Monday, 12 November 2012

On rescuing a tourist from a house of hidden cameras

It sounds like a schizophrenic nightmare, but I did help out a tourist last weekend who was looking for a safe place to stay, after she realised her former host was secretly filming her in his flat.

I’m actually hoping it will raise thoughts about the market in voyeuristic images, which the law might be struggling to catch up with. 

I met this worried girl out of the blue in person, after joining a website called ‘’, which bears the tagline that ‘CouchSurfing helps you meet and adventure with new friends around the world!’

For those that don’t know about it already, this is fairly similar to hitch-hiking, but with sofas. You host people for free on your couch - you can also find people via the site who will host you. The idea is that nobody earns anything through doing it... it's friendly...

Last Saturday I received this message from a guy in Las Vegas: ‘Please help my girlfriend!’ he said, clearly distressed. His girlfriend had just discovered the man hosting her in London was secretly filming her.  There was one camera in the bathroom, and one focused on the couch where she was sleeping.

To me, it sounded like the plot of some scary thriller. Her boyfriend agreed: ‘I'm going to be so relieved once she's outa there'

I met the girl (I'm always slightly surprised to find out that people I've met online are actually real) and we got along great. I decided to host her for the weekend. She decided to file a police report and I accompanied her. Most unsettling to everybody was the picture she'd taken in the host’s bathroom, of a WiFi camera that he had hidden behind some toiletries. She explained that it was pointing at the mirror, which was pointing at the shower.

In light of her crisis I’ve scrutinised's safety policies anew. Similar to facebook, anybody can register for the site. They send one another ‘couch-requests’.  After they’ve met, they write either 'positive', 'neutral' or 'negative' references, which appear on the user’s profile. Sometimes, they send them friend-requests.

For a fee you can be ‘verified’, which means a postcard with a code sent to your address. It ensures that CS has verified your identity. 

You can also ‘vouch’ for a friend, on the condition that you have genuinely met them face-to-face and trust them thoroughly. 

Once somebody has been vouched for three times on the site they're regarded as officially vouched for. I hope it weeds out psychopaths. But I warned some couch-surfers who were contacting me about the creepy story I'd just heard. Since then, my guest and a couple of other surfers have described ‘awkward’ or creepy experiences with the occasional host who isn't what they claim to be. This isn't the only voyeur that has been found out via the site. One guy was rumbled, apparently, for secretly filming couples he’d invited to stay in his house. 

It's hard to know what sort of crime you'd categorise these uncomfortable actions as, except to say that they're wrong. Invasion of privacy? Sexual harrassment? Anybody who knows the legal position on voyeurism, feel free to share it, as from a layman's perspective, the boundaries appear to be quite blurry. After all, a photographer in France took a picture of of Kate Middleton's topless sunbathing as part of his everyday job, which is concerning when you think about it.

Of course there's also voyeurism between people who already know one another offline... I've heard tell of at least one person who secretly films sex with their partners (yuck). There's another who sends out vicious tweets publicly boasting about their exploits. 

... I suppose I should balance the tide I've started here by saying that the website isn't (necessarily) a cesspit. I've met extremely bighearted people via the site. The other couchsurfer who stayed with us had taken all kinds of risks, hitchhiked all over Europe and used couchsurfing a lot, but still had entirely positive, life-affirming experiences...

Just, stay frosty. A heads-up, naturally.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Syria: part II

Twitter tells me that 'bloggers are uniting' today, to condemn the Houla massacre in Syria and demand a response. I'm using my lunchbreak at Exaro.
(Twitter also says it's doughnut day; twitter is very strange).

The Times has made this article free to access on the massacre: "The children of Houla were not killed by random shelling. The UN yesterday revealed that they were murdered one by one."

I've met Syrians in London who knew those attacked by the regime as well as inexplicable Assad-supporters (described as 'brainwashed' 'mad' or 'sharing in the corruption'). The first time I was aware of how terrible Assad's abuses had become was in conversation with a Libyan doctor this winter. At that time, Syria was 'the forgotten place', but she was getting emails about doctors being murdered because they were 'treating from both sides' including injured protestors.

