Norway seeks to decriminalise drug use

Norway’s government has submitted a bill to Parliament to decriminalise the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use, a measure aimed at replacing punishment with treatment. The approach is identical to the one proposed in Portugal, for example.

The use and possession of illicit drugs will continue to be illegal, but instead of sanctions, people who are found in possession of small quantities will be referred to a mandatory municipal counselling service, where they will receive information about the risks and the negative consequences of drug use and be offered help, treatment and follow-up.

The Norwegian executive -led by the Conservative Party of current Prime Minister Erna Solberg along with the Liberal Party- argues that changing the policy is justified because several decades of criminalisation have proved unsuccessful, and prosecuting consumers only contributes to stigmatisation and social exclusion, dissuading them from seeking help for fear of being sanctioned.

According to the latest official data, in 2018, 286 people died from a drug overdose in Norway, whose rate of drug-related deaths is much higher than the European average.

Given that many drug addicts use multiple types of narcotics, the bill says that a person may have up to three different substances at any time, as long as neither exceeds the specified threshold. By contrast, the possession of higher quantities or any other type of involvement with illegal drugs, such as importation, manufacture or sale, will continue to be a punishable offence.

Norway’s debate on decriminalising drug use began in 2016; its proposal for the reform of its drug policy is based on a report prepared by an expert committee which was set up by Parliament two years ago, although the final bill reduces the permitted amounts so as not to facilitate trafficking and access. The Liberal-Conservative government only controls a minority in the Norwegian Parliament, so it will need support from the opposition to push the reform through, and, as yet, not all the parties have made their position on the matter clear. Opponents of the move include the Christian Democrats, who form part of the ruling coalition. However, they are expected to vote in favour of the bill out of loyalty.  

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The EU Council adopts new rules on the online dissemination of terrorist content

The EU is working to stop terrorists from using the internet to radicalise, recruit and incite violence. The Council has adopted a regulation on the dissemination of terrorist content online.

The legislation aims to facilitate the swift removal of online terrorist content and establish one common instrument for all member states to this effect. The rules will apply to hosting service providers offering services in the EU, regardless of whether their head office is located in one of the member states or not.

Radicalisation and incitement to violence through social networks, video platforms and the live streaming of attacks have become ever more frequent factors in recent terrorist attacks. With the new rules adopted by the Council, law enforcement authorities will have an effective instrument to tackle this threat.

Voluntary cooperation with the hosting service providers will continue, but the legislation will provide additional tools for member states to enforce the rapid removal of terrorist content where necessary.

Competent authorities in the member states will have the power to issue removal orders to the service providers in order to remove terrorist content or disable access to it in all member states. The service providers will then have to remove or disable access to the content within one hour.

Hosting service providers exposed to terrorist content will need to take specific measures to address the misuse of their services and protect them from being used as a platform for disseminating terrorist content. The decision on which measure to use remains with the hosting service provider.

The legislation also provides a clear scope and a clear uniform definition of terrorist content to ensure fundamental rights are fully respected. Equally, it includes effective remedies for both users whose content has been removed and for service providers to submit a complaint.

The adoption of the Council’s position at first reading follows a provisional agreement on the text reached between the Council presidency and the European Parliament on the 10th of December 2020. The legal act now needs to be adopted by the European Parliament at second reading before being published in the EU Official Journal. The regulation will come into force on the twentieth day following its publication and start applying one year later.

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Mexico set to legalise marijuana

A few weeks ago, lawmakers in Mexico approved a bill to legalise recreational marijuana, a milestone for the country, which is in the throes of a drug war and could become the world’s largest cannabis market, leaving the United States between two marijuana-selling neighbours.

The 316-to-129 vote in the Chamber of Deputies came more than two years after the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that the country’s ban on recreational marijuana was unconstitutional and more than three years after the country legalised medicinal cannabis.

The measure would allow adults to smoke marijuana and, with a permit, grow a small number of cannabis plants at home. It would also grant licenses for producers — from small farmers to commercial growers — to cultivate and sell the crop.

If enacted, Mexico will join Canada and Uruguay in a small but growing list of countries that have legalised marijuana in the Americas, adding further momentum to the legalisation movement in the region. In the United States, Democrats in the Senate have also promised to scrap federal prohibition of the drug this year.

