Friday, February 28, 2014

Congressional leaders back Obama on Ukraine, warn Russia

from latimes

Obama on Ukraine
President Obama, speaking in the White House briefing room, expressed concern about reports of Russian military activity within Ukraine. (Charles Dharapak / Associated Press / February 27, 2014)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

British Spies Said to Intercept Yahoo Webcam Images

from nytimes

SAN FRANCISCO — A British intelligence agency collected video webcam images — many of them sexually explicit — from millions of Yahoo users, regardless of whether they were suspected of illegal activity, according to accounts of documents leaked by Edward J. Snowden.
The surveillance effort operated by Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, was code-named Optic Nerve. Images from Yahoo webcam chats were captured in bulk through the agency’s fiber-optic cable taps and saved to a GCHQ database.
It is unclear how much of the data was shared with American officials at the National Security Agency, though the British ran queries of the data using a search tool provided by the N.S.A. called XKeyscore, according to a report on Thursday by The Guardian.
The report did not indicate whether the agency also collected webcam images from similar services, such as Google Hangouts or Microsoft’s Skype. The Guardian did say the British intelligence agency was studying the possibilities of using the cameras in Microsoft’s Kinect devices, which are used with its Xbox game consoles, to spy on users.
Because the British agency lacked the technical means to filter out the content of British or American citizens, and because it faces fewer legal restrictions than the N.S.A. in the United States, documents show that the GCHQ was collecting vast amounts of webcam images. In one six-month period in 2008, the agency collected webcam images from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally, including those of Americans, according to the Guardian report.
The British agency restricted its collection by saving one image every five minutes from users’ feeds, partly to avoid overwhelming its servers. It also restricted its image searches to so-called metadata, information that tells analysts what content the files contain, such as the sender and receiver’s usernames, file types, time, date and duration of their webcam chat.
But analysts were still able to view the contents of webcam chats between users whose usernames matched those of surveillance targets. One document instructs analysts that they are allowed to view “webcam images associated with similar Yahoo identifiers to your known target.”
The agency also apparently experimented with facial-recognition technology, which searched webcam images for faces resembling those of GCHQ targets. One undated document shows that the agency shuttered this capability. It was unclear if or when it was resurrected. It is also unclear if the N.S.A. also had access to the metadata and images.
Yahoo said in a statement on Thursday that it was not aware of the program and expressed outrage at published reports.
“This report, if true, represents a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy that is completely unacceptable and we strongly call on the world’s governments to reform surveillance law consistent with the principles we outlined in December,” the company said in a statement. “We are committed to preserving our users’ trust and security and continue our efforts to expand encryption across all of our services.”
Microsoft also said it had never heard of the surveillance program or the British government’s interest in using the Kinect camera for spying. “However, we’re concerned about any reports of governments surreptitiously collecting private customer data,” the company said in a statement. “That’s why in December we initiated a broad effort to expand encryption across our services and are advocating for legal reforms.”
Companies like Yahoo, Google and Microsoft that operate Internet services send vast amounts of data — including video and webcam chats — through the fiber-optic lines between their data centers around the world. After recent disclosures about government tapping of some such lines, all three companies have said they are working to encrypt those links between their data centers to thwart spying.
Yahoo has said that encryption will be in place for all of its services by March 31. Google has encrypted its video chat services, including Hangouts, since at least 2010.
In response to earlier concerns about potential government surveillance of the Kinect camera, Microsoft said last year that it would allow users to turn it off. It also said it did not give any government broad access to Skype data or security technologies.
Documents dated between 2008 and 2010 show the GCHQ was collecting still images from Yahoo webcam chats and storing them in an agency database. The GCHQ’s Optic Nerve program, which began as a prototype, was still active in 2012, according to an internal GCHQ document.
The program posed unique challenges. According to one GCHQ document, between 3 and 11 percent of collected Yahoo webcam images contained sexually explicit content. “Unfortunately, there are issues with undesirable images within the data,” one GCHQ document reads. “It would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person.”
An internal agency survey of 323 Yahoo usernames found that 7.1 percent of those images contained “undesirable nudity.”
The same document also notes that because Yahoo users can broadcast webcam streams to more than one user, without a reciprocal stream, the service “appears sometimes to be used for broadcasting pornography.”

