Cyberwars: Is Putin Going to Cut Off Russia’s Internet?

Russia ButtonFew politicians today elicit the same level of controversy as Vladimir Putin. Adored by many Russians at home and abroad, he is also reviled by many for his near-absolute grip on power, intimidation of political opponents, political repression, and military aggression against neighboring states. But in this latest coup de grace, Putin may be seeking the kind of power that few modern states enjoy – the ability to shut down his country’s access to the internet.

According to the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti, Putin and his security council met this past Monday to discuss a way to disconnect Russia’s internet should it be deemed necessary. According to various sources, it is a tool that could be enacted in times of war, massive anti-government protests, or in order to “protect” Russians from Western countries like the United States or members of the European Union.

putin-sanctions-west-response.si_Citing an intelligence officer as their source, Vedomosti claims that this is the result of the Ministry of Communications conducting exercises to test vulnerabilities in Russia’s internet and can now successfully disable IP addresses outside of Russia. All of this is being done in order to see if the Runet (Russia’s internet) can operate on its own without Western web access, with the hope that it will be functional next year.

It is not hard to imagine the Kremlin justifying such a clamp-down by whipping up fears that it’s the West that wants to disconnect Russia from the web, said industry experts. In Russia’s current political environment, anti-western propaganda has been used effectively to create the impression of a siege mentality, used largely to justify their current economic woes and the ongoing Ukrainian Crisis.

RunetAnalysts say similar measures have been introduced by countries such as Iran and Cuba, which developed national Internet limits to curb the spread of Western culture and ideas. Prior to the meeting, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that the Security Council meeting on Internet security would be taking place, but he declined to discuss details of the agenda.

In addition, he denied that Russian authorities have plans to disconnect the Internet, instead insisting this is a question for other countries to answer. He also added that Russia needs a way to protect itself from the West. Peskov cited the “unpredictability” of the European Union and the United States before implying that these countries would in fact disconnect Russia from the Internet and not the reverse.

russia-internet-putin-670-1In a statement to Russia Today – a government-run website launched in 2005 by Putin as a “PR campaign to improve [Russia’s] image in the eyes of the world.”- Russia’s communications minister, Nikolay Nikiforov, said:

Russia is being addressed in a language of unilateral sanctions: first, our credit cards are being cut off; then the European Parliament says that they’ll disconnect us from SWIFT*. In these circumstances, we are working on a scenario where our esteemed partners would suddenly decide to disconnect us from the internet.

*Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication

The “unilateral sanctions” he refers to are the ones that were placed upon Russia by the US and the EU in response to its seizure of the Crimea, which have since escalated thanks to Russia’s ongoing involvement in the eastern portions of Ukraine where rebels – whom many claim have been supplied with Russian-made weapons and are now being supported by Russian troops – continue to fight against the new Kiev government.

Ukraine_crisisInterestingly enough, whether it is the West that disconnects Russia from the Internet or if it is Putin that does so, both possibilities highlight the world’s dependence on Western internet. In fact, many countries, including Brazil and Germany, have been complaining about this since Edward Snowden’s revelations last year. Putin himself has expressed concern over the NSA spying on him via the web and the security of the internet in his country in the past.

Nevertheless, the question remains as to whether or not it could be done. According to Andrei Soldatov, a Russian spy expert who recently spoke to the Guardian on the subject, claims that it is technically possible given how few internet exchange points Russia has. However, it seems unlikely at this point that Putin would do this given the repercussions for Russian businesses that rely on the Western internet to function.

russia_protestsAlready, Russia has been feeling the pinch because of Western sanctions, particularly sanctions targeting its oil industry that have been leading to a drop in prices. At this rate, several economists and even Russian ministers are predicting a recession in the near future. This in turn could present Putin with a scenario whereby he would have to disconnect the internet, in order to block mass protests sites in the event of people protesting the economic downturn.

