Friday, July 30, 2010

Android app designer denies data theft

Concerning reports emerged late Thursday that one of the Android apps had been stealing users' information and sending the data to China. Upon discovering the issue Google were quick to shut down the app, but thousands of phones may be affected. While this affects only Android smartphones, it raises concern over apps on other types of smartphones too. Meanwhile the app developer has denied he had constructed the application to steal user data.

The discovery, on the face of it, appears to be an argument for Apple's restrictive iPhone App Store. Certainly, the Apple's approval process has an extra layer of security that the Android Market does not, even if it means that some desirable apps aren't allowed because Apple says so. But the advantage for Apple is not so clear-cut.

The issue surrounds an Android wallpaper app from Jackeey Wallpaper which offered popular brands such as My Little Pony and Star Wars, and was downloaded between 1.1 million and 4.6 million times. According to reports the app collected SIM card numbers, subscriber information and voicemail passwords if they were programmed automatically into the phone. This data was to, a domain registered in Shenzhen, China.

Google said it has suspended the application while it investigates further, but it has shaken the smartphone community. While this incident might be used by Apple as ammunition to criticise Android devices, there may be issues surrounding the iPhone App Store too, so writes Yobie Benjamin at the San Francisco Chronicle.

iPhone & Android apps at risk

Benjamin highlights a lawsuit filed by Washington state resident, Michael Turner who took issue with Storm8, a developer and publisher of a very popular Vampires Live iPhone application. The lawsuit alleged the app involved the execution of "malicious software code", something not authorized by Apple. The lawsuit claimed that only "very specific and specialized software code" could do so and sought injunctive relief and damages. "Storm8 has written the software for all its games in such a way that it automatically accesses, collects, and transmits the wireless telephone number of each iPhone user who downloads any Storm8 game... Storm8, though, has no reason whatsoever to access the wireless phone numbers of the iPhones on which its games are installed [SFGate].

The app from steals graphics from the Internet and repackages them as their own and gives out a "free application" to Android users. But in return the app harvests data from its users. The Android twitter stream is flooded with tweets from people concerned for their phone's security. And their concerns are warranted.

While it is easy to identify rogue iPhone app companies and out them, this appears less easy with Android apps which could be made and distributed by individuals or groups that are beyond the reach of US laws. Harvesting information of any sort and sending it to China is particularly interesting because of the Chinese national security apparatus. If one of the unknowing victims was some member of the US or NATO military or security apparatus, this would be even more concerning.

Apple approves iOS apps through a strict process before listing them in the App Store, while Google's Android Market app security involves simply warning the user that an app needs permissions to perform certain functions during the install. But this does not necessarily mean iOS iPhone apps cannot forward user data inappropriately.

Android and iPhones have similar problems. "Credentials" such as SIM numbers, phone numbers (source and destination), passwords, etc. can all be sent in clear and plain text. The platform does not force developers to implement cryptographic functions or encrypt information. It is the developer's choice to do or not to do so. Text messaging or SMS is always in plain text [SFGate].


So who is Registered with GoDaddy, the site appears to be based in Shenzhen in Guangdong province China, known for its tech industry. Yao ShangLang is listed as the registrant while an email address points to an individual who goes by the name of Ice Ysl [].

Further investigation leads to a site on which Ice Ysl has post video content describing methods to make money from Android.

Writing on his blog, Ice Ysl says he is shocked by the accusations his code stole information. "I was on GoogleTalk with a friend today who sent a message saying that I'd been writing mobile phone wallpaper applications which steal of private user data," he says. "I could not believe this was true ... I was shocked."

He posted a reference to the Las Vegas Black Hat conference which highlighted the issue and adds further comment. "After reading this news, I immediately checked all the code and see if malicious code had been applied without my knowledge, but I found nothing," the programmer says. After a run through of his code along with a number of screen shots, Ice Ysl said he was "speechless" at the accusations.

Threat remains

Real or not, the potential threat of third party apps should be a wake up call to anyone using smartphones, be they iPhones, Android devices or even those running Symbian or Windows Mobile software. 

Viruses and malicious code can and has been written for phones. Smartphones are just computers that gives the user telephonic functions. Computers are not hard to hack. Given time, motive, determination and skill, anything can be hacked and that includes iPhones, Android phones and others. Google may now be looking at licensing after this bad publicity [CNET]. But consumers should also be vigilant.

Further reports: PCWorld / Venturebeat / WSJ / ClickNews / DailyTech / Register / Fortune / Telegraph

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Goldman Sachs bans profanity

Employees at Goldman Sachs have been banned from swearing in emails. Software will be employed to screen out swear words and even those using asterisks or acronyms will be targeted according to reports. No longer will someone be able to describe a particular deal as f***ing awful or a CEO as being a complete b******.

The move prohibits all 34,000 traders, investment bankers and other employees from using profanity not only in emails, but also text messages and instant messages. No list has been issued as to what words are taboo, but they are not going to take any more sh*t.

It is not the first time that the issue of profanity on the trading floor has been raised. Citigroup Inc. and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. already have policies against using swear words in company email, according to the companies. Morgan Stanley tells employees that their email should be "professional, appropriate and courteous at all times," but doesn't specifically forbid such words.

NYSE Euronext Inc. "unofficially discourages" the use of profanity on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, according to a spokesman, and frequently issues memos reminding traders to exercise proper decorum. It began enforcing the policy more aggressively after TV networks started broadcasting live reports from the floor, according to traders. CNN's Maggie Lake described it as a bit 'big brother' but would not divulge whether she herself had resorted to swearing in her electronic communications.

Screening does not always work however. Satellite-services provider Intelsat SA, of Luxembourg, began screening email for profanities but it found the level of emails that were wrongly captured was too high and later dropped the surveillance methods. It now relies on a policy of reminding employees of "appropriate language for external use." Some acronyms may be read in different ways. POS is sometimes used to mean Pile of S***. However, it could equally refer to something as being positive, or as an abbreviation for 'possibly'. Some may not even be on the radar at all. To say "see you next Tuesday", might appear on the face of it as somewhat innocuous. However it is occasionally used as an inference of a highly offensive four letter expletive beginning with the letter 'c'. Some words may not be commonly used in America, while others are less offensive there than in other parts of the world.

For example w***er is a pejorative term of English origin, common in Commonwealth and ex-Commonwealth countries, including Canada, Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. It initially referred to an onanist but has since become a general insult. In the US the word is far less used.

According to some research into the use of profanity roughly 80 to 90 spoken words each day [0.5% to 0.7% of all words] are swear words with people varying from between 0% to 3.4%. In comparison first person plural pronouns such as we, us and our make up 1% of spoken words. Research looking at swearing in 1986, 1997, and 2006 in America found the same top ten words were used of a set of over 70 different swear words. The most used swear words were f***, s***, hell, damn, goddamn, bitch, and sucks which accounted for around 80% of all profanities spoken.

Research into swearing practices in the United States suggests that "men generally curse more than women, unless said women are in a sorority, and that university provosts swear more than librarians or the staff members of the university day care center" [SFGate].

Last year, J.P. Morgan had to briefly override its automated profanity detectors so it could write a press release that mentioned a charity called Feel Your Boobies Foundation. That is the name of a Pennsylvania breast-cancer prevention group, which got a grant from the bank.

For Goldman Sachs the new dictate is more about removing any further risks of embarrassment such as a much publicised email which gained notoriety during Senate hearings. The message from Tom Montag to Daniel L. Sparks drew widespread media attention when it was read out. "boy, that timeberwof [sic] was one shi**y deal", the email read. The new rules are perhaps a little too late [WSJ / NYDN / Financial Post / Business Insider].

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Android sales soar, iPhone shrinks

Apple may have further reason to feel more than a little uncomfortable after new figures show a surge in the take-up of Google's Android-based phones. Apple's new iPhone 4 faced a barage of criticism shortly after it was released with a particular on reception problems. And while Apple claims sales have not been dented, its main rival now seems to be closing the gap.

