Cyberwars: Watching the US and China in Real-Time

norse-hacking-map-640x353Since the dawn of the internet age, there has been no shortage of stories about hackers, malware-peddling malcontents, online scams and identity theft. Add to that the growing consensus that wars in the future will be fought online through “cyberwarfare divisions”, and you can understand why such positive statements once made about the internet – like how it would bring the world together and create “a global village” – would seem incredibly naive now.

However, despite the prevalence of hacking and cyberwarfare-related fear, very few people have actually experienced what it is like. After all, the effects of hacking are mostly invisible to the untrained eye, with the exception of very-high-profile database breaches. Now, though, a security company has produced a fascinating geographic map that shows global hacking attempts in real-time. And of course, the ongoing battle between US and Chinese forces accounts for much of it.

norse-china-usa-hacking-smallerThe real-time map, maintained by the Norse security company, shows who’s hacking who and what attack vectors are being used. The data is sourced from a network of “honeypot” servers – essentially a juicy-looking target that turns out to be a trap -maintained by Norse, rather than real-world data from the Pentagon, Google, or other high-profile hacking targets. The Norse website has some info about its “honeynet,” but it’s understandably quite sparse on actual technical details.

If you watch the map for a little while, it’s clear that most attacks originate in either China or the US, and that the US is by far the largest target for hack attacks. You can also see that the type of hack used, indicated by the target port, is rather varied. Microsoft-DS (the port used for Windows file sharing) is still one of the top targets , but DNS, SSH, and HTTP are all very popular too. CrazzyNet and Black Ice – two common Windows backdoor programs often used by script kiddies and criminals – is also sure to pop up.

Unit-61398-Chinese-Army-Hacking-Jobs-With-Great-BenefitsOn occasion, the map is likely to show a big burst of coordinated attacks coming from China and directed towards the US. And while it is difficult to blame these attacks directly on the Chinese government (as they are adept at routing their attacks through other servers) government and independent researchers are confident the majority of these attacks are being directed by the People’s Liberation Army’s Unit 61398 – aka. the PLA’s cyberwarfare division.

A lot of hacks originate in the US, too, but their targets are much more varied. And in cases where Chinese facilities (or other nations that are nominally identified as hostile to the US) you can bet that the US Cyber Command at Fort Meade is behind the lot of them. But the map is still limited in that it uses Norse’s own honeypot operations to identify these attacks, and it therefore cannot be said with absolute certainty that real attacks happen in the same fashion.

nsa_aerialBut a general picture of the size and shape of global hacking and cyberwarfare can be divined by looking at the stats. Back in 2012, the US DOD reported that it was the target of 10 million cyber attacks per day. Likewise, the National Nuclear Security Administration says it saw 10 million attacks per day in 2012. In 2013, BP’s CEO said it sees 50,000 cyber attacks per day, and the UK reported around 120,000 attacks per day back in 2011.

While the extent and purpose of these attacks certainly varies, it is pretty clear that hacking and cyberwarfare is a global problem and something that governments, corporations, and institutions need to pay attention to. Last year, the Obama administration’s announced that it would not sit idly by in the face of stepped up attacks from China. However, the subsequent testimony and document leaks by Snowden showed that the US has been conducting its own attacks the entire time (and even beforehand).

And such is the nature of war, regardless of the context or the weapons used. States rattle their swords claiming they will not tolerate aggression, but there is always a fine line between maintaining one’s defenses and escalating a situation to the point that mutual destruction becomes inevitable. Perhaps the people who are currently fighting this alleged cyberwar should look to the past – specifically to the First World War and the Cold War – to see just how effective “arms races” are!

Source: extremetech.com, map.ipviking.com

The Future is Here: Google’s New Self-Driving Car

google-new-self-driving-car-prototype-640x352Google has just unveiled its very first, built-from-scratch-in-Detroit, self-driving electric robot car. The culmination of years worth of research and development, the Google vehicle is undoubtedly cuter in appearance than other EV cars – like the Tesla Model S or Toyota Prius. In fact, it looks more like a Little Tikes plastic car, right down to smiley face on the front end. This is no doubt the result of clever marketing and an attempt to reduce apprehension towards the safety or long-term effects of autonomous vehicles.

