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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Today’s Scuttlebot: The Cost of Surveillance, and Predictive Text Poetry

The technology reporters and editors of The New York Times scour the Web for important and peculiar items. Friday's selections include how much the government pays companies for wiretaps and access to e-mails, and a Google page that assembles autocomplete suggestions into a kind of poetry.

The Pros and Cons of a Surveillance Society

Here are three topics much in the news these days: Prism, the surveillance program of the national security agency; the death of Trayvon Martin; and Google Glass and the rise of wearable computers that record everything.

Although these might not seem connected, they are part of a growing move for, or against, a surveillance society.

On one side of this issue we have people declaring that too much surveillance, especially in the form of wearable cameras and computers, is detrimental and leaves people without any privacy in public. On the other side there are people who argue that a society with cameras everywhere will make the world safer and hold criminals more accountable for their actions.

But it leaves us with this one very important question: Do we want to live in a surveillance society that might ensure justice for all, yet privacy for none?

In the case of Mr. Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, the most crucial evidence about how an altercation between the two began â€" one that ultimately led to Mr. Martin’s death â€" came down to Mr. Zimmerman’s word.

As the trial showed, eyewitness accounts all differed. One neighbor who was closest to the altercation saw a “lighter-skinned” man on the bottom during a fight that ensued. Two other neighbors believed that Mr. Zimmerman was on top during the fight. One said she saw the man on top walk away after the fight.

Clearly the memory of one or all of those neighbors had been spoiled by time, confusion and adrenaline. But if one of those witnesses â€" including Mr. Martin or Mr. Zimmerman â€" had been wearing Google Glass or another type of personal recording device, the facts of that night might have been much clearer.

“Whenever something mysterious happens we ask: ‘Why can’t we hit rewind? Why can’t we go to the database?’” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington. “We want to follow the data trail and know everything that we need to know. The big question is: Who is going to be in control of that recording and data?”

Prism, the highly secretive government program that was brought to light last month by a government whistleblower, is an example of a much larger scale of recording and data. President Obama has defended the government’s spying programs, saying they help in the fight against terrorists and ensure that Americans stay safe.

But critics say it goes too far. Representative James Sensenbrenner, the longtime Republican lawmaker from Wisconsin, compared today’s government surveillance to “Big Brother” from the Geroge Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Michael Shelden, author of “Orwell: The Authorized Biography,” told NPR earlier this month that today’s surveillance society is just like the book.

Orwell, Mr. Shelden said, “could see that war and defeating an enemy could be used as a reason for increasing political surveillance.” He added, “You were fighting a never-ending war that gave you a never-ending excuse for looking into people’s lives.”

Data collection and video surveillance are only going to continue to grow as technology seeps into more areas of our culture, either strapped to our bodies as wearable computers or hovering over cities as inexpensive drones that monitor people from the sky.

So what can people do? Those who want to protect people’s civil liberties say more cameras is the only real check and balance left.

“In the hands of an individual, the video camera can be a very empowering thing,” Mr. Stanley said. “When it’s employed by the government to watch over the citizens, it has the opposite effect.”

Images of Latest Deadly Clashes in Cairo

Video posted online by the Cairo news site El Badil showed clashes late Monday near a central train station between Islamist protesters and police officers backed by men in civilian clothes.

As my colleagues Kareem Fahim and David Kirkpatrick report from Cairo, hours before Egypt’s new interim government was sworn in, “at least seven people were killed and more than 200 were injured in overnight clashes between Islamists and Egyptian riot police, health officials said Tuesday.”

Images transmitted from the scene by reporters late Monday showed some of the fighting, which shrouded the downtown Ramses Railway Station with tear gas and smoke from burning tires as supporters of the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, clashed with officers and young men in civilian clothes who hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails from behind police lines.

A more detailed picture of the fighting emerged from video posted online later by witnesses and photographers from local news sites, including El Badil and Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Video of police officers firing tear gas at Islamist protesters in Cairo late Monday, posted on YouTube by Mohamed El-Zahaby, an activist blogger.

The fighting broke out after thousands of Islamists left their encampment near the defense ministry, blocking the 6 October Bridge, a central artery for the city’s traffic that passes by the train station.

Once the clashes began, the Islamists hit police officers with rocks and the officers, backed by men in civilian clothes on the bridge, responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Video of clashes late Monday in Cairo posted online by Al-Masry Al-Youm, an independent newspaper.

Video posted online by the Cairo news site El Badil offered clear views of men in civilian clothes hurling rocks at Islamist protesters from behind police lines late Monday.