Another friend lived in Damascus before 2010, when goons visited foreign students to let them know they were under surveillance. Long before the killings, but it was obvious that the fingers of the state went everywhere, with impunity.

This week I met protestors outside Syria's London embassy, calling for Assad's flag to be taken down and replaced with the green flag of independence.

Here is a picture showing the distance between the protestors and the objectionable flag:

The people also wanted to be photographed, obviously... But I don't want to publish the photos here as anybody can look at them and apparatchiks run all over the world.

There were about 20 protestors when I got there. They explained that British police are 'very polite' and that they are not allowed to remove the red-striped flag and replace it with green.

I got talking to a man who explained his feelings to me:

"Yesterday I lost my cousin. Yesterday, just yesterday.

"Because if you go just outside the home, and go to protest some snipers are everywhere, all over the building, government building and shooting the people, randomly."

Where was he?

"I am from Homs. He is from Homs, inside Homs.

"I am from the same city of Homs, not from town or countryside. But now Homs, many areas inside Homs, the same area, all the time, bombing, shelling, using tanks, snipers. Like war. Lots of trouble, trouble."

What did your cousin do? What was his work?

"Why? Just protest. Peacefully, peacefully. We have a lot of stories. If they're going inside the homes killing children by knives, what do you think? They never, they never ever want to give up because they know if they give up many people will get their money and they will go to criminal court. That’s why they’re going to stay and control that country and fight, fight fight fight until the last person. It’s very difficult. People are now asking for a no fly but I didn’t hear any country saying, we cannot do that. It’s very bad."

He said. "I wrote this –"

And showed me pictures that his cousin took of happy, smiling gatherings: "We have hope."

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Pussy Riot: an aesthetic protest

Did you hear about the band that embarrassed Putin by singing songs about him being a chicken in Red Square?

Pussy Riot is a fairly unique protest movement that has sprung up in Russia, although these protestors I spoke to recently, returning from a dance-off in front of the Embassy in London, said that it is more popular abroad because the level of repression they face in Russia is so formidable.

The three women whose photographs they're holding are alleged to belong to 'pussy riot' and are currently jailed with their lawyer fighting for their release.

The arrests ostensibly resulted from an 'illegal' gig in a church in which they prayed to the Virgin Mary to deliver them from Putin. Just looks like a nice party to me:

But the activists I spoke to feel this was just an excuse, and the most important protests Pussy Riot did were in February, in Red Square. They explained that Pussy Riot (and I would stress that the imprisoned girls, pictured, are only ALLEGEDLY from Pussy Riot) are "Politzeki: political fighters, for freedom of the culture".

I asked if this is mostly a feminist movement?

He said 'it's full of all kinds of people'.

The girl on the left explained: "It's more often led by feminist ideas, for [the girls who held a gig in a church], because they stood for eligibility and for feminism - they are really amazing in that way. It's one of the reasons for why they are mistreated. But in Russia  you would see all the different people for different groups."

I knew that these three pussy riot members had been imprisoned for a gig they held in a church, but asked how they could be identified, given that band members wear neon balaclavas?

The girl on the right said: "They can't prove anything! They say maybe they were identified from their mouths, but they can't prove it. I think everybody has just accepted that those three girls are the girls in the church."

The man (middle) said: "I think they [the government] were just waiting for another moment for Pussy Riot, to arrest them. Because actually, my theory is that he [Putin] wanted them arrested after they went to Red Square in February.

"In February they went to Red Square, in front of the Kremlin, and sang a song that went: 'Chicken-coward, get from the Kremlin, you have to go'. So he wanted to get to them directly, to get rid of them, but he couldn't, because he will look like he is a weak person - that he is afraid of the song."

"Because of the elections you know," one said "he couldn't arrest them at this time."

They showed me these pictures of other activists who have been arrested.

This month, reportedly 13 activists were also detained outside the courtroom where the three women were trialled.