Similar measures have been taken in the past by countries like Egypt, Iran, Syria, China, the UK, and Thailand, who chose to block Facebook at various points because protesters were using it to organize. Venezuela also blocked Twitter this year during times of political unrest to prevent people from sharing information and real-time updates. But a total disconnect has yet to be seen, or even seriously contemplated.

russia-censorshipWhether or not Putin and Russia’s ruling party is the first to do so remains to be seen. But it is not entirely unfeasible that he wouldn’t, even if economic consequences were entailed. For as the saying goes, people will “cut off their nose to spite their face”, and Putin has already shown a willingness to challenge his country’s economic interdependence with the world in order to ensure control over neighboring territories.

One can only hope that he won’t feel the need to snip his country’s connection to the rest of the world. In addition to ensuring its ec0nomic isolation – which would have dire consequences and reduce the country to the status of a developing nation – it will also resurrect the specter of the Cold War years where Russians were effectively cut off from the outside world and entirely dependent on state-controlled media.

We’ve simply come too far to go back to an age where two superpowers are constantly aiming nuclear warheads at each other and entire blocs of nations are forbidden to trade or interact with each other because of political rivalries. History does not respect regression, and the only way to make progress is to keep moving forward. So let’s keep the internet open and focus on building connections instead of walls!

Source: motherboard.com, news.discovery.com, ibtimes.com

Cyberwars: Latest Snowden Leaks

FRANCE-US-EU-SURVEILLANCE-SNOWDENThe case against the NSA’s program of cyberwarfare and espionage has become somewhat like an onion. With every new revelation, the matter becomes more stinking and fetid. Certainly, the first release of classified NSA documents – which dealt with the US’s ongoing cyberwarfare against China and other nations – was damaging to the agency’s image. But it has been the subsequent publication of documents that deal with domestic surveillance that have been the most damning.

According to Snowden, he was motivated to leak this information because of the troubling case of hypocrisy inherent in the NSA programs. And in the lastest leak, Snowden has now confirmed that at least five Muslim-Americans – including prominent lawyers, a civil rights leader and academics – were the subject of years’ worth of surveillance by both the FBI and the National Security Agency.

under_surveillance_full_v2Among the targets were Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations – the top Muslim-American civil rights organization in the United States – and Faisal Galil, a longtime Republican operative and former Bush Administration official who worked for the Department of Homeland Security and held a top-secret security clearance during the time he was under surveillance.

Also among the American targets was Asim Ghafoor, an attorney for the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation who who has represented clients in terrorism-related cases . He is also the man who famously discovered in 2004 that he and his clients were under surveillance after the Treasury Department mistakenly released to him a document listing calls he’d made to his clients.

wire_tappingOther targets include Hooshang Amirahmadi, an Iranian-American professor of international relations at Rutgers University and Agha Saeed, a former political science professor at California State University who champions Muslim civil liberties and Palestinian rights. All of the targets appear to have been singled out because of their Muslim backgrounds and their activities either defending Muslim clients or on behalf of various causes.

The individuals appear on an NSA spreadsheet in the Snowden archives called “FISA recap”—short for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Under that law, the Justice Department must convince a judge with the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that there is probable cause to suspect of an American of being engaged in or abetting terrorism, espionage, or sabotage against the US.

FILE PHOTO  NSA Compiles Massive Database Of Private Phone CallsThe authorizations must be regularly renewed by the court for the surveillance to remain in effect, usually every 90 days for U.S. citizens. In none of these cases were the individuals singled out for surveillance because they were suspected of committing or planning a crime. And six years after the period the document covers, none of them has been charged with any crime related to the surveillance.

Greenwald says the revelations offer a more detailed look at who the government is targeting. Although there are some Americans on the list who have been accused of terrorism, the five highlighted in The Intercept piece have all led what appear to be law-abiding lives. As Greenwald explained:

This is the first time that there’s a human face on who the targets are of their most intrusive type of surveillance. [H]ere you really get to see who these people are who are the people worthy of their most invasive scrutiny. I think it’s important for people to judge—are these really terrorists or are these people who seem to be targeted for their political dissidence and their political activism?

