Monthly Coupon

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Pegasus spyware worries rights group


In neighbouring India, opposition Congress lawmakers in the Indian parliament are at loggerheads with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as anti-cybercrime firms report claims that opposition leader Rahul Gandhi was “interest to clients” by Pegasus spyware along with 300 politicians, journalists, human rights defenders, and government officials in India.

Recently, a consortium of 17 global media outlets published leaked reports stating that Pegasus spyware developed by the Israeli firm NSO was used to hack into the phones of thousands of people across the world.

The tsunami of global outrage sparked after non-profit journalism organization Forbidden Stories released a major new investigation into NSO Group on July 18. The investigation exposed widespread global targeting with the Pegasus spyware.

On request of Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, Canada-based Citizen Lab undertook an independent investigation based on forensic methodology. The forensic investigation reveals the dark surveillance market of spyware manufacturers used against “interest to clients.”

Allegations that mostly authoritarian governments used phone spyware or malware capable of spying on journalists, critics, opposition, and heads of state have “exposed a global human rights crisis,” according to Amnesty International.

Pegasus can access both Android phones and iPhones, keeping the user unaware of the secret surveillance. Data thieves stealthily retrieve call lists, SMS, contact lists, photos, and geo-location from phones without the knowledge of the user.

This is the world’s only organized secret surveillance -- a crime which pays back in huge cash. The spyware masters earn millions of dollars against installation, service charges, and other fees. Diving deep into the issue of spyware, it is indeed a very expensive electronic spy.

NSO comes from three founding members’ initial names in 2010. The firm employs 500 dedicated IT experts in command and control centres in the client’s hub. The small team of the former Israeli intelligence agency Mossad Special Unit produced the controversial product for clients mostly in authoritarian and despotic regimes in Latin America, Africa, Middle-East, South Asia, and beyond.

The NSO website describes that their company creates technology to help governments and agencies prevent terrorism, break up paedophilia on the dark web, and prevent sex trafficking, money laundering, drug trafficking, and other organized crimes across the globe.

In a naive statement, the NSO official website says that the spyware can help rescue missing or abducted children, survivors trapped under building collapses, and victims of natural disasters.

Besides Pegasus, there are four other known manufacturers which also produce spyware and provide services to clients. The other products in the surveillance market are Dropout Jeep, RCS Android, Exodus, and PG-GEO. Nevertheless, Pegasus is an all-in-one spyware and has reason for being expensive.

In 2020, media rights organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF) branded NSO Group as a “digital predator” and reiterated its aim to punish NSO for the cyber crimes which infringed on privacy and freedom of speech.

In the United States and Pakistan, Cambridge Analytica misused intimate personal Facebook data to micro-target and influence swing voters in the last elections of Donald Trump, and Imran Khan’s in Pakistan.

It was alarming for civil society, when Amnesty launched a ground-breaking report in November 2019 on how the surveillance-based business models of companies like Facebook and Google undermine fundamental rights, including the right to privacy and freedom of expression.

Nonetheless, rights organizations expressed a clear danger for freedom of opinion and expression, especially preying on journalism, which is guaranteed by article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Rights groups around the world called for accountability in spyware sales and urged nations to wake up to a responsible international standard for snooping.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 27 July 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at; Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Digital waste threatens public health


In Bangladesh, a lack of policy, awareness, and enforcement of e-waste management threatens human health and the environment.

E-waste, or electronic waste, is created from affordable digital technology, home appliances, and also refrigerators and air-conditioners, which are no longer deemed luxury goods.

The quality of products is deliberately compromised to keep the price competitive. The compromise in the quality of products, mostly from Chinese sources to meet the demand of the new generation’s consumers, has dramatically increased the sale of electronic products, which have engulfed both urban and rural life like an octopus. Digital life has penetrated deep among both rich and poor communities and cut across all professions.

Technology has shown unprecedented growth in application in the social and economic landscape -- like delivering trade and public services, harnessing financial inclusion and e-commerce, and supporting marginalized groups and communities.

According to Bangladesh Electronic Machinery Marketing Association (BEMMA), the country consumes around 3.2 million tonnes of electronic products each year.

