, if Facebook is not moving forward, it is dying. So is this big fish drowning or can it continue to swim with the tide?

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Thanks for everything, Zuckers! Photo: Guillaume Paumier, http://www.gpaumier.org/

Some shark species have to keep moving to wash fresh water over their gills to stay alive. So, too, the common Facebook shark which has preyed on the world’s online waders for nearly a decade now. But like many shark populations, Facebook shark may also soon find itself on the red list of endangered species. Reasons?

I’d love to be able to carry on the simile further and simply say it’s down to … ahem … ‘over-phishing’ but strictly speaking that isn’t Facebook’s typical modus operandi… at least not yet. Alas, there are a few mitigating factors, and I’m pleased to say none are related to climate change, unless you count the recent so-so debut on the stock market as a sign of global cooling towards this online colossus.

No, there are other factors which portend the ultimate demise of this ‘big fish’. To date, the social media giant has fed on its denizens – their data and privacy at least – with all the table manners you’d expect of a cold-blooded killer. So it’s perhaps only a matter of time before Facebook gets ugly once its lifeblood, you and I, realise the social media wave pool is more like a fish farm dominated by corporate ‘story tellers’ – or is it advertisers? – feeding you meal made from other fish.

Think about it!

And don’t get me started on the FB Timeline – a new way for you to document the milestones of your life for millions of others to see. Timeline’s creators achieved something quite remarkable with this new data-gathering tool, somehow stripping the ‘logical’ part from what should be a straight-forward reverse chronological display of your life.

Since Timeline’s introduction earlier this year the fanfare has garnered no fans in my world. Now the haters in your FB community are given prominence for evermore and without the simple ‘Wall’, the all-so-important conversations are stilted and lack cogency because no one can fathom where the hell the conversation starts and stops.

Meanwhile, the new prominence of ads – sorry, I mean stories – crowd out the people, casting a glaring spotlight on this most recent of Facebook’s cynical commercial ploys to monetise your data.

So, if the forecast for Facebook is gradual ‘MySpace’ decline with a chance of total ‘Yahoo!’ collapse as shareholders head for the lifeboats, the big question is what’s next? You could well imagine a big buyout by the likes of Amazon who’d love to get their hands on FB’s ‘intelligence’, which is basically your data that you’re increasingly signing over.  This could be followed by a raft of embarrassing moves to justify the sale price… new stuff and apps but nothing substantial … in fact, more of the same.

Real people will defriend Facebook real fast and the corporations will carry on for a while until they realise there’s something else better out there that real people are into and where the commercial potential has been built-in rather than clumsily tacked on over the years. Pinterest comes to mind here.

Pinterest is being pitched as the hottest company on the web right now, “what Google+ should be”, according to PCMag.com. It’s a modern and refreshingly simple (compared to Facebook nowadays) feed of images and catchy news headlines.

“What makes Pinterest the most interesting of the social networking sites is that it is actually oriented around the merchants. The pins [like a pin-up board] are mostly links to cool products that the person likes. It’s meant for this almost exclusively,” says PCMags’ John Dvorak.

Biggest problem for most people who want to migrate out of Facebook’s dragnet will be extricating their virtual lives – photos, friends, ‘stories’ – out of this platform and into whatever new medium is topping the ‘social media’ charts in five or so years’ time.

Actually, maybe Timeline will come in handy by documenting your hasty exit, which could go something like:

Andy read EU introduces new law on the “right to be forgotten online”

Andy just read How to export data from Facebook to XXX

And the trending story of 5 January 201X:

Andy commented ten times on story Thanks for everything Zuckers!

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iPhony reality

 
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By Christian Nielsen

We’re entering a world of augmented reality (AR) which might sound scary to rational-thinking grown-ups but perfectly natural to iPhone-savvy toddlers.

Thursday 17 February 2011

Augmented reality is the place between virtual reality – where you can walk, talk, or act out in alternate worlds, like Avatar – and, well, reality. Reality, to those struggling with the concept, is the place where unpaid electricity bills mean no more computer games, or where kids get up at 6am every Sunday.

