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Going incognito with VPNs in the age of surveillance

Virtual Private Networks first came into use in 1996 and are among the most enduring innovations in online browsing with popularity on the rise around the world.

VPNs were originally developed as tools for corporations and governments to connect their offices in different countries, to make it easier for people to work together.

But as surveillance and control of the web have increased, a market has emerged and expanded – for people to work around internet blocks and to hide their location online.

Particularly popular in countries with authoritarian tendencies, such as Iran, China and Turkey, VPNs are now getting downloaded in more countries like Sri Lanka, across the Gulf, as well as the United States, as data theft, online tracking and web blocking grow increasingly common.

“During the protests in Sudan, the authorities issued an internet shutdown and a lot of people were using VPNs to circumvent this censorship,” Melody Patry, advocacy director for Access Now, tells Al Jazeera. “It really enabled thousands and thousands of people to have access to social media to share pictures, videos to communicate between each other but also with the world about what was going on in the country.”

Beyond the use of VPNs by activists and journalists keen to spread information outside of a country, the networks also enable users to pursue a diverse array of interests and even to flout the law.

“You’ll have more ordinary users who just want to watch pornography or sports. And people do that all the time,” Joseph Cox, cybersecurity journalist with Vice, points out. “I don’t know if it’s a legitimate use for VPNs – obviously some will skirt legality – but people use VPNs for all different sorts of reasons.”

Over the last few years, the number of VPN services has boomed. Nord VPN, Hotspot Shield, ExpressVPN, Tunnel Bear and CyberGhost are just a few of the most popular names on the market.

According to Harold Li, vice-president of Express VPN, VPNs used to be challenging to set up but now it is just a matter of downloading an app. He argues privacy and security are not luxuries now, so “VPNs are no more luxury than having a door a lock on your front door”.

Countries like Indonesia and Turkey rack up some of the highest numbers of software downloads. But the jump in usage of VPNs has not gone unnoticed by authorities. In countries like Belarus, Iran, Oman and Russia for instance, VPNs are subject to heavy restrictions and there are even some laws in place banning them.

Yaman Akdeniz, associate professor at the Istanbul Bilgi University, notes that VPN usage in Turkey is not criminalised but recently the country amended its internet law permitting authorities to request access blocking VPN services.

“Several of these well-known VPN services are inaccessible from Turkey and if you manage to access their websites and have an account with them, then they don’t work,” he says.

In China, authorities aren’t just blocking foreign VPN services, they have also been pushing the use of state-approved and locally-created VPNs that guarantee neither privacy nor anonymity – leaving many people exposed.

“When it comes to government and state blocks, that is something that we’ve been seeing all around the world for the past decade,” says Li. “And we expect that will only continue to increase.”


Harold Li – vice president, ExpressVPN

Melody Patry – advocacy director, Access Now

Yaman Akdeniz – associate professor, Istanbul Bilgi University & Founder & Director, Cyber-Rights.Org

Joseph Cox – cybersecurity journalist, Vice

Source: Aljazeera

UK scientists look for sustainable ways of raising livestock

Some climate change experts argue that a vegetarian diet is key to protecting the environment.

Sheep and cows produce methane gas – a toxic substance – and graze on land that could be used to grow crops.

But some scientists at a research centre in the UK disagree and are looking at sustainable ways of raising livestock.

Source: Aljazeera

Anti-corruption hero or villain? Brazil's Moro and the media

Money laundering, bribery and corruption at Brazil’s state-owned energy company Petrobras are just some of the crimes uncovered in the biggest political corruption scandal in the country’s history. Back in 2014, the judge appointed to preside over the Car Wash investigation, also known as Lava Jato, was Sergio Moro.

It resulted in the arrest of hundreds of politicians and business figures, led to the fall of one President – Dilma Rousseff – and landed another former President – Lula Da Silva – behind bars.

Moro was lionised by Brazil’s mostly right-wing media – TV channels like Globo and Record, and magazines like Veja. And a few years later, when far-right Jair Bolsonaro was elected Brazil’s leader, he selected Moro as his justice and public security minister.

