May 18, 2012
The New Cold War: Citizen Lab hacktivists, techies, human rights advocates and academics is leading the global charge for democracy in cyberspace
May 18, 2012
IN THAT nervous time after 9/11, many Western governments imposed draconian surveillance laws allowing them to eavesdrop on cyber-communications among suspected terrorist groups. The legislation attracted muted criticism in some corners; in 2002, Barack Obama, then an Illinois state senator, denounced the Bush administration’s Patriot Act as “unfair and unpatriotic.” But many techno-libertarians felt the scrutiny would prove irrelevant. They insisted the Internet had become too amorphous, too slippery, and too free to yield to the controlling impulses of the cyber-security complex in the United States and elsewhere.
As Ron Deibert pondered the implications of such measures —and the technologies required to enforce them — he felt far less sanguine about the Internet’s anarchic DNA. Deibert, director of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and the Canada Centre for Global Security, knew that many despotic regimes also collect and restrict information. “I was a little skeptical about the assumption that authoritarian governments wouldn’t be able to control the technology,” he says. In his view, it was only a matter of time before repressive regimes would begin to assert their power in cyberspace.
He was absolutely right.
The so-called war on terror did indeed give law enforcement officials in Western nations an excuse to bulk up their powers to use the Internet for tracking terrorists. For example, in 2009 the FBI arrested a man suspected of planning an al Qaeda attack on the New York subway system, based on evidence collected from his email correspondence and Internet searches (he was looking for suppliers of ingredients for explosives). But over the past several years, and especially since the Arab Spring uprisings, some of the world’s nastiest regimes have also built cyber-surveillance systems capable of minutely filtering web access while launching stealthy counter-strikes at social media–fuelled revolutions. China has built a national firewall to halt the flow of inconvenient digital information across its borders. Following the disputed 2009 election in Iran, the ruling regime arrested bloggers and imposed harsh sentences for criticizing the government online. And Syria, in addition to limiting its own citizens’ Internet access, has created a cyber-army manned by hacker soldiers who conduct electronic raids to deface or compromise foreign websites it deems hostile to the country’s leadership.
The irony is that some of the same IT systems that undergird the Internet’s liberating powers are being used to impose Orwellian restrictions of almost unprecedented reach. “Digital information can be easily tracked and traced, and then tied to specific individuals who themselves can be mapped in space and time with a degree of sophistication that would make the greatest tyrants of days past envious,” Deibert and his frequent collaborator Rafal Rohozinski note in a recent essay. “So, are these technologies of freedom or are they technologies of control? ”
The evidence, they say, reveals that we are in the throes of a new cold war, one being waged in the ethereal but indisputably contested terrain of cyberspace. While the Soviet–American conflict that simmered from the 1950s to the 1980s was marked by top secret nuclear arsenals and extensive spying, today’s global information war is an unseen, multi-dimensional conflict characterized by the use of the Internet for surveillance, control, espionage, fraud, theft, and cyberterrorism. The weapons are less explosive, but the stakes may be higher, thanks to the advent of enormously potent technologies that can disable crucial infrastructure, embarrass governments, and eradicate (or amplify) political protest.
Over the past decade, Citizen Lab, a research group focused on political power in cyberspace, has waded directly into this digital swamp. Its team of intrepid researchers — a far-flung network of advocacy-minded post-docs, human rights experts, and techies — has emerged as a kind of cyber–resistance movement. With Rohozinski and others, the lab co-founded OpenNet Initiative, a watchdog organization that has meticulously mapped efforts by dozens of repressive regimes to block access to social networking sites and those of human rights groups. Citizen Lab and OpenNet have also tracked the proliferation of web-filtering software developed by Western nations, first used by parents and educators to block inappropriate content, and now utilized by authoritarian states.
But the lab is more than just a monitor that “watches the watchers,” as Deibert likes to say. It has also quietly been helping hundreds of thousands of ordinary people living in repressive nations circumvent the silicon curtain erected by their own governments. At a time when regional economies rise or fall on the strength of innovative digital technologies (witness the wealth of Silicon Valley, and the role Nokia once played in Finland’s economy), the stakes could not be higher.
