Report: Oversight Board Finds Little Wrong With NSA Surveillance Program

NSA headquarters.

NSA headquarters. NSA

A privacy and civil liberties board that earlier this year called on the government to halt its program of collecting bulk phone records metadata found little wrong with a separate bulk-collection program that involves collecting internet communications data from service providers and from the internet backbone.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Board concluded, in its long-awaited report (.pdf) released Tuesday night, that the collection program—which involves obtaining data from service providers like Google and Yahoo using an order from the FISA Court—is clearly legal and authorized under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The board also concluded that the collection of data from upstream sources, such as by tapping undersea cables, is also authorized by the statute “as [that program] is currently implemented.”

While the board found that certain aspects of the program are questionable and “push the program close to the line of constitutional reasonableness,” essentially its five members concluded unanimously that the core of the so-called Section 702 program is “clearly authorized by Congress, reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, and an extremely valuable and effective intelligence tool.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation criticized the report as “legally flawed and factually incomplete.”

Section 702 of the FISA permits the attorney general and the director of national intelligence to authorize the targeting of non-U.S. persons who are reasonably believed to be located outside the U.S., in order to acquire foreign intelligence information. Although the communication of U.S. persons may be “incidentally” scooped up in bulk collections of data, the NSA is prohibited from targeting U.S. persons and must follow procedures to minimize the collection or use of such data. But the NSA may use U.S. identifiers—such as the phone number or email address of a known U.S. person—to search through the collected data for communication that is relevant to an investigation of a foreign target.

The FBI may also query the data for communications relevant to a non-foreign intelligence criminal investigation.

The definition of a targeted “person” is broadly defined under Section 702 and can apply to a person, a company, or even a foreign government or international terrorist group. But, notably, the board asserted that an entire foreign country cannot be a “person” targeted under Section 702.

This doesn’t, however, preclude the NSA from targeting an entire country for surveillance—recent revelations in documents released by NSA whistleblower indicate that the spy agency has a surveillance program that does record every cell phone call on the island nation of the Bahamas, while WikiLeaks says the same program is collecting calls in Afghanistan. This collection program is not conducted under Section 702 authority, however.

Although the review board approved of much of the Section 702 collection program, it did highlight parts of the program that are cause for concern.

These include the “unknown and potentially large scope” of incidental collections of communications involving U.S. persons that get scooped up in data the government collects on foreign targets.

It also includes a category of data collection known as “about” collections, which involve collecting communications that are neither to nor from a target of surveillance but are simply “about” the target. And it includes any searches the government conducts on collected communications that involves the communications of specific U.S. persons caught up in the data—queries that are often called “backdoor” searches because they can be abused by the government to target U.S. persons without formally targeting them in the initial collection of data.

To ensure that the collection program isn’t abused and “remains tied to its constitutionally legitimate core,” the board members made a number of recommendations.

Among them—the NSA should revise its procedures to specify the criteria it uses for determining the expected value it will get from the collection of foreign intelligence on a particular target. The NSA should also periodically review the types of communications it acquires in “about” collections to gauge ways to refine and limit the types of data it collects.

The NSA and CIA should be allowed to use U.S. person identifiers—such as a phone number or email address—to query the collected data for foreign intelligence purposes only upon producing a statement of facts showing that such a query is “reasonably likely” to return foreign intelligence information as defined under FISA. The NSA and CIA should have written guidelines telling agents and analysts what information and documentation is needed to meet this standard. Limits should also be placed on the FBI’s ability to use and disseminate data collected under the Section 702 program when that use involves non–foreign intelligence criminal matters.\\Additionally, two of the board members, Chairman David Medine and member Patricia Wald, recommended that before conducting a search using a U.S. person identifier, the query should be submitted to the FISA court for approval, excluding exigent circumstances or where otherwise required by law.

“The FISA court should determine, based on documentation submitted by the government, whether the use of the U.S. person identifier for Section 702 queries meets the standard that the identifier is reasonably likely to return foreign intelligence information as defined under FISA,” they wrote.

As soon as a query involving a U.S. person’s data is conducted, any communications that comes up in the results that do not qualify under the statute as foreign intelligence information should be purged immediately. “This process should be subject to judicial oversight,” they note, to ensure compliance.

They also felt that the FBI should obtain prior approval from the FISA Court before querying the collected data in connection to criminal matters not pertaining to foreign intelligence criminal matters, in order to ensure that the query is reasonably likely to return information relevant to an assessment or investigation of a crime.

Legal experts with with EFF were unimpressed with the board’s conclusions or recommendations, writing in a blog post that the board skips over the essential privacy problems inherent in the “upstream” collection program—namely that through this activity, the government has access to or is able to acquire nearly all communications that travel over the internet.

“The board focuses only on the government’s methods for searching and filtering out unwanted information,” the EFF’s Cindy Cohn and Mark Jaycox write in their post. “This ignores the fact that the government is collecting and searching through the content of millions of emails, social networking posts, and other internet communications….”

The board’s constitutional analysis also leaves EFF perplexed. Although the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant for searching the content of communication Under Section 702, the review board apparently believes no warrant is required and therefore doesn’t address that the government searches through content without a warrant.

