Tag Archive: Privacy


Disney Bets $1 Billion on Technology to Track Theme-Park Visitors

Jason McInerney and his wife, Melissa, recently tapped their lunch orders onto a touchscreen at the entrance to the Be Our Guest restaurant at Florida’s Walt Disney World Resort and were told to take any open seat. Moments later a food server appeared at their table with their croque-monsieur and carved turkey sandwiches. Asks McInerney, a once-a-year visitor to Disney theme parks: “How did they know where we were sitting?”

The answer was on the electronic bands the couple wore on their wrists. That’s the magic of the MyMagic+, Walt Disney’s $1 billion experiment in crowd control, data collection, and wearable technology that could change the way people play—and spend—at the Most Magical Place on Earth. If the system works, it could be copied not only by other theme parks but also by museums, zoos, airports, and malls. “It’s a complete game changer,” says Douglas Quinby, vice president for research at PhoCusWright, a travel consulting firm.

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The spy agency is reportedly in a race to build its own quantum computer to stay ahead of others seeking to own the mother of all decryption machines.

The National Security Agency has a vast toolkit for getting access any kind of electronics equipment, but it pales compared to a quantum computer, which could break the strongest encryption in much less time than conventional, transistor-based computers.

According to report in The Washington Post and based on NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the spy agency is in a race to build its own quantum computer to stay ahead of others seeking to build the mother of all decryption machines. This is similar to the Manhattan project, the race to build atomic bombs 75 years ago.

Research labs around the world, companies such as IBM and Google, and countries are working to harness quantum mechanics for drug discovery, predictive analysis, machine learning and complex optimization for areas such as finance and logistics.

The NSA has allocated nearly $80 million for quantum computer development, with most of the work taking place at the Laboratory for Physical Sciences at University of Maryland’s College Park campus. Conventional computers require binary data (ones and zeroes), whereas quantum computers uses qubits, which can represent one, zero, and any state in between. This allows quantum computers to operate much faster than a conventional computer.

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Medical milestone or privacy invasion? A tiny computer chip approved Wednesday for implantation in a patient’s arm can speed vital information about a patient’s medical history to doctors and hospitals. But critics warn that it could open new ways to imperil the confidentiality of medical records.

The Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday that Applied Digital Solutions of Delray Beach, Fla., could market the VeriChip, an implantable computer chip about the size of a grain of rice, for medical purposes.

With the pinch of a syringe, the microchip is inserted under the skin in a procedure that takes less than 20 minutes and leaves no stitches. Silently and invisibly, the dormant chip stores a code that releases patient-specific information when a scanner passes over it.

Think UPC code. The identifier, emblazoned on a food item, brings up its name and price on the cashier’s screen.

The VeriChip itself contains no medical records, just codes that can be scanned, and revealed, in a doctor’s office or hospital. With that code, the health providers can unlock that portion of a secure database that holds that person’s medical information, including allergies and prior treatment. The electronic database, not the chip, would be updated with each medical visit.

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Worried about the NSA snooping on your email? Maybe you need to start creating your own personal internet

DIY networks for all <i>(Image: Paul Taylor/Getty)</i>

THE internet is neither neutral nor private, in case you were in any doubt. The US National Security Agency can reportedly collect nearly everything a user does on the net, while internet service providers (ISPs) move traffic according to business agreements, rather than what is best for its customers. So some people have decided to take matters into their own hands, and are building their own net from scratch.

Across the US, from Maryland to Seattle, work is underway to construct user-owned wireless networks that will permit secure communication without surveillance or any centralised organisation. They are known as meshnets and ultimately, if their designers get their way, they will span the country.

Dan Ryan is one of the leaders of the Seattle Meshnet project, where sparse coverage already exists thanks to radio links set up by fellow hackers. Those links mean that instead of communicating through commercial internet connections, meshnetters can talk to each other through a channel that they themselves control.

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Intel is building its very own set-top box with a Web TV service this year according to AllThingsD. While the company won’t be breaking new ground by offering “a la carte” programming, it will face a challenge convincing people to let a camera watch their every movement while they take in an episode of Glee.

