Thursday, January 31, 2013

NY Times hacked by China in ongoing cyberwar

Hackers from China have "persistently" attacked the New York Times for the four months following the publication of a report delving into the fortunes of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's family.

"Military links"

The hackers are said to have used methods "associated with the Chinese military" to target the emails of the report's writer, the paper said. Security experts hired by The New York Times to detect and block the computer attacks gathered digital evidence that Chinese hackers breached the paper's network. According to the New York Times, they broke into the email accounts of its Shanghai bureau chief, David Barboza, who wrote the reports on Wen's relatives, and Jim Yardley, The New York Times's South Asia bureau chief in India, who previously worked as bureau chief in Beijing.

"They could have wreaked havoc on our systems," said Marc Frons, the New York Times's chief information officer. "But that was not what they were after." What they appeared to be looking for were the names of people who might have provided information to Barboza for his expose on Wen's family fortune.

However, Barboza's research on the stories, as reported previously in The New York Times, was based on public records, including thousands of corporate documents through China's State Administration for Industry and Commerce. Those documents, which are available to lawyers and consulting firms for a nominal fee, were used to trace the business interests of relatives of Wen Jiabao, the NYT says [NYT / BBC / Telegraph / Guardian / Daily Mail / Time].

Concerted campaign

The mounting number of attacks that have been traced back to China suggest that hackers there are behind a far-reaching spying campaign aimed at an expanding set of targets including corporations, government agencies, activist groups and media organizations inside the United States.

The intelligence-gathering campaign, foreign policy experts and computer security researchers say the attacks are as much about trying to control China's public image, domestically and abroad, as it is about stealing trade secrets.

IP threat

As well as attempting to obtain state secrets and track down dissidents or those providing information to media organisation, hackers are particularly interested in stealing information related to the intellectual property of large corporations [BBC]. Such information could give Chinese companies an advantage, both in the manufacture of products or in terms of marketing strategies.

In December last year Bloomberg reported that Chinese hackers had likely infiltrated confidential systems within Coca-Cola. According to the report hackers were able to spend a month operating undetected, logging commercially sensitive information.

The report suggested the attackers were stealing sensitive files related to Coca-Cola's attempted $2.4 billion acquisition of China Huiyuan Juice Group. The Huiyuan deal, which collapsed in 2009, would have been the largest foreign takeover of a Chinese firm at the time.

The attack was apparently uncovered by the FBI whose officials quietly approached executives at Coca-Cola in March 2009, shortly before the takeover deal collapsed [BBC].

Silent response

Coca-Cola, the world's largest soft-drink maker, has never publicly disclosed the loss of the Huiyuan information. Their silence is likely due to the fear that any acknowledgement of a cyberattack could scare off investors.

"Investors have no idea what is happening today," says Jacob Olcott, a former cyberpolicy adviser to the US Congress. "Companies provide little information about material events that occur on their networks."

But while it is perhaps understandable that firms are not disclosing that they have been attacked, for fear that stocks could be affected, by not being transparent could also have a negative effect of a company's reputation or stock, especially if such events become public.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission says companies are required to report any material losses from such attacks, and any information "a reasonable investor would consider important to an investment decision". But Olcott says few companies have publicly disclosed the theft of sensitive deal-related information from a computer intrusion.

Reported attacks

The Coca-Cola breach is just one in a global barrage of corporate computer attacks kept secret from shareholders, regulators, employees and in some cases even from senior executives.

In 2011 hackers are said to have launched a large-scale attack on BG Group, stealing significant amounts of sensitive data. However, the British energy firm never made it public. Steelmaker ArcelorMittal also kept silent when intruders targeted, among others, its executive overseeing China.

There have been some exceptions. Google claimed it had been subjected to a series of cyberattacks which likely originated in China and targeted the company's "corporate infrastructure". In a blogpost the company said that the attacks would mean Google would have to review its policy in terms of doing business in China, a decision that ultimately resulted in it closing down its China based search engine [Reuters / WSJ / Operation Aurora].


Coca Cola have not revealed what if any data had been taken in the hacking attack, investors may well be concerned as to how the attacks might affect the company's future. It is extremely unlikely that Coca Cola's well guarded secret formula was stolen, but such a thought must have crossed the minds of many stockholders when news of the attack was made public in late 2012.


The Chinese Foreign Ministry continually deny any involvement with such cyberattacks. Concerning the recent NYT hacking allegation, spokesman Hong Lei dismissed the accusations as "groundless".

"To arbitrarily assert and to conclude without hard evidence that China participated in such hacking attacks is totally irresponsible," he said  at a press briefing. "China is also a victim of hacking attacks. Chinese laws clearly forbid hacking attacks, and we hope relevant parties takes a responsible attitude on this issue."

But the pattern of attacks, the timing and the victims only seems to reinforce the evidence. Indeed the attack on Coca-Cola could even be seen as a deliberate sting operation, softening the enemy and leaving it open to attack.

Setting the stage

In 2008, shareholders of Huiyuan, the biggest fruit and vegetable juice company in China, hired Goldman Sachs to find a buyer for the company. After months of due diligence, Coca-Cola made the highest offer at $2.4 billion. The deal was announced on 3rd September 2008, pending approval from China's Ministry of Commerce.

Two weeks later, Paul Etchells, then the deputy president of Coca-Cola's Pacific group, met officials from the US Embassy in Beijing and expressed confidence that the deal would clear China's internal antitrust review, according to a US State Department cable published by Wikileaks.

Amid this review, the company learned that its computer systems had been breached and sensitive deal information taken from the computer account of Etchells on March 3, 2009, according to the internal report on the attack. That investigation traced the breach back to an email that appeared in Etchells' in-box on 16th February 2009. The body of the email had contained a link to a file that purported to contain a message from the chief executive. By clicking on the link malware was surreptitiously loaded onto Etchells' machine, giving hackers full access to his computer through the Internet.

Etchell was not the only victim. According to the South China Morning Post, Brenda Lee, a Coca-Cola public affairs executive in China, was also sent a disguised malicious email on 13th March 2009. When she opened an attached file, malware was installed giving hackers access to her machine. Five days after the malicious e-mail landed in Lee's inbox and one month after Etchells' machine was compromised, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce rejected Coca-Cola's acquisition, citing antitrust grounds.

It is hard to believe the events surrounding the Huiyuan deal were a pure coincidence. Nonetheless even if the hacking attacks were not planned prior to a takeover deal being suggested, the phishing and other cyberattacks both in the past, and more recently reported, should be an important reminder to any individual or company doing business with the Middle Kingdom.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

North Korea less opaque but China obscured by smog

A little under two weeks after Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt visited North Korea, the search giant has made the country less opaque by filling in the detail on Google Maps.