EFF called the review board’s recommendations for reform “anemic” and said they would do little to stop excessive surveillance.

The review board did offer one prescription that would mildly improve the transparency of the collection program.

Specifically, it called on the NSA to produce an annual report for Congress and the public, which would calculate the number of telephone communications it acquires in which one caller is located in the U.S.; the number of internet communications acquired through upstream collection processes that originate or terminate in the U.S.; the number of communications of or concerning U.S. persons that the NSA positively identifies as such; the number of queries performed that involve a U.S. person identifier, such as a name, title, email address or other identifier known to be associated with a U.S. individual; and the number of instances in which the NSA disseminates such information about U.S. persons.

Last week the intelligence community released its first surveillance transparency report, which many critics considered anything but transparent. The report listed figures for how often agencies used various orders and authorities to conduct surveillance.

According to the report, the government obtained just one order under Section 702 of the FISA Act for all of 2013. But that one order involved collection of data on more than 89,000 targets. The actual number of people affected by the order is much larger, however, since, as noted, “target” can mean “an individual person, a group, an organization composed of multiple individuals or a foreign power that possesses or is likely to communicate foreign intelligence information.” The report did not indicate if or how many U.S. persons might have been caught up in that collection.

The new report from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board will not be official until the board votes on Wednesday to formally submit it to President Obama and to Congress.

The board previously released a report about the NSA’s phone records collection program (.pdf), conducted under the authority of Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, and the operations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The independent PCLOB, which was created in 2007 through the Implementing Recommendations of the 911 Commission Act, consists of five members—David Medine, Rachel L. Brand, Elisebeth Collins Cook, James X. Dempsey, and Judge Patricia M. Wald.

Bringing the bling to antibacterials: New way to combat bacterial biofilm formation with titanium encrusted with gold nanoparticles

Bacteria love to colonize surfaces inside your body, but they have a hard time getting past your rugged, salty skin. Surgeries to implant medical devices often give such bacteria the opportunity needed to gain entry into the body cavity, allowing the implants themselves to act then as an ideal growing surface for biofilms.

A group of researchers at the Shanghai Institute of Ceramics in the Chinese Academy of Sciences are looking to combat these dangerous sub-dermal infections by upgrading your new hip or kneecap in a fashion appreciated since ancient times -- adding gold. They describe the results of tests with a new antibacterial material they developed based on gold nanoparticles in the journal Applied Physics Letters, from AIP Publishing.

"Implant-associated infections have become a stubborn issue that often causes surgery failure," said Xuanyong Liu, the team's primary investigator at the Shanghai Institute of Ceramics. Designing implants that can kill bacteria while supporting bone growth, Liu said, is an efficient way to enhance in vivo osteointegration.

Titanium dioxide is able to kill bacteria itself due to its properties as a photocatalyst. When the metal is exposed to light, it becomes energetically excited by absorbing photons. This generates electron-hole pairs, turning titania into a potent electron acceptor that can destabilize cellular membrane processes by usurping their electron transport chain's terminal acceptor. The membrane is gradually destabilized by this thievery, causing the cell to leak out until it dies.

The dark conditions inside the human body, however, limit the bacteria-killing efficacy of titanium dioxide. Gold nanoparticles, though, can continue to act as anti-bacterial terminal electron acceptors under darkness, due to a phenomenon called localized surface plasmon resonance. Surface plasmons are collective oscillations of electrons that occur at the interface between conductors and dielectrics -- such as between gold and titanium dioxide. The localized electron oscillations at the nanoscale cause the gold nanoparticles to become excited and pass electrons to the titanium dioxide surface, thus allowing the particles to become electron acceptors.

Liu and his team electrochemically anodized titanium to form titanium dioxide nanotube arrays, and then further deposited the arrays with gold nanoparticles in a process called magnetron sputtering. The researchers then allowed Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli to grow separately on the arrays -- both organisms were highly unsuccessful, exhibiting profuse membrane damage and cell leakage.

While silver nanoparticles have been previously explored as an antibacterial agent for in vivo transplants, they cause significant side effects such as cytotoxicity and organ damage, whereas gold is far more chemically stable, and thus more biocompatible.

"The findings may open up new insights for the better designing of noble metal nanoparticles-based antibacterial applications," Liu said.

Further research for Liu and his colleagues includes expanding the scope of experimental bacteria used and evaluating the arrays' in vivo efficacy in bone growth and integration.

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The above story is based on materials provided by American Institute of Physics (AIP) . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Key to adaptation limits of ocean dwellers: Simpler organisms better suited for climate change

The simpler a marine organism is structured, the better it is suited for survival during climate change. Scientists of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, discovered this in a new meta-study, which appears today in the research journal Global Change Biology. For the first time biologists studied the relationship between the complexity of life forms and the ultimate limits of their adaptation to a warmer climate. While unicellular bacteria and archaea are able to live even in hot, oxygen-deficient water, marine creatures with a more complex structure, such as animals and plants, reach their growth limits at a water temperature of 41 degrees Celsius. This temperature threshold seems to be insurmountable for their highly developed metabolic systems.