Dr Shahriar Hossain, General Secretary of the Environmental and Social Development Organization (ESDO) says that every year, 2.8 million metric tons of e-waste is generated in Bangladesh. An estimated 20% to 30% is recycled and the rest is dumped as obsolete in open places, which is hazardous to human health and the environment.

The major challenge is the management of e-waste, which contains toxic materials such as lead, mercury, copper, cadmium, beryllium, barium, and others. It threatens public health and the environment. E-waste also contributes to climate change by releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) during the recycling of e-waste.

Bangladesh has opened up imports of cheap digital devices to complement its political vision of Digital Bangladesh by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The vision demands that the vicious cycle of the digital divide be broken. Simultaneously, it wants to enhance its potential in key development sectors like education, health, communication, and other areas.

The plan envisages to ensure transparency and accountability to strengthen democracy and keep corruption in check. Apparently, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel in enabling zero-tolerance in corruption.

The vision inspired private and public agencies to promote mass utilization of digital devices, which has also increased the volume of e-waste from 2.81 million tons in 2009 to 12 million tons in 2019.

The informal sector of e-waste collection is from the consumer’s end. Some reusable metals are crudely extracted and the rest are dumped into landfills, farmlands, and open water bodies. Unregulated by government agencies, informal e-waste recycling has created jobs for 30 million children and women, who are exposed to hazardous substances.

Despite Bangladesh being a signatory to the Basel Convention on Trans-Boundary Movements of Hazardous Waste, there is no specific environmental policy, law, or guideline to regulate e-waste management. A draft regulation on “E-Waste Management Rules” was developed and amended in 2011 and 2017 respectively under the Environment Conservation Act, 1995, but regrettably, no progress is visible.

Sadly, there is no mention in the rules to trade-off e-waste and its management.

Ahmed Swapan Mahmud, executive director of Voices for Interactive Choice and Empowerment (VOICE), compared e-waste to “slow poison” and said that the damage to the environment and public health is permanent.

The environmental consequence, as well as the emission factors of millions of tons of e-waste, is largely unknown by government agencies. 

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 20 July 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at; Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Military hawks gives sermons to Pakistan lawmakers

Is a rogue spy agency calling the shots in Pakistan?


Pakistan is possibly the only country in South Asia where military hawks nesting in Rawalpindi GHQ give sermons to lawmakers and legislators in Islamabad on how to desist from engaging in divisive politics on issues of national interest.

Earlier this month, Pakistan’s Parliamentary Committee on National Security was debriefed on the prevailing situation in the country and region by no less than the director-general of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed.

Pakistan’s rogue spy agency is calling the shots in Pakistan. The “Pakistan Military Incorporated” flexes its muscles because of the extra-constitutional powers that it has illegally appropriated over all the state organs, including the judiciary.

What the ISI chief said undoubtedly makes perfect sense, but his discourse on political correctness to legislators has raised eyebrows among the civil society, independent media, and rights groups.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan -- with his election promise for “Naya Pakistan” -- has swallowed his nerve to speak out against the Rawalpindi GHQ hawks. His “wahi” (sermons) come from the military bigwigs and not from his civil or political advisers. 

He seems to have lost confidence in the politicians and legislators from the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The wings of the party leaders were cropped, and their beaks waxed to stop them from chirping in satisfaction of Rawalpindi.

Political observers argue that Khan, the cricketer turned politician, is backed by the military, and that the hawks engineered the July 2018 elections and installed a puppet regime of PTI. Meanwhile, the PTI politicians snorted against military hegemony, but would not dare blow the gaff.

Pakistan’s premier English newspaper The Dawn underwent legal harassment and intimidation by the dreaded spy agency ISI, after a news story in October 2016 appeared on the front page: “Act against militants or face international isolation, civilians tell [the] military,” reflecting the anger of the civil society and rights groups.

The outcry of civil society is weak but revealed that Rawalpindi’s hawks have continued patronage to jihadist terror networks, fanning conflicts by Islamist militants in neighbouring countries -- Afghanistan and India.

Pakistan has failed to block the military hawks from aiding and abetting jihad in neighbouring countries and elsewhere. Thus, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog refused to remove Pakistan from its grey watchlist because the country had not been vigorous enough in the prosecution of United Nations-designated terrorists.

Greylisting carries no legal sanctions but restricts a country’s access to international loans. A top Pakistan official estimated that the greylisting cost his country’s economy $10 billion annually.

