Security Digest: Our list of security stories that matter, Oct. 25-31


Flickr image courtesy Josh Larios

Security Digest had to take last week off so we could attend the Online News Association conference in Washington, D.C. where we spent some quality time with other muckrakers and also got to know a fine gentleman named Richard Pope of the U.K.’s ScraperWiki.

For the uninitiated, ScraperWiki specializes in compiling government data online for easier public consumption. During a workshop coordinated by the journalism-meets-tech group Hacks/Hackers, we strategized some better ways to get details from oil and chemical spills reported to the Coast Guard into the hands of citizens. We’re hoping to have more on that for you in the future.

Meanwhile, plenty of homeland security news to report. First of all, scientists at DARPA have launched another new initiative that seeks to detect terrorist behavior before attacks occur. This time they’re calling it Anomaly Detection at Multiple Scales, or ADAMS. The plan is to mine millions or even billions of communications such as e-mails sent from, say, military personnel in search of a pattern that shows someone on the inside may be preparing to carry out political violence.

The first thought that comes to mind, of course, is Army Major Nidal Hasan, accused of killing 13 people and wounding dozens of others during a shooting spree at Fort Hood in Texas last year. Hasan allegedly sent numerous messages to radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. But DARPA hasn’t said much so far about how such a technology would respect the privacy of soldiers or government employees.

Surveillance expert Susan Landau says a plan by the FBI to rewrite rules on law enforcement wiretapping “is a really dumb idea.” Federal authorities want the manufacturers of new communications devices (e.g. smartphones) to include secret backdoors in their construction making it easier for investigators to wiretap suspects.

Such products are often encrypted to ensure people can talk securely and privately. Building a backdoor means creating a security weakness that, for instance, could be exploited by governments engaged in industrial espionage, Landau wrote for the Huffington Post Oct. 25. There’s more:

Because the FBI has been finding it difficult to wiretap in some cases, the bureau is also considering making the carriers pay for eavesdropping when the tapping gets complicated. And this is really the issue. The FBI desire to rewrite wiretapping law isn’t about wiretapping being too hard for its agents. It’s about who foots the bill. … The dangers in the FBI proposal are thus three-fold: higher costs for communications, a decrease in U.S. innovation (and loss of innovation to overseas), and a likely massive increase in wiretapping – because cost would no longer be an issue for law enforcement.

Officials in Ohio want “unprecedented surveillance capacity” and are pushing to centralize video images captured by thousands of cameras across the state that quietly keep watch over schools, roads and even employee break rooms, says the Columbus Dispatch.

The network would be “far more comprehensive than anything that has come before,” and would also include camera footage from private facilities like shopping malls. Not everyone believes widespread surveillance improves public safety, however. New Orleans just unplugged its own system of cameras Oct. 14 because it “rarely worked.” It did, however, lead to a corruption scandal involving alleged bribes and kickbacks.

FBI Director Robert Mueller and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano both spoke before the influential International Association of Chiefs of Police Oct. 25, and each touched on the issue of local intelligence fusion centers. Congress began financing the development of fusion centers after Sept. 11 for local, state and federal authorities to swap tips on crime and terrorism. Washington has sunk at least $426 million into them since 2004, and there are now more than 70 across the United States.

Mueller said the FBI has personnel assigned to 80 percent of the centers. He told the crowd that as a federal prosecutor earlier in his career, he watched frustrated local police in the San Francisco Bay Area lobby for better information sharing between agencies.

Regional law enforcement databases were not compatible back then, he said. (And many of them are still not compatible today.) But without elaborating, he suggested Berkeley in the East Bay, known for its defiantly liberal attitude, didn’t always get along so well with other police departments on this particular matter:

Aside from the technical issues, there were policy concerns to overcome. San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose would generally see these issues in the same way. But then there was Berkeley, which had a different take on things.

We’d love to know what different take Berkeley had.

Napolitano, for her part, said the federal government has now expanded its program for suspicious activity reporting to 19 locations. The initiative calls on local police to document evidence of possible terrorist attack planning or criminal activity (e.g. taking photographs of government buildings) and make the reports centrally available to other law enforcement agencies. Civil libertarians worry that “suspicious activities” have not been clearly defined. As part of a legal settlement last month, the Federal Protective Service was forced to remind its personnel that the public does have a right to photograph government buildings, but security officers may still question individuals who are doing so.

Like our content? Help us do more.

Support Us