But now Moro is facing a scandal of his own which demolishes his reputation as an anti-corruption crusader, scrubbing Brazil clean of corruption. The Intercept Brasil published a series of exposes from text messages they obtained showing Moro’s communication with prosecutors that indicate he was conspiring with them, rather than being an impartial judge.

“The most important revelation is that Sergio Moro was in cahoots with the prosecution. It’s entirely forbidden to have a judge who is in constant conversation with the prosecution in order to arrange outcomes,” Joao Feres, a professor with Rio de Janeiro State University, tells Al Jazeera.

The messages also appear to confirm the suspicion that – throughout the Car Wash investigation – Moro and the prosecution were trying to manipulate press coverage to turn it against members of the leftist PT party and to pave the way for Bolsonaro.

“What this whole Lava Jato campaign as a media campaign produced was a devaluation of institutional politics, of party politics in Brazil to a degree in which the electorate became so sceptical that in the end, they elected extreme right-wing outsider Bolsonaro. So Bolsonaro and his election should be seen as a product of this long campaign against institutional politics,” adds Feres.

But not all media outlets followed up on The Intercept Brasil’s reporting alleging Moro’s collusion with prosecutors.

“In Brazil, there exists a section of right-wing media that invested a lot in the Car Wash story and there is no way they will ever let go of this narrative,” says Alexandre Santi, deputy editor at The Intercept Brasil, who noted, on the other hand, the reaction of many international news outlets to their expose on Moro was “incredible”.

The country’s most powerful broadcaster, Globo, focused on the legalities of The Intercept Brasil’s journalism rather than the content. This past Wednesday, a judge ordered the arrest of four people on charges of hacking Moro’s phone.

In a comment to Al Jazeera, Globo defended its stance: “It would be considered bad journalism in any part of the world, including in Qatar, to ignore that the cellphones of the authorities were hacked.”

“In a story of such magnitude as #VazaJato, which involves the hacking of several authorities – including the most famous judge in Brazil, the current minister of justice, the biggest news I believe is not the content of the alleged conversations but rather the hacking of these conversations. This is very serious,” says Rodrigo Constantino, a columnist with Brazil’s Gazeta do Povo.

But back in March of 2016, when Moro released a tape of a private phone call between Dilma Rousseff and Lula Da Silva, Globo was less concerned about the journalistic ethics. It ran with that story, as did Veja and many other Brazilian news outlets.

“Much more serious was when Moro leaked a conversation between presidents; this was not in the public interest,” says Carolina Matos, a media scholar at City University. “Moro had the chance of a lifetime to go down in history as someone who has combated corruption. You had all the power at your disposal … all the media attention … all the public support. And, no, instead of that, you chose a political project. You chose to align yourself to a particular group.”


Alexandre de Santi – deputy editor, The Intercept Brasil

Joao Feres Jr – professor of political science, Rio de Janeiro State University

Rodrigo Constantino – columnist, Gazeta do Povo

Carolina Matos – media scholar, City University of London

Source: Aljazeera

Iraq's oil and gas industry aims to be energy independent

Years of war and instability have damaged Iraq’s gas and oil infrastructure, leaving it dependent on energy imports, despite having huge reserves.

Now it wants to turn that around, with help from overseas investment.

Source: Aljazeera

Intra-Afghan negotiations to follow US-Taliban deal: Khalilzad

The Taliban has been holding peace talks with the US for nearly a year [File: Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Direct talks between the Taliban and an Afghan negotiating team that will include top government officials will take place after the United States concludes its own “agreements” with the group, according to the US special envoy for Afghanistan.

The comments by Zalmay Khalilzad on Sunday came after Abdul Salam Rahimi, Afghanistan’s state minister for peace affairs, said that a 15-member government delegation would meet the Taliban within the next fortnight in Europe, without elaborating.

“We are preparing for direct talks. We are working with all sides and hope that in the next two weeks the first meeting will take place in a European country,” Rahimi said in a video message published on Saturday.

Khalilzad, who is currently visiting Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, said later on Twitter that the “intra-Afghan” talks would include the Taliban and “an inclusive and effective national negotiating team consisting of senior government officials, key political party representatives, civil society and women”.