Sales of phones running on Android, an open-source Linux-based system, have soared and now account for a 13% share of the UK market according to figures published by German-based GfK Retail and Technology. The uptake of the Android devices comes as many customers reach the end of their old mobile contracts and are able to upgrade.

GfK analyst Megan Baldock said that many people were specifically demanding Android devices. "The figures suggest an increasing number of consumers are now asking for Android handsets by name," Baldock says, "Operating Systems are no longer simply a by-product but a key selling point in their own right." [Daily Mail / ZDNetitproportal / broadbandgenie]

Slow growth of the smartphone

The smartphone market has has a somewhat chequered history. A few years ago devices that could access the Internet were foisted on the public using WAP [Wireless Application Protocol]. But many of these early devices were slow and information was limited. As technology developed and the demand for mobile Internet increased several manufacturers began to develop new software. Symbian based devices began launching and still retains a large market. Worldwide it is estimated that mobile devices based on the Symbian OS account for 46.9%. Microsoft moved into the mobile market with its Windows Mobile operating system, 

In the number of "smart mobile device" shipments, Symbian devices are the market leaders. Statistics published in February 2010 showed that the Symbian devices comprised a 47.2% share of the smart mobile devices shipped in in 2009, with RIM having 20.8%, Apple having 15.1% (through iPhone OS), Microsoft having 8.8% (through Windows CE and Windows Mobile) and Android having 4.7%. Other competitors include webOS, Qualcomm's BREW, SavaJe, Linux and MontaVista Software.

Although the share of the global smartphone market dropped from 52.4% in 2008 to 47.2% in 2009, the shipment volume of Symbian devices grew 4.8%, from 74.9 million units to 78.5 million units. But it does not look good for Nokia which introduced Symbian [The Inquirer].

While Microsoft had managed to dominate the PC market, it has failed to gain ground on mobile devices. Windows Mobile's share of the smartphone market has fallen year-on-year, decreasing 20% in Q3 2009. It is the 5th most popular smartphone operating system, with only a 2% share of the worldwide smartphone market.

The figures are somewhat weighted towards Symbian due to the slow move by Android and the iPhone OS into some markets. In China for example most devices available use Symbian or Windows Mobile. Apple has begun to target the huge mobile market in China and Android has yet to make any impression.

Two main contenders

In other countries it is clear that there are only two serious contenders in the smartphone market. Despite the criticism surrounding Apple's iPhone 4, it is undoubtedly a well designed piece of technology. But some have questioned the walled off garden approach of Apple in that all apps must be approved by the company. Android, by comparison is open source and although the number of applications is far less than that offered for the iPhone, many are free.

Cost of the device is also a major factor. There is only one iPhone, though the 3GS is still available it is likely to be phased out as Apple pushes its new device. In comparison there are several Android devices being offered. At the last count there were more than a dozen Android phones manufactured by ZTE, Dell, LG, Samsung, HTC, Sony Ericsson, Motorola and Acer. 

The only major phone makers not to sell any Android phones are Nokia, Apple and RIM, mostly because they have their own mobile platforms to protect. While Apple may maintain a significant market share, the recent sales figures may not bode well for others. GfK Retail and Technology's latest figures reveal that between Q1 and Q2 of this year contract market sales of the iPhone grew by less than 1%, but sales of Android phones increased by a staggering 350%.

The price factor

The types of contract available are also affecting market share. More consumers are choosing SIM only contracts or PAYG [Pay As You Go] because of economic circumstances and not wishing to be tied into long term contracts. 

A top of the range Android device like the Nexus One costs around $529 [£339] SIM free, the ZTE Racer costs only $155 [£100] and is the cheapest Android handset on the market. However it still shares some features found on more expensive phones like a 3.2-megapixel camera, Wi-Fi, Google Mobile Apps and Satnav capabilities. An iPhone 4 can cost $935 [£600] SIM free. This clearly favours Android because it is the only platform that offers the breadth of features of a true smartphone like the iPhone combined with the ability to cover the whole of the market from entry level to top end.

While a 13% market share isn't enormous, especially when compared with Apple, the growth is remarkable. RIM also increased its market share in the first half of this year, from two to seven percent, while Apple saw its slice of the UK smartphone market fall to 64% from 75% during the first two quarters. Unsurprisingly, the same research showed that smartphones now represent the lion's share of the mobile phone market, at 73.5%.

Android brings profits

Android uptake is not only good for Google but also the dozen or so manufacturers which are incorporating the software into its devices. HTC, the Taiwanese smartphone maker, has recorded massive profits [LA Times].

And as the popularity of Android grows, developers are said to be moving to be shifting emphasis to the Google software. The iPhone still has the largest number of applications, some 225,000, more than three times that of the Android's 72,000. However the Android Market has grown substantially in a short period of time. With developers now migrating to Google's OS there may be a slowdown in Apple apps and a large increase in Android apps. This will put both devices on a level playing field and may even give Google the edge [Techeye].

Android goes to war

Even the US military has moved to Android. RATS (Raytheon Android Tactical System) is now being rolled out for use my military personnel. a modification of the Android software used on millions of smart phones it will enable devices to handle encryption and military type communication [Strategypage]. Some might see the use of Android by the US military as somewhat at odds with Google's 'do no evil' motto, though Google probably have little say in the matter.

While Android may go to war in the form of RATS, it is the mobile war that the tech industry is focused upon. The iPhone has yet to be killed off by the Android, but it now faces a formidable enemy. Some are even contending Android will overtake the iPhone altogether [Trusted Reviews]

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bull fighting banned in one part of Spain

There were triumphant cheers after the parliament of Catalonia voted to ban bullfighting. It is the first region of mainland Spain to do so, though the Canary Islands outlawed the sport in 1991. Bullfight supporters insist that the corrida, as it is known, is an important tradition to preserve. Many also fear the vote could be the first of many in the country. Opponents say the practice is barbaric and outdated.

But there are many not only fearful that the ban will set a precedent, but also affect livelihoods and tourism. However such concerns may be ill-placed. Bullfighting is seen as being 'Spanish', and the inhabitants want to be seen as 'Catalan'. The Barcelona regional government banned bullfighting in 2004 but the decision was overturned. The latest ban may last, but similar legislation may spread to only a few other regions. 

There have been three bullrings in Barcelona, the Plaza de el Torin which was built in 1834, but no longer exists, the Plaza de las Arenas, which was built in 1900 but is no longer in use, and the present bullring, the Plaza de Toros Monumental, built in 1914. Popularity has dwindled amongst the population and the bullfights draw in mostly tourists.

However in many other parts of Spain the corrida remains very popular. Despite most people's impression of bullfighting as being unique to the whitewashed villages of Andalusia and Costa Blanca, it is places like Madrid and Bilbao where the battle between man and beast is celebrated and enjoyed. 

Madrid and Andalusia are the dual epicenters of bullfighting in Spain. There are two bullrings in Madrid, Vista Alegre and Las Ventas. Las Ventas, with a capacity of 20,000 is the more important of the two and is where the majority of the fights take place. Madrid is also considered one of the best places to see a bullfight in Spain since it attracts less tourists and more real aficionados then some of the bullfights in Andalusia.

In the north the Corrida de Toros is also popular. Though bullfighting is typically Spanish and usually associated with Andalusia and Madrid, the Basques enjoy a bullfight occasionally too. They certainly don't oppose the bullfight in the way the Catalans do. It is also the home of the famous Pamplona Running of the Bulls.

Ronda is where modern bullfighting began. As a result, the Ronda bullring is held in very high regard among aficionados. However, with Ronda tucked away in the mountains, its bullring is not that accessible for genuine bullfighting fans. Perhaps to preserve Ronda's status as the genuine home of bullfighting and not a tourist trap, there are very few fights actually staged in Ronda. It may also be the last place to accept a ban on what is considered a tradition.