For background, I like Peter Savodnik's summary in BusinessWeek:

'The rise of Pussy Riot is but one of many recent manifestations of public disapproval of the Kremlin. Discontent had been building for more than a year when demonstrations erupted in December after legislative elections whose results the authorities had clearly tampered with; widespread anger spearheaded by Russia’s youth focused on the United Russia party and its leader, Putin. Alexey Navalny, the most prominent opposition leader, is just 35. Among the more visible protest factions is FEMEN—which, like Pussy Riot, is an all-girl group that uses shock value to protest the regime. Unlike the punk-rock ensemble, members of FEMEN are known for taking off their tops and screaming angry, anti-Kremlin chants.
[...]  Punk rock icon Kathleen Hanna, who posted a video online voicing support for Pussy Riot, said: “These are the punk rock feminists that would be our friends if they lived down the corner, up the block, in our neighborhood, around Bushwick—wherever. These would be the cool girls we hung out with.”'

Monday, 2 April 2012


This blog entry includes accounts, roughly-rendered, from Syrians and other activists I know, along with what I've seen outside the embassy in London...

 I first noted this when friends spoke about an activist who was killed, and I lay awake afterwards in tears, bombed by the story.

However it has taken a while to re-upload this while I run it by the people involved - as they know their story best...

Free Syria: notes

"Everybody loved him,” she said. “He was a beautiful person - not just in the person that he was, but also, physically, beautiful. I couldn't understand how anybody could do this to anybody, especially to somebody like him, but they did.

“They tortured him. They smashed in his skull and they killed him, and they- "

She put her hands to her face and moved them around- a gesture to convey what had happened to his face.

There are still voices, internationally, defending Assad's regime.
I’ve seen them outside the Syrian embassy in London. Every time the ‘free Syria’ activists have a protest, the pro-Assad people set up camp on the other side of the square.

Here are the anti-Assad group, 'Free Syria':

The Free Syria protestors have angry speeches from guests in English and Arabic, while the pro-Assad crowd jump up and down singing love songs, with their dictator gazing pathetically from the tops of flag-poles: duplications of Assad’s-puppy-gaze and Assad’s straight little mouth.

'What on earth are they celebrating?' we asked.

'Being in power, of course,' observed a friend.

We watched them bobbing up and down frantically and wondered if they were all relatives of the royal family.

The hands of dictatorship reach out everywhere, but especially in London (see Kelvin Brown's blog - 'robbed at the gaddafi's london mansion', March 22, for more of this madness).

M, an activist I met, knows all about Assad's apologists. She said: "I understand how a Jewish person feels if they are faced with holocaust deniers.

'I was at a lecture, the speaker was talking to us about the French Revolution and she said 'what do you think of Syria?'

"I sat up - I thought, yes! Syria! Of course they had no way of knowing that I am Syrian. But, one Algerian guy stood up and said 'I think it's bullshit'.

"I said: but you have seen the pictures of children killed?

He said, yes, but that these are all terrorists, and that we are all selaphists in Syria.

I said 'look at me, I am Syrian, I am with this revolution and I am not veiled.’ This guy was so aggressive, he argued with me for so long, I just couldn’t stand it.”

She glanced at the floor. “I completely broke down."

Her Egyptian friend, L, interrupted, gently: "the French and the Algerians do not want a revolution to happen in their own country. This is why they are so aggressive - because they are scared."

M said: "Some people try to argue with me about numbers - they say, ah, you think it is however many thousands of deaths it is more like 300 that he is responsible for, or something like that.

Even if you could only prove that Assad was behind 1000 deaths, 100 deaths, even if it was 10 deaths, or just one - you can't put a measure on pain."

She went on: "I can even count four Syrians that I know, here in London, who do not oppose Assad. And in Syria, too. The more people watch the television, the less they seem to actually know.
“Even in Homs,” she explained, “there is a wall. Inside the wall, you’ll see boys on the street, girls, wandering about, talking - you could think that everything is fine. Outside it...”

She makes another gesture to indicate buildings razed to the ground.

"... You know,” she carried on, “I even went to Tunisia and I had a bad feeling. I wasn't expecting it. A few years ago, I had been absolutely moved by the warmth of the Tunisian people, but I went there last December and...

