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Pilgrimage to nowhere

A year on from Benazir Bhutto's assassination, Fatima Bhutto visits the family mausoleum and reflect

The old Bhutto mazaar, or graveyard, is in a small town called Garhi Khuda Bux. It is not fair to call it a town; it’s a hamlet really, nestled between swaths of fertile agricultural land and small town centres that cater to travelling traders and produce distributors. When I was younger, I used to know we were close to the mazaar as we drove by the old paan wallah. He was a geriatric who sold betel-leaf paans, conical beedi cigarettes and a pack or two of Gold Leaf extra-strong smokes from the table he sat on. The mazaaritself was hundreds of years old and is where the Bhuttos have been buried since they settled in Sind. Wooden pillars, carved with lattice designs, marked the absence of the four walls that would have enclosed the open-air burial site. It was a sombre resting place: four corners of Sind lay open around you, and the dusty smell of the air in Garhi Khuda Bux’s desert climate surrounded mourners who came to mark death anniversaries and birthdays.

It's all gone now.

It was torn down by the last member of the family to be buried there, Benazir Bhutto, and rebuilt as a mausoleum. In a country where politics has always orbited around personalities, she was determined that hers would be the largest and the grandest. Benazir rebuilt the old family mazaar in the manner of an Aladdin-style castle. The structure has a domed roof, four minaret-like points facing in different directions, a grand driveway so that no one need bother to walk, and elaborate staircases which lead nowhere. It's revolting. It looks like the Disney version of the Taj Mahal.

A visiting journalist once asked me what was going to be built on a second storey of the grandiose mausoleum, the one the staircases presumably were erected for. "A gift store, probably," I answered. I was joking. But there is one now - actually, there are plenty, they're just not on the second floor.

Outside the mausoleum there are juice sellers, men with portable pakora and popcorn machines, stalls selling pictures of all the dead Bhuttos and more stalls selling posters and tapes of the dead Bhuttos' speeches. It's macabre, but this is the shrine that Benazir built for herself; this is the afterbirth of her death.

Now her posters, in the manner of those at Sufi shrines, hang inside the mausoleum, over the graves even. There is no space for the sacred, there is no space for grief, only space for advertising and political grandstanding of "Look whom I'm related to"-type posters, "Vote for my children, they're next!" warnings, and so on.

One year after Benazir's assassination, this is what her legacy has come down to. And it is fitting that in her death, like in her life, there is no talk of principles or ideology, only of personality and genealogy.

There is, however, a small matter to contend with: the larger legacy, so to speak. Two months after her violent death, the party she headed as chairperson for life (an actual title) - the Pakistan Peoples Party - came to power on a sympathy vote. The people voted for a ghost and they ended up with her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and her cronies in power. Pakistan is, to date, the only nuclear-armed country in the world led by two former criminals. And as the new PPP's first year in power comes to a close, coinciding with the death of its chairperson, I feel compelled, as a Pakistani, to recap what all this means and to ask, "What legacy have we been left with?"

Legacies are insulting in the face of mass suicides, carried out by members of the poorer classes because they simply can no longer afford to live

Clearly, it is a legacy with no sense of irony. In the United States the Pakistani diplomatic mission to Texas is hard at work raising funds for a Charlie Wilson Chair of Pakistan Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. Out of all the people in the universe who should have a chair in Pakistani studies named after them, the American congressman who funded the mujahedin (now Taliban) through Pakistan’s secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence, is the stupidest person to choose. Remember how well Wilson’s efforts turned out? Well, right here in Pakistan we have daily reminders. In the last week of December, a branch of the Peshawar Model School was attacked. The school, which offers private education to 12,000 of the poorest children in Peshawar, North-West Frontier Province, was targeted by the Pakistani Taliban – thanks, Charlie Wilson – because it teaches girls and boys together. Two buses were burned to a crisp and ten others were quite seriously torched. A parcel of dynamite that exploded in the principal’s office maimed several staff and groundskeepers.