The current IPCC Assessment Report shows that marine life forms respond very differently to the increasing water temperature and the decreasing oxygen content of the ocean. "We now asked ourselves why this is so. Why do bacteria, for example, still grow at temperatures of up to 90 degrees Celsius, while animals and plants reach their limits at the latest at a temperature of 41 degrees Celsius," says Dr. Daniela Storch, biologist in the Ecophysiology Department at the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) and first author of the current study.

Since years Storch and her colleagues have been investigating the processes that result in animals having a certain temperature threshold up to which they can develop and reproduce. The scientists found that the reason for this is their cardiovascular system. They were able to show in laboratory experiments that this transport system is the first to fail in warmer water. Blood circulation supplies all cells and organs of a living organism with oxygen, but can only do so up to a certain maximum temperature. Beyond this threshold, the transport capacity of this system is no longer sufficient; the animal can then only sustain performance for a short time. Based on this, the biologists had suspected at an early date that there is a relationship between the complex structure of an organism and its limited ability to continue to function in increasingly warm water.

"In our study, therefore, we examined the hypothesis that the complexity could be the key that determines the ultimate adaptability of diverse life forms, from marine archaea to animals, to different living conditions in the course of evolutionary history. That means: the simpler the structure of an organism, the more resistant it should be," explains the biologist. If this assumption is true, life forms consisting of a single simply structured cell would be much more resistant to high temperatures than life forms whose cell is very complex, such as algae, or whose bodies consist of millions of cells. Hence, the tolerance and adaptability thresholds of an organism type would always be found at its highest level of complexity. Among the smallest organisms, unicellular algae are the least resistant because they have highly complex cell organelles such as chloroplasts for photosynthesis. Unicellular protozoans also have cell organelles, but they are simpler in their structure. Bacteria and archaea entirely lack these organelles.

To test this assumption, the scientists evaluated over 1000 studies on the adaptability of marine life forms. Starting with simple archaea lacking a nucleus, bacteria and unicellular algae right through to animals and plants, they found the species in each case with the highest temperature tolerance within their group and determined their complexity. In the end, it became apparent that the assumed functional principle seems to apply: the simpler the structure, the more heat-tolerant the organism type.

But: "The adaptation limit of an organism is not only dependent on its upper temperature threshold, but also on its ability to cope with small amounts of oxygen. While many of the bacteria and archaea can survive at low oxygen concentrations or even without oxygen, most animals and plants require a higher minimum concentration," explains Dr. Daniela Storch. The majority of the studies examined show that if the oxygen concentration in the water drops below a certain value, the oxygen supply for cells and tissues collapses after a short time.

The new research results also provide evidence that the body size of an organism plays a decisive role concerning adaptation limits. Smaller animal species or smaller individuals of an animal species can survive at lower oxygen concentration levels and higher temperatures than the larger animals.

"We observe among fish in the North Sea that larger individuals of a species are affected first at extreme temperatures. In connection with climate warming, there is generally a trend that smaller species replace larger species in a region. Today, however, plants and animals in the warmest marine environments already live at their tolerance limit and will probably not be able to adapt. If warming continues, they will migrate to cooler areas and there are no other tolerant animal and plant species that could repopulate the deserted habitats," says Prof. Dr. Hans-Otto Pörtner of the Alfred Wegener Institute. The biologist initiated the current study and is the coordinating lead author of the chapter "Ocean systems" in the Fifth Assessment Report.

The new meta-study shows that their complex structure sets tighter limits for multicellular organisms, i.e. animals and plants, within which they can adapt to new living conditions. Individual animal species can reduce their body size, reduce their metabolism or generate more haemoglobin in order to survive in warmer, oxygen-deficient water. However, marine animals and plants are fundamentally not able to survive in conditions exceeding the temperature threshold of 41 degrees Celsius.

In contrast, simple unicellular organisms like bacteria benefit from warmer sea water. They reproduce and spread. "Communities of species in the ocean change as a result of this shift in living conditions. In the future animals and plants will have problems to survive in the warmest marine regions and archaea, bacteria as well as protozoa will spread in these areas. There are already studies showing that unicellular algae will be replaced by other unicellular organisms in the warmest regions of the ocean," says Prof. Dr. Hans-Otto Pörtner. The next step for the authors is addressing the question regarding the role the complexity of species plays for tolerance and adaptation to the third climatic factor in the ocean, i.e. acidification, which is caused by rising carbon dioxide emissions and deposition of this greenhouse gas in seawater.

Living at the limit

For generations ocean dwellers have adapted to the conditions in their home waters: to the prevailing temperature, the oxygen concentration and the degree of water acidity. They grow best and live longest under these living conditions. However, not all creatures that live together in an ecosystem have the same preferences. The Antarctic eelpout, for instance, lives at its lower temperature limit and has to remain in warmer water layers of the Southern Ocean. If it enters cold water, the temperature quickly becomes too cold for it. The Atlantic cod in the North Sea, by contrast, would enjoy colder water as large specimens do not feel comfortable in temperatures over ten degrees Celsius. At such threshold values scientists refer to a temperature window: every poikilothermic ocean dweller has an upper and lower temperature limit at which it can live and grow. These "windows" vary in scope. Species in temperate zones like the North Sea generally have a broader temperature window. This is due to the extensively pronounced seasons in these regions. That means the animals have to withstand both warm summers and cold winters.