In an interview with AllThingsD, Intel’s corporate vice president Eric Huggers said that its set-top box will have a built-in camera that provides suggestions based on a person’s movements and TV viewing habits:

“My kids may watch programming geared toward them, and I’ll watch programming geared toward me. If there’s a way to distinguish who is watching what, advertisers can then target ads at the proper parties.”

Huggers went on saying that today’s TVs don’t know anything about the viewers, but tomorrow, Intel’s set-top box will be smart enough to serve relevant content to the viewer just by knowing who is sitting in front of the screen. The ultimate goal is to make targeting programs to specific users a seamless experience.

But getting TV viewers to let a camera watch them won’t be easy, admits Huggers. However, he does think that people will warm up to it over time, considering how every modern “smart” device now has a camera that could potentially spy on you. For those who think an intelligent camera is just too creepy, there’s a flap to cover the lens up.

You gotta hand it to the marketers who come up with robot acronyms. Can it get any better than Extreme Access System for Entry (EASE)?

Sounds innocuous enough, right? Until this little critter tries to float into your room to spy on you. It’s one of two bots unveiled by CyPhy Works, headed by iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner.

EASE and PARC (that’s Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance & Communication), a communications relay, are compact flying machines that can fly between 3 feet and 1,000 feet while remaining tethered to their human controllers via microfilaments.

The cable serves as a source of power and a medium for HD video transmission, keeping the bots aloft for longer than traditional wireless UAVs and preventing jamming by enemies. EASE and PARC are designed to stick to one area instead of flying long distances.

They could be used by military, police, and first responders in disasters to scope out buildings and search for enemy soldiers, criminals, or people in distress. They could also inspect buildings, bridges, and other structures for damage.

Check out the vid below of EASE being put to the test at Fort Benning, Georgia. What would you do if you saw it outside your window?

A video shows a woman carrying a box into a building.  Later, it shows her leaving the building without it.  What was she doing?

At the moment, we depend on human observation to figure out what’s going on in this video.  The Mind’s Eye program is creating intelligent software that will recognize human activities in video and predict what might happen next. It will also flag unusual events and deduce actions that may be occurring off-camera.

Automating the time-consuming job of viewing and interpreting video images will speed intelligence-gathering, improve monitoring, and provide new tools for research.  Autonomous systems could employ Mind’s Eye technologies in applications ranging from defense to medical and consumer robotics.

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The U.S. government — and likely your own government, for that matter — is either watching your online activity every minute of the day through automated methods and non-human eavesdropping techniques, or has the ability to dip in as and when it deems necessary — sometimes with a warrant, sometimes without.

That tin-foil hat really isn’t going to help. Take it off, you look silly.

Gen. David Petraeus, the former head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, resigned over the weekend after he was found to have engaged in an extra-marital affair. What caught Petraeus out was, of all things, his usage of Google’s online email service, Gmail.

This has not only landed the former CIA chief in hot water but has ignited the debate over how, when, and why governments and law enforcement agencies are able to access ordinary citizens’ email accounts, even if they are the head of the most powerful intelligence agency in the world.

If it makes you feel any better, the chances are small that your own or a foreign government will snoop on you. The odds are much greater — at least for the ordinary person (terrorists, hijackers et al: take note) — that your email account will be broken into by a stranger exploiting your weak password, or an ex-lover with a grudge.

Forget ECHELON, or signals intelligence, or the interception of communications by black boxes installed covertly in data centers. Intelligence agencies and law enforcement bodies can access — thanks to the shift towards Web-based email services in the cloud — but it’s not as exciting or as Jack Bauer-esque as one may think or hope for.

The easiest way to access almost anybody’s email nowadays is still through the courts. (Sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s true.)

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As part of an update to the national fingerprint database, the FBI has begun rolling out facial recognition to identify criminals, New Scientist reports.