US drones continue to breach Pakistani sovereignty, with the blessing of President Zardari, who proclaimed to those being anonymously killed that "the air strikes will go on". Somebody told him that was a bad PR move, so he quickly rescinded the proclamation.

The front page of a leading English-language daily last month carried a statement by General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of army staff, in large, bold letters, "Kayani pledges matching response to India strike in no time". The story directly opposite read, in a con siderably smaller font, "US missiles kill seven in South Waziristan". This referred to civilians killed on 22 December, but, in fact, the unmanned drones have been killing since the autumn.

While it remains acceptable for Americans to come and kill our citizens, Pakistan's government has issued bombastic and seemingly harsh statements to counter the threat of a possible Indian air strike following the fallout of the Mumbai massacres. It's nice to be distracted from an actual daily death toll, after all.

There's more, lots more legacy to contend with. At a mid-December Asia Society panel in New York, grave charges were placed against Pakistan. Salman Rushdie, no fan of Pakistan (and why would he be, when the country's parliament pledged its continued desire to prolong his fatwa and allowed several members publicly to offer to kill him after he was knighted in 2007), summed up the way people are now looking at Pakistan: "The headquarters of al-Qaeda, the headquarters of the Taliban, the headquarters of Lashkar-e-Toiba, the headquarters of Jaish-e-Mohammad is in the world centre of terrorism - Pakistan." For emphasis, he added, "All the roads of world terrorism lead to Pakistan."

For those Rushdie bashers who would be quick to fatwa him for that statement, it is worth remembering that he is as Pakistani as he is Indian, his family having moved to Karachi and lived and died there.

But it is not just Rushdie who lacks faith in this new Pakistan. A poll conducted in the country in October by the International Republican Institute showed that 88 per cent of Pakistanis think their country is heading in the wrong direction. Fifty-nine per cent said they felt their economic situation would worsen in the coming year and the PPP received a rating so unfavourable that the pollsters compared it to former President Pervez Musharraf's figures last January. Why should Pakistanis have any confidence in their government? Recently it was made known that the puppet prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, had spent 50 million rupees on five foreign trips over the pre vious four months. That's something close to £450,000 - for one man (and his very large entourage, apparently). I smell corruption. You'd have no sense of smell if you didn't.

Legacies aren't enough in Pakistan. They never were, but now we have ample proof why. Personalities and dynasties are meaningless in a country where, every day, gastrointestinal disease kills children because they have no access to potable water. Legacies are insulting in the face of mass suicides, carried out by members of Pakistan's poorer classes because they simply can no longer afford to live.

Mohammad Azam Khan worked for a private cable channel. He killed himself in early December, having not received a salary for five months. His colleagues held protest rallies around the country, but no one - especially not the media - wants us to remember his name or why he felt he had no choice but to take his own life.

Pakistanis have bigger problems to contend with, bigger causes to grieve for than Benazir Bhutto. And yet, a year on from her death, we are still at the mercy of our ghosts.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The destruction of Gaza

NEAL FOX FOR NEW STATESMAN
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They know where you live

Imagine your house being raided by armed police. That’s what happened to Mumsnet’s Justine Roberts after she fell victim to an internet hoaxer.

At around midnight on Tuesday 11 August 2015, a man dialled 999 to report a murder. A woman had been killed in her London home, he said, before hanging up without offering his name. A second call followed. This time, the man claimed to be the killer. He told the operator that he had now taken the woman’s children hostage at the Islington address. They were locked with him inside a room in the house, he said. The police responded with reassuring speed. Fifteen minutes later, eight officers, five of them armed with automatic weapons, accompanied by saliva-flecked dogs, arrived at the scene and took up position in neighbouring front gardens. When one officer banged on the front door of the house, the team was greeted, moments later, not by a masked murderer but by a blinking and bewildered au pair.