"We said: we are Syrians. And they said: Yes." She did an impression of them shrugging. "We think - is that all you're going to say?! And they say: your revolution is quite different to ours. I say, yes. It is different. Ours is very, very much more feeling. Very real to us still. What happened in Tunisia was such an inspiration to us and they do not even..."

She broke off with restrained sadness.

L said: “I spend so much time thinking to myself: what am I doing about this, other than praying?”

M said “You are raising awareness. When I speak to British people they realise that I am somebody young, educated, maybe stylish? Someone that they can have laugh with. Somebody just like them. That we are peers.”

The group spoke about somebody that they had all worked to free from Assad's forces, a Syrian student at a university in London:

“When he was captured, my brother said to me ‘are you sure you want to speak out?’ but I just thought of him, trapped, and of course I had to do it. I knew what could happen to me, but there was no question in my mind.”

"I will say," said N, an English girl, "that I am such a coward. But, I saw an Afghan woman MP speaking on television, answering the question 'and what if you are killed? What about your children?' - she just [smiling] said 'we all die, anyway.' I was so inspired by this woman.

'We all spend our lives fearing death - but in this world, I feel we have lost touch with that, and we extend it until we fear the loss of our office, the loss of our title, or job.

'Will we get so scared that we can no longer leave the house?'

She went on to explain what I've always believed, that heartlessness only comes from a sense of detachment from suffering:

She said: "I saw a girl on TV speaking from Syria. She said her father had heard a knock on the door.

And she said - don’t open it.

He said: No, I will open it, I’ve done nothing wrong.

But when he opened the door, she said, they grabbed him and they dragged him out of the door, and they slit his throat.

People can say oh, it is Syria. But when I imagine that this is my father, and my house,suddenly-”

We all stop for a moment. Then she carries on.

“What really makes me angry is the thought of anybody doing these things to preserve their little office, their little job."

L said: "It’s power. I have seen people change the moment they get a taste of it."

"I know 'absolute power corrupts absolutely' - but, Assad could have listened to the protests. He could have made his government more democratic and still kept his piece of power. Now that he has done this, people want him dead."

L said: "What will happen when Assad meets God?"

“The shit that will go down when that happens."

Monday, 5 March 2012

Spring: Libya; Egypt

"You've got to learn Arabic."

This advice came from a surfer-journalist with volcanic qualities, who'd found out I was interested in 'the Arab spring.'

"You've got to learn Arabic," he said. "You've got to study thousands of years of history before you can begin to understand. And you've got to tell the truth, although it won't get you very far."

Admittedly I've not learned Arabic yet, but I'm increasingly fascinated by the changes taking place across the Middle East and North Africa because we can talk all we like about 'political' revolution or a revolution of 'ideas', but I'm beginning to feel that what happens next could be made or broken by...

1) Guns
2) Money

So let's continue on this note.


I have no unifying narrative for such a densely-populated country, but it's come to my attention that the UK is waving a £100,000,000 bill at Egypt but has not disclosed what the debt is made up of.

E.g. 'Here is a huge bill. Please pay it.'
'What are you billing me for?'

A question that this group are working on and if you're interested there's a meeting at the Grayston Centre in London on Thursday.

While debt saddles the economy, it's notable that $1.3 billion USAid per annum and the guns in Egypt are owned by SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, leaving Egyptian activists concerned that military power could override any elected government. One family have been yelling about this very thing outside the Egyptian embassy every day for more than a year now, and told me that their house in London is being watched.


My understanding is that citizen hoarding of both guns and money is widespread, but there have been some striking *dams* in the flow of money during transition.

I attended a lecture at SOAS where the Libyan ambassador to UAE said that there is now a 'multitude of voices', as opposed to *one voice* (the State's).

This was echoed by a UK-based Libyan (with close connections to the freedom fighters) who claimed to me:

"Every day there is a fight, every day there is an argument and people die because of clashes between different people and because what we called the fifth column, the Gaddafi groups infiltrating everything and causing problems between the different freedom fighter groups.