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 16, 2013

An earlier version of this post misspelled in a caption the surname of the activist blogger who posted a video of police officers firing tear gas. He is Mohamed El-Zahaby, not El-Zahabym.

Reader Reactions to the George Zimmerman Verdict

When George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot an unarmed black teen, Trayvon Martin, was acquitted of all charges, thousands of New York Times readers responded with a wide range of emotionally charged comments.

The trial was closely watched across the nation, provoking heated debates on racial profiling, civil rights and gun control.

“Sorry, ‘justice was served’ crowd, but you have to twist yourself into some bizarre pretzel to justify this act,” Stephen Hampe of Rome, N.Y., wrote, garnering 1,624 recommendations from other readers, the most of any comment in response to the acquittal. “This was jury nullification.”

Others dismissed the protests, asserting that each side had been given its day in court. “Mr. Zimmerman was tried and found not guilty,” Don Ingram of San Diego wrote. “Our judicial system worked. If you want to protest anyone, protest the prosecutor for presenting a bad defense.”

Many readers said they believed that the verdict was a result of a lack of evidence in the case, with no witnesses to resolve questions like who threw the first punch and who screamed for help. “Even legal observers who wanted Zimmerman convicted of manslaughter often admitted that the prosecution had a tough case,” S.B. in New Jersey wrote. “The event occurred at night; there were no eyewitnesses; and prosecution-witness testimony that many commentators felt ended up benefiting the defense.”

The judge in the case emphasized that statements about race would be limited, and the term “racial profiling” was barred from the proceedings. “The Trayvon Martin case has become the elephant in the room of race relations and gun control opposition in America,” Wendy-Outrage in New York commented. “This case exposes the dark underbelly of policies gone awry.”

The allegations of racism became a widespread point of contention after the shooting, fueling protests throughout the country. “The case has fortified the stereotypical notion that black males in hooded sweatshirts are up to no good,” NY expat GT wrote. “It has reinforced preemptive execution of suspicious black men as an acceptable standard.”

Reacting to the verdict, dozens of readers pointed to Mr. Zimmerman’s pivotal decision to leave his car during his call to the police on the night of the shooting. “There seems little doubt that Mr. Zimmerman instigated this entire situation by getting out of his car and pursuing Mr. Martin, even when he was told not to do so,” Shaun Narine commented from Canada. “To my mind, that fact in itself means he created a situation that ended up with an innocent young man dead.”

Linda in Oklahoma repeated that sentiment, writing, “The minute Zimmerman chose to ignore the police dispatcher, who told him to stay in his car and not follow Martin, is when Zimmerman put himself into the situation.”

The verdict also shined a light on controversial gun control and self-defense laws, including those known as “stand your ground” laws, which allow a person to use lethal force in self-defense even when there is an opportunity to retreat from danger. “Both men would be alive today if Zimmerman had not gone out that night with a loaded gun,” wrote Richard from England.

Since the verdict late Saturday night, protests in city streets and on social networks have also pointed to what many people perceive as the failure of the justice system and an underbelly of racism. “While we have an African-American president, U.S. is still far from color blind,” PeterS in Boston wrote. “In addition to the ridiculous ‘stand your ground’ laws that are largely responsible for the death of Mr. Martin, the recent assaults on affirmative action and voting right laws in the Supreme Court can be seen as reactionary politics.”

Many readers said that protesting seemed like the only viable course of action in response to the verdict. “As with many other Americans, I am saddened and frustrated,” filosurfer commented. “I will pray for Trayvon’s family and perhaps join others in a march. I’m just not sure what else I can do in light of this nonsensical verdict.”

Many readers, including Joe Willie of Hampton Bays, N.Y., disagreed, calling on readers to trust the verdict. “The jury has decided,” he wrote. “That is the problem with all these comments â€" they are based on the assumption that the writer knows more than the jury who heard the witnesses.”

Steve in New York City echoed that sentiment, saying, “Based on the actual trial and the actual facts and testimony presented at the trial (as opposed to what people think they know), the amount of reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was guilty of 2nd degree murder or manslaughter was overwhelming.”

What the thousands of comments largely share is an exploration of the verdict’s implications, from self-defense and gun laws to race relations and civil rights. “Many people, on both sides of the issue, say the jury came up with the only ‘reasonable’ verdict, based on the evidence and the law. If that is so, then the problem lies with our criminal justice system,” Eric of New York wrote. “There may be further legal action against Zimmerman, but aside from that, Pres. Obama is right when he says we must, as a nation, try to reduce gun violence.”

Perhaps Tony Glover of New York best summed up the wide spectrum of reader’s reactions when he wrote, “George Zimmerman vs. Trayvon Martin is an allegory for America.”