The battery-powered electric vehicle has as a stop-go button, but no steering wheel or pedals. It also comes with some serious expensive hardware – radar, lidar, and 360-degree cameras – that are mounted in a tripod on the roof. This is to ensure good sightlines around the vehicle, and at the moment, Google hasn’t found a way to integrate them seamlessly into the car’s chassis. This is the long term plan, but at the moment, the robotic tripod remains.

google-self-driving-car-prototype-concept-artAs the concept art above shows, the eventual goal appears to be to to build the computer vision and ranging hardware into a slightly less obtrusive rooftop beacon. In terms of production, Google’s short-term plan is to build around 200 of these cars over the next year, with road testing probably restricted to California for the next year or two. These first prototypes are mostly made of plastic with battery/electric propulsion limited to a max speed of 25 mph (40 kph).

Instead of an engine or “frunk,” there’s a foam bulkhead at the front of the car to protect the passengers. There’s just a couple of seats in the interior, and some great big windows so passengers can enjoy the view while they ride in automated comfort. In a blog post on their website, Google expressed that their stated goal is in “improving road safety and transforming mobility for millions of people.” Driverless cars could definitely revolutionize travel for people who can’t currently drive.

google_robotcar_mapImproving road safety is a little more ambiguous, though. It’s generally agreed that if all cars on the road were autonomous, there could be some massive gains in safety and efficiency, both in terms of fuel usage and being able to squeeze more cars onto the roads. In the lead-up to that scenario, though, there are all sorts of questions about how to effectively integrate a range of manual, semi- and fully self-driving vehicles on the same roadways.

Plus, there are the inevitable questions of practicality and exigent circumstances. For starters, having no other controls in the car but a stop-go button may sound simplified and creative, but it creates problems. What’s a driver to do when they need to move the car just a few feet? What happens when a tight parking situation is taking place and the car has to be slowly moved to negotiate it? Will Google’s software allow for temporary double parking, or off-road driving for a concert or party? google_robotca

Can you choose which parking spot the car will use, to leave the better/closer parking spots for someone with special needs (i.e. the elderly or physically disabled)? How will these cars handle the issue of “right of way” when it comes to pedestrians and other drivers? Plus, is it even sensible to promote a system that will eventually make it easier to put more cars onto the road? Mass transit is considered the best option for a cleaner, less cluttered future. Could this be a reason not to develop such ideas as the Hyperloop and other high-speed maglev trains?

All good questions, and ones which will no doubt have to be addressed as time goes on and production becomes more meaningful. In the meantime, there are no shortage of people who are interested in the concept and hoping to see where it will go. Also, there’s plenty of people willing to take a test drive in the new robotic car. You can check out the results of these in the video below. In the meantime, try not to be too creeped out if you see a car with a robotic tripod on top and a very disengaged passenger in the front seat!


Sources:
extremetech.com, scientificamerican.com

Reinstating Net Neutrality: New Bill Before US Congress

cap-hillA new “net neutrality” bill is on its way towards Congress, one which seeks to reinstate the free and open nature of the net – something that has been under fire in recent years. And one week ago, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Representative Doris Matsui of California took another decisive step when they announced that they will propose a bill to stop the Federal Communications Commission from allowing paid “fast lanes” on the internet.

In short, the proposed bill demands that the FCC to use whatever authority it sees fit to make sure that Internet providers don’t speed up certain types of content (like Netflix videos) at the expense of others (like e-mail). It wouldn’t give the commission new powers, but the bill – known as the Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act – would give the FCC crucial political cover to prohibit what consumer advocates say would harm startup companies and Internet services by requiring them to pay extra fees to ISPs.

Wireless-Internet-1And this past spring, after a federal court struck down the FCC’s existing net neutrality rules – which sought to ensure that ISPs didn’t discriminate against certain internet traffic – the commission proposed a new set of rules that has left many worried that ISPs could start charging web companies like Google and Netflix to deliver their content at faster speeds. Such an arrangement, these sources say, would squeeze out newer and smaller operations that can’t pay the fees.

Leahy and Matsui, both Democrats, are part of a widespread effort to ensure that all web companies, from Google to Netflix to Snapchat, are treated equally on the internet. On the other side, big-name internet service providers such as Comcast and Verizon are fighting to maintain control over how their networks operate. Caught in the middle are internet users who stand to lose if the ISPs create a new internet where its harder for certain services to reach them.

https://i0.wp.com/img.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/files/2014/06/Screen-Shot-2014-06-16-at-18.12.56.jpgAfter holding a hearing on net neutrality in Vermont this past summer, Leahy came to an invariable conclusion:

Americans are speaking loud and clear. They want an Internet that is a platform for free expression and innovation, where the best ideas and services can reach consumers based on merit rather than based on a financial relationship with a broadband provider.

