Cyberwars: Massive Government Surveillance Uncovered!

wire_tappingOn Friday, Washington DC found itself embroiled in controversy as revelations were made about the extent to which US authorities have been spying on Americans in the last six years. This news came on the heels of the announcement that the federal government had been secretly cataloging all of Verizon’s phone records. No sooner had the dust settled on that revelation that it became known that the scope of the Obama administration’s surveillance programs was far greater than anyone had imagined.

According to updated information on the matter, it is now known that The National Security Agency (NSA) and the FBI have been tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting everything from audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that would enable their analysts to track foreign targets.

prism3This information was revealed thanks to a secret document that was leaked to the Washington Post, which shows for the first time that under the Obama administration, the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing. Equally distressing is the names being named: U.S. Service Providers such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.

The document further indicates that all of this has been taking place since 2007, when news disclosures, lawsuits and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court forced then-president George W. Bush to look for new authority to justify his program warrantless domestic surveillance. It’s continuance and expansion under Obama has created a great deal of understandable intrigue, and not only because of promises made that “illegal wiretapping” would not take place under his watch.

prism1The joint FBI-NSA program responsible for mining all the data is known as PRISM, and it may very well be the first of its kind. While the NSA and FBI have a long history of monitoring suspects via phone records and computer activity, and are both accustomed to corporate partnerships that help it divert data traffic or sidestep barriers, such a vast program has never before been possible. In the current information age, there is an immense wealth of information out there, and where better to access all of this than in Silicon Valley?

Not long after the news broke in Washington, London’s Guardian reported that GCHQ, Britain’s equivalent of the NSA, also has been secretly gathering intelligence from the same internet companies through an operation set up by the NSA. According to the same leaked information, PRISM appears to allow the GCHQ to circumvent the formal legal process required in Britain to seek personal material such as emails, photos and videos from an internet company based outside of the country.

prism2But perhaps worst of all is the fact that this process is entirely above board, at least for the companies involved. Back in 2007, Congress passed the Protect America Act, and then in 2008 followed it up with the FISA Amendments Act, both of which immunized private companies that cooperated voluntarily with U.S. intelligence collection against prosecution. And late last year, when critics in Congress sought changes in the FISA Amendments Act, the only lawmakers who knew about PRISM were bound by oaths of office to hold their tongues.

An anticipated, a bi-partisan amalgam of Senators came out to defend the initial reports of phone record monitoring shortly after it was announced. In a rare display of solidarity that cut across party lines, Democrats and Republicans from both the Senate and House came forward to say that the program was justified, only spied on terrorists, and that law-abiding citizens need not worry.

National Security Agency - aerial view
National Security Agency – aerial view

Once again, the argument “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear” finds itself employed by people who do not want to voice criticisms about a government spying program. Echoes of the Bush administration and McCarthy era all over again. Needless to say, all of this has many people worried, not the least of which are people opposed to government intrusion and the protection of privacy for the past decade.

Ever since it became possible to “mine data”  from numerous online digital sources, there has been fear that corporations or governments might try to ascertain the habits and comings and goings of regular people in order to effectively monitor them. For some time now, this sort of monitoring has been somewhat benign, in the form of anticipating their spending habits and using targeted advertising. But always, the fear that something more sinister and totalitarian might emerge.

government-surveillanceAnd with the “War on Terror”, the Patriot Act, domestic warrantless wiretapping, the legitimization of torture, and a slew of other crimes the Bush administration was indicted in, people all over the world have become convinced that “Big Brother” government is just around the corner, if indeed it is not already here.

The fact that such processes have continued and even expanded under Obama, a man who originally pledged not to engage in such behavior, has made a bad situation worse. In many ways, it demonstrates that fears that he too would succumb to internal pressure were justified. Much as he was won over by the Pentagon and CIA to continue the war in Afghanistan and UAV programs, it seems that the constellation of FBI and NSA specialists advising him on domestic surveillance has managed to sway him here as well.

Stealth-Wear1One can only hope that this revelation causes the federal government and the Obama administration to reconsider their stances. After all, these are the same people who were convinced to stand down on the use of UAVs in oversees operations and to take measures that would ensure transparency in the future. We can also hope that the NSA and FBI will be required to once again have to rely on the court system and demonstrate “just cause” before initiating any domestic surveillance in the future.

