Tag Archives: surveillance

Surprise: telepresent Ed Snowden at TED 2014′s Session 2: Retrospect

The first session (Retrospect) this morning held a few surprises, i.e, unexpected speakers, Brian Greene and Ed Snowden (whistleblower re: extensive and [illegal or nonlegal?] surveillance by the US National Security Agency [NSA]). I’m not sure how Snowden fits into the session theme of Retrospect but I think that’s less the point than the sheer breathtaking surprise and his topic’s importance to current public discourse around much of the globe.

Snowden is mostly focused on PRISM (from its Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

PRISM is a clandestine mass electronic surveillance data mining program launched in 2007 by the National Security Agency (NSA), with participation from an unknown date by the British equivalent agency, GCHQ.[1][2][3] PRISM is a government code name for a data-collection effort known officially by the SIGAD US-984XN.[4][5] The Prism program collects stored Internet communications based on demands made to Internet companies such as Google Inc. and Apple Inc. under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 to turn over any data that match court-approved search terms.[6] The NSA can use these Prism requests to target communications that were encrypted when they traveled across the Internet backbone, to focus on stored data that telecommunication filtering systems discarded earlier,[7][8] and to get data that is easier to handle, among other things.[9]

He also described Boundless Informant in response to a question from the session co-moderator, Chris Anderson (from its Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Boundless Informant or BOUNDLESSINFORMANT is a big data analysis and data visualization tool used by the United States National Security Agency (NSA). It gives NSA managers summaries of the NSA’s world wide data collection activities by counting metadata.[1] The existence of this tool was disclosed by documents leaked by Edward Snowden, who worked at the NSA for the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.[2]

Anderson asks Snowden, “Why should we care [about increased surveillance]? After all we’re not doing anything wrong.” Snowden response notes that we have a right to privacy and that our actions can be misinterpreted or used against us at any time, present or future.

Anderson mentions Dick Cheney and Snowden notes that Cheney has in the past made some overblown comments about Assange which he (Cheney) now dismisses in the face of what he now considers to be Snowden’s greater trespass.

Snowden is now commenting on the NSA’s attempt to undermine internet security by misleading their partners. He again makes a plea for privacy. He also notes that US security has largely been defensive, i.e., protection against other countries’ attempts to get US secrets. These latest programmes change US security from a defensive strategy to an offensive strategy (football metaphor). These changes have been made without public scrutiny.

Anderson asks Snowden about his personal safety.  His response (more or less), “I go to sleep every morning thinking about what I can do to help the American people. … I’m happy to do what I can.”

Anderson asks the audience members whether they think Snowden’s was a reckless act or an heroic act. Some hands go up for reckless, more hands go up for heroic, and many hands remain still.

Snowden, “We need to keep the internet safe for us and if we don’t act we will lose our freedom.”

Anderson asks Tim Berners-Lee to come up to the stage and the discussion turns to his (Berners-Lee) proposal for a Magna Carta for the internet.

Tim Berners-Lee biography from his Wikipedia entry,

Sir Timothy John “Tim” Berners-Lee, OM, KBE, FRS, FREng, FRSA, DFBCS (born 8 June 1955), also known as “TimBL”, is a British computer scientist, best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web. He made a proposal for an information management system in March 1989,[4] and he implemented the first successful communication between a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) client and server via the Internet sometime around mid November.[5][6][7][8][9]

Berners-Lee is the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which oversees the Web’s continued development. He is also the founder of the World Wide Web Foundation, and is a senior researcher and holder of the Founders Chair at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).[10] He is a director of the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI),[11] and a member of the advisory board of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence.[12][13]

The Magna Carta (from its Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Magna Carta (Latin for Great Charter),[1] also called Magna Carta Libertatum or The Great Charter of the Liberties of England, is an Angevin charter originally issued in Latin in June 1215. It was sealed under oath by King John at Runnymede, on the bank of the River Thames near Windsor, England at June 15, 1215.[2]

Magna Carta was the first document forced onto a King of England by a group of his subjects, the feudal barons, in an attempt to limit his powers by law and protect their rights.

The charter is widely known throughout the English speaking world as an important part of the protracted historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law in England and beyond.

When asked by Anderson if he would return to the US if given amnesty, Snowden says yes as long as he can continue his work. He’s not willing to trade his work of bringing these issues to the public forefront in order to go home again.

German nanotechnology industry mood lightens

A March 11, 2014 news item on Nanowerk proclaims a mood change for some sectors, including nanotechnology, of German industry,

For the German companies dealing with microtechnology, nanotechnology, advanced materials and optical technologies, business in 2013 has developed just as the industry had predicted earlier that year: at a constant level. But things are supposed to get better in 2014. The companies do not expect an enormous growth, but they are more positive than they have been ever since the outbreak of the financial and economic crisis. Orders, production and sales figures are expected to rise noticeably in 2014. Areas excluded from an optimistic outlook are staff and financing: the numbers of employees is likely to remain static in 2014 while the funding situation might even reach a new low.

The March 11, 2014 IVAN news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about this change of mood,

The situation and mood of the micro- and nanotechnology industry, which the IVAM Microtechnology Network queried in a recent economic data survey, coincides with the overall economic development in Germany and general forecasts for 2014. According to publications of the German Federal Statistical Office, the gross domestic product in Germany has grown by only 0.4 percent in 2013 – the lowest growth since the crisis year 2009. For 2014, the Ifo Institute predicts a strong growth for the German economy. Especially exports are expected to increase.

The German micro- and nanotechnology industry is expecting increases during 2014 above all in the area of orders. Production and sales are likely to rise for more than 60 percent of companies each. But just a quarter of companies intend to hire more staff. Only one tenth of companies expect increases in the field of financing. Nevertheless, 30 percent of companies are planning to make investments, which is a higher proportion than in previous years.

The new research funding program of the European Union, Horizon 2020, has aroused certain hopes of enhancing financing opportunities for innovation projects. Compared to the 7th Framework Program, Horizon 2020 is designed in a way that means to facilitate access to EU funding for small and medium-sized enterprises. Especially small companies are still a little sceptical in this regard.

In the IVAM survey, 43 percent of micro- and nanotechnology companies say that EU funding is essential for them in order to implement their innovation projects. Three quarter of companies are planning to apply for funds from the new program. But only 23 percent of companies think that their opportunities to obtain EU funding have improved with Horizon 2020. Many small high-tech enterprises presume that the application still takes too much time and effort. However, since the program had just started at the time of survey, there are no experiences that might confirm or refute these first impressions.

The NSA surveillance scandal has caused a great insecurity among the micro- and nanotechnology companies in Germany concerning the safety of their technical knowledge. The majority of respondents (54 percent) would not even make a guess at whether their company’s know-how is safe from spying. A quarter of companies believe that they are sufficiently safe from spying. Only 21 percent are convinced that they do not have adequate protection. A little more than a third of companies have drawn consequences from the NSA scandal and taken steps to enhance the safety of their data.

Most companies agree that each company is responsible to ensure the best possible safety of its data. But still, almost 90 percent demand that authorities like national governments and the European Commission should intervene and impose stricter regulations. They feel that although each company bears a partial responsibility, the state must also fulfil its responsibilities, establish a clear legal framework for data security, make sure that regulations are complied with, and impose sanctions when they are not.

IVAM has provided this chart amongst others to illustrate their data,

Courtesy: IVAM. [downloaded from http://www.ivam.de/news/pm_ivam_survey_2014]

Courtesy: IVAM. [downloaded from http://www.ivam.de/news/pm_ivam_survey_2014]

You can access the 2014 IVAM survey from this page.

Robotic sea jellies (jellyfish) and carbon nanotubes

After my recent experience at the Vancouver Aquarium (Jan.19.12 posting) where I was informed that jellyfish are now called sea jellies, I was not expecting to see the term jellyfish still in use. I gather the new name is not being used universally yet, which explains the title for a March 23, 2012 news item on Nanowerk, Robotic jellyfish built on nanotechnology,

Researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas and Virginia Tech have created an undersea vehicle inspired by the common jellyfish that runs on renewable energy and could be used in ocean rescue and surveillance missions.

In a study published this week in Smart Materials and Structures (“Hydrogen-fuel-powered bell segments of biomimetic jellyfish”), scientists created a robotic jellyfish, dubbed Robojelly, that feeds off hydrogen and oxygen gases found in water.

“We’ve created an underwater robot that doesn’t need batteries or electricity,” said Dr. Yonas Tadesse, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UT Dallas and lead author of the study. “The only waste released as it travels is more water.”

Engineers and scientists have increasingly turned to nature for inspiration when creating new technologies. The simple yet powerful movement of the moon jellyfish made it an appealing animal to simulate.

The March 22, 2012 press release from the University of Texas at Dallas features images and a video in addition to its text. From the press release,

The Robojelly consists of two bell-like structures made of silicone that fold like an umbrella. Connecting the umbrella are muscles that contract to move.

Here’s a computer-aided image,

A computer-aided model of Robojelly shows the vehicle's two bell-like structures.

Here’s what the robojelly looks like,

The Robojelly, shown here out of water, has an outer structure made out of silicone.

This robojelly differs from the original model,which was battery-powered. Here’s a video of the original robojelly,

The new robojelly has artificial muscles(from the Mar. 22, 2012 University of Texas at Dallas press release),

In this study, researchers upgraded the original, battery-powered Robojelly to be self-powered. They did that through a combination of high-tech materials, including artificial muscles that contract when heated.

These muscles are made of a nickel-titanium alloy wrapped in carbon nanotubes, coated with platinum and housed in a pipe. As the mixture of hydrogen and oxygen encounters the platinum, heat and water vapor are created. That heat causes a contraction that moves the muscles of the device, pumping out the water and starting the cycle again.

“It could stay underwater and refuel itself while it is performing surveillance,” Tadesse said.

In addition to military surveillance, Tadesse said, the device could be used to detect pollutants in water.

This is a study that has been funded by the US Office of Naval Research. At the next stage, researchers want to make the robojelly’s legs work independently so it can travel in more than one direction.

DARPA/Google and Regina Dugan

One of my more recent (Nov. 22, 2011) postings on DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) highlighted their entrepreneurial focus and the person encouraging that focus, agency director Regina Dugan. Given that she’s held the position for roughly 2.5 years, I was surprised to see that she has left to joint Google. From the Mar.13, 2012 news item on physorg.com,

Google on Monday [March 12, 2012] confirmed that Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency chief Regina Dugan is taking a yet-to-be-revealed role at the Internet powerhouse.

Dugan’s Wikipedia entry has already been updated,

Regina E. Dugan was the 19th Director of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). She was appointed to that position on July 20, 2009. In March 2012, she left her position to take an executive role at Google. She was the first female director of DARPA.

Much of her working career (1996-2012) seems to have been spent at DARPA. I don’t think I’m going to draw too many conclusions from this move but I am intrigued especially in light of an essay about a departing Google employee, James Whitaker. From Whitaker’s March 13, 2012 posting on his JW on Tech blog,

The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.

Technically I suppose Google has always been an advertising company, but for the better part of the last three years, it didn’t feel like one. Google was an ad company only in the sense that a good TV show is an ad company: having great content attracts advertisers.

He lays out the situation here,

It turns out that there was one place where the Google innovation machine faltered and that one place mattered a lot: competing with Facebook. Informal efforts produced a couple of antisocial dogs in Wave and Buzz. Orkut never caught on outside Brazil. Like the proverbial hare confident enough in its lead to risk a brief nap, Google awoke from its social dreaming to find its front runner status in ads threatened.

Google could still put ads in front of more people than Facebook, but Facebook knows so much more about those people. Advertisers and publishers cherish this kind of personal information, so much so that they are willing to put the Facebook brand before their own. Exhibit A: www.facebook.com/nike, a company with the power and clout of Nike putting their own brand after Facebook’s? No company has ever done that for Google and Google took it personally.

Larry Page himself assumed command to right this wrong. Social became state-owned, a corporate mandate called Google+. It was an ominous name invoking the feeling that Google alone wasn’t enough. Search had to be social. Android had to be social. You Tube, once joyous in their independence, had to be … well, you get the point.  [emphasis mine] Even worse was that innovation had to be social. Ideas that failed to put Google+ at the center of the universe were a distraction.

That point about YouTube really strikes home as I’ve become quite dismayed with the advertising on the videos. The consequence is that I’m starting to search for clips on Vimeo first as it doesn’t have intrusive advertising.

Getting back to Whitaker, he notes this about Google and advertising,

The old Google made a fortune on ads because they had good content. It was like TV used to be: make the best show and you get the most ad revenue from commercials. The new Google seems more focused on the commercials themselves.

It’s interesting to contrast Whitaker’s take on the situation, which suggests that the company has lost its entrepreneurial spirit as it focuses on advertising, with the company’s latest hire, Regina Dugan who seems to have introduced entrepreneurship into DARPA’s activities.

As for the military connection (DARPA is US Dept. of Defense agency), I remain mindful that the military and the intelligence communities have an interest in gathering data but would need something more substantive than a hiring decision to draw any conclusions.

For anyone who’s interested in these types of queries, I would suggest reading a 2007 posting, Facebook, the CIA, and You on the Brainsturbator blog, for a careful unpacking of the connections (extremely tenuous) between Facebook and the CIA (US Central Intelligence Agency). The blog owner and essayist, Jordan Boland, doesn’t dismiss the surveillance concern; he’s simply pointing out that it’s difficult to make an unequivocal claim while displaying a number of intriguing connections between agencies and organizations.

DARPA and the Panopticon

Before I get to DARPA’s (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) new spy satellite, here’s a brief description of the Panopticon from the Wikipedia essay,

The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.

Although the Panopticon prison design did not come to fruition during Bentham’s time, it has been seen as an important development. It was invoked by Michel Foucault (in Discipline and Punish) as metaphor for modern “disciplinary” societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and normalise. Foucault proposes that not only prisons but all hierarchical structures like the army, schools, hospitals and factories have evolved through history to resemble Bentham’s Panopticon. The notoriety of the design today (although not its lasting influence in architectural realities) stems from Foucault’s famous analysis of it.

Building on Foucault, contemporary social critics often assert that technology has allowed for the deployment of panoptic structures invisibly throughout society. [emphasis mine] Surveillance by closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in public spaces is an example of a technology that brings the gaze of a superior into the daily lives of the populace. Furthermore, a number of cities in the United Kingdom, including Middlesbrough, Bristol, Brighton and London have recently added loudspeakers to a number of their existing CCTV cameras. They can transmit the voice of a camera supervisor to issue audible messages to the public. Similarly,critical analyses of internet practice have suggested that the internet allows for a panopticon form of observation. ISPs are able to track users’ activities, while user-generated content means that daily social activity may be recorded and broadcast online.

And now,  DARPA’s new satellite as described by Nancy Atkinson (Universe Today) in a Dec. 21, 2011 news item on Physorg,

“It sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake” could be the theme song for a new spy satellite being developed by DARPA. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s latest proof-of-concept project is called the Membrane Optical Imager for Real-Time Exploitation (MOIRE), and would provide real-time images and video of any place on Earth at any time — a capability that, so far, only exists in the realm of movies and science fiction. The details of this huge eye-in-the-sky look like something right out of science fiction, as well, and it would be interesting to determine if it could have applications for astronomy as well.

It’s not here yet (from the physorg.com news item),

The MOIRE program began in March 2010 is now in the first phase of development, where DARPA is testing the concept’s viability. Phase 2 would entail system design, with Ball Aerospace doing the design and building to test a 16-foot (5 m) telescope, and an option for a Phase 3 …

You can read more about the MOIRE program here and about Universe Today here.

Surveillance by design and by accident

In general, one thinks of surveillance as an activity undertaken by the military or the police or some other arm of the state (a spy agency of some kind). The  Nano Hummingbird, a drone from AeroVironment designed for the US Pentagon, would fit into any or all of those categories.

AeroVironment's hummingbird drone // Source: suasnews.com (downloaded from Homeland Security Newswire)

You can see the device in action here,

The inset screen shows you what is being seen via the hummingbird’s camera, while the larger screen image allows you to observe the Nano Hummingbird in action. I don’t know why they’ve used the word nano as part of the product unless it is for marketing purposes. The company’s description of the product is at a fairly high level and makes no mention of the technology, nano or otherwise, that makes the hummingbird drone’s capabilities possible (from the company’s Nano Hummingbird webpage),

AV [AeroVironment] is developing the Nano Air Vehicle (NAV) under a DARPA sponsored research contract to develop a new class of air vehicle systems capable of indoor and outdoor operation. Employing biological mimicry at an extremely small scale, this unconventional aircraft could someday provide new reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities in urban environments.

The Nano Hummingbird could be described as a traditional form surveillance as could the EyeSwipe iris scanners (mentioned in my Dec. 10, 2010 posting). The EyeSwipe allows the police, military, or other state agencies to track you with cameras that scan your retinas (they’ve had trials of this technology in Mexico).

A provocative piece by Nic Fleming for the journal, New Scientist, takes this a step further. Smartphone surveillance: The cop in your pocket can be found in the July 30, 2011 issue of New Scientist (preview here; the whole article is behind a paywall),

While many of us use smartphones to keep our social lives in order, they are also turning out to be valuable tools for gathering otherwise hard-to-get data. The latest smartphones bristle with sensors …

Apparently the police are wanting to crowdsource surveillance by having members of the public use their smartphones to track licence plate numbers, etc. and notify the authorities. Concerns about these activities are noted both in Fleming article and in the August 10, 2011 posting on the Foresight Institute blog,

“Christine Peterson, president of the Foresight Institute based in Palo Alto, California, warns that without safeguards, the data we gather about each other might one day be used to undermine rather than to protect our freedom. ‘We are moving to a new level of data collection that our society is not accustomed to,’ she says.”

Peterson’s comments about data collection struck me most particularly as I’ve noticed over the last several months a number of applications designed to make life ‘easier’ that also feature data collection (i. e., collection of one’s personal data). For example, there’s Percolate. From the July 7, 2011 article by Austin Carr for Fast Company,

Percolate, currently in its “double secret alpha” version, is a blogging platform that provides curated content for you to write about. The service taps into your RSS and Twitter feeds, culls content based on your interests–the stuff that “percolates up”–and then offers you the ability to share your thoughts on the subject with friends. “We’re trying to make it easy for anyone to create content,” Brier says, “to take away from the frustration of staring at that blank box and trying to figure out what to say.”

It not only removes the frustration, it removes at least some of the impetus for creativity. The service is being framed as a convenience. Coincidentally, it makes much easier for marketers or any one or any agency to track your activities.

This data collection can get a little more intimate than just your Twitter and RSS feeds. Your underwear can monitor your bodily functions (from the June 11, 2010 news item on Nanowerk),

A team of U.S. scientists has designed some new men’s briefs that may be comfortable, durable and even stylish but, unlike most underpants, may be able to save lives.

Printed on the waistband and in constant contact with the skin is an electronic biosensor, designed to measure blood pressure, heart rate and other vital signs.

The technology, developed by nano-engineering professor Joseph Wang of University of California San Diego and his team, breaks new ground in the field of intelligent textiles and is part of shift in focus in healthcare from hospital-based treatment to home-based management.

The method is similar to conventional screen-printing although the ink contains carbon electrodes.

The project is being funded by the U.S. military with American troops likely to be the first recipients.

“This specific project involves monitoring the injury of soldiers during battlefield surgery and the goal is to develop minimally invasive sensors that can locate, in the field, and identify the type of injury,” Wang told Reuters Television.

I realize that efforts such as the ‘smart underpants’ are developed with good intentions but if the data can be used to monitor your health status, it can be used to monitor you for other reasons.

While the military can insist its soldiers be monitored, civilian efforts are based on incentives. For example, Foodzy is an application that makes dieting fun. From the July 7, 2011 article by Morgan Clendaniel on Fast Company,

As more and more people join (Foodzy is aiming for 30,000 users by the end of the year and 250,000 by the end of 2012), you’ll also start being able to see what your friends are eating. This could be a good way to keep your intake of bits down, not wanting to embarrass yourself in front of your friends as you binge on some cookies, but Kamphuis [Marjolijn Kamphuis is one of the founders] sees a more social aspect to it: “On my dashboard I am able to see what the ‘food match’ between me and my friends is, the same way Last.FM has been comparing me and my friend’s music taste for ages! I am now able to share recipes with my friends or hook up with them in real life for dinner because I notice we have similar taste.”

That sure takes the discovery/excitement aspect out of getting to know someone. As I noted with my comments about Percolate, with more of our lives being mediated by applications of this nature, the easier we are to track.

Along a parallel track, there’s a campaign to remove anonymity and/or pseudonymity from the Internet. As David Sirota notes in his August 12, 2011 Salon essay about this trend, the expressed intention is to ensure civility and minimize bullying but there is at least one other consequence,

The big potential benefit of users having to attach real identities to their Internet personas is more constructive dialogue.

As Zuckerberg [Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook executive] and Schmidt [Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO]  correctly suggest, online anonymity is primarily used by hate-mongers to turn constructive public discourse into epithet-filled diatribes. Knowing they are shielded from consequences, trolls feel empowered to spew racist, sexist and other socially unacceptable rhetoric that they’d never use offline. …

The downside, though, is that true whistle-blowers will lose one of their most essential tools.

Though today’s journalists often grant establishment sources anonymity to attack weaker critics, anonymity’s real social value is rooted in helping the powerless challenge the powerful. Think WikiLeaks, which exemplifies how online anonymity provides insiders the cover they need to publish critical information without fear of retribution. Eliminating such cover will almost certainly reduce the kind of leaks that let the public occasionally see inconvenient truths.

It’s not always about whistleblowing, some people prefer pseudonyms.  Science writer and blogger, GrrlScientist, recently suffered a blow to her pseudonymity which was administered by Google (from her July 16, 2011 posting on the Guardian science blogs),

One week ago, my entire Google account was deactivated suddenly and without warning. I was not allowed to access gmail nor any other Google service until I surrendered my personal telephone number in exchange for reinstating access to my gmail account. I still cannot access many of my other accounts, such as Google+, Reader and Buzz. My YouTube account remains locked, too.

I was never notified as to what specifically had warranted this unexpected deactivation of my account. I only learned a few hours later that my account was shut down due to the name I use on my profile page, which you claim is a violation of your “community standards”. However, as stated on your own “display name” pages, I have not violated your community standards. I complied with your stated request: my profile name is “the name that [I] commonly go by in daily life.”

My name is a pseudonym, as I openly state on my profile. I have used GrrlScientist as my pseudonym since 2000 and it has a long track record. I have given public lectures in several countries, received mail in two countries, signed contracts, received monetary payments, published in a number of venues and been interviewed for news stories – all using my pseudonym. A recent Google search shows that GrrlScientist, as spelled, is unique in the world. This meets at least two of your stated requirements; (1) I am not impersonating anyone and (2) my name represents just one person.

GrrlScientist is not the only writer who prefers a pseudonym. Mark Twain did too. His real name was Samuel J. Clemens but widely known as Mark Twain, he was the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and many more books, short stories, and essays.

Minimzing bullying, ensuring civility, monitoring vital signs in battle situations, encouraging people to write, helping a friend stay on diet are laudable intentions but all of this leads to more data being collected about us and the potential for abusive use of this data.

EyeSwipe nano: harbinger for the future?

The promise is always that technology will make it better—whatever it may be. Austin Carr’s article, EyeSwipe Nano: Cheap, Dollar Bill-Size Iris Scanner Replaces Card Reader Apps on the Fast Company website, is touting a new iris scanner, which has the word nano in it for the same reason Apple calls one of their products iPod Nano—good marketing (from the article),

“This is going to put the ability to do a biometric scan in the hands of virtually everyone in the world for a price that is comparable and competitive to card readers,” says company [Hoyos Corporation] CDO Jeff Carter, explaining that orders at volume will make the Nano a sub-thousand dollar product. “The Nano has roughly the footprint of a dollar bill, and I think it’s going to allow us to target virtually everything–any applications where you’d have a typical card reader, whether entry to office buildings or banks or apartments.”

Carter says the company’s scanners have already received “tons and tons of business” from around the globe, and pre-orders for the Nano, which begin today, will ship by the end of January. Between the EyeSwipe Nano and EyeSwipe Mini, it almost feels the company is modeling its products and names after Apple’s–don’t the iPod Nano and EyeSwipe Nano have a similar ring? And perhaps it’s no coincidence: Thanks to the device’s shrinking size, Carter says the companies next step is entering the mobile space, allowing Big Brother to scan your eyes on the go.

Carter is not fantasizing as there is a city in Mexico (Leon) which is already testing installations of earlier and current models of the company’s scanners. From an Aug. 18, 2010 article by Austin Carr on the Fast Company website,

Biometrics R&D firm Global Rainmakers Inc. (GRI) [now called Hoyos Corporation] announced today that it is rolling out its iris scanning technology to create what it calls “the most secure city in the world.” In a partnership with Leon — one of the largest cities in Mexico, with a population of more than a million — GRI will fill the city with eye-scanners. That will help law enforcement revolutionize the way we live – not to mention marketers. [emphases mine]

“In the future, whether it’s entering your home, opening your car, entering your workspace, getting a pharmacy prescription refilled, or having your medical records pulled up, everything will come off that unique key that is your iris,” says Jeff Carter, CDO of Global Rainmakers. Before coming to GRI, Carter headed a think tank partnership between Bank of America, Harvard, and MIT. “Every person, place, and thing on this planet will be connected [to the iris system] within the next 10 years,” he says.

Carter has more to say,

Leon is the first step. To implement the system, the city is creating a database of irises. Criminals will automatically be enrolled, their irises scanned once convicted. Law-abiding citizens will have the option to opt-in.

When these residents catch a train or bus, or take out money from an ATM, they will scan their irises, rather than swiping a metro or bank card. Police officers will monitor these scans and track the movements of watch-listed individuals. “Fraud, which is a $50 billion problem, will be completely eradicated,” says Carter. Not even the “dead eyeballs” seen in Minority Report could trick the system, he says. “If you’ve been convicted of a crime, in essence, this will act as a digital scarlet letter. If you’re a known shoplifter, for example, you won’t be able to go into a store without being flagged. For others, boarding a plane will be impossible.”

It’s definitely an eye-opening view of the future (pun intended).  As for not being able to trick the system—there’s always, always a way. And, there’s always a way to abuse it.

Carter’s belief that most people will want to opt in to the system, i.e., voluntarily have their irises scanned is a distinct possibility. After all great swathes of the population have opted into points systems (handed over personal data for tracking purposes) so they can get reduced prices on groceries, airplane miles, etc.

Dr. Wei Lu, the memristor, and the cat brain; military surveillance takes a Star Trek: Next Generation turn with a medieval twist; archiving tweets; patents and innovation

Last week I featured the ‘memristor’ story mentioning that much of the latest excitement was set off by Dr. Wei Lu’s work at the University of Michigan (U-M). While HP Labs was the center for much of the interest, it was Dr. Lu’s work (published in Nano Letters which is available behind a paywall) that provoked the renewed interest. Thanks to this news item on Nanowerk, I’ve now found more details about Dr. Lu and his team’s work,

U-M computer engineer Wei Lu has taken a step toward developing this revolutionary type of machine that could be capable of learning and recognizing, as well as making more complex decisions and performing more tasks simultaneously than conventional computers can.

Lu previously built a “memristor,” a device that replaces a traditional transistor and acts like a biological synapse, remembering past voltages it was subjected to. Now, he has demonstrated that this memristor can connect conventional circuits and support a process that is the basis for memory and learning in biological systems.

Here’s where it gets interesting,

In a conventional computer, logic and memory functions are located at different parts of the circuit and each computing unit is only connected to a handful of neighbors in the circuit. As a result, conventional computers execute code in a linear fashion, line by line, Lu said. They are excellent at performing relatively simple tasks with limited variables.

But a brain can perform many operations simultaneously, or in parallel. That’s how we can recognize a face in an instant, but even a supercomputer would take much, much longer and consume much more energy in doing so.

So far, Lu has connected two electronic circuits with one memristor. He has demonstrated that this system is capable of a memory and learning process called “spike timing dependent plasticity.” This type of plasticity refers to the ability of connections between neurons to become stronger based on when they are stimulated in relation to each other. Spike timing dependent plasticity is thought to be the basis for memory and learning in mammalian brains.

“We show that we can use voltage timing to gradually increase or decrease the electrical conductance in this memristor-based system. In our brains, similar changes in synapse conductance essentially give rise to long term memory,” Lu said.

Do visit Nanowerk for the full explanation provided by Dr. Lu, if you’re so inclined. In one of my earlier posts about this I speculated that this work was being funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) which is part of the US Dept. of Defense . Happily, I found this at the end of today’s news item,

Lu said an electronic analog of a cat brain would be able to think intelligently at the cat level. For example, if the task were to find the shortest route from the front door to the sofa in a house full of furniture, and the computer knows only the shape of the sofa, a conventional machine could accomplish this. But if you moved the sofa, it wouldn’t realize the adjustment and find a new path. That’s what engineers hope the cat brain computer would be capable of. The project’s major funder, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [emphasis mine], isn’t interested in sofas. But this illustrates the type of learning the machine is being designed for.

I previously mentioned the story here on April 8, 2010 and provided links that led to other aspects of the story as I and others have covered it.

Military surveillance

Named after a figure in Greek mythology, Argos Panoptes (the sentry with 100 eyes), there are two new applications being announced by researchers in a news item on Azonano,

Researchers are expanding new miniature camera technology for military and security uses so soldiers can track combatants in dark caves or urban alleys, and security officials can unobtrusively identify a subject from an iris scan.

The two new surveillance applications both build on “Panoptes,” a platform technology developed under a project led by Marc Christensen at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The Department of Defense is funding development of the technology’s first two extension applications with a $1.6 million grant.

The following  image, which accompanies the article at the Southern Methodist University (SMU) website, features an individual who suggests a combination of the Geordi character in Star Trek: The Next Generation with his ‘sensing visor’ and a medieval knight in full armour wearing his helmet with the visor down.

Soldier wearing helmet with hi-res "eyes" courtesy of Southern Methodist University Research

From the article on the SMU site,

“The Panoptes technology is sufficiently mature that it can now leave our lab, and we’re finding lots of applications for it,” said ‘Marc’ Christensen [project leader], an expert in computational imaging and optical interconnections. “This new money will allow us to explore Panoptes’ use for non-cooperative iris recognition systems for Homeland Security and other defense applications. And it will allow us to enhance the camera system to make it capable of active illumination so it can travel into dark places — like caves and urban areas.”

Well, there’s nothing like some non-ccoperative retinal scanning. In fact, you won’t know that the scanning is taking place if they’re successful  with their newest research which suggests the panopticon, a concept from Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century about prison surveillance which takes place without the prisoners being aware of the surveillance (Wikipedia essay here).

Archiving tweets

The US Library of Congress has just announced that it will be saving (archiving) all the ‘tweets’ that have been sent since Twitter launched four years ago. From the news item on physorg.com,

“Library to acquire ENTIRE Twitter archive — ALL public tweets, ever, since March 2006!” the Washington-based library, the world’s largest, announced in a message on its Twitter account at Twitter.com/librarycongress.

“That’s a LOT of tweets, by the way: Twitter processes more than 50 million tweets every day, with the total numbering in the billions,” Matt Raymond of the Library of Congress added in a blog post.

Raymond highlighted the “scholarly and research implications” of acquiring the micro-blogging service’s archive.

He said the messages being archived include the first-ever “tweet,” sent by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, and the one that ran on Barack Obama’s Twitter feed when he was elected president.

Meanwhile, Google made an announcement about another twitter-related development, Google Replay, their real-time search function which will give you data about the specific tweets made on a particular date.  Dave Bruggeman at the Pasco Phronesis blog offers more information and a link to the beta version of Google Replay.

Patents and innovation

I find it interesting that countries and international organizations use the number of patents filed as one indicator for scientific progress while studies indicate that the opposite may be true. This news item on Science Daily strongly suggests that there are some significant problems with the current system. From the news item,

As single-gene tests give way to multi-gene or even whole-genome scans, exclusive patent rights could slow promising new technologies and business models for genetic testing even further, the Duke [Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy] researchers say.

The findings emerge from a series of case studies that examined genetic risk testing for 10 clinical conditions, including breast and colon cancer, cystic fibrosis and hearing loss. …

In seven of the conditions, exclusive licenses have been a source of controversy. But in no case was the holder of exclusive patent rights the first to market with a test.

“That finding suggests that while exclusive licenses have proven valuable for developing drugs and biologics that might not otherwise be developed, in the world of gene testing they are mainly a tool for clearing the field of competition [emphasis mine], and that is a sure-fire way to irritate your customers, both doctors and patients,” said Robert Cook-Deegan, director of the IGSP Center for Genome Ethics, Law & Policy.

This isn’t an argument against the entire patenting system but rather the use of exclusive licenses.

Nano valentine; Owning the podium and science at the Olympics in French; Introduction to three part interview with Cheryl Geisler

Yesterday, I meant to post about the nano Valentine’s Day card that scientists at Birmingham University’s Nanoscale Physics Research Lab made out of pure palladium. From the university’s  news release (thanks to Azonano where I first spotted this item),

Making the card was also a work of love; clusters of palladium atoms bonded together on the surface of carbon and spontaneously arranged themselves into the world’s smallest heart.

Here’s the card,

Palladium Valentine, 8 nm in size, from Birmingham University's Nanoscale Physics Research Laboratory

Now on to the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, “Own the Podium” or “À nous le podium” and science in a very illuminating podcast (French language) on Je vote pour la science.

I first heard about the “Own the Podium” government sports/science initiative, although not by that name, early last week from a friend in England where it was being discussed in the media. I saw nothing here until the Globe and Mail (G&M) article, Is Canada a Spoilsport? (pp. F1 & F6) by Ian Brown in the Feb. 13, 2010 edition, but I assumed that’s because I don’t follow sports closely. After listening to the Josée Nadia Drouin and Pascal Lapointe (both of Quebec’s Agence Science-Presse) podcast on Je vote pour la science, I realized that the programme has been kept somewhat quiet until lately.

My French comprehension is spotty but I gathered from the podcast that the government devoted some $117M for sports in preparation for the Olympics, from the G&M article that athletes were given a stipend of $18,000 for living expenses (doesn’t sound like much to me), and from the podcast, again, that money was given to 55 Centres of Excellence in 7 universities for scientific research supporting athletic efforts.

I do think that we should better support our athletes but I abhor the programme name,  Own the Podium, which suggests that winning is the prime motive for competing. This is noxious when you consider the intent of the Olympics as expressed by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, (from Wikipedia here citing Christopher R. Hill’s 1996 book Olympic Politics)

The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

As for the Olympics and science, Lapointe and Drouin also focused on surveillance. Unfortunately for me, their correspondent was on a poor telephone line and that combined with my French comprehension skills means I got very little data but the conflation of science, surveillance, and sporting events gave me an expanded perspective.

For my final bit today, I’m introducing Dr. Cheryl Geisler, the new dean for the new Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology (FCAT) at Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, Canada). She very kindly gave me an interview in early February about her new faculty and her plans.

I’m providing some background before posting the interview. From the SFU website, the university has approximately 32,000 students and 900 faculty as of the 20007 annual report which contrasts somewhat with Geisler’s previous home institution, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (located in Troy, NY with approximately 7700 students and 450 faculty as of Fall 2009. from their website).

I did encounter some difficulty finding numbers of students, faculty and administrative staff for individual departments and faculties (FCAT has five admin staff) at both universities and am not sure if this is innocence (nobody has considered making the information available) or strategy (i.e., universities prefer to keep the information discreet although it can be obtained if you’re willing  [spelling corrected Feb.17.10] to dig deep enough). ETA (Feb.17.10): I was kindly provided with a link to FCAT’s wikipedia entry where I found that there are 1861 undergraduate students and 208 graduate students for a total of 2069 students with 79 continuing full time faculty members. According to the wikipedia entry, this information is available at the SFU website on this page in a category titled Headcounts. It is part of the SFU website which belongs to Institutional Research and Planning.

As for Dr. Geisler herself, she holds a PhD in Rhetoric from Carnegie Mellon University (main campus in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), an MS in Reading from Western Illinois University, and a BA in English from Carleton College (Northfield, Minnesota). Prior to her move, she had been affiliated with Rensselaer in one fashion or another since 1986.

The most exotic thing on her CV (obtained from the Rensselaer website in October 2009) is a two year stint in Jerusalem as a teacher of English as a foreign language. She has some experience with Canada as an outside reviewer for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in 2000 for their Valuing Literacy in Canada programme.

Taken as a whole, her CV is an impressive document. At Rensselaer, she taught courses such as Techniques for the Analysis of Verbal Data; Proposing and Persuading; and the Literacy Seminar: Theories of Mediation, Technology and Text. She has written widely and (along with partners) holds two patents in addition to administering federal government grants for a number of different projects.

I cherrypicked, there’s a lot more to Dr. Geisler’s CV but I think the point has been made. Tomorrow (Feb. 17, 2010), I start a three part series, Off the deep end: an interview with Cheryl Geisler Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.