Though FCC chairman Ted Wheeler has claimed that internet fast lanes would be “commercially unreasonable” and therefore forbidden under its own proposed new rules, critics worry that the rules are too broad and would allow for loopholes as to what counts as commercially reasonable activity. Since the new rules were proposed, protests have taken place in front of the FCC’s offices, massive internet petitions have been mounted, and an epic rant was made by Last Week Tonight host John Oliver.

https://i0.wp.com/www.wired.com/images_blogs/threatlevel/2014/01/topic_net-neutrality.pngThe new bill would provide a mandate regarding how the FCC deals with any sort of paid prioritization, but it wouldn’t reclassify providers. Also, the new bill would only apply to connections from internet service providers to customers’ homes, commonly referred to as last mile connections. It wouldn’t pertain to “peering”, the deals governing the ways that internet service providers connect with each other or with content providers like Netflix and Google.

Despite these limitations, Public Knowledge supports the proposed legislation. As vice president of government affairs Chris Lewis said in a statement:

This bill sends a clear signal to the FCC that fast lanes and paid prioritization could endanger the internet ecosystem as we know it. The reason we have seen so much financial investment and innovation online is because the playing field for new entrepreneurs is level. As the FCC continues to evaluate new net neutrality rules, it’s important they understand that Americans want an internet that everyone can succeed in, not just the companies with enough money to pay a toll to ISPs.

https://i0.wp.com/www3.pcmag.com/media/images/425188-net-neutrality.pngThe bill may face serious challenges, however. Republicans control the House and have proposed their own bill to block the FCC from reclassifying internet service providers. In this respect, net neutrality is dividing lawmakers along partisan lines, and Republicans are not expected to support the proposed Leahy-Matsui bill. But in theory, a bipartisan agreement could be reached, especially since the Leahy-Matsui bill leaves reclassification off the table.

And given the level of public pressure on law makers and regulators to protect the function of the internet, it’s too early to count this or any other legislation that addressing the issue of neutrality out. Network neutrality has become a hot button issue, much like domestic surveillance and data collection. And the people are sending a clear message: they want the internet to be a level playing field and won’t rest until the rules clearly reflect that.

Sources: wired.com, washingtonpost.com

China Blocks Google for 25th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square

tiananmen-square-1989-tankIn preparation for the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre (aka. the June 4th Incident), Chinese authorities decided to begin blocking Google. It’s believed that the blockade is tied to this week’s 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre where the People’s Liberation Army cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators. Each year, the Chinese government censors the web in an effort to limit protests against the thwarted uprising.

Aside from Google, several internet services were blocked or censored in advance, including social networks and other web communication tools. Though the Chinese government has not yet confirmed this, countless Chinese users have discovered Google’s services to be inaccessible since the last week of May. In addition, a report from GreatFire.org claimed that the government appeared to have begun targeting Google Inc’s main search engine and Gmail since at least the last week of May, making them inaccessible to many users in China.

chinese_hackerThe report added that the last time it monitored such a block was in 2012, when it only lasted 12 hours. At is states:

It is not clear that the block is a temporary measure around the anniversary or a permanent block. But because the block has lasted for four days, it’s more likely that Google will be severely disrupted and barely usable from now on.

Asked about the disruptions, a Google spokesman said: “We’ve checked extensively and there’s nothing wrong on our end.” And Google’s own transparency report, which shows details about its global traffic, showed lower levels of activity from China starting from about Friday, which could indicate a significant amount of disruption. Other major social media sites – such as Twitter and Facebook and Google’s own Youtube – are already blocked in the country.

A Google logo is seen at the entrance to the company's offices in TorontoOf course, this should come as no surprise, given the way this anniversary is received by Chinese officials. For the ruling Communist Party, the 1989 demonstrations that clogged Tiananmen Square in Beijing and spread to other cities remain taboo, particularly on their 25th anniversary. When June rolls around each year and the Tiananmen Square Massacre is commemorated around the world, including in Hong Kong, China’s ruling party typically conducts a web crackdown.

It’s not uncommon for Chinese censors to block certain comments from being made even on China-based company services, like Weibo, China’s own version of Twitter. And China also applies pressure to search engines like Baidu in their country in order to ensure that censorship filters are in place. And as with previous years, the run-up to the anniversary has been marked by detentions, increased security in Beijing and tighter controls on the Internet.

tiananmen_square_vigilThis year, the detainees included prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and Chinese-born Australian artist Guo Jian, a former Chinese soldier who last week gave an interview to the Financial Times about the crackdown. And as usual, the Chinese government made a statement in which it once again defended its decision to use military force against the pro-democracy demonstrators who gathered in the Square twenty-five years ago.