Filling space

Before this week there was only a blank space between China and South Korea with few if any details on Google Maps. While Google's Map Maker gave access to North Korea's road and rail network, most users would not have been familiar with this. Now the search giant has taken the data, provided by enthusiastic but often amateur cartographers, and placed it on the main application.

In a blog Google said the map was built with the help of "a community of citizen cartographers" though it concedes that the map "is not perfect".

"Since 2008, Google Map Maker has enabled anyone with an interest in cartography to update the maps of the areas they know, and improve their level of detail and accuracy," Google says, "And because no map is perfect and in some parts of the world, map data is very limited, Map Maker is an increasingly important part of how we will build the modern map."

Google gave no clear explanation why it has only recently decided to shift the Map Maker data to the main application though it acknowledged that "people around the globe are fascinated with North Korea" and added that the maps were "especially important for the citizens of South Korea who have ancestral connections or still have family living there." [BBC / BBC / Daily Mail / Telegraph / Washington Post / Washington Post blog / Time].


The timing of the map's release is particularly interesting given last week's news of the discovery of further prison camps aided by Google Earth satellite imagery. Pyongyang insists that the camps do not exist and are merely foreign propaganda, but the advent of free high-resolution images from outer space have disproved such claims [Guardian / Telegraph / Telegraph blog / NKeconwatch].

Of course North Korea remains a country which is strictly controlled. Few if any citizens will be able to access the newly updated Google Maps, nor other foreign websites outside the country's Intranet.

Shifting attitudes

But some are beginning to see a gradual shift in the way the regime sees the outside world. less than two weeks ago rules were relaxed concerning foreigners using mobile phones in the country [BBC] . As a highly secretive and, some might say, paranoid regime, many items were barred. Some items were understandable such as weapons or narcotics. However GPS devices, cell phones and "publishings of all kinds" are listed on the customs declaration form.

Previously, all foreigners had to leave their mobiles at the border and collect them when they left. Visitors can now buy a SIM card at the airport, which will let them make international calls. However users of the SIM card cannot make local calls or go online.

How far the country will go in relaxing rules and begin opening up remains to be seen. There is still a great deal of suspicion concerning North Korea, especially as regards its nuclear ambition and constant rhetoric directed to South Korea.

"Unhelpful" visit

Even Eric Schmidt's visit was greeted with some concern by Washington who saw it as "unhelpful". The US state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "We don't think the timing of this is particularly helpful."
The reason for the trip was not revealed, though some reports suggested it was part of a humanitarian mission led by US politician Bill Richardson [BBC]. Speaking in Beijing before flying to Pyongyang, Richardson said the visit was "a private humanitarian mission" and that he planned to raise the case of a US citizen detained in North Korea [BBC].

Nonetheless, it seemed clear, given the inclusion of Eric Schmidt in the party, that the visit was as much a fact finding mission and a way to engage with the North Koreans.

"This is not a Google trip, but I'm sure he's interested in some of the economic issues there, the social media aspect. So this is why we are teamed up on this," Richardson said before the team departed.


The words became a little more political soon after the visit. Speaking after his visit to Pyongyang, Schmidt said North Korea would continue to lag economically unless it embraced Internet freedom.

Schmidt said he had been in Pyongyang to discuss a free and open Internet. "As the world becomes increasingly connected, their decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world, their economic growth and so forth, and it will make it harder for them to catch up economically," Schmidt said. "Once the Internet starts, citizens in a country can certainly build on top of it. The government has to do something. It has to make it possible for people to use the Internet which the government in North Korea has not yet done." [BBC / BBC / BBC]

"Very strange" journey

Other musings of the somewhat secretive visit came from Eric Schmidt's daughter Sophie who wrote about a "very, very strange" journey overseen by a pair of official minders, such that one could mind the other!

"It's impossible to know how much we can extrapolate from what we saw in Pyongyang to what the DPRK is really like," she wrote in an article posted on Google Sites. "Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments," the younger Schmidt wrote, though she noted that they "had zero interactions with non-state-approved North Koreans." [CNN / Telegraph]

In many ways her informal account was far more revealing, containing interesting anecdotes about their tour to the Grand People's Study House where they were taken through study rooms where people sat diligently at desks apparently oblivious of the contingent being shown around.

At the Kim Il Sung University e-Library no one appeared to be doing anything.  A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared at their computer screens. "More disturbing, when our group walked in, a noisy bunch, with media in tow, not one of them looked up from their desks," Schmidt observed.  "They might as well have been figurines."

Reflections of China

To the north of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as it is also referred to, is China. Despite having opened up to the West, China portrays some of the difficulties and challenges that Google and other Internet based services face with any new comer to the information superhighway.

While North Korea remains behind a virtual wall, and disconnected from the rest of the world, China too has yet to drop its tight grip on how the Internet is accessed. Many Internet users in China, sometimes referred to as Netizens, jokingly call China's Internet the largest LAN, Local Area Network, or Intranet.

China's Internet is not as restricted as North Korea, but there are a great many sites which are inaccessible unless a VPN or proxy network is used. Most western social networks are blocked by authorities including Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Foursquare, Tumblr and Posterous. Cloud solutions including picture sharing sites fall foul of the censors with Dropbox, Google Drive, Evernote, YouSendit, Scribd and many others blocked. Even news and information websites are often hammered by the censors. Bloomberg and Businessweek remain inaccessible after publishing a story about the financial interests of Xi Jinping's family [BBC / Guardian]. The New York Times also remains blocked following a report delving into Wen Jiabao's finances, something which China labelled a "smear" [BBC / Guardian].

Access to Wikipedia, the free online encyclopaedia  is often restricted, especially the Chinese language version. And even the IMDB, the Internet Movie Data Base, has seen repeated blocks [WhatBlocked].

Google targeted 

Google services have been continually singled out by Chinese censors [Guardian]. There is hardly a single service provided by the Internet giant that has not, at one time or another, been either blocked or restricted. Google search is currently available, though it can still throw up error messages. Meanwhile GMail, and especially Google Talk, are shaky at best for many users in China. Most other tools and services remain almost inaccessible.

One exception is Google Maps which, so far, has not been nobbled by the Great Firewall of China. However the mapping application does show a strange anomaly not seen anywhere else on the planet.

While the maps of China are extremely accurate, and a GPS signal shows in the correct location, there is an apparent discrepancy between the satellite imagery and the maps themselves, in that there is an offset between one image and the other of up to 600 metres. The issues have been seen and recorded by many individuals on blogs [Wangjianshuo / coljac] and forums some of which have poured scorn at Google's silence concerning the issue. Bizarrely the anomaly does not occur in the Chinese language version of the site.

Opaque air

Even with an accurate map, for residents of Beijing and other large cities in China, just finding their way across the street has been proving difficult due to the heavy smog that has descended once again.

China's media are now raising questions and some are calling for a clean air act [BBC / SohuSina / Xinhua]. Even Premier Wen Jiabao has called for action, though given he is likely to leave office in March any influence he might have had is debatable [WSJ].

