The NSA’s Contractor Problem

Posted August 16th, 2013 at 6:25 pm (UTC-4)
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Another Worry In An Already Bad Summer For The NSA

Ross Slutsky | Philadelphia

VOA intern Ross Slutsky occasionally writes about emerging digital technology issues for “Digital Frontiers” from Philadelphia

In recent weeks, much attention has been paid to the privacy implications of the NSA’s surveillance programs, and rightly so. Now comes a new issue.

Edward Snowden, the man behind this summer’s leaks about secret U.S.  programs to monitor wide swaths of electronic communications, isn’t just a big headache for the NSA. He was also a contractor for the agency, working through the private firm Booz Allen Hamilton. His revelations about programs such as PRISM have not only raised concerns about the extent of U.S. surveillance, but the out-sized and pervasive role of outside private contractors play in the NSA’s operations.

The NSA’s contemporary growth

The terror attacks of September 11, 2001, transformed the NSA from a Cold War relic into one of the fastest growing intelligence agencies on Earth.  In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the NSA pulled in billions of dollars in new government contracts. As part of a larger effort to modernize the agency, former NSA director Michael Hayden increased the percentage of agency workflow outsourced to outside contractors.

In his book on the NSA The Shadow Factory, intelligence journalist James Bamford claims that the size and scale of the NSA workforce exploded after 9/11.  “With the billions pouring in, Hayden launched the largest recruiting drive in the agency’s history,” writes Bamford. “By 2008, 40 percent of the NSA’s workforce had been hired since 2001.”  However, Bamford’s most disturbing claim is that, largely hidden from the public, the role of contractors in NSA operations has increased dramatically.

“At the same time Hayden was building his empire within Fort Meade, he was also creating a shadow NSA: of the $60 billion going to the intelligence community, most of it– about $42 billion, an enormous 70 percent– was going to outside contractors,” says Bamford.

Though Booz Allen Hamilton is a frequent recipient of NSA contracts, the issue of contractors extends well beyond one firm.  SAIC, L-3 Communications, Northrop Grumann, Lockheed Martin, Verint, Narus, and many other defense and intelligence enterprises play a pervasive role in the shadow NSA.

Why does this matter?

While private enterprises and contractors play a valuable role in various work settings, the de facto privatization of the state surveillance apparatus raises serious questions.

In recent weeks, continual revelations about the NSA surveillance programs have led many to conclude that the NSA has gone too far by spying on Americans.  However, even if one believes that the NSA is not violating the Fourth Amendment, the problems posed by the NSA’s growing reliance on contractors remain.

In the words of a document that the NSA recently released in order to clarify the legal authorities it operates under, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) authorizes the agency “to target non-U.S. persons who are reasonably believed to be located outside the United States.”

In non-legal jargon, this makes Section 702 extremely broad.  As Mark Rumold of the Electronic Frontier Foundation observes, “A “person,” for purposes of… [FISA], includes individuals as well as “any group, entity, association, corporation, or foreign power.”

It’s also important to consider the incentives outside contractors may have in the face of such broad legal authorization.

Booz Allen Hamilton is a corporation, and as ruled by the U.S. Supreme Court, a corporation is a person in the eyes of the law. What might this mean?

Booz Allen is a major technology consulting firm which claims that its major clients “include global corporations in the health, energy, and financial services sectors.”  If you are Booz Allen, and have legal authorization for a wide range of foreign intelligence activities, you may have an incentive to partake in corporate espionage.  If you are able to spy on corporations that compete against your corporate clients and funnel surveillance knowledge to the consultancy division of the firm, your consultants may be able to provide clients with better strategic advice.

The NSA’s prior history concerning collection of financial information may only exacerbate the public’s concerns.  As renowned investigative journalist Michael Isikoff reported in 2008, during the Bush administration, the NSA was able to access “massive volumes of personal financial records—such as credit-card transactions, wire transfers and bank withdrawals.”

The time for transparency

In light of the ongoing surveillance debates, the NSA may also come under increasing pressure to clarify the role that outside contractors play in the agency’s operations, and the oversight provisions it uses to make sure that the contractors do not fall prey to profit incentives.

While there is no shortage of reasons to be skeptical of the efficacy and rigor of the NSA’s oversight provisions, the most obvious reason is that this summer’s NSA surveillance debate only happened after a Booze Allen contractor managed to turn over thousands of documents to the press.  If Snowden alone was able to commandeer a vast body of information that the NSA never intended to make public, concerns about the broader principal-agent problems posed by private contractors in surveillance certainly seems reasonable.

Aspen Journal: Where Are Ideas Born?

Posted June 27th, 2013 at 7:12 pm (UTC-4)
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Thoughts From, And About, The Aspen Ideas Festival

Doug Bernard | Aspen CO

Each year, the Aspen Institute hosts what it calls the Aspen Ideas Festival. Over the next week, VOA will be in Aspen with hundreds of thinkers, writers, inventors and innovators, to learn and share some new ways to look at our world.

Is this the well-spring of all new ideas?

I have the result, only I do not yet know how to get to it.” – Carl Friedrich Gauss.

For Archimedes, it was in a bathtub. For Isaac Newton, it was under the shade of an apple tree. For Oprah Winfrey, it was, at least on one occasion, the TV set of the “Steve Harvey” show.

Insight – especially those rare, sudden flashes of aha! – comes at many different times and places for different thinkers. There’s no universal example of a “Eureka!” moment. For example, it’s probably unlikely that anyone other than a soggy Archimedes discovered something profound and exclaimed “I have found it!” before leaping from his bath and running down the street naked (if the story is to be believed.) Falling fruit has rarely been as fortuitous as the apple that conked Newton on the head, supposedly leading him to insight on the nature of gravity. History is filled with many different examples of the moment when a new idea comes to life, and they’re as quirky as they are common.