To many bull fighting is inherently cruel. But often such criticisms come from different cultures. The British often see the eating of horse as cruel, yet across France there are specialist butchers' shops selling the much prized meat. Dog is frequently seen on Korean and southern Chinese menus and there is puzzlement when it is suggested it is cruel to eat such animals. Few in the west however think much of boiling lobsters alive. 

Hunting or killing for sport and entertainment is still popular around the world, and draws just as much criticism. Even while the Canary Islands banned bullfighting, cockfighting is still legal. Britain has outlawed fox hunting, but there is now mounting anger being directed towards the urban fox now widely seen as vermin.

Frank Evans, a matador from England, told Sky News that there was indeed a certain amount of hypocrisy surrounding the issue of bullfighting given the millions of animals killed for meat some of them ritually slaughtered in which they bleed to death.

Bullfighting has generated particular controversy in many parts of the world, including Spain, Portugal, Peru, Mexico, and Ecuador. Supporters of bullfighting argue that it is a culturally important tradition, while animal rights advocates hold that it is a blood sport resulting in the suffering of bulls and horses. But the Catalan ban seems to be less an issue of animal rights than an assertion of local nationalism.

Whether tourism drops only remains to be seen. And since the ban does not take effect until January 2012, it may even be overturned by a change of government [BBC / Sky / CNN].

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152 feared dead after Pakistani plane crash

More than 150 people are feared dead after a passenger plane crashed in the hills just to the north of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Authorities said that all the bodies had been recovered from the wreckage and it was unlikely anyone survived.

The Airblue flight, an Airbus A321 with 146 passengers and six crew on board, was coming into land after flying from Karachi. The plane came down in the Margalla Hills. Bad weather is thought to be a factor in the disaster with heavy rain and fog reported at the time of the crash which occurred at around 10:00 local time [06:00 GMT].

Local TV footage showed twisted metal wreckage hanging from trees and scattered across the ground. Officials said rescuers searching for survivors were digging through the rubble with their bare hands and that at least one of the data recorders had been recovered from the scene which will be used to establish the cause of the crash.

It is unclear whether there were any foreign nationals on board the plane. Passports are not needed for internal flights and it may take some time to establish the identities of those on board, authorities have said. 

Airblue flies within Pakistan as well as internationally to the UAE, Oman and the UK. It has a virtually unblemished record with only one recorded accident, a tailstrike which happened at Pakistan's Quetta airport in May 2008. There were no casualties and damage was minimal, according to the US-based Aviation Safety Network [BBC / Sky / CNN].

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IMF praises China's economic policy

The International Monetary Fund has released a publication outlining its assessment on the 2010 Article IV Consultation with China. While acknowledging that China was hit hard by the global financial crisis, the IMF says that "the authorities' quick, determined, and effective policy response has helped mitigate the impact on the economy and ensured that China has led the global recovery."

This was brought about by a number of initiatives the IMF says. Amongst these were an increase in public infrastructure spending, a decrease in taxes and the putting in place of incentives to boost purchases of consumer durables. In addition pensions, social transfers, healthcare and education spending were all raised. At the same time, interest rates and reserve requirements were lowered and limits on credit growth were removed, leading to an extraordinary surge in bank lending, the IMF says.

Such policies were instrumental in arresting the downward momentum to both activity and confidence, the IMF claims. Growth began to pick up in the second quarter of 2009 and reached an average for the year of 9.1%. Inflation moved into negative territory for much of 2009 but has since registered a modest increase, the bulk of which has been directly attributable to higher food prices.

In the 12 months to May, the nominal effective exchange rate has depreciated by 1.25% while the real effective exchange rate has depreciated by 0.1%. China's recovery had significant positive spillovers to the region and the global economy, the IMF says. This it achieved through increased demand for commodities, contributing to an upswing in global commodity prices, and later through higher imports of capital goods. The balance of payments saw a dramatic shift with the current account falling quickly as exports slowed and imports surged. Despite the lower current account, reserve accumulation has continued to be rapid.

With the recovery becoming increasingly well established, the government has begun to unwind some of its crisis response measures. Credit growth has been slowed, reserve requirements were modestly increased, and prudential requirements related to property lending were tightened. Growth is expected to continue to be robust, while the inflation outlook appears benign, the IMF states in the report which was released at 0:30 GMT today.
As to whether China will maintain a stable economy as other nations continue to flounder or lift themselves slowly out of recession remains to be seen. The International Monetary Fund's review of China's economic policies has been long-delayed. And while it offers much praise for the country's stimulus policies which it says boosted the global economy during a global downturn, it is thought the IMF believes China's currency remains "undervalued" [WSJ].

However the report which was released Wednesday was toned down, though several reports suggest many directors in fact hold the opinion expressed in last year's report [Reuters].

China is resilient to allow its currency to float more freely, but it has made some moves which were praised earlier this week by US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. But he again put pressure on Beijing to let its currency rise quicker and farther [Economic Times].

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Extreme weather brings global chaos

Many parts of the world are suffering from particularly extreme weather which has resulted in widespread damage to crops and brought death and destruction. Some are citing it as proof that global warming is real while for others it is just a topic of conversation. But while some are basking in the heat, others are suffering and many people have died in the extreme weather that has swept the globe in recent weeks.

Scores die in Russia

In Russia a heatwave which has lasted weeks has caused massive forest fires near Moscow and residents have been warned to keep windows shut.

Dozens of Russians have died amid the heatwave that shows no sign of breaking. Many of the dead have drowned after taking a swim, often after having drunk too much vodka. Temperatures across much of western Russia have soared past 35°C, in the hottest and longest heatwave in decades. It has brought with it the worst drought in more than 100 years, and with virtually no rain since winter crops are shrivelling and farms are struggling. All this has prompted the government to declare a state of emergency in 16 Russian regions, and increase loans to try to help farmers avoid bankruptcy.

In recent days massive forest fires have destroyed thousands of acres of woodland. Temperatures hit 38°C in Moscow the highest since records began 130 years ago. As smog descended over the city doctors warned people to stay indoors [BBC / Telegraph]. The Middle East has also suffered from extremely high temperatures with highs of 45°C in parts. But despite being warmer than usual, this has failed to make the headlines.

Hundreds dead in China floods

Further east it is the excess amount of water that is causing problems. Weeks of torrential rain has left more than 1,250 people dead or missing and the economic losses are estimated to be more than $22 bn (£14 bn). China suffers monsoon-type rains every year but this year's rainfall has been the heaviest in more than a decade [Xinhua / BBC].

Global temperatures rising

But it is the heat that is a growing cause for concern. Last year was the second warmest on record, and this year could be the planet's hottest, this according to a forecast from Australia's Bureau of Meteorology, which says uncharacteristically warm conditions are being felt across the northern hemisphere.

The northern hemisphere is experiencing record high temperatures. While the south of China is suffering from heavy rain the north is sweltering. Authorities have issued a fresh heatwave alert after a week of soaring temperatures. The Beijing Meteorological Bureau issued a yellow-coded heat alert on Saturday, after three consecutive days in excess of 35°C [Xinhua].

Parts of Northern Africa, the United States and the Middle East are also experiencing scorching heat, with some regions recording above 50°C. David Jones, a senior climatologist at the Australian weather bureau's National Climate Centre, says the weather is particularly uncharacteristic. "We actually got into the low 50s for parts of the Middle East and Pakistan a couple of weeks back, so some extreme numbers, but more generally numbers approaching 40°C and 41°C. Beijing the other day just fell short of 41°C. We're seeing 40s right up and down the US eastern seaboard," Jones told ABC.