Wen seemed concerned that the "Recent smoggy weather" was "affecting people's production and their health." However it is the effect on the economy that might kick-start any action. The acknowledgement of the problem has been half the battle. Even the official state news agency still refers to the thick haze of polluted air as 'fog' rather than 'smog' [Xinhua].

Black humour

The conditions have conjured up some gallows humour as Beijing citizens choke on the air, considered hazardous by UN standards. In at least one school playground there is a joke circulating among 10-year-olds; A Chinese man recently arrived in America visits the doctor. "Doctor, I feel unwell," the man says. "Where have you come from?" the doctor inquires. "Beijing," the man responds. "Breathe this," the doctor says, holding out a pipe attached to a car exhaust. "Thanks, I feel much better!" the man says [NYT blog].

The situation has become so serious that some workers are even wearing masks inside their offices. The smog was so thick on Tuesday that more than 50 flights were cancelled at Beijing Capital International Airport, causing chaos ahead of Chinese New Year. The pollution, and the widespread reporting is also likely to affect tourism.


China faces several challenges in this respect. In building its economy it has created the pollution, both through the wide use of coal-fired power stations and the increased number of cars. To make a transition to cleaner energy will take time, time that the country does not have.

By not acting health problems will increase, unrest could grow and the economy could be affected. But action could also slow the economy as any transition to other forms of energy would likely slow production [Sky News / Mirror / Guardian / Telegraph / Independent / NYT].

Curtailing unrest

For years, the Chinese government insisted on referring to the smog as 'fog' and released unrealistically low air-quality readings. Official data has become more reliable, though their hand was somewhat forced by the US Embassy @BeijingAir tweets which dish out hourly reports on the city's air quality.

The data, and more reliable information has of course increased the concern amongst Beijing's population, There is already a growing weariness amongst the general population, tired of being lied to and who are seeing one scandal after another. It is to stem this tide of unrest that Beijing is concerned about and why they see it as necessary to restrict the flow of information on the Internet.

For China the genie is almost out of the bottle. North Korea will face many of the same problems in the future if it too decides to open up. Should the walls and barriers do come down, and the doors to the so called Democratic Republic do open, the new Great Firewall will likely be built to control the flow of information to those allowed to take part in any technological future the country allows.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

An unending war against al-Qaeda

The west are slowly becoming drawn into what some have dubbed a never ending war against al-Qaeda and similarly inspired militant organisations. Such a war comes at a difficult time for the west. Already there is a sense of war fatigue after more than 10 years battling insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, and there is little public support for opening up a new front in another war on terror. Aside any public support, there is also concern amongst legislators and politicians. 

Many countries are still trying to drag themselves from an economic slump brought about after nearly 5 years of recession. It is a difficult balancing act. Ignoring the growing insurgency in Africa may open many western countries to attack as al-Qaeda inspired groups strengthen. But to take on these groups on the ground could itself stir up an even larger hornets nest.

Tipping point

The tipping point for western intervention was the Algeria hostage crisis, which some see as being precipitated by French forces attempting the rescue of a number of its nationals who were being held hostages in neighbouring Mali.

Apportioning blame on the French or Algerian authorities, who launched a rescue mission at the gas plant, has been dismissed by many commentators. The British Prime Minister weighed in saying that the only people responsible for the deaths in the Algerian hostage crisis were the terrorists themselves.

Cowardly attacks

"The responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists who launched these vicious and cowardly attacks," David Cameron said shortly after it was reported that up to 6 Britons were amongst 37 hostages killed following the four-day siege at a gas plant in the Sahara desert.

A total of 29 militants were killed, but an unknown number may have escaped or be regrouping to plan further attacks on western interests.

There were 800 employees on the site when it was attacked, 135 of them foreigners. At least 40 were taken hostage and 12 killed, with a further 20 feared dead. Three Britons have been confirmed dead and three more, along with one Colombian-born British resident, are also thought to have been killed. The US said three Americans had died, meanwhile Japan's prime minister confirmed that seven Japanese people had been killed in the raid.

Claims of responsibility

Al-Qaeda-backed insurgent and kidnapping kingpin Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed responsibility for the Algeria attacks and warned of further attacks on western interests if military action in Mali did not cease.

France is continuing its mission to track down insurgents with at least 2,000 troops on the ground. Britain has already committed its support to the 2,000 French forces that are continuing to battle Islamic insurgents, though the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said there were "no plans to deploy troops."

Military cutbacks

In fact such deployments might prove more difficult in the future after it was announced Tuesday that some 5,300 soldiers were to be cut from Britain's armed forces.

"Defence like all areas of government must live within its means," Mark Francois, Britain's Defence Minister, said in parliament [BBC]. The statement came only a day after David Cameron praised the British military for their role in Afghanistan.

The news of cuts has been treated with dismay from military circles. General Sir Mike Jackson, retired, aired his concerns when speaking on Sky News saying, "This world is volatile and sadly it seems to me to be becoming more volatile."


There certainly appeared to be a series of contradictions with the Prime Minister talking of a war on terror that could last decades while his government spoke of cutting military spending and resources.

"This is a global threat and it will require a global response," David Cameron insisted. "It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months."

"It requires a response that is patient and painstaking, that is tough but also intelligent, but above all has an absolutely iron resolve and that is what we will deliver over these coming years," he added.

Questionable support

Even if Britain is committed to to taking on Islamic insurgents, support may not be forthcoming from other allies. President Obama indicated he wanted to put the last decade of war behind and look forward to building America's economy. Speaking after his inauguration he said, "a decade of war is ending" and "economic recovery has begun". It is unlikely that America would stomach decades of further conflict in Africa.

Any effort to curtail Islamic insurgency is already a belated response, according to some academics who say that the attack on the gas plant in Algeria should have been predicted. Mark Almond, a historian at Oriel College in Oxford, says the attack came as no surprise. Writing in the Daily Mail he says that the west have taken their eye off the ball when it comes to the growing insurgency in Africa which has spread from parts of the Middle East.

Growing threat

In fact it is no secret that Osama bin Laden began his jihad against the west in Africa. From 1991 to 1996, Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders were based in Sudan. And while the eyes of the west have diverted their attention towards Afghanistan, al-Qaeda have been reinforcing their bases across the Arab peninsula and northern Africa [al-Qaeda involvement in Africa].

In fact the attack seen recently sprang directly from a group allied with al-Qaeda. The Maghreb, more specifically, Algeria, Mauritania and Morocco, has been the subject of an insurgency since 2002 waged by the Islamist militia, Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or, GSPC. The GSPC has allied itself with the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb against the Algerian government. Mokhtar Belmokhtar played a prominent role in these organisations but has since formed and now runs his own jihadist group, the Islamist al-Mulathameen (Masked) Brigade, or al-Mua'qi'oon Biddam (Those who Sign with Blood) Brigade. Nonetheless he continues to pledge allegiance to al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri. His group is also allied with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, another Islamist militant group that had also split from al-Qaeda [BBC].

