Tag Archives: software

FBI snooping tactic ruled unconstitutional

FBI snooping tactic ruled unconstitutional

AFP – A US judge has ordered the FBI to stop its “pervasive” use of National Security letters to snoop on phone and email records, ruling that the widespread tactic was unconstitutional.

The order issued by US District Court Judge Susan Illston in San Francisco came as a blow to a measure heavily used by the administration of President Barack Obama in the name of battling terrorism.

The Patriot Act passed after the September 11 attacks gave the Federal Bureau of Investigation strong authority to order that people’s telecom records be handed over, without such requests having to be disclosed.

But in her ruling, Illston said evidence indicated that tens of thousands of NSLs are sent out every year, and that 97 percent of them are fettered with the provision that recipients never mention the requests.

“This pervasive use of nondisclosure orders, coupled with the government’s failure to demonstrate that a blanket prohibition on recipients’ ability to disclose the mere fact of receipt of an NSL is necessary to serve the compelling need of national security, creates too large a danger that speech is being unnecessarily restricted,” Illston said in her written decision.

Illston set her ban on NSLs to take effect in 90 days to allow US lawyers to appeal the decision given “the significant constitutional and national security issues at stake.”

The judge’s ruling came in a lawsuit filed in 2011 by Internet rights law group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on behalf of an unnamed telecom company.

“We are very pleased that the court recognized the fatal constitutional shortcomings of the NSL statute,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman.

“The government’s gags have truncated the public debate on these controversial surveillance tools.”

It was the potential for gag orders accompanying NSLs to violate the First Amendment right of free speech that prompted the ruling, according to Zimmerman.

NSLs are used to get companies to secretly turn over private information such as websites visited, phone records, email addresses, and financial data.

Google early this month made the unusual move of adding NSLs to its tranparency report about requests by governments for data about users of the Internet giant’s various online products and services.

But Google said it was only allowed to provide broad ranges of numbers: in the years from 2009 to 2012, for example, it received between zero and 999 requests.

The requests affected between 1,000 and 1,999 accounts, except in 2010, when the range was 2,000 to 2,999 accounts.

“You’ll notice that we’re reporting numerical ranges rather than exact numbers,” said a blog post from Google law enforcement and information security director Richard Salgado.

“This is to address concerns raised by the FBI, Justice Department and other agencies that releasing exact numbers might reveal information about investigations.”

The numbers, while inexact, were believed to be the first data from a private company about the requests, criticized by civil liberties groups for giving the government too much power to conduct surveillance without a warrant.

The EFF calls the letters “dangerous” and has challenged the authority, along with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Google’s actions are “an unprecedented win for transparency,” EFF’s Dan Auerbach and Eva Galperin said at the time.

Despite a lack of exact data, “Google has helped to at least shed some limited light on the ways in which the US government uses these secretive demands for data about users,” they added in a blog post.

“While we continue to be in the dark about the full extent of how the law is being applied, this new data allays fears that NSLs are being used for sweeping access to large numbers of user accounts — at Google, at least.”

The EFF said public records have documented the FBI’s “systemic abuse” of the power.SOURCE

Ex-Porn Star Shares Love Of Literacy With Elementary Class


Sasha Grey Reading: Ex-Porn Star’s California Elementary School Appearance Prompts Review

COMPTON, Calif. — Officials of a California school system plan to meet with the agent who schedules celebrity guests to read to children after some parents complained that having a former adult film star as a participant was inappropriate.

A Compton Unified School District statement says the outside talent coordinator listed Sasha Grey as an actress who had appeared in the HBO show “Entourage” when she was proposed as a participant in the Guest Reading Program at Emerson Elementary School this month. Grey’s previous experience in adult films wasn’t mentioned.

The district says it will review the selection process with the coordinator to avoid any potentially controversial readers in the future.

The district clarified that the Guest Reading Program is not associated with the National Education Association’s annual March event Read Across America.


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Computer gamers solve problem in AIDS research

When scientists struggle with a problem for over a decade, few of them think, “I know! I’ll ask computer gamers to help.” That, however, exactly what Firas Khatib from the University of Washington did. The result: he and his legion of gaming co-authors have cracked a longstanding problem in AIDS research that scientists have puzzled over for years. It took them three weeks.

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Khatib’s recruits played Foldit, a programme that reframes fiendish scientific challenges as a competitive multiplayer computer game. It taps into the collective problem-solving skills of tens of thousands of people, most of whom have little or no background in science. Here’s what I wrote about Foldit last year:

The goal of the game is to work out the three-dimensional structures of different proteins. Proteins are feats of biological origami; they consist of long chains of amino acids that fold into very specific and complicated shapes. These shapes can reveal how proteins work, but solving them is fiendishly challenging. To do it, scientists typically need to grow crystals of purified protein before bouncing X-rays off them.