While we all may disagree on the where, what many cultures seem to agree on is that the aha! moment – that point of clarity and discovery – is when lasting ideas are born.

But is that really so? Do the best ideas really spring fully formed – like Athena from Zeus – from the foreheads of solitary thinkers? Or could the creation of ideas that matter – the ones that answer questions not even asked – be a far messier and more chaotic affair? Might ideas have not just one but many, many parents? And do we even really recognize them for what they are when they appear?

If the coming week in the mountain resort town of Aspen, Colorado, is any measure, it’s a little bit of the former, and a whole lot of the latter.

An Ideas Festival Is Born

Everything in your life ends up in your act.” – Charles Steinmetz.

The Ideas Festival, sponsored annually by the Aspen Institute, is, in a word, sprawling. Both in terms of its areas of discussion, ranging this year from Pakistan to the Large Hadron Collider to sugar and nearly everything else, and in terms of its goal, to “…foster a ‘commons’ for the 21st century, a gathering for diverse, intellectually curious people to learn, listen, debate, and question what we can do to make our world — and our children’s world — a better place.” That’s what we call aiming high.

Clearly, there’s a risk to mounting such an ambitious event: a festival built around something as ephemeral as “ideas” featuring speakers who draw elite fees and audiences can appear to be just that: elite, aloof and disconnected with the troubles and worries of most of our lives.

In years past, however, the Institute has side-stepped this trap by intentionally making the Festival slightly…well, disorganized. Not in an anxiety-producing way, but more in a slightly off-center feel. Like a record left too long in the sun with a slight warp. Organizers try to build events that people don’t just attend but join in and participate with. Minute-by-minute planning is discouraged; spontaneous exploration is recommended. Mostly, while in Aspen, you’re supposed to listen, to think, and to talk. Everything about the Festival encourages participants to stray momentarily down a path not taken before, and perhaps learn something new.

The goal is that in these unexpected interactions, when ideas from left and right and everywhere else bump into each other, something new is created. Fresher ideas, and perhaps occasionally, even better ones.

Michigan State University researchers Robert and Michell Root-Bernstein argue in their book “Sparks of Genius” that those “Eureka!” moments comes from equal measures intellectual rigor and unexpected play. Writer Steven Johnson, author of the book “Where Good Ideas Come From“, likens the most fertile breeding ground for new ideas to the slightly riotous coffee-houses  of Enlightenment England, fueled less by gin and more by caffeine and chaos. In this model, it isn’t the solitary thinker who creates ideas sui generis but the loud mob who cobble together some of this and some of that and produce something entirely unexpected.

You can’t plan spontaneity, but at Aspen, they try to set the stage fully for just about anything to happen.

Another Day, Another Idea

“Of course, there are tons of good ideas here. It’s just capitalizing on them.”

That, at least according to the two gentlemen behind me on my flight to Aspen, who were so eager for the Ideas Festival that they decided to have a little one on the plane. Loudly.

The NSA leaks, the Somali diaspora, flagging energy reserves, the Newtown shootings – all of these and more figured in their :40 minute exchange; at turns exemplifying the best and perhaps worst of what any event meant to share ideas can be.

Ideas are good things. Everyone wants to have at least one; preferably a good one that other people, eyebrows cocked, nod approvingly at. At its worst, that can lead to everybody trying to be the loudest instrument in the band. It’s noisy, a little grating, and really not very helpful or resonant.

But at its best, when people pause to listen – to really listen, not just to score more points off your argument but the hear and understand something you hadn’t thought, or had previously discounted – well then, that’s a beautiful thing. The trick is to listen – not to puncture your opponent’s idea, but to have new ones slam into your own and see what happens.

Aspen is a beautiful town. At its best, the Ideas Festival is a beautiful event. Although organizers like to say that everyone here are equals, the rows of privately owned Lear jets lining the Aspen runway put a lie to that. Nobody’s going to tweet a picture of me eating a hot dog on the Festival grounds, but a whole bunch sure will when former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright picks one up.

Sometimes, ideas really do strike like a bolt from the blue. For example, the very first moment the French aerialist Philippe Petit saw a drawing of the soon-to-be-built World Trade Center, he knew in a flash that he needed to walk on a wire from tower to tower. From what was born in that instant, however, took the next six years of Petit’s life and energies – a a good portion of those he gathered around him. He had the idea, but had no idea how to do it. 

Perhaps that’s the best measure of an event like Aspen. Will many come away from this event with an epiphany-like moment of blinding insight? Unlikely. But that’s probably not what it’s for.

The Ideas Festival is the place where all sorts of ideas who’ve never met each other come out and play. It’s summer camp for thought.


Rap Genius and Tomorrow’s Education

Posted June 11th, 2013 at 9:24 am (UTC-4)
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Interview With the Co-Founder of Potentially Disruptive Education Technology

Ross Slutsky | Washington DC

Ross Slutksy is a former VOA intern and current Digital Frontiers contributor. Ross is also a research intern at the Center for Democracy and Technology; the views expressed here are solely his own and not representative of CDT. You can reach him at

When it comes to reading aids for English classes, many students have traditionally turned to resources such as Cliff Notes or Spark Notes.  These study aids serve to summarize the contents of readings and help students with understanding broader thematic issues that pervade various works.

However, Cliff Notes and Spark Notes are no longer the only options.  Though not everyone would think to look in such a location, Rap Genius can also help unlock the meaning of classical texts.