 

faisal_gillAll of these five individuals identified in the article has gone on record to vehemently deny any involvement in terrorism or espionage. Outside of their ancestry, there appears to be no justification whatsoever for the surveillance. Faisal Gill, whose AOL and Yahoo! email accounts were monitored while he was a Republican candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates, had this to say when interview by The Intercept:

I just don’t know why. I’ve done everything in my life to be patriotic. I served in the Navy, served in the government, was active in my community—I’ve done everything that a good citizen, in my opinion, should do.

Ghafoor was also of the opinion that profiling had everything to do with him being targeted for electronic surveillance. When told that no non-Muslim attorneys who defended terror suspects had been identified on the list, he replied:

I believe that they tapped me because my name is Asim Abdur Rahman Ghafoor, my parents are from India. I travelled to Saudi Arabia as a young man, and I do the pilgrimage. Yes, absolutely I believe that had something to do with it.

https://i0.wp.com/media.nj.com/ledgerupdates_impact/photo/2012/06/muslim-lawsuitjpg-88e364e9b8e195f4.jpgCivil liberties groups have expressed anger that the five appear to have been targeted largely for having Muslim backgrounds. One such group is the Muslim Advocates, which released the following statement shortly after the story was published:

This report confirms the worst fears of American Muslims: the federal government has targeted Americans, even those who have served their country in the military and government, simply because of their faith or religious heritage. Muslim Advocates calls on the President and Congress to take steps immediately to reform the NSA surveillance program to uphold basic privacy rights and civil liberties that the Constitution guarantees to every American, regardless of faith.

The new revelations confirm for the first time that the government targeted U.S. attorneys, sometimes without warrants. Crucially, the revelations also give targets of the domestic surveillance legal standing to sue. Snowden indicated to Greenwald last year that he included the target list in the cache of leaked documents because he wanted people who had been under such surveillance to have evidence to challenge the spying in court.

An illustration picture shows the logo of the U.S. National Security Agency on the display of an iPhone in BerlinIn the past, journalists and attorneys have tried to challenge the constitutionality of the government’s surveillance activities in court. But since the defendants did not have proof that they in particular had been targeted, the courts were forced to rule that they did not have standing. The spreadsheet, however, provides evidence of targeted surveillance for those who have now been identified.

In short, this latest revelation has provided Americans, and not just those of Muslim descent, with the means to hold the NSA and the FBI accountable for the first time. Since the historic episode known as the “war on terror” began, revelations have led to challenges and promises for reform. But in all cases, the crucial issue of whether or not these programs would be allowed to continue has been carefully sidestepped.

cyber_security2Whether it was the failure of FISA reform to reign in domestic wiretapping and data mining, or the Obama administrations endorsement of “transparent” surveillance, it seems obvious clear that an administrative solution was not in the works. But opening the way for successive lawsuits for wrongful surveillance might just prove to be more effective.

What is certain, though, is that the battle between civil liberties and surveillance in the “Digital Age” is nowhere close to being resolved. As the daily volume of data sent around the world continues to grow – from terabytes to petabytes to exabytes – there will continually be a need for monitors to watch for sinister things. And as long as they are willing to push the boundaries in the name of security, there will continue to be challenges.

Sources: wired.com, firstlook.org

Cyberwars: ACLU and NSA ex-Director to Debate Tomorrow!

keith-alexander-nsa-flickrIn what is sure to be a barn-burner of a debate, the former head of the National Security Agency – General Keith Alexander – will be participating tomorrow in a with ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. The televised, surveillance-themed debate, will take place tomorrow –  June 30th, 10:30am Eastern Time – on MSNBC. The subject: whether or not the NSA’s vast surveillance and data mining programs are making American’s safer.

While many would prefer that the current head of the NSA be involved in the debate, General Alexander is a far better spokesperson for the controversial programs that have been the subject of so much controversy. After all, “Emperor Alexander” – as his subordinates called him – is the man most directly responsible for the current disposition of the  NSA’s cyber surveillance and warfare program.Who better to debate their merit with the head of the ACLU – an organization dedicated to the preservation of personal freedom?