US also sweltering

In the United States many parts of the country have suffered weeks of high temperatures. New York has seen temperatures in the 30s and in Washington DC to the north highs of 35°C took its toll on those taking part in the Scouting centennial parade. Several people were transported to medical facilities for heat-related injuries and paramedics had to help dozens of others with heat-related complaints [WJLA].

In other parts of the country the unusually warm, oppressive and stormy summer has brought dangers of another kind. A tornado ripped through northwest Connecticut on Wednesday last week, touching down four times and in the process hit the towns of East Litchfield, Thomaston, Terryville and Bristol, according to the National Weather Service. The event follows another tornado which hit on June 24 and caused extensive damage in Bridgeport. The extremes have prompted some to ask weather it is further evidence of global warming.

An isolated hot, stormy summer is no more convincing evidence of global warming than a series of winter snowstorms are proof of global cooling. For better evidence scientists look for long-term trends and there the substantiation of a warming Earth is stronger. An analysis of global surface temperatures by NASA scientists found that 2009 was tied for the second warmest year since 1880.

Global warming

And in the Southern Hemisphere, the past year was the warmest on record according to NASA. January 2000 to December 2009 was the warmest decade on record, the space agency says. Looking back to 1880, when modern scientific instrumentation became available to monitor temperatures precisely, a clear warming trend is present, say NASA scientists. Average global temperatures have increased by about 0.7°C since 1880. Climatologically speaking, that seemingly small number is actually dramatic, NASA says [NASA].

But in the southern hemisphere many might be hoping the temperatures might rise even further as extreme cold brought with it death and starvation across many regions. The Peruvian government has declared a state of emergency across half the country due to cold weather. Most of the areas affected are in the south, where temperatures regularly drop below zero centigrade at this time of year. But this year has brought temperatures as low as -24°C. The state of emergency means regional authorities can dip into emergency funds to provide medicine, blankets and shelter to those most affected. Hundreds of people, nearly half of them very young children, have died of cold-related diseases, such as pneumonia, in Peru's mountainous south where temperatures have plummeted at night to -20°C. Even in Peru's hot and humid Amazon region, temperatures dropped as low as 9°C [BBC].

Weather remains British obsession

There are some parts of the globe which remain mild in comparison. Britain has experienced a warmer summer than usual, but temperatures have only touched 30°C. As the school holidays started, temperatures across the country ranged from 20°C to 26°C and the risk of rain hangs over holiday makers hoping for a warm day by the beach. Of course when it comes to the British, it is rare that every one is entirely happy. When temperatures soar many will exclaim that it is too hot, but last years wash out summer was slated especially after a declaration by the Met Office that the country would experience a 'barbecue summer'. Britons will complain about the rain and the snow and the cold. It is perhaps not surprising that talking about the weather has become a national obsession.

In fact it has been estimated the British spend six months of their entire lives talking about the weather. A study of 2,018 adults by pollsters ICM found Britons talk about the weather for about 49 hours every year and the subject comes up more often than work, TV, sport or gossip. According to the research about 19% of over 65s questioned said they believed they could predict the weather as well as a professional weatherman. And then there are the old wives' tales such as cows sitting down, said to signify the onset of rain, or a red sky at night which is said to forecast clear skies the next day. One in five put more trust in these than the daily weather forecast published by the meteorological office [Daily Mail / AFP].

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Britons putting Britain down

Almost everyday there are examples of Britain being criticised. These criticisms don't generally come from foreign countries, though there are a few. Most critical comment comes from the general population, politicians and the media. 

During the World Cup tournament, there was a barage of criticism lambasted towards the England team. In pubs across the country conversations are often negative. Whether its complaints about the price of a pint, the cost of the television licence fee or the lack of work, there is often very little positive to hear. "It's very bad at the moment," says Chris, a computer engineer who has been out of work for over a year. He has now decided to head east to Asia in the hope he might secure employment there. Even those with a job can be heard complaining, whether its the work load, low wages or simply the fact they don't like their job. 

There was widespread criticism too following the emergency budget which the new coalition government put in motion to help clear Britain's massive £160 bn deficit. And even within the coalition there has been grumbling in the ranks. This morning the Financial Times reported on comments made by Conservative MP David Davis [pictured above] who aired his criticism of the LibDem Conservative pact calling it a "Brokeback coalition", a reference to Brokeback Mountain a 2005 American romantic drama film that depicts the complex romantic and sexual relationship between two men in the American West from 1963 to 1983. "There was no-one in the pub who wouldn't have heard his views," FT journalist Chris Cook told Sky News.

All of this does nothing to boost confidence and help the country climb out of recession and set Britain on course of recovery. But of course there are still real problems to be seen, a reminder that the recession hit Britain hard. There are empty stores up and down many high streets and banks are still reticent to lend to both consumers and businesses. 

However, while the future may seem bleak for many, it is important to remain positive. In technical terms Britain emerged from the recession in January [BBC]. Full recovery may take some time yet, but there were further positive signs after it emerged that Britain's four biggest banks were named as among the strongest in Europe after seven others in the EU failed a health check of the financial system.

The Committee of European Banking Supervisors (CEBS) published its report this week and said that Barclays, HSBC and the bailed-out Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds all comfortably passed European scrutiny of how they would withstand a double-dip recession and sovereign debt crisis. Barclays had the highest ranking of the UK banks in the stress test [Guardian]. But the news was virtually ignored in the main headlines. One popular comedy series relabelled the country  Little Britain. Others, it seems, are more interested in belittling Britain.

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Facebook under the political spotlight

Facebook the popular social networking site is under fire once again after users began to use the platform for posting tributes to the murderer Raoul Moat. Yesterday Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the website and those who were setting up Moat to be a hero. During Prime Minister's Question Time Conservative MP, Chris Heaton-Harris urged David Cameron to contact Mark Zuckerberg to ask the company to take down the Raoul Moat tribute webpage, which he said carried a "whole host of anti-police statements".

Cameron said that was a "very good point" and went on to question the use of Facebook to sympathise with a "callous murderer". "As far as I can see, it is absolutely clear that Raoul Moat was a callous murderer – full stop, end of story – and I cannot understand any wave, however small, of public sympathy for this man. There should be sympathy for his victims and for the havoc he wreaked in that community. There should be no sympathy for him."

Facebook has refused to take down the "RIP Raoul Moat You Legend" group, and others paying tribute to the killer, saying its users were entitled to freedom of speech. More than 37,000 people had joined one of the tribute pages by Wednesday morning. Heaton-Harris who had been contacted by the social networking website said, "This guy wasn't a hero, he was a murderer. Some of the comments being made on Facebook are frankly disgusting. Companies like Facebook have a responsibility to the people that use them and to society more broadly. They must understand how angry many people will feel that they are hosting these sorts of comments."

Kelly Stobbart, 27, the half-sister of the woman shot by Moat, Samantha Stobbart, also joined the condemnation. "How can someone say something like that, after what he did? It's disgusting," she said.

Home Secretary Theresa May questioned why there was so much sympathy for Moat while the victims he killed or maimed were being ignored. PC David Rathband who was shot in the face was severely injured and is unlikely to ever see again [Sky News]. Meanwhile Samantha Stobbart's boyfriend, 29 year old karate instructor Chris Brown now lies dead.

Similar tributes in the past

It is not the first time that tributes have been made to killers. In 1966 Harry Roberts killed 2 policemen after being stopped by police. While condemned by most, some took to putting Roberts on a pedestal and a song came about, often heard at football matches of the day. Sang to the tune of "London Bridge Is Falling Down" a popular chant ran with the words, "Harry Roberts is our friend, is our friend, is our friend. Harry Roberts is our friend, he kills coppers. Let him out to kill some more, kill some more, kill some more, let him out to kill some more, Harry Roberts".

