Archive | December 2013

NSA Claims Collecting Cellphone Location Data Is Legal Under Executive Order — From 1981

2013-12-06_13h54_27

Today the National Security Agency (NSA) discussed its program that collects billions of cellphone location records each day. The NSA targets foreign phones but also absorbs data on the phones of American citizens.

“The NSA does not target Americans’ location data by design, but the agency acquires a substantial amount of information on the whereabouts of domestic cellphones ‘incidentally,'” according to the Washington Post, which broke the story concerning program based on documents provided by Edward Snowden.

Given that fact, the legal defense that the NSA outlined today for the program could be viewed as underweight. The agency cites Executive Order 12333, issued by then-President Ronald Reagan in 1981. The NSA stated that “the Agency’s EO 12333 collection is outward-facing. We are not intentionally acquiring domestic information through this capability.” The agency also has in place “minimization procedures,” according to its spokesperson.

However, as the agency does collect the location data of many Americans, its defense rests on the fact that it does so accidentally. Therefore, the “collection does not violate FISA [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act].”

Citing an executive order from 1981 to legally undergird a program of immense technological complexity 32 years later may feel weak, but courts could uphold the justification.

Do They Or Do They Not

Here’s the Los Angeles Times, citing the federal government in late June when news of the phone metadata program was fresh:

The U.S. Justice Department has told a court in Florida that the government does not secretly track the location of Americans’ cellphones as part of its massive phone surveillance dragnet, but asking experts to believe that assertion has proved to be another matter.

It appears that assertion was false, as was the assertion that the NSA doesn’t collect data on millions of Americans. The defense against the above statement, regarding the Post’s recent piece, is that the NSA only meant that it doesn’t wittingly track the location of Americans’ cellphones.

However, as my colleague Greg Ferenstein pointed out yesterday:

The NSA also claims that only foreigners are targeted, but it does incidentally pick up data on potentially millions of Americans. Millions of people are connected to a target through two degrees of separation.

What will be interesting to see is if the legal foundation that the NSA cited today will be challenged, and if so, how sturdy it will prove. So far, efforts to force reform at the NSA through such means have been flat.

Top Image Credit: Flickr

Flurry Raises Another $12.5M For Mobile Analytics And Advertising

flurry

Mobile analytics company Flurry has raised $12.5 million in new funding, as first revealed in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission and confirmed by a Flurry spokesperson.

The company started out as an app developer before shifting its focus to analytics and then using its data for advertising. It raised a $25 million round about a year ago, and at the time, CEO Simon Khalaf hinted at a possible IPO and said the company had become cash-flow positive.

Flurry told me today that 400,000 apps are using its analytics product, with 20,000 additions each month, and that it’s tracking activity from 1.2 billion smartphones and tablets. It also said that it’s working with 125,000 developers.

The company has now raised a total of $62.5 million, the spokesperson said, but she declined to identify the investors in the new round.

Pebble smartwatch gets ‘do not disturb’ setting, multiple alarms and alarm snoozing

pebble 520x520 Pebble smartwatch gets do not disturb setting, multiple alarms and alarm snoozing

Pebble’s team has been hard at it “like elves in a workshop” (their words, not mine), and the latest fruits of its labor bring a sleigh-load of new features to the company’s smartwatch.

Chiefly, Pebble owners can now set ‘do not disturb’ periods during which they will receive no notifications (as the name suggests) while there is now support for multiple alarms – which is a good job since there’s now an option to snooze alarms too.

The update – PebbleOS v1.14 – also includes more control over which notifications are displayed on screen, while the company says it has sped up notifications to the watch from iPhones and iPads.

Announcing PebbleOS v1.14 Firmware [Pebble Blog] | Via Endgadget

Image via JoeAleman / Flickr

Russian travel site Oktogo.ru rebrands to Travel.ru following its September acquisition

plane crop 520x520 Russian travel site Oktogo.ru rebrands to Travel.ru following its September acquisition

Russian online hotel and travel service Oktogo.ru has rebranded to Travel.ru, taking the name of the travel portal it acquired in September. The two sites combined serve three million monthly users and offer 5,500 hotels in Russia and 350,000 worldwide.