Justine Roberts, the woman whom the caller claimed to have killed, was in fact nearly 2,000 kilometres away – in Italy, holidaying with her husband and children. After explaining this to the police, the au pair called Roberts, who assumed that the incident was an unfortunate misunderstanding, one that could be unpicked after the vacation. It was no mistake. Roberts had been the victim of “swatting”, the term given to a false emergency call designed to bait an armed unit of police officers to storm someone’s home. It wasn’t until a few days later, as the family was preparing to return to London, that Roberts discovered that she had been the target of a planned and sustained attack, not only on her household, but also on her business.

Roberts is the founder of Mumsnet, the popular British internet discussion forum on which parents share advice and information. A few days before the swatting incident, members of 8chan, a chat room that prides itself on being an open, anonymous platform for free speech, no matter how distasteful, had registered accounts on Mums­net with the aim of trolling people there. When legitimate Mumsnet users identified and then ridiculed the trolls, some retreated to 8chan to plot more serious vengeance in a thread that the police later discovered. Roberts wasn’t involved in the online skirmish but, as the public face of the site, she was chosen as the first target.

After the initial armed response, Roberts’s perception was that the police were unconcerned about the swatting attack. “We were told that there was no victim, so there was not much that could be done,” she told me. The hoax caller, however, was not finished. In the days after the incident, there was chatter on Mumsnet and Twitter about what had happened. A Mumsnet user whom I will call Jo Scott – she requested anonymity for her own safety – exchanged heated messages with a hacker who claimed responsibility for the 999 call.

“It descended into jokes and silliness, like many things do,” Scott said. “I didn’t take it seriously when the hacker said he had big surprises in store.” She doesn’t believe that what happened next was personal. “I think I was just easy to find.”

A few days after police were called to Roberts’s home, Scott was in her bedroom while her husband was sitting downstairs playing video games. At 11pm, she heard a noise outside. “I looked out of the window and saw blue flashing lights in the street,” she recalled. “I could hear shouting but I didn’t pay it much notice.” Then she heard her husband open the front door. Police rushed into the house. An armed officer shouted upstairs, asking Scott if she was hurt. When she replied that she was fine, he told her to fetch her two young children: he needed to see them. Scott shook her sons awake, explaining, so as not to alarm them, that the police had come to show the boys their cars. As the three of them went downstairs, the officers swept up through the house, repeatedly asking if there were any weapons on the property.

“I was beyond confused by this point,” Scott said. “Everyone was carrying a gun. They had little cutaway bits so you could see the bullets. My eldest asked one of the officers if he could have a go on his gun and went to touch it.”

As Scott sat with an officer downstairs, she asked what had happened to her husband. “I later found out that the noises I’d heard were the police calling for him to come outside,” she said. “He dropped the PlayStation controller as he left the room. It was only later that we realised it’s a good job he did: in the dark, the controller might have looked like a weapon.”

Outside, Scott’s husband had been surrounded and arrested. Other police ­officers were on the lookout in the front gardens of nearby properties, having warned the couple’s neighbours to stay indoors, away from their windows. “One of the officers said it was beginning to look like a hoax,” Scott said. “Then he mentioned swatting. As soon as he said that word, I twigged that I’d seen the term that day on Twitter in relation to the Mumsnet hack.”

***

The term “swatting” has been used by the FBI since 2008. “Swat” is an acronym of “Special Weapons and Tactics”, the American police squads routinely called to intervene in hostage situations. It is, in a sense, a weaponised version of a phoney order of pizza, delivered as a prank to a friend’s home, albeit one that carries the possibility of grave injury at the hands of police. For perpetrators, the appeal is the ease with which the hoax can be set in motion and the severity of the results. With a single, possibly untraceable phone call, dialled from anywhere in the world, it is possible to send an armed unit to any address, be it the home of a high-profile actor whom you want to prank or that of someone you want to scare.

In America, where swatting originated, the practice has become so widespread – targets have included Tom Cruise, Taylor Swift, Clint Eastwood and the Californian congressman Ted Lieu – that it is now classed as an act of domestic terrorism. In the UK, where Justine Roberts’s was one of the first recorded cases, swatting is classed as harassment, though that may change if these and other forms of internet vigilante attacks, such as doxxing, become increasingly commonplace.