The meddling of the spy agency in politics, civil administration, and the judiciary has gone so far that Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, a senior sitting judge of Islamabad High Court, was sacked within three months of having spilled the beans. He admitted that the “Judiciary [in Pakistan] is not independent … the ISI forms benches of its choice to get desired results.”

A Supreme Court judgment two years ago by Justice Qazi Faez Isa reminded that: “The Constitution emphatically prohibits members of the armed forces from engaging in any kind of political activity, which includes supporting a political party, faction, or individual.”

On the other hand, the cash crunch is pushing Pakistan on the verge of a failed state. Independent think tanks have warned that Pakistan will turn into a pariah state if the interference of the military hawks continues.

To salvage the nation from an economic crisis during the coronavirus pandemic, Khan has had to reach out to his all-weather friend China to repay the second instalment of $1 billion out of the $3 billion owed to Saudi Arabia.

Khan is widely dubbed as a populist and appears to reinforce a widespread traditionalist attitude that rejects religious tolerance, as well as the rights of women and ethnic minorities.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 13 July 2021

Saleem Samad, is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at; Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Vaccines are the key to sustainability

Without increasing vaccinations, we cannot restore economic stability


Print and electronic media, coupled with social media, have unfortunately contributed to creating disinformation and fake news on the ongoing pandemic crisis, medical treatment, and vaccines.

Researchers on media monitoring on fake news argue that media has often fallen prey to misinformation and rumours about coronavirus and vaccines, especially when the newsroom gatekeepers failed to fact-check within the stipulated deadline.

In this tsunami-like pandemic from east to west, north to south in early 2020, the doctors, physicians, and even virologists and epidemiologists -- who were indeed the prime source for newsroom scribes -- initially gave confusing and contradictory sermons coated with medical jargon, which regrettably incited fake news, based on disinformation.

Despite hosts of myths being busted by the World Health Organization (WHO), both the frontline health care doctors and journalists kept their ears, eyes, and minds shut to myth-busters, like the three wise monkeys in folklore.

Sermons like hot water baths, drinking tea or hot water with traditional spices, eating garlic or peppers in food, application of hydroxychloroquine or malarial drugs, vitamin and mineral supplements, administration of antibiotics, exposure to the sun, and hosts of other remedies failed to prevent the deadly infection.

Leading epidemiologist Dr Mushtuq Husain explained that coronavirus is caused by a deadly virus, and is not a bacteria. There are several scientific studies to prove that vaccines do not compromise natural immunity, he also remarked.

Meanwhile, WHO reiterates that everybody should wear masks, especially in crowds indoors, but the United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks to protect themselves from the virus.

The scientific statement was also validated by John Hopkins University, Oxford University, and Delhi-based CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, where researchers are spending sleepless nights to conclude that the efficacy and immunity of vaccinated people are protected even from new variants.

Virus experts and epidemiologists also offer mixed advice, but largely agree on one point: Whether or not a fully vaccinated person needs to wear a mask.

Well, mask mandates are intended to protect the unvaccinated -- people who are vaccinated are already well-protected by vaccines, and infection by new variants is still very rare.

It was logically argued that since a person cannot tell who is vaccinated and who is not, the best would be to advise all to wear a mask, which can help stop the spread of the virus by people who are infected, especially those who don’t have any symptoms.

Bangladesh was initially bogged down in the vaccine divide while procuring vaccines. Finally, the government has been able to negotiate with countries and pharmaceutical industries for a reasonable quantity of vaccines.

Despite the emergence of vaccines, the experts have strongly argued that the coronavirus is here to stay for a long period; the world has to embrace the new normal. On the other hand, experts conclude that vaccines are the key to restoring economic stability.

Leading economists in the country advise that accelerating the vaccine’s distribution will be necessary before the economy sees any long-lasting improvement. They strongly disagree that countering the lockdown in a pandemic with a stimulus is the wrong approach to economic recovery.

“We have to get enough vaccinations to enable people to feel comfortable in social settings. That’s the key to getting back to normal; then only would we have a great 2021,” observed top economist Dr Hossain Zillur, who has recently conducted an intensive study on the pandemic and its impact on disadvantaged populations.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 6 July 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at; Twitter @saleemsamad