The statement came from Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei during a daily news briefing, in which he said:

The Chinese government long ago reached a conclusion about the political turmoil at the end of the 1980s. In the last three decades and more of reform and opening up, China’s enormous achievements in social and economic development have received worldwide attention. The building of democracy and the rule of law have continued to be perfected. It can be said that the road to socialism with Chinese characteristics which we follow today accords with China’s national condition and the basic interests of the vast majority of China’s people, which is the aspiration of all China’s people.

tiananmen_square_vigil2On the subject of why Google was being targeted, Hong said only that the government “manages the Internet in accordance with the law”, which is consistent with the state’s position with all web-based censorship. When asked about the jailing of dissidents, Hong replied that “In China there are only law breakers — there are no so-called dissidents.” He also stressed once again that all departments of the Chinese government “consistently act in accordance with the law.”

For years now, Google has had a contentious relationship with China, which began with the company had once offering its search services to the world’s second largest economy. However, due to issues over censorship, Google decided to move its Chinese search engine to Hong Kong, effectively allowing them to operate outside the rules and regulations of the Chinese government. But as China demonstrated these past few weeks, it still has the ability to block the flow of traffic from Hong Kong into the mainland. 

tiananmen_square_vigil3It also aptly demonstrated just how much it fears the specter of Tiananmen Square, even some twenty-five years later. From clamping down on their people’s ability to learn more about the massacre, to clamping down on even the possibility of protest in advance, to continually denying any wrongdoing and suppressing information on the number of people killed, the legacy of Tiananmen Square continues to expose the blatant hypocrisy and denial of the Communist Party of China.

If history has taught us anything, it is that the fall of a dictatorship usually begins with one terrible mistake. The state of China committed that mistake a quarter of a century ago, and since then has relied on state-sanctioned economic growth in order to justify its existence. But in so doing, they’ve essentially created a Catch 22 for themselves. Continued economic growth ensures greater material wealth for more and more of its people. And a burgeoning digital-age economy means more and more access to information for its citizens.

In short, the CPC is screwed. And I for one would be happy to see them gone! Lord knows they deserve it, and the Chinese people would be better off without them, no matter what they try to insist. So on this historic anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, I invite the CPC to EAT A DICK! And to the people still living under their hypocritical rule, please know that you are not alone. Hang in there, and wait for the day when these bastards join all the other reprehensible dick-heads on the ash heap of history!

Sources: cnet.com, reuters.com, (2)

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 From Space: NASA Severs Ties to Russia

ISS_crewYesterday, NASA officially announced that it intends to cease most work with the Russian Federal Space Agency amid growing tensions concerning the Ukrainian crisis. The statement came from Bob Jacobs, NASA’s deputy associate administrator of communications, who formalized the space agency’s position with a message sent to Universe Today, a copy of which was then posted on it’s Google+ message board on Wednesday, April 2nd.

In the statement, they indicate that while the International Space Station will still see work to “maintain safe and continuous operation”, most work with Roscosmos (Russia’s federal space agency) will cease. In addition, they were sure to include a reminder to Congress, saying that they now face a choice between fully funding human U.S. launches again in 2017, or facing years more of sending money to the Russians for Soyuz launches from Kazakhstan.

Soyuz_capsuleThe full text of the statement appears as follows:

Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation.  NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station.

NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space.  This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration’s for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year.  

With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017.  The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians.  It’s that simple.  The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America – and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.

So far, it’s not exactly clear what activities would constitute “safe and continuous operation” of the station. So, for example, whether or not NASA will continue to send photographers to cover launches and landing in Russia, or to what extent NASA TV broadcasts of Russian spacewalks would be affected, remains to be seen. And in the meantime, missions already scheduled for launch – such as Expedition 40, which will launch aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in May – are still expected to go ahead.

ISS_exp40Since the Space Shuttle Program was retired in 2011, NASA and other space agencies such as the European Space Agency have relied on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to bring astronauts to the International Space Station. Crews are generally made up of large proportions of Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts, as well as a few astronauts from other agencies. The current Expedition 39 crew has has three Russians, two Americans and a Japanese commander, Koichi Wakata.

The relationship between NASA and Russia stretches back to the 1970s when Russia was still the Soviet Union, with their first joint mission (the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project) taking place in 1975. The relationship expanded when several NASA shuttles visited the Russian space station Mir in the 1990s, laying the groundwork for the International Space Station agreement today. And 2011, that relationship expanded considerably, with Russian rockets not only transporting ISS crews, but also US and European satellites into orbit.

