• Drones contribute to improving crops

    Researchers have used a drone to measure the temperature, humidity, luminosity, and carbon dioxide concentration in a greenhouse. The capacity of an aerial vehicle to move in three-dimensional space, and the possibility to place the sensor at any point, have clear advantages compared to other alternatives such as sensor networks. By building maps of environmental variables, the drones could help achieve optimal conditions for plant growth.

  • Giving government special access to data poses major security risks

    In recent months, government officials in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries have made repeated calls for law-enforcement agencies to be able to access, upon due authorization, encrypted data to help them solve crimes. Beyond the ethical and political implications of such an approach, though, is a more practical question: If we want to maintain the security of user information, is this sort of access even technically possible? A report by cybersecurity and encryption experts says that whether “backdoor” or “front-door,” such mechanisms “pose far more grave security risks, imperil innovation on which the world’s economies depend, and raise more thorny policy issues than we could have imagined when the Internet was in its infancy.”

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  • Privacy vs. security debate intensifies as more companies offer end-to-end-encryption

    A long running debate has now come to the fore with greater urgency. The tension between the privacy that encryption offers, and the need for law enforcement and national security agencies to have access to secured and encrypted e-mail, has become more acute in the last two years. The revelations of Edward Snowden about the post-9/11 reach and scope of surveillance by intelligence agencies and law enforcement, have caused some tech giants to offer encrypted services to their customers – encrypted services which enhance customers’ privacy protection, but which at the same time make it impossible for law enforcement and intelligence services to track and monitor terrorists and criminals. “Our job is to find needles in a nationwide haystack, needles that are increasingly invisible to us because of end-to-end encryption,” FBI director James Comey told lawmakers in recent hearing on the Hill.

  • Fighting fires in California hobbled by hobby drones

    A spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service said last Thursday that private drone flights in restricted airspace around forest fires have impeded the efforts of firefighting crews to deal with a blaze in the San Bernardino Mountains. The incident has increased the fears of fire and aviation officials that the growing national use of hobby drones could seriously disrupt traditional air traffic and put lives at risk.

  • Making space safer by spotting, removing space debris

    Scientists estimate that there are now some 20,000 particles of space junk measuring more than ten centimeters in diameter hurtling around Earth at an average velocity of 25,000 kilometers per hour, not counting the 700,000 or so particles with a diameter of between one and ten centimeters. Although small, these items of space debris are traveling so fast that they could easily damage or destroy an operational satellite. A new German space surveillance system, scheduled to go into operation in 2018, will help to prevent such incidents.

  • UAV in test flights to detect mock pipeline hazards

    Unmanned aircraft researchers associated with the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership at Virginia Tech tested new sensor technology designed to detect potentially disruptive activities along energy pipeline routes. The flights last week near Farmville, in rural Virginia, involved a fixed-wing RS-20 unmanned aircraft flying beyond the visual line of sight of ground observers. The aircraft had a wingspan of more than seventeen feet and was equipped with optical and infrared sensors designed to detect threats to pipeline integrity. A piloted chase aircraft, with a visual observer onboard, followed behind the UAS [unmanned aerial system] to ensure safety.

  • U.S. surveillance policies cost U.S. tech sector more than $35 billion in sales

    New report says the U.S. tech industry has under-performed as a result of concerns about the U.S. government’s electronic surveillance. The report estimates that the total economic impact on the U.S. tech sector of U.S. surveillance practices exceeds $35 billion annually. The report recommends policymakers level the playing field for the U.S. tech sector by implementing a series of reforms such as increasing the transparency of its surveillance practices, opposing government efforts to weaken encryption or introduce backdoors in software, and strengthening its mutual legal assistance treaties with other nations.

  • Snowden fallout: Revelations forced U.K. to pull out agents from “hostile countries”

    The British security services had to pull out agents from “hostile countries” as a result of information the Chinese and Russian intelligence services obtained when they gained access to the millions of top-secret NSA files Edward Snowed was carrying with him when he fled to Honk Kong and then to Russia. Snowden assured journalists who interviewed him that the Chinese and Russian intelligence services would not be able to access these files because he encrypted them with the highest encryption methods available. Security experts commented that he was either naïve or disingenuous – because he must have known, or should have known, that the cyber capabilities these two countries would make it relatively easy for them to crack the encrypted files he was carrying with him. We now know that these security experts were right.