Otherwise, we might all need to consider getting our hands on some stealth wear and personal cameras, to shield ourselves and create an environment of “sousveillance” so we can spy on everything the government does. Might not hurt to start monitoring the comings and goings of every telecommunications and Silicon Valley CEO while were at it! For as the saying goes, “who watches the watchers?” I’ll give you a hint: we do!

Also, be sure to check out the gallery of artist Adam Harvey, the man who pioneered “stealth wear” as a protest against the use of drones and domestic surveillance. To learn more about sousveillance, the concept of a society monitored by common people, check out Steve Mann’s (inventor of the EyeTap) blog.

Sources: washingtonpost.com, guardian.co.uk, policymic.com, ahprojects.com, eyetap.blogspot.ca

 

Drone Wars: Hiding Your Home from a UAV

(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)(Released)In a world increasingly permeated by surveillance systems, especially ones that are airborne and remotely operated, it was only a matter of time before some struck back. Much like Steve Mann’s concept of sousveillance – using camera devices and wearable computers to help people spy back against “Big Brother” – it seems that there are individuals out there looking for ways to help the common people avoid UAV detection.

In this case, the individual is Tim Faucett, CEO of APlus Mobile. When his company is not manufacturing mobile computer units that manage robots and UAVs for clients like the U.S. Navy and Lockheed Martin, they are contemplating ways to shield us from the technology they help create. Might seem a bit ironic, but looking to the future, Faucett and his colleagues are concerned about people other than government and military having access to the technology.

drone_target_1Alongside the FAA, which estimates that there could be tens of thousands of unmanned aircrafts circling overhead by the end of this decade, Faucett believes the future will be permeated by privately-owned unmanned aerial vehicles:

There are going to be private drones, there’s going to be commercial drones. Everybody’s going to have access to a drone. And people are going to have good intentions with them, and people are going to have bad intentions with them.

An interesting idea, and not one the public has fully considered yet. Most concerns vis a vis UAVs and their unlawful use are targeted at the governments who use them, mainly with the intention of “combating terrorism” overseas. But to Faucett, the real threat comes from our neighbors and private groups, people who are harder to discern, identify and fight than a monolithic organization.

drone-laser-targeting_620x374In keeping with this mindset, a few weeks ago, his startup Domestic Drone Countermeasures filed its first of what he said would be nine patents for a system that will detect and disable drones before they have the chance to film their targets. Few details have been made available yet as to what these systems involve, mainly because it’s new and Faucett hopes to keep the cat in the bag until its time to unveil.

Still, some details have managed to trickle out, such as Faucett’s own reference to a system that includes software and sensors that will be able to identify nearby UAVs based on their electromagnetic signature, alert the owner of the system, and then “neutralize the drone’s capability to see you with its camera.” But Faucett was also sure to emphasize the non-military nature of all this, responding to rumors that his company is developing some sort of weaponry:

We don’t interfere with the drones navigation in any way. We don’t jam anything. We don’t intercept anything … This is non-combative. That’s really important. We’ve taken great pains to design systems that aren’t going to get shut down or be outlawed or become illegal. … We’ve taken the combat elements out so [the former military technology] can’t be viewed as unlawful.

???????????????????In fact, the new system may actually be capable of doing something creative and comical, should anyone attempt to spy on you. And all without causing harm to the camera that’s attempting to see you :

The camera just won’t be able to look at you. Actually, at some point, we can show the operator at the other end a little movie or something.

So try to misuse a UAV, and you may end with an eye full of porn bombs, or several hours of Desperate Housewives, playing on a loop. Take that, nosy neighbor! You too, Big Brother!

Faucett says his team of three full-time engineers and several part-time staffers should be able to bring the system to market in a matter of months. It’ll be scalable to suit the needs of someone who just wants their home protected, ranging from a home owner who some added security, to larger property owners or institutional clients. You might say, spying will become the new type of Cold War, with government, security and surveillance companies all engaged in a game of one-upmanship.

And as usual, I sense an idea for a novel… Patent Pending!

Source: fastcoexist.com

 

The Future is Here: The Autonomous Robotic Jellyfish!

Matt Russiello submerges the RoboJelly. Remember the Medusoid, that creepy robot jellyfish creature that debuted in July of 2012? Well, it seems that Virginia Tech was working on their own, with help from the military. Yes, whereas the medusoid was a project in organic-synthetic interfacing, a collaborative effort between Harvard University and Caltech researchers, this one is the result of ongoing work by the United States Navy.