Earth_&_Mir_(STS-71)NASA is working on a commercial crew program that right now is slated to bring U.S. astronauts back into space from American soil by 2017. There are several proposals being considered: a human-rated version of SpaceX’s Dragon, Blue Origin’s New Shepard, Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser and the Boeing CST-100. However, these depend upon continued funding and it is currently unclear how much money the CCP program will receive in the upcoming fiscal 2015 budget request before Congress.

Historically, NASA has repeatedly received less funding than what it has requested, which has resulted in missions being delayed – sometimes by years. But the new tensions with Russia may alter that situation somewhat, and judging from their statement, NASA is counting on this very thing. In the meantime, International Space Station operations were extended to at least 2024, and NASA officials have pointed out that it and similar agreements have weathered other world crises.

Source: universetoday.com

The Future of WiFi: Solar-Powered Internet Drones

titan-aerospace-solara-50-640x353Facebook, that massive social utility company that is complicit in just about everything internet-related, recently announced that it is seeking to acquire Titan Aerospace. This company is famous for the development of UAVs, the most recent of which is their solar powered Solara 50. In what they describe as “bringing internet access to the underconnected,” their aim is to use an army of Solara’s to bring wireless internet access to the roughly 5 billion people who live without it worldwide.

Titan Aerospace has two products – the Solara 50 and Solara 60 – which the company refers to as “atmospheric satellites.” Both aircraft are powered by a large number of solar cells, have a service ceiling of up to 20,000 meters (65,000 feet) and then circle over a specific region for up to five years. This of length of service is based on the estimated lifespan of the on-board lithium-ion batteries that are required for night-time operation.

solara-50-titan-640x320The high altitude is important, as the FAA only regulates airspace up to 18,000 meters (60,000 feet). Above that, pretty much anything goes, which is intrinsic if you’re a company that is looking to do something incredibly audacious and soaked in self-interest. As an internet company and social utility, Facebook’s entire business model is based on continued expansion. Aiming to blanket the world in wireless access would certainly ensure that much, so philanthropy isn’t exactly the real aim here!

Nevertheless, once these atmospheric satellites are deployed, there is a wide range of possible applications to be had. Facebook is obviously interested in internet connectivity, but mapping, meteorology, global positioning, rapid response to disasters and wildfires, and a whole slew of other scientific and military applications would also be possible. As for what level of connectivity Facebook hopes to provide with these drones, it’s too early to say.

internetHowever, TechCrunch reports that Facebook would launch 11,000 Solara 60 drones. Their coverage would begin with Africa, and then spread out from there. There’s no word on how fast these connections might be, nor how much such a connection would cost per user. Perhaps more importantly, there’s also no word on how Facebook intends to connect these 11,000 satellites to the internet, though it is obvious that Facebook would need to build a series of ground stations.

Many of these might have to be built in very remote and very hard to administer areas, which would also require fiber optic cables running from them to hook them up to the internet. In addition, Titan hasn’t produced a commercial UAV yet and have confined themselves to technology demonstrations. What they refer to as “initial commercial operations” will start sometime in 2015, which is perhaps this is why Facebook is only paying $60 million for Titan, rather than the $19 billion it paid for WhatsApp.

Google_Loon_-_Launch_EventAs already noted, this move is hardly purely altruistic. In many ways, Facebook is a victim of its own success, as its rapid, early growth quickly became impossible to maintain. Acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp were a savvy moves to bring in a few hundred million more users, but ultimately they were nothing more than stopgap measures. Bringing the next billion users online and into Facebook’s monopolistic grasp will be a very hard task, but one which it must figure out if it wants its stock not to plummet.

To be fair, this idea is very similar to Google’s Project Loon, a plan that involves a series of high-altitude, solar-powered hot air balloons that would provide wireless to roughly two-thirds of the worlds population. The idea was unveiled back in June of 2013 and has since begun testing in New Zealand. And given their hold on the market in the developed world, bringing broadband access to the developing world is seen like the next logical step for companies like Verizon, Time Warner, Comcast, and every other internet and telecom provider.

Wireless-Internet-1One can only imagine the kind of world our children and grandchildren will be living in, when virtually everyone on the planet (and keeping in mind that there will be between 9 and 11 billion of them by that time) will be able to communicate instantaneously with each other. The sheer amount of opinions exchanged, information shared, and background noise produced is likely to make today’s world seem quiet, slow and civilized by comparison!