“The Internet is going through a major transformation,” says Deibert, an unkempt forty-seven-year-old with a jazz-style goatee. Billions of people in the developing world are now going online, thanks partly to the spread of web-enabled smart phones, but he surmises that their Internet experience may be far more circumscribed than the access Westerners enjoy. “We’re at a watershed moment when cyberspace could revert back to something much more tightly controlled,” he warns. “The things we take for granted can be quite fragile.”
CITIZEN LAB, which belongs to the Munk School of Global Affairs, is situated in a hushed, light-filled space on the secured third floor of a historical sandstone building on U of T’s northern fringe. The newly restored structure was once used by the university’s astronomy department, and the cylindrical turret that housed the telescope now serves as Citizen Lab’s most prized meeting room; this affords Deibert and company a rare 360-degree perspective on the downtown campus…
Under the shade of a tree at an Istanbul cafe, Suzan, a voluptuous woman in her 50s with dyed blond hair and a warm, generous smile, describes how she went from teenage bride to full-time sex worker.
Over several cups of Nescafé during the span of a humid summer afternoon, and backed by the brilliant blue of the Sea of Marmara, Suzan tells her story. As she talks, her cell phone rings nearly every 15 minutes. Customers, she explains. It’s a syncopation of male desire, hungry for her attention.
She was married off by her father at age 16, with only a primary-school education, and she left her alcoholic, gambling husband after having seven children with him, one of whom died in infancy. To support the remaining six, she tried everything: selling cheap clothes in a local market, working in a factory, waitressing at a tea garden. But her meager earnings didn’t cover school fees for six children. A chance meeting with a sex worker while waiting for a train convinced her it was time to switch careers.
Despite charging only $15 to $30 per client, she found she could make a decent living, particularly as she amassed a steady base of customers who liked and trusted her. Unlike other jobs, however, this one put her in the cross-hairs of the law. In the 20 years she has worked in this field, she has been fined by the police more times than she can count, and she has appeared in court more than 50 times. Four years ago, she spent six months in prison while police investigated her possible involvement with drugs and work with underage girls. They found evidence of neither and released her without charges.
Until then, Suzan had hidden her work from her children. But the six-month sentence compelled her to tell them where she was going — and why. In a voice clotted with emotion, she recalls how they comforted her during their weekly visits to the jail. “They told me, ‘It’s OK, Mom. You raised us, and you brought us bread. Can we come and talk to the judge? We can tell him how you were such a great mom,’” she says.
When the last of her children finishes school — after she has seen her youngest daughter graduate from college — she plans to leave the industry for good.
Istanbul is no Bangkok. Its sex trade is, for the most part, invisible. But sex work, both lawful and unlawful, has a long, distinguished history in Turkey that reaches back to the height of the Ottoman Empire. In the 21st century, however, it is quietly being swept away by an Islamist government whose desired image for Turkey — modern, pious, and upwardly mobile — leaves little room for the work of Suzan and her colleagues.
According to its Health Ministry, Turkey currently has 3,000 licensed sex workers, who work in 56 state-run brothels known as genel evler, or “general houses.” Unlicensed sex workers number 100,000 — more than 30 times as many — about half of whom are foreign. (Turkey is a destination for Eastern European women, known as “Natashas,” who either arrive voluntarily or are trafficked.)
Upon Suzan’s release from prison, she applied to open a government-licensed brothel of her own. “I was ready to pay my taxes,” she says. “I have a family; I know what it means to have a family. I don’t want to do this in an apartment building with families around, or in a car like I do now.”
Her application, however, was rejected. The stated reason was a “lack of space.” She is hardly alone. Over the last decade, as the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has steadily accumulated power, the number of licenses granted slowed to a trickle and in the past three years has ceased entirely.
The existing genel evler are also being closed or moved to urban peripheries. In some cities, it’s done with little fanfare. In others, grinning mayors hold triumphant news conferences in front of the rubble where the demolished den of sin once stood. For women like Suzan, the net result is the same: fewer places where they can work without fear of harassment, violence, and arrest.