It will form part of the bureau’s long-awaited, $1 billion Next Generation Identification (NGI) program, which will also add biometrics such as iris scans, DNA analysis, and voice identification to the toolkit. A handful of states began uploading their photos as part of a pilot program this February and it is expected to be rolled out nationwide by 2014.

Applications include tracking a suspect by picking out their face in a crowd and comparing images of a person of interest (from security cameras or public photos uploaded onto the Internet) against a national repository of images held by the FBI. An algorithm would perform an automatic search and return a list of potential hits for an officer to sort through and use as possible leads for an investigation.

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Minority Report

A software engineer in my Facebook community wrote recently about his outrage that when he visited Disneyland, and went on a ride, the theme park offered him the photo of himself and his girlfriend to buy – with his credit card information already linked to it. He noted that he had never entered his name or information into anything at the theme park, or indicated that he wanted a photo, or alerted the humans at the ride to who he and his girlfriend were – so, he said, based on his professional experience, the system had to be using facial recognition technology. He had never signed an agreement allowing them to do so, and he declared that this use was illegal. He also claimed that Disney had recently shared data from facial-recognition technology with the United States military.

Yes, I know: it sounds like a paranoid rant.

Except that it turned out to be true. News21, supported by the Carnegie and Knight foundations, reports that Disney sites are indeed controlled by face-recognition technology, that the military is interested in the technology, and that the face-recognition contractor, Identix, has contracts with the US government – for technology that identifies individuals in a crowd.

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Within the next year or two, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will instantly know everything about your body, clothes, and luggage with a new laser-based molecular scanner fired from 164 feet (50 meters) away. From traces of drugs or gun powder on your clothes to what you had for breakfast to the adrenaline level in your body—agents will be able to get any information they want without even touching you.

And without you knowing it.

The technology is so incredibly effective that, in November 2011, its inventors were subcontracted by In-Q-Tel to work with the US Department of Homeland Security. In-Q-Tel is a company founded “in February 1999 by a group of private citizens at the request of the Director of the CIA and with the support of the U.S. Congress.” According to In-Q-Tel, they are the bridge between the Agency and new technology companies.

Their plan is to install this molecular-level scanning in airports and border crossings all across the United States. The official, stated goal of this arrangement is to be able to quickly identify explosives, dangerous chemicals, or bioweapons at a distance.

The machine is ten million times faster—and one million times more sensitive—than any currently available system. That means that it can be used systematically on everyone passing through airport security, not just suspect or randomly sampled people.

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A new surveillance camera by Hitachi Kokusai Electric can look at footage that contains an image of someone, either still or video, and then search other video or still images on file for other instances of that same face. In so doing, it can search, process and display up to thirty six million faces in just one second. Each hit is displayed immediately in its native format, i.e. still or video, in thumbnail form, which its makers say, allows the camera to display the actions of a person prior to, or even after, being seen by the surveillance camera. All they need do is click on the thumbnail to watch the video play.

As one example, if a person walks into a convenience store and robs the cashier, if his or face is captured by a video camera, police could use that imagery to search for that same face in prior video recorded by the store to see if that person has been to the store before, and if so, if they left any clues as to who they might be, by say, using a credit card to pay for purchase. Similarly, the same face could be searched in a much larger database of still or video that the police have stockpiled from surveillance cameras from other places, allowing them to see, almost instantly, if that person has been caught on tape at any other point in time doing anything that might help lead to an arrest, such as trying to pawn stolen merchandise. Perhaps more interestingly, the system can be used to scan for that face in a large crowd. It will look at each individual face in every scene in a video for a match.

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The US Federal Bureau of Investigation has quietly released details of plans to continuously monitor the global output of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, offering a rare glimpse into an activity that the FBI and other government agencies are reluctant to discuss publicly. The plans show that the bureau believes it can use information pulled from social media sites to better respond to crises, and maybe even to foresee them.

The information comes from a document released on 19 January looking for companies who might want to build a monitoring system for the FBI. It spells out what the bureau wants from such a system and invites potential contractors to reply by 10 February.

