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The terror of anti-terrorism laws and why Facebook, Twitter and Google’s fail to protect privacy

Over the past couple of days I have seen quite a few articles in which people have been complaining about Facebook invading people’s privacy, being creepily Big-Brotherish and encouraging online stalkers. The tide also seems to have turned against Google, with the ever-unpopular Street View cameramen admitting that they had “inadvertently” downloaded private data from household Wi-Fi networks, including sensitive information such as passwords and e-mails.

It’s no secret that law enforcement officials and security forces the world over can or will soon be able to hack into anyone’s Facebook, Skype or e-mail accounts and collect data such as private conversations, photographs or status updates to gather information about suspected criminals.

The trouble I have with this is: how do officials decide who is a potential criminal or terrorist? Do they use racial and religious profiling? For over twenty years, key-word technology has been developed as part of state security. Mention the word “bomb” or similar such terroristy word over the internet, the phone or in a text or e-mail and a little red flag is raised somewhere on a server.

Of course, most of the time it’s a false alarm. Nevertheless they must be looked into, which takes up time and resources. And the technology has to get more and more sophisticated as the years go by, because more and more people are getting connected and internet traffic is growing exponentially year-on-year.

The anarchist in me would suggest that everyone should put the word “bomb” in every single e-mail you send out and say it on every single phone call you make, and if millions of us do it, it might make their servers explode and their operations director commit suicide.

However, the real threat to our privacy is not just Facebook, but the whole kit and caboodle. Facebook, Twitter and Google and the millions of app developers and advertisers watching your consumer habits. Turning your computer on or using your mobile phone means that you are leaving a trail of your behaviour on servers all over the world. Your IP address. Your friends. Your shopping habits. Your Google searches. Your location. You think that just because your “add your location” option on Facebook is disabled that no-one will know where you are?

Puh-lease, biatch.

Everyone’s cellphone is a tracking device. GSM technology allows network providers to track the location of a mobile phone using cell tower triangulation methods. Even if you have a Nokia 3310.

Most passports are now so-called biometric or electronic passports. These passports contain RFID chips which can be read from up to 30 feet away, enabling your personal information to be read and updated on a central database without your knowledge whenever you are travelling with your personal documents. And those are just the RFID chips we know about. There may very well be others that we are not aware of, hidden away in things we would never suspect.

Calls can be tapped and Facebook/Twitter communication can be logged. Even Voice-Over-Internet Protocol (VOIP) calls such as Skype can be monitored, recorded and traced.

I would say that Twitter is becoming a larger threat to privacy than Facebook. With the new revamped version of Twitter, conversations between groups of people can be seen and analysed, and multimedia platforms are available on separately-developed but interlinked applications. The more worrying aspect of Twitter is that most people’s Twitter accounts are public, meaning anyone can see them, whereas the vast majority of Facebook accounts are protected by privacy settings.

Some people can Tweet up to 100 times in one day, leaving nothing about themselves to the imagination but the regularity of their bowels. That means that just about anyone can get a good feel of who you are, what you do and what your political stance is just by reading your Twitter feed.

Naturally, there will be a mindless sheep here somewhere saying, “but if you haaaaaven’t done aaaanything wrong, then you don’t have aaaaaanything to fear.”

Well, you smug little anal-retentive government-employed drone, you are more plastic than flesh and bone. Every normal person has something to hide, whether it is a big something or a small something. Everyone has committed some kind of a sin that they wouldn’t want the entire world knowing about. Everyone is guilty of something and hopes that they are clever enough to fool the world into thinking that they are moral, law-abiding citizens. There is no such thing.

The wonderful thing about life is that mistakes and bad judgement can be left in the past and there is always the opportunity to turn over a new leaf. But that was before governments got all 2.0. Now, nothing will be forgotten.

In the United Kingdom, the deceptively-named “Interception Modernisation Programme” (IMP) will require all mobile phone and internet service providers to collect and store the "traffic details" of all internet and mobile phone use in the country. In the face of several concerns about this legislation, there have been a sudden slew of terrorism scares, from a crazy old lady who stabbed her MP to printer ink cartridge bombs defused “seconds from detonation” at UK airports. Convenient, eh? I get the feeling that the laws will be pushed through in the wake of the Islamophobic hysteria, as it always is, and we are once again stuck with a law that has stripped us of our privacy and placed us inextricably in the Orwellian sphere.

