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Shanghai and Small Mercies

The Bund, Shanghai

Just arrived in Shanghai this afternoon and checked in to a lovely hotel on the The Bund and overlooking the Huangpu river. You see the view from my room above. Quite nice.

First impressions of Shanghai is nothing short of “wow” mixed in with “oh shit!” and an occasional “daaaaamn!”. Let me explain:

From the air, the city looks very modern as evidenced by the factories, parcels of land, channels, and other man made structures. Tidy, clean, modern and spiffy. This is further strengthened when you land in their airport – which must be one of the quietest in the world, and certainly one of the best organised. We were off the airplane, through a very orderly immigration line and onward to collect the bags without a hitch whatsoever. I was worried that my luggage will be lost as my connection in Doha was a mere 40 minutes, but Qatar Airways came through again, and the flight was quite pleasant. Bags of space, but the food, unfortunately, was terrible. Can’t complain too much though, I’ve had a solid 7 – 8 hours of sleep!

Back to China. I’m here as part of a delegation from the EO Bahrain chapter for a Global Leadership Conference. I’ve arrived a day early but fortunately an EO colleague and friend, Faisal Alireza, was on the plane with me. He had the foresight to book a car to take him to the hotel and offered me a ride, which was very kind, but my much anticipated MagLev experience will have to wait for a few days. Off we went in a latest model Merc limo, which was the cause of the “oh shit!” experience.

The roads from the airport are modern, wide, well routed with nary a bloody roundabout or traffic light in sight. You would think that one would generally put the foot down and compete with the 8-minute-431kph-ride of the MagLev to town. But, human nature comes between that ideal and reality. The driver was amicable enough, but boy he must’ve been completely understanding of Schumi “nudging” Villeneuve in that Australian F1 race to get his racing line! And he’s not alone! Drivers here across the board – yes, I’m generalising – are bonking mad! Their over-riding mantra seems to be I’m in a hurry and to hell with everyone else. They’re driving ultra-expensive cars haphazardly and if they don’t see gaps to squeeze their cars into, go ahead and create the blasted things! They do signal though, and as everyone knows, if one does signal, then one DOES have the right of way! Does that remind you of Bahrain? Of course it does, but to be completely fair, I suggest that we’re a few notches better than the drivers here. Drivers in Shanghai take a gap as a challenge: if you don’t take it then you’re a pussy.

We arrived at the hotel. Absolute luxury that would put the Ritz in Bahrain and other luxury hotels in the Gulf to shame. Half the staff seem to be waiting outside to welcome guests – with smiles! – unbelievable! Get into the lobby to be once again received with smiles and clear professionalism. The check-in process took under five minutes and up to the room I went to be greeted with the view you see above. Not bad.

I was looking forward to check in with the office, pay attention to the email, and the usual haunts before I hit the shower, so out comes the laptop and connected to the wireless Internet without a hitch. The price per day is reasonable enough and the happy thing about it is that it is FAST! Unfortunately, I discovered soon enough that that speed is a trade-off. My usual haunts of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube amongst probably other social media networks is blocked! Damn and double damn.

Might as well get the chisel and tablet out for the duration then, speed or no speed… the Internet here is severely crippled. Thank “godness” that we haven’t reached that stage back home yet.

Small mercies I guess…


Paranoia and Mobile Phones

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Some friends have started to demand that before any conversation takes place, even when the chat is really about nothing but mundane and insignificant things, that all our mobile phones are not only switched off, but have their batteries removed too. Some go further by demanding that the offending instruments be placed outside of the vicinity of their gathering.

The claim, of course, is that someone somewhere could remotely activate a mobile phone’s microphone and listen in to a conversation without any outward sign that this is actually happening. I thought that this was a wee bit over the top and a James Bond gone completely mad syndrome. Or maybe, it’s the sign of the times in Bahrain, where trust seems to have been completely and utterly eradicated and people are reportedly afraid of being fingered, owing to the continuous arrests and perceived witch hunts taking place. Unfortunately, people are said to have become afraid of voicing even harmless comments, or get terrified due to unfortunate verbal outbursts said even in privacy when sometimes one’s passion overcomes reason. Hence the insistence on disabling mobile phones before any conversation could take place.

