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Original author: 
Dan Goodin

Josh Chin

The Chinese hackers who breached Google's corporate servers 41 months ago gained access to a database containing classified information about suspected spies, agents, and terrorists under surveillance by the US government, according to a published report.

The revelation came in an article published Monday by The Washington Post, and it heightens concerns about the December, 2009 hack. When Google disclosed it a few weeks later, the company said only that the operatives accessed Google "intellectual property"—which most people took to mean software source code—and Gmail accounts of human rights activists.

Citing officials who agreed to speak on the condition that they not be named, Washington Post reporter Ellen Nakashima said the assets compromised in the attack also included a database storing years' worth of information about US surveillance targets. The goal, according to Monday's report, appears to be unearthing the identities of Chinese intelligence operatives in the US who were being tracked by American law enforcement agencies.

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silicon valley class action

It’s been a year since we’ve heard any news aboout the allegations of widespread no-hire “gentleman’s agreements” between Silicon Valley’s top companies. Twelve months and nearly 200 legal filings later, the case is moving forward, and Judge Lucy Koh is saying that internal emails reveal executives believed the agreement would bring real financial benefits to their companies, reports Reuters. At a hearing in San Jose, the judge also ordered a four-hour deposition of Apple CEO Tim Cook, over the opposition of Apple’s attorneys, who claimed that as COO of the company he had nothing to do with the no-hire agreements.

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We all know about the patent wars that have dominated the mobile industry over the last couple of years.

Apple and Samsung, Motorola and Microsoft, Oracle and Google — to name just a few. But there are also the patent disputes that you never hear about.

Many of these lawsuits are filed by little-known companies whose sole purpose in being is to bring patent actions and collect money for their owners. Often dubbed patent trolls, such non-practicing entities now make up the bulk of patent suits.

Within the broader category of non-practicing entities are different types of firms, including defensive patent collectors, start-ups as well as companies whose sole business is suing companies with products in the market. That last category now accounts for more than three-fifths of all patent action, according to a study by Santa Clara University Law School professor Colleen V. Chien.

Chien, who presented her findings at a Department of Justice/Federal Trade Commission event on Monday, said that while the economics of bringing suit help keep overall patent actions in check, the economies of scale have made patent trolling into a profitable business.

First of all, while companies that make goods are typically countersued for infringing on their target’s patents, non-practicing entities don’t make anything and therefore can’t be countersued.

Secondly, while big companies like Apple, Samsung and Google rack up huge legal fees in their battles, non-practicing entities have found a more cost-effective option. Much like injury victims, the patent firms often find lawyers willing to work on a contingency basis.

That leaves the companies with only the direct expenses related to their lawsuits, which are themselves often minimized by filing multiple similar suits against different companies. That spreads out the costs and lessens the impact of losing any one case.

As a result, the incentives that may be forcing deals such as Apple’s recent settlement with HTC aren’t having the same effect on the non-practicing entities.

“The assumption is that companies will eventually tire of the smartphone wars between operating companies,” Chien told AllThingsD. “Suits invite countersuits and are expensive, disruptive, and messy. These restraints don’t apply to companies that assert patents as a business model.”

And for every suit brought, there are dozens more that get settled before a court action is filed, in large part because the targets know it is cheaper to settle in many cases than to fight things out.

While many of these non-practicing entities have names few people have ever heard of, the field has spawned some big players, perhaps most notably Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures. (Several spinoff businesses have come out of Myhrvold’s firm, which touts its in-house invention capabilities in addition to its collection of acquired patents.)

Even start-ups, particularly well-funded ones, are finding themselves in the crosshairs, Chien said.

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Zapruder-film-jfk_thumb

Because the President’s limousine passed almost exactly in front of Dallas clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder on Nov. 22, 1963, just as he was playing with his new film camera, and precisely at the moment that Lee Harvey Oswald fired his rifle from a nearby books depository, his silent, 26.6-second home movie has become the focal point of America’s collective memory on that weird day. For many of us, especially those who weren’t alive when it happened, we’re all watching that event through Zapruder’s lens.