While this augmented world might seem a little way out to anyone born in the 1970s or earlier, the millennium generation has no beef with it. They’ve grown up with the sort of hand-held wizardry that their elders only read about in sci-fi books.

Teens and pre-teens nowadays can fire off sweet nothing messages to ‘tweople’, or ‘twits’ if you prefer, just round the corner or on the other side of the world while riding their bike or walking through the mall. Though multitasking mayhem can ensue – watch this twit fall into a fountain while texting. The woman in the video was later quoted as saying, “texting and walking at the same time is dangerous.” She says she could have been walking in front of a bus!

I guess in the augmented world, the tweet or text would go something like … “Bus coming straight for me! LOL” If you don’t want to take her testimony then it’s probably a good idea to become a better multitasker and learn to be tweet smart –sorry about that one!

Of toddlers and birds

Two-year-olds who’ve been allowed to play Angry Bird or other popular apps on their dad’s iPhone or who have become familiar with touch-screen technology now toddle up to the television and start sweeping their sticky little fingers across the screen like the rated G version of Minority Report. When nothing happens they look at you, the Fat Controller, raise their chubby hands and shrug, as if to say “what kind of low-tech rubbish is this?”

Meanwhile, the Facebook generation are signing up – in some cases not, but that’s a potential legal story – to ‘Locate me’ with gusto, like it is perfectly natural that your every move should be documented, that this phenomenal invasion of privacy is kinda cool because you can meet your friends, like, spontaneously.

And this is where AR picks up an existential tinge. How spontaneity could even exist in a world where every utterance and physical expulsion is scrupulously documented by the world’s best documentary maker – you – is beyond me and beyond anyone who still watches TV at night.

The iPhone is ground zero for the growing class of ‘augmented realtors’. According to the fans at iPhoneNess: “Augmented reality is one of the most exciting technologies around. If you have watched some of those modern Hollywood movies, you have probably seen how our world would look 20-30 years from now. Who knows when augmented applications become mainstream but they are already making their way to the iPhone platform. Augmented reality is the future but thanks to these augmented reality apps for iPhone, you can experience the future today.”

These guys offer up a long list of current apps to prove their point. Everything from golf range-finding gadgets and trekking tools to experimental solutions for colour-blindness. And the thing that strikes this old-school technophile is that a lot of these apps and mashups combining, for instance, satellite geo-location technology which pinpoints your exact location and mobile navigation devices, are not (or perhaps should not be) kids stuff. They are practical applications for grown-ups like me who took up golf when real sports got too hard.

But like the first-wave attempt to make a success of e-commerce and the dot-com bomb of the 1990s, the grown-ups today are just not clued-up or interested enough to fully appreciate what’s out there in the AR sphere. But toddlers to teenagers have no preconceptions about technology. It just is what it is, like milk is quite good on cereal.

Every day new apps are created. Some are very innovative and might one day save your life, some like Angry Birds are simple and a bit of fun for young and old. Others, which combine geo-location technology and social networking, tell us a bit about our society and in particular younger people’s willingness or need to commune in the virtual world. And their disregard for privacy and even safety.

But maybe this notion of privacy and identity is what augmented reality is all about. It brings into question age-old beliefs and many a good philosophical theory. Philosophers tell us identity is what ever makes an entity definable and recognisable. It comes from the Latin identitas or ‘sameness’. Leibniz supposed that two things sharing every attribute are not merely similar but must indeed be the same thing.

So if in this augmented world, whether Second Life or just sophisticated apps on iPhones, if we accept this world without question, and represent ourselves as our avatars or other personas, are we losing or gaining identity? Are we similar or the same? Are we cool or another banal member of the commune?

Perhaps it won’t matter in the end. Perhaps these are ponderings of a generation that is trying to hold fast to two-dimensional formats like terrestrial TV. Of course our kids don’t ask the questions and perhaps don’t need to. All they want to know is why they can’t sweep across to Sesame Street from Dora the Explorer on that thing in the corner of the living room.