Armed robber George Davis also gained notoriety and widespread support. There were long campaigns by friends and supporters to free him from prison after what was seen as a wrongful conviction for an armed robbery. All over London "George Davis is innocent OK" could be seen sprayed on bridges and walls, and he was also immortalised in a song by the group Sham 69 called "Tell us the truth".

With the advent of the Internet, such debates and campaigns can grow faster. And as distasteful as such things maybe, many argue that to curtail such forums would infringe the right to freedom of speech. But with controversial views being aired, Facebook has drawn strong criticism.

Criticism of Facebook

In 2009, Facebook received criticism for including Holocaust denial groups. Barry Schnitt, a spokesman for Facebook, said, "We want Facebook to be a place where ideas, even controversial ideas, can be discussed." While Facebook's terms of use include the warning that users may "be banned if they post 'any content that we deem to be harmful, threatening, unlawful, defamatory, infringing, abusive, inflammatory, harassing, vulgar, obscene, fraudulent, invasive of privacy or publicity rights, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable,'" Schnitt said, "We can't guarantee that there isn't any content that violates our policies."

There have been some concerns expressed regarding the use of Facebook as a means of surveillance and data mining. In addition there are an ever growing number of instances of cyberbullying, stalking and even cases of murder [Criticism of Facebook].

Such concerns have been cited as reason to ban or censor the social networking site. It has been blocked intermittently in several countries including Pakistan, Syria, China, Vietnam, and Iran. It has also been banned at many places of work to discourage employees from wasting time using the service. In China authorities say that such sites could compromise national security.

Bans on social websites

Social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are banned in China by the ruling communist regime. And now their top-think tank is calling them potential risks to national security. The state-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences [CASS] published their "Report on the Development of China's New Media 2010." It acknowledges the growing popularity of social-networking sites, and says, "Some Web sites including Facebook, which are utilized by intelligence agencies in the Western countries, caused people to fear their specific political functions." [NTDTV]

Of course, many claim that Chinese authorities are more concerned that social networking sites might be used to discuss banned subjects or organise dissent. In Iran for example both Twitter and Facebook were widely used during anti-government demonstrations before being blocked by the government.

In the west, governments are wary of using powers to ban or block websites. Such bans would anger groups advocating freedom of speech and would be likely criticised as being draconian. However, laws do exist that could be used to stop sites like Facebook. The site has been successfully sued several times for violation of intellectual property rights, and in Britain a law could cite this as reason enough to block the website. In clause 8 of the Digital Economy Act it states, "The Secretary of State may, by regulations, make provision about the granting by a court of a blocking injunction in respect of a location on the internet which the court is satisfied has been, is being or is likely to be used for or in connection with an activity that infringes copyright."

The definition of "a location on the internet" where copyright violation might have occurred, or might occur in the future, is not clear. However, it could easily be applied to such sites as YouTube, BitTorrent, DailyMotion, WordPress, Blogger, Facebook, Twitter and Google, all sites already severely impeded in China and other nations.

It is perhaps unlikely that such restrictions will be implemented, but the fact that provisions have been put in place has caused some alarm amongst civil rights activists. The Labour MP John Hemming protested that the clause could mean the blocking of the whistleblower site Wikileaks, which carries only copyrighted work. Stephen Timms for the Labour government said that it would not want to see the clause used to restrict freedom of speech. However, he gave no assurance that sites like Wikileaks would not be blocked.

Freedom of speech, if abused, may well give excuse to authorities to exert their hand of control. The Raoul Moat tribute has created a furore in the media, especially in papers like the Daily Mail and the Sun which called on its readers to leave tributes for the wounded PC. Most publications have fallen short of calling for a ban on Facebook. The Scottish Herald editorial said that the website should just moderate its content better.

"The internet is immensely difficult to police. It provides a haven for the demented and the conspiracy theorist," the paper says, "Facebook is, on balance, right not to remove the page as the site encourages public debate (this is not, after all, China). But it must be held to account on the guarantee to act, if warranted, when people report material they find offensive.Some have even called for action to be taken against the site."

Indeed Britain is not China, not yet. But in a Memorandum by the World Press Freedom Committee, Richard Winfield and Kristin Mendoza ask the question, Does China Hope to Remap the Internet in its Own Image? [PDF].

In short, exports do not only extend to sock, shoes, toys and cheap electronics. China also exports Internet censorship technology and expertise to several countries. In addition the report claims China wishes to influence other countries. China is lobbying in the international arena for greater control over Internet resources, adoption of its proposed Internet norms, and acceptance of its practices. China's Internet policy is reflected in a statement by Chinese President Hu Jintao in which he said he aimed to "purify the Internet environment".

In fact China is among the leaders in lobbying for a UN organization to take over regulation of the Internet from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Many other countries have supported this proposal, including the European Union and Brazil, the site of an important Internet Governance Forum (IGF) meeting in November 2007.8 This proposal alarms human rights advocates who have seen the negligent attitude of the UN toward human rights abuses, and those who fear that governments who censor the Internet and imprison cyber-dissidents and journalists will be in charge of the flow of online information. So more bans on sites like Facebook may not be so far off.

As for the offending page on Facebook, the person who created it, Siobhan O'Dowd, shut it down on Thursday afternoon. She told Talksport's Ian Collins that she did not expect the reaction that followed, but insisted that everyone had the right to express their point of view. She did not reveal what prompted her to remove the page however [BBC].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Terror threat real and growing

In the week following Britain's commemoration of those who died in the country's deadliest terror attack there have been some grim reminders that the terrorist threat remains. While some of the reports are concerning, others are less than credible. In Britain the terror threat level is 'Severe' while in the US it is 'Elevated'. 

For some countries the risk posed by an attack is far higher, though governments don't always publish such advisories. Uganda suffered the worst terrorist atrocity in years last week when a crowd watching the World Cup final was targeted by bombers [BBC]. At least 74 died in the attack in Kampala, and more than 70 others were injured. Al-Shabab, a group closely aligned with al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the blasts and threatened further attacks [BBC].

While there have been few serious incidents in the west for several years, there are reminders that some are intent on perpetrating atrocities. Several individuals were arrested last week in connection with terror related activities and others have been convicted of plotting to launch terrorist attacks. This week three people were sentenced for their part in the liquid bomb plot which had targeted trans-Atlantic planes. Ibrahim Savant, Arafat Khan and Waheed Zaman, of east London, were convicted of conspiracy to murder by a jury at Woolwich Crown Court last week [BBC].

Last week three people were arrested in Norway in connection with an alleged al-Qaeda bomb plot [BBC]. And one day earlier British authorities detained Abid Naseer after the US issued a warrant for his arrest. Naseer is said to have planned attacks on the US [BBC]. There were setbacks in the on going war on terror however. 

The European Court of Human Rights ordered a halt to the extradition to the US on terror charges of radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri. Abu Hamza, jailed in the UK for soliciting to murder and racial hatred, and three other British men complained about the length of sentence they may face if convicted in the US. The three other men facing extradition are Babar Ahmad, Syed Ahsan and Haroon Rashid Aswat. Ahmad and Ahsan were allegedly involved in raising funds for exremists. Aswat and Abu Hamza are both accused in relation to attempting to set up a terror training camp in Oregan [BBC].

As the radical preacher Abu Hamza won his appeal there were calls for more research into radicalisation, as the UK's counter-terrorism strategy came under fresh scrutiny in the week of the London bombings anniversary [BBC].

Afghanistan - the frontline in the War on Terror

According to politicians Afghanistan poses the biggest threat to the west since it provides a breeding ground for terrorists. And for those fighting the Taliban and affiliates to al Qaeda the dangers faced is particularly real. Several British troops have died in the last week and the death toll is now 318 [BBC / icasualties]. In fact Afghanistan is becoming more deadly year on year. But the British Prime Minister was unnerved and insisted the work must continue to continue to train the Afghan army. "There should be no knee jerk reaction and no change to our strategy," PM David Cameron told the UK parliament.