I decided to find out if there was any merit to those claims.

I am absolutely shocked to have found out that that this has been going on for some time and the fears of remotely activating various features of mobile phones quite substantiated. The first article I came across set the tone quite adequately:

FBI taps cell phone mic as eavesdropping tool

The FBI appears to have begun using a novel form of electronic surveillance in criminal investigations: remotely activating a mobile phone’s microphone and using it to eavesdrop on nearby conversations.

The technique is called a “roving bug,” and was approved by top U.S. Department of Justice officials for use against members of a New York organized crime family who were wary of conventional surveillance techniques such as tailing a suspect or wiretapping him.

Read more on cnet News

Damn! And this has happened in the States six years ago! Can you imagine the state of that technology now with the huge advances in modern and relatively cheaply available mobile phones like the iPhone and the Blackberry? I bet the tools available now will not only be stealthy that one would never know that they’re actually installed on handsets, but also be able to transmit the full gamut of the phone’s features, including address books, text messages, installed apps stored data, audio, location information and even video too!

I decided to see how available such applications are. Another quick search resulted in quite a number of readily available applications. These include apps which turn your phone to a mobile and undetectable security camera while another much more pernicious and invasive application which turns your phone into a remote and an undetectable microphone as well as enable call logging, call interception, email relay amongst many other functions limited only by the actual capabilities of the mobile phone.

Are you scared yet?

You should be.

There are ways in which you can probably detect that your phone has been tampered with or monitored, but it will probably take an expert in the field to really find out if it has. It apparently only takes minutes to install an app if it’s off the shelf, but that’s not the only way to ingest such code though. Home brewed applications from the hacking world have many more methods to invade your phone without you ever clicking on to your own culpability in helping such an invasion to happen. One can’t be too careful, really. So, until you have access to an expert to go over and test your phone for an infection, here are some tell-tale signs that your phone might have been bugged:

    1. You have noticed strange sounds or volume changes on your phone lines.
    2. You have noticed static, popping, or scratching on your phone lines.
    3. Sounds are coming from your phone’s handset when it’s hung up.
    4. Your phone often rings and nobody is there, or a very faint tone, or high pitched squeal or beep is heard for a fraction of a second.

Click here for more.

Maybe a good piece of advice might be to stick to an old brick of a phone with minimum functionality if one really wants security; however, even then one can be pin-pointed to within five meters of their location by the telco using simple triangulation methods.

There is really no escape…

But I’m offering my iPhone 4 for immediate sale… any takers?

Update [email protected] The plot thickens, the Guardian has an article detailing how the iPhone on iOS4 records locations in a secret little file and someone’s written an application to not only extract that file, but show you directly where you have been with your nice little iPhone on a world map with dates too. The iPhone (and other smart phones) are God’s gift to security agencies the world over!


The efficacy of Internet filtering

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If there ever was a reason not to trust Internet filters, even from a world authority like McAfee in this case, then the blocking of my friend Amira Al-Hussaini’s website is a case in point. For some reason, the “smart filter”, which is purportedly used by most telcos in the Gulf, has mistakenly categorised her site as pornographic! How utterly ludicrous.

What’s even more ridiculous is the government’s insistence on a big-brotherly attitude and its taking our place as human beings, parents, teachers and mentors and arbitrarily deciding on what is proper for us to view on the Internet and what is not. So it’s not too much of a surprise to see it using such software which is configured most probably to be have a free hand in controlling what a whole nation should be allowed to witness.

Is this not an embarrassment on their part? Will they ever learn and give us the option of choosing what we wish to view and what to ignore?

I’m afraid with their current method of thinking, there’s not much hope.

Someone, please manually remove from your infernal lists, and while you’re at it, fix that so called feedback form so that situations like this can get resolved in a civilised manner.


iOS 4.2 is out!

