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Trinidad & Tobago: Invented E-mails or Political Demise?

Monday's sitting of Trinidad and Tobago's Parliament saw the Opposition Leader quoting from several e-mails, which, he alleged, implicate key government ministers, including the Prime Minister, in attempting to cover up her administration's actions surrounding the Section 34 controversy.

Netizens were taking notice. Twitter was unusually quiet, but many social media users who watched the No Confidence motion against the government play out, flooded their Facebook status updates with commentary about the goings-on. Some even posted notes, like this one by Christian Hume – its contents are reproduced in this post with the writer's permission:

The good thing about Emailgate is that the majority of people who would decide the next General Election understand e-mail. The Attorney General himself has publicly stated that he has had a particular e-mail address for the last 15 years, which means that he too would have been among the earliest people in this country to sign up for e-mail back in 1997. I am therefore amused at the comical defenses being put up by himself and Anil Roberts in trying to convince people who do not understant e-mail (and some who do) that there is no connection between the e-mails read out in Parliament yesterday and the high government officials that they are purported to have come from.

Soon, the discussion, both on and offline, turned to the authenticity of the e-mails. In this blog post, diaspora blogger Jumbie's Watch wrote:

This revealed email exchange over the Section 34 débâcle is a deal breaker if it turns out to be true. Why I find it amusing though, is that it is so obviously fake.

There are several clues which reveal right off, to those who are semi-literate in email technology, why said emails are fudged.

First of all, and most strongly telling is that Gmail, even since its inception in 2004 (when people were paying for invitations to Gmail) did not allow for 4-character usernames. Not even 5… and I know; I was there… back in 2004, you had to use 6 alpha-numeric characters or more.

Secondly…I have never seen such childish spelling and grammatical mistakes from Anand Ramlogan. Sure, one can argue that most people are far more informal in emails than in a commentary column… but even so some lineament of the writing style will continue to hold true. In other words, wolf cyah play sheep.

Thirdly, how improbable is it for public figures in high positions to use ‘free’ email accounts to contact each other, when they have ‘official’ government provided email?

What has me is a puzzled frame of mind is trying to fathom the reason Keith Rowley would bring this up in Parliament. Is he so naive that he would fall into the clutches of desperation? Malicious? Or is he merely dotish?

Hume addressed that very question in his Facebook note:

I'm hearing people saying that Dr. Rowley should have presented the technical verification of the authenticity of those e-mails in Parliament yesterday. Given that he read the contents of 31 e-mails, that would have been impractical, seeing that he only had 75 minutes in which to make his presentation. At any rate, the technical verfication of those e-mails would have been incomprehensible to the most of the national population, and I daresay, to almost all the members of the House of Representatives, including the Speaker himseslf. Instead, Dr.Rowley went one better. He took pains to explain the necessity for Parliamentary privilege, before using it to lay his case before House and country. In doing so, he is challenging Kamla, Anand, Suruj, and the PP machinery to deny the authenticity of the e-mails, and as most people in that situation would do, the PP spokespersons have already obliged bombastically. I am confident that the technical details that would verify the authenticity of those e-mails will start to emerge in the days to follow, and not necessarily from PNM quarters. Grab your pop corn, sit back and watch. Doh say ah didn't tell allyuh.

The Trinidad and Tobago Computer Society contributed to the discussion by tackling the topic of hacking. The post explained the phishing phenomenon, adding:

The method of phishing emails pretending to be from a friend or organisation you know underscores the ease of faking emails. The from field in an email can have any text (e.g ‘lldjlkdladajdlk@sdkaldjal') that looks like an email address and not be from the ‘real’ sender.

In this context, one Facebook user, suggested that if the Prime Minister's e-mail was indeed hacked, she should have noticed irregularities in the use of her account. The TTCS post explained:

To detect hacking attempts, one should set up two factor authentication which improves the security of your email account. One common implementation of two factor authentication uses your cell phone. Whenever a new device or software is used to access your email account, the email provider prompts you to enter a second password that is sent to your cellphone via SMS. If you receive an SMS and you are not trying to access your email from a new device, then you are aware that someone else has your password and is attempting to access your account.

Detection of whether your email account is compromised without two factor authentication requires a regular review of your email account profile and/or settings.

The rest of the post detailed a step-by-step process through which to protect yourself and to determine if your account was compromised:

The complete, strange emails…should be kept for study by you or pertinent authorities to study for clues as to the IP address where the email was sent from.

This requires the preservation of the email headers which are typically not shown by email clients nor included in the email when emails are forwarded. However, all email messages have e-mail headers.

Meanwhile, Robin Montano, a former Senator with affiliations to the United National Congress (one of the political parties in the coalition People's Partnership government), addressed the Opposition Leader's allegations on his blog, calling them the political equivalent of a Hail Mary pass:

Dr. Keith Rowley's play in Parliament yesterday could be labelled such a pass because if what he said turns out to be not true he will have effectively sunk himself and his PNM team. That would be it! Finito! Kaput! On the other hand, if all that he has said is true the Government is sunk!