  • Administration rejects criticism of NSA’s surveillance of foreign hackers

    Just two years after the Edward Snowden leaks exposed the NSA’s domestic surveillance program, another report released last Friday from the Snowden files shares information about the NSA’s efforts to track foreign hackers. As with the NSA’s controversial foreign surveillance program which kept metadata records of suspected foreign terrorists’ conversations with Americans, the NSA’s hacker program may incidentally gather Americans’ private information from the files of foreign hackers.

  • Administration asks court for six more months of NSA bulk metadata collection

    Just four hours after President Barack Obama vowed to sign the USA Freedom Actwhich limits the NSA’s domestic bulk data collection program, his administration asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court to ignore a ruling by the second circuit court of appeals declaring the bulk surveillance program unauthorized, and instead grant the NSA power to continue bulk collection for six months. In its request, the administration pointed to a six months transition period provided in the USA Freedom Act as a reason to permit an “orderly transition” of the NSA’s domestic bulk collection program.

  • “Dark Internet” inhibits law enforcement’s ability to identify, track terrorists

    For several months, Islamic State militants have been using instant messaging apps which encrypt or destroy conversations immediately. This has inhibit U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies from identifying and monitoring suspected terrorists, even when a court order is granted, because messaging companies and app developers say they are unable to unlock the coded conversations and/or do not have a record of the conversations. “We’re past going dark in certain instances,” said Michael B. Steinbach, the FBI’s top counterterrorism official. “We are dark.”

  • Senate passes surveillance reform

    The U.S. Senate yesterday voted 67-32 to pass the House’s USA Freedom Act which would end the NSA collection of bulk metadata of Americans’ phone records. The bill will now head to the White House for the president to sign. The USA Freedom Act shifts the responsibility for keeping the phone records from the government to hundreds of separate phone carriers – but important questions remain. Thus it is not entirely clear how many records the carriers will keep, and for how long, and under what circumstances will they allow law enforcement to view these records. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), the Senate majority leader, who supported the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, said that the USA Freedom Act is “a resounding victory for those who currently plotted against our homeland. It does not enhance the privacy protections of American citizens, and it surely undermines American security by taking one more tool from our war fighters, in my view, at exactly the wrong time.”

  • Broad NSA surveillance powers, granted in 2006, expired on midnight

    The NSA’s broad domestic surveillance authority, granted to the agency when the Patriot Act was first reauthorized in 2006, expired on midnight after the Senate failed to extend Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which governs surveillance, or approve the House’s USA Freedom Act, which modified Section 215. The Senate did vote, 77-17, to take up the House bill on Tuesday. The failure of the Senate to do extend or modify the NSA’s surveillance power was the result of the unyielding position of Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), and also the result of a miscalculation by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), the majority leader, who believed that the prospect of the expiration of Section 215 would lead opponent of the surveillance programs, supporters of the current program, and supporters of the House’s USA Freedom Act to agree to a few weeks extension of Section 215 to allow for more negotiations among senators and between senators and House member. The Senate did vote, 77-17, to take up the House bill on Tuesday. It remains to be seen, however, how many, and what type, of amendments McConnell would allow to be brought to the floor, and, if some of these amendments are approved, whether House members would agree to any modifications to the USA Freedom Act.

  • Giant surveillance blimp to protect Capitol building

    Lawmakers want to make the Capitol building more secure after existing security measured failed to detect or stop Douglas Hughes who, on 15 April, flew his gyrocopter into the Capitol manicured lawn. Some of these lawmakers want to deploy the Tethered Aerostat Radar System, or TARS – a giant blimp carrying 2,000-pounds radars that can spot an aircraft at a distance of 200 miles. Several TARS are already deployed along the U.S.-Mexico border, and along a 340-mile stretch of the Atlantic coast stretching from North Carolina to Boston. The blimp loiters at about 10,000 feet – but in order not to mar the Washington, D.C. skyline, lawmakers suggest acquiring a blimp which can hover at a higher altitude.

  • Tech companies urge rejection of push by FBI, DOJ for electronic devices “backdoors”

    In a 19 May letter to President Barack Obama, a group of Silicon Valley tech companies, cyber-security experts, and privacy advocacy groups urged the president to reject the implementation of “backdoors” in smartphone and computer encryption. The letter offered evidence of the  strong objection of the tech industry to demands from the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to allow secret backdoor passages into consumer electronics, which would make it possible for law enforcement to read encrypted private communications and data.