After years of working on their own model for a robot jellyfish, they unveiled the fruits of that labor earlier this month. Named Cyro – a contraction of robot and Cyanea capillata (the species name for the lion’s mane jellyfish) – this 170 pound biomimetic machine looks and act like a jellyfish, but is in fact an autonomous robot.

cyro1And much the Medusoid and Robojelly – Cyro’s hand-sized predecessor – this second-generation model utilizes what is called “Bio-Inspired Shape memory Alloy Composites (BISMAC)” in order to mimic the motions of the real thing. This consists of a
layer of smart materials (aka. shape memory alloy) that is soft and shaped in such a way to maximize deformation and propulsion.

Underneath this layer of composite material are a number of actuators (i.e. robotic arms) that control the movements of the Cyro. These in turn are mounted on a central body that contains enough hardware to allow the robot to communicate, gather information, and make decisions. What’s more, the developers envisage a fleet of networked Cyros, conducting surveillance and research and sharing the results with each other.

cyro2And as the video below explains, this robot jellyfish is likely to have numerous applications. These included environmental monitoring, cleaning up oil spills, or conducting military surveillance. Of course, it seems pretty obvious what the primary use of the Cyro is going to be, given that the ONR and the U.S. Naval Undersea Warfare Center are responsible for funding it!

No telling how Human Right Watch will react to this, though. How safe would you feel, knowing that the next time you’re snorkeling, swimming or ocean kayaking that a perfectly innocent looking Man-of-War could be spying on you? Check out the video of the Cyro being tested below:


Sources:
fastcoexist.com, emdl.mse.vt.edu

Of Cybernetic Hate Crimes

Google Glass_CalaLast week, a bar in Seattle banned the use of Google Glass. The pub declared on their Facebook page that if anyone wanted to order a pint, they had better remove their $1500 pair of augmented reality display glasses beforehand. Citing the glasses potential to film or take pictures and post them on the internet, the bar owner unflinchingly declared that “ass-kickings will be encouraged for violators.”

This is the second case of what some are dubbing a new wave of “Cybernetic hate crimes”. The first took place back in July 2012 when Steve Mann, a Canadian university professor known as the “father of wearable computing”, was physically assaulted at a McDonalds in Paris, France. In this case, three employees took exception with his wearable computer and tried to physically remove it, an impossibility since it is permanent screwed into his head, and then three him out of the restaurant.

steve-mann1Taken together, these two incidents highlight a possible trend which could become commonplace as the technology grows in use. In some ways, this is a reflection of the fears critics have raised about the ways in which these new technologies could be abused. However, there are those who worry that these kinds of fears are likely to lead to people banning these devices and becoming intolerant to those who use them.

By targeting people who employ augmented reality, bionic eyes, or wearable computers, we are effectively stigmatizing a practice which may become the norm in the not too distant future. But Google responded to the incident with optimism and released a statement that cited shifting attitudes over time:

It is still very early days for Glass, and we expect that as with other new technologies, such as cell phones, behaviors and social norms will develop over time.

smartphonesYes, one can remember without much effort how similar worries were raised about smartphones and camera phones not that long ago, and their use has become so widespread that virtually all doubts about how they might be abused and what effect they would have on social norms have gone quiet. Still, doubts remain that with the availability of technologies that make it easier to monitor people, society is becoming more and more invasive.

But to this, Mann, responds by raising what he had always hoped portable computing would result in. Back in the 1970’s when he first began working on the concept for his EyeTap, he believed that camera-embedded wearables could be both liberating and empowering. In a world permeated by security cameras and a sensory-sphere dominated by corporate memes, he foresaw these devices a means for individuals to re-take control of their environment and protect themselves.

EyeTapThis was all in keeping with Mann’s vision of a future where wearable cameras and portable computers could allow for what he calls sousveillance — a way for people to watch the watchers and be at the ready to chronicle any physical assaults or threats. How ironic that his own invention allowed him to do just that when he himself was assaulted!

And in the current day and age, this vision may be even more important and relevant, given the rise in surveillance and repressive measures brought on in the wake of the “War on Terror”. As Mann himself has written:

Rather than tolerating terrorism as a feedback means to restore the balance, an alternative framework would be to build a stable system to begin with, e.g. a system that is self-balancing. Such a society may be built with sousveillance (inverse surveillance) as a way to balance the increasing (and increasingly one-sided) surveillance.

