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By Brian Robinson

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Cell-All smarter phone is DHS' version of the Tricorder

Remember the tricorder, that ubiquitous, do-everything handheld tool featured in the Star Trek TV program? Take a handheld computer, wave it around in front of a person to diagnose illnesses, or hold it up in the air during  field mission to detect chemical elements or energy sources. That device was one of the best examples of the ingenuity of science fiction.

Now, in a case of life imitating art, Star Trek science fiction is rapidly turning into science fact,  and it seems that  government agencies are at the leading edge of the research and development.

We’ve already pointed to the interest that the military has in developing Apple iPhone-like applications for its warfighters. Nothing specific right now other than it wants to investigate how the Army can enhance the iPhone; given the past history of wartime innovations we should expect some eye-popping innovations from  soon.

Now comes the news that the Homeland Security Department (DHS) is developing something it’s calling Cell-All, which will marry a smartphone with sensors capable of sniffing the air around it so it can isolate toxic chemicals. There are obvious uses for emergency responders, but also for military and other personnel looking for things as such hidden explosives.

DHS is looking to the telecommunications side of smartphones to help it develop linked sensors that could cast a broad and sensitive net of sniffers.

What these advances are taking advantage of is the acceleration in development of ever smaller, cheaper and more specialized chips along with faster and denser memory technologies.

Predictions just last year were that it could take 15 years for such things as wireless health sensors to appear, but you have it wonder what the projections will be at the end of 2010. The DHS, for example, is looking to have prototypes of its Cell-All device in a year.

Posted on Apr 19, 2010 at 9:03 AM0 comments


Weighing the worth of Twitter

In the worthiness spectrum of information, how would you rate Twitter? It’s obviously becoming a somewhat popular way of communicating, but is it a medium for mostly inconsequential rabbiting or something more than that?

The Library of Congress (LOC) recently announced that it will be archiving all public tweets, from the beginning of the thing way back in March 2006. At the least, that’s billions and billions of the little buggers, with many trillions to come.

As the repository of the American experience, it makes sense for the LOC to do some of this. There already have been some important tweets that rate preserving and, as Twitter becomes embedded in the social milieu, there’ll be many more.

One of the outcomes of this move will, presumably, be the developments of innovative ways to mine this data. Twitter, in its own announcement, said that Google has already created “a wonderful new way to revisit tweets related to historic events.”

(Of course it has! Come on, world, does no one else out there have any imagination anymore?)

On the other hand, what are we to make of the recent memo out of the Office of Management and Budget that said much social media communication doesn’t rank as anything to worry about under the Paperwork Reduction Act?

I know that doesn’t necessarily imply that communications sent through government Twitter channels aren’t important, but it does come across as a devaluation of sorts of the worthiness of the medium. Do use it as part of your Open Government plans but, hey, it’s really no big deal.

So, which is it? Is Twitter a potential gold mine worthy of existing alongside all of the other important stuff in the LOC? Or, in that spectrum, a relative lightweight?

David Ferriero, the National Archivist, congratulated the LOC on its acquisition and said the only reason his outfit didn’t acquire the Twitter archive is because tweets aren’t considered government records, though some agency tweets could be. Twitter isn’t for everyone, he said, but “I do think that we need to recognize the potential power of the mundane details of our lives and what they might say about our culture.”

Posted on Apr 16, 2010 at 9:03 AM1 comments


Cyber-[fill in the blank] tops list of federal priorities

Am I the only one, or are we at a little bit of odds-and-ends over what we are supposed to be doing in the cyber realm? Are we preparing for cyber war, are we gearing up for cyber diplomacy, or is fighting cybercrime our motivation? Or are we looking at all three -- or something else?

(I swear this will not turn into a blog about cyberthis-n-that, but it’s where a lot of the juicy stuff seems to be, right now.)

Soon to be the new head of the military’s Cyber Command, and current director of the National Security Agency, Lt. Gen Keith Alexander apparently told Congress that we should be prepared to fight cyberwar even when we don’t know who it is we are fighting because, well, that’s just the way it is.

In a series of clear-as-mud answers to written Senate questions obtained by the Associated Press, Alexander said that, although it will be difficult for the military to gain superiority in cyberspace, that goal is nevertheless “realistic.”

Not so fast on the cyber war track, at least according to Christopher Painter, President Obama’s senior director for cybersecurity. Speaking at a conference in Germany, and as reported by Technology Review, Painter believes fighting cybercrime should come first.

The dominant threat right now is the criminal threat, he said, and it’s a far more serious one than that posed by cyberwar.

And then just a few days ago we read that, at least according to a bill put forth by Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.), we should all be concerned about cyber diplomacy. The bill would direct the secretary of state to establish a strategy for engaging the world’s players in cyberspace and cybersecurity. The international community should consider “a multilateral framework on cyber warfare that would create shared norms for cyber conduct.”

So, what is it? Is cyber diplomacy the precursor to everything, with the threat of cyber war as the stick we shake to giddy things along? Are we, in fact, already deep into cyber war? Or is that just a cover for the real cyber threat of cybercrime? Or maybe it’s all three? A cybertroika, if you will.