Microsoft Pushes Harder to Talk About Surveillance Orders

Microsoft on Tuesday called on the United State attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., to give the company permission to talk about how it handles government surveillance requests.

The move represents an escalation of Microsoft’s campaign to speak more freely about the national security orders it receives for e-mails, Internet phone calls and other communications by users of Microsoft services. Secrecy laws severely limit what Microsoft and others can say about those orders, particularly the surveillance requests issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Microsoft and other companies have been frustrated by government limits on how they can respond to news stories about government surveillance orders, many of which were prompted by the leak of documents about electronic spying programs by Edward J. Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency. Technology companies have maintained that many reports have misinterpreted the leaked documents.

In a letter that Bradford Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel, sent to Mr. Holder on Tuesday, Mr. Smith said the company had not made “adequate progress” in its discussions with the Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation and other members of intelligence agencies about sharing more details about its compliance with surveillance orders. Microsoft petitioned the government on June 19 to let it publish how many national security requests it has received. The company says the government has not yet responded to the request.

“In my opinion, these issues are languishing amidst discussions among multiple parts of the government, the Constitution itself is suffering, and it will take the personal involvement of you or the president to set things right,” Mr. Smith said in the letter.

“It’s time to face some obvious facts,” Mr. Smith continued. “Numerous documents are now in the public domain. As a result, there is no longer a compelling government interest in stopping those of us with knowledge from sharing more information, especially when this information is likely to help allay public concerns.”

San Diego Mayor Dismisses Calls to Step Down Amid Sexual Harassment Allegations

Onetime supporters release new details about allegations of sexual harassment against San Diego’s mayor, Bob Filner.

Mayor Bob Filner of San Diego, who posted a YouTube video last week apologizing for his treatment of women in his office, dismissed calls for his resignation as new details of sexual harassment allegations against him were revealed.

Donna Frye, a former city councilwoman and member of his administration, was among a group of former supporters who called for his resignation on Monday and shared stories about his conduct with three specific women.

According to Ms. Frye and two lawyers, Mr. Filner, 70, is accused of grabbing the buttocks of women and shoving his hands down their chests to touch their breasts. One woman told Ms. Frye that he had attempted to kiss her and force his tongue down her throat as they stood on a public sidewalk.

Marco Gonzalez, a lawyer, said at least three women told them Mr. Filner had made inappropriate remarks. During one exchange with a female staff member in an City Hall elevator, Mr. Filner said that female employees would do better “if they worked without their panties on,” according to Mr. Gonzalez.

“He does not deserve to be the mayor of this city any longer,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

The calls for Mr. Filner to step down began last week after initial allegations were made public and he issued his apology on video. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who is the sister of Mr. Gonzalez, called for him to resign last Friday after supporting his mayoral candidacy.

Other Democrats seeking his resignation include the Assembly majority leader, Toni Atkins; City Council president, Todd Gloria; and Councilman David Alvarez.

On Monday, Representative Scott Peters, a Democrat, called Mr. Filner at City Hall, to tell him to step down.

Representative Susan Davis, a Democrat from San Diego, and longtime ally of Mr. Filner, also said that he should resign because of his “unacceptable” behavior. In a statement, she said:

Despite his inclusive vision for San Diego, Mayor Filner has lost the confidence of San Diegans to lead. He has taken advantage of the trust the voters placed in him â€" and lost both the promise and capacity to ignite positive change. His behavior, if not illegal, is reprehensible.

The stories that are coming forth, even though they are not formal complaints, resonate with people because they have seen the mayor’s inappropriate behavior. Women do not make up these stories and these charges are not levied without great courage. The mayor’s lack of understanding of the debilitating effects of sexual harassment, intimidation, and bullying is an affront to all.

Although we have never had a smooth relationship, I have respected his passion for our city and his interest to change the way business is done. But all of that is now lost because he did not have enough passion for the city to curb his incomprehensible and unacceptable behavior.

But on Monday night, Mr. Filner told KUSI-TV in San Diego that he was not giving up the office that he has held for less than a year. He denied the allegations and said he would be “vindicated in the end.”

“There have been no formal complaints,” he said, and added that he was entitled to due process. “No charges in a fair way that I can deal with.”

In the interview, he described himself as a “very demonstrative person” who was perhaps unaware of how his actions may be perceived as inappropriate.

“I am a hugger of both men and women,” he said. “As it turns out, those are taken in an offensive manner, I need to have a greater self awareness of what I am doing. And I am taking those steps.”

Video of San Diego’s mayor, Bob Filner, from KUSI-TV.