Edward-Snowden-660x367And according to classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden, General Alexander’s influence and power within the halls of government knew no bounds during his tenure. A four-star Army general with active units under his command, he was also the head of the National Security Agency, chief of the Central Security Service, and the commander of the US Cyber Command. It is this last position and the power it wields that has raised the greatest consternation amongst civil-libertarians and privacy advocates.

Keith Alexander is responsible for building this place up between 2005 and 2013, insisting that the US’s inherent vulnerability to digital attacks required that he and those like him assume more authority over the data zipping around the globe. According to Alexander, this threat is so paramount that it only makes sense that all power to control the flow of information should be concentrated in as few hands as possible, namely his.

NSA_fort_meadeIn a recent security conference held in Canada before the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Alexander expressed the threat in the following, cryptic way:

What we see is an increasing level of activity on the networks. I am concerned that this is going to break a threshold where the private sector can no longer handle it and the government is going to have to step in.

If this alone were not reason enough to put people on edge, there are also voices within the NSA who view Alexander as a quintessential larger-than-life personality. One former senior CIA official who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, claimed:

We jokingly referred to him as Emperor Alexander—with good cause, because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets. We would sit back literally in awe of what he was able to get from Congress, from the White House, and at the expense of everybody else.

And it is because of such freedom to monitor people’s daily activities that movements like the February 11th “The Day We Fight Back” movement – an international cause that embraced 360 organizations in 70 countries that were dedicated to ending mass surveillance – have been mounted, demanding reform.

us_supremecourtIn addition, a series of recent ruling from the US Supreme Court have begun to put the kibosh on the surveillance programs that Alexander spent eight years building up. With everything from cell phone tracking to cell phone taps, a precedent is being set that is likely to outlaw all of the NSA domestic surveillance. But no matter what, the role of Snowden’s testimony in securing this landmark event cannot be underestimated.

In fact, in a recent interview, the ACLU’s Anthony Romero acknowledged a great debt to Snowden and claimed that the debate would not be happening without him. As he put it:

I think Edward Snowden has done this country a service… regardless of whether or not what he did was legal or illegal, whether or not we think the sedition laws or the espionage laws that are being used to possibly prosecute Snowden are too broad, the fact is that he has kick-started a debate that we did not have. This debate was anemic. Everyone was asleep at the switch.

One can only imagine what outcome this debate will have. But we can rest assured that some of the more predictable talking points will include the necessities emerging out of the War on Terror, the rise of the information revolution, and the dangers of Big Brother Government, as well as the NSA’s failure to prevent such attacks as the Boston Marathon Bombing, the Benghazi Embassy bombing, and a slew of other terrorist incidents that took place during Alexander’s tenure.

Do I sound biased? Well perhaps that’s because I am. Go ACLU, stick to Emperor Alexander!

Sources: engadget.com, democracynow.org

Cyberwars: The Heartbleed Bug and Web Security

heartbleed-iconA little over two years ago, a tiny piece of code was introduced to the internet that contained a bug. This bug was known as Heartbleed, and in the two years it has taken for the world to recognize its existence, it has caused quite a few headaches. In addition to allowing cybercriminals to steal passwords and usernames from Yahoo, it has also allowed people to steal from online bank accounts, infiltrate governments institutions (such as Revenue Canada), and generally undermine confidence in the internet.

What’s more, in an age of cyberwarfare and domestic surveillance, its appearance would give conspiracy theorists a field day. And since it was first disclosed a month to the day ago, some rather interesting theories as to how the NSA and China have been exploiting this to spy on people have surfaced. But more on that later. First off, some explanation as to what Heartbleed is, where it came from, and how people can protect themselves from it, seems in order.

cyber_securityFirst off, Heartbleed is not a virus or a type of malware in the traditional sense, though it can be exploited by malware and cybercriminals to achieve similar results. Basically, it is a security bug or programming error in popular versions of OpenSSL, a software code that encrypts and protects the privacy of your password, banking information and any other sensitive data you provide in the course of checking your email or doing a little online banking.

Though it was only made public a month ago, the origins of the bug go back just over two years – to New Year’s Eve 2011, to be exact. It was at this time that Stephen Henson, one of the collaborators on the OpenSSL Project, received the code from Robin Seggelmann – a respected academic who’s an expert in internet protocols. Henson reviewed the code – an update for the OpenSSL internet security protocol — and by the time he and his colleagues were ringing in the New Year, he had added it to a software repository used by sites across the web.

