Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

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New Surveillance Whistleblower: The NSA Violates the Constitution

John Napier Tye is speaking out to warn Americans about illegal spying. The former State Department official, who served in the Obama administration from 2011 to 2014, declared Friday that ongoing NSA surveillance abuses are taking place under the auspices of Executive Order 12333, which came into being in 1981, before the era of digital communications, but is being used to collect them promiscuously. Nye alleges that the Obama administration has been violating the Constitution with scant oversight from Congress or the judiciary.

“The order as used today threatens our democracy,” he wrote in The Washington Post. “I am coming forward because I think Americans deserve an honest answer to the simple question: What kind of data is the NSA collecting on millions, or hundreds of millions, of Americans?”

Executive Order 12333 is old news to national-security insiders and the journalists who cover them, but is largely unknown to the American public, in part because officials have a perverse institutional incentive to obscure its role. But some insiders are troubled by such affronts to representative democracy. A tiny subset screw up the courage to inform their fellow citizens.

Tye is but the latest surveillance whistleblower, though he took pains to distinguish himself from Snowden and his approach to dissent. “Before I left the State Department, I filed a complaint with the department’s inspector general, arguing that the current system of collection and storage of communications by U.S. persons under Executive Order 12333 violates the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures,” Tye explained. “I have also brought my complaint to the House and Senate intelligence committees and to the inspector general of the NSA.”

Ex-Googlers Building Cloud Software That’s Almost Impossible to Take Down

Because RainbowDB’ sounds pretty lame…

Cockroaches are some of the most resilient creatures on earth. They can live for 45 minutes without air and over a month without food. Cutting their heads off won’t even kill them—at least not immediately. Their bodies can live on for several days without their heads.

Now, a team of open source developers wants to make it easier for just about any company to build the sort of resilient cloud computing systems that run online empires like Google. They call their project CockroachDB, billing it as a database with some serious staying power. That may sound like an odd name for a piece of software, but co-creator Spencer Kimball—a former Google engineer—says it’s only appropriate. “The name is representative of its two most important qualities: survivability, of course, and the ability to spread to the available hardware in an almost autonomous sense.”

Like so many other open source projects designed to drive large online operations, CockroachDB is based on ideas published in a Google researcher paper, in this case a detailed description of a massive system called Spanner. Spanner is a sweeping software creation could eventually allow Google to spread data across millions of computer servers in hundreds of data centers across the world, and it took Google over five years to build. Even with Google’s research paper in hand, the CockroachDB coders still have their work cut out for them. But it’s a noble ambition.

Dropping the ball, Obama style…

White House warned about ‘antiquated’ VA scheduling system 5 years ago

Acting Veteran Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson assured Congress last week that the VA is working hard to replace its “antiquated” scheduling system, but the Obama administration first received clear notice more than five years ago about the need for an overhaul to reduce patient wait times.

“Excessive wait times are addressed by moving to a resource-based management system,” Veterans Affairs technology officials told the Obama-Biden transition team in a briefing report that included mention of VA’s “schedule replacement” project.

The Washington Times obtained the report through the Freedom of Information Act.

More than five years later, VA officials are hard pressed to explain their lack of progress.

It has taken the still-unfolding VA scandal into manipulated patient wait times — a metric the VA has used to award executive bonuses — to shine a light on the failings of the current system, which Mr. Gibson called “outdated” in recent congressional testimony.

Still bogus. Try again…

IRS: Lerner’s hard drive was wiped clean in 2011

The IRS said under oath Friday that former agency official Lois Lerner’s hard drive was destroyed and recycled, echoing earlier testimony from its commissioner.

In its most extensive comments yet on Lerner’s hard drive, the agency said in court filings Friday that the hard drive was destroyed in 2011 to protect confidential taxpayer information.

Before that, the IRS said, the hard drive underwent a process designed to permanently erase stored data. That process occurred after a series of IRS technical officers examined Lerner’s hard drive, and found that it couldn’t be restored after a crash.

The IRS’s court filings came as part of a lawsuit filed against the agency by True the Vote, a conservative activist group.

A week ago, Judge Reggie Walton of the U.S. District Court in Washington imposed a Friday deadline for the IRS to tell the court what happened to Lerner’s hard drive, among other questions.

The IRS said last month that Lerner’s hard drive crashed in 2011, leaving a chunk of her emails for the previous two-plus years missing.

That admission reignited the investigations into the IRS’s improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt groups. Lerner kicked off that controversy in May 2013 by apologizing for the IRS’s behavior, and has since become the central figure in the inquiry.

John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner, said in congressional testimony last month that Lerner’s hard drive had been recycled and destroyed, drawing gasps from GOP lawmakers.

Republicans and conservative activists have said they have serious doubts that the Lerner’s emails are lost for good, and have noted that her hard drive crashed less than two weeks after GOP lawmakers started questioning the IRS’s oversight of tax-exempt groups.

Who cares? It’s not like they had to pay for it…

This Energy Department blunder cost taxpayers at least $56 million

Having offices work together is difficult in the private sector, but in parts of the federal government it comes with a $56 million price tag.

The U.S. Department of Energy has lost more than $56 million due to poor coordination during implementation of a new telephone system, according to the DoE inspector general.

The telephone system — known as Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP — enables “the transmission of voice communications primarily over the Internet.”

But transitioning to the new Internet-based communications system across more than 14 department offices, as well as getting parts of it such as “hardware, support services and licensing costs” coordinated, hasn’t gone smoothly, the inspector general said.

“We acknowledge that upgrading to a VoIP solution is likely to improve the department’s telecommunications infrastructure. However, the path the department is on is not fiscally sustainable or efficient,” the IG said.

At Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee, for example, all four sites with the VoIP system implemented it differently, meaning they all work differently. That’s not what department officials had in mind when they adopted the new system.

Senate Passes Cellphone Unlocking Bill, Lets Users Keep Phones, Switch Carriers

DailyCaller

The U.S. Senate has unanimously passed a bill legalizing cell phone unlocking, which will allow consumers to switch carriers and keep the same phones when their contracts expire.

The bill creates an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which made it illegal to disconnect a phone from the service provider it was sold from. Most phones are only programmed to function on a specific network when sold, but carriers have the option of removing such restrictions when a buyer’s contract is up. Consumers have been unlocking phones themselves for years — which is a legally dubious practice.

Specifically, the legislation mandates that the Library of Congress renew its prior 2006-2012 exemption to the DMCA, which expired last January, and consider its renewal every three years. It also modifies the exemption to allow individuals and third parties (like professional unlocking services) to unlock phones, as the process requires technical expertise beyond the average user.

Would You Believe, Another Crashed Hard Drive?

They really need to come up with something more clever…

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on Monday made yet another request to the federal government for details about a crashed hard drive that may have contained information allowing criminal charges to be brought against a federal official.

Issa’s newest letter concerns the hard drive of April Sands, a former employee at the Federal Election Commission who resigned in the spring after admitting to violations of the Hatch Act. That law puts restrictions on the ability of government officials to conduct political activities while on the job, or from government offices.

Issa noted that while Sands admitted to violating the law, the FEC just recently told Congress that it could not recover her hard drive, which made it impossible to seek criminal charges against her.

“Recent information obtained by the committee suggests that the FEC OIG could not pursue criminal prosecution for the misconduct because the attorney’s hard drive had been recycled by the FEC,” Issa’s letter said.

As a result, Issa asked the FEC to provide information to his committee by July 28. That includes all documents related to the hard drive loss, and documents detailing the FEC’s practices for retaining information on computers.

The FEC is an independent agency, but Sands’ emails clearly indicated she favored Obama’s re-election in 2012. Before the election, she tweeted things like:

“Our #POTUS’s birthday is August 4. He’ll be 51. I’m donating at least $51 to give him the best birthday present ever: a second term.” In another tweet, she said anyone supporting Republicans is her “enemy.”

“The bias exhibited in these messages is striking, especially for an attorney charged with the responsibility to enforce federal election laws fairly and dispassionately,” Issa wrote.

How to Teach Humans to Remember Really Complex Passwords

Wired

At the Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security today, Stuart Schechter and Joseph Bonneau plan to reveal an experiment they designed to teach people to remember very strong, random passwords. With their process, which took a total of 12 minutes of users’ time on average, about nine out of 10 test subjects were able to remember a 56-bit password or passphrase–one for which a hacker would have to try quadrillions of guesses to successfully crack the secret.

“Our goal was to show that there’s a big dimension of human memory that hasn’t been explored with passwords,” says Bonneau, a fellow at Princeton’s Center For Information Technology Policy. “They may seem hard to remember up front. But if you’re given the right training and reminders, you can memorize almost anything.”

Schechter and Bonneau recruited hundreds of test subjects from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform and paid them to take a phony series of attention tests. What they were really studying was how users logged in to those tests. Every time the login screen appeared, the user would be prompted to type in a series of words or letters on the screen. Over time that string of characters took increasingly long to appear, prompting the user to enter it from memory. More letters and words were added to it over time: After 10 days of testing, the user was required to enter a series of 12 random letters or six random words–for example, “rlhczwpsnffp” or “hem trial one by sky group” to start the test.

Uniguest Needs a Better Explanation for Why Conservative Sites Are Being Blocked

We control the horizontal…

James Varney of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, stayed at the Hyatt Place hotel in Riverhead, NY. He tried to look at the Drudge Report, but was blocked from doing so by his hotel’s internet connection.

In fact, he tried looking at a number of conservative websites, including Powerline and Instapundit. They too were blocked. He then tried a number of liberal websites from Talking Points Memo to DailyKos. None of them had access problems.

His hotel, Hyatt Place, uses Uniguest to connect its guests to the internet.

Digging deeper, I contacted the good people of Uniguest. A cheery online chatter at their corporate website praised my question as a very good one, asked for my e-mail so he could run it up the corporate flagpole and I await that response.

I also spent some time on the phone with Hyatt representatives. Well, most of that time was on hold, actually, but I did eventually get two bright, human voices. Both of them assured me no political line was being enforced.

Neither of them knew for sure but they were quite certain it was all a matter of security – it was virus and malware that prompted the warnings and kickoffs, not a point of view.

Yeah. Right…

Rejoice that Facebook Used You as a Lab Rat, says New York Times Op-Ed

My colleague and friend Stephen Green is wrong to feel betrayed by Facebook using us for psychological experiments, according to a columnist in the New York Times.

Steve should be happy.

Tech pundit Farhad Manjoo gives us this reason, among others, to rejoice.

Facebook’s latest study proved it can influence people’s emotional states; aren’t you glad you know that? Critics who have long argued that Facebook is too powerful and that it needs to be regulated or monitored can now point to Facebook’s own study as evidence.

This is like telling a woman who was startled by a Peeping Tom while she disrobed, “Aren’t you glad you know that men can see you naked through those venetian blinds? After all, there are some creepy men out there who would love to get a peek at your birthday suit.”

The voyeur could tell the judge, “I was just peering into her bedroom to confirm that she’s at risk of being seen in the buff. I was going to call her the next day to inform her of the threat, which is now much more than conjecture.”

After reading Steve’s piece, and then Farhad’s, I’d plunk down $59.99 on a pay-per-view bout to see Green v. Manjoo in a no-holds-barred debate on this topic…and then I’d put all the rest of my nickels on Green in 3.

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