For those unfamiliar with it, Rap Genius is a website most commonly known for crowd-sourced annotation of the lyrics to rap songs.  The site enables users to click on a line in any given song and see a user generated interpretation of the text.  However, the website’s interpretive ambitions extend beyond song lyrics; Rap Genius also includes books ranging from The Great Gatsby to War and Peace.

And unlike study aids that merely summarize the content of chapters and sometimes cause students to read summaries instead of the actual content of books, Rap Genius provides line by line analysis that can help the reader interpret difficult passages.

Sharp observers in Silicon Valley seem to be clued in on Rap Genius’s disruptive potential: renowned venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz invested $15 million in the start-up late last year.

Rap Genius co-founder Mahbod Moghadam was kind enough to take the time for a Q & A with Digital Frontiers on his site’s forays into education.

Q & A with Mahbod Moghadam


Q: I feel old.  Back in the late 2000s when I was in high school, we used Spark Notes. However, the advantages of Rap Genius should be immediately apparent to anyone who toys around with the site.  How did you know when the Rap Genius community was ready to extend its reach beyond song lyrics?

Moghadam: This was the 10th track we explained on the site, no joke.

We always knew Rap Genius could annotate all texts…we started with rap because it is at the cutting edge, the forefront of global youth culture (also our personal favorite art form).

Q: When used effectively, it seems like Rap Genius can eliminate reading comprehension issues that stem from lack of contextual information. However, player haters might argue that struggling to interpret difficult or ambiguous lines is part of the process of becoming a stronger reader and developing critical thinking skills.  What would your response to the haters be?

Moghadam: I get happy when I read on Twitter the same tweet, every day: “I just Rap Genius’d it and now I’m even more confused!” Rap Genius does not “explain” s–t – it is an academy, a place to trip about the vast genius of art.

Q: In an interview with TechCrunch, Mahbod cited Lawrence Lessig as a major influence.  Have there been any efforts to create any collaborative projects (beyond license usage) with the staff of Creative Commons?

Moghadam: Yes he is the BEST! He even has a Rap Genius account! Lessig is my hero, muf–ka has a huge cranium, smartest person I’ve ever met.

I wanted Lessig to explain the DMCA on the site, but he is OVER it! He explained a rap about campaign finance reform (luckily his homie IP expert Mark Lemley explained it!)

Q: It seems like part of the reason Rap Genius has been so successful is that it built a community around shared interest in lyrical interpretation.  Though there is definitely some overlap between those who want to interpret lyrics and those who want to interpret books, what plans do you have for building up the critical mass of literature interpreters that will be needed to take down Spark Notes?

Moghadam: The FIRST STEP: follow Poetry Genius on twitter!  – separate sites are coming, Poetry Genius and StereoIQ (aka “Rock Genius”) are my BABIES!! I mean, check out the explanations of “Call me Ishmael” – so bomb!!

Q: On a separate note, I thought I read somewhere a while ago that the Rap Genius staff were thinking of branching into entertainment law by providing representation for artists.  Is that something you are considering?

Moghadam: Oh you mean Rap Genius LLC?? Nah, at this point we are more focused on building a “LAW GENIUS!” Who is gonna run it?? We gotta find the Law Genius…

Q: Years from now, will my future wife (still working on meeting her) get angry messages from a future high school teacher about how my future kids got in trouble for using Rap Genius to better understand Crime and Punishment?

Moghadam: Only if the teacher is a stupid caveman moron. Rap Genius illuminates texts – it is not “cheating” like Sparknotes, it is a tuition-free university.

Q: Finally, is there anything else you think VOA readers should know?

Moghadam: SIGN UP YO and let me know your username and what cool stuff you are explaining! I am at PS – FOOD GENIUS!!!!!

Caught In The PRISM

Posted June 7th, 2013 at 2:29 pm (UTC-4)

The NSA’s Internet Surveillance Program And You

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

This has not been a good week for keeping secrets.

Late Wednesday, it was revealed that America’s National Security Agency, or NSA, got secret court permission to access millions of telephone records of the Verizon telecommunications company’s domestic customers.  The following day, the Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that nine Internet and computer service firms, including Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Skype, have been voluntarily providing the NSA with access to their data, allowing the NSA to monitor and analyze emails, photos and video chats from around the world as part of a program known as PRISM.

This undated US government photo shows an aerial view of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Fort Meade, Md. The Obama administration on Thursday defended the National Security Agency’s need to collect telephone records of U.S. citizens, calling such information “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats.” (AP Photo/US Government)

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that ” people familiar with the NSA’s operations said the initiative also encompasses phone call data from AT&T…and Sprint Nextel records from Internet-service providers and purchase information from credit-card providers.”  Sensing a good fight, the group called Anonymous has jumped in as well, posting online what appear to be 13 secret U.S. documents that suggest data gathered through PRISM is being shared with the NSA’s “intelligence partners” – meaning the security and intelligence services of other governments. 

“Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?” tweeted former presidential candidate Al Gore. Judging by the outrage across social media platforms this week, the answer would be no.

Secrets Protecting Secrets

It’s no surprise the NSA has been aggressively collecting electronic data – that’s its job. For 61 years, the secretive intelligence agency – often dubbed “No Such Agency” for it’s lack of transparency – has monitored all manner of phone calls, radio signals, emails, texts and other electronic communications in the interests of national security.

However, for much of its history the NSA has been limited to collecting foreign communications only. Domestic surveillance strictly illegal.  To ensure compliance, in 1978 Congress passed the “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act”, which in turn created a secret FISC, or Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, that the NSA would have to appear before anytime it wanted a warrant to monitor domestic communications.