Turkey has long straddled Europe and the Middle East — both politically and culturally — and the changing standards toward the sex trade are part and parcel of this larger identity crisis. If Turkey considers itself a European country, the policies on its books fall comfortably in line with neighbors such as Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain, where sex work is decriminalized or legal. But if Turkey sees itself as part of the Middle East, its policies toward prostitution become a jarring abnormality. Although the sex trade flourishes in the region — Iraqi women and girls engage in survival sex in Damascus and Amman; Eastern European women are trafficked into Dubai; older men from the Gulf take temporary child brides in Egypt — it does so exclusively in the shadows.
The regulation of sex work in Turkey was always been a murky affair. A 1909 government report noted that brothels located near an Istanbul police barracks had led to the corruption of the police. Generations later, the fetor of corruption still hung in the air. In the 1980s, an Armenian madam named Mathilde Manukyan operated half a dozen brothels in addition to substantial real estate holdings. Before her death in 2002, she was rumored to be one of Turkey’s biggest taxpayers, receiving annual prizes from the staunchly secular government for her contributions to the public coffers. But she was also said to employ underage girls, whose presence was blithely ignored by cops allegedly on her payroll.
Filiz Kargal, 35, says her husband sold her to Manukyan “for a bag full of money” when she was just 13 years old. They had been married three months. Sitting on a park bench in the working-class neighborhood of Sirinevler, with her hair tucked under a green kerchief, she describes Manukyan’s ruthlessly efficient enterprise.
Women worked from morning until night, she said, breaking only for lunch. The meal was another opportunity for profit: The women were forced to purchase it from a Manukyan-run canteen, mediocre food at inflated prices. Every few months, she and her colleagues were forced to sign papers stating they owed money to the brothel…
Canadian House Rules: Elizabeth May went to Ottawa to champion environmental issues. Now she is out is out to rescue the democratic process
May 18, 2012
OUR SCHEDULED forty-five-minute interview has stretched well past an hour, but Elizabeth May still has plenty to say. She launches into an answer, veers onto a different thought, sidesteps into another story, and just when I think she has lost the thread she grabs it and pulls it into a firmly knotted conclusion. Democracy, climate change, family, religion: we have covered a great deal of ground by the time her legislative assistant, Paul Noble, knocks on the door of the boardroom, two floors below her suite of offices in the Confederation Building, just west of Parliament Hill. Noble tells May that the Liberals won’t field anyone in the House of Commons today to speak to C-7, the Senate reform bill. If the New Democrats don’t fill their time either, and if she hustles over to the House, she could score a ten-minute speaking slot to address the Conservatives’ proposed reforms. Calling for a nine-year, non-renewable term limit for senators and an optional nominee selection process, the proposals fall short of the Green Party’s demand for an elected Senate, and May’s personal position that the legislative body should be abolished altogether.
May fires off instructions, asking Noble to dig up C-7 material, to click off her laptop but not close the lid until the lights are off, and to grab her green briefcase and her coat and come back in fifteen minutes. She manages to work in a please and thank you, but when the door shuts behind him she says, “This is how I talk to people; it’s terrible. I have to be very, very concise to save time.” At the appointed minute, Noble returns and they’re off, hopping onto a green minibus that shuttles MPs and political staffers between outlying office buildings and Parliament Hill. May clutches her coffee mug and calls out cheery greetings to fellow passengers from her seat near the front, while Noble perches near the back with her briefcase.
It’s a short ride to Centre Block. After quickly smoothing her hair and straightening her green jacket, which is adorned with an Officer of the Order of Canada pin, the fifty-seven-year-old Member of Parliament for Saanich–Gulf Islands, British Columbia, slips into the House of Commons, desk 309, up against the gold curtains in the back row. Parliamentary expert and Queen’s University professor emeritus Ned Franks once described the House as being much like the country it serves, “a vast sparsely populated tract dotted with isolated human settlements.” That image resonates this morning. May is stationed farthest from the Speaker, on the Opposition side, alongside the remains of the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois. Beyond her, the near-empty chamber is a study in perpetual slow motion. MPs drift in, address the House, chat with their seatmates, and then disappear. High above, the public galleries empty and refill, as late-November tourists wander through.