Collecting and storing content from video sources has long posed a dilemma for the N.S.A. and its intelligence counterparts because files are often larger and more difficult to store. Also, the video files often contain pornography, family videos, commercials and content of questionable intelligence value.
In its article, The Guardian described one presentation in which GCHQ analysts discuss the possibility in spying on webcam traffic from Microsoft’s Xbox 360’s Kinect camera, claiming it generated “fairly normal webcam traffic” and was being considered for part of a wider surveillance program.
Previous disclosures from documents released by Mr. Snowden show that the N.S.A. was actively exploring the video capabilities of game consoles for surveillance, and that N.S.A. analysts infiltrated virtual games like World of Warcraft and Second Life to snoop on targets.
A GCHQ spokesman cited “a longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters.”
“Furthermore,” the spokesman, who declined to be identified, said, “all of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorized, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the Interception and Intelligence Services commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. All our operational processes rigorously support this position.”
VaneĆ© Vines, an N.S.A. spokeswoman, said in a statement: “The National Security Agency does not ask its foreign partners to undertake any intelligence activity that the U.S. government would be legally prohibited from undertaking itself. N.S.A. works with a number of partners in meeting its foreign intelligence mission goals, and those operations comply with U.S. law and with the applicable laws under which those partners operate.
“A key part of the protections that apply to both U.S. persons and citizens of other countries is the mandate that information be in support of a valid foreign intelligence requirement, and comply with U.S. attorney general-approved procedures to protect privacy rights. Those procedures govern the acquisition, use and retention of information about U.S. persons.”

The Guardian article referred to an internal GCHQ document that considered the legalities of the Optic Nerve program as new capabilities, like automated facial matching, were developed. But the article said that the agency would wait to consider legalities until experimental capabilities were fully developed.
As The Guardian ran its story, , global security experts and intelligence officials were in San Francisco this week at the RSA Conference on cybersecurity.
“We have to have some understanding about what we are going to collect and what we are not going to collect,” Richard Clarke, former United States counterterrorism czar, said. “If there are things that we think are so embarrassing that they wouldn’t pass the ‘front page test,’ then don’t do it.”

Kepler's comeback? New K2 mission could chase wilder targets

from latimes

February 27, 20148:28 a.m.

NASA Kepler K2 mission
The conception illustration depicts how solar pressure can be used to balance NASA's Kepler spacecraft, keeping the telescope stable enough to continue monitoring distant stars in search of transiting planets. If approved, the K2 mission could be a second chance for the crippled spacecraft, whose precision-pointing ability was crippled last May. (NASA /February 27, 2014)

Don't call it a comeback just yet. Astronomers mourned the Kepler Space Telescope after it was crippled last year. But NASA’s planet hunter may be getting a second chance at life — with an ingenious, just-so-crazy-it-might-work plan that would use the sun’s rays to steer the spacecraft.
The data already collected by Kepler are still turning up a treasure trove of hundreds of planets, as Wednesday's announcement showed. But if it passes NASA approval, the potential new mission, called K2, could mean a whole different kind of search to find Earth-size exoplanets, along with supernovae, protostars and galaxy clusters.
“The K2 mission is basically a brand new mission in a sense, even though it reuses the Kepler Space Telescope,” Kepler mission project manager Steve Howell said in an interview. “I find that kind of exciting.”
Since launching in 2009, the Kepler spacecraft has revealed 3,601 candidate planets (961 confirmed) comprising an interstellar menagerie: super-Jupiters, super-Earths, mini-Neptunes, and other alien worlds that have defied comparison to those in our own solar system.
The spacecraft did so by staring at roughly 150,000 stars in a celestial patch representing 1/400th of the sky, waiting for tiny dips in starlight that would signal a planet was passing by, blocking a little bit of light. But to get the exquisitely precise data it needed to pick out individual dimming stars, it had to be able to hold itself very still.
For that kind of precision pointing, it needed to have at least three working reaction wheels to steer it and hold it in place. The spacecraft came with four, but two of them failed. The first failed in July 2012; the second stopped working in May 2013. That left only two reaction wheels, not enough for Kepler to keep up its planet-hunting work. 
Astronomers mourned. (UC Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy even penned a poem in memoriam.) The mission had just been renewed a year before. And Kepler’s scientific prowess would only have increased with time because the longer it stared at that patch, the higher the likelihood that it would identify smaller planets farther away from their home stars’ searing rays — and thus, under potentially more ‘Earth-like’ conditions.
The problem was the sun. Out in space, very little disturbs Kepler from its position, except for the photons (light particles) streaming out of the sun that constant bombard the spacecraft. Those photons exert just enough pressure to push the spacecraft around a little bit, which is what the telescope’s reaction wheels try to counteract. Without one of them, Kepler couldn’t combat this pressure in all directions.
Scientists tried to think of workarounds, to no avail. But then engineers at Ball Aerospace in Colorado came up with a mind-boggling solution: Rather than try to fight the sun, they’d use it to their advantage.
The plan uses the sun as Kepler’s “third wheel.” They position a ridge on the spacecraft so that when sunlight hits it, the photons split equally along both sides, thus helping to hold it in balance.
“The K2 mission won’t be able to point that precisely,” Howell said. “It’ll point maybe about four to 10 times worse than the Kepler mission. And while that sounds horrible, it’s still 500 or more times better than anything you can do from a ground telescope.”
Instead of staring at one patch of sky, Kepler’s gaze will trace the ecliptic — the plane in which the Earth orbits the sun — and will cover roughly five times more area, Howell said.
The spacecraft will have to reposition itself roughly every 75 days in its orbit,  sometimes to keep from getting blinded by the sun, other times to move its solar panels out of the shadow. This means it can’t stare at the same patch of sky for years on end, and so it probably won’t be finding Earth-size planets with Earth-like orbits.
The original Kepler mission’s patch of sky was considered somewhat boring in that it was fairly uniform — and with good reason: When you’re looking for tiny fluctuations in light in a field of sun-like stars, you don't need a lot of distractions.
But if approved, K2 will be looking at a much more diverse region of sky with a wide range of astronomical and astrophysical phenomena: planets with short orbits around cooler stars (which, if in their star’s habitable zone, could still harbor water); young, still-forming proto-stars, which could provide insight into star and planet formation; and supernovae and galaxy clusters.
“The scientific opportunities just really started to explode — there’s so much to do,” said UC Berkeley's Marcy, who poetically mourned Kepler.
“And if instead what you’re interested in is the stars themselves," he added, "then new K2 may be even more exciting than the Kepler mission was.”
The researchers demonstrated that their new method would work when they managed to pick out a previously identified planet called WASP-28b. On March 8, they plan a full-blown test, to dip the telescope into the ecliptic and try the method out until the end of May.
“It’s been sort of going from a newborn baby starting to walk to a 3-year-old here in the last four or five months,” Howell said. “We had never flown the spacecraft this way. This idea of balancing the sun had never been tried before.”
By May, Howell said, Kepler's controllers should know if they’ve been approved for the K2 mission, which would cost about $10 million a year for a two-year stint, about half of the original Kepler mission’s current annual cost to operate. And for the next couple of years both missions would run in tandem, Howell said.
“I will have both my hats,” Howell said. “I will switch them every day. Kepler still has a number of years of its mission left.”