Foldit takes a different approach, using the collective efforts of causal gamers to do the hard work. And its best players can outperform software designed to do the same job. Best of all, you don’t need a PhD to play Foldit. Barely an eighth of the players work in science, and two-thirds of the top scorers have no biochemistry experience beyond high school. The controls are intuitive; tutorial levels introduce the game’s mechanics; colourful visuals provide hints; and the interface is explained in simple language. While protein scientists concern themselves with “rotating alpha-helices” and “fixing degrees of freedom”, Foldit players simply ‘tweak’, ‘freeze’, ‘wiggle’ and ‘shake’ their on-screen shapes.

Foldit’s success relies on the fact that it doesn’t shallowly flirt with interactivity – it’s a true game. Its creator Seth Cooper designed it to “attract the widest possible audience… and encourage prolonged engagement”. It’s competitive: players are scored based on the stability of the structures they end up with and a leader board shows how they rank against other gamers. There’s also a social side: gamers can chat on online forums, work in groups to solve puzzles and share solutions on a wiki. And just like real game development, everything was tuned according to feedback from the players. Tools were added and refined, the difficulty of the tutorials was tweaked to stop frustrated beginners from leaving, and puzzles were matched to the skills of the players.

There’s the thrill of contributing to genuine scientific research, but that motivates less than half of the community. The rest do it for the achievement, the social aspects and largely, because the game was fun and immersive.

Foldit’s origins lie within Rosetta, a piece of software designed to solve protein structures by simulating and testing thousands of different folds. Rosetta is an example of ‘ distributed computing’, where volunteers run the program on their home computers when they don’t need it. They effectively donate their computing power to speed up the laborious task of solving protein structures. But the volunteers wanted to use their biological computers – their brains – as well as their man-made ones. They suggested an interactive version of the programme and in May 2008, they got their wish with Foldit.

Last year, Cooper showed that Foldit’s gamers were better than the Rosetta programme at solving many protein structures. They used a wide range of strategies, they could pick the best places to begin, and they were better at long-term planning. Human intuition trumped mechanical number-crunching.

This year, Khatib wanted to see if the Foldit community could solve fresh problems. He entered the players into a twice-yearly contest called CASP (Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction), where structural biologists from all over the world compete to predict the structures of proteins that have almost been solved. They get the best predictions from Rosetta to begin with. Then, they’re on their own.

Khatib’s gamers, bearing names such as Foldit Contenders Group and Foldit Void Crushers Group, had varying success in the contest. In many of the categories, they did reasonably well but they couldn’t match the best groups. They weren’t as good at using the structures of similar proteins to tweak the ones they were working on. They could also head down dead ends if they started at the wrong place. In one case, their strategy of refining their starting structures to the best possible degree led to one of the “most spectacular successes” in the contest. But mostly, they focused too heavily on tweaking already imperfect solutions that other teams achieved better results by making large-scale changes.

Learning from that lesson, Khatib stepped in himself. He agitated the initial protein structures in many random ways, to create a wide variety of terrible answers that the gamers could then refine. In their attempts, they came up with the best-ranked answer to the most difficult challenge in the competition.

It was a success, and more would follow. After the competition, the players solved an even more important problem. They discovered the structure of a protein belonging to the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV), a close relative of HIV that causes AIDS in monkeys.

These viruses create many of their proteins in one big block. They need to be cut apart, and the viruses use a scissor enzyme –a protease – to do that. Many scientists are trying to find drugs that disable the proteases. If they don’t work, the virus is hobbled – it’s like a mechanic that cannot remove any of her tools from their box.

To disable M-PMV’s protease, we need to know exactly what it looks like. Like real scissors, the proteases come in two halves that need to lock together in order to work. If we knew where the halves joined together, we could create drugs that prevented them from uniting. But until now, scientists have only been able to discern the structure of the two halves together. They have spent more than ten years trying to solve structure of a single isolated half, without any success.

The Foldit players had no such problems. They came up with several answers, one of which was almost close to perfect. In a few days, Khatib had refined their solution to deduce the protein’s final structure, and he has already spotted features that could make attractive targets for new drugs.

“This is the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem,” writes Khatib. “These results indi­cate the potential for integrating video games into the real-world scientific process: the ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.”

Reference: Khatib, DiMaio, Foldit Contenders Group, Foldit Void Crushers Group, Cooper, Kazmierczyk, Gilski, Krzywda, Zabranska, Pichova, Thompson, Popovi?, Jaskolski & Baker. 2011. Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players. Nature Structural and Molecular Biology http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nsmb.2119

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