While she remains intent on the papers in front of her, her frequent glances at the Speaker make it clear she is listening. Being the Green Party leader doesn’t mean much without official party status. That would entitle her to a slate of privileges, including a research budget and automatic membership on committees. As it stands, she has equivalent status to an independent, limited by tightly prescribed protocols that govern, among other things, who speaks, in what order, and for how long. She can claim only one question per week during question period, the final slot. She comes last in the speech rotation when legislation is debated, sharing the spot with the four Bloc MPs.
Yet a particular freedom comes with being a lone Green. “I’m one of the few MPs who never has a prepared text for everything I do, because I don’t have a bunch of people telling me what I have to say,” she says. Blessed with an ability to absorb and retain large amounts of information, the former environmental lawyer and activist can pull complete speeches out of her head. “Without sounding arrogant,” she says, “I’m good on my feet.”
She also draws from her five years as the party leader without a seat, when she was a spectator in the House watching MPs’ often rambling speeches. That’s why she has a digital timer on her desk; what’s more, she keeps her voice pitched low. “When women raise their voices to be heard over the noise, they sound hysterical,” she says. “It’s a sexist world. If you lose control over your lower register, you’re going to be seen as a nut.” That attention to detail has paid off. Last September, when she was allotted less time than anticipated to address C-10, the omnibus crime bill that bundled Criminal Code amendments with a new act for victims of terrorism, she had to distill ten minutes’ worth of her argument against the amendments into two. She did it on the fly, in measured tones, without the Speaker having to cut her off.
A small victory, perhaps, but in politics form matters as much as substance, and since she is a House outlier her credibility — and that of her mission — depends on getting both right. Something is emanating from Ottawa these days, contributing to a sense that the way politics is practised is slightly off kilter. Blame it on hyper-partisanship left over from more than five years of minority governments. Attribute it to a governing party in a hurry to put its stamp on the country, testing the edge of power at the very same time as the Opposition parties, grappling with leadership and identity crises, are slamming up against their limitations. In May’s view, the parliamentary system’s integrity is being undermined by those who short-circuit its rules, and she has undertaken to defend it. It is an admirable quest; whether it is also futile remains unclear. In the meantime, she has by necessity recalibrated traditional measures of political achievement, such as policies developed and bills passed. While her party’s platform champions big ideas, including a fiscally responsible green economy and empowered citizens, in the day-to-day she works hard just to be heard.
On this day, she inserts herself into the debate whenever the Speaker gives her the nod. She weighs in on proposed amendments to the Employment Insurance Act, and comments on a question of privilege raised by Liberal MP Irwin Cotler about phone calls made to his constituents claiming that he was resigning. (As it turns out, the Conservative Party initiated those calls in Cotler’s coveted Mount Royal riding in Montreal.) May’s concern about such tactics will later be quoted in a Postmedia News article. When her slot in the speech rotation finally opens up at day’s end, the House has moved on from Senate reform. So much for all her preparations. Instead, she delivers a speech about Bill C-11, the Copyright Modernization Act. She’s for it, but with reservations about “digital locks,” or protection measures, which she feels go too far.
While she’s in the House, Noble functions as her eyes and ears on the outside, feeding information to her BlackBerry, ensuring she has what she needs should she be given the floor. In this case, over the space of approximately ten hours, she logs one speech, five questions, one remark on a question of privilege, and one quote published in the mainstream media. This is how success is measured when you’re a party of one in a majority government House. By that standard, Elizabeth May has had a very productive day.
NICKNAMED “the intern hatchery,” because of the number and relative youth of her staff, the suite assigned to May holds eight desks in a space meant for three. Only the large windows and high ceilings save it from taking on the air of a graduate student lounge. Her photos, many from her earlier activist days, dot the walls: there she is with Gordon Lightfoot in Brazil in 1989, protesting the Xingú River dam; and in another, several months later, next to Sting, whom she met at the Xingú protest. A folded wheelchair jammed up against the far end of the room, and her deliberate gait, are the only visible signs of her recent hip replacement surgery.