Security Digest: Our list of security stories that matter, Jan. 10-16


Flickr image of Miami skyline courtesy Xynn Tii

For many military technologies deployed in war zones around the world, it’s only a matter of time before they end up in the hands of local police here, from fingerprint and iris scanners to assault rifles and armored trucks. Americans could be forgiven if they assumed pilotless drones were an exception, but they’d be wrong. Local cops want those, too.

Drones are already used on the southwest border, but for many Americans the border feels like a world away, its own sort of distant battlefield. The aircraft may now be headed for a major urban center, Miami, if the police department there gets its way. The Miami-Dade Police Department in 2009 picked up a pair of T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicles built by the defense contractor Honeywell International based on work begun at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aka DARPA.

That’s according to Talking Points Memo, which writes that department officials have been testing and training on the equipment since then. Miami is now working toward approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and argues that the drones, commonly equipped with a camera for surveillance and reconnaissance, will help ensure officer safety by keeping them out of helicopters. T-Hawks can also rapidly transmit overhead information to commanders at the scene of a major event, another justification cited by Miami police, according to TPM.

We should point out as TPM did that T-Hawks are far smaller than higher-profile Predator drones being used to kill militants in places like Pakistan. A Miami police sergeant told TPM that T-Hawks resemble a “small office garbage can” in size. They don’t carry weapons, either.

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Modern technology has overshadowed a law enacted in 1986 to protect the privacy rights of Americans when they communicate, and police are seeking from Internet companies personal data that belongs to consumers tens of thousands of times every year without clear rules governing their requests.

The New York Times reports that such electronic information – including photos, emails, cell-phone messages and more – has become an attractive target for law enforcement investigators. The story followed reports that the Justice Department wanted Twitter to turn over user information for customers connected to the anti-secrecy site Wikileaks. According to the Times:

Last year, the Justice Department argued in court that cell phone users had given up the expectation of privacy about their location by voluntarily giving that information to carriers. In April, it argued in a federal court in Colorado that it ought to have access to some emails without a search warrant. And federal law enforcement officials, citing technology advances, plan to ask for new regulations that would smooth their ability to perform legal wiretaps of various Internet communications.

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A leading voice on Internet privacy, Ryan Singel of Wired magazine’s Threat Level blog, argued Jan. 10 that Twitter made the right decision reacting to the Justice Department’s request for user data tied to Wikileaks and its release of confidential U.S. government documents.

Twitter faced a gag order that would have prevented the company from discussing with anyone the government’s demand for customer data. But Twitter fought back and won the right to notify targeted users that the government was seeking their information, including email and IP addresses, thereby giving them a chance to challenge the data requests themselves:

That’s what makes Twitter’s move so important. It briefly carried the torch for its users during that crucial period when, because of the gag order, its users couldn’t carry it themselves. The company’s action in asking for the gag order to be overturned sets a new precedent that we can only hope that other companies begin to follow. … Even more remarkable, Twitter’s move comes as a litany of companies, including PayPal, MasterCard, Visa, and Bank of America, follow the political winds away from the First Amendment, banning donations to Wikileaks. And Amazon.com voluntarily threw the site off its hosting platform, even though there’s nothing illegal in publishing classified documents.

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Tests designed to gauge the performance of expensive high-tech radiation detectors weren’t conducted properly, impacting the ability of officials at the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office to draw reliable conclusions from them.

A new report from the National Academy of Sciences says the DNDO, housed in the Department of Homeland Security, also cast the test results “in ways that are incorrect and potentially misleading,” according to the Washington Post:

The report echoes allegations that surfaced in debates about one of the George W. Bush administration’s top national security initiatives. In 2006, Congress approved $1.2 billion for the machines. The program stalled after Government Accountability Office auditors accused the DNDO of playing down the costs, overstating the benefits and providing misleading information to Congress.

(Full disclosure: Post report Robert O’Harrow, who wrote the story, is a CIR advisor.)

A physicist and former University of California president in charge of the report said he believed DNDO “rushed it.”

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