Security experts agree that the law’s practical impact on violence will likely be minimal: with 15 American states having now legalised marijuana, they argue, the crop has become a relatively small part of the Mexican drug trafficking business, with cartels focusing on more profitable products like fentanyl and methamphetamines.

Proponents of legalising marijuana contend that the bill is too limited in scope, even if it represents a symbolic breakthrough in the push to end a drug war that has cost an estimated 150,000 lives.

The bill mandates that small farmers and indigenous people be given priority in licensing, but stipulates only that these vulnerable groups can be granted more than one license.

With more than 120 million people, Mexico would represent the largest marijuana market in the world by population. The crop could become big business in Mexico, a potential financial lift for an economy badly battered by the coronavirus crisis.

Some activists fear that the law will overly favour large corporations, giving them access to the entire marijuana supply chain, from seed to sale, while leaving small-scale producers and vendors locked out of the lucrative market.

The bill in Mexico would allow individual users to carry up to 28 grams of marijuana and grow six cannabis plants at home. Cannabis could also be purchased by adults over 18 at authorised businesses and grown at a larger scale by licensed groups. Medical marijuana, which Mexico legalised in 2017, would be regulated separately by the Health Ministry.

Local activists say the restrictions on possession will limit the bill’s impact, particularly for low-income consumers, who may fall prey to extortion from the police, a regular occurrence in Mexico.

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A facial recognition technology has been declared illegal in Canada

Clearview’s controversial practice of collecting and selling billions of faceprints was dealt a heavy blow by a Canadian commissioner.

Clearview, founded in 2017 by Australian entrepreneur Hoan Ton-Thatand, is in the business of collecting what it calls “faceprints”, which are unique biometric identifiers similar to someone’s fingerprint or DNA profile, from photos people post online.

Canadian authorities have found that the collection of facial-recognition data by Clearview is illegal because it violates federal and provincial privacy laws, representing a win for individuals’ privacy and potentially setting a precedent for other legal challenges to the controversial technology.

A joint investigation of privacy authorities led by the Office of the Commissioner of Canada came to this conclusion, claiming that the New York-based company’s scraping of billions of images of people from across the internet represented mass surveillance and infringes on the privacy rights of Canadians.

Moreover, the investigation found that Clearview had collected highly sensitive biometric information without people’s knowledge or consent and then used and disclosed this personal information for inappropriate purposes that would not be appropriate even if people had consented.

Since 2019, the company has faced legal challenges to its technology and business practices, part of a larger question of whether facial-recognition technologies being developed by myriad companies—including companies like Microsoft and IBM—should be legal at all.

To date, Clearview has amassed a database of billions of these faceprints, which it sells to its clients. It also provides access to a smartphone app that allows clients to upload a photo of an unknown person and instantly receive a set of matching photos.

One of the biggest arguments in his company’s defence that Ton-Thatand has made in published reports is that there is significant benefit in using its technology in law enforcement and national security, which outweighs the privacy concerns of individuals. Furthermore, Clearview is not to blame if law enforcement misuses its technology.

The decision in Canada will likely help other legal challenges not only to Clearview’s technology but facial recognition in general. Last May, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Clearview for privacy violations in Illinois, a case that is ongoing. Lawmakers in the United States even have proposed a nationwide ban on facial recognition.

The technology also raises questions of racial bias and the potential for false accusations against innocent people.  In December two black men filed a case against police in Michigan, saying they were falsely identified by facial-recognition technology—specifically, DataWorks Plus, which is used by Michigan State Police.

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US police practise with a robot dog

Several US police departments have deployed the cyber-K-9 robotic dog in different situations, including hostage situations. Those in favour of using it say robots can help keep police officers safe, but critics are worried about how they might be used without clear political guidelines.

The robot is equipped with cameras, lights and a bidirectional communication system that allows the operator controlling it to see and hear its environment in real-time. The New York Police Department (NYPD) acquired the robot in December 2020 and has so far deployed it in active duty three times, the last of which was a few days ago, when it climbed the stairs of an apartment in the Bronx looking for two suspects in an ongoing investigation.

The robot, sold as a “Spot” by robotics company Boston Dynamics, costs US$74,000. NYPD officials have described it as a promising new technology that could save lives and reduce the risk for law enforcement officers, gathering information in places of risk and removing the need to send humans into compromised situations. (Last autumn, for example, it was used to send food into a hostage situation in Queens).

