Washington Post

The military thinks Bitcoin could pose a threat to national security

Does Bitcoin risk endangering the nation's safety? The Pentagon thinks it might.

According to a Defense Department solicitation, virtual currencies represent an emerging technology that could help terrorists and criminals evade law enforcement and launch attacks against the United States.

To prepare, the Pentagon's Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office asked companies in January to help study virtual currencies' potential role in "threat finance." (The study would be conducted as part of a wider investigation into evolving threats, including facial recognition and Web monitoring.)

"The introduction of virtual currency will likely shape threat finance by increasing the opaqueness, transactional velocity, and overall efficiencies of terrorist attacks," according to a CTTSO memo obtained by Bitcoin Magazine.

One reason would-be criminals find Bitcoin so attractive is that it makes anonymous transactions over long distances a cinch. Like cash, it's the perfect financial tool if you're trying to cover your tracks.

How George Washington University is shaping a piece of Google’s smartphone future

In the labs of George Washington University, students are laboring in labs covered in black-and-white dotted paper, puzzling out how to make a machine that understands images like the human brain.

It’s a question that Google is trying to tackle in typical Silicon Valley fashion with Project Tango, a smartphone that will use its sensors to map the environment around its users in real time. But this research isn't restricted to the secret labs of West Coast tech giants.

A piece of it is happening right here in Washington. The vision for Tango is to make a phone that can not only recognize places -- so you can, for example, navigate within a store to find a product on a shelf -- but also potentially tap into large-scale 3-D maps to help the phone better understand the scene. Think of it as more detailed version of Google Maps.

In a mall, a Tango phone could direct you to the nearest restroom by using a meaningful 3-D map of the mall. (Google hasn’t said when the phone could be released.) At George Washington, the scientists have been helping Google deal with the basics: getting the phone to understand its own sensors and the images it sees to understand how what its sensing matches up with what it expects.

AT&T and Verizon got government data requests once every 60 seconds last year. And that’s probably lowballing it.

A University of Ottawa law professor got a set of documents from the Canadian government showing that law enforcement agencies are asking the country's telecom operators for subscriber information every 27 seconds.

That's a staggering amount, but how does it compare to the United States, where authorities are willing to record all of the calls that take place in a foreign country?

To get a sense, I decided to take a look back at the transparency reports from major US phone companies. In 2013, AT&T and Verizon together received more than one request every 60 seconds. Is that a lot? Depends. It's not as high as the rate cited in Canada. But we're also dealing with an incomplete data set here.

In its first-ever transparency report, AT&T reported receiving 301,816 requests for user data from state, local and federal authorities. Verizon's inaugural transparency report, meanwhile, shows it got 321,545. That's the equivalent of 1.2 requests every minute.

A company guide to damage control after a social media blowup

Silicon Valley has been following a tempest surrounding the fallout of now-former PayPal executive Rakesh Agrawal's very public departure.

Agrawal, a noted payments analyst who joined PayPal only two months ago as its director of strategy, submitted his two-weeks' notice to the company. He then let loose on Twitter -- in a series of late-night, disparaging (and since deleted) messages that he said were meant to be part of a private conversation.

It's just the latest in a string of recent departures from tech companies that have played out in the open rather than in the traditional privacy of a human resources office, or even over the phone.

Tech companies are particularly susceptible to having their personnel issues brought into the light, said Peter LaMotte, a senior vice president at the strategic communications firm Levick. "This is the world in which we now live," he said, "especially in these technology-focused companies, where social media is such an integrated part of communication."

The upshot, LaMotte said, is that the skeletons in any company's closet are increasingly likely to get pulled into the open, be it a single employee's personal grudge or evidence of a more systemic cultural problem. In cases such as Agrawal's, where the drama unfolds almost entirely on social media, LaMotte said that companies should address the problem through whatever channel seems best but then step away from the temptation to engage with the situation any further.

"No company should get drawn into the drama," he said. "But if it takes place on social media and is being heavily discussed on social media, a company should at least communicate in that medium."

This AT&T proposal would end the president’s ability to make priority phone calls in a crisis

The Department of Homeland Security says an AT&T plan to test new network technology would degrade a special telephone service reserved for national emergencies and presidential communications.

If implemented, the plan would hamper the ability of first responders and public officials to respond to a crisis of the magnitude of Hurricane Sandy or even 9/11, according to DHS.

The special service, known as the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS), allows the president or any high-level official with a secret PIN to dial a unique phone number and demand priority access to the nation's telephone network. GETS calls automatically take precedence over all other phone traffic, and can even overcome busy tones that an ordinary caller might face during periods of congestion.

About one-tenth of one percent of people in the United States have access to this system -- and AT&T is proposing to strip that priority status from a key stage of the calls.

"If you're not applying priority to the end-to-end call, then it's a straightforward position to say you're putting GETS at risk," said Jason Healey, a security expert at the Washington-based Atlantic Council and a former George W. Bush administration official who oversaw the GETS program.

Snowden: Why hasn’t the Director of National Intelligence been punished for lying to Congress?

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden said he came forward because he thought it was "the right thing to do." He repeatedly compared his actions with that of Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, who denied that the NSA was "wittingly" collecting data on millions of Americans in a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last spring -- a claim at odds with revelations about domestic phone records collection as a result of documents provided by Snowden. Clapper later apologized to Congress in a letter, saying his answer was "clearly erroneous."