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

New Food Labels Would Highlight Calories And Sugar

from npr

WASHINGTON (AP) — Those "Nutrition Facts" labels that are plastered on nearly every food package found in grocery stores are getting a new look.
Calories would be in larger, bolder type, and consumers for the first time would know whether foods have added sugars under label changes being proposed by the Obama administration. Serving sizes would be updated to make them more realistic. A serving of ice cream, for example, would double to a full cup, closer to what people actually eat.
The proposed overhaul comes as science has shifted. While fat was the focus two decades ago when the labels first were created, nutritionists are now more concerned with how many calories we eat. And serving sizes have long been misleading, with many single-serving packages listing multiple servings, so the calorie count is lower.
The idea isn't that people should eat more; it's that they should understand how many calories are in what they are actually eating. The Food and Drug Administration says that by law, serving sizes must be based on actual consumption, not ideal consumption.
"Our guiding principle here is very simple, that you as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into your local grocery store, pick up an item off the shelf and be able to tell whether it's good for your family," said first lady Michelle Obama, who was to join the Food and Drug Administration in announcing the proposed changes Thursday at the White House.
Mrs. Obama was making the announcement as part of her Let's Move initiative to combat child obesity, which is celebrating its fourth anniversary. On Tuesday, she announced new Agriculture Department rules that would reduce marketing of unhealthy foods in schools.
The new nutrition labels are likely several years away. The FDA will take comments on the proposal for 90 days, and a final rule could take another year. Once it's final, the agency has proposed giving industry two years to comply.
The FDA projects food companies will have to pay around $2 billion as they change the labels.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the industry group that represents the nation's largest food companies, did not respond to any specific parts of the proposal but called it a "thoughtful review."
President Pamela Bailey also said it was important to the food companies that the labels "ultimately serve to inform, and not confuse, consumers."
It was still not yet clear what the final labels would look like. The FDA offered two labels in its proposal — one that looks similar to the current version but is shorter and clearer and another that groups the nutrients into a "quick facts" category for things like fat, carbohydrates, sugars and proteins. There also would be an "avoid too much" category for saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars; and a "get enough" section with vitamin D, potassium, calcium, iron and fiber.
Both versions list calories above all of those nutrients in a large, bold type.
The proposed rules would also overhaul serving sizes for soda and single-serving packages. Both 12-ounce and 20-ounce sodas would be considered one serving, and many single-serving packages — a bag of chips, a can of soup or a frozen entree, for example — would either be listed as a single serving or list nutrient information by serving and by container.
The inclusion of added sugars to the label was one of the biggest revisions. Nutrition advocates have long asked for that line on the label because it's impossible for consumers to know how much sugar in an item is naturally occurring, like that in fruit and dairy products, and how much is added by the manufacturer. Think an apple vs. apple sauce, which comes in sweetened and unsweetened varieties.
According to the Agriculture Department's 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, added sugars contribute an average of 16 percent of the total calories in U.S. diets. Though those naturally occurring sugars and the added sugars act the same in the body, the USDA says the added sugars are just empty calories while naturally occurring ones usually come along with other nutrients.
David Kessler, who was FDA commissioner when the first Nutrition Facts labels were unveiled in the early 1990s, said he thinks focusing on added sugars and calories will have a "demonstrative public health benefit."
Kessler said the added sweetness, like added salt, drives overeating. And companies will adjust their recipes to get those numbers down.
"No food company wants products to look bad," he said.
While some may ignore the panels, there's evidence that more people are reading them in recent years as there has been a heightened interest in nutrition.
A USDA study released earlier this year said 42 percent of working adults used the panel always or most of the time in 2009 and 2010, up from 34 percent two years earlier. Older adults were more likely to use it.
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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Microsoft's 'go-low' play puts Windows revenue on the line