Statistics released by the British government suggest that under the Regulatory Powers Act of 2000 (RIPA) – meant to combat terrorism - one in every 78 people is placed under state-sanctioned surveillance each year, with well over half a million official requests to access private information by councils, police and other officials in 2008, for infringements of the law such as benefit fraud, illegal fly-tipping and bringing a dog into the country illegally.

And the worst part? People who were found to have done nothing wrong, not even to have breached a council by-law, are not entitled to be informed that they were the subject of a surveillance operation.

Between CCTV, credit and debit cards, cookies on our computer, wiretaps on the phones and RFID chips in our documents, the net is closing in on Joe Soap, not Osama bin Laden. And governments all over the world are using terrorism as an excuse to ensure that no deed, good or bad, goes unpunished. And of course there is reality television to keep us all glued to the box while our civil rights dissolve like ice in the Sahara desert.

The next time Facebook asks you “what’s on your mind?” I’d suggest you think twice before you tell it the truth.

Why writing takes time, patience and a vow not to commit murder

Being a writer is often a thankless job. It entails many hours of isolation, swearing at your computer screen and any living thing that moves around you and insomnia. Insomnia is a big part of being a writer.

Wordsmiths are also supposed to conform to the fine traditions of drinking surreptitiously from a hip flask and wearing a wide-brimmed floppy hat to let everyone know how eccentric you are, but being religious-ish I have yet to take up the drinking part and the wearing of a scarf interferes tiresomely with the big floppy hat idea.

My original point was that it is for the most part, unrewarding and wretched. And there is no shortage of people telling you to “hurry up” and get published. Which makes me want to stab them with a rusty ice-pick. But there are those brief moments that make it worthwhile, like finding the R100 note that I stashed in an old jacket pocket a year ago (most writers live below the bread line, and I am no exception) and the day I got the email from StoryTime’s editor, Ivor W. Hartman, telling me that two of my short stories had been nominated for selection in the literary e-zine's second anthology of short stories, African Roar 2.

I always knew that if I took up writing fiction, the road would be a long, empty monstrosity with many potholes and misleading signs, sort of like driving in the Tshwane Municipality formerly known as Pretoria. I prepared myself for millions of rejection letters and editors’ secretaries slamming the phone down on me. That’s how the industry rolls and I’m not in a hurry.

The only problem is that I wish someone had told that to my nearest and dearest. It’s almost as if someone put the evil idea into their heads that I would be an overnight success and that I would suddenly be transformed into a multi-millionaire, giving television interviews, accepting awards and cutting red ribbons inexpertly at opening ceremonies. The worst part is when they start mentally spending the non-existent money from a non-existent publishing contract for me. I’m talking beach houses and speedboats.

The two stories I mentioned earlier are both very special to me. “Trapped” was the very first short story I ever wrote and within ten minutes (figuratively speaking) it had been accepted for publication and was generating a lot of discussion and awareness about the problem of woman and child abuse in South Africa, an issue which is close to my heart.

“Longing for Home” was a story I put a lot of work and attention into. It centres around a young Zimbabwean girl, who, sent to England to study towards a degree, finds herself the sole breadwinner of a large extended family when violence erupts back home in Zimbabwe. It is a story of broken expectations, an African sense of duty and finding love in unexpected places.

So please feel free to read my two stories at the links above and you can also check out some of the other fine offerings by my fellow StoryTime writers. If you liked my two stories you can vote for them here – select Trapped by Hajira Amla – StoryTime#77 and Longing for Home by Hajira Amla – StoryTime#91, then scroll down to the bottom and click on the Vote button. Finding out my stories have been selected to go into the anthology would be one of those sweet, sentimental moments a writer waits for. My lower lip is ready to tremble theatrically any time. Voting closes on the last day of September 2010!


Facebook and Twitter: are you optimizing your social media strategy? [SPOOF]

There are times when I feel I must educate the masses about the proper and correct use of Facebook and Twitter as a medium for making friends and impressing people. Some of you are just not doing it right at all.
So for the socially inept, here are some pointers:

1. Use the right language

Some of you are putting full stops and vowels into your communication. This is unacceptable and so last century. Wen itz tym t0 tlk 2 ppl, u r sup0sd 2 b v edgy n kewl lyk dis. iT aLS0 hElpS iF U tYpE LiKe thIS. No-1 knws y.