Complacency not an option

The attack on the gas facility was Belmokhtar's first big operation, showing that he remains influential despite his marginalisation within AQIM. It also clearly shows the threat from al-Qaeda and its associated groups remains just as high even some 12 years after 9/11. A major terror attack has not struck mainland Europe or America in over 7 years, though there have been several thwarted attacks.

The financial cost of taking on the terrorists is certainly high. Europe, including Britain, is still struggling through a recession and the US is only just seeing some signs of recovery. However the cost of complacency is likely to be much higher [BBC / CNN / Al Jazeera].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Helicopter crash prompts safety review

A helicopter crash in central London has prompted some to ask questions as to whether safety rules need to be tightened.

Two killed

Two people were killed and at least 12 others injured when a helicopter crashed into a crane near Vauxhall bridge and less than 300 metres from the MI5 spy headquarters. The crash happened at around 8 am in the height of the rush hour causing chaos on London's streets.

The accident occurred in heavy fog and witnesses described seeing a massive fireball after the AgustaWestland AW109 helicopter travelling from the Redhill Aerodrome hit a crane on the side of the St George Wharf development in 9 Elms Road, Vauxhall, London.


"It didn't hit the tower block itself, it hit the crane and then just came down in a fireball," witness Steve Carslake told BBC Five Live. "We ran round the corner. There was a great big lot of black smoke everywhere and there was a couple of cars."

"We heard someone was actually trapped in the car. We went to run towards the car and there was just a large explosion again." One video clip aired on Sky News showed a car in flames while a voice could be heard encouraging the occupant to vacate quickly.


Another witness Drew Lovell described the scene as "absolute carnage". "There was a guy walking towards me, he'd just made it through bridge and he was smouldering. He must have been thrown off the motorcycle. He was worried about his motorcycle as it was leaking oil on the floor," he said. "I tried to help him, his back was on fire, the back of his coat was melted."

A nearby shop worker had run to help the injured said the scene was like a battlefield. "It felt like a war movie, it was surreal," said Mark Osbourne, who works at Metropolis Motorcycles, a shop close to the scene of the crash [BBC].

Pilot named

The helicopter [registration G-CRST] was owned by Castle Air of Cornwall and leased to RotorMotion based in Redhill, Surrey. Their website later confirmed that one of their pilots Peter Barnes had been killed in the incident.

Captain Peter Barnes, aged 50 from the Reading area, had been flying with RotorMotion since it was established over 15 years ago. The company described him as "a very highly skilled pilot" with over 12,000 flying hours experience. "We are devastated by the loss of a highly valued colleague and very dear friend. Our thoughts and condolences are with Peter's wife and children," a statement posted by Captain Philip Amadeus, Chief Pilot and MD of RotorMotion, said.

During his career Barnes had flown with the Great North Air Ambulance service and worked on films including the wartime epic Saving Private Ryan and the James Bond film Die Another Day.

Safety questions

The helicopter had apparently deviated from its original flight plan from Redhill to Elstree due to the inclement weather and was heading to Battersea helipad when it struck the crane.

While flight restrictions are tight over London, some have called for even tighter regulations. In 1991, Kate Hoey, the Labour Member of Parliament for the Vauxhall constituency tabled a Ten Minute Rule Bill to tighten the rules on helicopter and heliport legislation, although the Bill was not successful in becoming law. After the incident she told BBC News there should be an "inquiry into the increasing numbers of helicopters flying around London". Despite the concerns such incidents are rare. The Civil Aviation Authority later said it was the first fatal helicopter accident in central London since their records began in 1976 [BBC].

News coverage

News of the crash was widely discussed on social media as well as the two main news networks in Britain, Sky News  and the BBC news channel. Eyewitnesses as well as the emergency services used Twitter to post pictures and updates concerning the accident.

Some of the most dramatic pictures came from people living and working close to the scene of the crash which showed streets in flames and wrecked vehicles [Twitter / Twitter / Twitter]

See also - Wikipedia / BBC / Sky News / CNN / The Sun / Mirror / Express / Daily Mail / Telegraph / Guardian / Independent / London Evening Standard

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Beijing air pollution hits all time high

The Chinese capital, Beijing, has been experiencing probably the worst air pollution for more than two decades, and the seriousness of the situation has begun to worry more than just expats. 

The situation was reflected across the country with 33 of some 74 cities being monitored showing readings of "hazardous" this weekend. But Beijing has been singled out as being one of the worst after pollution levels rose so significantly it was put at being 22 times the World Health Organisation's recommended average for the amounts of the smallest particles in the air, under 2.5 micrograms, the most dangerous size of pollutants.

In fact the level being measured at one point was almost twice the maximum levels on the World Health Organisation scale [].

Twitter was flooded with comments, mostly coming from expats using VPNs since the social network is blocked in China. Many referred to a reference made by the US Embassy's monitoring station which in November 2010 referred to the air quality as being 'crazy bad' [tvnewswatch: Twitpic / Guardian].  

The US embassy has infuriated the Chinese authorities by publishing the latest air quality measurements through its Twitter feed every hour, readings that expose that the official figures do not give a true picture.

In the past the @BeijingAir tweets did not give figures beyond the 500 scale set by the WHO. At that time the monitoring station did not post figures above 500 which is classed as "hazardous". As such the US Embassy merely stated that air pollution levels were "beyond index". However, recently air pollutant levels have been published showing numbers rising to as high as 755 [Twitter]. 

There has been much online debate as what to call such high levels of air pollution. Many referred back to the infamous 2010 tweet suggesting it be called "crazy crazy bad". Others described the air quality as "postapocalyptic," "terrifying" and "beyond belief." The New York Times described it quite accurately as being somewhat like an airport smoking room. The high levels would certainly prompt the question as to whether the WHO needed to redefine their labels, perhaps adding "extremely hazardous" and "life threatening" to the list.

Even Beijing authorities have acknowledged that the city pollution is having a detrimental effect on the population. In 2008 the birth defect rate rose again on previous years' figures in Beijing, mirroring increases elsewhere in the country, according to official government figures. According to Chinese officials Beijing saw a defect rate of 170 per 10,000 births in 2008, significantly higher than the global average [BBC].

The effects are experienced by people across all walks of life but it is the young who are particularly at risk. Outside Beijing's largest children's hospital one mother, surnamed Yu, told an ITN  reporter that she brought her daughter to see the doctors twice a month because of respiratory problems. "I am worried about my daughter, the air pollution is very bad and it definitely affects my daughter's health", she said. Other parents also aired their concerns. "I have to keep my son at home every day. He's so bored, but the air is so bad for children," one parent said. "Beijing is developing so fast there are so many cars on the streets, I would suggest if people don't have to drive they should not use their cars".

