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Friday, June 24, 2016

Israeli Lawyer Uses Inside Knowledge Against Settler Group

Associated Press, June 21, 2016

JERUSALEM–A few years ago, Mohammad Abu Ta’a discovered that some storage trailers had disappeared from a plot of land in Jerusalem belonging to his family. Then, the family received a letter informing them they were now trespassers.

When the Palestinian landowner contacted Israeli land authorities, he was told the government had expropriated the land and handed it over to a leading organization that oversees Jewish settlement building in the West Bank. That group, Amana, is now building its new headquarters on the land.

Abu Ta’a is fighting back to expose the shadowy land grab. But he is doing it in an unusual way–enlisting the services of an Israeli lawyer who spent 16 years as a municipal civil servant approving expropriations of Palestinian land in Jerusalem.

The lawyer, Stephen Berman, left his post as legal adviser to the Jerusalem municipality’s real estate department and went into private practice in 2003. He is now using his inside knowledge of the system to expose what he says is the settler group’s illegitimate property grab.

“This was my job, doing this stuff,” the U.S.-born Berman told The Associated Press, recounting from behind his paper-littered desk the expropriations he used to approve. “That was their lack of luck.”

Unlike some Israeli lawyers who fight for Palestinian rights in court, Berman is not an activist for the Palestinian cause. Shortly before he took on this case, he represented a Jewish settlement project in east Jerusalem.

“I don’t care who the law serves,” he said. “I care what the law is.”

Following a paper trail of old maps and land registry documents, Berman said he uncovered how Israeli civil servants, stretching back decades, abused their power to seize control of the tiny but attractive triangle of real estate from the Abu Ta’a family in east Jerusalem and give it to Amana, a 40-year-old organization that spearheads the construction of Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The organization, which has been investigated multiple times for fraudulent real estate deals, has helped plan and build numerous government-sanctioned Jewish settlements and unauthorized outposts.

An investigative program on Israel’s Channel 10 TV in February reported that Israeli police investigated 15 West Bank land acquisitions where settlement outposts were built and found that Amana’s subsidiary had forged documents for 14 of them. The subsidiary denied the claims.

“The Amana organization is a settler organization that deals with construction of settlements … many times on stolen Palestinian land,” said Hagit Ofran of the anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now. “We are not surprised to see them stealing land also in Jerusalem.”

“The trouble here is that the government is helping the settlers to take over this land,” Ofran added.

A lawyer for Amana did not return repeated requests for comment, and reporters on a recent visit to the Abu Ta’as’ plot were ordered out by an Israeli supervisor of the construction site.

Amana fenced off the plot in November and began building. There were no signs identifying the construction project or Amana, as required by law. The Jerusalem Municipality said in a statement that it would ask Amana to put up a sign.

“Having this land is our right,” said Abu Ta’a. “We owned it for a long time, before Israel existed in this land.”

The story began in 1967, when Israel captured and later annexed east Jerusalem, home to some of the city’s holiest religious sites. The following year, to cement the annexation, Israel drew up a plan to expropriate large swaths of vacant Arab-owned territory along the line between east and west Jerusalem.

Some of the expropriated land went into building the Israeli national police headquarters, government ministries and large Jewish neighborhoods, which the international community considers illegal settlements. But some of the land slated for expropriation was left untouched for decades.

In 1989, planning officials approved a final planning scheme for the area. It was smaller than the original expropriation plan, and Abu Ta’a’s plot was left out.

In 1991, the Israel Lands Administration, the government body that manages state-owned lands, declared in a court case that whatever land was needed was part of the new scheme. Berman said that gave the impression that Israel did not intend to take the Abu Ta’a plot.

As the attorney representing the city of Jerusalem, Berman was involved in that court case. When Abu Ta’a and approached him years later, in 2012, after learning his plot of land had been taken, Berman thought something didn’t add up. “I started looking at the facts,” Berman said.

He found that a year after the land authority gave the impression it was no longer interested in taking land in the area, officials quietly began doing the opposite. Eventually, the Abu Ta’a plot was transferred to the settlement group Amana.

Berman found documents showing that in 1992, just after the pro-settlement Likud party lost control of the government to a newly elected left-wing prime minister, the Lands Administration gave permission to Amana to start planning the construction of its headquarters on the Palestinian-owned land.

The lawyer said he believes this was a last-minute effort by pro-settlement land officials to push the land transfer through before then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin could block it. Indeed, when the new government was formed, it froze the deal.

Then in 1997, a year after the pro-settlement Benjamin Netanyahu first became Israeli prime minister, the deal was revived and approved retroactively, Berman said.

At the time, Berman says, Amana secured the necessary approvals by tricking local and national land planning officials into thinking the land was owned by the government. The land authority did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails seeking comment.

But in 2005, when Amana tried to re-parcel the plot, it ran into a snag: the land was still not registered in the government’s name.

To get final approval from Israel’s finance minister, Israel Lands Administration officials “came up with a brilliant idea,” said Berman.

They rezoned the map to make the Palestinian land look like it was connected to nearby government buildings. It made the expropriation look like it was for public reasons, Berman said, and it was approved. Abu Ta’a said his family has refused to accept an offer received in 2012 to apply for compensation.

After five months of court proceedings, a Jerusalem district court in March ruled that the planning scheme was done improperly.

But the judge ruled it was the result of a series of mistakes and stopped short of calling it fraudulent deceit, and therefore ruled that Amana could continue to build its headquarters.

Berman is now appealing to Israel’s Supreme Court.

Goodbye, Password. Banks Opt to Scan Fingers and Faces Instead.