2. Don’t hold back so much
Your friends on Facebook and Twitter WANT to know the size, colour and consistency of the vegetables you threw up in the car after a hard night’s clubbing over the weekend, what your boyfriend of two seconds whispered in your ear on the backseat last night and what emo feelings you are going through because your daddy pays more attention to his lady friends than to you.

3. My friend is your friend
This is a free world. You are more than welcome to hijack my Facebook status and verbally attack any of my other friends who comment on it, including people who are old enough to be your mother.

4. Stalking – the new way of saying I love you
Guys love it when young girls ignore all the security and privacy advantages of Facebook and have their Wall and Photos available for the world to see. It makes it that much easier to stalk you and groom you until you are ready to perform certain acts that could make you famous in the video entertainment industry. Go for it – experts say making porn can build self-confidence among the young ladies of today.

5. Tag, you’re it!

Please, by all means, upload a random picture of a fat woman with camel toe to pollute my news feed. And just in case I am unlucky enough to miss it, tag me in the picture, so that when my other stalkers friends look for pictures of me, they think I look like Gabourey Sidibe in a thong.

6. The Farmville Mafia
Everyone loves Farmville. Everyone loves Mafia Wars. Hopefully, if we invite every friend we have onto these apps repeatedly, there will be no need to live in the real world any more. We can farm by day and kill one another by night. Yeah.

7. Invitations
The University of London Fresher’s Events, The Bomb Squad, Stop Randomly Poisoning Dogs in Seychelles and I HATE TYPICAL INDIAN HARROW/KENTON/KINGSBURY BOYS & GIRLS!! These groups are awesome. My life is now so much more fulfilled and meaningful. Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.

8. Justin Bieber
I love it when #hornyforjustin is trending and I get to find out how many of the people I follow on Twitter are closet paedophiles.

9. Trending topics
Trending topics are such an insightful tool into the current affairs of the day. “I wear flip flops, even in the rain #BecauseImAGangsta”. Yes. Because all gangstas wear flip flops. In the rain. That’s what makes them gangstas. And after all, discussing why you are a gangsta is so much more important than politics or poor people getting killed in Kashmiristan. Or summin’ or nuffin’.

I hope that this list has given you a clear insight into the many, many benefits of social media. If you can think of any more of the benefits, please feel free to add them in the comments.

Oh no! The Game Drive has been postponed!

If I have been very quiet lately it has been because I have been hard at work trying to organise the game drive for the children’s home at the Sultan Bahu Centre. However, things have not gone quite as according to plan as I would have liked and the major stumbling block has been around finding a suitable date for the event to take place. The Sultan Bahu Centre is going to be quite busy this September between all the craziness of the last ten days of Ramadaan, Eid celebrations and then the children must all be packed up and sent to Durban for their annual holiday over the school holidays.

The only free weekend that the children would have had would not have worked for the Krugersdorp Game Reserve as weekends are generally quite busy for them and they would have to provide us with a game ranger to go with us on the bus through the reserve. So after tearing my hair out and making lots of waily-waily noises, my dear friend and fellow organiser on this project, Zakiya, gave me a bit of a slap (metaphorically) and told me to calm the hell down.

“We can do it in October, what’s the hurry?” she said calmly.

And I realised that the timing wasn’t really that important and that trying to get everyone to do everything on such short notice when it wasn’t convenient for them wasn’t the right thing to do in the first place. So insha-Allah it will indeed happen when everyone is ready for it to happen.

So to everyone who volunteered donations or items for the party, please hang on to that bag of crisps or that packet of paper plates for a little while longer while we reschedule this event. There is no point in cancelling it since so much of the groundwork and organisation has already been put in place. Plus it is for such a good cause that I must persevere.

So thanks again for the support and please remember me in your duas. I will keep everyone updated as soon as we have the new date finalised.


List of items for game drive lunch – donations needed!

As I’m sure you know, Fasting For Change is making arrangements to take a group of children from Sabera’s Children’s Home on a visit to the Krugersdorp Game Reserve the weekend after Eid, insha-Allah. This is one of the initiatives we are embarking on as part of the task challenge and as the saying goes, the devil is in the details, so we are working extra-hard to ensure that the children have everything that they need for the day.