On Friday, in his video posted on YouTube and the mayor’s official Web site, Mr. Filner apologized for not showing respect to women in his office and said that he was getting help to change his behavior and approach toward women.

YouTube video of San Diego’s mayor, Bob Filner, apologizing for his behavior.

After he posted the video, Bronwyn Ingram, his former fiancée, called for his resignation. She told KPBS radio that she ended their relationship because he had become increasingly abusive to her and had started to send sexually explicit text messages to women in front of her.

Ms. Ingram described what she called a “severe deterioration in Bob’s ability to engage with anyone in a civil manner, myself included.” During a recent trip to Paris, she said Mr. Filner screamed at her in public without provocation, among other “inappropriate and disrespectful acts.”

Tips, sources, story ideas? Please leave a comment or find me on Twitter @jenniferpreston.

Prominent Gay Rights Activist Is Found Dead in Cameroon

An Amnesty International report, from January, on rights abuses in Cameroon.

Eric Ohena Lembembe, a prominent activist in Cameroon for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, was found dead in his apartment in the capital of Yaoundé, soon after he wrote about attacks in the country on organizations that support homosexuals, Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Tuesday.

The rights group, which has collaborated with Mr. Lembembe on reports, said his body was discovered by friends who had gone to his home after they had been unable to reach him by telephone for several days.

His front door was padlocked on the outside, but through the window they could see his body on the bed, and alerted the police, who broke down the door. According to one friend, the Human Rights Watch statement said, Mr. Lembembe’s neck and feet appeared to have been broken, and his face, hands and feet had been burned with an iron.

“We don’t know who killed Eric Lembembe, or why he was killed, but one thing is clear: The Cameroonian authorities’ utter failure to stem homophobic violence sends the message that these attacks can be carried out with impunity,” Neela Ghoshal, a senior L.G.B.T. rights researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in the statement.

As part of his activism, Mr. Lembembe was an author and a writer about issues affecting the L.G.B.T. community.

In his last blog entry this month for a Web site to which he contributed, Erasing 76 Crimes, Mr. Lembembe described attacks on groups that support gays and lesbians, the latest of which targeted the Access Center of Alternatives-Cameroon.

“At about 7 a.m. on June 26, the staff discovered flames coming from the office of paramedics/psychosocial counselors. Firefighters did not respond to the blaze, nor did neighbors. The center was consumed by the fire. Although no one was killed, most of the equipment (desks, chairs, computers, fans, patients’ medical records, cooking utensils, etc..) was completely destroyed,” Franz Mananga, a director of the center, was quoted as saying in Mr. Lembembe’s report.

“Cameroonian officials show no signs that they are aware of the problem. No one has denounced the attacks. No one has visited the scenes of the fire and the burglaries,” Mr. Lembembe wrote in the post, published on July 5.

76 Crimes monitors the human toll of anti-gay and anti-LGBT laws and the struggle to repeal them in 76 countries.

Mr. Lemembe also spoke out about other attacks in a Human Rights Watch statement published on July 1. Ten days before the June 26 arson attack on Alternative-Cameroun, he wrote, assailants broke into the Yaoundé office of a prominent human rights lawyer, Michel Togué, stealing confidential information, and on June 1, a headquarters of the Central African Human Rights Defenders Network (Réseau de Défenseurs des Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale, or Redhac) was burglarized.

“There is no doubt: antigay thugs are targeting those who support equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” Mr. Lemembe said in the Human Rights Watch statement. “Unfortunately, a climate of hatred and bigotry in Cameroon, which extends to high levels in government, reassures homophobes that they can get away with these crimes.”

Mr. Lembembe’s death was mourned by people involved in rights and social justice groups, including Eileen C. Donahue, the United States ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council, and Wilson Cruz, a spokesperson for GLAAD.

Cameroon is one of 38 African countries that criminalize homosexuality, said a report in June by Amnesty International, which also produced a video about rights abuses in Cameroon. As my colleague Adam Nossiter wrote last month, arrests of gay men, and long and abusive imprisonments, are regularly reported there, among other places in Africa.

Two of the organizations mentioned in Mr. Lemembe’s Erasing 76 Crimes blog post, Alternatives-Cameroun and Association for the Defense of Gays and Lesbians, were among the authors of an extensive report in March that noted that Cameroon prosecutes people for consensual same-sex conduct more aggressively than almost any country in the world.

The other contributors to the March report, the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, of which Mr. Lembembe was executive director, and Human Rights Watch - said they found that at least 28 people have been prosecuted for same-sex conduct in Cameroon since 2010. Most cases are marked by grave human rights violations, including torture, forced confessions, denial of access to legal counsel and discriminatory treatment by law enforcement and judicial officials, it said.