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Crime and privacy

 
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By Khaled Diab

A Belgian far-right politician is in hot water for uploading a video of an attempted break-in. Was he right or should he have gone to the police?

22 April 2010

I’m beginning to suspect that Filip Dewinter, one of the faltering far-right Vlaams Belang’s leading lights, sees Antwerp, where he has long been the mayor-in-waiting, as some kind of comic strip Gotham City, casting himself as its very own Batman.

The Joker in this Caped Crusader’s pack is the cunningly villainous Mo and his evil army of bearded minions, with their hijabbed parodies of Catwoman whom Dewinter is battling to unmask. Not only is he on a crusade to foil their evil designs to make his beloved Flanders and the rest of Europe part of a global caliphate, he is also single-handedly keeping the streets safe for decent (white) citizens by fighting (brown) crime. To that end, he is one of the brains behind his party’s controversial anti-crime website which critics fear will fuel vigilantism.

One of Dewinter’s latest stunts was to post CCTV footage of an apparent attempted break-in – carried out unsuccessfully with comical incompetence by a young man who appeared to be an immigrant – on his website.

According to Belgium‘s privacy commission, this falls foul of privacy laws and only the police and the ministry of justice have the right to release video footage and images of alleged criminals and their crimes. The commission is now investigating whether to take legal action, especially as Dewinter enjoys parliamentary immunity.

Dewinter reacted in predictable fashion, saying that “criminals are clearly better protected than the victims of crime“. And judging by online reactions, many ordinary Belgians seem to approve of Dewinter’s actions. “Now criminals enjoy a sort of parliamentary immunity, too,” commented one enraged reader. So, is this a case of “privacy gone mad”, or are there valid reasons for such legal protections, especially in our increasingly surveillance-oriented societies?

Well, in short, by releasing this video into the public domain, Filip Dewinter is effectively taking the law into his own hands. If Dewinter truly believes in the rule of law, as he claims, and wishes to make society safer for law-abiding citizens, then the responsible thing to have done, rather than this grandstanding, would’ve been to report the incident to the police, who can then decide whether to go public or not. Any information made public about the identity of an alleged criminal should be weighed up carefully against the severity of the crime, the chances of it leading to an arrest, and the risk posed to the public.

In the case of a gruesome murder, rape or an armed robbery, for instance, there is a strong imperative for the authorities to release information about the identity of the perpetrators. Also, when massive abuses of power, corruption or miscarriages of justice occur, the media can play a role in bringing them to light, as long as there is sufficient evidence. However, a young lad apparently trying and failing to jemmy open the window of a travel agent is not the same. Moreover, the release of such footage can do the young man in question – who may never have done anything illegal before – harm that is not proportional to the crime he has allegedly committed by stigmatising him in public.

Besides, when they deem it necessary, the authorities routinely release footage or photofits of criminals and make public appeals for information, and so these amateurish efforts are, at best, pointless, at worst, harmful and even dangerous.

If some citizens start usurping the role of the police, how much longer will it be before others appoint themselves judge, jury and executioner? What if a furious citizen takes the next logical step and decides to execute some summary justice by, say, attacking alleged criminals?

More fundamentally, even criminals have rights. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty by a competent authority, and no one should be allowed to prejudice the course of the legal process. But even convicted criminals – who have, in effect, paid their dues to society – have, and should enjoy, a right to have their privacy protected and respected, unless this puts others at great risk.

This article appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 13 April 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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The naked truth about body scanners

 
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By Andrew Eatwell

Airport body scanners are being touted as the latest anti-terroism wizadry. But do they actually work and are they worth the invasion in privacy?

15 February 2010

More at QorreO

Ever since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to blow up a plane on Christmas Day with explosives hidden in his underwear, authorities in the United States and Europe have been touting the benefits of installing body scanners at airports.

The privacy concerns raised by these machines are understandable:  if they can be used to spot a bomb in someone’s boxer shorts, they can also detect prostheses, the results of plastic surgery, evidence of transgender or, for self-conscious males, the results of jock stuffing self-enhancement. But while the thought of having your body – or, more troublingly, your child’s – viewed and photographed in all its naked glory by a stranger just to go on holiday may make many people uncomfortable, the privacy argument largely misses the point.