Other footage from the scene turns up here and there, becomes fodder for documentaries (like this new one disproving the “second shooter” theory). But Zapruder’s film is still the canonical ur text of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the most complete and most chilling visual record. In many ways, it prefigured all sorts of American pastimes, from widespread paranoia about government to a loss of faith in photographic truth and the news media, from the acceptance of graphic violence to newer concerns about copyright. Don DeLillo once said that the little film “could probably fuel college courses in a dozen subjects from history to physics.” Without the 486 frames of Kodachrome II 8mm safety film, our understanding of JFK’s assassination would likely be an even greater carnival of conspiracy theories than it already is. Well, maybe.

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This Week in Florida - Public Masturbation and Girlfriend Arson

If you want a sneak peek at what twisted fate will befall America in the decade to come, look no further than Florida. The state is America’s bellwether, the proverbial canary in the coalmine.

Every scheme, scam and scandal either begins here or is perfected here, and goes on to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting nation.

At various times, Florida has been the nation’s capital of drugs, immigrants, money laundering, race riots, serial killers, foreclosures, mortgage fraud, bankruptcies, Medicare fraud, Ponzi schemes, pill mills, election shenanigans and one of the richest sources of Jerry Springer Show guests. Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, the Watergate burglars, Bundy, Cunanan, Madoff, even the 9/11 hijackers have all worked on their tans in Florida. And, it was recently revealed, so too did the “Canadian Cannibal.”

Florida is ground zero for it all.

In his book Miami: City of the Future, author T.D. Allman proclaimed:

“Every major national transformation the United States is undergoing—from the postindustrial revolution to the aging of America, and the third great wave of immigration into the US—has converged on Miami. How Miami solves, or fails to solve, those problems cannot but provide clues as to how the whole country will cope with the massive changes—full of both peril and opportunity—that are transforming the lives of us all.”

Welcome to This Week in Florida.

-  Last week, the feds accused Florida of violating election laws in purging voter rolls and Florida Governor Rick Scott responded to the Justice Department with an affirmative Pee-wee Herman defense: “I know you are, but what am I?” Later, The Daily Show ripped Florida a new one on national television.

- It wouldn’t be a week in Miami without news of a massive cocaine seizure. Or two. U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Miami Seaport discovered 169 bricks of cocaine hidden in cardboard boxes (totaling about 459 pounds), valued at $7.3 million. Also this week, the U.S. Coast Guard Southeast announced the bust of 2,654 pounds of cocaine (that’s worth $32.5 million wholesale) after chasing a go-fast smuggling boat and shooting out the engine to stop it.

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One spring day in 2010, a hacker named Kevin Finisterre knew he had hit the jackpot. A network he had been casing finally broadcast the live video and audio feed of a police cruiser belonging to a US-based municipal government. His jaw dropped as a computer in his home office in Columbus, Ohio showed the vehicle—with flashing blue lights on and siren blaring—charging down a road of the unnamed city.

A burly 31-year-old with glasses and pork-chop sideburns, Finisterre has spent more than a decade applying his combination of street smarts and technical skills to pierce digital fortresses. For instance, he once accessed the work account of an engineer for a large utility company. Finisterre used a pilfered profile from Hotjewishgirls.com to trick the engineer into thinking he was interacting with a flirtatious 26-year-old woman, until the engineer finally coughed up enough personal information to make an attack on his corporate account successful.

It's not a bad way to earn a living.

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Barack Obama speaking at Google HQ in 2007. Photo: Jeff Chiu/AP

On Monday, the Defense Department’s best-known geek announced that she was leaving the Pentagon for a job at Google. It was an unexpected move: Washington and Mountain View don’t trade top executives very often. But it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. The internet colossus has had a long and deeply complicated relationship with America’s military and intelligence communities. Depending on the topic, the time, and the players involved, the Pentagon and the Plex can be customers, business partners, adversaries, or wary allies. Recruiting the director of Darpa to join Google was just the latest move in this intricate dance between behemoths.

To the company’s critics in Congress and in the conservative legal community, Google has become a puppet master in Obama’s Washington, with Plex executives attending exclusive state dinners and backing White House tech policy initiatives. “Like Halliburton in the previous administration,” warned the National Legal and Policy Center in 2010, “Google has an exceptionally close relationship with the current administration.” To the company’s foes outside the U.S. — especially in Beijing — Google is viewed as a virtual extension of the U.S. government: “the White House’s Google,” as one state-sponsored Chinese magazine put it.