The temperature window of living creatures in the tropics or polar regions, in comparison, is two to four times smaller than that of North Sea dwellers. On the other hand, they have adjusted to extreme living conditions. Antarctic icefish species, for example, can live in water as cold as minus 1.8 degrees Celsius. Their blood contains antifreeze proteins. In addition, they can do without haemoglobin because their metabolism is low and a surplus of oxygen is available. For this reason their blood is thinner and the fish need less energy to pump it through the body -- a perfect survival strategy. But: icefish live at the limit. If the temperature rises by a few degrees Celsius, the animals quickly reach their limits.

Foodborne bacteria can cause disease in some breeds of chickens after all

Contrary to popular belief, the foodborne pathogen Campylobacter jejuni is not a harmless commensal in chickens but can cause disease in some breeds of poultry according to research published in mBio®, the online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

"The main implication is that Campylobacter is not always harmless to chickens. This rather changes our view of the biology of this nasty little bug," says Paul Wigley of Institute for Infection and Global Health at the University of Liverpool, an author on the study.

Campylobacter jejuni is the most frequent cause of foodborne bacterial gastroenteritis in the world and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate it affects approximately 1.3 million people per year in the United States. Chicken is the most common source of infections. Infection of chickens had previously not been considered to cause disease and the bacteria were thought to be part of the normal microbiota of the birds.

In the study, Wigley and his colleagues experimentally infected birds from four commercial breeds of broiler chickens. They found that while levels of the bacteria in the intestines did not differ by breed, immune response and inflammation did, to the extent that one breed showed damage to the gut mucosa and developed diarrhea.

"Interestingly the breeds did not differ in the levels of bacteria we found in their intestines after infection, even when kept to normal slaughter age," says Wigley. "This suggests that chicken breed has little direct effect on the risk of Campylobacter entering the food chain but has a big effect on the health of the birds."

The most important finding, says Wigley, is that Campylobacter infection directly impacts broiler chicken health and welfare. The United States produces over 8 billion broiler chickens per year and the United Kingdom produces nearly a billion. As Campylobacter is common, or even endemic, in these industries then the scale of the impact on animal health is clear to see.

"On the positive side, we now know that chickens produce a robust immune response to infection, which in the longer term may allow us to develop vaccines," says Wigley.

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The above story is based on materials provided by American Society for Microbiology . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Someone Just Bought $19M in Silk Road Bitcoins From the Feds

Somebody just bought a whole heck of a lot of bitcoins.

Last week, the U.S Marshals’ Service auctioned off 29,656.5 bitcoins it had seized from the Silk Road, the online illicit drug marketplace the feds shutdown this past fall, and on Tuesday, the service said it has moved all those bitcoins—the equivalent of about $19 million—into the online wallet of the lucky auction winner. Lynzey Donahue, a spokeswoman for the service confirmed that the entire stash of seized bitcoins went to a single bidder, but she wouldn’t say who that was—or how much they paid for the bitcoins. Speculation in the bitcoin community is that they went for pretty close to market value. That’s about $640 today.

Bitcoin is the world’s most popular digital currency—a new type of money that can significantly change the way we pay for things and transfer funds from place to place—and the Marshals’ auction generated a lot of interest. The service sold the bitcoins in 10 lots of about 3,000 bitcoins each, and Donahue says that there were a total of 63 bids made by 45 bidders. Bidders put in their bids on Friday, and they were notified about whether they won or not on Monday.

The auction caused some anxiety in the bitcoin markets, where a one-off purchase of several thousand bitcoins could move the price by more than $100.

The auction caused some anxiety in the bitcoin markets, where a one-off purchase of several thousand bitcoins could move the price by more than $100, according to current order books. The big worry was that someone would snatch up the bitcoins for a song and then sell them, depressing the market. There are just under 13 billion bitcoins in circulation, putting the total market cap of the emerging digital currency at around $8.3 billion. And another auction could be on the way. The feds have also have second stash of 144,342 bitcoin, seized from Ross Ulbricht, the Silk Road’s alleged mastermind.

While it’s not clear who bought the Silk Road bitcoins, there are a few well-funded startups that could use a large stash of the digital currency. These are startups in the business of helping people and companies set up bitcoin services that let them store, send, and receive the digital currency. They need large amounts of bitcoins so that they can sell them to users—and protect their own position in the currency, whose value can fluctuate. One of these companies, Coinbase, says it did not win the auction. A well-funded Coinbase competitor, Circle, didn’t have a comment on the auction.

The money may also have gone to individual or institutional investors who lined up to participate in the auction. The Marshal’s Service accidentally leaked out a list of the auction’s potential participants a few weeks back.

The Next Big Thing You Missed: Big Business Is Surveilling Itself With Swarms of Drones


Josh Valcarcel/WIRED

At an open-pit mine, blowing stuff up is just part of the daily grind. But that doesn’t mean the danger disappears. If a truck drives out onto a blast site and over a piece of explosive that failed to go off, the result could be catastrophic. But Christian Sanz, the CEO and founder of aerial drone startup Skycatch, says that at least one mining outfit is now using his quadcopters to make these sites safer.