Many people would agree, after all, that being scanned briefly by a machine – assuming the images are viewed remotely by an operator and then destroyed, as is likely to be required – is ultimately less intrusive, less an inconvenience and less an invasion of privacy than having to remove your coat, your shoes and be patted down physically by a security officer.

The real issue, therefore, is not so much what these machines and their operators may be able to see in addition to a bomb, but whether full-body scanners can spot explosives at all and whether going to the enormous expense of installing them in airports would really make flying any safer.

On this, experts remain divided, and, fortunately for European governments’ overstretched budgets, so too is the EU, at least for the time being. Though scanners have been installed experimentally at airports in London and Amsterdam – from where 23-year-old Abdulmutallab boarded his Detroit-bound plane – there are no plans as yet to make their use obligatory at European airports (though the British and Dutch now intend to install them permanently).

Scanner technology needs to be evaluated further with regard to privacy “guarantees and effectiveness”, Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the current term president of the EU, said in early January. He added that installing them is not a decision that can be taken “unilaterally”.

Until now, the EU has left it up to individual member states to decide whether to use body scanners at airport checkpoints. In 2008, the bloc suspended work on draft legislation regulating the use of body scanners after the European Parliament demanded a more in-depth study of their impact on health and privacy. However, in the wake of the attempted Christmas Day bombing, EU officials are busy re-evaluating security regulations, and inevitably will find themselves under pressure to make scanner use widespread.

The United States, which currently operates 40 scanners at various airports throughout the country, will almost certainly urge Europe to scan many – if not all – passengers on US-bound flights. And, just as the EU gave in to US demands on passenger information and biometric passports – albeit not without a fight – it will probably eventually give in on full-body scanners as well.

Spain’s public works minister, José Blanco, admitted as much after meeting with US officials in Washington in early January.

“The use of scanners in airports will be inevitable,” he said, adding, nonetheless, that an EU-wide agreement governing their use would need to be reached first.

Pressure is also likely to come from the general public – and demands for authorities to “do something” to keep travellers safer would certainly have been greater had Abdulmutallab brought down the Northwest Airlines plane.

A USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted on 5 and 6 January, found that 78% of US respondents favoured the use of scanners in airports, while a survey conducted by The Canadian Press Harris-Decima found that four in five Canadian respondents said the use of the scanners was reasonable. A poll by Angus Reid Public Opinion, showed that 78%  of respondents in the United States, 73% of Britons and 67% of Canadians would prefer to be scanned rather than patted down by a security guard or police officer before boarding a plane.

A flight of blind faith?

Is this a case of blind faith on the part of both politicians and the public in an expensive and unproven technology?

Studies and anecdotal evidence certainly show that full-body scanning is no silver bullet when it comes to keeping airplanes safe.

Full-body scanners use either millimetre wave or backscatter technology. The first type sends radio waves over a person and produces a three-dimensional image by measuring the energy reflected back. The second kind uses low-level X-rays to create a two-dimensional image of the body. In an effort to assuage privacy concerns, current procedure – in both the United States and Europe – is for operators to view scans remotely and not store them. With regard to health concerns, proponents of body scanning note that the amount of radiation the machines emit during a typical scan is less than what a person receives by using a cellphone or spending two minutes inside an airplane.

While both types of scanners produce relatively detailed images, showing body features, breast implants or colostomy bags, they are generally unable to detect objects hidden in body cavities. And, more significantly, they may not be able to detect the kind of powder and chemical bomb components Abdulmutallab smuggled onto Northwest Airlines flight 253.

One British study found that millimetre-wave scanners could detect high-density material, such as metal knives, guns and dense plastic (like C4) explosives, but not low-density material, such as powder, liquid or thin plastic, if the person being scanned was also wearing low-density clothing – the millimetre waves simply passed straight through.