Zabihullah Mujahid, Taliban spokesman, confirmed Khalilzad’s comments, telling AFP news agency any new talks would only begin after a deal had been forged with the US, and he reiterated the armed group’s long-held position that they would “not talk to the Kabul administration as a government”.

“Intra-Afghan talks will start only after a foreign force withdrawal is announced,” said Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar.

The Taliban has been holding peace talks with the US for nearly a year, but refused to meet with the government, viewing it as a US puppet.

The eighth round of US-Taliban talks will take place next week in Qatar’s capital, Doha, aiming to end the near 18-year military involvement of the US in Afghanistan.

Washington has said it wants to see a deal inked by September 1, but any deal requires the Taliban to talk to Kabul.

‘Now is the time’

Diplomatic sources told AFP the talks were scheduled to begin in Norway’s capital Oslo on August 7.

The sources also said the international community and the Afghan government were still awaiting word from the Taliban.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agreed in a telephone conversation on Wednesday that “now is the time to accelerate efforts to reach a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan”, according to a joint statement.

Habib Wardak, a lecturer of government and politics at Kardan University in Afghanistan, told Al Jazeera from Kabul that “the government feels left out” as the Taliban holds talks with the US.

“As he seeks reelection for another five years, President Ghani wanted to show that peace has some level of priority, not just the elections. I think that was the whole point of it [the direct talks announcement],” he said.

Meanwhile, the war continues to flare across Afghanistan, with the Taliban, the US and Afghan forces all fighting at an increased tempo.

At least three police officers were killed and a dozen more were wounded on Saturday when a Taliban suicide bomber drove an explosives-packed, US-made armoured vehicle into a compound in eastern Afghanistan, officials said.

Source: Aljazeera

Landslide at Myanmar jade mine kills more than a dozen

People stand atop a ridge overlooking the scene of a mudslide at a jade mine that killed 50 people in April [File: Zaw Moe Htet/AP]

A landslide at a Myanmar jade mine has killed at least 14 people including a policeman, authorities said, as rescuers frantically searched for more victims.

The accident happened early on Sunday in Hpakant township in the northern Kachin state, Myanmar’s fire service said in a Facebook post. The jade hub in Hpakant is frequently hit by deadly accidents, despite government pledges to clean up the lucrative mining industry.

Than Win Aung, the police chief in the area, told Reuters news agency that 14 bodies had been recovered following the accident. Four people – two of them policemen who were guarding the mining site – were missing and feared dead.

One policeman was confirmed dead, he said. 

“We were able to rescue two members of the police who only injured their heads, and sent them to hospital,” he said.

The government has ordered all mining activity in Hpakant to cease during Myanmar’s May-October monsoon season, but people in the area say scavengers still scour tailings – the residue from mining – for jade.

“The companies aren’t operating because of the water,” said Than Win Aung. “Security people are on duty in order to prevent landslides due to illegal mining.”

‘I thought we’re gone’

Yau Dau, 25, who lives next to the mining site, said the landslide happened after midnight.

“I was still awake. The sound of the landslide was really frightening. I thought we’re gone … our house was shaking,” he told Reuters. 

A police officer on the scene told AFP news agency the upper part of a mine collapsed and fell around 200 metres onto those sleeping below. Heavy rains had pounded the area over the last week, he said. 

Dozens die each year in landslides caused by jade mining, a dangerous and poorly regulated industry in Kachin state between the country’s borders with China and India.

In April, 55 mining company employees were killed when a pond up a slope from where they were digging breached its banks, leading authorities to suspend 17 mining blocks over safety concerns.

Many miners are from impoverished ethnic minority communities who risk their lives hunting the translucent green gemstone.

Drug addiction among workers is also a major problem in Hpakant, which has been turned into a vast moonscape-like terrain by years of mining.

Official sales of jade in Myanmar were worth $750m in 2016-17, according to the most recent data published by the government as part of an Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

But analysts believe the true value of the industry, which mainly exports to China, is much larger.

Corruption also means very little reaches state coffers.

Source: Aljazeera