"The oath that I remember is James Clapper raising his hand, swearing to tell the truth and then lying to the American public," Snowden said. "I also swore an oath, but that oath was not to secrecy, but to defend the American Constitution." Snowden recalled raising what he called the "famous lie" with co-workers, questioning why no one did anything about it, only to be warned about potential consequences. Snowden has previously said he raised concerns internally, but that as a contractor, he did not have the same protections as a government employee.

While Clapper has accused Snowden of perpetrating the most "massive and damaging theft of intelligence" in US history, Snowden argues his actions were serving a larger public interest that superseded the national intelligence need for secrecy. Later in the speech, he described Clapper as having "committed a crime by lying under oath to the American people," and questioned why charges were never brought against the director. By contrast, Snowden said, charges were brought against him soon after he revealed himself as the source of the leaks.

If AT&T buys DirectTV, it could go head-to-head with Comcast-Time Warner Cable

AT&T may be getting more involved in the pay-TV business with a bid for DirecTV. If that's true, it could have major implications for the US TV market.

Merging with one of the nation's biggest satellite TV providers would put AT&T on strong footing to compete against an expanded Comcast (if the cable company successfully buys Time Warner Cable).

AT&T has about 5.7 million TV customers on its U-verse service, while DirecTV boasts about 20 million subscribers. A combined Comcast-Time Warner Cable would control about 30 million customers. The mergers would create two big giants, each controlling around one-third of the US pay-TV market.

One big question is whether AT&T could get a merger past federal regulators, who are already looking closely at the proposed Comcast deal.

A serious move by AT&T to pursue DirecTV (more on that in a bit) would trigger a pretty complicated game of regulatory chess: The Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department would probably need to determine whether or how an AT&T-DirecTV merger would affect a Comcast-TWC merger.

Senator Franken, Comcast’s fiercest critic, tries to lure allies from Silicon Valley

Sen Al Franken (D-MN) has become Capitol Hill's loudest opponent of Comcast's bid for Time Warner Cable. Now, he's trying to root out like-minded critics from Silicon Valley.

In a letter to the trade group Computer & Communications Industry Association, Sen Franken asked for the group's opinion on the $45 billion merger. If approved by federal regulators, Comcast would wind up with 40 percent of the broadband Internet market. Sen Franken said that's too much power in the hands of a single company, which could act as a powerful gatekeeper for Internet content and services into US homes.

"Your organization includes companies from many sectors of our communications and Internet economy, including industry leaders in search, social networking, e-commerce and music and video content delivery. All of these organizations depend on broadband networks to operate," Sen Franken wrote in his letter to CCIA President Ed Black. CCIA's members include Google, Facebook, eBay, Aereo and Yahoo.

Confused by Facebook privacy settings? So is the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a pair of cases that will shape what privacy protections Americans have against warrantless searches of electronic devices.

But during the two-hour discussion, Chief Justice John Roberts touched on a related issue that millions of Americans are challenged by every day: Facebook privacy settings. The privacy settings of the social network and its related applications came up in the discussion of Riley v. California, a case involving a San Diego college student, David Riley, who was pulled over for expired tags, only to have police seize his phone and use a photo on it to convict him for participation in a drive-by shooting.

Litigator Jeffrey Fisher, representing Riley, argued that even flipping through photos on a smartphone draws on a multitude of data that is "intrinsically intertwined" in the device in such a way that implicates the Fourth Amendment.

"Including information that is specifically designed to be made public?" asked Chief Justice Roberts, "I mean, what about something like Facebook or a Twitter account?" Depending on a user's privacy settings, Facebook activity can range from entirely public to only available to an individual user -- although Facebook changes the settings often enough that users aren't always aware of the current setup.

But Chief Justice Roberts went on to say there is not really "any privacy interest" in a Facebook account -- or it's "at least diminished because the point is you want these things to be public and seen widely" -- before asking if there would be a way to create a rule that police could search "those apps that, in fact, don't have an air of privacy about them."

Even Roberts's argument about accessing publicly posted information doesn't seem to be making a lot of sense -- which isn't entirely surprising considering the court's previous problems with technology concepts -- mostly because if something is already public, there would be no need for law enforcement to use an arrestee's device to access it.

Why you should care about the mobile Web’s advertising problem

[Commentary] Remember when using your smartphone or tablet to access the Web was a relatively ad-free experience? Now there are seemingly ads everywhere you go -- pre-roll segments on videos, paywall roadblocks, subscriber messages that ask you to sign up for newsletters, ads in your news feeds, floating ads that cover inconvenient parts of the screen.

Now that the number of mobile Web users has eclipsed the number of desktop Web users, it’s no wonder that companies are introducing a growing panoply of mobile advertising options, all competing for your attention.

By 2017, there will be more money spent on mobile advertising than on radio advertising.

Combined, Facebook and Google now control two-thirds of the mobile advertising market. Expect that number to increase once Facebook launches its new mobile ad network. All of this has very real implications for the way that we use the Internet.

It’s already the case that 86 percent of users access the mobile Web via apps and that percentage could inch even higher as companies dedicate more and more resources to winning the mobile app game.

In short, we’ve quickly transitioned from a situation in which Web companies have a mobile advertising problem, to a situation in which the mobile Web experience has an advertising problem.