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U.S. intelligence

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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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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 holodeck: a room that can create an interactive 3-D hologram of just about any environment you can think of. It’s been the dream of Star Trek nerds ever since The Next Generation debuted on TV. Well brace yourself, Trekkies, and try not to soil those Starfleet unitards in glee. The U.S. intelligence community had heard your prayers and is now taking a step towards building its own holographic simulator.

Iarpa, the intelligence community’s advanced research outfit, announced this month that’s it’s embarking on a Synthetic Holographic Observation (SHO) program, a quest to build a system that lets intel analysts collaborate with each other using interactive 3-D holographic displays.

Before you get too excited, SHO isn’t going to be an exact replica of the holodeck. Instead of a geometrically patterned room on board the Enterprise, the holograms will come from workstations here on earth. While Iarpa’s announcement promises “dynamic, color, high-performance” holograms, the all-around holographic environment that’s indistinguishable from reality is still a long ways off. In the meantime, Iarpa’s program will rely on synthetic, electronically reproduced light fields.

SHO is bringing part of the holodeck concept one small step closer to reality, though. The program is aimed at generating 3-D displays that let analysts get a better feel for the mountains of imagery that the intelligence community collects. In particular, SHO needs to render conventional imagery and LIDAR (light detection and ranging) into holographic light fields. LIDAR bounces beams of light off objects in a manner not too different from conventional radar, allowing users to quickly make 3-D images and maps.

Just generating a hologram from aerial imagery isn’t enough, though. SHO needs to be able to let multiple analysts work together on the same image at the same time. To do that, it has to be interactive. Iarpa’s asking prospective builders to make a hologram that analysts can navigate and manipulate in ways that regular maps don’t allow.

This isn’t the defense world’s first foray into the world of holograms. Some projects, like the “Face of Allah,” have aimed at beaming a 3-D image of a deity over the battlefield in hopes of striking fear of the divine into the hearts of the enemy. Darpa’s contract with Vuzix of Rochester, New York is a little closer to SHO’s goals. Vuzix is building eyewear that would give troops on the ground a holographic image of nearby air assets and allow them to call in airstrikes with greater precision.

Unlike the battlefield hologlasses, eyewear-based devices need not apply for SHO. Iarapa wants its holographic displays to be visible to the naked eye.

Analysts’ eyeballs are a special concern for IARPA, too. Conventional 3-D technology can lead to eye strain when used for long periods of time. Iarpa needs analysts to use SHO for long periods of time so those pitching a holographic system need to make systems that are easy on the eyes over extended use.

Iarpa’s announcement provides a few examples of how they’d like to use their holographic system. During the testing phase, it wants to see how holograhic systems work on LIDAR data of urban environments and terrain, and conventional imagery of buildings and airspace.

But for a more real-life example of how holographic displays could be useful, take the bin Laden raid as a test case. In that instance, the intel community’s imagery nerds used satellites and airborne sensors to snap all kinds of imagery of the terror leader’s Abbotabad crib. That imagery helped Navy SEALs build a real life mockup of Chez bin Laden at Bagram Air Field. And it may have led the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency — the intel community imagery exploitation shop — to make virtual models of the compound with its software.

If SHO can move past the prototype phase, imagery analysts would be able to quickly generate immersive models of a high-value target’s lair. Multiple analysts and personnel could take a virtual stroll through the building and help plot a raid without ever having to visit the real-world replica.

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