German television station ZDF recently vividly highlighted the shortcomings of the machines in a demonstration that revealed that the device was able to detect little more than a cellphone, a knife, and the girth of the man walking through it even though he was also packing materials that could be used to make a bomb.

If full-body scanners might not be able to detect bomb-making materials of the kind carried by the 23-year-old Nigerian in his underpants, why the sudden focus on these machines as the next step in ever tighter airport security?  And, though 100% security is never attainable, could the money that would be spent on deploying thousands of these machines at airports around the world – as will probably be the case – not be better spent elsewhere?

Each machine costs between €100,000 and €150,000 and dozens would be needed in a large international airport to handle the numbers of passengers and minimize inconvenience (scanning a single passenger with a millimeter-wave machine takes around 40 seconds). And, if not all passengers are scanned, then the effectiveness of the technology is ultimately reliant on how effectively high-risk passengers can be identified.

“It may turn out that we can reduce the overall risk of a successful terrorist attack far more by investing in additional intelligence analysts, or consular officers in high-risk countries, than purchasing expensive new screening devices,” notes  David Schanzer, the head of a terrorism study centre at Duke University and the University of North Carolina.

That is certainly one option. The other, of course, is for Western governments to spend more money, time and effort on tackling the social, political and economic problems that lead young men like Abdulmutallab to want to blow up a plane in the first place. Or which lead fellow would-be terrorists to target trains, buses or city streets, where, incidentally, no one has to pass through a body scanner.

Article published with the author’s permission. ©Andy Eatwell. Please visit Andrew’s new website, QorreO.

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Tis the season to be sociable

 
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By Khaled Diab

The British are famously reserved, but so are the Belgians. Let’s break the ice and make the public sphere more friendly.

30 December 2009

On a wintry commuter train, I sat immersed in a short story by the English dandy and essayist Max Beerbohm in which two Englishmen convalescing from the flu by the sea astutely avoid any communications with each other beyond a cursory nod of recognition.

“Anywhere but in England it would be impossible for two solitary men … to spend five or six days in the same hostel and not exchange a single word,” Beerbohm observes.

Despite the massive changes that have occurred in British society since Beerbohm wrote these words, “reserve” remains something of a byword. For example, it is no accident that, in English, getting to know someone is painfully known as “breaking the ice”, as if strangers and new acquaintances were stranded on a social iceberg in the middle of the ocean.

Nevertheless, looking around the carriage, where the vast majority of commuters have concealed their eyes behind the veil of a book or newspaper, their ears behind a wall of music, or have drawn the blanket of sleep between themselves and their fellow passengers, I begged to differ with Beerbohm.

Here in Belgium, “Belgian reserve” would give its English counterpart a serious run for its money. In Beerbohm’s England, people might spend days at a hotel without exchanging a single word; in the Belgium I know, people can spend years taking the same train and remain oblivious to one another.

I became a commuter when I moved to Ghent, but continued to work in Brussels, some four and a half years ago. During that time, I’ve become visually acquainted with a fair number of regular commuters on the same line.

Come rain or shine, sleet or snow, wintry darkness or summery light, we all exhibit an exemplary level of decorum. Even the most eccentric – such as the passenger my wife and I call Newspaper Man because of his habit of gathering up all the abandoned papers on his trip home – elicit no reaction.

While some will exchange a nod or a smile of recognition, others will go to the extraordinary lengths of pretending they are not even aware of one another’s mutual existence, like blank-, or bleary-eyed automatons on the office conveyor belt. But even among this breed I occasionally spot signs of recognition, if not in their eyes then at least in their actions.

One man is so professional at blanking out his fellow commuters that the busy platform he stands on may as well be occupied by phantoms took the unprecedented step of keeping the tram door open for me when he noticed me sprinting to catch it. When I turned to him and smiled with gratitude, he looked so excruciatingly uncomfortable that I vowed to do him the favour of never again acknowledging him.

That’s not to say there is no spontaneity in public. People do sometimes engage one another in spontaneous conversation in cafes and bars, and even on trains, especially in the summer – one enduring friendship was even sparked by a book I was reading on sexual ethics in Islam. But the occasions are rare enough to be memorable.