Raises a whole bunch of questions, doesn’t it? As the issue of dwindling privacy becomes more and more of an issue, and where most people respond to such concerns by dredging up dystopian scenarios, it might be helpful to remind ourselves that this is a form of technology that rests firmly in our hands, the consumers, not those of an overbearing government.

google_glass_banBut then again, that doesn’t exactly ease the fears of a privacy invasion much, does it? Whether it is a few functionaries and bureaucrats monitoring us for the sake of detecting criminal behavior or acts of “sedition”, or a legion of cyberbullies and gawking masses scrutinizing our every move, being filmed and photographed against our will and having it posted is still pretty creepy.

But does that necessitate banning the use of this technology outright? Are we within our rights, as a society, to deny service to people sporting AR glasses, or to physically threaten them if they are unable or unwilling to remove them? And is this something that will only get better, or worse, with time?

Sources: IO9, (2), news.cnet.com, eecg.toronto.edu

Fears of a Police-Drone State

UAVsIn a decision which has been decried by countless community activists and civil rights leaders, the Alameda  County Sheriff’s Department announced plans last month to deploy up to two small, lightweight drones to assist in police surveillance. Despite resistance from the community, the town seems poised to join many other cities in using UAV’s for domestic security, effectively steam-rolling over concerns over privacy and “Big Brother” government.

As it stands, several police agencies across the US are currently using drones, including the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Until recently, the Seattle Police Department also employed a two-drone fleet, but grounded them amidst growing concerns over privacy and a recent government report, which warned that drone use could become even more commonplace.

california_dronesBefore anyone gets too worried, rest assured that the drones in question are a far cry from the UAV’s currently conducting armed missions overseas. Unlike the Predator and Reaper drones that carry multiple Hellfire missiles and can level entire villages, these drones are relatively benign, weighing only a few pounds and relying on a series of propellers to keep them aloft. But of course, the potential for harm resides in their ability to monitor, not to kill…

UAV_scoutConcerns over domestic drone surveillance reached a sort of climax  last February after federal lawmakers signed the Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 into law. Among other things, the act required the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to accelerate drone flights in U.S. airspace. In response, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that the act would allow drone use to become commonplace in the US.

In accordance with that law, drones, known in the report as “unmanned aerial systems,” are currently limited in the United States to law enforcement activities, search and rescue, forensic photography, monitoring or fighting forest fires, border security, weather research, scientific data collection and even hobbies. However, the law calls for expansion so drones can be used for commercial, utility and public  uses.

UAV_dom1Naturally, the FAA feels that the new law doesn’t take into account several key problems – notably concerns surrounding privacy, security and even GPS jamming and spoofing. In short, they pointed out that despite drone’s on-board navigation and detection system that allow them to avoid crashes, said systems could cause complications if and when drones share airspace with private aircraft.

Among other things, the FAA recommended that drone GPS systems undergo encryption so they would be resistant to jamming and hacking, which is apparently a danger in non-military unencrypted drones. They also advised that the government set up secure operation centers for unmanned drones, and recommended that the government formulate privacy protections to head off potential “abuses”.

UAV_domObviously, the FAA’s report and public concern struck a note. Just last month, federal lawmakers introduced legislation regulating state and federal government use of unmanned drones in the United States. This legislation prohibits drones from being armed, and would demand that agencies register drones and adopt privacy polices. What’s more, the proposal would allow drones to be used only in criminal matters, in which warrants would be required.

Once again, it appears that the Obama administration is willing to step in where public concerns over developing technology are concerned. Recall the instruction signed by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter back in December of last year designed to limit the development of autonomous aerial drones? Well here too, instructions have been given, but the general sense of worry is far from alleviated.

X-47BIt puts me in mind of a prediction Arthur C. Clarke made shortly before he died in 2008. He predicted that despite concerns over “Big Brother”-type monitoring, that digital surveillance would be adopted by every city within the civilized world, until such time that crime was virtually eliminated. Much like many predictions he made, this one proved a little optimistic and futurist for some of his fans (including this one!).

As it stands, the use of remote machines to monitor our world is an ongoing and growing concern, and the debate will hardly be decided so easily. In the end, we all just have to ask if we really want to live in a post-privacy state, what the costs of living in that kind of world will be, and whether or not it will truly mean the emergence of dystopian scenarios, as envisioned by George Orwell and others.