Incidentally, I may need to call a  lawyer as it seems that someone has been ripping off my ideas… again! Before reading up on this story, the only time I ever heard the name Titan Aerospace was in a story… MY STORY! Yes, in the Legacies universe, the principal developer of space ships and aerospace fighters carried this very name. They say its a guilty pleasure when stuff you predict comes true when you are writing about it. But really, if you can’t cash in on it, what’s the point?

Consider yourself warned, Titan! J.J. Abrams may have gotten off the hook with that whole Revolution show of his, but you are not nearly as rich and powerful… yet! 😉 And the meantime, be sure to check out these videos of Titan’s Solar 50 and Google’s Project Loon below:

Titan Aerospace Solara 50:


Project Loon:


Source:
extremetech.com

Ann Makosinski and I Have a Chat!

Ann-Makosinski-Google-Science-Fair-2It’s a rare thing when a humble blogger like yours truly gets the chance to speak to someone who has truly made a difference in the world. And this time around, that person is Ann Makosinki, inventor of the body heat-powered flashlight and winner of last year’s Google Science Fair. In addition to being a young inventor, she also happens to hail from my neck of the woods here in Victoria, British Columbia. So you can imagine the enthusiasm I felt when she agreed to this interview!

As many of you may already know  – since you all faithfully read this blog 😉 – Ann Makosinki is winner of the 2013 Google Science Fair Award for her invention that uses the warmth of a person’s own hand to power an LED flashlight. Using Peltier tiles, which produce electricity when heated on one side and cooled on the other, she developed a flashlight which she believes will be of use in the developing world where electrical outlets and batteries are not always available.

body_heat_flashlightAnn’s inspiration comes from her commitment to science, renewable energy, the environment, and her roots in the Philippines. Ultimately, her goal is to bring light and energy to those who live without it all over the world. After winning the gold medal at the 2013 Canada-Wide Science Fair Gold Medal, her flashlight won at the Google Science Fair’s top prize of a $25,000 scholarship and the choice of a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” from CERN, LEGO or Google.

In addition, she has been a keynote speaker at TEDx in three different cities (Vancouver, Redmond and Edmonton), at Techtoria here in Victoria, earned a spot on Jimmy Fallon Live, and will be representing Canada at the 2014 International Science and Engineering Fair this coming May. The following is a transcript of our interview, which occurred via email in spite of her (very) busy schedule:

1. When did you first discover your love for science? What are some of your earliest memories of doing something science-related?

My love for science started when I was very young. My first toy was actually a box of transistors! I was always also interested in insects, and used to collect them and keep them in jars. I would feed them and spray them each morning before I would head out to school. My parents were very supportive of my interests, even if I was looking through the garbage, hot gluing disposed objects together and creating “inventions” (of course nothing ever worked). My dad also always took me to the local island science fair, and I was very shy to ask the other kids questions, but I always thought it was so cool that they had chosen their own topic in science and now were presenting on it.

2. When did you take part in your first science fair? What was your project?

I started participating in the local science fair, the Vancouver Island Regional Science Fair, when I was in grade 6. My science project was one from that I had done in class, comparing two laundry detergents.

3. How did you come to be interested in renewable energy?

I realized early on that energy is a key issue in today’s world, because of our increased reliance on energy and its effect on global warming. It is a challenging problem, and I wished to explore alternative energy sources and find solutions. I focused on the problem of battery elimination, because that’s something I understand and can think around.

4. You’re invention of the body-heat powered flashlight was a big hit at the 2013 Google Science Fair. What was it like competing with people your age who have such a passion for science?

For me, it wasn’t about competing with the other people, but more of getting know them and seeing how we were all alike in some ways. It inspired me to see how passionate they were about science, and while we could have conversations about technical aspects that I usually wouldn’t get to talk about with my friends, they were all still like normal teenagers.

5. This past December you were named one of Time Magazines Top 30 under 30. What other accolades have you earned since winning at the Google Fair?

Hmm, well I have given three TEDx talks since then and many other speeches locally. I have had numerous interviews/film crew from US and Europe making short documentaries. I also appeared on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon’s during the show’s premiere week, and I have a few more things lined up. However, I think what matters most to me is the fact that my project has brought so much awareness to the problem of people without electricity, and to the potential that thermoelectricity has.

6. Since winning at Google Fair, you’ve presented at TEDx RenfrewCollingwood, the Techtoria conference in Victoria, and got a spot on Jimmy Fallon Live. Is it fair to say your life has changed since debuting your invention? Do you feel like a celebrity?

