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Homeland Security office OKs efforts to monitor threats via social media

A little-known privacy office in the Department of Homeland Security has given its stamp of approval to an ongoing initiative aimed at monitoring social media sites for emerging threats.

Congress created the department’s privacy office in 2003 to review major initiatives and databases and make certain those initiatives respected the rights of Americans, while also enabling homeland security officials to better collect and share information about possible terrorism and criminal suspects.

The department first began experimenting with the possibility of social media monitoring in 2010 with pilot programs that targeted public reactions to the earthquake in Haiti, the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The privacy office has since conducted compliance reviews every six months, with the most recent assessment [PDF] published last week.

Although the pilot programs were narrow in focus, privacy and civil liberties groups have long worried that the department’s monitoring would expand to all online speech with no reasonable suspicion that a crime had occurred.

As Americans turn to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to communicate with one another, intelligence officials are looking for ways to harness that ocean of data and convert it into actionable information.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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Plugins to kill Facebook Timeline come with security risks

Not all of Facebook’s 900 million global users are pleased with the mega-site’s slow lurch toward what it calls Timeline, a new profile format that displays photos, updates, wall messages and more based on when the material was posted over the lifetime of the user.

Internet security experts say the complaints have created an opportunity for hackers – special apps or browser plugins that promise to turn off the Timeline feature while also possibly misusing your sensitive personal information, such as details about where else you’ve been on the Web.

Researchers at Campbell-based Barracuda Networks looked at six such plugins available through the Google Chrome Web store that offer to remove Timeline. Plugins are downloaded and added to your Web browser – Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox and Chrome – and can be used for everything from blocking pop-up ads to translating pages from a different language.

Three of the plugins request permission to access your Facebook page, which is necessary to block Timeline in the first place. The other three, however, claim to block Timeline, but they also request permission to access data from your activity elsewhere on the Web, even if you’re not logged into Facebook, said Jason Ding, a research scientist at Barracuda. They can do so because the plugin is attached to your browser, which you use to crisscross the Internet, not just check your Facebook page.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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Private tech companies pitch Web surveillance tools to police

Private tech firms have found a new market for their sophisticated software capable of analyzing vast segments of the Internet – local police departments looking for ways to pre-empt the next mass shooting or other headline-grabbing event.

Twitter, Facebook and other popular sites are 24-hour fire hoses of raw information that need an automated tool for deciding what’s important and what is not. So technology companies are pushing products at law enforcement conferences, in trade publications and through white papers that promise to help police filter the deluge for terrorists, traffickers, pedophiles and rioters.

In the process, privacy advocates and other critics fear these tools – once reserved for corporate branding – could ensnare Internet users who happen to be at the wrong cyberspace destination at the wrong time.

Some 400 million tweets now flow across the Web every day, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said in June. Facebook today reportedly boasts more than 900 million users, each pumping out a ceaseless stream of family photos, relationship updates, political manifestos, impulsive reactions to celebrity news and even criminal confessions.

 

It’s increasingly clear that random keyword searches for “burn,” “collapse,” “public health” and “cloud” – among dozens of terms the Department of Homeland Security considers worth monitoring – won’t produce actionable intelligence when hunted on crude and readily available tools like TweetDeck. “Cocaine” as a search term will net more tweets about Charlie Sheen than plans for the Sinaloa cartel’s next illicit shipment.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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As anti-piracy bills stall, activists switch focus to web tracking legislation

After stalling two measures in Congress that would have made it easier for law enforcement to go after alleged copyright scofflaws, digital rights activists might now be turning their attention to a lesser-noticed bill aimed at requiring Internet companies to store identifying information about their customers.

Republican U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, met withering resistance last month to his proposed Stop Online Piracy Act. Internet heavyweights such as Wikipedia and Google blacked out their sites or used their iconic logos to protest the bill and its companion in the Senate, the PROTECT IP Act.

The deluge of protests led Smith to put his bill on hold, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would do the same with the PROTECT IP Act on the other side of the hall.

Backers of the two bills – which would arm the Justice Department with more power to demand the removal of links to sites where suspected copyrighted content is located – argue that the laws are necessary for protecting intellectual property and stopping the tide of counterfeit consumer products.

But opponents viewed it as Washington policymakers doing the bidding of entertainment conglomerates in Hollywood and their lobbyists. Online protesters argued that the bills threatened free speech by raising the possibility that large volumes of content on the web could be blacklisted or removed if it happened to come into contact with material alleged to be pirated.

If passed a decade ago, YouTube might not even exist today, argues the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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Hollywood money flows to Calif. politicians who support anti-piracy bills

Hollywood is threatening politicians with one thing they hold very dear: campaign cash.

As anti-piracy legislation stalled in Congress last week, the movie industry's top lobbyist, former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, warned Democrats not to count on Hollywood money if they turn their backs on the industry's legislative priority.