Excuse me. I feel a headache coming on.

Posted on Apr 14, 2010 at 9:03 AM2 comments


Cybersecurity roundup: Training, stalling, deterring, outlook

In our daily peregrinations across the Web we come across many things with the prefix cyber ( these days, how can you not?) and, quite frankly, they are too numerous to mention individually. But for the edification of our millions of readers, here’s some of the more interesting and pertinent:

Air Force training: The Air Force has apparently cottoned to the fact that it will soon—if it isn’t already—be engaged in cyberwarfare and so believes it should be including relevant programs as a part of its basic training. Gen. Robert Kehler, head of the Air Force Space Command, said that would cover such things as using firewalls and passwords, likening it to learning how to use a rifle or pistol. More advanced training will include learning about computer networks and vulnerabilities.

Senate stalling Cyber Command: The Senate is delving a little deeper into the meaning of cyberwar and what it will mean in terms of collateral damage and retaliation if the United States launches cyber strikes. It’s using the nomination of Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander to head the new Cyber Command as a way to examine these issues more closely, sparking a cyber tap dance as military officials try to answer questions without giving too much away (sound familiar?).

NRC report on preventing attacks: The National Research Council and its bevy of illustrious experts is looking into the possible cyber deterrence strategies the government could follow, and what that might mean for the policies it adopts. It issued a letter report as the first phase of that project, outlining the key issues and questions that merit examination.

Federal cyber security outlook: Security firm Lumension commissioned a survey of “federal IT decision-makers and influencers” about the state of the government’s security, and found a growing confidence despite the recognition of burgeoning threats. Increased audit burdens and lack of resources (sigh!) were identified as major challenges.

Posted on Apr 13, 2010 at 9:03 AM0 comments


Another high-level administration officials takes to the blog

In the very dry world of the people who deal with public records it’s not usual for them to speak extemporaneously, so I think that the fact that the Archivist of the United States has his own blog is a big deal.

Actually, judging by his first entry, someone needs to take David Ferriero and tell him a few things about the blogging medium. Such as – loosen up Dave! You don’t have to write a blog post as if it’s a press release. Personality, man, that’s what people want to see.

As far as blogs go, though, he’s already a step ahead of the game. The name of his blog is “AOTUS: Collector in Chief.” Now, that is a cool title. He should be able to do great things writing under that.

To his credit, Ferriero gives out some newsworthy notes in his first post about how the Archives will be taking a more proactive lead in bringing agencies together to deal with records management issues, particularly electronic records. He also talks intriguingly about providing “incentives for rewarding agencies” that best use technology for their records management.

And he offers up some tasty historical tidbits, such as:

At the conclusion of the Continental Congress, the Massachusetts delegate, Rufus King, advised that the records of the proceedings either be destroyed or given to the President. He feared that if the records were scattered or corrupted by those with an interest to do so, they could be used to distort history and deceive future generations. He understood the vital importance of records management.

Love that stuff! Keep it coming, Dave.

The Archives does have another blog, called NARAtions, which is written as a collective by NARA employees. It has general news about what NARA is about, but it also contains great examples of how NARA hunts for information in all kinds of records, and provides valuable hints on where to find things, such as this about genealogical research.

If, like me, you are a bit of a nerd about these kinds of things then you can’t get enough of this. Go, AOTUS, go!

(Tip O’ the Pen to FreeGovInfo)

Posted on Apr 09, 2010 at 9:03 AM0 comments


Cybergeddon: Information security as a global concern

We all know the digital infrastructure is global, of course, but it still tends to be cast in a local perspective. The U.S. gets hit and we’re all bothered, but who really cares about Estonia or anyone else?

The EastWest Institute is hosting an event next month, timidly titled The First Worldwide Security Summit, which looks to be trying to get its hands around that very question. Its equally low profile aim is to “determine new measures to ensure the security of the world’s digital infrastructure.”

Hyperbole apart, this event actually seems to be trying to bring together some experts of real note, who should have something to say on the subject. The U.S. National Security Adviser, James Jones, will be taking part, as will Howard Schmidt, the U.S Cybersecurity Coordinator. There are others from past administrations, as well as foreign officials and heads of big companies.

Whether or not this gathering will actually be able to come up with any concrete proposals -- and the first thing I’d like to see is a definition of “the world’s digital infrastructure” -- there’s no doubt that international agreements will be needed at some stage.

That’s because the international threats are accelerating. The U.S. government and some of its contractors were hit early this year as part of a broad attack reported by Google, and which supposedly originated in China. Now comes news of cyber espionage networks targeting the United Nations, embassies and others.

There are some attempts underway to broaden the international outlook. The Brits, for example, are proposing ways to protect against cyber attacks both in the U.K. and in Europe.

However, so far there’s been no obvious concerted effort to bring the international community together to work up agreements on how to tackle the global threats. As we start to hear in more apocalyptic terms about the approaching Cybergeddon, you’d think things like the EWI summit and more heavyweight meetings would already be commonplace.

Posted on Apr 06, 2010 at 9:03 AM0 comments


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