Marina Kolesnik, CEO of Travel.ru (Oktogo), said in a statement that the company’s goal is to become the top travel brand in Russia, a market that is expected to exceed $10 billion in 2013 and double that by 2016, according to PhoCusWright.

When Oktogo raised $11 million in March we said it was planning to raise a further $40 million this year. The company confirmed it has raised fresh funding that will be “invested into brand building,” but it did not disclose the amount.

Travel.ru

Image via Vereshchagin Dmitry / Shutterstock

Bradley Manning defence gives closing arguments in WikiLeaks case

Manning’s attorney David Coombs told supporters on Thursday ‘tomorrow, you’re going to hear what the truth sounds like’

The defense was summing up its case on Friday in the court martial of Bradley Manning, the US army private who sent hundreds of thousands of US government documents to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

Manning’s civilian defense attorney David Coombs was giving his closing argument in the eighth week of the trial at the Fort Meade army base outside Baltimore. The case will then go to the judge for deliberations, who has said she could rule anytime in the next several days.

“Tomorrow, you’re going to hear what truth sounds like,” Coombs told supporters Thursday night after a lengthy and bruising final argument by the prosecution.

Speaking for more than five hours Thursday, with several breaks through the day for people to use the bathrooms and eat lunch, Major Ashden Fein told the court Manning was a traitor with one mission as an intelligence analyst deployed in Iraq in 2009 and 2010: to find and reveal government secrets to a group of anarchists, then bask in the glory as a whistleblower.

“The government has its job, but there is nobody who could believe what they said – much less them,” Coombs told a group of 40 supporters after Thursday’s session.

“If it takes six, seven hours to go on a diatribe and try to piece together some convoluted story … if it takes you that long to get your point across, you know it isn’t true,” Coombs told supporters in the courtyard of the court building as they were leaving for the day.

He said his closing arguments would likely last about two hours Friday and that he is “going to speak from the heart – it won’t be hard for me to rebut.”

Coombs has said the soldier was troubled by what he saw in the war – and at the same time was struggling as a gay man in the era of “don’t ask don’t tell”. Those struggles made him want to do something to make a difference and he hoped revealing what was going on in the war zone and US diplomacy would inspire debate and reform in American foreign and military policy, Coombs has said.

Fein said Manning betrayed his country’s trust and spilled classified information, knowing the material would be seen by the terrorist group al-Qaida.

“WikiLeaks was merely the platform which Pfc Manning used to ensure all the information was available for the world, including enemies of the United States,” Fein said.

Manning, 25, is charged with 21 offenses, but the most serious is aiding the enemy, which carries a possible sentence of up to life in prison. A native of Crescent, Okla., Manning has acknowledged giving WikiLeaks 700,000 battlefield reports, diplomatic cables and videos. But he says he didn’t believe the information would harm troops in Afghanistan and Iraq or threaten national security.

A military judge, not a jury, is hearing the case at Manning’s request. Army colonel Denise Lind will deliberate after closing arguments.

The verdict and any sentence will be reviewed, and could be reduced, by the commander of the Military District of Washington, currently Major General Jeffery S Buchanan.

Italy arrests 51 in Ostia anti-mafia raids

Police operation in coastal suburb near capital is described as one of the biggest ever anti-mafia sweeps in Rome area

As temperatures soar to around 40C this weekend, thousands of Romans will flock to nearby beaches to roast in the sun, play on the slot machines and dance in sticky seaside nightclubs. They will not be the only ones feeling the heat.

On Friday in an operation that prosecutors said revealed the extent of organised crime in the coastal suburb of Ostia near the Italian capital, 51 people were arrested on suspicion of mafia-related activity.

The crackdown, which involved about 500 police officers as well as dog support units, patrol boats and a helicopter, was described as one of the biggest anti-mafia sweeps ever carried out in the Rome area.

Its aim was to hit at the heart of gangs that prosecutors say have been carving up the coastal territory and sharing its considerable spoils for the past 20 years.

