Monday, January 12, 2015

Attacking democratic freedoms

The horrific terrorist attack in Paris at the office of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo is a direct assault on the freedom of speech, thought and expression, the fundamentals on which all open, democratic societies are built. Ten staff members at the satirical weekly, including four of its top cartoonists, were gunned down by masked men who entered the building and targeted the editorial meeting in what seemed to be a well-planned and professional operation. They left shouting Allahu-Akbar , killing two policemen on the street outside before driving off in a getaway car. Since 2006, when it first published the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammed, Charlie Hebdo had been under threat of violent attacks by Islamist groups. Refusing to be intimidated, the publication continued to caricature Islam even after a firebombing in November 2011, just as it also relentlessly lampooned Christianity and Judaism — its Christmas week cover caricaturing the birth of Jesus was designed to provoke and cause offence. Self-censorship in order not to hurt religious sensibilities is now the norm in most parts of the world, so too in India, where media and expressions of popular culture including cinema, art and writing have to walk the tightrope daily in deference to what Salman Rushdie in an interview to this newspaper described as the non-existent “right to not be offended”: the fracas caused by Hindutva groups against the film PK is the most recent example of this. In truly democratic societies, this should not be the case, and that is what Charlie Hebdo believed and practised. Irrespective of what anyone thinks of its editorial policy, all who believe in freedom of expression and the democratic way of life must express solidarity with the magazine, and condemn this unspeakable act of violence against them.

Attacking democratic freedoms is part of a larger agenda. Whether it is al-Qaeda, IS or any other group, extremist ideology thrives best in a polarised society. If the sizeable numbers of people adhering to the Muslim faith have been able to resist Islamism, it is because French republicanism has been able to surmount even the most divisive controversies, such as the ban on wearing the hijab and niqab in public and the Islamophobic discourse by the French right-wing parties that surrounded it. While the inevitable security measures will have to be taken, it would be most unfortunate if the attack on Charlie Hebdo were to give rise to a backlash against French Muslims. That would result in precisely what Islamist groups want — an alienated Muslim population that would become a recruiting ground for their violent cause. Maintaining freedoms and equality before the law in the face of a severe challenge to security is the most difficult test for any democratic polity and society.


Carnivores in the neighbourhood / Janaki Lenin

The tigress strode boldly across open farmlands, and crossed railway tracks and highways at night. She avoided venturing close to villages in her hunt for wild pigs. During the day, she hunkered down in forest patches, reed beds, or plantations, out of sight of people.
A few villagers walked within 100 metres of her hideout, but she didn’t move. In an area where the average human density is 200 per square kilometre, no one knew of her existence except a few researchers and forest officials. She wore a GPS collar that transmitted the coordinates of her location by text message several times a day for four months.
Contrary to popular belief that tigers need to live in vast forests, this tigress was 45 kilometres away from the nearest one, Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. The collar stopped functioning after four months, but a camera trap took her photograph in the same area a year later. She wasn’t a lone tiger struggling to survive in a less than ideal habitat; two other tigers lived nearby. Despite living so close to humans, she posed no threat to them.
Impediment to survival
When wild carnivores are found far outside forests, managers and conservationists often grasp for excuses. Wild animals prefer wild habitats, we are told. If they are found anywhere else, there must be something wrong. Lack of habitat, disturbance within forests, and lack of prey are oft-cited reasons. After visiting the farmlands of Akole, Maharashtra, where leopards live among people without causing alarm, one forester exclaimed to the biologist studying them, “These leopards are not normal.”
Animals disregard not only our boundaries but also our assumptions. They go where there is prey, whether domestic, feral or wild, and they live in what little cover is available. The only possible impediment to their survival in landscapes where humans live is the level of tolerance of people. Our religious and cultural traditions are empathetic of almost all animals including venomous snakes.
Regional folk deities like Waghoba in western India and Dakshin Ray in Bengal or a pan-Indian goddess such as Durga bestow sanctity on large wild cats. Even in an extreme situation like in the Sunderbans, where more people are killed by tigers than anywhere else, no one demands that all tigers be killed. It’s because of this tolerance that India still has the largest population of wild tigers in the world despite our high human population.
In comparison, European folk tales traditionally demonise predators, and fear of them runs deep. Even though human densities are relatively low, Europeans almost eradicated their carnivores. Brown bears used to be found throughout Europe except in Iceland and the Mediterranean Islands. By the mid-20th century, they were holding out in the east, north, and west of Europe.
Similarly, much of the continent was wiped clean of its wolves after the Second World War, but they managed to survive in the three Mediterranean peninsulas, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. The number of Eurasian lynx also diminished, and they survived only along the margins of international borders. This dismal situation has changed.
A new assessment, ‘Recovery of large carnivores in Europe’s modern human-dominated landscapes,’ by 76 authors from 26 countries, was published in S cience in December 2014. It shows that like the tigress outside Tadoba, carnivores are recolonising Europe, ranging far outside protected forests and staking territories among human-owned farms and plantations.
From the margins of Europe, wolves have recolonised more than 15 per cent of the land. They’ve returned to countries from where they had been declared extinct such as Norway, Poland, Latvia, Germany, and Bulgaria. Even though brown bears are huge, weighing an average 200 kilogrammes, they are now the continent’s most abundant carnivore. About 17,000 bears roam over 4,85,400, about 10 per cent of Europe.
This turnaround was achieved after decades of coordinated legislation, good law enforcement, and public support for conservation. Instead of antagonising local people by outlawing their hunting traditions, management plans incorporated such practices and promoted recovery of animal populations. And therein lies a lesson for India.
The separation model
India’s primary conservation model, borrowed from the U.S., is to create exclusive zones, separating people from predators. Carnivores need plenty of space, and American parks, free of settlements, are large enough to accommodate them. They remove any predators found outside designated wildlife areas that take livestock.
Few parks in India are devoid of settlements and not many are large enough to maintain good breeding populations. We apply the separation model as it suits us. People living in forests have to relocate to make space for predators. But if the state removes carnivores living outside forests, there won’t be many of them left. Our laws and policies guide management of animals inside forests, but there’s no state policy to deal with predators living amongst people.
People living around forests have a long history of living with predators. Generally, they tolerate some level of loss before complaining to the Forest Department. But these complaints may not always be straightforward. Often, people are at loggerheads with the forest department. They may express their unhappiness by asking the department to remove “the government’s animals” from their property. Wildlife symbolises the state and its callous policies.
After decades of treating their carnivores as vermin, many European countries worked hard to get them back. We haven’t yet hit a low like Europe did, but we are headed that way if we don’t turn the ship around. For instance, tigers, once found across the subcontinent, now range over a mere 2.5 per cent of our country. If the species has to regain at least some lost ground, we need to do more than focus on protected areas. Biologists advocate lifting our heads and looking at the landscape. This is also where numerous people live and they decide if they want to live with predators. Antagonising them isn’t going to achieve conservation ends.
By following a coexistence model, the Europeans not only managed to bring back carnivores, they have proved it works. Europe now has twice as many wolves as the U.S., excluding Alaska. More than 12,000 wolves range across a continent that’s half the size of the U.S. and has more than twice the density of people, 97 people per sq. km. compared to the U.S.’s 40. While protected forests are great for conservation, they cannot be the only strategy. It’s time India learned from the European experience.