Hackers-With-An-AgendaWhat’s interesting about the bug, which is named for the “heartbeat” part of the code that it affects, is that it is not a virus or piece of malware in the traditional sense. What it does is allow people the ability to read the memory of systems that are protected by the bug-affected code, which accounts for two-thirds of the internet. That way, cybercriminals can get the keys they need to decode and read the encrypted data they want.

The bug was independently discovered recently by Codenomicon – a Finnish web security firm – and Google Security researcher Neel Mehta. Since information about its discovery was disclosed on April 7th, 2014, The official name for the vulnerability is CVE-2014-0160.it is estimated that some 17 percent (around half a million) of the Internet’s secure web servers that were certified by trusted authorities have been made vulnerable.

cyberwarfare1Several institutions have also come forward in that time to declare that they were subject to attack. For instance, The Canada Revenue Agency that they were accessed through the exploit of the bug during a 6-hour period on April 8th and reported the theft of Social Insurance Numbers belonging to 900 taxpayers. When the attack was discovered, the agency shut down its web site and extended the taxpayer filing deadline from April 30 to May 5.

The agency also said it would provide anyone affected with credit protection services at no cost, and it appears that the guilty parties were apprehended. This was announced on April 16, when the RCMP claimed that they had charged an engineering student in relation to the theft with “unauthorized use of a computer” and “mischief in relation to data”. In another incident, the UK parenting site Mumsnet had several user accounts hijacked, and its CEO was impersonated.

nsa_aerialAnother consequence of the bug is the impetus it has given to conspiracy theorists who believe it may be part of a government-sanctioned ploy. Given recent revelations about the NSA’s extensive efforts to eavesdrop on internet activity and engage in cyberwarfare, this is hardly a surprise. Nor would it be the first time, as anyone who recalls the case made for the NIST SP800-90 Dual Ec Prng program – a pseudorandom number generator is used extensively in cryptography – acting as a “backdoor” for the NSA to exploit.

In that, and this latest bout of speculation, it is believed that the vulnerability in the encryption itself may have been intentionally created to allow spy agencies to steal the private keys that vulnerable web sites use to encrypt your traffic to them. And cracking SSL to decrypt internet traffic has long been on the NSA’s wish list. Last September, the Guardian reported that the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ had “successfully cracked” much of the online encryption we rely on to secure email and other sensitive transactions and data.

Edward-Snowden-660x367According to documents the paper obtained from Snowden, GCHQ had specifically been working to develop ways into the encrypted traffic of Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Hotmail to decrypt traffic in near-real time; and in 2010, there was documentation that suggested that they might have succeeded. Although this was two years before the Heartbleed vulnerability existed, it does serve to highlight the agency’s efforts to get at encrypted traffic.

For some time now, security experts have speculated about whether the NSA cracked SSL communications; and if so, how the agency might have accomplished the feat. But now, the existence of Heartbleed raises the possibility that in some cases, the NSA might not have needed to crack SSL at all. Instead, it’s possible the agency simply used the vulnerability to obtain the private keys of web-based companies to decrypt their traffic.

hackers_securityThough security vulnerabilities come and go, this one is deemed catastrophic because it’s at the core of SSL, the encryption protocol trusted by so many to protect their data. And beyond abuse by government sources, the bug is also worrisome because it could possibly be used by hackers to steal usernames and passwords for sensitive services like banking, ecommerce, and email. In short, it empowers individual troublemakers everywhere by ensuring that the locks on our information can be exploited by anyone who knows how to do it.

