Monday, October 6, 2008

New surveillance program will turn military satellites on US

By Julian Sanchez

An appropriations bill signed by President Bush last week allows the controversial National Applications Office to begin operating a stringently limited version of a program that would turn military spy satellites on the US, sharing imagery with other federal, state, and local government agencies. The government's own watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office, has warned in an unpublished report that the more expansive program in the offing lacks adequate safeguards to protect privacy and civil liberties.

For now, the law restricts the NAO to "activities substantially similar" to those carried out by the Civil Applications Committee, an interagency coordinating body formed in 1976 to give civilian agencies access to military satellites for scientific and disaster preparedness purposes, such as "monitoring volcanic activity, environmental and geological changes, hurricanes, and floods." But as a draft charter for the Office makes clear, officials at the Department of Homeland Security hope to branch out from these traditional applications, providing assistance and information to domestic law enforcement agencies.

That doesn't sit well with some members of Congess, who in a sharply worded letter earlier this year expressed concerns that the NAO "raises major issues under the Posse Comitatus Act" barring the military from performing law enforcement duties, and worried the program could be used to "gather domestic intelligence outside the rigorous protections of the law—and, ultimately, to share this intelligence with local law enforcement outside of constitutional parameters."

And as the Wall Street Journal reported last week, the Government Accountability Office appears to share those concerns. In an unpublished analysis—a public version of which may be released in coming weeks—the GAO found that there did not seem to be adequate "assurance that NAO operations will comply with applicable laws and privacy and civil liberties standards," nor sufficient checks and oversight procedures to prevent the misuse of satellite imagery.

The existence of the NAO was first publicly disclosed in press reports last summer, several months after its creation at the behest of the Director of National Intelligence. Following hearings held by the House Committee on Homeland Security, Congress blocked funding for the NAO, pressing DHS for more information about the legal basis for the progam—as well as the privacy safeguard to be put in place. The current appropriations bill permits the NAO to be funded only for the purpose of carrying out the old Civil Applications Committee's functions, pending a certification by the Secretary of Homeland Security that the Office's compliance with the law has been vetted, and provision to the Appropriations Committee of details of how funds will be spent. The bill also directs the Inspector General to provide regular reports—somewhat oddly, to the Appropriations Committee—on the data collected by NAO.

Among the questions raised about the proposed program is whether it runs afoul of the Reconstruction Era statute that makes it a crime to use the armed forces to "execute the laws" within US borders. Tim Sparapani, senior legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, believes the new initiative to be "a prima facie violation of the Posse Comitatus Act—this is about using a military asset to do domestic law enforcement." If law enforcement or immigration agencies need spy satellites, he argues, they should ask Congress to buy them some, rather than using the powerful eyes in the sky operated by the National Reconaissance Office for foreign-intelligence agencies not bound by domestic privacy constraints. "The military should never be used against the citizenry," he argues. "Even if we're talking about shooting pictures of people instead of shooting people, the principle remains the same."

But Gene Healy, an attorney and scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute, is not so sure. At least since the 70s, says Healy, courts have tended to read the prohibition on using the military to "execute the laws" only as a barrier to "hands-on policing," such as conducting arrests or doing crowd control. That means sending soldiers to physically search a criminal suspects home is out, but loaning expertise or equipment and sharing information may be allowed. During the 2002 hunt for the "DC sniper," he notes, Army aircraft were used in the effort to hunt down the serial killer. "That doesn't mean it's a good policy," says Healy, "I can think of a lot of reasons it's a really bad idea to let soldiers train narcotics officers too, but that doesn't mean either is illegal under the current statute."

And what of Fourth Amendment concerns? Here, Sparapani says, the program enters "uncharted waters." In a pair of 1986 decisions, the Supreme Court ruled that aerial observation by surveillance planes did not count as a Fourth Amendment "search." If you grew your marijuana out in the open, the justices essentially concluded, you could not claim a "reasonable expectation of privacy" even if the crop wasn't visible from the ground. But the court left open the question of whether the same logic would apply in the case of technology more esoteric than an airplane. And in 2001, the court concluded that a search warrant was needed to use infrared scanners to detect the heat signature from an indoor dope-growing operation.

Presumably intelligence satellites have a range of sophisticated scanning equipment that would fall under the latter rule. But even in the case of ordinary image capturing, the high degree of precision of the satellite cameras—by some accounts good enough to read a page of text in a subject's hand—may make spying from space qualitatively different from a plane flyover.

Whatever the courts decide, Sparapani argues that Congress should press DHS to be more forthcoming about how it plans to use the orbiting eyes. "Given this administration," he says, "'trust us' just doesn't work anymore."

Original here

Tackling Campus Piracy with FUD

Written by Ben Jones

Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) is one of the oldest, and perhaps most effective anti-piracy strategies. MPAA’s “You can click, but you can’t hide” campaign is perhaps one of the best known examples. Today, we take a peek at how FUD is used by universities to counter campus piracy.

The intent of FUD is to make people afraid (Fear) confuse issues and facts (Uncertainty) and make people change their attitudes to what they’ve done (Doubt). In many ways it’s the cheapest and easiest anti-piracy method. It doesn’t rely on facts, but on careful releases of information, and calculated small acts.

A small act could be starting a rumor or giving an interview to a student newspaper. Such tactics are cheap and often have much better returns than costly (and ultimately useless) technology-based methods. They also have the added advantage that if they don’t work, it doesn’t tend to count against you. That is, unless you’re caught at it.

FUD is used everywhere. At Elon University, a small university just east of Greensboro, in North Carolina for example. In a file-sharing piece last week in the student newspaper, the strategy of intimidation was plain to see. If you are unaware of the law regarding copyright infringement, however, you might be taken in.