The idea was that the court would provide strict privacy protection for U.S. citizens. In practice — perhaps because all its actions are secret and that only the government may appear before the court, or because the very nature of Internet traffic knows no national boundaries — the FISC court has been unusually compliant with the NSA’s requests.  For example, between 2010 and 2012, the FISC approved all of the NSA’s 5,180 surveillance requests.

In the Verizon matter, the FISC ruling, signed by Judge Robert Vinson, was leaked and posted online, making it one of the very few glimpses into the court’s activities seen in public. In the PRISM Internet data-mining story, journalists obtained 41 PowerPoint slides prepared by the NSA for top-secret briefings only.

Internet privacy advocates, like the non-profit Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), have warned that “there is simply too little known about the operation of the FISC today to determine whether it is effective and whether the privacy interests of Americans are adequately protected.”

For his part, U.S. National Director of Intelligence James Clapper has confirmed the existence of PRISM and decried the leaks as “reprehensible,” saying, “The unauthorized disclosure of a top-secret U.S. court document threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation.” The nine Internet companies named by the Washington Post have issued either non-committal statements, or outright denied any knowledge of PRISM.

Two Degrees Of Separation

It’s likely that shortly after Alexander Graham Bell told assistant Thomas Watson, “I need you,” telephones have been tapped. With it’s hard-wired person-to-person structure, it has aided countless investigations. The Internet, however, is another matter.

Graphic logo of the PRISM project found on classified documents

By its structure, Internet data doesn’t travel in a straight line from point to point, but rather in a zig-zagging trail that can route one email through dozens of servers across the globe. Much of that traffic transits through the United States, meaning that a Skype conversation or Facebook chat between someone in Jakarta and someone else in Baku will likely end up flowing through U.S.-based servers.

This enormous amount of data can be analyzed by NSA computers to determine not only who a suspected foreign terrorist is speaking with or emailing, but the people those individuals in turn are communicating with, and what they’re talking about. Even at just two hops, the number of people caught up in one terrorist’s surveillance can quickly number well into the thousands. That’s a tremendous amount of personal information that PRISM grants the NSA.

The phone monitoring is somewhat different, and not really phone tapping. The FISC order in the Verizon matter strictly limits surveillance to “meta-data” — that is, the time, duration and recipient of a phone call, but not the actual communication itself. By sorting through these many millions of data points, intelligence analysts are looking for patterns in the noise that may provide crucial clues about the identity and location of potential terrorists.

Another easily overlooked facet to these stories is that the very firms – like Apple, PalTalk or AOL – that people are using to chat and share online are themselves mining their data stores for their own corporate gains. While some companies like Facebook and Google provide “privacy tools” that allow users to restrict personal data sharing, each firm admits to using private data to tailor services to customers, or selling it to other firms hoping to, say, better target their online advertising.

Cold Comfort and More Debate

Still, all that may be cold comfort to people like Digital First Media’s Mandy Jones, who tweeted, “I shudder to think of what the NSA is doing with those drunk photos I thought were safely hidden on Facebook.” [Ed. note: As we’ve repeatedly told you, there is nothing hidden on Facebook.] While both Republican and Democratic members on Capitol Hill have been briefed on these, and likely other, NSA programs, they were limited in what they could say or object to by the FISC’s classified nature. More congressional debate can be expected.

In the meantime, amid memories of the 2005 revelations of the Bush administration’s “warrantless wiretapping” program, and the current swirl of stories about tax agency over-reach and the Justice Department’s broad seizure of AP journalists’ phone records, worries about the NSA’s surveillance of all people – foreign and domestic – will only grow.

Until then, it’s worth remembering that there is very little that’s completely private in these digital times.


License To Print

Posted May 14th, 2013 at 4:16 pm (UTC-4)
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How The 3-D Printing Boom May Run Afoul Of The Law

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

UPDATE: May 15, 2013: This article originally stated that Sen. Schumer “wants to ban not just the printing of the gun, but the CAD files themselves.” While it’s accurate to say Sen. Schumer wants an update to the 1988 Undetectable Firearms Act to prohibit 3-D printed guns, he  hasn’t said exactly how that would be accomplished. We have removed the last section about the CAD files for clarity.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the nation of England had seen more than its share of riot, revolt and war. Rabble-rousers and trouble-makers lurked everywhere. By 1643, Parliament had had enough. And so it approved something called the “Licensing Order.”

Woodcut showing early movable-type printers in the late 1500’s (public domain)

With it, the government effectively outlawed the unlicensed possession of movable-type printing presses, and also controlled everything that could be printed with them. As absurd as it may seem now, the Licensing Order remained law for 51 years, until it was allowed to lapse in 1694.

At the time, movable-type printing was still a newish technology. Some worried that they might be used to print material that inflamed opinion or challenged those in power (this is, in fact, is one of its prime assets.) The thinking went: control the presses, and you can better control the people.

Since then we’ve learned that some technologies – like printing – simply can’t be controlled over the long term. A printing press wants to be free.

Which makes it all the more interesting that so many in the U.S. are now talking about trying to control an updated version of the printing press – the 3-D printer.

“Disruptive Technologies”

The 3-D printers have only been around for a short time now, but already they’re experiencing a boom in development. They take different forms and employ varying techniques, but the basics are the same.

First, digital computer-aided design, or CAD, files are created that either mimic a real object or represent something completely new. This three dimensional CAD file becomes a blueprint for the printer to use an additive assembly process to slowly build up the printed object layer by layer.

Objects to be printed are slowly built up, tiny layer upon tiny layer, with a plastic resin-like material. Depending on the object, the printing process can take eight hours or more.