It included 10 case studies of arrests and prosecutions under an article of Cameroon’s penal code, which punishes “sexual relations between persons of the same sex” with up to five years in prison.

“Dozens of Cameroonians do jail time solely because they are suspected of being gay or lesbian,” it said.

Follow Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.

Russia’s Oil Wealth Looted, Pussy Riot Says in New Song

In a new song released online Tuesday, the Russian protest group Pussy Riot claims that billions of dollars of the nation’s oil wealth have been looted by President Vladimir Putin and his allies.

A music video for the new Pussy Riot song “Like a Red Prison.”

The song, “Like a Red Prison,” was accompanied by a music video showing masked members of the group tossing black crude onto a portrait of Igor Sechin, the Putin confidant and former spy who is chief executive of Rosneft, the Russian state oil company, during a guerrilla performance at an oil facility.

A photojournalist who was present during the video shoot, Denis Sinyakov, said in a telephone interview that it was recorded in recent months, with one sequence, showing the group’s banner unfurled on the roof of a Rosneft gas station, filmed in June. He added that the video was finished in a rush, according to the activists, so that it would appear before the trial of protest leader Aleksei Navalny concludes this week.

A member of the Russian protest group Pussy Riot throws oil on a portrait of the former spy who now runs the state oil company.pussy-riot.info A member of the Russian protest group Pussy Riot throws oil on a portrait of the former spy who now runs the state oil company.

Mr. Sinyakov, who is not part of the collective, but has been granted access at the planning stages to anti-Putin stunts carried out by other groups, said that he traveled with the women while they were not wearing masks. To the best of his knowledge, Yekaterina Samutsevich, a member of the group who was jailed with two others last year for performing a song at Moscow’s main cathedral calling on the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Mr. Putin, but later released by an appeals court, was not involved in the production.

For her part, Ms. Samutsevich claimed on Tuesday that the new release was not an official one, despite the fact that it was described as such on the group’s Twitter feed.

The new song was also heavily promoted on a Twitter account run by Pyotr Verzilov, whose wife, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, is one of the two women still serving time in a penal colony for the cathedral performance. Liner notes posted on a new Web site, pussy-riot.info, described Ms. Tolokonnikova as one of the authors of “like a Red Prison.”

There have been signs of division between the women in the past, and the music video was uploaded Tuesday to a new YouTube channel registered in the group’s name.

As the American-financed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports, the liner notes also claim that Russia’s oil revenues amounted to 7 trillion rubles (about $215 billion) in 2012, “but only Putin and several of his friends see this 7 trillion.” To focus attention on this, the group said, “We therefore decided to independently look into oil production and sing our new song about the red prison to oil and gas workers.”

The song’s lyrics include a reference to Mr. Navalny, the popular blogger and anti-corruption lawyer who expects to be convicted this week on charges of corruption filed against him by state prosecutors last year, after he emerged as a leader of anti-Putin street protests. In an interview with The Guardian last week, Mr. Navalny said that when the state’s wealth boomed with a surge in oil prices, Mr. Putin “just bought everyone off. Now the money is ending… so now he has turned to repression as a means of running the country.”

As the Guardian correspondent Miriam Elder reports, despite the threat of jail hanging over him, on Tuesday Mr. Navalny published the results of an investigation into corruption by a senior Russian official on his Live Journal blog and invited Mr. Putin to look at the evidence.

Last week, video posted online showed Mr. Navlany and his supporters marching to an election office in Moscow to submit the papers necessary to allow him to run for mayor of the city.

Video of Aleksei Navalny and his supporters marching to an election office in Moscow last week.

Mr. Navalny also invited readers of his blog to watch another video clip, “that depicts my wacky detention,” after he emerged from the election office to address supporters and was hauled off by the police.

Video of Aleksei Navalny being detained outside a Moscow election office last week.

As he prepared to hear his fate in court, Mr. Navalny continued to press ahead with the race, posting images on Instagram of his “bustling” campaign office.

Robert Mackey also remixes the news on Twitter @robertmackey.

Follow Andrew Roth on Twitter @ARothmsk.

‘Do Not Track’ Rules for Advertising Come a Step Closer to an Agreement

A working group of the World Wide Web Consortium has decided that Web users should be able to decline custom-targeted advertising, but hurdles remain before a final agreement can be reached.

‘Do Not Track’ Rules for Advertising Come a Step Closer to an Agreement

A working group of the World Wide Web Consortium has decided that Web users should be able to decline custom-targeted advertising, but hurdles remain before a final agreement can be reached.