February 25, 2014 12:33 PM ET

More services revenue, less from devices? Is that the new strategy?

Computerworld - Analysts were uncertain today whether the recent stretch of "go-low" moves by Microsoft means that the company has tweaked its strategy to emphasize services at the expense of devices.
"Occam's razor suggests that this is a response to Chromebooks more than anything," said Ben Thompson, an independent analyst who covers technology at his Stratechery website, of the report last week that Microsoft has cut Windows 8.1 licensing fees by 70% for devices that will cost less than $250. "There are very few people who will buy both a Chromebook and a Windows PC, whereas most people will buy both a PC and a tablet."
Chromebooks, powered by Google's browser-based Chrome OS, have made inroads into education and business, but their overall impact has been disputed. Still, Microsoft sees them as enough of a threat to attack them in its advertising.
Carolina Milanesi, on the other hand, was bullish on the idea that Microsoft is explicitly aiming for the lower-priced markets in smartphones, tablets and PCs -- even if that means diminished revenue for Windows -- in an effort to try to capitalize on its broad portfolio of services.
"From a Windows 8.1 perspective, it does seem that way, that Microsoft's going after the mass market, that it's no longer necessarily about the software but about the ecosystem," said Milanesi, strategic insight director of Kantar Worldpanel ComTech. "We're starting to see a place for that ecosystem [with lower-priced devices]."
The changes, Milanesi said, were right in line with new CEO Satya Nadella's first-day casting of the company's strategy as "mobile first, cloud-first."
Those moves have come in quick succession over the past few days.
Last Friday, Bloomberg reported that Microsoft hadslashed the price of a Windows 8.1 license from $50 to $15 for OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) building tablets and PCs to be priced at under $250.
On Sunday, Windows Phone chief Joe Belfiore announced that Microsoft's mobile operating system would support cheaper chips from Qualcomm, that the company had partnered with a new set of device makers known for building inexpensive smartphones for emerging markets like China and India, and would relax some of the OS's requirements so ODMs (original device manufacturers) could cut corners. All, he said, were part of a "high-volume" focus by the company.
Yesterday, Nokia -- whose handset business is being bought by Microsoft for $7.4 billion -- announced a new line of smartphones powered by an offshoot of Google's Android. The Nokia X family, which will sell for as little as $29, will take on pure-Android rivals with a host of Microsoft services in place of those from Google.
Stephen Elop, still the head of Nokia's devices group but destined to take the same job at Microsoft when the acquisition closes this quarter, argued that cheap Nokia smartphones would provide a "feeder" system -- much like a Major League Baseball's farm team feeds players into the big time -- for pricier Windows Phone-powered handsets.
Sameer Singh, another independent analyst who covers mobile technology atTech-Thougts, sided with Thompson on the "is this a new strategy or not?" question.
"I think this move is really a way to ensure that at least some Windows devices continue shipping at those price brackets," said Singh in an email reply to questions today. "The competition there, in both smartphones and tablets, is extremely intense [and] I think this is more of a concession to keep certain OEMs within the Windows fold. I don't think it suggests a change in the portfolio or positioning."
The questions Computerworld posed to the trio of analysts were sparked by Hal Berenson's piece of Monday. Berenson's frequent commentary on Microsoft is closely watched, since he was formerly a manager and engineer at the company, and often brings an insider's view of its strategy.
In his blog post, Berenson argued that with Microsoft's recent moves, "You start to get a picture of a strategy focused on winning at the low-end."