And there are new threats emerging. On Tuesday a rogue Afghan soldier killed a company commander and two others before making his escape [BBC]. Some reports say the Taleban is currently sheltering the gunman and a manhunt is under way [BBC].

Claims of 'monkey terrorists'

Meanwhile The People's Daily in China claimed there was a new threat coming out of Afghanistan. In an article which was picked up by several other news organisations, it said that the Taliban were attempting to train monkeys to launch terror attacks. A Taiwan broadcaster, Apple Daily, made computer animated simulations while the New York Post ran with the headline Jihad Monkey. One blogger even suggested the monkeys might scream 'banana akhbar' [bananas are great], a sign of how seriously some were taking the story. CNN placed the item in its 'and finally' slot and premised it with a mention of the so called 'silly season'. The term refers to a period lasting for a few months, usually starting in mid to late summer, and typified by the emergence of frivolous news stories in the media.

The original source of the story is not clear. The People's Daily originally published the story on June 28th and claimed it was reported by British media on June 27, 2010. On a reworking of the same story The People's Daily republished the item on July 9th with a claim that "reporters from the media agency spotted and took photos of a few "monkey soldiers" holding AK-47 rifles and Bren light machine guns in the Waziristan tribal region near the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan." The name of the media agency was not named in the report. 

Meanwhile NATO spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale said, "We have absolutely nothing that leads us to believe that this tale could be even remotely based in reality." When asked about the veracity of the report a Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodong did not answer directly.

"I took note of the fact that the People's Daily's story was based on a recent report by a British-based media agency," Baodong said in an e-mail. "What I want to stress is that the Chinese government is opposed to terrorism of any forms, and this stand is consistent and clear."

While the story has been question, a photo of a monkey shooting a gun has been dismissed as fake. "To my eye at least, it is a baboon, which lives in Africa," said Christopher Coe, director of the Harlow Primate Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, Madison."The more common monkey that lives in that part of the world is a rhesus monkey. They live in India and can also be found in China. But this photo is not [of] a rhesus monkey."

In fact it seems the Chinese paper may have been duped by a satirical report. It would not be the first time. Xinhua once picked up on a fake report in the supermarket tabloid the Weekly World News which claimed sexy school teachers helped students study better. Xinhua published the story on its Chinese service complete with a picture of a sexy teacher! Although the Weekly World News did not report the Taleban monkey story it seems evident that that someone has once again made a money out of the Chinese media.

The Sun recently claimed one man was attacked by monkeys he was training to perform Kung Fu. The Chinese man was repeatedly attacked according to the Sun. Training monkeys to use an AK-47 could prove just as dangerous as the animal may not only shoot the enemy. 

The monkey terrorist story is doing nothing for the credibility of the Chinese media. Dr Sian Evans, a scientist with Monkey Jungle in Miami, Florida, told CNN the idea of a Jihad monkey was "absurd". Unfortunately such absurdity diverts attention from the real terror threat.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, July 09, 2010

A turbulent year for Google

Google has been through a turbulent period this year. Following hacking attempts, the search giant created consternation within China after it announced it was unwilling to censor search results. After a war of words, mostly issued from China's state media, Google moved its search operations to Hong Kong by way of a redirect. However the redirect did not please authorities and Google changed its approach by creating a 'landing page' with links to its Hong Kong based servers. This came as Google reapplied for its licence needed to continue operating in China.

It has not only been Chinese authorities that have been angered by Google. In Europe, the US and several other parts of the world there was outrage after it was revealed that Google had collected WiFi data as it had gathered images for its Street View service. Street View had already created controversy with many people citing privacy issues, but the collection of SSID information as the Google cars passed WiFi points raised deeper concerns. Just as social networking site Facebook raised worries over privacy, so did Google Buzz which was launched earlier this year.

All the concerns about Google has severely affected its stock. Google's shares have fallen more than 30% since the beginning of the year to close at $436.07 on Nasdaq on Tuesday after ending 2009 at $626.75. Google have yet to announce their second quarter profits. However JPMorgan Securities are not optimistic and have cut the price target on shares of Google Inc by 11% to $566 and lowered its second-quarter outlook. Its decision is partly due to the discontinuation of the online sales of the company's Nexus One smartphones [AP].

It has not all been bad news for Google. Android's share of the US smartphone market surged 4% between February and May, according to research outfit comScore, putting Google on the verge of overtaking Microsoft for the number three spot behind RIM BlackBerry and Apple. Android still remains behind other mobile systems, but it is fast catching up.

Google's Chrome Web browser has reached 7.24% of the world-wide browser market in June and is the fastest-growing program for surfing the Web, according to data from, which tracks Web usage. Google says Chrome had more than 70 million active users in May, up from 30 million in June 2009 [WSJ].

While only at the number three spot Google has yet to create major concern amongst the other major players, but that may soon change. The take-up of both Android phones and Google Chrome is growing. Android take-up is tempered by people's contracts and the cost of phones however. The relatively recent launch of several high-end Android models has increased the profile of Google's mobile operating system. But with many consumers tied into 18 and 24 month contracts, which they may have taken less than a year ago, it may be some time before people change to Android and affect the market share.

Where Google Android wins over the Apple iPhone and WinMo 7 is on open sourcing. Apple offers an extensive selection of apps. However Apple CEO Steve Jobs is often selective on what he allows to be used on the iPhone. Users have downloaded some 2 billion applications from its ever-expanding library of 100,000 applications but some users complain that some applications are missing. Some banned apps are undoubtedly tasteless, but there have been accusation that Apple are overzealous in its censoring of apps.

The omission of Adobe's Flash has also been seen as spiteful by some and a curtailing of the online experience. Many videos will only play on Flash and some WiFi access points require Flash to enable logging on.

WinMo 7 has a limited number of applications and many are costly. When Sony Ericsson launched its Xperia X1 18 months ago it used the WinMo 6 and came with several panels. The panels which serve as applications were limited however. A YouTube panel did not come for several months and a Twitter panel caused crashes for many users. The Skype panel was one of the few free and stable applications available along with the Facebook panel, but many panels were little more than cosmetic wallpapers. As WinMo 7 launched, Microsoft announced it would not facilitate copy and paste claiming users do not need to do this on a mobile device.

All these issues have prompted many manufacturers to move to Android. Sony Ericsson dropped Windows Mobile and launched the X10 with Android. Samsung, Motorola, LG and Acer have all released a number of mobile phones using Android and HTC only make Android based devices. HTC, a Taiwanese company, initially made smartphones based primarily on Microsoft's Windows Mobile software, but in 2009 it began to shift its focus away from Windows Mobile devices to devices based on the Android operating system.

However, while Google's Android is growing in popularity it is causing huge problems for expats attempting to use their devices in China. In mid June many people began to notice that they were unable to download apps in the Market and access Gmail on Android phones became a problem [Sinosplice].

China now has its own Android-based system (Ophone) with its own market (Mmarket). Official Android phones are not available in China and like so many sites in the country, blocks can prevent access. While YouTube is blocked China's strictly controlled Youku is available. Facebook is unavailable but Kaixin, a Chinese clone, is freely accessible. Many fear Google Maps may also be blocked after authorities ruled that online mapping providers must apply for special licences [FT].

Without a VPN [Virtual Private Connection], an Android phone is virtually useless in China, especially since many applications are Internet based. Most Google services were highly restricted in China even before the advent of Android. And despite promises made by the Chinese government that it would not thwart Google's mobile operations, the opposite appears to be true [Google PRC Report].

Penetrating the Internet market in China is difficult enough, given the restrictions placed on companies. But for companies like Google it is particularly hard. Many services, such as its search engine, YouTube and Picasa, are based on openness, the spread of ideas and opinion. This is in direct conflict with Chinese authorities who strictly control the flow of information.