Even though I’ve lived here for more than eight years, the extremes to which people go to maintain their privacy and that of others still fascinate and baffle me.

The situation couldn’t be more different in Egypt, which largely occupies the opposite extreme on the privacy and reserve spectrum – though in certain respects, such as interactions between the sexes, Egypt is more private.

In bustling Cairo, a spontaneous social encounter is waiting and impatiently kicking its heels around every corner. Though Egyptians are getting more private and the level of reserve rises with social class, it is difficult to pass a day – often even a few hours – without a friendly interaction with strangers, from cabbies to fellow passengers.

In fact bring together any number of Egyptians for more than half an hour in one place and they’re likely to start chatting happily to while away the minutes. And the nature of that interaction differs, too. A cursory first encounter is quite often enough for Egyptians, if they warm to one another, to exchange phone numbers and agree to meet again.

The downside of this is that, in the dash, or even stampede, to be friendly and sociable, the intensity of the public sphere can be overwhelming and notions of privacy too often get ditched by the wayside.

To my mind, we need a happy medium between public introversion and extroversion – a sort of interversion. People should make an effort to make the public sphere more friendly and personal, but they should also respect one another’s privacy and be sensitive to other people’s personal space.

So, during this festive season, why not go out and exchange some friendly words with a stranger – preferably without the tongue-loosening catalyst of the seasonal spirits.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 22 December 2009. Read the related discussion.

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Ambient stupidity?

 
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By Andrew Eatwell

Is technology designed to monitor and report on our every move a sign of ambient intelligence or stupidity?

6 October 2009

Sticking sensors and computers in everyday objects and having them communicate what we are doing to other people and machines promises to save time, raise productivity and improve our health and personal safety. But this always on, interconnected future could be more a world of ambient stupidity than ambient intelligence.

At first glance, the expansion of sensor-based systems to homes, offices, cars and coffee cups seems like a good thing. Who would argue against the benefits of a vehicle that instantly alerts emergency services if the driver wraps it around a tree. Or a home that automatically turns on the lights when the owner pulls into the drive, adjusts them for watching TV and turns them off again when they go to bed. Add a few sensors to monitor occupants’ vital signs and the whole family – and the family doctor – can rest assured that granddad’s heart is still ticking while they are busy elsewhere. Of course, let’s just hope someone thought to ask grampa if he wanted other people to know how many times his heart beats per minute.

But, as with any emerging technology, alongside such ostensibly useful and beneficial applications come a whole boatload of more dubious ones. Take, for example, the almost inevitable impending marriage of ambient intelligence systems with online social networking.

Imagine how much more “productive” your average Facebook, Twitter or MySpace whore would be if they didn’t have to write their own status updates but instead could have their smart phone, home or coffee cup do it for them. “Fred has arrived home,” “Susan is watching TV,” “Mike has just drunk a dark, mocha frappe,” Facebook feeds would bleat even more regularly and mindlessly than they do now.

Proponents of the idea inevitably argue that privacy would be safeguarded because users would be able to set their own criteria for how much information the ubiquitous sensor systems around them share. But, just as few people bother to delve into the labyrinthine privacy settings on their Facebook page until a friend posts an embarrassing picture or their name pops up in an advert, how many users of sensor-enhanced social networking would consider the implications until it is too late?

That early departure from work to catch a football game on TV may seem harmless until your phone bleats out to your circle of friends and coworkers (and boss?) that you are in the pub and would they care to join you for a drink? Your plans for a restful evening are dashed when your home tells your mother that you’re in to take her calls. Or you start to be hounded by advertisers urging you to purchase a new soft drink because your fridge told the supermarket that you just drank your last can of cola.

After all, if Facebook’s use of personal data to boost its advertising revenue is anything to go by, you can be certain that Mike’s automated message to friends about that dark, mocha frappe will also be shared with any coffee company willing to pay for it.

This article is published with the author’s permission. ©Andrew Eatwell. All rights reserved.

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