By Michael Corkery, NY Times, June 21, 2016

The banking password may be about to expire–forever.

Some of the nation’s largest banks, acknowledging that traditional passwords are either too cumbersome or no longer secure, are increasingly using fingerprints, facial scans and other types of biometrics to safeguard accounts.

Millions of customers at Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo routinely use fingerprints to log into their bank accounts through their mobile phones. This feature, which some of the largest banks have introduced in the last few months, is enabling a huge share of American banking customers to verify their identities with biometrics. And millions more are expected to opt in as more phones incorporate fingerprint scans.

Other uses of biometrics are also coming online. Wells Fargo lets some customers scan their eyes with their mobile phones to log into corporate accounts and wire millions of dollars. Citigroup can help verify 800,000 of its credit card customers by their voices. USAA, which provides insurance and banking services to members of the military and their families, identifies some of its customers through their facial contours.

Some of the moves reflect concern that so many hundreds of millions of email addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers and other personal identifiers have fallen into the hands of criminals, rendering those identifiers increasingly ineffective at protecting accounts. And while thieves could eventually find ways to steal biometric data, banks are convinced they offer more protection.

“We believe the password is dying,” said Tom Shaw, vice president for enterprise financial crimes management at USAA, which is based in San Antonio. “We realized we have to get away from personal identification information because of the growing number of data breaches.”

Long regarded as the stuff of science fiction, biometrics have been tested by big banks for decades, but have only recently become sufficiently accurate and cost effective to use in a big way. It has taken a great deal of trial and error: With many of the early prototypes, a facial scan could be foiled by bad lighting, and voice recognition could be scuttled by background noise or laryngitis.

Before smartphones became ubiquitous, there was an even bigger obstacle: To capture a finger image or scan an eyeball, a bank would have to pay to distribute the necessary technology to tens of millions of customers. A few tried, but their efforts were costly and short-lived.

Today, the equation has changed. Many models of the iPhone have touch pads that can scan fingerprints. The cameras and microphones on many mobile devices are so powerful that they can record the minute details needed to create a biometric ID.

The smartphones also provide an extra layer of security: Many biometric features will only work when used on the specific phone that belongs to the bank account holder.

“If you have your phone and you are authenticating with your fingerprint, it is very likely you,” said Samir Nanavati, a longtime biometrics expert and a founder of Twin Mill, a security software and consulting firm.

The trade-off, of course, is that in the quest for security and convenience, customers are handing over marks of their unique physical identities. After all, it is easy to change a compromised password. But a fingerprint must last forever.

Some bank executives say customers often ask whether their biometric information will become part of a private database, akin to what the F.B.I. keeps.

The banks themselves are not keeping caches of actual fingerprints or eye patterns. Rather, the banks are creating and storing what they call templates–or what amount to long, hard-to-predict numerical sequences–based on a scan of a person’s fingerprint or eyeballs.

It is possible that the thieves could use the biometric templates to steal money, but the banks say they have worked to develop additional safeguards. With some voice authentication systems, banks use certain prompts to prove it is a living customer and not a recording. Many eye scans require customers to blink or move their eyes to prevent a thief from using a photo to gain access.

Wells Fargo has been working with EyeVerify, a start-up in Kansas City, Mo., to develop its eye scan feature, which is being tested with a small group of corporate customers. The technology creates a map of the veins in the whites of an eye.

To log into an account, a customer taps open a Wells Fargo app on a smartphone. When prompted, the customer’s eyes are lined up with a pair of yellow circles on the phone screen. If they match, the customer–typically a chief financial officer or other top executive–gains instant access to the account and can start moving money or conducting other transactions.

Wells Fargo executives said the eye scan could eventually offer an alternative to the authentication system used for corporate accounts, which involves physical tokens that generate numeric pass codes every few seconds. Although generally considered secure, these tokens can be a hassle to carry around.

For now, Wells Fargo is offering eye scans–among the most foolproof biometric technologies, according to security experts–only to select corporate customers, for whom the stakes are arguably higher because there is potentially so much money involved.

“It is harder to take someone’s eyeball than someone’s user ID and password,” said Steve Ellis, who leads Wells Fargo’s innovation group that worked on developing the eye scan authentication. The bank also made an investment in EyeVerify.

Instead of eye scans, Bank of America has embraced fingerprints. Since it began offering the option in September, about 33 percent of the bank’s 20 million mobile banking customers have started using a fingertip to get into their accounts.

There are limits, though, on how far an average retail customer can proceed through the banking process without a password.

For example, JPMorgan Chase customers can gain access to their bank accounts with their fingerprints, but have to use a traditional password to transfer money.

Still, the speed and accuracy of the banks’ biometric capabilities are especially notable because they are emerging from an industry known for its antiquated system of tellers and branches and endless reams of paperwork.

Wells Fargo’s eye scan technology, for example, worked so quickly that the developers had to slow it down by a few seconds so customers knew it had actually registered their identities.

It takes only about 40 seconds to capture enough information about a customer’s vocal patterns to create a voice imprint that can be used as a form of identification, according to Andrew S. Keen, director of program management for Global Consumer Operations at Citigroup. Once a print is established, it can reduce the time that customers spend identifying themselves to a call center representative.

Many financial firms emphasize the convenience of biometrics, but USAA is one of the few that highlights the effectiveness of these technologies at thwarting thieves.

Since USAA began offering biometric authentication early last year, more than 1.7 million customers have been accessing their accounts using either their fingerprints, voices or facial scans.

“We can’t rely on personal identification information any longer,” said Mr. Shaw. “We believe we have to rely on biometrics.”

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