Google also faces further scrutiny into its WiFi gaffe. In the US congress are to launch a probe [BBC] after particular criticism over its collection of data [BBC]. Australian authorities have also launched an investigation [BBC] as have several European countries. These investigations may take some time, and is a heavy cloud over the company's reputation. Ironically, in Hong Kong [part of China but operating under different governmental rules] where Street View data was also collected, Google has not received so much flack. In fact, although there were discussions with authorities, Google has been allowed to continue collecting pictures after giving assurances no further WiFi data would be gathered [Xinhuanet]

Google is unlikely to collapse, but 2010 may prove to be a year the company would rather forget. While Chrome and Android are undoubted growing successes, the fall in stocks is significant and any more bad news from China won't help. On Thursday Google was still awaiting a decision on whether it would retain its licence to continue operating web-based services in China, though Google's CEO Eric Schmidt remained positive [Business Week]. However, Google announced on Friday that China had renewed its licence [CNN / BBC]. "We are very pleased that the government has renewed our ICP license and we look forward to continuing to provide web search and local products to our users in China," Google said in a blogpost. This was perhaps a silver lining on an otherwise dark and heavy cloud.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The legacy of 7/7

Today marks five years since London was hit by a devastating series attacks by suicide bombers [Wikipedia]. Fifty two people died and more than 800 were injured, but there is no official memorial to this solemn date in modern British history. In contrast to America which has marked 9/11 very prominently with television coverage every year since, Britain is markedly silent. The terrorist attacks shocked London and the rest of the country. There are few people that won't remember the moment where they were when the news filtered through. The blasts on the London subway shut many stations for weeks and the fear of further attacks resulted in many commuters making alternative travel arrangements. Security was increased and passengers carrying bags were routinely stopped and searched. There was increased concern after failed terror attacks on the 21st July and there have been several plots and failed attacks since.

Media coverage

News channels were today focused on the continuing manhunt for gunman and killer Raoul Moat. Headlines on Sky News topped with the manhunt followed by a British troop pullout from Sangin in Afghanistan and the jailing of Lindsey Lohan for 90 days after breaking probation rules. BBC News 24 also led with the manhunt and Sangin but also covered the London bombing. In early bulletins the BBC gave over 8 minutes to the manhunt with Sky stretching into more than 15 minutes.

Afghanistan took up 3 minutes on the BBC followed by a story concerning the rights of homosexual asylum seekers. After returning to Afghanistan for a further 5 minutes and a recap of the main headlines the news channel moved onto a report about public sector pensions. also took up around 3 minutes of air time. Sky also covered Afghanistan but less than 2 minutes was given to the continuing conflict. Even Paul the octopus, which 'predicts' Germany will lose against Spain, took precedent to any reference to the annniversary of the 7/7 terror attacks [BBC].

Finally at 10:40 the BBC refers to an article in The Times written by Andy Hayman, the former assistant commissioner who led the 7/7 investigation. He warns that Britain remains "under severe risk" from terror attacks. "There are now probably more radicalised Muslims, their attack plans are more adventurous and the UK still remains under severe risk," Hayman said. While the story is perhaps a wake up call, a technical glitch sent the report to the digital grave.

Compared to the television news, the newspapers were a little more focused on the War on Terror. While this phrase has fallen way to become the 'terror threat', it is clear that the situation is markedly different from that faced by Britain a decade ago. Today's newspapers attempt to make a connection between the military retreat from Sangin, David Cameron's announcement of an inquiry into allegations of British complicity in torture [BBC], and rising concerns of the terror threat [Herald Sun].

According to reports terror suspects are often aware of the likelihood that they are being watched or listened to. Many routinely practice counter-surveillance techniques and are aware of the high level of protection given to prominent targets. Some groups are said to be discussing plans to copy the attacks that took place in Mumbai in 2008 during which heavily-armed men attacked a hotel, a railway station and a synagogue in a commando-style raid. In response, the British authorities are believed to be drawing up plans for how they might counter such an attack.

BBC London are reflecting on the legacy of the 7/7 attacks. A documentary planned for Sunday will look at how the bombings changed London and the Vanessa show also fielded calls on how people feel five years on, though the discussion soon gave way to other subjects. There were some quiet commemorations of the attacks in London's Hyde Park where a monument was unveiled last year [BBC]. A one-minute silence was observed and a wreath was laid in the name of Prime Minister David Cameron, but he himself did not attend the service.

For most people life has changed little since 7/7, for others the attacks have brought unsettling experiences. For the survivors many still suffer the nightmares while others struggle to come to terms with the horror that took loved ones from them. Some have had to endure repeated plastic surgery such as Davinia Turrell who was horribly burnt [BBC]. Many papers focus on her plight and her struggle to come to terms with her injuries. "I went from being convinced that I would be seriously scarred for life and that my life would be ruined, to being hopeful that the medics who were looking after me would be able to put me back together as I had been before." Today Davinia can smile for the first time in years, but for many the mental scars remain. Thelma Stober, who was caught up in the events of 7th July, is still traumatised and says she cannot travel on the London Underground.

Anti-terror powers

There is increasing concern that police are over using the Terrorism Act to target certain groups and individuals. Security at subway stations diminished within weeks of the 2005 attacks. But photographers, both amateur and professional, have been subject to overzealous stop & searches.

One week after 7/7, tvnewswatch was stopped by a PCSO after "being seen with a camera" at a London subway station. Given the heightened security alert, it was perhaps to be expected. A van load of police arrived within minutes to check laptop and camera bags. The presentation of a press card failed to allay their suspicions and after being detained for twenty minutes, the officers issued a notice and one was free to go.

Five years on, despite protests that photographers were being unfairly targeted, members of the public taking pictures are still being stopped. As Britain paid tribute to servicemen during Armed Forces Day one photographer was subjected to what has been described as a heavy-handed approach by the Metropolitan Police. Freelance photographer Jules Mattsson, 16, was threatened with arrest under the Terrorism Act as he took pictures of cadets preparing to take part in a parade in Romford, east London.

An officer approached Mattsson and told him to stop taking photographs. Insisting there were no restrictions on taking photographs in a public place there follows a nine-minute stand-off between Mattsson and police. Police initially approached Mattsson claiming he had been "taking images of children" and demanded he desist in photographing. In telling them that there was no law concerning the taking of pictures in a public place, Mattsson was asked for his details, something he refused to give saying that he wished to know the reason behind his being stopped. The officer responds saying, "I don't have to have any law to take your details. You have been identified taking pictures of the cadets and you can't be doing that unless they've given you permission." The discussion becomes more heated as Mattsson insists he has a right to take pictures in a public place.

A senior officer steps into the fray and suggests that Mattsson is a "hazard to the public". Inspector John Fisher then tells Mattsson, "Young man you are an agitator" and after further further protestations from the young photographer Inspector Fisher tells him to move on saying he was causing a breach of the peace. Inspector Fisher's patience finally gives way. "You know what, I consider you a threat under the terrorism act," he tells Mattsson. The photographer was then held until after the parade, though no charges were made [YouTube / Jules Mattsson blog].

Jules Mattsson said he had not only been bullied but also assaulted. "You can't see it but when they were telling me I was obstructing the parade I was actually up against the wall - I wasn't obstructing anything," he said, "When I was pushed down the steps I went into the railing at an angle and twisted my back." A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police said they had no information on the incident but added that police officers should not stop amateur or professional photographers from capturing images in a public place.