Among the biggest recipients of Hollywood money are Californian members of Congress who remain supportive of the controversial anti-piracy bills. Eight Californians in the House of Representatives, as well as Democratic U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, co-sponsored the bills, representing more co-sponsors than from any other state.

Boxer was the top Senate recipient of campaign contributions from the movie production industry over the last six years, picking up nearly $413,000, according to data compiled by MapLight.org and the Center for Responsive Politics.

 

Democratic Rep. Howard Berman, whose Los Angeles district includes the famed Hollywood sign, is the industry's top beneficiary in the House, picking up $106,500 in the last two years of reported contributions. Berman was an early co-sponsor of the Stop Online Piracy Act that the Motion Picture Association of America has been pushing.

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Oroville high school district stops blocking gay websites

A Northern California high school district is no longer restricting access to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy websites after the American Civil Liberties Union recently intervened on behalf of a student.

"I wanted to start a gay-straight alliance at my school,” said Melina Zancanella, a 16-year-old junior at Oroville High School, which is in the Oroville Union High School District. "And I wanted to get some information on how to start it. I thought the best place to look was at school. I was searching these websites and I knew they were appropriate. However, they were all blocked.”

Zancanella decided to go to the ACLU after she sent a complaint letter to the Butte County Office of Education but never got a reply. On May 18 the ACLU sent a demand letter to the district, which unblocked the sites a few days later.

The district superintendent's office did not respond to requests for comment.

Oroville High, at the base of the Sierra Nevada Foothills north of Sacramento, is just one of many schools around the country that has blocked LGBT content using web-filtering software designed to prevent students from accessing pornographic material.

Filed under: K–12, Daily Report

Whitman ends the year ahead, at least on Google

Never let it be said that the $160-plus million that Meg Whitman spent on her record-shattering gubernatorial campaign didn't bear at least some returns: If the good folks at Google are to be believed, that money elevated her to a level of political celebrity that even national GOP headline-makers Scott Brown, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio couldn't match.

Last week, Google released its annual Zeitgeist report, which outlines the search giant's most popular searches in a number of different categories.

Although Whitman didn't crack the mainstream quite like Justin Bieber did, she did place second in the political category to Nikki Haley, whose search volume blasted through the roof around the time she was accused of having an affair with a conservative blogger last spring.

Coming in just behind Whitman were three other Republicans whose names have made national headlines this year: Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and senators-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida.

Whitman's search volume peaked around a few key periods: the primary election in June, which she won handily; her general election defeat in November; and the late-September/early-October span, when it was revealed that she formerly employed an illegal immigrant housekeeper.

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Race, income play role in who uses high-speed Internet

More households use high-speed Internet service than ever before, but socioeconomic and racial differences significantly determine who has a fast connection and who does not.

A new report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found the gap between low-income and high-income households ranges from 16 to 34 percentage points.

Race is also an important factor. Non-Hispanic white Americans and Asian Americans are more likely to use a high-speed connection than African Americans and Hispanics. Affordability, demand and availability are the primary reasons people have not adopted high-speed Internet in their homes, according to the census data used in the report.

In California, the percentage of households using high-speed Internet at home increased substantially from 2001 to 2009 from 13 to 68 percent. But compared to other states, California's number of broadband users dropped from fourth to 14th, the report found.

Why does high-speed access matter? A struggle to find quality broadband access in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, reported by the San Francisco Public Press, is illustrative of how a high-speed connection can have an impact. The Tenderloin Tech Lab, operated by St. Anthony’s Foundation and San Francisco Network Ministries, offers low-income and homeless people free services such as drop-in Internet access, basic computer instruction and job-search assistance.

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Application tracks eyeballs, news trends

Interested in what people are looking at on the Web right now versus what the media is serving up? Check out Zoe Fraade-Blanar's tool, called Current, that chart's the last 24 hours of memes using "a combination of data from Google Hot Trends and cross-references via Google News," according to Nathan Yau of FlowingData.

"The focus is on providing a tool that allows journalists to report news that matters, without sacrificing the reader traffic that comes in for videos of cute puppy dogs," writes Yau.

The idea is that this tool, which is in its infancy, will show the news media what topics to cover in order to drive traffic and hopefully increase revenue.

At 3 p.m. Pacific time on Thursday, the tool looked like this:

With "Kelly Clarkson on American Idol 2010" showing a big fat river of interest and media coverage. The list of "Best bets for journalism coverage" included Don Rickles, Ginger McGuire, and ampyra.

The underlying data for the tool comes from Google. Data from Google Trends is cross-referenced with stories appearing in Google News to produce a visualization of what information people are hungry for and what the news media are serving up at the time, according to the explanatory paper.

Download the tool and take it for a spin.

Tags: internet, media

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