It sounds like it couldn’t work, and for this writer at least, the first time seeing one in action it all seems just short of miraculous. Yet surprisingly complex objects can be created in this way – objects that are strong, multicolored, and can move in three dimensions.

“This is classic disruptive technology, a new way of doing things that makes current technology obsolete,” wrote independent journalist Bob Morris in 2012:

“It will create new industries and eliminate old ones. The trend towards 3D printing cannot be stopped. And it absolutely has a political component, as it can route around government regulations and will undoubtedly make some patent and copyright holders go berserk in attempts to stop it.”

Disruptive technology is just a fancy term for new devices that overturn the status quo, and examples are legion. Automobiles overturned railways, TV overthrew radio, LP records were replaced by compact discs, which are now being replaced by digital music files. Yesterday’s new thing becomes tomorrow’s must-have. Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press was just an early disruptor.

But all this disruption comes at a cost, especially if you’re the one being overturned. Technology tends to move faster than governments, and politicians of all stripes don’t like being caught off-guard. Often, all it takes is one incident to thrust a disruptor into public view, setting off an anxious scramble to respond.

The 3-D printer may have just had its incident, and his name is Cody Wilson.

Printing the Liberator

“People say it’s unrealistic to print a gun,” Cody Wilson told Vice magazine this March. “I think it’s more unrealistic…to think you could ever control this technology.”

The “Liberator” in all its printed pieces (courtesy

In July of 2012, Wilson with business partner Ben Denio launched Defense Distributed, a non-profit company that distributes gun and firearm-related CAD files that users can download and print. In little under a year, DD collaborators have designed, printed and successfully tested a variety of gun parts, including high-capacity clips and the trigger action section of the gun known as a “receiver.”

DD’s designs were successful and relatively popular, until the website that hosted them, Thingiverse, suddenly removed them last fall. Sensing censorship, Wilson and Denio opened up their own website, Defcad, and hosted their DD designs there for anyone to freely download. Earlier this year, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms issued DD a license to begin manufacturing gun components.

Unlike many others drawn to 3-D printing, Cody Wilson is no hobbyist or tinkerer. A law student at the University of Texas and a self-described “crypto-anarchist,” Wilson thinks and speaks fast, his speech peppered with phrases like “Fukuyamist,” “autonomous classes” or “oppositional discursive strategy.”

He’s out to make a political point: that U.S. efforts to limit or ban certain types of firearms tramples constitutionally guaranteed rights, and thus will fail. And he sees the 3-D printer as a means to make that argument.

This May, Wilson and Denio put their argument into its sharpest focus yet when they printed and successfully tested an entire gun made on a 3-D printer*. Named the “Liberator,” they put their CAD files on their website, posted a video of the Liberator’s test on YouTube, and waited to see what would happen.

It didn’t take long for the government to respond. The State Department’s department of Defense Trade Controls seized control of the CAD files, and this message soon went up on Defcad’s website:

DEFCAD files are being removed from public access at the request of the US Department of Defense Trade Controls. Until further notice, the United States government claims control of the information.

But nothing stays dead on the Internet for long. The Swedish web-sharing and Internet activist site, The Pirate Bay, is now hosting the CAD files for download, well out of reach of the U.S. Government.

“There are people all over the world downloading our files, and we say good,” says Wilson. “This is something you should have. You can do this in your bedroom. It’s to prove this political point, that, look man, gun control doesn’t mean what it did in 1994.”

Reaction and Over Reaction

Last year, few took any notice of Cody Wilson or Defense Distributed and their “wiki weapons project.” With the Liberator, however, politicians and pundits are practically tumbling over each other, warning of the dangers of plastic guns, unregulated printing and the 3-D printer itself.

Could 3D Printing Unleash a Gun-Printing Craze?” trembles the headline over at MotleyFool.”Hero or villain?” worries libertarian commentator Glenn Beck. U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer wants to ban the 3-D printing of a gun, while California state senator Leland Yee has now introduced a bill to track the sale of every 3-D printer. Shades of 1643.

The current panic about 3-D printed guns may subside, but that doesn’t mean local, state and even the federal government, won’t pass a patchwork of new laws that try to regulate what can be manufactured, and by whom, via 3-D printing.

As with all new technologies, the world is still a long way away from people buying a Cube CD printer from their local Staples store and then manufacturing a storehouse of weaponry. 3-D printers are still too expensive, the materials too weak, and real guns too cheap to worry a plastic gun shooting spree.

Enthusiasts and hobbyists are experimenting with these new devices to make all sorts of things. Some envision a small printer in every home – break a cup? Just print one up! Others foresee medical devices printed when needed, or even the pieces for an entire house manufactured on demand.

The world may not be on the edge of a new industrial revolution, but it’s clear 3-D printing will revolutionize how products are created and distributed, and by whom.

It’s also clear that governments and the law will lag behind as the new technology gallops forward, meaning people like Cody Wilson will continue to be flashpoints of controversy.

“I don’t think we’re utopians,” he says. “I think the real utopia is thinking that you can go back to the 1990’s and everything will be perfect forever. All we’re saying is no you can’t. Now there’s the Internet.”


 *To be exactly correct, 15 of the gun’s 16 pieces were printed in plastic. The .380 bullet was purchased through standard means, and the Liberator’s firing bolt was actually a nail purchased at a hardware store.

The “Star Wars Kid” Grows Up

Posted May 13th, 2013 at 10:10 am (UTC-4)
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It’s Still Unclear If The Internet Ever Will

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Think back to a time before Facebook. Before Twitter.  Before YouTube and Instagram and Vine and every other website yelling at you to splatter your face and life all over the Internet and make yourself famous, even if for a moment.