Located about 15 miles south-west of the capital near Leonardo da Vinci airport, Ostia’s sandy beaches prove a popular weekend destination for city-dwellers seeking to escape Rome’s stifling heat.

Particularly targeted in the operation on Friday were members of three clans – the Fasciani, Triassi, and D’Agati – whom investigators suspect of carrying out criminal activities including drug trafficking and extortion.

The Triassi are believed to have close ties to the Sicilian mafia. The website of Il Fatto Quotidiano, a daily newspaper, headlined the raids: “Welcome to Cosa Nostra beach”.

The alleged infiltration by criminal networks in Ostia’s political administration emerged this month when police raided the town hall’s permit office and placed an employee and local contractors under investigation on suspicion of rigging bids for beach contracts in favour of another mafia clan, the Spada.

The move prompted Rome’s new mayor, Ignazio Marino, to announce that permits to manage Ostia’s coastline would henceforth be handled directly from the capital. He said his administration would fight to curb “the underworld infiltration” of Ostia.

“In recent years, the Roman coastline has become fertile ground for criminal activities, the scene of bloody clashes between clans and criminal gangs who seek to control significant parts of the city’s economy,” he said.

One of the most startling incidents in the increasingly bloody turfwar in Ostia came in November 2011 when two criminals, Giovanni Galleoni and Francesco Antonini, were shot dead in the town centre in broad daylight.

In a separate but equally dramatic anti-mafia operation on Friday morning, police in the southern region of Calabria made dozens of arrests in the city of Lamezia Terme, about 40 miles south of Cosenza, some of which concerned a suspected car-crash scam in which payouts were allegedly used to provide criminals with drugs and arms.

Police said the raids had targeted a panoply of local people suspected of involvement in the scheme, ranging from insurers and lawyers to car repairers. There were also arrests of suspected hitmen on suspicion of several killings between 2005 and 2011, police said.

A Calabria senator in the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Freedom People (PdL) party was being investigated for suspected vote-buying but had not been arrested, they added.

Guido Marino, police chief in nearby Catanzaro, said the raids revealed a flourishing criminal system in the city that had drawn in not only fully paid-up members of criminal gangs but “professionals above suspicion”.

“This was a mafia system which not only bloodied Lamezia Terme with murders but which also bled dry a part of [the city’s] already fragile economy,” he was quoted as telling the Ansa news agency.

Calabria, one of Italy’s poorest regions, is the home to the ‘Ndrangheta, now Italy’s most formidable organised crime syndicate, which has grown far beyond its southern origins into a hugely powerful force thought to control much of the cocaine trade in Europe.

Ariel Castro pleads guilty over Ohio abductions to avoid death penatly

Ohio man – charged with 997 counts including kidnap and rape – agrees deal with prosecuctors that will spare him death penalty

A man accused of abducting three woman and holding them captive at his Ohio home for a decade pleaded guilty to multiple charges on Friday, as part of a plea deal that spared him from a death sentence.

Ariel Castro – charged with 977 counts over the kidnap, rape and brutal treatment of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight – agreed a deal with prosecutors under which he will serve life without parole, plus 1,000 years.

Asked in court in Cleveland, Ohio on Friday if he understood that he would spend the rest of his days behind bars, he replied: “I do understand that, your honour”. He added: “I knew I was pretty much going to get the book thrown at me.”

Castro, 53, had been due to stand trial over an indictment sheet that included two counts of aggravated murder over allegations that he punched and starved one of his captives until she miscarried.

The three victims – all of whom disappeared between 2002 and 2004 – escaped on 6 May, when one of them kicked out part of a door while being aided by a neighbour alerted to her screams for help.

The women were 14, 16, and 20 when they were abducted by Castro, a former school bus driver. Relief over their escape earlier this year quickly turned to horror as details emerged of their ordeal at his home in Cleveland.

For about a decade, Castro repeatedly abused them and kept them hidden from the world, often chaining them to a bedroom heater or a pole in his basement, prosecutors said.