I definitely do not feel like a celebrity. Sure, I get recognized once in a blue moon, or people want to have their picture with me, but I know that will soon end. I think something that has changed is the fact that I really value the time when I can wind down and relax, because with so much going on I’m always on the go and worrying about my next due date.

7. What is the future hold for renewable energy, in your opinion?

I think we are already seeing a huge increase in the interest in renewable energy and alternative energy sources. As global warming and the greenhouse effect closes in on us, we will be obliged to look around to harvest natural energy, whether it be from heat, sun, water, wind etc. It holds a lot of potential, but our technologies for harvesting the energy efficiently are still developing. If my flashlight can eliminate even a fraction of batteries from the city dumps, I will have achieved my aim.

8. What does the future hold for Ann Makosinki?

I hope to commercialize the flashlight and make it available to children in the world who need light the most. Beyond that, I hope to get into college and make my little contribution towards a cleaner and better world to come.

She hopes to commercialize the flashlight? I for one can’t believe that she hasn’t been approached by every company from GE to Applied Solar. But it is great to know that young minds are coming up with breakthroughs that could be making a very real difference in the world of tomorrow. I, for one, consider to be right up there with the Darfur Stove and Quetsol solar-powered lights.

And be sure to check out the video of Ann’s speech at TEDx RenfewCollingwood which took place in October 2013, entitled “Be the Source”:


And here is her guest spot on Jimmy Fallon Live, as part of GE’s “Fallonventions”, from this past February:

Drone Wars: Protecting Endangered Animals

WWF_droneDespite anxieties associated with drone use – most of which have to do with domestic surveillance and warfare – there are numerous positive uses for the technology. Whether it is keeping an eye on oil rigs, monitoring underground cables, spying on drug or human traffickers, or ecological surveillance, there are plenty of uses for unmanned aerial vehicles beyond warfare and invading privacy.

In Namibia, for example, where poaching remains a problem, drones may be the key to protecting the endangered rhino and elephants. Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism, along with the World Wildlife Fund and funding from Google, have partnered to invest in drones that can track rhino and elephant herds. Through the use of these drones, the researchers were able to follow herds and alert law enforcement in the event the animals were being targeted by poachers.

WWF_drone_graphicIn field tests conducted in two national parks in November 2013, drones with 2-metre wingspans flew day and night missions to video black rhino herds and send live footage to poacher-tracking rangers on the ground. Smart radio tags attached to rhinos allowed the drones to home in on each herd’s current location. Crawford Allan, leader of the Wildlife Crime Technology Project at WWF, put it as follows:

We broke new ground using technologies that have never been integrated before to provide powerful wildlife protection.

The MET says it will now press ahead and deploy drones in areas of Namibia where rhinos and elephants roam. WWF estimates that illegal poaching in Africa nets criminals $10 billion each year – with some 22,000 elephants killed annually and 1000 rhinos killed last year in South Africa alone. Their efforts are also thinning out elephant and rhino populations and putting the entire ecosystem at risk.

conservation_rhinoAlthough the drone program should help prevent poaching in Namibia, the issue is widespread across Africa. It’s not clear whether a similar program will be rolled out elsewhere, but any success incurred in Namibia to stop poaching will set a precedent others are sure to follow. And, it should be noted, this country and the WWF are hardly alone in wanting to adapt UAV technology to the goal or ecological or species conservation.

In many ways, MET’s use of high-tech to protect wildlife echoes that of Technology For Nature (TfN), a joint venture of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, UK, University College London and the Zoological Society of London. Led by Lucas Joppa and Siamak Tavakoli at Microsoft, TfN is getting similar drone and animal-tagging projects off the ground in the Republic of the Congo, the Seychelles and Zambia.

conservation_drones_inlineAnd then there’s Conservation Drones, a non-profit organization co-founded by Serge Wich – a professor in primate biology at John Moores University. Made up of researchers and technologists, the group’s mandate is to spread drone use around the world for the sake of conservation. So far, they have worked with conservation groups and governments in Nepal, Indonesia, Gabon, and Greenland, and Wich hopes to visit more countries later this year.