A drone launched from a remote landing station shoots video of a blast, and mine personnel play back the video in slow motion to make sure all the charges were detonated. That, Sanz says, is just of one of a vast number of ways that Skycatch drones can open up new windows onto the landscape below through the collection of data. Skycatch doesn’t sell its drones. It leases their talent for data collection, in much the same way that cloud services from Amazon and Google rent access to computing power. Instead of managing their own fleets of unmanned aerial vehicles, he explains, companies can tap into a scalable fleet operated by Skycatch—and into the insights these extra eyes in the sky can send back to earth.

Instead of managing their own fleets of unmanned aerial vehicles, he explains, companies can tap into a scalable fleet operated by Skycatch.

Christian Sanz.

Skycatch CEO Christian Sanz.

Josh Valcarcel/WIRED

Skycatch, like Google’s recently purchased satellite venture, seeking ways to make high-resolution, easily accessible aerial imagery a part of how the everyday world works. But for now, launching a drone is still a lot easier.

Unlike metaphorically-named cloud services, using Skycatch drones isn’t as simple as spinning up virtual machines over the internet. Someone still has to bring the drones and landing stations to a customer’s physical location. But once the hardware is set up, the idea is that you can use the drones over the web, or from your phone, without leaving your office. Instead of drones as a toy or novelty, Skycatch is seeking a way to make drones a deeply practical part of how the business world operates, starting with heavy industries that can use aerial photographs to learn a lot about the work they do. The way drones will evolve, Sanz says, is through entrepreneurs like himself who can figure out the most valuable uses for on-call flying machines. Call it drones as a service.

A Data Business, Not a Drone Business

Sanz says he got the idea while hanging out at a construction site, where workers were using their personal iPhone cameras from the ground as de facto data-collection tools. Like a lot of techies in Silicon Valley, he had long enjoyed hacking drones. He liked to tinker with the software they used to fly themselves, and at one point, he helped organize the popular DroneGames competition at the Maker Faire, the Valley’s premier festival of DIY geekitude. But he also believed that drones could be used for more than just fun, and he got a chance to prove it when the construction site’s superintendent asked a favor. Could drones take an aerial photo of the site, the superintendent asked, so he and his colleagues could track their progress?

Sanz took up the challenge, and it turned into a good two weeks of work, as the builders kept requesting new photos. A logistics manager, for instance, wanted to track the size of stockpiles to see when deliveries were made. Then, Sanz says, people started getting “lazy,” asking for photos they probably could have taken on their own. “It just became more efficient to be able to stay at their desks and see the imagery and just continue working,” Sanz explains.

‘It just became more efficient to be able to stay at their desks and see the imagery and just continue working.’

That was in January of last year. Since then, Skycatch has landed more than $16 million in funding from Google Ventures, Zappos co-founder Tony Hsieh, and other high-profile backers to pursue Sanz’s vision of drones-as-data-collection services. The company has landed major clients such as mining giant Rio Tinto and construction conglomerate Bouygues. In both of those industries, and several others, Sanz sees access to a recurrent stream of cheap aerial data as opening windows to new insights that would have been far too costly to consider obtaining by way of conventional aircraft.

Other uses at mines, he says, include monitoring for cracks that could turn into landslides and bury million-dollar pieces of equipment. Instead of sending people in person to measure slag heaps or check air quality data, a tiny drone can simply spend a few minutes in the air taking pictures. At one major construction project, Sanz says, a client is using multiple drones to track how quickly different sections of the project are moving along. These can be used, he says, to track daily progress as well as reconstruct the path of the project overall, down to minute movements of massive cranes. If someone wants to start tracking a new section or metric, the drones can be assigned new missions every day.

Much like web developers who tap online analytics tools to streamline their sites, Sanz uses the language of the cloud to describe Skycatch’s usefulness to the thousands of projects undertaken by global construction conglomerates. “If we could help optimize all of these construction sites around the world, that’s really our business,” he says. “We’re a data business, not a drone business.”

No Human Intervention

Skycatch primarily makes its money by charging for access to the data it collects and dashboards that use custom algorithms to glean insights from all those pictures. But developing new hardware is also an essential part of its business. At that first construction site, demand became so heavy, Sanz says, that he couldn’t keep up with flying the drone himself. That led to the development of standalone ground stations, landing platforms that can swap out the rechargeable batteries on the drones and download the data they collect. Radio beacons guide the drones down into the ground stations, where trapezoidal frames attached to the bottom of each drone settle into cone-shaped landing zones.

As long as they have a power source, the drones can take off and land indefinitely without direct human intervention.


Josh Valcarcel/WIRED

The ground stations are key to scaling drones as a data-collection tool, Sanz says. As long as they have a power source, the drones can take off and land indefinitely without direct human intervention. And it’s this automation that could turn them into a service that companies can use rather than maintaining their own expensive toys. Longer term, Skycatch is working on larger, fixed-wing gliders to gather high-altitude data on agriculture—drones that stay aloft for long periods of time riding thermals. While the data that its drones collect now is mostly visual, Sanz says, the future will likely also include data gathered using other kinds of sensors. For example, he says, Skycatch has had chats with one company that wants to use its drones to detect radiation. “That’s a perfect example of where you want to send a robot, not a human,” he says.