Berry gave birth to a child, now six years old. On the day the daughter was born, Castro raped one of the other women, who had helped deliver the baby.

Other pregnancies never went to full term. Knight told prosecutors that she became pregnant five times but was starved and beaten up by Castro so she would miscarry.

Earlier this month, the three victims posted a video on YouTube, to thank the public for the support they had received since escaping from Castro’s house. “I may have been through hell and back, but I am strong enough to walk through hell with a smile on my face and my head held high,” Knight said.

She added: “I will not let the situation define who I am, I will define the situation. I don’t want to be consumed by hatred.”

Castro, who was picked up by police soon after Berry escaped the home, had initially intended to plead not guilty. If the case had gone to trial, the victims would probably have had to testify in court about their ordeal.

Prosecutors had the option of pursuing the death penalty in the case. But under the plea agreement announced on Friday, that option was ruled out.

Moon may influence sleep, study finds

Even if moonlight isn’t streaming through your curtains, the phase of the moon may affect how well you sleep

Science and myth rarely agree, but new research suggests that the lunar cycle could have an effect on the quality of sleep.

The study by researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland found that even in the absence of moonlight, participants slept less deeply and for shorter periods during the full moon than at other lunar phases. It is a phenomenon already known in other organisms as the “circalunar rhythm”, but has never before been shown in humans.

Christian Cajochen, who was the lead researcher on the study, said: “A lot of people complain about bad sleep during moon stages, or they claim that ‘it was the moon’, and there’s a lot of myth involved. We decided to go back in our old data to see whether we could effectively quantify such an effect.”

Previous research has found no association between the phases of the moon and human physiology or behaviour. “While I’m quite cautious and sceptical about the data myself, I have to say after a proper statistical analysis that, to our surprise, we found something there,” said Cajochen. “There is a circalunar influence.”

The brain pattern, eye movements and hormone secretion of volunteers were studied while they slept. Participants were also asked for subjective assessments of their sleep quality.

The results, published in Current Biology, showed that around the full moon, subjects’ brain activity associated with deep sleep decreased by 30%, they took 5 minutes longer to fall asleep, had 20 minutes less sleep overall and lower levels of melatonin – a hormone known to regulate sleep. These findings correlated with the volunteers’ own perception that sleep quality was poorer during the full moon.

“I think one issue in the past was that they compared a lot of people by mixing different laboratories, different devices, and including data from patients, so the entire thing was not standardised,” Cajochen said. “The advantage here is that we really had a standardised protocol.”

The data was taken from a previous study that was not originally looking at the moon’s influence. Participants were kept in a very controlled environment, with artificial lighting, regulated temperature and no way of checking the time. This ensured that internal body rhythms could be investigated independently of external influences.

“The only disadvantage with such a standardised procedure is that we could only investigate 33 people,” said Cajochen. “What I would like to do in the future is to increase the number of subjects and then to follow up each person through the entire moon cycle.”

But such a study would have problems of its own, he added. “If you’re actually going to tell people you’re investigating the influence of the moon, then you may trigger some expectation or sensitivity in them. Sleep is also a psychological thing, of course.”

If true, the mechanisms responsible for the phenomenon are unknown. Malcolm von Schantz, a molecular neurobiologist at Surrey University, said: “Essentially it could be either two things: the moon itself has a gravitational pull which somehow affects our physiology. I find that very unlikely as the gravitational pull of the moon is fairly weak. It doesn’t cause tides in lakes for example, only in large oceans. In fact, if you’re sitting within 15 inches of the wall right now then the wall has a stronger gravitational pull on you than the moon does. So I don’t think we have a sort of mini-tide in ourselves.

“The alternative is that there is a ‘counter’, a mechanism which keeps track somehow of the phases of the moon.”

Marine animals are already known to follow a circalunar rhythm and some believe it is tightly intertwined with the circadian rhythm – the other internal clock that many organisms, humans included, have which is entrained to the sun. “In worms, at least, there is a crossover between these two clocks,” said Cajochen. “But we are not worms any more.”

