Washington Post

Edward Snowden took less than previously thought, says James Clapper

[Commentary] As the intelligence community continues its assessment of the damage caused by Edward Snowden’s leaks of secret programs, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says it appears the impact may be less than once feared because “it doesn’t look like he [Snowden] took as much” as first thought.

“We’re still investigating, but we think that a lot of what he looked at, he couldn’t pull down,” Clapper said. “Some things we thought he got he apparently didn’t.” Although somewhat less than expected, the damage is still “profound,” he said.

This assessment contrasts with the initial view in which officials, unsure of what Snowden had taken, assumed the worst -- including the possibility that he had compromised the communications networks that make up the military’s command and control system.

Officials now think that dire forecast may have been too extreme. It’s impossible to assess independently the accuracy of what Clapper said, either about the damage Snowden allegedly caused or its mitigation. That’s one reason why a legal resolution of the case would be so valuable: It would establish the facts.

Verizon to Netflix: Here’s a cease-and-desist letter. Can you hear me now?

Verizon is threatening to sue Netflix in the latest tit-for-tat between the companies over a controversial error message some Netflix subscribers have been seeing. A cease-and-desist letter by Verizon calls Netflix's new error message -- which blames Verizon's network for laggy downloads -- "deceptive" and "false," arguing that Netflix's claims could potentially harm Verizon's business. "In light of this, Verizon demands that Netflix immediately cease and desist from providing any such further 'notices' to users of the Verizon network," the company wrote. The firestorm began when Vox Media developer (and former Washington Post staffer) Yuri Victor tweeted an image of Netflix's error message. The post quickly gained traction on social media, and prompted Verizon to complain in a blog post that the streaming video company was being misleading. Evidently, Verizon thought Netflix wasn't taking the warning seriously. "We further demand," Verizon's letter continued, "that within five days … Netflix provide Verizon with any and all evidence and documentation that it possesses substantiating Netflix's assertion to Mr. Yuri Victor that his experience in viewing a Netflix video was solely attributable to the Verizon network."

Why Sprint wants to buy T-Mobile so badly

You may have heard Sprint is edging closer to an acquisition of T-Mobile. What's this all about, and how does it affect people like you and me? If the deal goes through, T-Mobile would be eliminated from the marketplace, and consumers would lose a newly resurgent player who's willing to needle the nation's largest carriers.

To some regulators, that's a compelling argument not to approve a Sprint-T-Mobile merger. But Sprint claims that it needs to merge with T-Mobile precisely so it can better compete against Verizon and AT&T. Could snapping up the nation's fourth-largest wireless carrier actually improve competition rather than worsen it?

To understand what's happening, we need to look at the other companies that operate in this space. Sprint's chairman, Masayoshi Son, has called the current marketplace a duopoly. Regulators have said they like having four national carriers rather than three. Eliminating T-Mobile might concentrate too much power in the hands of a few.

The weird Google searches of the unemployed and what they say about the economy

If you really want to know how the economy is doing now, just Google it. At least that’s the goal of a growing number of researchers who are turning to big data in hopes of unlocking the secrets of the economy at the speed of the Internet.

The movement -- dubbed “nowcasting” -- is piquing the interest of policymakers in Washington and around the world frustrated by the long lag in official government statistics as they make decisions where timing is everything. Want to figure out where prices are headed in 86 countries on a given day? A project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tracks them at thousands of retailers. How many people will file for unemployment benefits in one week?

Economists at the University of Michigan are tapping Twitter to estimate the number of new applicants. Are more young men finding jobs? Google suggests the incidence of searches for adult entertainment can provide a clue.

“Statistics serve us really well and are completely essential as benchmarks for where the economy is -- or more precisely, has been,” said Matthew Shapiro, an economist at the University of Michigan working on the Twitter project. “But we don’t have a lot of indicators that tell us what’s happening right now, particularly when the economy is changing direction.”

The government’s meticulous method of collecting data still relies heavily on phone conversations with families and businesses. Though its numbers are considered the gold standard, the aftermath of the Great Recession has shown the data can come too late for policymakers at crucial moments in the recovery. In the midst of the recession, Google’s chief economist Hal Varian released a paper showing how to use the company’s search data to measure auto sales and consumer spending, among other things. Now, researchers both inside and outside of government are using it to estimate everything from unemployment to mortgage delinquencies.

The one thing Netflix and Verizon can agree on when it comes to the open Internet

If you've been following the debate about network neutrality, you know that federal regulators have proposed some pretty controversial rules for the Web. These proposed regulations mainly deal with the so-called "last mile" -- the connection between your house and your Internet provider, like Verizon or Comcast. The question here is: should the same openness rules for last-mile connections also apply to the network relationships -- also known as "interconnection" -- between companies in other parts of the Internet?

The Federal Communications Commission views the two as entirely different issues, and the agency's network neutrality proposal reflects that. If the FCC someday develops a policy on connections outside the last mile at all, it'll be done separately from net neutrality.

Surprisingly, there's a lot more agreement on this issue than you might think between companies like Netflix and Verizon. Even though the two firms advocate different policies, in some ways both believe that the government should treat the backbone like it treats the last mile. A top Verizon executive recently made this argument on C-SPAN, saying the whole debate about Internet fast lanes is a red herring when we already allow payments for better performance in the backbone.