Ten short years ago, there were no Internet celebrities. People did not Autotune funny clips and turn ordinary people caught at poor moments into embarrassing memes. Videos did not go “viral.” Sure, the online world could be rough, but it wasn’t the place to bully someone else. The term “cyber-bullying” didn’t even exist yet.

Unfortunately for a Canadian teen named Ghyslain Raza, all that was about to change.

Back in 2003, some classmates of Raza found a video tape he had made of himself awkwardly swinging a stick around like the character Darth Maul in the Star Wars movies. Without asking him, they posted it online, and the “Star Wars Kid” was born.

In its original form, and in literally countless mash-ups and adaptations, it’s very likely hundreds of millions of people around the globe saw Raza in what is, frankly, just an honest goofy moment that every teen experiences. The difference is that Raza’s goof was now in full public view.

“What I saw was mean. It was violent. People were telling me to commit suicide,” the now 24-year-old Raza tells Canada’s L’actualite magazine in an exclusive interview (a full English version also appears in MacLean’s magazine.)

Back then, Ghyslain Raza had to leave his school and was treated for severe depression, including suicidal thoughts.These days, he’s an attorney and graduate from Canada’s prestigious McGill University.

He’s never given an interview about his moment in the sun, and he says he’s now happy and successful and what seems like a lifetime away from his Internet derp.

Perhaps if the same video were to leak onto the web today instead of 10 years ago, the reaction would have been different. Internet trends explode into public view in mere moments (anyone remember the “Leave Brittany Alone” kid?) and can vanish as quickly. Internet infamy just doesn’t have the same taint as it once did.

But Raza still remembers it acutely. And he says he has a message for others who experience bullying or just plain humiliation online: “You’ll survive. You’ll get through it. And you’re not alone.”

He should know.

Boston, Privacy And The Limits Of Crowd-Sourcing

Posted April 23rd, 2013 at 12:26 pm (UTC-4)
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What The Web Got Right, And Wrong, In The Marathon Bombings

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

On March 16th, 2013, five weeks before the Boston marathon bombings, Sunil Tripathi disappeared. A Brown University student on leave from study, Tripathi was last seen in his Providence, Rhode Island apartment at around 11am. About 20 minutes later, a nearby surveillance camera snapped an image of a man on the street largely fitting the description of the lanky 22-year-old. It was the last time Sunil would be seen in public. Early media reports note that the friend who first reported him missing also found a note in Tripathi’s apartment “suggestive of suicidal intent.”

Sunil Tripathi, shown here in an undated photograph released by Brown University, somehow got mistaken for one of the Boston Marathon bombers. Photo: AP

Although stricken with grief, Sunil’s family immediately launched an all-out effort, in person and online, to find their missing relative.  Hundreds of volunteers posted fliers around Providence and rallied support and awareness about the missing Tripathi. Over the next few weeks, thousands more uploaded warm, encouraging comments and images to the “Find Sunil Tripathi” page on Facebook and tweeted possible leads.

That’s when the web turned bad.

Just one day after the Boston Marathon bombings, users of the Reddit forum “/findbostonbombers” organized an unofficial crowd-sourcing effort to help the FBI investigation. Within 24 hours, some forum users began identifying one of the suspects – the “man in the white hat” – as Sunil Tripathi. The report  spread virally.

Old photos of Tripathi began appearing online, as well as information about his friends and family. Celebrity blogger Perez Hilton took to Twitter to inform his over six million followers that Suspect #2 was indeed Sunil Tripathi. “Rumored Boston bombings Suspect 2 #SunilTripathi is still on the run and believed to have more explosives on him,” he tweeted late on April 19th. Established media outlets like Politico, Buzzfeed, Newsweek and others amplified the rumor as the “Find Sunil” Facebook page became overrun with vitriolic comments.

Suspect #2 was, of course, later identified by police as  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Tripathi’s family tried to clear his name, but the damage was already done.

Electronic Vigilantes

Of the many questions stirred up by the Boston attacks, few may be as thorny as finding the balance between safeguarding privacy against the proliferation of immediate, real-time images from just about anywhere. In the past, traditional civil liberties groups have raised red flags about the proliferation of closed-circuit security cameras and software that can help track individuals through their credit cards. Now, mobile technology allows people to be tracked in real time down to just a few feet, and the explosion of mobile cameras mean just about anybody can take pictures of you and share them online, where just about anybody else can say whatever they like.

The official suspects in the Boston bombings: Tamerlan Tsarnaev, left, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were singled out from closed-circuit television images. Photo: AP

There’s little doubt that closed-circuit, or CCTV, cameras can help investigators in the wake of an act of terror – the London Tube bomber was identified nearly immediately from TV surveillance, and it was a camera outside a Lord & Taylor store in Boston that provided the first visual clues to the marathon bomber’s identities. But those systems are generally under some degree of control to ensure privacy protections.

Individual’s mobile phones and websites are not. And that is renewing worries about the Internet as a place of vigilante justice.

Let’s look at just some of what the web – not just Reddit – got wrong about Boston:

  1. In addition to Tripathi, Suspect #1 was erroneously identified as “Mike Mulugeta” – incorrect.
  2. Other Reddit sleuths targeted someone who came to be known as “Blue Robe Guy” – again, incorrect.
  3. A picture of two young men in the crowd – one in a blue track jacket and both possibly of Middle Eastern ancestry – exploded from online posts on 4chan and Reddit, eventually finding its way onto the cover of the New York Post under the screaming headline “BAG MEN.” The young man in blue, Salah Barhoum, is a local high school student who runs track who had nothing to do with the bombing. That, however, did not make him feel any safer – once more, incorrect, and troubling for a scared teen.
  4. A Twitter user, ostensibly named “Dzhokhar Tsnarnaev“, began tweeting things like “I will kill you as you killed my brother.” It’s a bogus account, but that didn’t stop some Boston police from tweeting it out as fact. Not just incorrect, but potentially dangerous too.

