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Original author: 
Megan Geuss

The Guardian

The Guardian released an interview today with the man who has been the paper's source for a few now-infamous leaked documents that revealed a vast dragnet maintained by the NSA for gathering information on communications in America. That source is Edward Snowden, 29, an employee of American defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and a former technical assistant for the CIA.

When The Guardian published a leaked document on Wednesday of last week that showed a FISA court granting the NSA power to collect the metadata pertaining to phone calls from all of Verizon's customers over a period of three months, it became one of the biggest exposures of privacy invading actions taken by the government without the public's knowledge.

That is, until the next day, when The Guardian and The Washington Post revealed slides pertaining to another NSA project called PRISM, which apparently gathered vast swaths of information on users of Google services, Facebook, Apple, and more. While the companies named in the PRISM slides have all denied participation in such a program, President Obama and a number of senators confirmed the collection of phone call metadata on Friday.

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Original author: 
Sean Gallagher


Alpha.data.gov, an experimental data portal created under the White House's Open Data Initiative.

Data.gov

President Barack Obama issued an executive order today that aims to make "open and machine-readable" data formats a requirement for all new government IT systems. The order would also apply to existing systems that are being modernized or upgraded. If implemented, the mandate would bring new life to efforts started by the Obama administration with the launch of Data.gov four years ago. It would also expand an order issued in 2012 to open up government systems with public interfaces for commercial app developers.

"The default state of new and modernized Government information resources shall be open and machine readable," the president's order reads. "Government information shall be managed as an asset throughout its life cycle to promote interoperability and openness, and, wherever possible and legally permissible, to ensure that data are released to the public in ways that make the data easy to find, accessible, and usable." The order, however, also requires that this new "default state" protect personally identifiable information and other sensitive data on individual citizens, as well as classified information.

Broadening the “open” mandate

The president's mandate was initially pushed forward by former Chief Information Officer of the United States Vivek Kundra. In May of 2009, Data.gov launched with an order that required agencies to provide at least three "high-value data sets" through the portal.

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Hackers-darkness_thumb

Last week, Leon Panetta stoked some fears and drew bloggy jeers when he warned of an incoming “cyber Pearl Harbor.” The gloomy song and dance, which we’ve heard played out so many a time now, made a chorus of hackers’ alleged ability to disrupt transit lines and shut down the power grid. As Motherboard’s Mr. Estes pointed out, the faux-somber debacle was mostly designed to scare folks into supporting the Obama administration’s drive for internet security legislation.

And it might work. After all, we’re innately terrified of a world without electricity at this point; so much so that we’ve created an entire subgenere of fiction, the unplugged dystopia, to imagine its terrors. There’s been a steady drumbeat of forceful warnings of cyber attacks that could “cripple” the US grid: from Obama himself, from the NSA general who said over the summer that the probability of a crisis is mounting, and from the military, who says that Anonymous, the hacker group, would soon be capable of shutting down the entire U.S. electrical grid.

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The least consistent aspect of modern digital games is the quality of the UI. This article - the first in a series of four - outlines UI design axioms to help designers create better games and gamers to understand more about UI.

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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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Earlier this month, as U.S. and NATO forces lay the groundwork for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan, a serious misstep threatened to disrupt their plans. On February 21, reports surfaced that NATO personnel at Bagram Air Base had burned a number of Korans, which were discovered and saved by locals working at the base. Despite an apology from the Obama administration, and claims by NATO authorities that the burnings had happened inadvertently, violent anti-American demonstrations erupted in several places. Dozens were killed, including four American troops. Two of the Americans were allegedly killed by an Afghan colleague, another in an increasing number of insider attacks. According to the Pentagon, around 70 NATO members have been killed in 42 insider attacks from May 2007 through January 2012. Gathered here are images of the people and places involved in this conflict over the past month, as part of an ongoing monthly series on Afghanistan. [40 photos]

A CH-47 Chinook helicopter scatters snow as it lands at a remote landing zone in Shah Joy district, Zabul province, Afghanistan, on February 8, 2012. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jon Rasmussen)

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