In fact it is Beijing's estimated five million cars and China's almost total reliance on coal-fired power, combined with cold weather and no wind, that is blamed for the appalling air. Authorities are beginning to recognise the seriousness of the situation and even Chinese media are now reporting on what was once a sensitive subject. Chinese television this week reported on the poor air quality and had a special page detailing the risks to health. But the subject of China's pollution problem remains an issue far more discussed in foreign media [Sky / BBC / CNN / Al Jazeera / Reuters / IBTimes / FT].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A week in technology news

There have been some interesting developments in the world of technology this week from security concerns to new technology that should make any tech geek happy.

Java risks

Java was labelled as being a high security risk and computer users were advised to disable the software in their browsers. Java has had a chequered history, being responsible for 50% of all cyber attacks last year in which hackers broke into computers by exploiting software bugs, according security organisation Kaspersky. Adobe Reader came second and was involved in 28% of all incidents. Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer were also cited as a security risk and were involved in about 3% of incidents, according to the survey [Reuters / BBC].

CES 2013

The biggest buzz of the week was the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas. As well as the quirky ideas such as the Happi Fork and giant robotic spiders, the show featured huge innovations in television display units.

4K was the buzz word as was OLED and 3D. 4K resolution is seen as the future of television though it will some time before content is made available for such hi-res displays. 3D has not taken off in a way that manufacturers would have liked and some have placed their bets on OLED screens. The cost of devices using such technology will be out of reach for most people however.

Google TV

For the average consumer the big announcement will likely be the release of smart televisions with Google TV built in. There are already many Internet capable televisions on sale now, but Google TV with its android operating system allows the installation of apps making access to the various video streaming a great deal more convenient.

TCL, a Chinese manufacturer, unveiled at the show a new TV and set-top box to be sold later this year in the US using the Google TV platform which recognizes who is watching in order to suggest potential programs [Business Insider / Engadget / MobileMag].

Another Chinese manufacturer, Hisense also showed off its line-up of televisions and Google TV devices. The company had taken over a large space where Microsoft - absent from this years show - usually stood. The XT780 line of Google TV-powered displays will be available in 55" and 65" models, and feature the same Android-based technology under the hood seen in other Google TV devices, such as Sony's Internet Player the NSZ-GS7  [Engadget / Android Central].

It wasn't just Chinese manufacturers that displayed their Google TV devices. During its press conference at CES 2013, LG announced its extended LG Google TV line-up that will include a total of seven models in five screen sizes, all scheduled for 2013. The new line-up also includes LG's new premium models with Cinema Screen design [Fudzilla].

Google has also confirmed that other major TV manufacturers will also be joining the fold. In a blog Google said that Samsung and Sony will reveal new Google TV powered products.

What is not entirely clear at this stage is whether the integrated sets will come to the UK and ship elsewhere outside the US. The first integrated sets were the Sony NSX range of smart TVs. However they are all now discontinued and were only available in the US. Sony's set top box is only available in the US and Britain.

Some fans of Google had hope that the Internet giant might team up with a television manufacturer to produce a Google Nexus TV, making the device a so-called pure Google device rather than integrating what many Android smartphone users see as bloatware added by device manufacturers [StreamingMedia / Vexithmedia]. 

Messenger killed off

Outside the CES there was the news that Microsoft was finally going to ditch its Instant Messenger service, integrating it with Skype. The software company have announced a date of March 2013 when Windows Live Messenger will be retired. Microsoft acquired Skype in late 2011 in a £5.4 billion takeover of the VoIP service [TechWeek / BBC].

Amazon launches AutoRip

There was several snippets of news concerning the retail giant Amazon who announced that it was adding all CD purchases of customers to their cloud music player. The AutoRip service automatically adds the MP3 version of the CD's tracks to the customer's Cloud Player, from which they can be streamed or downloaded. In essence, AutoRip gives customers access to the digital copy without having to convert that CD via their PC.

There were several voices of criticism however. The AutoRip service only applies to purchases made through the US version of the Amazon site. For UK customers, which were recently offered access to Amazon's Cloud Player only US purchases may show. And even some of those have not been made available [BBC].

While Amazon's offer might be applauded on one level, there are probably few people that will not have already ripped their CD collection for personal use by now given the common use of MP3 players. Amazon are trying to play catch-up with the likes of iTunes and Google Music with this offering, however it may prove to be just a useful extension to what people already have stored in the cloud rather than an exclusively used service. There are some who might benefit. If one had lost, sold or had discs stolen, the AutoRip service could be a Godsend [Pocket-Lint / Telegraph].

The AutoRip service did prompt some to suggest that Amazon should offer anyone who had bought a hard copy of a book a Kindle version of the same. Such an enterprise would prove far more useful. "Now that Amazon is giving people MP3s for the CDs they bought since 1998 (on Amazon) will they do the same for books?" asked one Twitter user. Such a possibility is unlikely given Amazon and other eBook providers ongoing war with publishers and authors over pricing.

Eroding anonymity

There are other issues revealed by the new service which are concerning to some. Writing in the Guardian Dan Gillmor says that the AutoRip service suddenly makes it clear how much a single company might know about an individual, their tastes in music, books, clothes and even more personal medical conditions.

"Onerous terms of service, a standard feature of today's internet, are related to another fundamental problem with all online buying – or, for that matter, anything you buy using a credit card anywhere," Gillmor says. "As giant companies create mega-databases of information about you and your purchases, and then hand them over (often for a fee) to governments and others who are interested in learning more about you and your habits, two things are happening: you and your data are becoming much less secure, and you are losing fundamental privacy rights."

In particular Gillmore is worried that companies like Amazon have knowledge bases containing lists of "books, movies, music and other brain-food that collectively say a great deal about who you are and what makes you tick."

"We need to create systems that allow anonymous purchasing in this new world – to recreate cash in a digital format or some other method to recreate anonymity," he suggests, and warns that if "cash and anonymous buying do disappear, so will a fundamental freedom, and we'll regret it in the end."

But it seems privacy is perhaps, less of a concern to many people now as it once used to be. As the digital soup becomes ever thicker, people appear to be unconcerned with sharing almost anything online through a growing number of social networks, or video and picture sharing websites.

Yet another smartphone

Much of this will be uploaded from a smartphone. And into an already saturated market there was a new entry unveiled, that of a device running Mozilla's Firefox OS. The phones are expected to be launched in Europe in 2013. Chinese phone-equipment maker ZTE said it was working with a European wireless carrier to sell the phones and was looking carefully at the US market. However with Android controlling three-quarters of the share in shipments in the smartphone market, a phone running on Firefox OS is unlikely to make a huge impact. Nonetheless some have forecast the device might capture 1% of the share of global smartphone shipments in 2013 [BBC].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, January 11, 2013

Severe hacking threat posed by Java

Millions of computer users around the world are vulnerable to a hacking threat due to a security flaw in the Java plugin. The so-called zero-day exploit leaves users of both PCs and Macs at risk and security experts are advising them to disable the software in their browser [FT].