Federal Aviation Administration guidelines bar the commercial use of drones. But Sanz says that, so far, regulators have not tried to shut down any Skycatch projects, and that the company has had constructive talks with the FAA to keep its drones airborne. He points out that at large industrial sites, far more dangerous objects could fall from high places than a small quadcopter. “These are keeping people safer because it’s preventing them from going out there into areas that are actually really dangerous.”

That argument may or may not up at the FAA, but if Skycatch can avoid any regulatory backlash, its aerial drones can indeed provide a new prospective on what we’re doing down here on the ground. As anyone who’s ever flown in a plane knows, things look a lot different from up there. With help from Sanz and company, a lot of us will be able to get that view without having to go anywhere.

The Engineer on a Mission to Save the World From Buggy Software



All software has bugs. And as more companies adopt Facebook’s old “move fast and break things” motto, striving to expand the scope of their products as quickly as possible, we can only expect software to get buggier. But companies must also keep their applications running no matter what. That can put many coders in a bind.

Tal Weiss has experienced this problem firsthand. In 2007, he helped found Visual Tao, the maker of a web-based computer-aided drafting tool that was acquired by software giant Autodesk in 2009. Weiss and his team were under pressure to add new tools to the web application that could bring it in line with desktop software—without breaking the service for the 10 million professionals who used it. “I kind of likened the process of fixing these issues as doing open heart surgery on a train that’s running at 100 mph,” he says.

Now, after learning from these experiences, Weiss wants to make this kind of thing easier for other developers. With a new company called Takipi, he’s offering up a tool that helps developers quickly discover and analyze bugs in software that’s running on live servers.

‘Someone else, a partner or someone in another department of your company, may change something and it will break your system.’

It’s part of a recent wave of tools that aim to help developers track down bugs while they’re writing code. Things such as Light Table and the Interactive Playgrounds tool woven into Apple’s new Swift programming languages let you see the results of your code as you write it. But Weiss says that interactive debugging tools don’t provide much help once a program has moved from the development and testing stage to “real world” servers, in part because those tools would be a drag on server performance.

Ideally, errors can be spotted and fixed in a separate testing code base and then pushed back to the live web server. But it’s not always possible to find bugs in advance. Many problems in modern applications are caused by stuff that its developers didn’t actually build. “No software is an island,” he says. “You’re depending on code that’s being maintained by other people, such as third party software and APIs. Someone else, a partner or someone in another department of your company, may change something and it will break your system.” And of course, when you’re moving fast and breaking things, you can always expect to find many bugs that slipped by during testing.

Today, most developers troubleshoot bugs on live systems by pouring over server logs. There are tools that help automate that process, but Weiss says that Takipi goes further. It monitors for errors at the processor level. This not only reduces overhead, but also helps developers isolate the precise cause of an error, regardless of whether it was introduced by a company’s own developers or by a third-party application. And because Takipi is constantly collecting error data, it can spot problems before users do—at least in theory. Developers can view lists of errors ordered by date or category. They can also search the logs to see when an error first started occurring, and how often each error occurs. That makes it easier to prioritize bug fixes.

At the moment, Takipi only works with the Java programming language and Scala, a programming language that runs on the Java virtual machine. And it will probably stay that way until the company makes another big leap in code debugging. “Whatever we build,” Weiss says, “we want to bring a level of depth to it that really blows people away.”

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3-D Printed Fabric That’s Made of Yarn, But Can Stop a Knife

If a knife-wielding crackhead came at you swinging, chances are that grandma’s yarn basket wouldn’t be your choice of defensive technology. However unlikely, Royal College of Art student Oluwaseyi Sosanya believes three-dimensional doilies could be the ideal body armor for many first responders.


Sosanya has developed a new process that can 3-D print impact-resistant materials using cotton yarn, liquified silicon, and hardware from the Industrial Revolution. In much the same way Goretex keeps people dry, Sosanya wants his material to provide the first line of defense them from blunt impacts, stabs, and lacerations with a single, continuous line of yarn.

Sosanya began experimenting with traditional looms in collaboration with weaver Sophie Zajicek. The duo quickly discovered that two-dimensional tapestries wouldn’t be able to achieve their tactical goals and that a custom tool needed to be developed. “I had an idea and the awareness of what I wanted the final structures to look and work like,” he says. “I needed to build a machine that could execute what I had in mind, and beyond.”


By combining design concepts from domestic sewing and knittings machines with custom machine control software borrowed from 3-D printers, Sosanya was able to control the placement and structure of the yarn in three-dimensions. This freedom allows designs to create “crumple zones” that absorb and distribute force with minimal injury to the wearer.

In this new process, designers start with a standard CAD file and Sosanya’s software generates a weave pattern that can absorb and distribute a set amount of force. Each digital doily starts as a length of conventional cotton yarn that could be purchased at any craft store. A silicone binder is applied to the yarn as it’s being woven, imparting a springy property to the final piece while helping maintain the shape of the woven matrix.

The first demonstration of this is in a pair of shoes that have been outfitted with woven soles that have an unorthodox appearance, but posses performance characteristics similar to popular sneakers. Sosanya is especially keen to design form-fitting protective garments for female officers and soldiers who currently have to don effective, but uncomfortable gear.

The next step will be sourcing materials with application specific properties that will allow the woven materials to shrink into more wearable dimensions while also providing more protection from cuts. “The models I have created for the promotional material are exaggerated in order to illustrate the structures and their different qualities,” says Sosanya. A top-secret and patent-pending feature might even allow Sosanya to omit the binder in future revisions of the system leading to lighter and less expensive materials.

'Microbe sniffer' could point way to next-generation bio-refining

A new biosensor invented at the University of British Columbia could help optimize bio-refining processes that produce fuels, fine chemicals and advanced materials.

It works by sniffing out naturally occurring bacterial networks that are genetically wired to break down wood polymer.

"Nature has already invented microbial processes to degrade lignin--the tough polymer in wood and plant biomass that currently stymies industrial bio-refining," says UBC microbiologist Steven Hallam. "We needed to do the detective work, and develop the right toolkit, to isolate these processes in naturally occurring microbial communities from coal beds."

Developed by Hallam and his team, the biosensor screens DNA from environmental samples to isolate the lignin-busting genetic machinery encoded in the samples' resident microbes.

" "We've found that bacteria harness adaptive genetic circuits to break down lignin and that these circuits can be mobilized in nature via horizontal gene transfer," says Hallam. "Our biosensor and screening enables us to uncover this genetic network, and then further optimize it in the laboratory."

The improved understanding of adaptive, eco-engineered lignin transformation could also lead to more tunable industrial processes.

"We need to remain sensitive to the complexity of natural processes that act on lignin, but this project has unearthed some basic organizing principles that will also enable us to exploit microbial processes more quickly for any number of engineering applications," says UBC researcher Cameron Strachan. "It's a biological search function for biologists interested in harnessing naturally assembled genetic machinery."

The sensor, screening and adaptive genetic circuitry discovered with them have been licensed through the University Industry Liaison Office. A spin-off company, guided by the e@UBC program, is looking into ways to increase the scale of production of this technology.


The findings validating the screening were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The work was funded by Genome Canada, Genome BC and the Tula Foundation. Lignin, a promising and abundant feedstock, comprises up to 40 per cent of plant biomass. However lignin has so far resisted efficient decomposition into fuels, fine chemicals and advanced materials.

Most bio-refining agents are based on enzymes engineered from fungi. In this case, UBC researchers used the innovative screening approach to source and test genetic arrays from bacteria inhabiting coal beds. The biosensor reacts to a set of small molecules that are the residue of lignin's natural degradation process. The researchers surmised that coal -- ancient wood and plant biomass deposited before the evolution of fungal lignin degradation pathways -- might contain bacterial pathways involved in the transformation process.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Faculty of Science British Columbia . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

The Spy Thriller That Imagines James Bond as a Secretary


Image Comics

In the opening issue of the comic book Velvet, the secretary to the director of an elite British spy agency decides to go digging into the mysterious death of a secret agent. This, she learns, is a mistake, and soon enough she finds herself standing over a dead body, and framed for murder. “This is as bad as it gets, secretary,” says one of the armed men who bursts in to arrest her. “No,” she answers, “it isn’t.” Seconds later, every secret agent in the room is writhing on the floor, and she’s leaping out the window in a stealth suit.

Turns out this isn’t a story about Moneypenny, the secretary waiting for James Bond behind a desk at MI6. It’s a story that asks, what if a 40-something secretary was secretly James Bond all along?

Although writer Ed Brubaker has a long history of scripting espionage and crime comics—including the award-winning Criminal—he and Velvet artist Steve Epting are probably best known for their work on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the comicbook story that inspired the recent blockbuster film. (Brubaker even made a brief cameo as a scientist experimenting on the Winter Soldier.)

For Velvet, which comes out in its first collected edition today, Brubaker wanted to avoid superpowered overtones and play it straight with a Cold War-era story about a spy that nobody sees coming, even—or especially—all the spies around her.

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Image Comics

Brubaker has been toying with the idea for Velvet for almost eight years. He first came up with the concept while watching an episode of the late 1970s British spy drama The Sandbaggers, where the head of MI6 goes looking for a new secretary.

“You realize through the interview process how qualified the person needs to be in order to be the right hand of the person running the agency,” Brubaker says. “They have to know everything he needs to know, and weed out the stuff that’s not important. They end up being one of the most knowledgeable, important people in the agency, and yet they’re just looked at by the rest of the world like the secretary outside Don Draper’s office.”

When he considered most spy movies and novels, he realized that they tended to look at female characters in the same way: as secretaries sitting behind desks, ornamental Bond girls, or sexualized villains. “It just seemed like such bullshit,” says Brubaker. But for him, it was bullshit that came with a silver lining: “There was so much fertile ground there to explore.”

