China’s Eye of Sauron


Congratulations to Tatiana S. for being the winner of last week’s Daily Pnut Week in Review! Tatiana is a data analyst who has just moved back home to London after living in the United States for 5 years.


“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” – Søren Kierkegaard


“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” – Ibid.


China’s Star Wars and Skynet Surveillance: “Black Tech” is a comic-book term in China that references futuristic surveillance gadgets. The term is getting a lot of use pursuant to President Xi Jinping’s focus on employing artificial intelligence, facial recognition and big data technology to track and control behavior that might be considered “subversive.” Chinese firms are rushing to meet the growing demand from the country’s security services, fuelling a surveillance tech arms race.


At the annual meeting of China’s parliament in central Beijing last March, anyone entering the Great Hall of the People, the venue for the National People’s Congress, went through facial recognition scanners. The security cameras, which can capture, analyze and compare suspicious faces in around two seconds, are powered by a system called “Skynet”, which has a national database of blacklisted individuals. China is also expanding a biometric voice database to boost voice recognition capabilities. And for several months, police have been testing AI-powered “smart glasses” that scan the vehicle plates and faces of occupants and match them in real-time with a database of suspects.


This month at the annual China International Exhibition on Police Equipment, the XDH-CF-5600 scanner – or “mobile phone sleuth” – was on display. This device can crack passwords and forcibly extract data from mobile phone devices in seconds. A rival firm, Beijing-based Hisign Technology, said its desktop and portable phone scanners can retrieve even deleted data from over 90 mobile applications on smartphones, including overseas platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Of particular interest was Hisign’s claim it can get data from Apple Inc’s iOS operating system, used in products like the iPhone. The iOS system is thought by many analysts to be the most secure operating system.


Also on display was the AI-2000-Xiao An robot, a blue-eyed police automaton for use at train stations and airports. It’s shaped like R2-D2 from “Star Wars”, but with red flashing “ears” and over a dozen sensors and cameras. It can identify people in a crowd, engage in conversations and broadcast police announcements.


– 87-year-old philanthropist, billionaire financier, and conservatives’ archenemy George Soros has launched a campaign to hold a second Brexit vote in the UK. Soros announced Tuesday that the goal of his Best for Britain campaign, which will officially begin June 8, is to save the UK from the “immense damage” withdrawing from the EU will cause. Soros said: “Brexit is … harmful to both sides … Divorce will be a long process, probably taking more than five years… an eternity in politics, especially in revolutionary times like the present.” (The Guardian)


– Police in Spain arrested London businessman and outspoken Kremlin critic Bill Browder on Wednesday. He was taken into custody on a Russian warrant issued through INTERPOL. Browder has spoken frequently about Russian attempts to influence the domestic affairs of other countries. He was released after a few hours once INTERPOL Spain verified that the arrest warrant for tax evasion wasn’t valid. Browder, who admitted the experience was scary, wasted no time hopping a plane and hightailing it Straight Outta Madrid. (NPR)


– India and Pakistan have been fighting over the lush and picturesque Himalayan valley of Kashmir for years. In the last 18 months, more than 100 Pakistani soldiers have died in cross-border artillery duels along the heavily fortified de facto border that divides each country’s areas of control. Finally, after a hot-line conversation between military generals, a cease-fire was agreed upon Tuesday. (NPR)


– Save the Children reports that more than half the world’s children are at risk of poverty, conflict and discrimination against girls. The charity’s second End of Childhood index says one billion children live in countries rife with poverty, about 240 million live in countries affected by conflict, and 575 million girls live in countries where discrimination against women is common. At the bottom of the childhood index rankings is Niger, along with Mali and the Central African Republic; eight of the bottom ten nations are in West or Central Africa. At the top of the rankings are Singapore and Slovenia, joint first, followed by Norway and Sweden in joint third, and Finland fifth. Reminder: International Children’s Day is June 1. (BBC)