“The NYPD has been using robots since the 1970s to save lives in hostage situations & hazardous incidents,” the department said on Twitter. “This model of robot is being tested to evaluate its capabilities against other models in use by our emergency service unit and bomb squad”.

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, says the deployment of the technology for police surveillance also raises other issues. Could the robot be autonomous? Is it a good investment at a time when communities are examining the relationship between police officers and citizens?

There are questions around whether the police will be transparent, have clear policies on the use of the technology, and ensure that the public is part of the conversation every step of the way.

Boston Dynamics, the manufacturer of the robot, said a clause had been added to the lease that prevented Spot from being used to in any way physically harm or intimidate people.

The Honolulu Police Department is using a Spot primarily to take action in a tent city for homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic. This deployment has also been controversial, albeit for different reasons: according to the Honolulu Civil Beat, the robot dog was bought with almost US$150,000 in federal coronavirus aid money.

John McCarthy, deputy director of the department, said in a statement that the robot had other uses related to the pandemic, including thermal imaging and the delivery of food and medicines.

Much of this work is currently done by officers, some of whom are paid overtime. In the long run, the Spot robot will save money and keep officers safe.

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“Smart-policing project” introduced in Greece

Police in Greece are to be issued new devices that will allow them to carry out real-time facial recognition and fingerprint identification while out on the beat.

The plan to disseminate the new technology is part of the 4.5 million euros “Smart Policing” project announced in 2017 that aims to identify and verify the identity of citizens when stopped by the police. Most of the project costs (75%) are being covered by the Internal Security Fund (ISF) of the European Commission.

Currently, citizens who are not able to provide identification documents when stopped by the police in Greece have to be transferred to the nearest police station for their identity to be verified. By allowing identification in real-time, the new devices will make the identification of citizens more time-efficient.

The goal of the Greek police force is to verify individuals, vehicles and objects in real-time. Doing so will lead to improvements in police officers’ security, reduce inconveniences for civilians and save human and material resources.

Greek police will initially be issued at least 1,000 devices, with an option to deploy a further 9,000 by this summer if the scheme proves to be effective.

The devices, which are similar in appearance to smartphones, will be connected to 20 different databases belonging to international and national authorities, including the Greek Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Europol, the FBI, and Interpol.

In March last year, the Greek non-profit digital rights advocacy organisation, Homo Digitalis, filed a request to the Greek Data Protection Authority (DPA) expressing concern over the legality of the “Smart Policing” project.

Homo Digitalis argued that there is a strong possibility that the Greek police is violating EU laws regarding the processing of personal data laid out in the Greek Constitution, national laws linked to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

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What’s behind the worst prison massacre in Ecuador’s history?

The numbers are staggering, and the images of the violence that erupted inside several of Ecuador’s prisons in late February, even more so.

At least 79 inmates died in clashes between rioting rival gangs in prisons in Cuenca, Guayaquil and Latacunga. Even more disturbing is the extreme cruelty and violence of their members, which was exposed by the images of beheaded and dismembered bodies circulated on social media.

The South-American country is no stranger to prison violence. Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno has had to order a state of emergency in the country’s prisons twice in the past two years. But what happened to bring about the worst prison massacre in the country’s history?

Firstly, an increase in drug trafficking. More than a third of the drugs produced in Colombia transit through Ecuador on their way to Europe and the United States. Ecuadorian gangs are not just arguing for the sake of it; in recent years, Ecuador has become the cocaine highway to the U.S. and Europe. This can be attributed to a shift in the strategy of Colombian drug traffickers, which means that more than a third of the growing cocaine production in Colombia currently reaches Ecuador.

Secondly, austerity. The increase in drug trafficking has translated to an increase in Ecuador’s prison population, which has not been matched by an improvement in monitoring and surveillance capabilities. In addition, as part of the austerity plans agreed with the International Monetary Fund, these sectors have also been affected by cuts, which at the time led to a wave of protests.

The government has had to turn to the army to deal with the violence in prisons. One of the consequences of the shortage of resources is a 70% deficit in the personnel needed to oversee prison security. With numbers like that, prison wardens have to be responsible for an average of almost 27 inmates, while the international standard recommends a ratio of one warden for every nine prisoners. This may help to explain the relative impunity with which drug traffickers operate inside prisons and the abundance of weapons inside penitentiary centres.