The article starts with talk of rumors, concerning all manner of things designed to instill fear; RIAA reps roaming the campus, being able to backtrack to things that happened years ago. Rumors that lead to uncertainty (how far back? Will that include something I did?) as well as doubt (anything I can do about it?).

Throughout the article, Assistant Vice President for Technology Chris Fulkerson makes it clear that students should be very careful. However, he’s not afraid to tweak the facts a little, or tell outright lies, for that matter. At one point he states that the fine is “$250,000 per infraction” which is a complete lie. As regular readers and followers of US copyright infringement cases know, the maximum damages that can be awarded per infraction is $150,000 not $250,000 (USC Title 17, § 504 (c)(2)). The most they have managed to get in these cases is $9,250, but even that turned out to be too much.

Of greatest worry was his position on the details of students. Fulkerson has said that when/if the RIAA asks for names and details that correspond to an IP, the university will hand them over if the person can be identified. As the RIAA’s strategy is to file many lawsuits, and try and force a settlement (by making it cheaper to settle than to contest), handing over details is in the worst possible interests of the students, and may be illegal. Regardless of its legality, or how true the statement is in practice, the impact of the statement is chilling to many students.

Fulkerson also makes some other comments designed to disquiet the students. He says that the RIAA has no need to visit Elon, they can just jump on the net and track people down, and that the university ‘must comply’ with the RIAA. Again, this is not even close to the truth. The RIAA is a lobby group, not a government or law enforcement agency, and there is no requirement to comply with them. On the contrary, RIAA’s “tracking company” MediaSentry is not listed as holding a private investigators license by the state, nor are investigators from their home state of Maryland allowed to practice in North Carolina.

Elon is not alone though. In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Lehigh University also has a similar belief. Speaking to their student paper, University security officer Blair Bernhardt said that when they receive a notification of alleged infringement, the target’s Internet access is immediately cut off. “We lock the port instantly because we have to,” he said. “It’s the law to block access to the infringing materials, and it keeps the university from being liable for anything.” What law requires this action is currently unknown.

Unlike the MPAA and RIAA’s campaigns, these FUD methods tend to work, because the universities have student’s personal details. Worse, the person that should be the student’s supporter, is the student’s enemy. Mr Fulkerson did not respond to requests to comment.

Original here

Vudu offers new format to stream 1080p HD movies to its BX100 player

Posted by Sean Portnoy

Vudu BX100As I mentioned in my post yesterday about Netflix, one of the obstacles video-streaming services are going to have to overcome is the quality of the files they’re sending to big HDTVs. Apple has recently introduced 720p HD files on iTunes to download to its Apple TV device, but lesser-known Vudu may have gone one better with its new high-def format for its own streaming devices. The company has introduced the new HDX format, which manages to send 1080p HD content to its BX100 living-room box.

And apparently, this announcement deserves any hype it’s receiving. Resident New York Times tech columnist David Pogue gushed over the video quality of the HDX format in a column yesterday, pointing out that the data rate of its video is somewhere between DVD and Blu-ray quality. Notably, the video is displayed in cinema’s native 24 frames per second (fps) instead of 30fps of video, and the company also boasts that its audio output is superior to the surround sound of conventional DVDs. Pogue concludes that “The HDX versions of Vudu movies are insanely sharp; they make standard films look blurry and washed out by comparison.”

Vudu’s player works by storing the first 30 seconds of movies on its hard drive (250GB, or more than either of the two Apple TV configs), and then downloading the rest of a selected movie while it’s playing. That’s not the case, however, when it came to grabbing HDX movies, which could take up to a few hours to download. You rent a movie for 24 hours, which you can extend for an additional day for an extra $1. Standard-def titles (which the player upconverts) cost anywhere from 99 cents to $3.99 to rent, while HDX titles cost a couple bucks extra. Right now, 65 HDX titles are available, ranging from new releases like Speed Racer to older titles like The Jerk and The Breakfast Club.

One roadblock for Vudu is that you need to buy the player for a hefty $300 before you get the chance to pay extra to rent movies. The company is making that a little more palatable as it’s partnered with Best Buy to offer you $200 worth of movies if you buy the BX100 at the electronics chain. Is that enough to entice you?

Original here

iPhone 3G now the second best-selling US mobile handset

By Sam Oliver

In a little over a year, Apple's iPhone has grown to become the second best-selling mobile handset in the United States, according to NPD.

A report issued by the market research firm Monday claims the touch-screen handset now trails only Motorola's RAZR V3 on the US sales charts. It also cited a surge in sales immediately following the introduction of the iPhone 3G that has helped the device garner a 17 percent share of the overall US smartphone market.

More specifically, NPD said the iPhone 3G was the No. 1 US smartphone based on units sales from June through August, outselling the Blackberry Curve, Blackberry Pearl, and Palm Centro.

Of those customers who purchased an iPhone during those months, 30 percent switched from other mobile carriers to join AT&T, according to the firm. That compares to 23 percent of consumers who switched carriers during the same time period for other reasons.

Nearly half of iPhone switchers (47 percent) made the jump to AT&T from rival Verizon Wireless, while 24 percent switched from T-Mobile. Another 19 percent are reported to have switched from Sprint.

"The launch of the lower-priced iPhone 3G was a boon to overall consumer smartphone sales," said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for The NPD Group. "While the original iPhone also helped win customers for AT&T, the faster network speeds of the iPhone 3G has proven more appealing to customers that already had access to a 3G network."

The average price of a smartphone sold between June and August was reportedly $174, down 26 percent from the average $236 price tag during the same period last year.

Also on Monday, two independent Apple analysts issued a report suggesting that Apple has more than surpassed its self-imposed goal of selling more than 10 million iPhones during the 2008 calendar year.

Original here