Matt Blaze, a cryptographer and computer security professor at the University of Pennsylvania, claims that “It really is the worst and most widespread vulnerability in SSL that has come out.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Ars Technica, and Bruce Schneier all deemed the Heartbleed bug “catastrophic”, and Forbes cybersecurity columnist Joseph Steinberg event went as far as to say that:

Some might argue that [Heartbleed] is the worst vulnerability found (at least in terms of its potential impact) since commercial traffic began to flow on the Internet.

opensslRegardless, Heartbleed does point to a much larger problem with the design of the internet. Some of its most important pieces are controlled by just a handful of people, many of whom aren’t paid well — or aren’t paid at all. In short, Heartbleed has shown that more oversight is needed to protect the internet’s underlying infrastructure. And the sad truth is that open source software — which underpins vast swathes of the net — has a serious sustainability problem.

Another problem is money, in that important projects just aren’t getting enough of it. Whereas well-known projects such as Linux, Mozilla, and the Apache web server enjoy hundreds of millions of dollars in annual funding, projects like the OpenSSL Software Foundation – which are forced to raise money for the project’s software development – have never raised more than $1 million in a year. To top it all off, there are issues when it comes to the open source ecosystem itself.

Cyber-WarTypically, projects start when developers need to fix a particular problem; and when they open source their solution, it’s instantly available to everyone. If the problem they address is common, the software can become wildly popular overnight. As a result, some projects never get the full attention from developers they deserve. Steve Marquess, one of the OpenSSL foundation’s partners, believes that part of the problem is that whereas people can see and touch their web browsers and Linux, they are out of touch with the cryptographic library.

In the end, the only real solutions is in informing the public. Since internet security affects us all, and the processes by which we secure our information is entrusted to too few hands, then the immediate solution is to widen the scope of inquiry and involvement. It also wouldn’t hurt to commit additional resources to the process of monitoring and securing the web, thereby ensuring that spy agencies and private individuals are not exercising too much or control over it, or able to do clandestine things with it.

In the meantime, the researchers from Codenomicon have set up a website with more detailed information. Click here to access it and see what you can do to protect yourself.

Sources: cbc.ca, wired.com, (2), heartbleed.com

News in Bionics: Restoring Sensation and Mobility!

TED_adrianne1It seems like I’ve writing endlessly about bionic prosthetics lately, thanks to the many breakthroughs that have been happening almost back to back. But I would be remiss if I didn’t share these latest two. In addition to showcasing some of the latest technological innovations, these stories are inspiring and show the immense potential bionic prosthetics have to change lives and help people recover from terrible tragedies.

For instance, on the TED stage this week in Vancouver, which included presentations from astronaut Chris Hadfield, NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden, and anti-corruption activist Charmiah Gooch, there was one presentation that really stole the stage. It Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a former dance instructor and a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing, dancing again for the first time. And it was all thanks to a bionic limb developed by noted bionics researcher Hugh Herr. 

TED_hugh_herrAs the director of the Biomechatronics Group at the MIT Media Lab, Herr is known for his work on high-tech bionic limbs and for demonstrating new prosthetic technologies on himself. At 17, he lost both his legs in a climbing accident. After discussing the science of bionic limbs, Herr brought out Adrianne, who for the first time since her leg amputation, performed a short ballroom dancing routine.

This was made possible thanks to the help of a special kind of bionic limb that designed by Herr and his colleagues at MIT specifically for dancing. The design process took over 200 days, where the researchers studied dance, brought in dancers with biological limbs, studied how they moved, and examined the forces they applied on the dance floor. What resulted was a “dance limb” with 12 sensors, a synthetic motor system that can move the joint, and microprocessors that run the limb’s controllers.

TED_adrianne2The system is programmed so that the motor moves the limb in a way that’s appropriate for dance. As Herr explained in a briefing after his talk:

It was so new. We had never looked at something like dance. I understand her dream and emotionally related to her dream to return to dance. It’s similar to what I went through.” Herr says he’s now able to climb at a more advanced level than when he had biological legs.

Haslet-Davis’s new limb is only intended for dancing; she switches to a different bionic limb for regular walking. And while this might seem like a limitation, it in fact represents a major step in the direction of bionics that can emulate a much wider range of human motion. Eventually, Herr envisions a day when bionic limbs can switch modes for different activities, allowing a person to perform a range of different tasks – walking, running, dancing, athletic activity – without having to change prosthetics.