Source: Wired.com, (2)

Revengers Mission Report #1

My thanks to all Revengers who reported in to take part in our first round of missions. My favorite response was the following report, as filed by Atrum Auditor (aka. v1rgilmdm of the 8bitbeerblog). The following is his account of the Harlan/Keithly surveillance. The following transcript has been edited for content, but appears here otherwise unabridged:

After hearing about the meeting between Councilman Jeff Harlan and Syndicate Boss Joe “The Stare” Keithly, Atrum Auditor put together his team to expose the truth. After first recruiting Erotica Girl a kick-ass heroine with enhanced strength and the ability to go invisible, Justyka was also recruited for this sensitive mission. As a fellow telepath that can fly and also render herself invisible, she would prove to be indispensable.

This team is optimized for covert, undetectable operations. The team meets at the docks as the sun sets, to survey the area and set up camera and bugs before the illicit meeting starts. Erotica Girl goes invisible to keep watch as Atrum Auditor teleports from shadow to shadow, planting listening devices and video cameras. Meanwhile Justyka plants cameras with night vision and infrared up high on burnt-out lamp posts, a building corner and a crane.

“Ok, this is eyes and ears only. We stay for the meet, record everything and then waylay Keithly until the police can pick up Councilman Harlan,” Atrum reminded the group.

“I still don’t understand why we don’t just take out Keithly and his scumbags out now,” Erotica Girl complained.

“It’s not our place to act as judge and jury,” Justyka replied.

“A win for the police will look good for all of us,” added Atrum. “Just think of it as community block watch or whatever. We set ‘em up, the police knock ‘em down, we all look good”.

“Fine. Whatever,” Erotica Girl rolled her eyes. “What time did your guy say this meet was happening?”

“Twenty-three hundred hours sharp. Keithly can’t abide people who aren’t punctual,” Atrum supplied.

“Great. Just three more hours to kill. What’s the plan to distract Keithly until Harlan get’s arrested?” asked Justyka.

“Well, I -uh… I was thinking Keithly owns this warehouse by the dock here, we could start a small fire and that should cause a distraction. Keithly will probably send his goons to save anything important, leaving him free to have an intimate talk with us. But I’m open to suggestions,” Atrum said, revealing the limit of his ability to organize.

“I say we knock the mob meatheads out and take Keithly on a cruise out in the bay. Maybe with a free pair of cement shoes,” Erotica said with a wicked grin.

“Why don’t we call that plan B?” Justyka mediated.

After testing the video recorders’ night vision and infrared feeds and the audio recording levels, the heroes settled in for their stake-out. Erotica Girl posted herself at a neighboring warehouse, invisible, so that she could be close at hand in case any surprises popped up. Atrum found a spot underneath the dock amidst some ropes and old lumber where he could watch the feeds on his hand-held, but still be within easy teleportation range. Justyka flew up to the crow’s nest of a nearby boat so she could see any traffic by land or sea for miles.

I see a black town car approaching the docks from the East, Justyka broadcasted over the trio’s telepathic link.

Copy that. I have lights, Erotica Girl confirmed mentally.

Stay sharp, and give me descriptions of any unknown parties, Atrum Auditor responded.

Another vehicle approaching. A yellow taxi looks like, Justyka reported.

Yeah, what’s the Councilman thinking? Bringing a civilian? asked Erotica.

They are exiting the car now. I have 5 thermal signatures on camera. Atrum broadcasted visually.

Looks like Keithly brought a couple of heavies. I recognize them from files that have come across my desk. Ex-military enhancement project: codenames Hammer and Spike. Enhanced strength, with Psychokinetic powers and Black Ops trained, Atrum added, as the information flashed on his hand-held.

I feel… A mind above us… Searching. Crap! Erotica! What’s your position? Justyka asked, panicked.

Uh..guys? We might want to call the Captain for back-up. Erotica Girl suggested.

Indeed. Came an amused unfamiliar thought-voice.

*                     *                     *

Not bad, huh? As you can plainly see, tension is mounting and it seems the mission has taken on a sinister edge. Well, more sinister, since it already involved mob bosses and corrupt councilmen. And it seems some additional forces are being called for. As such, I, Captain Smackdown, am pledging to arrive on scene with backup! Panacea, Dark Angel, are you with me?  Looks like our take down of Billy Bob will have to wait another night! Inferno, rendezvous with us there! And dammit, answer your phone!