Insecure mess

"Java is a mess. It's not secure," Jaime Blasco, Labs Manager with AlienVault Labs, told Reuters. "You have to disable it."

Java, which is installed on hundreds of millions of computers around the globe, is a computer language that enables programmers to write software using just one set of code that will run on virtually any type of computer.

It is used so that Web developers can make sites accessible from browsers running on Microsoft Corp Windows PCs or Macs from Apple Inc. Computer users access those programs through modules, or plugins, that run Java software on top of browsers such as Internet Explorer and Firefox.

However at least three computer security experts told Reuters on Thursday that computer users should disable those Java modules to protect themselves from attack.

Hackers' open season

"This is like open hunting season on consumers," said HD Moore, chief security officer with Rapid7, a company that helps businesses identify critical security vulnerabilities in their networks. Moore said machines running on Mac OS X, Linux or Windows all appear to be vulnerable to attack.

"The exploit is the same as the zero-day vulnerabilities we have been seeing in the past year in IE, Java and Flash," Blasco warned. "The hacker can virtually own your computer if you visit a malicious link thanks to this new vulnerability. At the moment, there is no patch for this vulnerability, so the only way to protect yourself is by disabling Java."

Slow response

There has been criticism that Oracle, which bought Java from Sun Microsystems in 2010, have been slow in updating flaws in its software. In April 2012 another zero-day exploit was identified but a patch was not released until late August [Sophos].

The slow release of patches and the fact that Java is less used than it used to be is prompting some to question whether they should uninstall the software altogether [Slate]. 

Business challenge

While some Internet users can get by without it many organizations do require Java, though there may be alternatives. However Marc Maiffret, chief technology officer with BeyondTrust, says that businesses may need to keep using Java to access some websites and Internet-based programs that run on the technology.

"The challenge is mainly for businesses, however, which have to use it for some applications," he said. "Oracle simply needs to do a lot more to secure Java and get their act together."

Risk to all systems

Cybercriminals exploit Java because it is multi-platform, capable of running on computers regardless of whether they are running Windows, Mac OS X or Linux. As a result it's not unusual for us to see malicious hackers use Java as an integral part of their attack before serving up an OS-specific payload. In early 2012 more than 600,000 Apple Macs were infected by the Flashback malware because of a Java security flaw [Sophos].

As regards the latest security threat there are reports that hackers are heavily exploiting the vulnerability [HotForSecurity]. The flaw was first identified by a French researcher who goes by the name Kafeine. In a post on his Malware Don't Need Coffee website, the researcher claimed that the latest version, Java 7 Update 10, was being exploited on a site that receives "hundreds of thousands of hits daily" and concluded that "this could be mayhem."

Government warnings

The vulnerability is certainly being taken seriously by more than technology bloggers. The US Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), which falls under the National Cyber Security Division of the Department of Homeland Security, issued a stark warning and advised users to disable the software in their browsers [TheNextWeb / Sophos].

The question over whether Java should be completely removed is difficult to answer. Like most problems in life, the answer isn't an easy yes or no. While most web browsing can be conducted without the need for Java, other sites are reliant upon it. The software is often used to allow users easily upload files to cloud storage websites such as ADrive. While it would be great to be rid of all unstable and risky software and plugins such as Adobe Flash, Shockwave and Java, due to the high use by many websites, users are stuck with them.  For now at least the best advice is to disable Java and hope that an update is forthcoming [InfoWorld].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

China attempts to rein in censorship protests

Perhaps fearing that protests over censorship and free speech could get out of hand, Chinese authorities have drawn up a tentative agreement to defuse a newsroom strike by Chinese journalists in southern China.

But despite some signs of appeasement in the south, in the capital Beijing there appeared to be indications that the anger spreading amongst journalists was not over. According to reports, Dai Zigeng, the publisher of the Beijing News and a Communist Party member, tendered his resignation on Tuesday night after propaganda officials forced the newspaper to publish a hardline editorial supporting government control of the media.

Censored editorials

Throughout the past week there have been peaceful by vocal protests outside the offices of the Southern Weekend, also known as the Southern Weekly, in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. Journalists had been angered by censorship of a new year editorial which had originally called for greater legal rights entitled "China's Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism" which ended up as a celebration of the government's achievements.


Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the paper's headquarters on Monday [7th January] holding placards demanding free speech. "Abandon press censorship. Chinese people want freedom!" one handwritten placard held by several protesters said. Another placard read, "I support freedom of speech. Stop censoring Southern Weekly". One demonstrator wore a face mask with the Chinese characters "避言套" [Bi Yan Tao] a phrase meaning 'prevent speech' which attracted the attention of police who demanded she remove it. Others held roses and white and yellow chrysanthemums, a flower of mourning in Chinese tradition.

Such protests will have unnerved Beijing, who will be concerned that the demonstrations could become something much larger. In early 2011 so-called Jasmine protests drew the ire of authorities which clamped down hard on activists and dissidents across the country [tvnewswatch: China's Jasmine Revolution quickly quashed / tvnewswatch: Heavy policing stops Beijing protests].

Government denials

In response to questions raised by foreign journalists about the Southern Weekend case, China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on January 4th that China upholds press freedom and "there is no so-called news censorship in China."

However, his words seemed somewhat hollow given that news of the Guangzhou protests were not being reported in Chinese media and any mention of the demonstration on Chinese micro-blogs were being heavily censored by authorities. Searches for "Southern Weekend" in Chinese [南方周末] brought up a familiar message saying that "In accordance with the relevant laws, regulations and policies, "Southern Weekend" search results are not displayed." [CaoNiMa / Link TV]


But with so many messages, pictures and video being posted online, it was clear authorities had to do something to slow the tide of dissent. Reports today suggest said that the provincial Communist Party chief, high-flier Hu Chunhua, had intervened to defuse the situation.

Foreigners blamed

On Tuesday, an editorial from the state-run Global Times blaming the incident on "activists outside the media industry" was republished on multiple news sites, the result, according to reports, of a government directive.

"It is clear that under the reality of China's current state of affairs, the country is unlikely to have the 'absolutely free media,'" the editorial said, and accused foreigners of "inciting some media to engage in confrontation." [Global Voices / Xinhua Chinese / Global Times English / Global Times English]

Growing dissent

But several major news portals carried a disclaimer saying they did not endorse the piece and a number of newspapers, including the Beijing News and Shanghai Morning News, declined to run the mandatory editorial, in an apparent show of solidarity to the journalists from the Southern Weekend.