I’ve been trying to download the bloody thing for an hour and it keeps disconnecting with various errors. I guess literally millions are downloading it at the same time, I wonder if the servers have had enough? I’ve had the same problem with 4.1 I remember…

Apple should decentralise these updates to ease the load.

Anyone already has it installed who can give us a “real” review of how it is on the iPad and the other devices?


Bahrain redefines the WWW

Yes, it’s that time of the year again. A new information Tzar at the helm of the “Information Authority” (or if you prefer, the Misery of Information redux); hence, the very first thing which happens is…. yes, you guessed it: ban some web sites, blogs and even political society websites. All that just ahead of the national elections too. Brilliant. The excuse for closing them is not different from all the previous occasions; however, the new new thing is…

أكد عضو الأمانة العامة في جمعية الوفاق الوطني الإسلامية محمد المزعل، أن رئيس هيئة شئون الإعلام الشيخ فواز بن محمد آل خليفة أبلغه بأن إزالة الحظر عن موقع الوفاق الإلكتروني مرهون بوقف بث المواد الفيلمية والصوتية
على الموقع، والتي تأتي في إطار البث المباشر لفعاليات الوفاق، الذي أعلنت عنه قبل أيام وأطلقت عليه اسم «الوفاق TV».


قال المزعل: «الشيخ فواز اعتبر أن إعلان الوفاق عن إطلاق بث تلفزيوني على موقعها الإلكتروني مخالفاً للقانون، ووعد بأنه في حال إلغاء هذا النوع من البث سيتم إلغاء الحظر عن الموقع الإلكتروني في اليوم نفسه»، وأضاف «من جهتي أبلغت الأمانة العامة للجمعية بما أكده الشيخ فواز وهي بدورها ستقوم بدراسة الموضوع للرد على الهيئة»

Al-Wasat – 5 Sept 2010


The Information Authority stipulates the removal of the live broadcasting functionality from in order to reestablish access to Al-Wefaq’s website

According to Mohammed Al-Mizaal, an Al-Wefaq secretariat member, the head of the Information Authority Shaikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa told him tha the removal o the ban on the Al-Wefaq’s website is subject to them stopping the live broadcasting of video and audio on their site, as has been recently announced which the society dubbed “Al-Wefaq TV”

Al-Mizaal said that he was told by Shaikh Fawaz that Al-Wefaq’s announcing this functionality is unlawful and that once Al-Wefaq rescinds that decision, the website will be unblocked on the same day. Al-Mizaal informed the secretariat which will in turn study the situation before tendering their response to the Authority.

Shaikh Fawaz didn’t come with anything new as he re-iterated what Dr. Abdulla Yateem, the Undersecretary of Press & Publications has previously said about a recent similar recent incident when he warned another website not to use the term “broadcast” or “TV” in advertising its functionally.

Worrying, isn’t it? On several levels. One that it doesn’t seem to matter who the minister or head is, the policy never changes, we’ve gone through more than 5 ministers in that ministry, and all have toed a very similar line. The second, which is more dangerous and unwieldy is that what was supposed to be a World Wide Web, something which was supposed to shrink the world into a small informationally-connected village, is, as far as Bahrain is currently concerned, is more like a “WALLED Wide Web” with only the sanctioned and sanctified information allowed to be seen, heard and interacted with. And thus, another window of opportunity for innovation is resolutely shut.

Quite unfortunate really. The whole Internet now is about rich content. About interactive video, gaming, animation, and live programing one could access from a simple smart phone through to affordable personal computers, allowing people to connect with each other, building bridges and crossing cultures increasing world understanding which is the bedrock of peace. Yet, in our country what we find are high walls being continuously built to deter people from even approaching the possibility of cross-cultural understanding.

Is it then a surprise that we continue to be a physical and virtual island in the midst of a highly connected world? What does an action like this tell the world about us? A retarded and afraid society unwilling to open up to the world? Or does it really only reflect badly on the government as the will, tools and knowledge are widely and readily available to all and sundry in Bahrain with which the circumvention of those unreasonable walls is easily achieved?

I once again urge the government to rethink its Internet strategies and take the courageous steps to ensure easy and unfettered access, because it has been proven once and again that none of the adopted measures so far actually worked, and they never will.