Other researchers have wondered why a human circalunar clock should exist in the first place. Michael Hastings, a neuroscientist studying circadian rhythms at Cambridge University, said: “In evolutionary terms, it sounds plausible to me at least. If you were a hunter gatherer, you’d want to be out there on a full moon, not a new moon. It might be that there’s something about suppression of sleep under those circumstances because you should be out hunting.

“I think at best it’s intriguing. There’s a biological plausibility, if we take the hunter gatherer scenario, with regard to the mechanisms … It is such a striking and unexpected finding that replication by other sleep labs is absolutely critical.”

Not everyone is concerned that there were only 33 subjects – von Schantz even said these numbers are “fairly sizeable” for such a study.

“It’s true, the body of negative data on the effects of the moon on a huge number of parameters is fairly impressive,” he added. “It’s entirely conceivable that all those previous studies are correct, but that there is also an effect in a limited number of other parameters, one of them being sleep, for reasons we don’t yet understand.”

Small signs of change in Iran as Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration approaches

Hope is tempered by caution both among Iranians and in the west, where some see an opportunity to repair relations

A young Iranian couple, Masoud Bastani and Mahsa Amr-Abadi, both journalists and both imprisoned on account of their writing, have seen very little of each other for the past four years. Like many Iranian prisoners they were granted occasional temporary releases, but officials always made sure they were not allowed out at the same time.

“The authorities wanted to make life yet more miserable for the two, like an extra punishment,” said one of their friends. Their convictions were for colluding and spreading propaganda against the state, a frequent charge against dissidents and independent journalists. This month, however, Bastani and Amr-Abadi were reunited at their house in Tehran, and pictures on Facebook showing the smiling couple embracing one another delighted their friends and followers.

Their newfound happiness is one of a number of small signs of change after the election in June of President Hassan Rouhani, a veteran pragmatist who ran on an ambitiously reformist platform. With a week until Rouhani’s inauguration, such signs have fuelled hope that a peaceful “Iranian spring” could be on the way, reversing the intensifying repression of the last eight years under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Yet those hopes are tempered by bitter experience. Green shoots of civic freedoms and human rights were even more apparent under the last reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, and at the peak of the 2009 opposition Green movement, only to be emphatically quashed by conservatives in the regime and security forces.

There is even greater caution in the west about the possibility of a better relationship with Tehran and perhaps even a deal to defuse the long and dangerous standoff over Iran’s nuclear aspirations. National security and the nuclear programme in particular are very much the preserve of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. But optimists hope that the intense economic pressures on Iran – amplified by severe US and European sanctions – that helped carry Rouhani to victory will drive the regime towards a historic compromise.

Rouhani has not yet formed a government, so the hopes and doubts swirling around his presidency are based mostly on speculation. However, Iranians report that since the election there has been a distinct thaw in the air.

Bastani and Amr-Abadi are not alone. More temporary releases have been handed out and a handful of the political prisoners recently granted leave have been told they need not return to jail provided they stay out of trouble. Others have been told they will be released on Eid al-Fitr, the holiday next month marking the end of Ramadan. Those on trial for political offences say they have been promised acquittal or light sentences. One recently released activist said his interrogators had been noticeably more polite, as if sensing the winds of change.

The new mood has been apparent among the police on the street. As millions of jubilant Iranians poured on to the streets to celebrate Iran’s qualification for the 2014 World Cup days after the election, the police tolerated public music, dancing and slogans chanted in favour of imprisoned opposition leaders, which would have been suppressed only days before.

Last week 25 independent Iranian documentary film-makers accused of working clandestinely inside the country for the BBC’s Persian service were all acquitted, even though at least 10 of them had previously been found guilty. The film-makers were alleged to have supplied the BBC with information, footage, news and reports misrepresenting Iran, leading to fears some would be charged with espionage. However, the country’s cinema organisation, affiliated to the powerful ministry for culture and Islamic guidance, surprised many by ruling that “none of the works was found to be propaganda against the ruling system and none contained anti-revolution material”.

At the same time, local media appear to be pushing back previously rigid boundaries. The semi-official Isna news agency broke a taboo by printing the names of opposition leaders under house arrest.