Police guidelines

Police guidelines state that "Members of the public and the media do not need a permit to film or photograph in public places and police have no power to stop them filming or photographing incidents or police personnel." Furthermore the Metropolitan Police websites says "The Terrorism Act 2000 does not prohibit people from taking photographs or digital images in an area where an authority under section 44 is in place." However it does say that "Officers have the power to view digital images contained in mobile telephones or cameras carried by a person searched under S44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, provided that the viewing is to determine whether the images contained in the camera or mobile telephone are of a kind, which could be used in connection with terrorism. Officers also have the power to seize and retain any article found during the search which the officer reasonably suspects is intended to be used in connection with terrorism." However it makes clear that "officers do not have the power to delete digital images or destroy film at any point during a search. Deletion or destruction may only take place following seizure if there is a lawful power (such as a court order) that permits such deletion or destruction."

Section 58A of the Terrorism Act 2000 covers the offence of eliciting, publishing or communicating information about members of the armed forces, intelligence services or police where the information is, by its very nature, designed to provide practical assistance to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. But even here any officer making an arrest for an offence under Section 58A must be able to demonstrate a reasonable suspicion that the information was, by its very nature, designed to provide practical assistance to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.

"It would ordinarily be unlawful to use section 58A to arrest people photographing police officers in the course of normal policing activities, including protests because there would not normally be grounds for suspecting that the photographs were being taken to provide assistance to a terrorist. An arrest would only be lawful if an arresting officer had a reasonable suspicion that the photographs were being taken in order to provide practical assistance to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism," the guidelines state.

Members of the media can, like any other person, be stopped and searched under s44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. They may also be stopped and searched under S43 of the Terrorism Act 2000 if an officer reasonably suspects that they are a terrorist. However, guidelines state that where it is clear that the person being searched is a journalist, officers should exercise caution before viewing images as images acquired or created for the purposes of journalism may constitute journalistic material and should NOT be viewed without a Court Order. In addition the police guidelines acknowledge that "the media influences our reputation so it's crucial to maintain good working relations with its members, even in difficult circumstances."

The incident in Romford came just 24 hours after the the Metropolitan Police was forced to pay compensation to two photojournalists for a similar incident. Marc Vallee and Jason Parkinson took civil action against the police after they had their camera equipment grabbed by officers in December 2008 while reporting on a protest outside the Greek Embassy.

In a public apology the Metropolitan Police admitted that its officers had "failed to respect press freedom" of the two journalists and agreed to pay them each £3,500 plus legal costs. Police forces across the country were told to stop using anti-terror laws to question and search innocent photographers after The Independent ran a campaign last year highlighting how legislation was being regularly misused. But groups representing photographers say the message is often struggling to get through to some front line officers [Independent / BJP / Romford Recorder].

Continued threat

Britain undoubtedly faces a terrorist threat. That threat comes from those connected to al Qaeda and its affiliates. It also comes from the likes of the Real IRA. Yesterday the Queen spoke at the United Nations and referred to the ongoing challenges of tackling the terrorist threat throughout the world. She also paid her tribute to the victims of America's worst terrorist attack which left more than 3,000 dead [BBC]. While the threat from terrorism is real and efforts to thwart terror plots must continue, many are concerned that freedoms are being eroded. There is also some concern that the the victims of terror are being forgotten. The muted coverage of today's anniversary of the 7/7 bombings is a case in point.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, July 02, 2010

After the urban fox

Britain is known throughout the world as a nation of animal lovers. Domestic pets are common place whether it is the cat, the dog or caged bird. It is not unusual for people to feed wild animals. Seed and bread is left out for birds, beach goers can be seen feeding the gulls and it has been a popular pastime to feed squirrels in the park. But the recent horrific attack on two young children by an urban fox has shocked the nation and some have called for a cull.

Animal psychologist Roger Mugford, speaking on a London radio station said the problem has been created by people handing out food and tolerating the fox. "We are in the process of inviting a carnivore into our home," Mugford said. "We need to keep our distance from nature," he advised, "we've stopped feeding seagulls because they've started biting back." And referring to the attack on two twins in Hackney in east London, Mugford added, "We've just had a big wake up call."

Amongst the farming community foxes have long been considered vermin and fox hunting was seen as a way of controlling the population. But in 2004 hunting the fox with dogs was banned in England and Wales. While the fox may still be controlled in the countryside with other methods, the urban fox thrives without impediment.

The urban fox has no natural enemies and the population has grown significantly over the years. Complaints of urban foxes invading gardens have quadrupled in the last three years as they lose their fear of humans, pest controllers have warned. And while there are only estimates as to the numbers some say there could be up to 50,000 urban foxes across Britain. But control of the animal is a problem. Poisoning is outlawed, and foxes have to be individually trapped and taken to a vet to be put down humanely at a cost of about £100 per animal [Telegraph].

Roger Mugford has said he is against a cull but agrees that the population has to be reduced. "There may be individual foxes who are a problem," and may need to be culled he says. But the animal psychologist said depriving the animal of its food supply could be enough. "Let nature take its course," he said.

The incident of two nine-month old twins being bitten is far from isolated. Friday's newspapers highlights many other attacks by the urban fox. Thirty three year-old Natasha David told the Sun newspaper that she had been bitten on her foot in the middle of the night as she lay in the bed of her west London flat. At the Ruislip home of his daughter Aine Morrow, Gerald McGivern was watching television when he caught sight of a skinny fox staring at him. Morrow, who has a six-month-old son Shane, now shuts all windows and says she is too scared to leave any doors open as the fox still regularly prowls the area [Daily Mail].

Callers to phone-in shows gave similar tales. One woman from Kew in west London said an invading fox had cost her several hundred pounds after her garden became infested with fleas. The fox was eventually trapped and removed by pest control experts but left the woman with a £300 bill and large holes in her garden. One man spoke of an incident where he witnessed a fox invade a kitchen at a take-away in Bethnal Green in an attempt to steal some chicken from the work surface. It even stood its ground for a while as several members of staff attempted to usher it away with a broom.

But the recent attack on the baby twins has been the most shocking incident involving the urban fox. In an interview with the BBC, Pauline and Nick Koupparis said that one of their daughter's arms "looked like it had been through a cheese grater". Lola Koupparis suffered facial and arm injuries in the attack on 5 June, while her sister Isabella was bitten on the arm [Guardian / BBC].

It could have been much worse. The fox has yet be blamed for a death in Britain, but some say it is only a matter of time. Being a wild animal they can not only be carriers of fleas but also disease. Foxes carry intestinal parasites such as toxocara canis that lay their eggs in the fox's intestines. These eggs are excreted in the faeces left by foxes, and they can infect humans. In some cases the infection can be fatal. They often carry the distemper virus. They can spread sarcoptic mange, a highly contagious infestation of Sarcoptes scabiei canis, a burrowing mite. The canine sarcoptic mite can also infest humans and cats, pigs, horses, sheep and various other species. These mites dig into and through the skin, causing intense itching and crusting that can quickly become infected. Hair loss and crusting frequently appear first on elbows and ears.

In mainland Europe the fox is a rabies carrier, a particularly dangerous disease. While rabies has been virtually eliminated in Britain there are still some concerns. Bats in Britain and in some other countries carry European Bat Lyssavirus 1 and European Bat Lyssavirus 2. The symptoms of these viruses are similar to those of rabies and so the viruses are both known as bat rabies. An unvaccinated Scottish bat handler died from an EBLV infection in 2002.

There is an understandable hysteria surrounding the spate of fox attacks. The parents of the twins have received threats from so-called animal rights campaigners while others have called for a widespread cull of the fox which they regard as vermin [Daily Mail]. Several years ago the then London Mayor Ken Livingstone declared war on the pigeon. Also a carrier of disease, they had become an increasing pest. People are discouraged in feeding the birds, which are often referred to as rats with wings. Tom Lehrer became well known for his 1950s song 'Poisoning Pigeons in the Park', though it is unlikely he engaged in such pursuits. Grey squirrels have also received a bad press in recent years and been labelled tree rats. It appears the fox will soon join the hit list. [Pictured: An urban fox with severe mange]

tvnewswatch, London, UK