Blogged at above 40,000 feet, in an American Airlines 767 with integrated and uncensored WiFi Internet connectivity flying from San Francisco to New York on Sept 5th, 2010.


ISP fined BD43,927.120 for NOT blocking websites!

How about that?

2Connect's CEO Fahad Al-Shirawi

The TRA just issued a hefty fine of BD43,927.120 (that’s US$116,517.56 to non-believers) against 2Connect, you know, the blue man people with the funky YouTube skit?

Well, the story from what I understand from the document is that 2Connect is opposed to blocking anything. The TRA found an opportune moment to slap them on their wallet by getting a complaint from a kid at the British School about them being able to access a pornographic site within the school system, which is connected, yes you guessed it, through 2Connect’s high speed network. Perfect! Someone thought. Let’s use this to really screw 2Connect out of some much needed profit and hey presto, the deal is done!

I would wish to take this opportunity to formally thank the ever watchful TRA in protecting our morals and sanity, and protecting our children’s delicate sensibilities, but stomping on 2Connect rather forcefully and reminding them that they must acquiesce to the government’s directives regardless of how sane or otherwise they are.


It started with Blackberry, but now Skype and Google are in the sights

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Hate to say that I told you so, but indications are now heating up to target any secure platform with demands of open access by the so called security services:

As Research In Motion faces an increasingly public dispute with several countries over the ability to monitor communication on its BlackBerry devices, virtually all other major technology communications companies have remained silent on the issue. That may soon change: RIM is likely just the first test case.

The government of India indicated yesterday that RIM isn’t the only company from which it will demand greater monitoring access. State authorities listed Internet phone company Skype SA and Google Inc., provider of the wildly popular Gmail service, as targets.

The move signals that the issue of monitoring data traffic goes far beyond RIM’s encrypted BlackBerrys – and probably has more to do with a looming collision between the advance of digital communication and the security demands of the state than with the Ontario company’s technology.

The Globe & Mail

What’s amazing about this situation is that it will come to pass. It will be condoned and even readily accepted in a few days time. People have become immune to state interference in every facet of their lives, easily sold into the haze of “security” – what it actually is a perverted use of the security ogre to gain access to peoples’ lives.

I don’t mind if this access was required and mandated by legitimate security concerns. I wouldn’t even mind if there was a trusted legal structure in the countries requiring access which protects the gained information and protects against its improper and illegal use. Sadly, none of our countries – the Arab and Muslim world – has anything close to this requirement.

So the wheels are resolutely turning. Against normal people and for various security services. Services who are ungoverned and mostly above the law. Services which are archaic, improperly staffed and completely outdated. Services whose only contribution to the country of their residence is the attempted depletion of the columns of the unemployable. In ours, even that privilege is diverted elsewhere, in true “Athari” style.

The essence is, my friends, is that the so called “security agencies” we are “blessed” with, are ill-suited to challenges of this day and age. And with their refusal to change or even attempt to understand the modern psyche and connectiveness, and with the unabashed aid and support given to them by the ambiguous, partial and directed judicial systems, all of which are resoundingly playing into the bosoms of corrupt political systems, how can we but expect a calamity in the offing?

Look, it’s too much to hope for business (RIM, Apple, Google, Skype, etc) to side with “us”, even though we are their ultimate benefactors. It is governments and political institutions which stand between their products and our pockets. They’re not going to “stand their ground” and state that they’re not going to give away the keys to unlock our privacy. Mark my words, they will. RIM seems to have done so already in the big K. of S. A. and it will in all the other situations too quite readily – okay, they’ll moan and groan and act like a teenage virgin welcoming being ravished, but coyly mind you, at least to seem respectable and not too easy, RIM – as will Skype et al – will ultimately bend over and lube up.

What’s the solution?

I offer you none. Other than to direct you to Open Source. At least with no exclusive economic motive behind those products, and with the varied and disparate developers, maybe, just maybe we can delay the advent of our total violation.

Privacy, my friends, is gone.