According to Wich, the challenges to conservation go beyond simply monitoring endangered animals, which may be in too few number to accurately keep track of. There’s also the matter of the rough and vast terrain, which can be very difficult to physically cover. Drones are a big game changer in this game. By covering large areas in surveys, doing it repeatedly, and automating some of the analysis, aerial vehicles can track wildlife in a more comprehensive and efficient way.

conservation_dronesThanks to the growth of commercial aerial drones in recent years and the significant reduction in price, the technology is becoming much more affordable and user-friendly. The kits Conservation Drones uses cost no more than about $3,000, and the latest version has an open-source autopilot platform from California, along with a GPS tracker and altimeter. It’s then fitted with still cameras or video. As Wich himself put it:

The potential is huge to allow people to do very efficient data collection on a variety of issues that are important for conservation. We often struggle determining how many animals there are, where human encroachment is occurring. There are an enormous amount of ecological questions we can address with these systems.

To set a flight path, Wich simply plugs in a few points on a Google Map, then launches the drone by hand. The battery-powered module can fly for up to an hour, and cover a maximum distance of about 40 km (25 miles). The drones offer an aerial view, allowing Wich and his colleagues to get a close-up view unobscured by clouds. The next step is to improve the analysis of the images that come back.

conservation_drone_mosaicConservation Drones is now working to automate the counting process, and build up picture-maps by stitching hundreds of images together (like the one above). It also wants to create 3-D model environments, providing a sort of living inventory of what’s been destroyed and what remains. Long-term, it is hoped that governments all over the world with conservation problems will used the detailed software and aerial drones to keep tabs on their endangered animals and habitats to ensure their protection.

Several other groups are also pioneering drones-for-conservation, notably the World Wildlife Fund working with Google, the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, led by Iraq War veteran Damien Mander, and ShadowView, a group out of the Netherlands. Poachers beware. In addition, the Zambian Carnivore Program will be testing a pair of VHF-radio-equipped quadcopter drones in the US soon and he hopes to begin testing the miniature aircraft in Kafue National Park in Zambia in May.

In the meantime, check out this video of the MET/WWF drone survey:


And learn more about Conservation Drones from this TED talk by Wich’s partner Lian Pin Koh:


Sources:
news.cnet.com, fastcoexist.com, newscientist.com

The Future of Medicine: Brain Scan Databanks

AI_picCloud computing and the internet are having a profound effect on the field of medicine. As more and more patients have their records digitized and posted in online medical sources, doctor’s are able to better track patient histories, conduct referrals, and make speedier diagnoses. And now, doctors at John Hopkins University are working on a cloud-computing project specifically for children’s brain scans.

By collecting and categorizing thousands of MRI scans from kids with normal and abnormal brains, they say the resulting database will give physicians a sophisticated, “Google-like” search system to help find similar scans as well as the medical records of those children. Such a system could help not only enhance the diagnosis of brain disorders, but the treatment as well, maybe even before clinical symptoms are obvious to the naked eye.

Miller_JohnHopkinsMichael I. Miller, a lead investigator on the project who also heads up the university’s Center for Imaging Science, said in a news release:

If doctors aren’t sure which disease is causing a child’s condition, they could search the data bank for images that closely match their patient’s most recent scan. If a diagnosis is already attached to an image from the data bank, that could steer the physician in the right direction. Also, the scans in our library may help a physician identify a change in the shape of a brain structure that occurs very early in the course of a disease, even before clinical symptoms appear. That could allow the physician to get an early start on the treatment.

Susumu Mori, a radiology professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and co-lead investigator on what he calls the “biobank,” says that a collection of brain scans of this size will also help neuroradiologists and physicians identify specific malformations far faster than is currently possible.

brain-activityMori has spent the past four-plus years working on a clinical database of more than 5,000 whole brain MRI scans of children who’ve come through Johns Hopkins. This project involved indexing anatomical data on 1,000 structural measurements in 250 brain regions that were ultimately sorted into 22 brain disease categories, including infections, psychiatric disorders, epilepsy, and chromosomal abnormalities.

The project, which was made possible by a three-year $600,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, is still in its pilot stage and available only to physicians and patients within the Johns Hopkins medical system. But the researchers say it could open up and expand to other networks in the coming years. Such an expansion would presumably benefit not only other physicians and patients, but the database itself.

brainscansResearchers are also working on a similar project to collect scans of elderly patients to focus on age-related diseases and neurological disorders. Combined with the pediatric databank, this new brain scan archive will not only help recognize established neurological disorders, but could even possibly help identify and classify new ones as well.

But one of the key words here in anonymous. While cloud computing and patient files may raise the specter of privacy for many, the current project maintains patient confidentially. And one can further assume that voluntary compliance will be maintained as databases like these expand. After all, one does not need to know a patient’s name in order to examine what anomalies their brains exhibit.

And in the meantime, be sure to check out this video of Michael Miller explaining the new brain scan project and computational anatomy in greater detail:


Source:
news.cnet.com