The e mails basically allege a criminal conspiracy between the Prime Minister, the Attorney General and the Prime Minister's special security adviser, Captain Gary Griffith over the section 34 issue. Further the e mails go further to suggest that the parties involved were planning serious harm to a journalist.

The problem here is that the e mails appear on their very face to be faked. For example, a lot of the e mails are supposed to have come from an e mail address: anan@ gmail.com. But it is not possible to create a g mail account with less than six characters. Then there is another e mail address that ends in “.coN “(I have high lighted and capitalised the ‘n’ for emphasis). There should be an ‘m’ where the ‘n’ is. Then there is an alleged exchange of e mails between Captain Griffith and Mr. Ramlogan starting with Mr. Ramlogan allegedly e mailing Captain Griffith at 1:33am on a Monday morning and Captain Griffith replying at 1:40am! So these men don't sleep and are sitting on their computers at that time?! Really?

The post then considered the potential political fallout:

The accusations that he has made are very, very serious. The Prime Minister has quite properly referred them to the Commissioner of Police. If they turn out to be true the Prime Minister and her Attorney General will have to resign. There is no question of that! But if the accusations turn out to be false then Dr. Rowley should be expelled from the Parliament.

In a follow-up post today, Montano declared:

I now believe beyond reasonable doubt that the e mails are fakes. Whether Dr. Rowley knew that the e mails were forgeries is another question.

He also challenged what the opposition knew and when they knew it:

You sent those e mails to the President? And by ‘you’ I mean the PNM. So that means that not only Dr. Rowley knew about those e mails but others in the PNM knew about them too? And therefore President Richards knew about them in December? And the Integrity Commission knew about it also in December?!

Mr. Ken Gordon, the Chairman of the Integrity Commission, is quoted in the press this morning as saying that if the e mails are true then that would be very serious. But I must ask Mr. Gordon directly, what if the e mails are forgeries? Fakes? Wouldn't that also be very serious?

To help determine whether the e-mails could indeed be fake, Global Voices contacted tech journalist and blogger Mark Lyndersay. We asked him, from a technical perspective, whether there were any red flags:

Mark Lyndersay: The first flag was that there only seem to be prints of these e-mails. It's hard to imagine that the Leader of the Opposition chose to stand before Parliament with no more evidence than some paper documents. His next logical step should have been an announcement that the electronic files would have been sent to the appropriate authorities for verification. That hasn't happened, though there is no reason to believe that it won't.

We then asked Lyndersay what he thought the next steps should be in order to determine the authenticity of the correspondence:

ML: First up would be the investigation of the e-mail transmissions to review the routing information that the messages took. Without that information, the argument is really about whether or not the printed information is convincing and that really shouldn't be a discussion at all.

Finally, we asked him about the impact that the technical aspects of this issue could have on its political aspects:

ML: Technology is absolute. It deals in verifiable bits that either are or are not. A message either has a proper transmission header or it doesn't. If it doesn't, it's unverifiable and useless as evidence, regardless of who offers it. This may be a confusing matter for politicians, who trade in mood, feelings and allegiances, none of which have any impact on bits. Information on the web may have mood and feeling, but its existence is trackable and verifiable every step of the way (unless people take the trouble to use anonymizers and other identity obscuring tools). E-mails can't just look right or wrong, they are either truly electronic transmissions and can be verified as such with a trackable footprint or they are not. It really is as simple as that. From a verification point of view, an unverifiable e-mail, whether it was invented out of whole cloth on a word processor or copied and pasted into a fresh transmission, simply can't be used as a tool of accusation.

In light of today's failed motion, in part thanks to the fact that the very opposition that raised it walked out of Parliament, political blog The Eternal Pantomime summed everything up this way:

Dr Rowley took a massive gamble accusing the government of conspiring against the office of the DPP and conspiring to harm a citizen of the country with just a pile of transcripts. To have pulled it off successfully what was required were digital files or actual screen shots of the e-mails so that the members of the doubting public would have irrefutable proof, create a significant hue and cry and catapult the powers into action.

Without those digital files it all boiled down to playing the blame game…yet again. It is a game the country has been caught up in for the past 3 years and it has gotten old and tired. Despite the numerous scandals and missteps this government has gotten itself embroiled in, this Motion of No Confidence had the potential to land a PM, an AG and a senior government Minister in jail had it been handled right.

Now, three days later, with Keith pointing fingers and Kamla sticking out her tongue and saying prove it, we have the country right back where it started…wondering who lying.

If Stephen Williams wasn’t such a compromised Commissioner of Police, if we had a serious cyber crimes unit here, if the Integrity Commission actually functioned and if the President had the power he thinks he has…there would be an independent investigation and the first thing to be done would be to confiscate the devices of these individuals and to ask their email hosts for transcripts on the dates Rowley gave…

But this was a rape trial. Rowley accused them of fucking us over…it was up to him to prove there was unwanted penetration…and before he managed to accomplish that in Parliament…he pulled out.

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