Reports citing sources both from the paper's staff and people close to them said a deal to end the dispute was agreed on Tuesday evening. Thursday's edition would be published as normal and most staff would not be punished, a Reuters said. Other details of the agreement are not clear.


"The paper is coming out tomorrow, and the propaganda department is going to hold a meeting with staff about this tomorrow," said one journalist, who spoke Wednesday on the condition of anonymity. However there was still some anger amongst the journalists and reporters some of which said the details of the agreement remained unclear and suggested that the deal could fall apart [Telegraph / WSJ blog].

In fact while many people in China might feel emboldened by the calls for greater freedom, the status quo and monopoly of power is likely to continue. In an editorial published by the Global Times the paper said "the media cannot directly attack the nation's basic political system, because the basic political system is set out by the Constitution." In other words, The Communist Party wrote a Constitution that guarantees the Communist Party can never be challenged, thus the media must not question the Communist Party's monopoly on power.

The logical fallacy of circular reasoning was not lost on the many who posted critical and sarcastic messages on Chinese forums and micro-blogging sites.

More reports: BBC / Sky News / CNNTelegraphNYT / WSJ / Epoch Times / FT

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Monday, January 07, 2013

Is social media making us anti-social?

Has social media made people anti-social? Or has it improved the way people interact? With an ever increasing number of people seemingly permanently glued to the Internet or other electronic devices, some fear that technology is beginning to control people's behaviour. In short technology is controlling us rather than the other way round.

Less face to face interaction

Social media has "stopped students talking normally to each other," one teacher at a college in Maidstone suggested. "They will spend their time in lessons and spend their time trying to get on social media and as soon as there's a break they'll rush out and then spend the next hour talking on Facebook, not talking to each other," Jane Williams told the BBC programme You and Yours.

"They say they can't live without their phones," the teacher says of the students, whenever the subject is broached . "The say that they have to speak to other people and that's the only way to do it. But they're not speaking to the people with them."

And according to this teacher it's not just the students. The adults in the college were just as guilty of immersing themselves in the digital soup of social media.

"Some of my colleagues, if they have a problem with their husband or wife, or whatever, and they seem a bit moody, they say, 'I'll go on Facebook and see what's wrong with him because he will probably have written it there'."

Gaming addictions

So-called social gaming is also a problem for some. Parents have found their children drawn into online gaming using such modules as XBox Live and PS3 where they will play for hours with other players over the Internet. As well as the wasted hours spent on such activity there are financial risks. Credit card numbers have to be entered on signing up for such services, and parents have found themselves facing large credit card bills after their children bought 'points'.

Excluded from group

There have been some advantages with certain aspects of social media. Facebook has undoubtedly helped family members, separated by vast distances, connect and interact with each other.

This of course relies on all parties being on Facebook. The older members of a family can often find themselves excluded from the 'conversation' since fewer people within this age group are connected to the Internet, or even have a computer.

While there are a significant number of so-called 'silver-surfers'. there are in fact many above pensionable age who are becoming increasingly isolated and ignored as the world becomes more connected through the Internet.

For such individuals there are not only technical challenges but also costs. Even a modest computer will cost upwards of £200 and even the most basic of broadband packages will add at least the same again over the course of a year. For the elderly, struggling to pay bills and feed themselves on a meagre state pension, such extra costs cannot be justified, or are seen at the very least, as unnecessary luxuries.

Border restrictions

Cost and technical know how may not be the only obstacle. There are restrictions which cross borders too. China in particular creates many problems for people wishing to communicate between family inside the country and those who are living or working abroad. Nearly all foreign social media websites are blocked inside China, making it almost impossible for many in the country to keep abreast of what their foreign friends or relatives living abroad are doing.

Of course there are Chinese social media platforms, which are highly regulated and censored. However it is not so much the censorship which creates a problem, but the language and registration procedures. Any foreigner wishing to connect with their friends on RenRen, China's equivalent to Facebook, or Sina Weibo, China's answer to Twitter, will have to first have to navigate the Chinese language website. Real names are required, and an ID card number or passport number is also mandatory in many cases. Furthermore it is also often necessary to verify the opening of an account through the sending of an SMS text from a registered mobile phone number.

Such loops and obstacles often discourage foreigners from setting up accounts with Chinese social media sites, and as such China is somewhat isolated from the rest of the world, as is the rest of the world a little disconnected from China.

Educational concerns

But aside such border issues, in China as in the rest of the world, micro-blogging, Facebook-like sites and picture sharing sites are extremely popular, especially amongst the young. There are some advantages, as already highlighted, however there are fears from some experts that so-called smart phones are making children less smart.

Shortly before Christmas Google posted a few quaint festive pictures on its Google+ page. One showed a scene of a polar bear lazing in an armchair reading from a mobile phone, some mice on the floor gazing at a small screen on another device while Google's Android robot sat in another chair reading from its flagship Nexus 7 tablet computer.

Cute as the image was, there were some that were somewhat dismayed by picture. "I remember the days when families would talk around the fire while drinking eggnog. We would actually have conversations, talk about life, share stories and bond together," one Google+ user Ryan Brown posted. "Now its a generation of having your face in your phone, iPad and totally unaware of your surroundings or life itself."

"This picture makes me sad. Life is too short to have your time wasted on a laptop, cellphone or device. You'll regret it when your loved ones pass away, your sons and daughters grow up and you missed out, or possibly find yourself alone on the holidays due to your addiction to social media. Wake up and live life."

Family friction

There can't have been many families who did not feel just a little aggrieved this Christmas as kids sat around seemingly more interested in staring into a small black device while listening to music on an iPod. In some families there was undoubtedly friction and even rows as children failed to pull themselves away from their mobile devices.

Mobile and social media maybe the driving forces of the next wave of digital change, but these advances are reducing our attention spans and creating new dilemmas for the way we live and work, according to Nic Newman, a digital strategist and former BBC Future Media executive.

Control & risks

Increasing amounts of people's lives are being controlled by their mobile phones and other Internet connected devices. Bank cards, loyalty cards, travel cards and boarding passes are being sucked out of people's physical wallets and becoming integrated into smartphone software.

On the one hand this is driving convenience and greater transparency. But on the other hand, the implications of losing such a device has never been greater. And with smartphone theft on the rise the risks of identity theft and financial repercussions are all too great [BBC]. 

Even without such drastic situations occurring, there are a growing number of risks manifesting themselves through online activities. Newman expects a backlash surrounding issues of privacy and the selling of personal data.

Privacy concerns

Several popular social media websites have already been embroiled in rows with legislators and drawn criticism from users over what they do with information posted on these platforms. Facebook and Twitter in particular have angered many with terms and conditions that effectively hand over copyright of images posted on these social networks [Telegraph].