But in the halls of the Pentagon and America’s intelligence agencies, Google casts a relatively small shadow, at least compared to those of big defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, Booz Allen Hamilton, and Northrop Grumman, and SAIC. Yes, a small handful of one-time Googlers joined the Obama administration after the 2008 election, but most of those people are now back in the private sector. Sure, Google turned to the network defense specialists at the National Security Agency, when the company became the target of a sophisticated hacking campaign in 2009. (Next week, the Electronic Privacy Information Center goes to federal court in an attempt to force the NSA to disclose what exactly it did to help Google respond.) The Lockheeds and the Northrops of the world share with the Pentagon information about viruses and malware in their networks every day.

Government work is, after all, only a minuscule part of Google’s business. And that allows the Plex to take a nuanced, many-pronged approach when dealing with spooks and generals. (The company did not respond to requests to comment for this article.)

Google has a federally focused sales force, marketing its search appliances and its apps to the government. They’ve sold millions of dollars’ worth of gear to the National Security Agency’s secretive eavesdroppers and to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s satellite watchmen. And they’re making major inroads in the mobile market, where Android has become the operating system of choice for the military’s burgeoning smartphone experiments. But unlike other businesses operating in the Beltway, Google doesn’t often customize its wares for its Washington clients. It’s a largely take-it-or-leave-it approach to marketing.

“They shit all over any request for customization,” says a former Google executive. “The attitude is: ‘we know how to build software. If you don’t know how to use it, you’re an idiot.’”

Some of that software, though, only made it to Mountain View after an infusion of government cash. Take the mapping firm Keyhole, backed by In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the Central Intelligence Agency. Google bought Keyhole in 2004 — and then turned it into the backbone for Google Earth, which has become a must-have tool in all sorts of imagery analysis cells. When I visited a team of Air Force targeteers in 2009, a Google Earth map highlighting all the known hospitals, mosques, graveyards, and schools in Afghanistan helped them pick which buildings to bomb or not.

Around the same time, the investment arms of Google and the CIA both put cash into Recorded Future, a company that monitors social media in real time — and tries to use that information to predict upcoming events.

“Turns out that there are several natural places to take an ability to harvest and analyze the internet to predict future events,” e-mails Recorded Future CEO Christopher Ahlberg. “There’s search, where any innovation that provides improved relevance is helpful; and intelligence, which at some level is all about predicting events and their implications. (Finance is a third.) That made Google Ventures and In-Q-Tel two very natural investors that provides us hooks into the worlds of search and intelligence.”

The government and Google have more than a mutual interest in mining publicly available data. The feds ask Google to turn over information about its customers. Constantly. Last fall, the Justice Department demanded that the company give up the IP addresses of Wikileaks supporters. During the first six months of 2011, U.S. government agencies sent Google 5,950 criminal investigation requests for data on Google users and services, as our sister blog Threat Level noted at the time. That’s an average of 31 a day, and Google said it complied with 93 percent of those requests.

Google is pretty much the only company that publishes the number of requests it receives — a tactic which sometimes causes teeth to grind in D.C. But it’s essential to the well-being of Plex’s core business: its consumer search advertising. Google, as we all know, keeps a titanic amount of information about every aspect of our online lives. Customers largely have trusted the company so far, because of the quality of its products, and because there’s some sense that the Plex and the Pentagon aren’t swapping data wholesale. These small acts of resistance maintain that perceived barrier.

Not long ago — in the middle of the last decade, say — Google held an almost talismanic power inside military and intelligence agencies. Google made searching the web simple and straightforward. Surely, the government ought to be able to do the same for its databases.

“You kept hearing: ‘how come this can’t work like Google,’” says Bob Gourley, who served as the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Chief Technology Officer from 2005 to 2007. “But after a while the technologists got educated. You don’t really want Google.”

Or at least, not in that way. Even complex web searches are single strands of information. Intelligence analysts are hunting for interlocking chains of events: Person A in the same cafe as person B, who chats with person C, who gives some cash to person D.  Those queries were so intricate, government engineers had to program each one in by hand, not so long ago. But lately, more sophisticated tools have come onto the market; the troops and spooks have gotten better at integrating their databases. Google’s products are still used, of course. But it’s just one vendor among many.

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BusinessInsider published an article estimating that Zynga could add $1B in revenue by adding real-money poker. With such a clear opportunity at their doorstep, why hasn't Zynga already done so? For that matter, why haven't other social game companies?

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