"They are getting what we call the electronic army, they are invading our Facebook websites. They are invading everything and anyone who stands up to them, they will ruin his reputation by accusing him of stealing or of being with the regime."
I also heard that the people working for the revolution hadn't been paid in months - and that the people running the country had been paid, or hadn't been paid, depending on who you speak to. It was only much later on that word of a cash shortage emerged from the haze.

The latest Exaro article:

I interviewed the Libyan transitional government's former health minister, Dr Nagi Barakat for Exaro News (my investigative journalistic employer). Despite Libya being an oil-rich country, he claimed to have no formal budget during transition.

This was, he said, partly due to their being 'no cash' (meaning 'actual, physical cash') in Libya, partly due to corruption, and partly due to money being located outside the country.

We're talking about the period from March to the end of November last year and among other things, I'm now looking at whether the problem is ongoing.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

What was Mubarak's finance minister doing at the London School of Economics?

Today (well, yesterday - it's late) - I was startled to see news unfolding in front of me at this LSE public lecture: "The Year of Egypt's Second Revolution, the balance sheet so far"

The lesson being: stay for the public questions, they're the best bit.

A girl to the left of the hall put up her hand to say something like: "I've been finding it difficult to concentrate on your lecture because Egypt's ex-finance minister is sitting in this room. How can he be sitting here - after so many people have died - when he is wanted by Interpol - how can he be sitting here in this audience?"

The audience peered around. Youssef Boutros-Ghali was in the room but he must've managed not to blush because at first, nobody was pointing him out. But he was - oh, definitely there. A few people clattered up the stairs at the back of the hall - I later learned that they'd stationed themselves at doorways, trying to arrange his arrest, but they met with resistance from LSE security who said that they had to respond to the 'threat' using the information they had available at the time.

But for those who wanted to confront him it was an electric discovery. "He's not that hard to recognise!"a group of them piped to me after the event. "We can't believe he's gone."

One of them rounded on me. "What's your take on this?"

"Um... I find it really funny that he's here. That he came to a lecture at the LSE to learn about the revolution in Egypt."

Somebody observed he could be having an existential crisis: "why am I here? Why has this happened?"

"Doesn't he know enough about the second revolution, that he feels he has to learn about it from a Harvard academic?"

"I wasn't even planning to come here today," she said. "I was trying to decide whether to go eat, or to go to the lecture, and I chose the lecture. He was HERE and now he's gone!"

It turns out Joe Quinn of the Guardian was also there and wrote this piece tonight: 'Anger over appearance of Ex-Egyptian finance minister at LSE lecture'

The Egyptian students' eager attempt at an arrest was thwarted by LSE security rules that give the insitution a 'duty of care' to any member of the audience who feels threatened.

According to Quinn's account, when the university realised that Youssef is wanted by Interpol for "fraud, fraud, fraud" they phoned the police but by this time the ex finance minister had got away in a taxi.

Now, in some ways it's not surprising that Boutros-Ghali was not only ushered quietly out under protection but treated with enormous respect within the lecture theatre itself, with the person alongside me whispering 'this is so inappropriate' when further questions mentioned the finance minister. Officialdom - even fugitive officialdom - has a tenacious quality of commanding respect.

Afterwards, protestors chanted 'shame on you! Shame on you' in the lobby of the New Academic Building while flustered security explained that he'd had limited information and a duty of care to all audience members and would behave in the same way if any member of the audience had been under such a threat. One of the students said that she was shocked by what was considered a threat and had been told by security that she couldn't stand outside with her phone ready to take a picture.

"If you felt intimidated by security at any time, I am sorry, we will address it."

"You acted to protect him from students," she said.
It reminded me of one of the historical revolutions cited during the lecture.

When the revolutionaries won, they walked among "the people" and found they were heckled and mobbed.

Twelve months later, they spoke from a podium and the people were not allowed anywhere near them. This was to be an authoritarian government.

The point made in the lecture is that every revolution is a "people's" revolution and afterwards, anything could happen. Professor Owen argued that we need to take an interest in the 'nuts and bolts' of a democracy because elections alone are never enough for democracy to function. In every revolution there is what he calls a 'military interest', but the definition could be broader, jockeying for position with other forces, seeking absolute power and protection from scrutiny.