– President Trump isn’t backing down on his threats of tariffs and restrictions against Chinese imports and investment. The US said on Tuesday that $50 billion in Chinese imports could see higher tariffs unless China addresses the issue of the theft of American intellectual property. Chinese companies’ investment in the US could be restricted, and export controls for goods exported to China could be imposed. China fired back Wednesday, warning it was ready for a trade war rumble if that’s what Washington is looking for. All this just days ahead of a high-profile visit to China by US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and less than two weeks before Trump’s summit with North Korea’s Supreme Leader. (Reuters)


More Reads

– Japanese whale hunters kill 122 pregnant minke (BBC)
– Taliban ‘talking and fighting,’ says U.S. commander in Afghanistan (Reuters)

– ‘Deeply Disturbing’ Conditions For Rohingya In Myanmar, And Those Yet To Return (NPR)

– Biafra shutdown cripples Nigerian cities (BBC)


The Adventures of a Russian Journalist and The Mysterious Fake Death: In 1897 Mark Twain wrote to a newspaper columnist: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Apparently the report of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko’s demise was to. Turns out Babchenko’s death was actually staged by the journalist in coordination with Ukrainian police as part of an investigation into threats made against his life. The plan had been in place for more than a month, and even Babchenko’s closest family members didn’t know about it.


Babchenko is a Kremlin critic and veteran Russian war correspondent. He appeared Wednesday afternoon at a police press conference before journalists who had been expecting updates on the investigation into his murder. Reactions were understandably mixed. Russian officials denounced the staged murder, and a number of observers questioned the extreme measures taken by Ukrainian police. One wrote online: “Next time there’s some killing, Russia will be able to play the ‘do you know this is real?’ card.”

The stunt did result in the arrest of a man police believe was preparing to kill Babchenko. The man was allegedly paid $30,000 by the Russian security force to murder the journalist. A number of journalists and other dissidents have been killed in recent years in Ukraine. Their deaths remain unsolved.


– President Trump has selector’s remorse. He tweeted Wednesday he sure wished he’d selected someone other than Jeff Sessions for attorney general (AG). Trump has been mad at Sessions ever since the AG recused himself in the Russia probe. The NYT reported Tuesday that Trump wanted an attorney general who would protect him, but gosh darnit, Sessions just wouldn’t un-recuse himself. (NPR)


– Michael Avenatti is the attorney for the porn star who alleged she had a one-night stand with Donald Trump in 2006 and got paid $130,000 right before the 2016 election not to talk about it. Avenatti managed to turn what just might have been one tawdry blip on the Trump radar into a millstone around his presidency. Now Avenatti is insisting reports about his finances and personal life are a Trumpian plot with ‘zero bearing’ on his client’s case. (The Guardian)


More Reads

– US preacher asks followers to help buy fourth private jet (BBC, not The Onion)

– Ambien maker responds to Roseanne Barr: ‘Racism is not a known side effect’

After the comedian partly blamed her controversial tweets on taking the sedative, drug-maker Sanofi released a statement (The Guardian, and again not The Onion)

– In California’s Farm Country, the Tide of ‘Resistance’ Runs Dry Ahead of the Primary

Although within California it is common to pit north versus south, the sharp cultural divisions between rural and urban areas are in many ways more significant. (NYT)


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– Online dating lowers self-esteem and increases depression, studies say (CNN)

– It Saves Lives. It Can Save Money. So Why Aren’t We Spending More on Public Health?

Funding for health campaigns is surprisingly low when you consider they’re often so valuable that they pay for themselves. (NYT)

– Antony Beevor: the greatest war movie ever – and the ones I can’t bear. He groaned at Valkyrie and despaired at Saving Private Ryan. The award-winning historian takes aim at the war films that make him furious – and reveals his own favourite. (Guardian)

– Is Acne Cool Now? How celebrities and influencers are changing the stigma of having acne. (NYT)

– Trump’s Right-Hand Troll: Stephen Miller once tormented liberals at Duke. Now the president’s speechwriter and immigration enforcer is deploying the art of provocation from the White House. (The Atlantic)

– TMZ Goes MAGA: How Harvey Levin’s Gossip Empire Became Trump’s Best Friend

The president and the king of gossip have a relationship that’s paid off for them both. Never more so than when Trump almost lost the election. (The Daily Beast)


“The most common form of despair is not being who you are.” – Søren Kierkegaard


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