TED_adrianneIn the past, Herr’s work has been criticized by advocates who argue that bionic limbs are a waste of time when many people don’t even have access to basic wheelchairs. He argues, however, that bionic limbs–which can cost as much as a nice car–ultimately reduce health care costs. For starters, they allow people to return to their jobs quickly, Herr said, thus avoiding workers’ compensation costs.

They can also prevent injuries resulting from prosthetics that don’t emulate normal function as effectively as high-tech limbs. And given the fact that the technology is becoming more widespread and additive manufacturing is leading to lower production costs, there may yet come a day when a bionic prosthetic is not beyond the means of the average person. Needless to say, both Adrianne and the crowd were moved to tears by the moving and inspiring display!

bionic_hand_MIT1Next, there’s the inspiring story of Igor Spectic, a man who lost his right arm three years ago in a workplace accident. Like most people forced to live with the loss of a limb, he quickly came to understand the limitations of prosthetics. While they do restore some degree of ability, the fact that they cannot convey sensation means that the wearers are often unaware when they have dropped or crushed something.

Now, Spectic is one of several people taking part in early trials at Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where researchers from Case Western Reserve University are working on prosthetics that offer sensation as well as ability. In a basement lab, the trials consist of connecting his limb to a prosthetic hand, one that is rigged with force sensors that are plugged into 20 wires protruding from his upper right arm.

bionic_hand_MITThese wires lead to three surgically implanted interfaces, seven millimeters long, with as many as eight electrodes apiece encased in a polymer, that surround three major nerves in Spetic’s forearm. Meanwhile, a nondescript white box of custom electronics does the job of translating information from the sensors on Spetic’s prosthesis into a series of electrical pulses that the interfaces can translate into sensations.

According to the trial’s leader, Dustin Tyler – a professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University and an expert in neural interfaces – this technology is “20 years in the making”. As of this past February, the implants had been in place and performing well in tests for more than a year and a half. Tyler’s group, drawing on years of neuroscience research on the signaling mechanisms that underlie sensation, has developed a library of patterns of electrical pulses to send to the arm nerves, varied in strength and timing.

bionic_hand_MIT2Spetic says that these different stimulus patterns produce distinct and realistic feelings in 20 spots on his prosthetic hand and fingers. The sensations include pressing on a ball bearing, pressing on the tip of a pen, brushing against a cotton ball, and touching sandpaper. During the first day of tests, Spetic noticed a surprising side effect: his phantom fist felt open, and after several months the phantom pain was “95 percent gone”.

To test the hand’s ability to provide sensory feedback, and hence aid the user in performing complex tasks, Spetic and other trial candidates were tasked with picking up small blocks that were attached to a table with magnets, as well as handling and removing the stems from a bowl of cherries. With sensation restored, he was able to pick up cherries and remove stems 93 percent of the time without crushing them, even blindfolded.

bionic_hand_MIT_demoWhile impressive, Tyler estimates that completing the pilot study, refining stimulation methods, and launching full clinical trials is likely to take 10 years. He is also finishing development of an implantable electronic device to deliver stimuli so that the technology can make it beyond the lab and into a household setting. Last, he is working with manufacturers of prostheses to integrate force sensors and force processing technology directly into future versions of the devices.

As for Spetic, he has drawn quite a bit of inspiration from the trials and claims that they have left him thinking wistfully about what the future might bring. As he put it, he feels:

…blessed to know these people and be a part of this. It would be nice to know I can pick up an object without having to look at it, or I can hold my wife’s hand and walk down the street, knowing I have a hold of her. Maybe all of this will help the next person.

bionic-handThis represents merely one of several successful attempts to merge the technology of nerve stimulation in with nerve control, leading to bionic limbs that not only obey user’s commands, but provide sensory feedback at the same time. Given a few more decades of testing and development, we will most certainly be looking at an age where bionic limbs that are virtually indistiguishable from the real thing exist and are readily available.

And in the meantime, enjoy this news story of Adrianne Haslet-Davis performing her ballroom dance routine at TED. I’m sure you’ll find it inspiring!


Sources: fastcoexist.com, technologyreview.com, blog.ted.com