The bureau’s wish list calls for the system to be able to automatically search “publicly available” material from Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites for keywords relating to terrorism, surveillance operations, online crime and other FBI missions. Agents would be alerted if the searches produce evidence of “breaking events, incidents, and emerging threats”.

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Sopa and e-Parasite

Sopa and e-Parasite aim to tackle online piracy by preventing Google and Yahoo from directing users to sites distributing stolen material. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Congressional leaders are preparing to shelve controversial legislation aimed at tackling online piracy after president Barack Obama said he would not support it.

California congressman Darrell Issa, an opponent of Sopa, the Stop Online Piracy Act, said he had been told by House majority leader Eric Cantor that there would be no vote unless there is consensus on the bill.

“The voice of the internet community has been heard. Much more education for members of Congress about the workings of the internet is essential if anti-piracy legislation is to be workable and achieve broad appeal,” said Issa.

The news is a major blow for Sopa’s backers in Hollywood, who had enjoyed broad support in Congress. But the Motion Pictures Association of America, one of the bill’s biggest sponsors, said it would continue to press for new laws. “The failure to pass meaningful legislation will result in overseas websites continuing to be a safe haven for criminals stealing and profiting from America,” the MPAA said in a blogpost.

The tech community has fought hard to stop Sopa and a rival bill, Protect IP, also known as the Enforcing and Protecting American Rights Against Sites Intent on Theft and Exploitation Act, or the e-Parasite act. Websites including Reddit and Wikipedia are planning to “go dark” on Wednesday in protest against the legislation. Issa said he remained concerned about Protect IP, which will go before the Senate on 24 January.

But both bills now look severely damaged after the White House came out firmly against their biggest proposals at the weekend.

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By harnessing the vast wealth of publicly available cloud-based data, researchers are taking facial recognition technology to unprecedented levels

“I never forget a face,” goes the Marx Brothers one-liner, “but in your case, I’ll be glad to make an exception.”
Unlike Groucho Marx, unfortunately, the cloud never forgets. That’s the logic behind a new application developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College that’s designed to take a photograph of a total stranger and, using the facial recognition software PittPatt, track down their real identity in a matter of minutes. Facial recognition isn’t that new — the rudimentary technology has been around since the late 1960s — but this system is faster, more efficient, and more thorough than any other system ever used. Why? Because it’s powered by the cloud.

More than 60 years ago, in his “Foundation” series, the science fiction novelist Isaac Asimov invented a new science — psychohistory — that combined mathematics and psychology to predict the future.

Now social scientists are trying to mine the vast resources of the Internet — Web searches and Twitter messages, Facebook and blog posts, the digital location trails generated by billions of cellphones — to do the same thing.

The most optimistic researchers believe that these storehouses of “big data” will for the first time reveal sociological laws of human behavior — enabling them to predict political crises, revolutions and other forms of social and economic instability, just as physicists and chemists can predict natural phenomena.

“This is a significant step forward,” said Thomas Malone, the director of the Center for Collective Intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We have vastly more detailed and richer kinds of data available as well as predictive algorithms to use, and that makes possible a kind of prediction that would have never been possible before.”

The government is showing interest in the idea. This summer a little-known intelligence agency began seeking ideas from academic social scientists and corporations for ways to automatically scan the Internet in 21 Latin American countries for “big data,” according to a research proposal being circulated by the agency. The three-year experiment, to begin in April, is being financed by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or Iarpa (pronounced eye-AR-puh), part of the office of the director of national intelligence.

The automated data collection system is to focus on patterns of communication, consumption and movement of populations. It will use publicly accessible data, including Web search queries, blog entries, Internet traffic flow, financial market indicators, traffic webcams and changes in Wikipedia entries.

It is intended to be an entirely automated system, a “data eye in the sky” without human intervention, according to the program proposal. The research would not be limited to political and economic events, but would also explore the ability to predict pandemics and other types of widespread contagion, something that has been pursued independently by civilian researchers and by companies like Google. More here.

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