( Janaki Lenin is the author of My Husband and Other Animals. She writes of the intermingled destinies of humans and wild creatures . )

Cyber-attacks are no longer fiction / Devangshu Datta

On Monday, November 24, 2014, employees at Entertainment (SPE) headquarters in Culver City, California, had a shock when they switched on their workstations. A red skeleton popped up with a bullet-pointed message. Hackers, who self-identified as "Guardians of Peace", said they controlled all Sony's data.

SPE shut down servers and took its corporate network offline. It suffered massive damage. Unreleased movies were dumped onto the internet. So were e-mails, medical records and compensation data for executives. The personal information of sundry Hollywood stars and entertainers was also released.

The attack was said to be orchestrated by (officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) in retaliation for a Sony comedy, The Interview. This film (released post-hack) is about an assassination attempt on Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Then, a hacker group, "Lizard Squad" forced DPRK off the internet for two days in December.

US President blamed North Korea. The DPRK accused the US of a counter-attack. The Federal Bureau of Investigation says the Sony were careless, and revealed internet protocol addresses of DPRK origin.

Consider the damage. SPE, a $8-billion subsidiary of Japanese parent, Sony was crippled for weeks. The digital infrastructure was ruined without physical damage. The release of private data made employees and movie stars personally vulnerable. There was loss of revenue as copyrighted films were released. Future plans were compromised. SPE may even be liable for lawsuits due to the poor encryption of private data of individuals. Insurers will examine this case closely and it could lead to modifications in industrial insurance policies and practices.

The hackers face few consequences. They were anonymous people operating from outside the US borders. There is "deniability" for the DPRK, which is said to have a warfare cell of over 6,000 hackers. The combination of deniability, and the ability to cripple infrastructure without necessarily causing physical damage is tempting. So is the ability to garner intelligence and data.

Not surprisingly, there have been multiple earlier instances of cyber-attacks, allegedly by nations.

Iran's nuclear programme was hit by the Stuxnet worm, which targeted industrial control systems in reactors and research institutions for years. Stuxnet was very sophisticated. It's said to have been developed by Israeli and US coders but, of course, there's no confirmation. Stuxnet found vulnerabilities in specialised chips designed for one purpose.

In 2009, an allegedly Chinese operation, "GhostNet" hacked data off government servers in many nations. In 2007, Estonia was knocked offline by a coordinated attack, made by at least a million hacked computers, turned into a "zombie army". Russia was blamed, given tensions between Estonia and Russia. Georgia was knocked offline during the South Ossetia Crisis of 2008. Again, Russia had circumstantial motives. In the 1990s, the US hit Serbian infrastructure to knock out air traffic control and facilitate UN bombing operations.

Military infrastructure and equipment is heavily dependent on computers and networks. All military equipment relies to some degree on specialised chips, or on networks. General civilian infrastructure is also vulnerable.

The global financial system, for example, is networked and interconnected. Banks, credit cards issuers, financial markets servers, central banks, tax authorities and so on all "talk" to each other. Power grids are smart. So are airport traffic control and airline routing systems, railway networks, traffic lights and so on.

The "Internet of Things" is also growing. This consists of smart unmanned devices connected to the internet. It includes items as diverse as industrial robots, police drones, refrigerators and car navigational systems. Botnet armies of "things" have already been created.

At least 140 nations have cyber war programmes. The US spends untold billions distributed across many agencies. It has a Cyber Command, which is part of Special Operations Forces. The US also has an articulated framework of "five pillars" for active and passive cyber-warfare. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO has a separate "Tallinn manual" developed after the Estonia episode mentioned above.

While other countries lack similar resources or focus, even small investments in cyber capabilities can pay off big in offensive terms. And, of course, defensive capacities in this area are imperative. This is one area of civilian-cum-military capability where India cannot afford to fall behind.