Doxxing involves the publication of someone’s personal details – usually their home address, phone numbers, bank details and, in some cases, email address – on the internet. It is often the prelude to swatting: after all, the perpetrator of a hoax cannot direct the police to the target’s home address until this is known. (During the week of the Mumsnet attacks, one of the perpetrators attempted to locate another target using their computer’s IP address, which can identify where a person is connected to the internet, often with alarming precision. Their calculation, however, was slightly out; police were called to a neighbour’s address.)

Though doxxing has a less dramatic outcome than swatting, the psychological effects can be just as severe. For victims – usually people who are active on the internet and who have outspoken opinions or who, in the eyes of an internet mob, have committed some kind of transgression – the mere threat of having their personal information made available on the web can cause lasting trauma. A Canadian software developer whose home address, bank details, social security number and email history were published online in 2014 told me that he now keeps an axe by his front door. “I still don’t feel safe here,” he said. “It’s terrifying.”

Christos Reid, a social media manager for a software company, was doxxed last year. Reid’s information came from a website he had registered seven years earlier. “I woke up one morning to find a tweet announcing my personal details,” he told me. When he asked the Twitter account holder to take down the address, he was told to commit suicide. Reid said he was “OK for about half an hour”; but then, after he went out, he broke down in the street. “I’ve become more paranoid,” he said. He no longer gives out business cards with personal information.

Reid lives in London, but at the time of the doxx he was attending an event in Nottingham, home to the British police’s largest cybercrime division. He was impressed with the police response, even though they told him that they had not heard of the term “doxxing” before. “I was interviewed by two separate people about my experiences who then compiled everything into a case file and transferred it to the Met. When I arrived home, an officer visited me to discuss what happened and my options.”

The policeman explained harassment law to Reid, and offered advice on how to improve security at his flat and what to do if someone hostile turned up at the address. Reid shouldered the repercussions of what had happened alone; no suspects were identified. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police similarly said that although detectives from Islington CID have investigated the swatting attacks made on Roberts and Scott, no suspects have been identified “at this time”, even as “inquiries continue”.

Doxxing may seem to be a mild form of harassment but it carries with it an implicit threat of impending violence; the worrying message is: “We know where you live.” Unlike swatting, which is always malicious, doxxing is sometimes viewed by its perpetrators as virtuous. In November 2014, hackers claiming to be aligned with the internet group Anonymous published personal information allegedly belonging to a Ku Klux Klan member from Missouri. The hackers said that their action was a response to the KKK’s threat to use lethal force against demonstrators in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, protesting against the killing of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer. In January 2015 hackers claiming to be from Isis took over US Central Command’s Twitter account and posted information about senior military officers, including phone numbers and email addresses. In each case, those carrying out the doxxing believed, however mistakenly, in the virtue of their actions and hoped that the information could be used to bring punishment or ruin to the subject.

The term “doxxing” may be new but the practice is an old one. The Hollywood blacklist revealed the political beliefs and associations of actors and directors in the late 1940s as a way to invite shame, deny employment and dissuade others from following their example. “But it has become a lot easier to find people’s private details with the help of the internet,” Jeroen Vader told me. Vader owns Pastebin, a website that allows users to upload and distribute text documents, and where much of the personal data is anonymously uploaded and shared. “People post their private information on social networks,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t aware that their information is so easily available to others.”

In Justine Roberts’s case, the perpetrator may not even have needed to look at social networks to mine her personal information. “If you’re on the electoral roll, you’re easy to find,” she said. “There’s not much you can do to stop people getting hold of your data one way or another, whether it’s for nefarious reasons or simply to better advertise to you. We live in a world that is constantly trying to gather more information about us.”

Jeroen Vader said he has noticed an “upward trend” in the number of doxxing posts uploaded to Pastebin in recent months, but insisted that when someone uses the site’s abuse report system these offending posts are removed immediately.