Netflix uses much the same logic, but to make the opposite point: If the FCC believes the last mile should be kept free of ISP interference, the same should hold true for the backbone, where Verizon is extracting payments from Netflix. Netflix told the Post that more than 99 percent of its interconnection agreements involve no money.

Analyst: A Sprint and T-Mobile merger has a 10 percent chance of approval

That Sprint wants to buy T-Mobile is pretty much the telecommunications industry's worst-kept secret right now. The two companies reportedly turned a corner in their negotiations: Reports suggest the two companies have settled on general terms for a deal, around $40 a share -- or about $32 billion -- with a $1 billion break-up fee if the merger doesn't go through.

The feds seem largely skeptical of yet another tech merger on top of Comcast-Time Warner Cable and AT&T-DirecTV. In fact, it's such a long shot that a top telecom analyst thinks there's only a 10 percent chance that the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission will give Sprint-T-Mobile a green light.

"Softbank has apparently concluded that its odds of success are greater now -- while the FCC and DOJ are simultaneously reviewing Comcast/TWC and AT&T/DTV -- than they would be later," New York-based Moffett Nathanson wrote in a research note. "But realpolitik says otherwise. Approving all three would be untenable for the left. Rejecting all three would be untenable for the right. At least one of the three would have to be rejected. And it's easy to see which one of the three it would be."

Why liberals are singling out Harry Reid over net neutrality

Net neutrality advocates are ramping up pressure on a top Democrat to support stronger regulations on Internet providers. National progressive groups urged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to get behind reclassifying broadband as a utility -- a move that would give regulators at the Federal Communications Commission much greater authority to ban Internet fast lanes.

The liberal groups argued in a letter that allowing the FCC's current net neutrality proposal to move forward would make it harder for activists, artists and journalists to do their jobs.

"We urge you to -- as soon as possible -- publicly call on Chairman [Tom] Wheeler and his FCC to reclassify Internet service as a telecommunications service under Title II and implement strong net neutrality regulations that will ban all unreasonable technical discrimination (and define pay-to-play arrangements as inherently unreasonable)," according to the letter, which was signed by groups including MoveOn, CREDO, SumofUS and Daily Kos.

Altogether, the letter's signatories claim to represent 10 million people -- and 100,000 of Reid's own Nevada constituents. It's not hard to see why they'd target Sen Reid. As the head of his party in the Senate, Reid has the power to set the body's agenda, and pressuring the Senate leadership might counter other lawmakers who've been openly resisted the idea of reclassification.

Google will now name and shame e-mail providers that don’t support encryption

Security obsessives will know that although Google has begun encrypting the links between its own servers -- so the National Security Agency can't hack our e-mails as they're traveling across the company's systems -- we risk losing those protections as soon as our messages leave Google's walled garden.

The trouble is that encryption only works if both your e-mail program and your recipient's support it. So if, for example, you're on Gmail, but your friend uses a Comcast.net e-mail address, chances are your messages will show up unencrypted at the other end, because Comcast doesn't have encryption enabled.

Google estimates that up to half of the e-mail sent between Gmail and other sites are not encrypted -- a situation that could be easily fixed with the right investments, according to a Google employee who declined to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

"As my engineer colleague said, it's not rocket science — it's elbow grease," the employee said. To draw more attention to the issue, Google intends to start publicly identifying which other companies support e-mail encryption, and which don't, as part of its periodic transparency reports.

The company said that it's creating a new section in the report that explains which domains support Transport Layer Security (TLS) -- the encryption protocol that automatically shields e-mail from prying eyes if both the sender's and the receiver's providers have it switched on. Since December, the share of encrypted e-mails sent from Google to other providers has risen from 30 percent to 65 percent, according to the company.

How hard should it be for cops to track your location? A new lawsuit revives the debate.

Privacy advocates sued a Florida police department over a controversial surveillance technology that, they say, improperly lets authorities track the movements of thousands of cellphone users without a warrant.

The suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and obtained by The Washington Post, revives a perennial debate about the judicial standards law enforcement officials must meet to gather geolocation information -- and once they receive a court's permission, how much of that data they can collect and store.

It also implicates decades-old privacy legislation that was written in the age of the telephone but has been liberally interpreted to allow much greater surveillance in the Internet era, according to the law's critics.

The ACLU alleges in the suit that law enforcement officials in Sarasota (FL), acting on behalf of the US Marshals Service, obtained judicial approval to use a type of surveillance tool known as a "stingray." Used in an investigation, stingray equipment can help police identify which cellphones may be operating in an area by establishing a fake cell tower; nearby devices then automatically try to connect with the stingray device, which logs the connections for forensic analysis unbeknownst to the cellphone users.

Is Apple finally relaxing its stance on Bitcoin apps?

In a potential course correction, Apple is opening to the idea of letting iPhone users make payments with bitcoins and other alternate currencies.

The company's updated its developer guidelines to allow apps that "facilitate" transactions made with "approved" cryptocurrencies: “Apps may facilitate transmission of approved virtual currencies provided that they do so in compliance with all state and federal laws for the territories in which the app functions.”

That Apple is addressing virtual currencies explicitly is another indication that Bitcoin and the like are becoming increasingly mainstream, even if the company is reserving a huge amount of say over what it'll allow on the app store. It's also possible that Apple will continue to keep Bitcoin apps off-limits, as it requires developers to be legally compliant in "all territories" -- which, considering how many regulators are still struggling to understand the technology, might restrict developers for a long time.