More errors can be found here, and even this is far from exhaustive. Of course, traditional news media made their share of errors as well. And defenders of both social media and the large news outlets point out that the web allows for nearly instantaneous corrections also, so that rumors can be shot down almost as fast as they spread.

‘Old’ vs. ‘New’

But it’s the almost part that is troubling. Once a rumor seeds itself online, it can be practically impossible to dig it out. And the web has yet to develop any sense of editorial filtering – the sorts of things that stodgy “old media” do to verify a report before running with it.

Some new media, like Reddit general manager Erik Martin, have publicly apologized to Tripathi’s family; others, like Hilton, have not. For Tripathi’s family, no apology may erase the pain and hurt. But even Martin, in his apology, failed to propose any corrective actions, instead just “hoping” that the web learns how to behave in sensitive or dangerous situations.

At its best, the Internet helps corroborate and develop leads. In Boston, it was an eyewitness account in addition to the CCTV footage that provided the first clues, which were then enhanced through the large number of citizen photos taken before and after the explosions. But at its worst, the web can degenerate into a frontier-style vigilante mob that can be hard, even possible, to control.

And as of this writing, Sunil Tripathi remains missing.


To read more, you can explore these other reports:



Crowd-sourcing The Boston Marathon Attack

Posted April 17th, 2013 at 1:22 pm (UTC-4)
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How Social Media, And Thousands of Pictures, May Help Solve The Puzzle

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

(AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

For being one of the most punishing, grueling athletic tests an individual can put themselves through, marathons are surprisingly popular. This year in the United States alone, 632 marathons are scheduled to be run. Year in and year out, the most popular are the New York Marathon, the Chicago Marathon, and the Boston Marathon, the latter annually drawing over 500,000 spectators to line the route. Dating back to 1897, the marathon has been run every year since in the streets of Boston, making it the world’s oldest annual 26-mile race.

Now, with the events of this week, it’s also the world’s most painful – at least in the fresh memories of many of those on hand for the bombing attacks near the finish line. As of this writing, 3 people are dead and 176 others wounded as a result of the twin explosions that were separated by 12 seconds and around 200 feet.

The FBI is publicly cautioning there are few leads at this point, and that tracking down those responsible may take a long time. Forensic experts are combing the site for any and all possible clues – blast patterns, chemical residues, surveillance cameras, shards of metal used as shrapnel, the works.

Paul McRae, a native of New Zealand now living in Jacksonville, takes a photograph of an empty Boylston Avenue near the Boston Marathon finish line, in Boston, Tuesday, April 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

But the marathon’s status as one of the world’s preeminent sporting events is giving investigators another tool to work with: social media. Each year, hundreds of professional and thousands of amateur photographers descend on Boston to capture still and video images of the competitors as they battle each other and their own exhaustion. And much like the NASCAR crash of two months ago, it’s likely that many, if not most, of the spectators are also recording what they see and posting it almost immediately online.

In the NASCAR case, race organizers initially tried to squelch any images or footage from leaking out in a vain attempt to control what the public saw (they soon relented.) In the case of the Boston marathon, however, the FBI is actively soliciting anyone who may have taped or posted any video, images or sounds of the event in an effort to track down any potential new leads. In short: the FBI is crowd-sourcing the Boston Marathon attack.

“The person who did this is someone’s friend, neighbor, coworker or relative,” said FBI special agent Richard DesLauriers. “Someone knows who did this.” DesLauriers is the lead investigator in the Boston bombings. He calls the investigation “wide open” and he’s asking anyone who may have images or video to contact the FBI and share what they have. The images themselves may provide valuable clues, but so, too, might some of the data encoded in the images – such as GPS position and UTC time – or their history of sharing and posting via social media.

Private crowd-sourcing efforts are underway as well. Just one day after the explosions, a new sub-directory opened up on the wildly popular Reddit site: “findbostonbombers.” “The fact people have come together in an effort to help speaks volumes,” says sub-Redditor Rather_Confused in his introduction post. “We want to help and are doing the best we can, but we must remember where helping ends and the job of professionals begins.”

Years ago, law enforcement officials may have considered it inappropriate, at best, to enlist citizens in a meaningful, collective way in any investigation as serious as this. But as mobile devices become ubiquitous, and the data trails of online activity thicken, it only makes sense.



Your Giga-Future

Posted April 15th, 2013 at 11:53 am (UTC-4)
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Do You Really Need A 1-GB Internet? Yes.

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Once upon a time, around the time I was starting college, the prefix everyone wanted in computers was “kilo.” Computer programs, processor speeds, memory storage: it all came measured in units of kilo, or thousands. 64 Kilobytes equaled 64,000 bytes of memory (actually, 65, 536 bytes, but lets not quibble) and it was enough. Of course back then, most computers still used MS-DOS and ran off floppy discs the size of a small plate while the Internet was little more than a bulletin board. But it basically worked and I was fine with it.

In time, kilo was replaced by “mega” – swapping the prefix multiplier of a million for just a thousand. Laptops sped up as micro-processors began running in Megahertz (MHz) and memory storage boomed with laptops boasting 40, 100, 400 or more MBs of space. Floppies shrank from plate to cup sized, and as Internet service providers evolved from phone-based telephony – complete with that unmistakable modem screeching (what ancient history sounds like) – to cable or fiber-based systems, Internet connection speeds began to move into mega bits-per-second (Mbps) territory, and it was, I thought, all that was needed.