Across social media companies, action is more often reactive than proactive. Victoria Taylor, a former director at Reddit, one of the largest community-driven websites in the world, said that the rule against publishing other users’ personal information has been “consistently one of the site’s most basic policies” and that “any violation of this rule is taken extremely seriously by the team and community”. Still, she was only able to recommend that victims of doxxing send a message to the site’s administrators. Similarly, when asked what a person can do to remove personal details that have been published without permission, a Twitter spokesperson said: “Use our help form.”

The spokesperson added: “There has def­initely been an overall increase in doxxing since 2006, both on Twitter and on the internet more generally.” She attributed this rise to the emergence of search engines such as Intelius and Spokeo, services designed to locate personal information.

***

The surge in the number of dox­xing and swatting attacks is in part a result of the current lack of legal protection for victims. Confusion regarding the law on doxxing is pervasive; the term is even not mentioned in either US or European law. In a tutorial posted on Facebook in 2013, the writer claims: “Doxxing isn’t illegal as all the information you have obtained is public,” and adds: “But posting of the doxx might get you in a little trouble.”

Phil Lee, a partner in the privacy, security and information department of Fieldfisher based at the law firm’s office in Silicon Valley, said that differing privacy laws around the world were part of the problem. “Various countries have laws that cover illegal or unauthorised obtaining of data. Likewise, some of the consequences of releasing that data, such as defamation or stalking, cover elements of what we now term doxxing. But there is no global law covering what is a global phenomenon.” Indeed, Roberts believes that her London address was targeted from America – the 999 call was routed through a US proxy number.

One challenge to creating a law on doxxing is that the sharing of personal information without permission has already become so widespread in the digital age. “If a law was to state something like, ‘You must not post personal information about another person online without their consent,’ it wouldn’t reflect how people use the internet,” Lee said. “People post information about what their friends and family members have been doing all the time without their consent.

“Such a law could have a potentially detrimental effect on freedom of speech.”

Lee believes that a specific law is unnecessary, because its potentially harmful effects are already covered by three discrete pieces of legislation dealing with instances where a person’s private information is obtained illegally, when that information is used to carry out illegal acts and when the publication of the information is accompanied by a threat to incite hatred. However, this does not adequately account for cases in which the information is obtained legally, and then used to harass the individual in a more legally ambiguous manner, either with prank phone calls or with uninvited orders of pizza.

Susan Basko, an independent lawyer who practises in California and who has been doxxed in the course of her frequent clashes with internet trolls, believes that the onus should be on the law, rather than the public. She points out that in the US it is a crime to publicise information about a government employee such as their home address, their home and cellphone numbers, or their social security number, even if the information is already online. “This law should apply to protect all people, not just federal employees,” she said. “And websites, website-hosting companies and other ISPs should be required to uphold this law.”

Basko said that doxxing will continue to increase while police have inadequate resources to follow up cases. For now, it is up to individuals to take preventative measures. Zoë Quinn, an American game designer and public speaker who was doxxed in 2014, has launched Crash Override, a support network and assistance group for targets of online harassment, “composed entirely of experienced survivors”.

Quinn, who spoke about the problem at a congressional hearing in Washington, DC in April last year, recently posted a guide on how to reduce the likelihood of being doxxed. “If you are worried you might some day be targeted,” she wrote, “consider taking an evening to stalk yourself online, deleting and opting out of anything you’re not comfortable with.”

Both Scott and Roberts have changed their privacy habits following the attacks. Scott is more careful about interacting with strangers online, while Roberts uses scrambler software, which ensures that she never uses the same password for more than one online site or service.

For both women’s families, the effects of their encounters with armed police have also lingered. When one day recently Roberts’s husband returned home early from work, the au pair called the police, believing it was an intruder. And Scott is haunted by what happened.

“What if my husband had made a sudden move or resisted in some way? What if my eldest had grabbed the gun instead of gently reaching for it? What if people locally believed that my husband did actually have guns in the house?” she asks. “I don’t think the people making these sorts of hoax calls realise the impact.” 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism