Category Archives: Technology

America Is On The Same Glide Path As The Fatal Germanwings Flight

America Is On The Same Glide Path As The Fatal Germanwings Flight

Germanwing airplane plane

The pilot was locked out of the cockpit. That phrase finally revealed the full horror of the crash of Germanwings flight 9525.

Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz waited for the pilot to leave the cockpit then locked the door to prevent his re-entry. After which Lubitz, for reasons unknown and perhaps unknowable, deliberately steered the jet into a harrowing 8-minute plunge, ending in an explosive 434 mph impact with a rocky mountainside. One hundred fifty men, women and children met an immediate, unthinkably violent death.

Lubitz, in his single-minded madness, couldn’t be stopped because anyone who could change the jet’s disastrous course was locked out.

It’s hard to imagine the growing feelings of fear and helplessness that the passengers felt as the unforgiving landscape rushed up to meet them. Hard, but not impossible.

ISIS Tweet: We Are Coming to America
ISIS Tweet: We Are Coming to America

America is in very deep trouble and we feel the descent in the pits of our stomachs. We hear the shake and rattle of structures stressed beyond their limits. We don’t know where we’re going anymore, but do know it isn’t good. And above all, we feel helpless because Barack Obama has locked us out.

He locked the American people out of his decision to seize the national healthcare system.

He locked us out when we wanted to know why the IRS was attacking conservatives.

He locked us out of having a say in his decision to tear up our immigration laws and to give over a trillion dollars in benefits to those who broke those laws.

Obama locked out those who advised against premature troop withdrawals. He locked out the intelligence agencies who issued warnings about the growing threat of ISIS.

He locked out anyone who could have interfered with his release of five Taliban terror chiefs in return for one U.S. Military deserter.

And, of course, Barack Obama has now locked out Congress, the American people, and our allies as he strikes a secret deal with Iran to determine the timeline (not prevention) of their acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Was Andreas Lubitz depressed, insane, or abysmally evil when he decided to lock that cockpit door and listen to no voices other than those in his head? Did he somehow believe himself to be doing the right thing? The voice recordings from the doomed aircraft reveal that as the jet began its rapid descent, the passengers were quiet. There was probably some nervous laughter, confusion, a bit of comforting chatter with seat mates, followed by a brief period in which anxiety had not yet metastasized into terror. It was only near the end of the 8-minute plunge that everyone finally understood what was really happening. Only near the end when they began to scream.

Like those passengers, a growing number of Americans feel a helpless dread as they come to the inescapable conclusion that our nation’s decline is an act of choice rather than of chance.

The choice of one man who is in full control of our 8-year plunge. I wonder when America will begin to scream.

Dr. RICHARD S. WELLS

Russian Hackers Read Obama’s Unclassified Emails, Officials Say

Russian Hackers Read Obama’s Unclassified Emails, Officials Say

WASHINGTON — Some of President Obama’s email correspondence was swept up by Russian hackers last year in a breach of the White House’s unclassified computer system that was far more intrusive and worrisome than has been publicly acknowledged, according to senior American officials briefed on the investigation.

The hackers, who also got deeply into the State Department’s unclassified system, do not appear to have penetrated closely guarded servers that control the message traffic from Mr. Obama’s BlackBerry, which he or an aide carries constantly.

But they obtained access to the email archives of people inside the White House, and perhaps some outside, with whom Mr. Obama regularly communicated. From those accounts, they reached emails that the president had sent and received, according to officials briefed on the investigation.

White House officials said that no classified networks had been compromised, and that the hackers had collected no classified information. Many senior officials have two computers in their offices, one operating on a highly secure classified network and another connected to the outside world for unclassified communications.

But officials have conceded that the unclassified system routinely contains much information that is considered highly sensitive: schedules, email exchanges with ambassadors and diplomats, discussions of pending personnel moves and legislation, and, inevitably, some debate about policy.

Officials did not disclose the number of Mr. Obama’s emails that were harvested by hackers, nor the sensitivity of their content. The president’s email account itself does not appear to have been hacked. Aides say that most of Mr. Obama’s classified briefings — such as the morning Presidential Daily Brief — are delivered orally or on paper (sometimes supplemented by an iPad system connected to classified networks) and that they are usually confined to the Oval Office or the Situation Room.

Still, the fact that Mr. Obama’s communications were among those hit by the hackers — who are presumed to be linked to the Russian government, if not working for it — has been one of the most closely held findings of the inquiry. Senior White House officials have known for months about the depth of the intrusion.

“This has been one of the most sophisticated actors we’ve seen,” said one senior American official briefed on the investigation.

Others confirmed that the White House intrusion was viewed as so serious that officials met on a nearly daily basis for several weeks after it was discovered. “It’s the Russian angle to this that’s particularly worrisome,” another senior official said.

While Chinese hacking groups are known for sweeping up vast amounts of commercial and design information, the best Russian hackers tend to hide their tracks better and focus on specific, often political targets. And the hacking happened at a moment of renewed tension with Russia — over its annexation of Crimea, the presence of its forces in Ukraine and its renewed military patrols in Europe, reminiscent of the Cold War.

Inside the White House, the intrusion has raised a new debate about whether it is possible to protect a president’s electronic presence, especially when it reaches out from behind the presumably secure firewalls of the executive branch.

Mr. Obama is no stranger to computer-network attacks: His 2008 campaign was hit by Chinese hackers. Nonetheless, he has long been a frequent user of email, and publicly fought the Secret Service in 2009 to retain his BlackBerry, a topic he has joked about in public. He was issued a special smartphone, and the list of those he can exchange emails with is highly restricted.

When asked about the investigation’s findings, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Bernadette Meehan, said, “We’ll decline to comment.” The White House has also declined to provide any explanations about how the breach was handled, though the State Department has been more candid about what kind of systems were hit and what it has done since to improve security. A spokesman for the F.B.I. declined to comment.

Officials who discussed the investigation spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the hacking. While the White House has refused to identify the nationality of the hackers, others familiar with the investigation said that in both the White House and State Department cases, all signs pointed to Russians.

On Thursday, Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter revealed for the first time that Russian hackers had attacked the Pentagon’s unclassified systems, but said they had been identified and “kicked off.” Defense Department officials declined to say if the signatures of the attacks on the Pentagon appeared related to the White House and State Department attacks.

The discovery of the hacking in October led to a partial shutdown of the White House email system. The hackers appear to have been evicted from the White House systems by the end of October. But they continued to plague the State Department, whose system is much more far-flung. The disruptions were so severe that during the Iranian nuclear negotiations in Vienna in November, officials needed to distribute personal email accounts, to one another and to some reporters, to maintain contact.

Earlier this month, officials at the White House said that the hacking had not damaged its systems and that, while elements had been shut down to mitigate the effects of the attack, everything had been restored.

One of the curiosities of the White House and State Department attacks is that the administration, which recently has been looking to name and punish state and nonstate hackers in an effort to deter attacks, has refused to reveal its conclusions about who was responsible for this complex and artful intrusion into the government. That is in sharp contrast to Mr. Obama’s decision, after considerable internal debate in December, to name North Korea for ordering the attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, and to the director of national intelligence’s decision to name Iranian hackers as the source of a destructive attack on the Sands Casino.

This month, after CNN reported that hackers had gained access to sensitive areas of the White House computer network, including sections that contained the president’s schedule, the White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, said the administration had not publicly named who was behind the hack because federal investigators had concluded that “it’s not in our best interests.”

By contrast, in the North Korea case, he said, investigators concluded that “we’re more likely to be successful in terms of holding them accountable by naming them publicly.”

But the breach of the president’s emails appeared to be a major factor in the government secrecy. “All of this is very tightly held,” one senior American official said, adding that the content of what had been breached was being kept secret to avoid tipping off the Russians about what had been learned from the investigation.

Mr. Obama’s friends and associates say that he is a committed user of his BlackBerry, but that he is careful when emailing outside the White House system.

“The frequency has dropped off in the last six months or so,” one of his close associates said, though this person added that he did not know if the drop was related to the hacking.

Mr. Obama is known to send emails to aides late at night from his residence, providing them with his feedback on speeches or, at times, entirely new drafts. Others say he has emailed on topics as diverse as his golf game and the struggle with Congress over the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

George W. Bush gave up emailing for the course of his presidency and did not carry a smartphone. But after Mr. Bush left office, his sister’s email account was hacked, and several photos — including some of his paintings — were made public.

The White House is bombarded with cyberattacks daily, not only from Russia and China. Most are easily deflected.

The White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies put their most classified material into a system called Jwics, for Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System. That is where top-secret and “secret compartmentalized information” traverses within the government, to officials cleared for it — and it includes imagery, data and graphics. There is no evidence, senior officials said, that this hacking pierced it.

Robots Can Mix You a Drink. But Will They Listen to Your Problems?

Robots Can Mix You a Drink. But Will They Listen to Your Problems?

By TIMOTHY AEPPEL

The Makr Shakr, a bartending robot, is the creation of an Italian company and consists of robotic arms that mix cocktails, then place them on a conveyor belt to be carried across the bar to the waiting customer or a server.

Robots aren’t about to elbow bartenders out of a job.

But versions of them could start showing up at your favorite watering holes. Indeed,some are already out there.

The Makr Shakr is the creation of an Italian company and consists of robotic arms that mix cocktails, and then place them on a conveyor belt to be carried across the bar to the waiting customer or a server. The first two installations are on Royal Caribbean cruise ships, where they’re the centerpieces of “Bionic Bars.”

The goal isn’t to do away with bartenders, who are still needed to tend the machines and, when necessary, deliver the drinks. Carlo Ratti, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and cofounder of Makr Shakr, says the project began when he was asked to design a machine that would allow people to interact with robots in an unexpected setting. “It started as something to shock people in a tangible way,” he says, to show them “what the third industrial revolution is all about.”

Another example is the “Bartendro,” a box with hoses and flashing lights that can mix an array of drinks—but it too needs to be tended by a human, who among other things puts the glass into position under the pour spout and then delivers the drink to the customer.

Machines like these are designed to work alongside humans, not replace them.

But just because something can be automated doesn’t mean it should be. At Tryst, a Denver bar that bought one of the $2,500 Bartendros through a Kickstarter campaign last year, the verdict is clear: It’s an oddity people quickly lost interest in after a few months. “Visually, it’s eye-catching,” said human bartender Richie Hadley. “But on a busy night, will we use it? Not at all, unless someone asks about it.”

Another machine is aimed at the self-service and home market. The Monsieur was created by a team of engineers from Georgia Tech after a frustrating night watching basketball finals in a crowded restaurant. “It wasn’t until halftime that we got our first drink,” says Donald Beamer, the company president. “As engineers, we saw there was a problem.” Automation speeds up assembly lines, so why not use it to accelerate cocktail making?

Mr. Beamer’s device comes in two versions—a table-top model that sells for just under $4,000 and a $10,000 kiosk that looks like a Coke machine. The kiosk has a cup dispenser and ice reservoir. The idea is to “offer self-service” in places that might not otherwise have a bar, he says.

Still, MIT professor Scott Stern, who studies the diffusion of new technology, is among those who doubt bartending machines have a big future. “When I’m in a different city, having a drink of wine at a bar, I don’t want to talk to a robot,” he says.

But while bartending jobs may be safe, many others are at risk.  Even some technology entrepreneurs like Bill Gates are worried about what a surge of automation could mean for the future of work. Those worries have been magnified by the slow recovery of the job market after the last recession.

Flights diverted at airport as drone sighted over runway

Flights diverted at airport as drone sighted over runway

Manchester airport suspended flights on one of its runways for 20 minutes after members of the public reported spotting a drone

An airport diverted flights and suspended one runway after a drone was sighted flying nearby.

Manchester airport halted operations on its Runway One to allow police to investigate the sighting, a spokesman said.

UAV UAS drone small

The runway was suspended for around 20 minutes and four inbound flights were diverted to nearby Liverpool and East Midlands airports.

The growth in civilian drone technology in recent years has led to concerns over how the new remotely-controlled aircraft may interfere with other aircraft.

A Manchester Airport spokesman said: “Due to a report of a potential drone sighting in airspace near to the airport, some flights have experienced short delays and a small number of flights have diverted to alternative airports whilst Greater Manchester Police carried out an investigation using their Police Helicopter. Upon inspection, nothing was found.

“As the safety and security of all of our passengers is paramount, operations on Runway One were suspended for 20 minutes. Runway Two, which was unaffected, will remain open for an hour so normal traffic flows can resume.”

John Mayhew, air traffic control company Nats’ general manager at Manchester Airport, said: “Flying drones in the close vicinity to any airport without permission is completely unacceptable, with the reported sighting causing delays to inbound and outbound traffic and the diversion of a small number aircraft to other airports.

“The matter has now been referred to the police.”

The UK board investigating aircraft near misses last December described how a device believed to be a small radio-controlled helicopter drone came within 20ft of an incoming Airbus A320 passenger plane at Heathrow airport.

The Airbus was 700ft from landing when the pilot reported seeing a small black object to the left of the aircraft, the report said.

Baltimore Police used secret technology to track cellphones in thousands of case

Baltimore Police used secret technology to track cellphones in thousands of cases

Baltimore police often surveil cellphones amid US secrecy

The Baltimore Police Department has an agreement with the U.S. government to withhold certain information about secretive cellphone surveillance technology from the public and the courts.

By

The Baltimore Police Department has used an invasive and controversial cellphone tracking device thousands of times in recent years while following instructions from the FBI to withhold information about it from prosecutors and judges, a detective revealed in court testimony Wednesday.

The testimony shows for the first time how frequently city police are using a cell site simulator, more commonly known as a “stingray,” a technology that authorities have gone to great lengths to avoid disclosing.

The device mimics a cellphone tower to force phones within its range to connect. Police use it to track down stolen phones or find people.

Related:  See How This Spying Technoloyg, Stingray, works.

FBI Stingray device technology listening cell phones
FBI Stingray device

Until recently, the technology was largely unknown to the public. Privacy advocates nationwide have raised questions whether there has been proper oversight of its use.

Baltimore has emerged in recent months as a battleground for the debate. In one case last fall, a city detective said a nondisclosure agreement with federal authorities prevented him from answering questions about the device. The judge threatened to hold him in contempt if he didn’t provide information, and prosecutors withdrew the evidence.

The nondisclosure agreement, presented for the first time in court Wednesday, explicitly instructs prosecutors to drop cases if pressed on the technology, and tells them to contact the FBI if legislators or judges are asking questions.

Detective Emmanuel Cabreja, a member of the Police Department’s Advanced Technical Team, testified that police own a Hailstorm cell site simulator — the latest version of the stingray — and have used the technology 4,300 times since 2007.

Cabreja said he had used it 600 to 800 times in less than two years as a member of the unit.

Nate Wessler, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said 4,300 uses is “huge number.” He noted that most agencies have not released data.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement says its officers have used the device about 1,800 times. Police in Tallahassee say they have used it more than 250 times; police in Tacoma, Wash., 170 times.

Former U.S. Judge Brian L. Owsley, a law professor at Indiana Tech, said he was “blown away” by the Baltimore figure and the terms of the nondisclosure agreement. “That’s a significant amount of control,” he said.

Agencies have invoked the nondisclosure agreement to keep information secret. At a hearing last year, a Maryland State Police commander told state lawmakers that “Homeland Security” prevented him from discussing the technology.

Wessler said the secrecy is upending the system of checks and balances built into the criminal justice system.

“In Baltimore, they’ve been using this since 2007, and it’s only been in the last several months that defense attorneys have learned enough to start asking questions,” he said. “Our entire judicial system and constitution is set up to avoid a ‘just trust us’ system where the use of invasive surveillance gear is secret.”

Cabreja testified Wednesday during a pretrial hearing in the case of Nicholas West, 21, and Myquan Anderson, 17. West and Anderson were charged in October 2013 with armed carjacking, armed robbery, theft and other violations stemming from an attack on a man in Federal Hill.

Cabreja took what he said was a copy of the nondisclosure agreement to court. It was dated July 2011 and bore the signatures of then-Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III and then-State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein.

Defense attorney Joshua Insley asked Cabreja about the agreement.

“Does this document instruct you to withhold evidence from the state’s attorney and Circuit Court, even upon court order to produce?” he asked.

“Yes,” Cabreja said.

Cabreja did not comply with a defense subpoena to produce the device in court. He said he was barred from doing so by the nondisclosure agreement.

An FBI spokesman declined to comment on the technology or the document.

The signatories to the document agree that disclosing the existence of the stingray would “reveal sensitive technological capabilities possessed by the law enforcement community and may allow individuals who are the subject of investigation … to avoid detection.”

They agree that “disclosure of this information could result in the FBI’s inability to protect the public from terrorism and other criminal activity” by rendering the technology useless for investigations.

The signatories agree that if they receive a public records request or an inquiry from judges or legislators, they will notify the FBI immediately to allow “sufficient time for the FBI to intervene.”

Cabreja testified Wednesday that his unit received information about a stolen cellphone. He said detectives obtained a court order to get the phone’s general location using cellphone towers from a cellphone company.

With that information, detectives ventured out to the Waverly neighborhood with the Hailstorm. The device is portable and can be used from a moving vehicle. Cabreja likened it to a metal detector for cellphone signals.

The device forces cellphones to connect to it. In this case, it was a Verizon phone, so identifying information from every Verizon customer in the area was swept up.

Cabreja said the data was collected but “not seen.” Detectives were interested only in the target phone.
Cabreja said the device allows police to make a stronger signal emanate from the phone to help them find it.

“It, on screen, shows me directional arrows and signal strength, showing me the phone’s direction,” he testified.

The detectives traced the phone to a group home and knocked on the door. They told the woman who answered that they were conducting a general criminal investigation and asked to come inside, Cabreja said, and the woman agreed.

Seven detectives entered the home, he said. They used the Hailstorm to make the phone ring before anyone knew why they were really there.

Amid growing questions about the stingray, details of the technology have been trickling out of some jurisdictions, and it is now relatively easy to find descriptions online of what it does.

Insley, the defense attorney, called it the “worst-kept secret,” and questioned why local police continue to be gagged.

Cabreja took notes with him to court that he said came from a discussion last week in which the FBI coached him on what to say in court.

The talking points included: “Data is not retained.”
Cabreja did not refuse to answer any of Insley’s questions, but he said his answers were constrained by the nondisclosure agreement.

Defense attorneys and privacy advocates express concern about the scope of the stingray’s powers, and whether the courts are equipped to provide proper oversight of the police who use it. They argue that the use of the device amounts to a search and requires a warrant.

Baltimore police obtain court orders under the state’s “pen register” statute. Insley says that law authorizes police to capture only the numbers that are called or received by a phone, not the more detailed metadata and location information the stingray collects.

He said those orders also require a lower standard of proof than a search warrant, and judges are not aware of what they are authorizing.

“They’re basically duping these judges into signing authorizations to use stingrays,” Insley said. “If they can increase the signal strength of your phone or make it ring, they can pretty much make it do anything.”

But prosecutors say the language in the orders authorizes real-time GPS location, and Cabreja testified that police only use the stingray to find “target” phones and not to spy on the innocent.

In Maryland U.S. District Court last fall, an argument about the stingray device was cut short when the suspects took plea deals. And on Wednesday, following Cabreja’s testimony, prosecutors and defense attorneys entered into plea negotiations instead of debating the merits of the stingray further.

In cases where the stingray becomes a sticking point, Wessler said, “defense attorneys are being able to get really good deals for their clients, because the FBI is so insistent on hiding all of these details.”

“There are likely going to be a lot of defense attorneys in Baltimore who may have an opportunity to raise these issues,” Wessler said. “They are on notice now that their clients may have some arguments to make in these cases.”

ISIS hackers seize control of France’s TV5Monde network in ‘unprecedented’ attack

ISIS hackers seize control of France’s TV5Monde network in ‘unprecedented’ attack

Still unable to broadcast anything but pre-recorded programs  after “unprecedented” cyber attack as French government denounces “act of terrorism”

Hackers claiming allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) on Thursday seized control of TV5Monde, France‘s international TV network, knocking out its 11 channels, website and social media accounts in an attack the government dubbed an “act of terrorism”.

TV5Monde was still struggling to regain control of its channels on Thursday morning, forced to broadcast only pre-recorded programmes after what its director called an “unprecedented attack in the history of television” in which its systems were “severely damaged”. It was back to normal operations by 8pm on Thursday night.

Yves Bigot, the network’s chief, said he was shaken when a black screen appeared across the entire network at around 10pm local time on Wednesday night.

“When we discovered the sense of the message appearing on our social media and our websites, it both allowed us to understand what was happening and obviously worried us,” he told RTL radio.

At the same time, a group calling itself CyberCaliphate issued a message on the website of TV5Monde, which broadcasts to 200 countries, stating: “I am IS” – another term for Isil.

Technicians later pulled this down and posted an “under maintenance” sign.

The French government on Thursday denounced the cyberattack as an “act of terrorism”. Manuel Valls, the prime minister, said the cyber strike was an “unacceptable attack on the freedom of information and expression”.

Fleur Pellerin, the culture minister, said: “I offer all my support and solidarity to the team at TV5Monde, victims of an obvious terrorist act.”

She said she would convene a crisis meeting with “representatives from the broadcast media and perhaps the written press” on Friday to look at ways of preventing a repeat of such an attack.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve (L), Culture minister Fleur Pellerin (C) and Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius talk to the press after visiting French television network TV5Monde headquarters (AFP/Getty)

Bernard Cazeneuve, the interior minister, said an investigation had been launched into the channel hacking, adding:”We are facing determined terrorists and we are determined to fight them.”

The hackers posted documents on TV5Monde’s Facebook page purporting to be the identity cards and CVs of relatives of French soldiers involved in anti-Isil operations, along with threats against the troops.

“Soldiers of France, stay away from the Islamic State! You have the chance to save your families, take advantage of it,” read one message. “The CyberCaliphate continues its cyberjihad against the enemies of Islamic State,” it went on.

A French police officer stands guard in front of the main entrance of French television network TV5Monde headquarters (AFP/Getty)

TV5Monde was due to launch on Thursday a new channel dedicated to French “art de vivre”. Mr Bigot said he doubted the attack was timed to coincide with this at it would have required weeks of preparation.

It occurred on the day that France’s Senate published a report revealing that almost half of European jihadists known to have travelled to territory held by Isil are French. Some 1,500 French nationals are thought to have travelled to the area.

France has moved to strengthen its cyber security in the wake of the January terrorist attacks in Paris by gunmen claiming links to Isil and al-Qaida in Yemen. Afterwards, the defence minister said hackers had targeted some 19,000 French websites.

Isil has claimed complex hackings before – a group with the same name hacked Newsweek’s Twitter feed in February – but this appears to be its most spectacular act of cyber warfare to date.

When the attack was over Fleur Pellerin, the culture minister, warned other French media to remain “vigilant”, saying they could not rule out “similar powerful attacks happening that are already planned”.

Court mulls revealing secret government plan to cut cell phone service

Court mulls revealing secret government plan to cut cell phone service

Feds: SOP 303 mobile-phone kill-switch policy would endanger public if disclosed.

A federal appeals court is asking the Obama administration to explain why the government should be allowed to keep secret its plan to shutter mobile phone service during “critical emergencies.”

The Department of Homeland Security came up with the plan—known as Standing Operating Procedure 303—after cellular phones were used to detonate explosives targeting a London public transportation system.

SOP 303 is a powerful tool in the digital age, and it spells out a “unified voluntary process for the orderly shut-down and restoration of wireless services during critical emergencies such as the threat of radio-activated improvised explosive devices.”

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in February sided (PDF) with the government and ruled that the policy did not need to be disclosed under a Freedom of Information Act request from the Electronic Privacy Information Center. The court agreed with the government’s citation of a FOIA exemption that precludes disclosure if doing so “could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual.”

EPIC asked the court to revisit its ruling, arguing that the decision, “if left in place, would create an untethered ‘national security’ exemption'” in FOIA law. On Friday, the court ordered (PDF) the government to respond—a move that suggests the appellate court might rehear the case.

EPIC originally asked for the document in 2011 in the wake of the shut down of mobile phone service in the San Francisco Bay Area subway system during a protest. The government withheld the information, EPIC sued and won, but the government then appealed and prevailed.

In its petition for rehearing, EPIC argued that the appellate court’s decision “created a catch-all provision that would allow federal agencies to routinely withhold records subject to disclosure where the agency merely asserts a speculative security risk.”

Under the direction of the so-called National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee, SOP 303 allows for the shutting down of wireless networks “within a localized area, such as a tunnel or bridge, and within an entire metropolitan area.”

There have been no publicly disclosed instances when SOP 303 has been invoked, but the telecoms have agreed to shutter service when SOP 303 is invoked.

Local governments, however, have the power to shutter wireless service regardless of SOP 303.

The last known time mobile phone service was cut by a government agency was the San Francisco example from 2011. That’s when the Bay Area Rapid Transit System took heat for disabling service to quell a protest in four downtown San Francisco stations. The three-hour outage was done after BART cut service without the assistance of the telcos.

In the aftermath, BART produced a new policy that said service could only be cut off when “there is strong evidence of imminent unlawful activity that threatens the safety of district passengers, employees, and other members of the public.”

Intent of Russian military aircraft near U.S. shores remains unclear

Intent of Russian military aircraft near U.S. shores remains unclear

Russia Russian bomber fighter airplane plane aircraft

The air is frigid and the wind is howling as Air Force Col. Frank Flores lifts a pair of foot-long binoculars and studies a hazy dot about 50 miles west across the Bering Strait.

“That’s the mainland there,” he shouts above the gusts.

It’s Siberia, part of Russia, on the Asian mainland.

Named for an old mining camp, Tin City is a tiny Air Force installation atop an ice-shrouded coastal mountain 50 miles below the Arctic Circle, far from any road or even trees. The Pentagon took over the remote site decades ago and built a long-range radar station to help detect a surprise attack from the Soviet Union.

At least from this frozen perch, America’s closest point to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the Cold War is turning warm again.

U.S. F-22 fighter jets scrambled about 10 times last year — twice as often as in 2013 — to monitor and photograph Russian Tu-95 “Bear” bombers and MiG-31 fighter jets that flew over the Bering Sea without communicating with U.S. air controllers or turning on radio transponders, which emit identifying signals.

The Russian flights are in international airspace, and it’s unclear whether they are testing U.S. defenses, patrolling the area or simply projecting a newly assertive Moscow’s global power.

“They’re obviously messaging us,” said Flores, a former Olympic swimmer who is in charge of Tin City and 14 other radar stations scattered along the vast Alaskan coast. “We still don’t know their intent.”

U.S. officials view the bombers — which have been detected as far south as 50 miles off California’s northern coast — as deliberately provocative. They are a sign of the deteriorating ties between Moscow and the West since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in March of last year and its military intervention to support separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Similar Russian flights in Europe have irked leaders in Britain, Ireland, Sweden, Norway and elsewhere. In January, British authorities were forced to reroute commercial aircraft after Russian bombers flew over the English Channel with their transponders off.

In all, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization says its jets scrambled to monitor Russian warplanes around Europe more than 100 times last year, about three times as many as in 2013. Russian air patrols outside its borders were at their highest level since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, NATO said.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a statement in November, as tensions heightened over Ukraine, that Russia’s strategic bombers would resume patrols in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

“In the current situation we have to maintain military presence in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific, as well as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.

Although the Arctic draws less attention, Russia is flexing muscles there after years of decline. President Vladimir Putin’s government has announced plans to reopen 10 former Soviet-era military bases, including 14 airfields, that were shuttered along the Arctic seaboard after the Cold War.

A shipyard in Severodvinsk, the largest city on the Russian Arctic Coast, has begun building four nuclear-powered submarines for the first time in decades, according to Russian news reports. The Pentagon says the reports are accurate.

The Pentagon has responded by spending $126 million last year to upgrade Tin City and other coastal radar stations in Alaska. It also has added military exercises with northern allies — including flying U.S. strategic bombers over the Arctic for the first time since 2011.

Last week, four B-52s flew from bases in Nebraska and Louisiana on simultaneous, round-trip sorties to the Arctic and North Sea regions, the Air Force announced. Along the way, the bomber crews engaged in “air intercept maneuvers” with fighter jets from Canada, England and the Netherlands.

The Air Force has said it may base the first squadrons of next-generation F-35 fighter jets at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska starting next year.

The buildup comes as melting ice caps are opening valuable new sea lanes, sparking a scramble for oil and other untapped natural resources by the eight nations with territorial or maritime claims in the far north.

“We’re experiencing a reawakening of the strategic importance of the Arctic,” said Navy Adm. William E. Gortney, commander of the Pentagon’s Northern Command and of the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

“Is this a second Cold War? It doesn’t matter what we think,” Gortney said. “Maybe they think the Cold War never ended.”

Analysts say Putin’s government may be ordering the bomber flights as a morale booster for a military that saw its ships turned to scrap, its aircraft grounded and its bases closed after the Cold War.

“The ability to project military power from bases in the Arctic region is one area in which they are still capable,” said Christopher Harmer, a military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a nonpartisan public policy group in Washington.

“This is much less compared to what they were doing in the Cold War,” said Dmitry Gorenburg, a research analyst at the nonprofit Center for Naval Analyses in Washington. “I don’t think they’re threatening anyone. They just want to make sure that no one comes into the Arctic and messes with them.”

The U.S. military downsized but never fully disengaged in the Arctic after the Cold War.

If an alarm sounds, fighter pilots still sometimes slide down gleaming fireman poles at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage and run to F-22 Raptors kept idling in small hangars. The jets, in “hot-cocked” condition, carry fully armed cannons and missiles.

In an underground room on the base, rows of radar technicians sit at glowing screens watching small crescent-shaped blips, each representing an aircraft moving in Alaskan airspace. On the wall, four large screens track aircraft across the Arctic, including Russian airspace.

The wall also holds 261 plaques with red stars. Each represents a successful U.S. intercept of Russian aircraft. A total of 424 Russian planes have been detected since 1983, mostly during the Cold War.

“If they come this way, we’re going to track them, determine who they are and what their intent is,” said Maj. Carrie Howard, an officer in charge of the air defense squadron.

Most of the time, the blips are commercial planes that identify themselves by emitting transponder codes or communicating with regional air controllers. But some aircraft stay silent.

If commanders here decide to respond, they grab a tan telephone marked “scramble” in red letters. It rings in a wardroom by the runway where F-22 pilots are always on duty.

“When the phone rings, it stops your heart, it rings so loud,” said one pilot, who asked not to be named for his security.

Once airborne, the pilots are supposed to get a visual identification of the other aircraft. But the F-22 can fly nearly three times as fast as the lumbering Tu-95 bomber, so slowing down is the challenge.

“You want to go fast,” the pilot said. “The jet wants to go fast. But you just have to ease up alongside of them.”

On Sept. 17, he scrambled in pursuit of radar blips that turned out to be two Russian “Bears,” two MiG-31s and two refueling tankers. The American pilot drew close, radioed his sighting back to Anchorage and returned to base.

“Our presence was felt,” the pilot said. “That’s all that’s needed.”

It was difficult to feel much of anything but cold at Tin City on a recent afternoon, where the temperature was far below zero, the wind was bone-chilling and the world faded into a blinding white of snow, ice and fog.

Vance Spaulding, 53, and Jeff Boulds, 52, two contractors, spend up to four months maintaining the radar site before they fly out on break.

While here, they hunt musk ox, a long-haired, long-horned animal known for its strong odor, and Arctic hare, which they claim can grow to 20 pounds or more, on the surrounding coastal plain.

“We get cooped up here, so we try to get out in the open whenever we can,” Boulds said. “But I never seen no Russkies. Not yet anyway.”

A year after firestorm, DHS wants access to license-plate tracking system

A year after firestorm, DHS wants access to license-plate tracking system

A police car in Alexandria, Va., that has been equipped with a license-plate scanner. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

By Ellen Nakashima

The Department of Homeland Security is seeking bids from companies able to provide law enforcement officials with access to a national license-plate tracking system — a year after canceling a similar solicitation over privacy issues.

The reversal comes after officials said they had determined they could address concerns raised by civil liberties advocates and lawmakers about the prospect of the department’s gaining widespread access, without warrants, to a system that holds billions of records that reveal drivers’ whereabouts.

In a privacy impact assessment issued Thursday, the DHS says that it is not seeking to build a national database or contribute data to an existing system.

Instead, it is seeking bids from companies that already gather the data to say how much they would charge to grant access to law enforcement officers at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a DHS agency. Officials said they also want to impose limits on ICE personnel’s access to and use of the data.

“These restrictions will provide essential privacy and civil liberty protections, while enhancing our agents’ and officers’ ability to locate and apprehend suspects who could pose a threat to national security and public safety,” DHS spokeswoman Marsha Catron said in a statement. The solicitation was posted publicly Thursday.

Privacy advocates who reviewed a copy of the privacy impact assessment said it fell short.

“If this goes forward, DHS will have warrantless access to location information going back at least five years about virtually every adult driver in the U.S., and sometimes to their image as well,” said Gregory T. Nojeim, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology.

Commercial license-plate tracking systems already are used by the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as some local and state law enforcement agencies. Law enforcement groups say the fears of misuse are overblown. But news of the DHS solicitation triggered a public firestorm last year, leading Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to cancel it and order a review of the privacy concerns raised by advocates and lawmakers.

Over the following months, ICE and DHS privacy officials developed policies aimed at increasing “the public’s trust in our ability to use the data responsibly,” according to a senior DHS privacy officer. The DHS is the first federal agency, officials said, to issue a privacy assessment on such a solicitation.

Commercial license-plate-tracking systems can include a variety of data. Images of plate numbers are generally captured by high-speed cameras that are mounted on vehicles or in fixed locations. Some systems also capture images of the drivers and passengers.

The largest commercial database is owned by Vigilant Solutions, which as of last fall had more than 2.5 billion records. Its database grows by 2.7 million records a day.

DHS officials say Vigilant’s database, to which some field offices have had access on a subscription basis, has proved valuable in solving years-old cases. Privacy advocates, however, are concerned about the potential for abuse and note that commercial data banks generally do not have limits on how long they retain data.

ICE said it will restrict agents’ access to the data to the number of years corresponding to the relevant statute of limitations for any crime being investigated. For civil immigration cases, where there is no statute of limitations, the agency is adopting a five-year limit, officials said.

ICE officers and agents also will be required to enter the type of crime associated with each query to gain access to the database, and there will be random audits to ensure that no one is using the database to look up information on personal associates. Officers and agents may search only for particular plate numbers.

ICE queries will not be shared with other agencies, unless they are working on a joint investigation, a senior DHS official said. ICE personnel also will be able to put plate numbers of interest on an “alert list,” enabling those personnel to be notified almost instantly when a plate is spotted.

Ginger McCall, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Open Government Project, said the new safeguards are not “meaningful.” She called the data retention requirements “exceedingly vague” and said tracking a person through alert lists without a warrant is troubling.

The senior DHS privacy officer said case law does not require the government to seek a warrant for such data.

“This is a step in the right direction, but it’s not nearly strong enough, given the particular acute privacy and civil liberties issues implicated by locational data,” McCall said.