In the year 2000, a younger version of me went computer shopping and, after some research, settled on the newest “new thing” – an iMac G3. Gone was any floppy access; my Bondi Blue iMac came with a sizzling 233 MHz processor, 32 MB of RAM and – shocking for me at the time – a whopping 4 Gigabytes of storage memory. It weighed a ton but it was cool and smoking fast, and I was convinced I would never need anything more. You could even connect to the web via a faster cable modem, but it still had the old screechy one on board, just in case.

In actuality, 2000 was right about the tipping point when small computers, and later smartphones, entered the Giga – or billion – era, and have never looked back. These days, my iPod Nano stores 16 GB of data and fits in the palm of my hand…and even that is five years old.  My home laptop runs with 4GB of RAM memory and nearly half a Terabyte – that’s 1012 – of hard drive storage, and I think nothing of it, except “how will I ever need that much?”

Apparently, I’ve learned nothing. Moore’s Law has become fact: computers speeds and storage are doubling around every 18 months. And with each new speedier processor and smaller data storage, our electronic devices become more nimble, more capable, and a little more like magic.

And now, Internet connection speeds are starting to catch up.

Google’s announcement this week that it will begin providing 1 GB Internet connection to the residents of Austin, Texas, pushes the U.S., and the world, one step further into the Giga-future. Streamed through Google Fiber, Austin subscribers would see their Internet connection speeds multiply 50 to 100 times, joining Kansas City (both the Kansas and Missouri sides) as the only U.S. municipalities with ultra-fast Internet connections.

Mobile phone can’t move anywhere near that fast, but they’re moving faster than they ever have. In the U.S. and elsewhere, 4G LTE mobile networks are coming on line; the “4G” refers not to Giga-anything but “fourth generation,” but these networks have vastly expanded data speeds and capacity.

Of course, none of this is free. In the days of dial-up modems, companies like NetZero could essentially provide your Internet service for nothing more than those annoying ads they put on. 4G LTE service is pricey and coverage spotty, and Google is hoping to charge some hefty monthly fees for it’s lickety-split connections. (And as it turns out, NetZero is still in business, but even they’re charging for broadband, too.)

But service structures all across the electronic front are changing. For example, a growing number of pioneers – “cord cutters” as they’re called – are opting to eliminate their cable TV service, spending the saved money instead on high-capacity web service to stream programs online. A few industry analysts have even gone as far to wonder if the TV set has much of a future, or if it will be replaced by tablets and phones.

The real point is that higher Giga-capacities don’t just deliver the same services faster, they will undoubtedly lead to new innovations that hadn’t even been possible before. There’s no telling what the near future will look like. The only thing I’ve learned over the decades is fast enough is never enough. And that is, by and large, a good thing.

The Secret Facebook

Posted April 10th, 2013 at 1:14 pm (UTC-4)
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How To Share Secret Messages in Public Facebook Posts

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Let’s say you had something you wanted to say; a message for just one or two other people, but secret to everyone else. It’s a fair bet one of the last places you might consider posting that message was anywhere near Facebook, the infamously porous social network.

But you may want to hold that bet until you’ve heard about Secretbook, a new plug-in app that allows you to hide encrypted messages in images you post on Facebook.

The plug-in, an extension available only for Google’s Chrome web browser, is essentially a complex algorithm developed by Owen Campbell-Moore, a computer science student at Oxford University. Messages can be up to 140 characters in length – standard tweet length – and can only be accessed by use of a special key, or password, provided to the chosen recipients.

Robert Beckhusen with the excellent blog “Danger Room” caught up with Campbell-Moore, who has been studying the field of “steganography”, or the craft of concealing messages or images in such a way that hides their existence to all but a chosen few:

“The goal of this research was to demonstrate that JPEG steganography can be performed on social media where it has previously been impossible,” Campbell-Moore tells Danger Room. He says he spent about two months spread out over the last year working on the extension as a research project for the university.

Digital images, composed of millions of bits of data, have long been manipulated to hide information in ways that don’t significantly alter the image’s appearance, at least to the human eye. A problem with using Facebook and other services, however, is that images uploaded to social network are reformatted and compressed, which both alters the original image and the hidden message inside. That would likely turn any secret data into a useless garble.

But Campbell-Moore tells Beckhusen that he re-created Facebook’s compression formula, allowing a user to squeeze the image just as Facebook does at the same time as secreting away the 140-character image. The resulting image, when posted on Facebook, will appear just like any other uploaded photo.

Of course, nothing is foolproof. Photos with large sections of relatively similar or plain images – a white field of snow, say, or a cloudless blue sky – may actually appear altered by Secretbook’s algorithm. And there’s also concern about who might be sending secret messages and what they might say. A friend could add a snarky comment to a family photo as easily as a terrorist could encode a more threatening message.

That’s not a worry, however, for Campbell-Moore:

“A researcher could certainly build a simple system for detecting which images have secret messages hidden in them although they would first require access to all 300+ million photos being uploaded to Facebook every day,” Campbell-Moore says. “Which I suspect even the NSA doesn’t currently have, and performing detection on that scale would be very difficult.”

So the next time you see new photos posted by a friend on Facebook, just remember: they might be saying more than you think.

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What’s Digital Frontiers?

The Internet, mobile phones, tablet computers and other digital devices are transforming our lives in fundamental and often unpredictable ways. “Digital Frontiers” investigates how real world concepts like privacy, identity, security and freedom are evolving in the virtual world.

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