So many wonderful people are involved with making this project a reality that I can gladly no longer call it my own task any more – it has grown into a collective effort that everyone involved can be proud of.

One of the things we will need help with is providing lunch for approximately 50 people (33 children and the rest would be the organizers, caregivers and media) so if there is any item on the list you can possibly provide, please let me know.

- Salt & pepper sausages
- Fresh rolls
- Coldrinks & juice
- Disposable plates and cups (donated)
- Mineral water (donated)
- Tomato sauce (donated)
- Mustard sauce (donated)
- Cupcakes (2 batches donated)
- Potato crisps (donated)
- Any other easy-to-serve confectionery or treats are welcome

Obviously you would have to live in or around Johannesburg to donate these items. All food must be strictly halaal. As I receive pledges to donate I will update the blog with a (donated) sign. Thanks in advance to anyone who can help.

The Quran, the environment and my view of city life

"And the earth We have spread out; set thereon mountains firm and immovable; And produced therein all kinds of things in due balance.

"And We have provided therein means of subsistence for you, and for those whose sustenance ye are not responsible.

"And there is not a thing but its treasures are with Us; but We only send down thereof in due and ascertainable measures.

"And We send the fecundating winds, then cause the rain to descend from the sky, therewith providing you with water. Though ye are not the guardians of its stores.

"And verily it is We who give life and Who give death: it is We who remain inheritors.

"To Us are known those of you who hasten forward and those who lag behind.

"Assuredly it is your Lord who will gather them together for He is perfect in Wisdom, Knowledge."

Holy Qur'an 15:19-25

Nothing can compare to the beauty of the Qur'an. This morning before Fajr I came across this and it gave me a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the widsom of these verses that describe how everything placed by Allah swt on the Earth is set in a delicate balance, that he gives us resources on the Earth to use for our subsistence, but that everything should be used in its due measure.

Look at the amazing description of the fecundating winds, rich with seeds to be spread over the soil and the rain that is sent after it to make the seeds grow and provide us with drinking water. We are also pointedly reminded that Allah swt is the sole guardian of fresh water - neither our scientific knowledge or our technology can avert a devastating flood or bring an end to drought.

The Qur'an tells us that our natural surroundings are Ayat (signs) but that most take no heed of them. It is when I am surrounded by natural beauty, at the coast or in the mountains, or looking at a beautiful night sky, that is the time I feel the closest to Allah swt. I feel a beautiful sense of peace that washes over me, a wave of joy, a feeling that everything makes sense. I am at my happiest at these moments. I want to jump up and down and laugh and shout a declaration of love to the sea and the mountains and the sky. Which is considered strait-jacket behaviour among most individuals, but as long as I stop doing it before the police arrive I should be fine.

You can never have that feeling in the concrete jungle, where its inhabitants can be vicious, violent and vindictive. Kind of makes wild animals look like bunny rabbits in comparison... If I had to choose one or the other for companions, I know who I would choose.

Three great task ideas from @tasoo

I received a wonderful e-mail from @tasoo on Twitter (follow her, she knows things about people just by touching their avatars) and she has some really great ideas for her three tasks, which she kindly permitted me to share with the rest of you. Behold the greatness below:

Asalaamu alaikum

Firstly, I'm thrilled to be part of this, its a fabulous idea. My three changes are

1. Community-joined Sister 4 Sister campaign. I am paired with a student from Baitul Ilm and we will be completing a task a week together until Eid. We sent off our 'getting to know you' letters today, and tasks will include things like feeding a fasting or needy child and praying for each other. We will then get to meet each other on the last iftaar insha Allah.

2. Environment-well these were ideas I had before I read about your FFC project. I have bought fabric to make shoppers, really nice ones in funky colours. Now I'm just battling to find someone to sew them for me. The idea is to empower a person who does not have a job or needs a supplementary income - its not easy, but I know I will get there. And I'm also starting a herb an veg garden to promote healthy eating and also save some dosh :)

3. Spiritual-a para a day (not easy with 2 kids) and my 4 year old wants to be taught 'how to write quraan'. My goal this year is to spend an hour alone every day and think only about Allah and why I'm fasting.


Will keep you updated