Summing up the popular mood, the former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was blocked from standing in the election, said on Thursday: “The election’s result has brought hope, peace and rationality to our country.”

Even as they celebrate, many Iranians acknowledge they may be suffering from over-exuberance in view of the limited real changes to date and their extreme fragility. On Facebook and Twitter, the two-word post-election chant “Rouhani Mochakerim” (Rouhani thank you!), is increasingly used ironically as universal expression of gratitude for everyday occurrences (“My brother just passed his exams – Rouhani thank you!”).

The past few weeks have not just been a series of prisoner releases. There have been occasional political arrests too, such as that of the journalist Fariba Pajouh.

Faraz Sanei, of Human Rights Watch, said it was too early to declare a new Iranian spring on the basis of a few rays of sunshine. “Rouhani’s win was certainly a surprise to most analysts, but it is not an indication that reformists will have the upper hand during the next four years,” he said.

Rouhani’s impact on Iran’s relations with the rest of the world is even harder to predict. Khamenei set the tone for national security and foreign policy in the Ahmadinejad era and made clear during the election campaign that he did not intend to change under the new president.

There are signs that the regime intends to use Rouhani’s softer image to try to win more friends abroad. The government has broken with previous practice to invite foreign leaders – with the exceptions of US and Israel – to the inauguration next Sunday.

The foreign ministry even mounted something of a charm offensive in the direction of the UK, seen in ruling circles as Iran’s third worst adversary. On the occasion of the birth of Prince George, the ministry spokesman Abbas Araghchi, a UK-educated fluent English speaker, offered congratulations to the Queen and the Prince of Wales.

The conservative backlash to those comments, however, served to underline the scale of the challenge facing the new government in attempting a rapprochement with the west. Araghchi was fiercely criticised by parliamentary rightwingers, and state TV broadcast a furious diatribe describing the Queen as an “iron-fisted dictator” who chose members of parliament and filled key positions by appointment. “England has one of the most reactionary and medieval forms of governments,” the report from London declared.

Ali Ansari, professor of modern history at Saint Andrews University, said the regime would ultimately have to resolve its contradictory views on dealing with the west. “The conservatives seem to think that Rouhani’s election will change international perceptions overnight,” Ansari said. “But if they think that a smiling Rouhani will get sanctions lifted and everything will be hunky dory without giving something substantial to the west, they may be surprised.”

The mixed messages emanating from Tehran have deepened divisions in the west over how to respond to the dawning of the Rouhani age. The UK government has opted not to send officials to the inauguration, arguing that to do so would be to break with the common EU position that only local ambassadors should attend. (The UK has not had a diplomatic presence in Tehran since its embassy was stormed by a mob in November 2011.)

That decision was quickly condemned by the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, as “a misjudgment and a missed opportunity”. Ben Wallace, Conservative chairman of the British-Iran parliamentary group, also voiced concern that western mis-steps could undermine the new president. “Rouhani has a real task ahead. He has to balance the politics inside Iran while at the same time trying to bring Iran into the mainstream of the international community,” Wallace said. “The danger for him and for peace is if the US and the UK move the goalposts

and are seen to be hypocritical in support of repressive Sunni regimes yet tough on the Shia nation of Iran.”

The uncertainty over how to respond to Rouhani’s rise is even more pronounced across the Atlantic. According to the New York Times, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, passed a message purportedly from Rouhani to the White House, saying that the new president was interested in direct negotiations. As an apparent sweetener to encourage such sentiments, Washington has tweaked its draconian sanctions to allow the transfer of more medical equipment. At the same time, however, the Republican-run House of Representatives is preparing to vote on the imposition of even more stringent sanctions before going on its August recess. A joint letter by two retired senior US officers, General Joseph Hoar and Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, and Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, published on The Hill’s congressional blog said: “Rouhani’s election represents what could be the last best hope for serious negotiations with Iran to produce a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear dispute. . “The House must not snuff out hopes for Iranian moderation before Rouhani even gets a chance.”