Lastly, overcrowding, which continues to hinder the proper management of Ecuadorian prisons. According to the Human Rights Council (HRC), Ecuador’s prison capacity is 28,500 people. But in May 2019, when the state declared the first state of emergency, there were 41,836 inmates in its prisons: an overpopulation of 42%.

As Insight Crime explains, overcrowding in prisons is a regional phenomenon that leads to human rights problems and a lack of control over prison systems. Being forced to intern the members of rival gangs in the same centres has also contributed to the bloody clashes in prisons.

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Is the world ready for facial recognition drones?

Some of the first drones with advanced facial recognition capabilities are being developed by Israeli surveillance companies, as North-American police consider whether they will soon be adding the controversial technology to their unmanned flying machines.

As a sign of the imminent arrival of biometric identification from the air, an Israeli start-up previously-funded by Microsoft has patented technologies for drone-based facial recognition. Tel Aviv-based AnyVision filed a patent application detailing technology to help a drone find the best angles for a facial recognition shot, before trying to find a match for the target by referring to faces stored in a database.

The patent aims to iron out some of the complexities of identifying faces from a flying machine. Various obvious issues arise when trying to recognise someone from a drone: acquiring an angle at which a face can be properly captured and being able to get good-quality visuals whilst moving. Both are considerably harder than getting a match from static footage.

U.S. military agencies have been trying to come up with solutions, including the Advanced Tactical Facial Recognition at a Distance Technology project at U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) Biometric Recognition and Identification at Altitude and Range initiative.

But private industry may get there first. In December 2020, it was revealed AnyVision executives had partnered with an Israeli defence supplier for a new joint venture called SightX. In demos provided to Israeli media in late 2020, SightX’s small drones didn’t have any facial recognition capabilities, though executives said the feature was coming soon. It’s unclear if the tech is for the military only or if it will be sold to police agencies.

What is clear is that the technology is ready for launch. AnyVision CEO Avi Golan told Forbes that whilst AnyVision didn’t have any in-production drones with facial recognition, they would be a reality soon. He pointed to the fact that delivery drones would potentially require facial recognition to determine whether they’ve reached the correct buyer. Amazon has already patented similar tech, pointing to its potential plans for its experimental drone delivery fleet.

As for when North-Americans can expect police drones with facial recognition, even if police agencies aren’t immediately planning to send them to the skies, there’s an expectation they will arrive in one form or another.

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France to open a consultation on reforming its police forces

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, is to launch a major nation-wide consultation to gauge the opinion of citizens, unions, politicians and external experts on a future reform of the Police and the Gendarmerie.

The various objectives include improving the working conditions of law enforcement agencies, strengthening domestic security and renewing the deteriorating trust between officers and the public.

Amid controversy over police racism and violence and faced with intense criticism of the Global Security Law, Macron promised citizens a major national consultation on the reform of both bodies, in which police unions, ministers, international politicians and experts will participate. The consultations, which will last until May, will lay the foundations for a new draft internal security law in 2022.

The consultation will take place over four months and address the link between the police and the French public, officer training, the relationship between the police and the justice system, keeping the peace, issues around recording videos of police actions, the reform of internal affairs units and improvements in material and human resources.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin does not believe there is a separation between the police and the French population as some analysts and politicians say; he hopes the reform will serve to address what he has called the “seven deadly sins” of the police. Among these “sins” he cites the insufficient initial and ongoing training of French police officers and gendarmes: eight months compared to the three years in Denmark. Furthermore, many novice police officers are initially posted to the more troubled districts of large cities without being well-trained for the situation, and do not receive adequate support and resources from their superiors.

An in-depth reform of the Inspectorate-General of the National Police (IGPN), the equivalent of internal affairs in other countries, is also expected. The “police of the police”, as it is known in France, is often accused of a lack of independence and transparency, which contributes to a sense of impunity for crimes committed by officers.

French citizens are divided over police violence: 42% believe the accusations are genuine, while the same percentage thinks the violence is either marginal or non-existent. The same pattern can be seen with regard to complaints of police racism: 43% believe they are isolated incidences, while 39% think French law enforcement agencies are intrinsically racist.

The Police, for their part, complain of low wages, work overload, a scarcity of resources and a wave of suicides across the force. Officers, who have been on constant alert since the series of Islamist attacks in 2015, have become the target of violent protesters, such as the “yellow vest” protests and others seen more recently. According to official figures, in 2020, 11 French law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty, and 8,700 police and gendarmes were injured.

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