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Image Comics

Part of Brubaker’s interest in espionage comes from a family history in spycraft. “My uncle was in the CIA and my dad was pretty high up in naval intelligence during the ’60s and early ’70s,” he says. “I grew up going to family events and hearing all these crazy stories about Vietnam. Nobody thought we were listening but we were soaking it all up. Whenever my dad would take me to spy movies, he would tell me afterwards all the stuff that was totally incorrect. He’d point me to the spy books that he thought got it right.”

Velvet also finds her way to the world of espionage though a family connection. Although she grows up primarily at a boarding school in Switzerland, we learn that during holidays with her father, a World War II-era diplomat, she would read through his files after he fell asleep, learning about the spy operations of WWII—and the incredible women involved with them.

“I didn’t want there to have to be some tragedy in Velvet’s life that made her want to be a spy, like terrorists killed her father or something,” says Brubaker. “I like the idea of a little girl going through her dad’s stuff and finding out there are women spies who are these awesome fucking heroes, and wanting to be like that. That’s totally what you’d do if your dad were a diplomat during WWII—wait till he passed out and dig through his shit. That’s what I’d do.”

“The unexplored perspective is always the more interesting. If I wanted to write an Encyclopedia Brown story, I’d write it from the point of view of Sally. If I wanted to write a Sherlock Holmes story, I’d write it from the point of view of Watson.”

— Ed Brubaker

Although most of Velvet’s work as a spy took place in the ’50s and ’60s, when we meet her as a secretary (and we still don’t know why she’s a secretary) it’s the early ’70s—not coincidentally, the era when the feminist revolution went mainstream. She’s in her mid-40s, and no one around her—save the director and a handful of others—have any idea about her past.

“I loved the idea of flipping the typical male-oriented spy story, and doing one about a woman who was also a mature, middle-aged woman,” says Brubaker. He saw the character’s age as fundamental to the story; it helped cement her as mature, seasoned rather than a vulnerable young woman-in-danger, and it allowed her to have a deeper, richer history as a spy. “In the espionage field, it totally makes sense that someone could have a secret history; they could have a job for 20 years that turns out to be a front, basically,” says Brubaker. “But it has to be someone who’s lived a real life.”

When he started pitching the concept as a TV pilot, however, Velvet’s age turned out to be more controversial than expected. “The notes that we got from everybody were that she needed to be 25, and an agent-in-training learning from the cool male secret agent. I was just like ‘OK, this is… just appalling to me,’” Rather than a character that had lived a real life, they wanted a woman 20 years younger, stripped of Velvet’s expertise and maturity. “Imagine Taken, if Liam Neeson’s character were 30,” he adds. “It’s just not the same movie.”

Brubaker recalls one of his favorite actors, Diane Lane, talking about how all the good roles seemed to evaporate after she turned 40, leaving nothing but moms or jilted wives left for younger women. “How is it possible that nobody wants to write an amazing part for a woman that’s not basically a kid? Most of the [male] actors we see in the world are in their 40s, or late 30s,” he says. “You don’t see the person who chose to be James Bond but also happens to be a woman.”

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Image Comics

As one might expect in a story about an aging spy, Velvet is a story that’s interested in aftermath. It deals not just with what happens to the spies during their thrilling missions, but what happens to them afterwards: how they survive after they survive.

In a later issue, Velvet goes searching for the killer of a handsome, Bond-esque British spook, and tracks the wife of a Yugoslavian general, a woman the spy once seduced for information. She soon learns that the woman was sent to languish in a brutal prison for her betrayal. “That was me thinking, what happens to the women who get seduced by spies and give up state secrets?” Brubaker says. “We never see them again, but what happens to them after the spies go home? They’re probably in prison waiting to die.”

The untold stories of women like that general’s wife—and Velvet—are missed opportunities to Brubaker. “The unexplored perspective is always the more interesting,” he says. “If I wanted to write an Encyclopedia Brown story, I’d write it from the point of view of Sally. If I wanted to write a Sherlock Holmes story, I’d write it from the point of view of Watson.”

For many of the WWII-era female spies whom Brubaker researched, leaving the world of espionage was particularly difficult because returning to “normal” life also meant returning to the social limitations that circumscribed the lives of women at the time. He mentions The Bletchley Circle, a British television drama about female codebreakers from World War II and their struggle with settling down as housewives after the war.

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Image Comics

“They want excitement; they want that part of their life back,” he says. “They were integral to winning the war, but they can’t even tell anybody because it’s part of the Official Secrets Act. So nobody knows how awesome they really are.”

Brubaker conjures a very superheroic metaphor to illustrate the idea: “What if you had superpowers, and then they suddenly they went away? Life would suck after that, because you used to be able to fly,” he says. “It’s that idea of having to go back to normal life after doing something bigger than that. That’s part of being a mature, mid-40s character, and what a lot of what mid-life crises are about. Those points in your life where you think, did I peak?”

After a destructive high speed chase that ends with numerous men in the hospital and Velvet on the run, we see a bruised and battered spy puffing on a cigarette, trying to make sense of it all. “Just who exactly is she, sir?” he asks. “Because she sure as hell isn’t any secretary.” Cut to a picture of Velvet, smiling as she speeds away on a stolen motorcycle.

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Image Comics