It is easy to suggest that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and that the old adage Caveat emptor, Latin for "Let the buyer beware", applies just as much in the use of such websites as the buying of physical products. However, when confronted by legalese running into more than 14,000 words in the case of Facebook, it is hardly surprising many simply hand over their rights to such companies.

This site attempts to simplify the process of informing Internet users about such pitfalls, summarising the good and bad terms in the extensive conditions put before users. Disturbingly many sites do not allow a user to entirely delete their account, and even where a user can deactivate or delete an account information may still be retained and used by the service in some cases.

Regaining control

Much comes down to control. As well as how users entrust an element of control to service providers, parents are also beginning to look at the way they control access to the Internet. Some tech savvy parents have implemented controls on their wireless router, programming it to switch on or off at certain times. With mobile data plans such intervention is of course somewhat fraught.

Some have gone further after becoming so frustrated with the way technology was interfering with family life. Susan Maushart decided to cut off her whole family from the Internet, banning mobile phones, TV and other tech inside the home. She wrote about her experiences and published a book entitled Winter of Our Disconnect.

The plus side was that her son took up the saxophone which had sat in a cupboard gathering dust for nearly two years, books and games were dusted off and the family interacted in a way they had not done for years.

Technology, and its use, can be a double edged coin. There are negative sides. Social media can take over people's lives. Many are guilty of plonking themselves of watching too much TV rather than getting out and meeting people, talking to each other. Even the use of mobile phones has become increasingly faceless as people prefer to send a text instead of actually making a phone call.

Advantages & disadvantages

There are advantages too. The Internet is a massive resource of information. One can learn almost anything through the online resources available. From Wikipedia to Open University courses, from BBC documentaries to educational YouTube videos, there is a varied and informative plethora of media.

Sadly many people let the Internet and technology control them rather than the other way round. Some studies appear to show that the benefits of technology outweigh the risks and that children without access to the Internet felt disadvantaged. Chris Davies of Oxford University says that a three year study indicated that there was no direct evidence to back up claims that students were not unnecessarily distracted by social media and other technology.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee's tweet to the world at the Olympics opening ceremony was a reminder that social networking is now a key part of our national culture. "This is for everyone" Berners-Lee posted, referring to his invention of the World Wide Web. The irony was, it is not quite everyone who has access. The Web is far from global, given many countries censor and block the Internet. Many do not have free access due to cost or geographical location. And for those with access there is a danger that we may become less connected to each other.

In the words of political philosopher Guy Debord, "In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation." see: The Society of the Spectacle

tvnewswatch, London. UK

Friday, January 04, 2013

Guns & drugs for sale online in China, reports

China has a thriving illegal trade of gun and drug running, at least according to a report in the New York Times published this week [ / SMH]. While the country reins in spurious content such as Internet porn, blocks political discussion and many foreign social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Google+,  it appears many individuals are openly selling firearms and drugs on the net.

Reporter Nicholas Kristof points to several Chinese sites which sell drugs, and apparently claim to deliver anywhere in mainland China. "Our company has delivery stations in every part of China," one Chinese-language website, complete with photographs of illegal narcotics, claims. "We offer 24-hour delivery service to your door, and we have long-term and consistent supplies. If you just make one phone call, we'll deliver to your hands in one to five hours."

Guns too are also available for a price, according to the article. A Type 54 semi-automatic Chinese military handgun could be bought for around  for $640 or 4,000 Chinese Yuan.

Scams & honey traps

Of course such sites could be scams or even honey traps set up by law enforcement. While such sites could be part of a sting operation to catch unsuspecting criminals, a scam set up by other criminals is far more likely.

Scamming is rife in China, yet gets little publicity and Internet users are not warned sufficiently enough about the dangers of phishing and other fraudulent activity.

Telephone scams

As recently as today it was reported that some 82 Taiwanese individuals appeared in a Taiwan court charged with carrying out telephone fraud activities on victims across mainland China. The 82 were amongst 400 people arrested for swindling millions of dollars from the elderly [ABC/CBN / GMA].

Posing as police officers or state prosecutors, the suspects would call their victims on the telephone claiming hackers had broken into the victims' bank accounts and scare them into transferring their savings into the gang's bank accounts.

In a separate incident ten defendants stood trial in a telephone fraud case last year accused of stealing nearly $4 million in a scam targeting people in China. The victims were told they had won the lottery but informed they had to pay $1,892 for insurance and necessary certificates and documents in order to receive the prize [China Daily].

Internet fraud

Internet fraud too is rising as more people go online to purchase goods. However few are aware of the risks and a growing number of people are finding themselves to to victims of fraud.

As of December 2012, there were around 500 million Chinese connected to the Internet and nearly 200 million of them have shopped online, according to a report by the China Electronic Commerce Association. However according to the CECA more than 60 million Internet users have been victims of fraud with at least 30.8 billion Chinese Yuan [£3 billion / $4.8 billion] stolen from unsuspecting shoppers.

Even mainstream sites have not proved to be entirely safe. According to statistics from Taobao, one of the most popular online shopping market places in China, they received more than 8.7 million complaints on goods bought on the website and levied more than 700,000 punishments on shop owners who were found in violation of its rules in 2011.

Accounts emptied

One Taobao user found her bank account emptied after making a simple purchase for her baby of only 146 Chinese Yuan [£15 / $23].  A 26-year-old mother in Taizhou, Jiangsu province, said she received a call from a woman claiming to be an after-sales service worker for the online shop shortly after her online purchase claiming that there had been a technical problem with her payment and asked to make the payment again, through another website.

"I knew little about paying online, so I believed her," Ge said. "I was told to input my ID card number and my bank account on a Web page." Minutes later the young mother received a text message notifying her that all of the money in her bank account, about 19,000 Chinese Yuan [£1,900 / $3,000], had been taken.

"I called the shop but they said they never called me or disclosed my information to others," she said. "It's all the savings for my family's past eight months," she said. "I called the police, but they said it is almost impossible to get my money back." [China Daily]

Risks and benefits

Of course there are many benefits to shopping online. Prices can be easily checked against different outlets, and with many payment methods there is at least some degree of protection.

Buying illegal products online might not be the safest of online activities however. While the purchase of a Type 54 semi-automatic Chinese military handgun for less than a $1,000 might appear to be a bargain it could result in more than one might have bargained for. Such a purchase could simply result in the delivery of the said item, no questions asked, and a debit of the posted amount. It could however result in an emptied bank account, a call from the police and a stiff prison sentence to boot.

Purchasing illegal items on the Internet is probably not the safest thing to do. Even in the West authorities have tracked individuals who illegally download music and child porn or post defamatory comments on social media websites.

The trail left behind through online activity is possible to follow and illegal activity can result in fines or even prison sentences. In countries like China the risks and penalties are much greater. Even if the reports of guns and drugs being on sale on the net in China could be substantiated, the risk posed is more likely to be felt by the customer than society.

tvnewswatch, London, UK