Project Skybender: Google’s secretive 5G internet drone tests revealed

Project Skybender: Google’s secretive 5G internet drone tests revealed
Trials at New Mexico’s Spaceport Authority are using new millimetre wave technology to deliver data from drones – potentially 40 times faster than 4G
By Mark Harris
Jan 29 2016

Google is testing solar-powered drones at Spaceport America in New Mexico to explore ways to deliver high-speed internet from the air, the Guardian has learned.

In a secretive project codenamed SkyBender, the technology giant built several prototype transceivers at the isolated spaceport last summer, and is testing them with multiple drones, according to documents obtained under public records laws.

In order to house the drones and support aircraft, Google is temporarily using 15,000 square feet of hangar space in the glamorous Gateway to Space terminal designed by Richard Foster for the much-delayed Virgin Galactic spaceflights.

The tech company has also installed its own dedicated flight control centre in the nearby Spaceflight Operations Center, separate from the terminal.

Based out of the site near the town called Truth or Consequences, Project SkyBender is using drones to experiment with millimetre-wave radio transmissions, one of the technologies that could underpin next generation 5Gwireless internet access. High frequency millimetre waves can theoretically transmit gigabits of data every second, up to 40 times more than today’s 4G LTE systems. Google ultimately envisages thousands of high altitude “self-flying aircraft” delivering internet access around the world. 

“The huge advantage of millimetre wave is access to new spectrum because the existing cellphone spectrum is overcrowded. It’s packed and there’s nowhere else to go,” says Jacques Rudell, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle and specialist in this technology.

However, millimetre wave transmissions have a much shorter range than mobile phone signals. A broadcast at 28GHz, the frequency Google is testing at Spaceport America, would fade out in around a tenth the distance of a 4G phone signal. To get millimetre wave working from a high-flying drone, Google needs to experiment with focused transmissions from a so-called phased array. “This is very difficult, very complex and burns a lot of power,” Rudell says.

The SkyBender system is being tested with an “optionally piloted” aircraft called Centaur as well as solar-powered drones made by Google Titan, a division formed when Google acquired New Mexico startup Titan Aerospace in 2014. Titan built high-altitude solar-powered drones with wingspans of up to 50 metres. 

Emails between Spaceport America and Google project managers reveal that the aircraft have exclusive use of the Spaceport’s runway during the tests and will even venture above the neighbouring White Sands Missile Range.

Google spent several months last summer building two communication installations on concrete pads at Spaceport America. Project SkyBender is part of the little-known Google Access team, which also includes Project Loon, a plan to deliver wireless internet using unpowered balloons floating through the stratosphere.

One of the millimetre wave transceivers was located near Spaceport America’s Spaceport Operations Centre (SOC), and the other four miles away at the Vertical Launch Area (VLA), although Google’s plans did not involve any rockets. Google also established a repeater tower and numerous other sites around the Spaceport, presumably to test millimetre wave reception.

Both installations have cabinets full of computer servers and other electronics, while the pad at the SOC required a concrete base to support a dish antenna nearly eight feet across, according to a separate filing with the Federal Communications Commissions (FCC).


White House denies clearance to tech researcher with links to Snowden

White House denies clearance to tech researcher with links to Snowden
Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and security researcher Ashkan Soltani says he has been denied security clearance for his new job with White House
By Danny Yadron in San Francisco
Jan 29 2016

The White House has denied a security clearance to a member of its technology team who previously helped report on documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

Ashkan Soltani, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and recent staffer at the Federal Trade Commission, recently began working with the White House on privacy, data ethics and technical outreach. The partnership raised eyebrows when it was announced in December because of Soltani’s previous work with the Washington Post, where he helped analyze and protect a cache of National Security Agency documents leaked by Snowden.

His departure raises questions about the US government’s ability to partner with the broader tech community, where people come from a more diverse background than traditional government staffers. 

It also suggests that nearly three years later, the Snowden episode remains a highly charged issue inside the Obama administration. Recently some current and former administration officials said the former NSA contractor sparked a “necessary debate” on surveillance, even if they disagreed with his tactics.

It remains unclear exactly why the White House parted ways with Soltani. In December, Megan Smith, White House chief technology officer and a former Google executive, welcomed him to her team with an effusive post on Twitter that referenced Soltani’s account handle, @Ashk4n.

Soltani since then has been on loan from the FTC to the White House. He was in the process of getting approved for a clearance to work in one of America’s most secured office buildings. Soltani said he passed his drug test and the Federal Bureau of Investigation hadn’t yet finished his background check, meaning it would have been too early for the bureau to weigh in on his employment.

“This is something that happens from time to time, and I won’t speculate on the reasons,” Soltani said in a statement provided to the Guardian. “I am proud of my work, I passed the mandatory drug screening some time ago and the FBI background check was still underway. There was also no allegation that it was based on my integrity or the quality of my work.”

A White House official said: “Ashkan Soltani was on a detail to the Office of Science and Technology Policy from the Federal Trade Commission, and his detail has ended.”


Paul Krugman Reviews ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth’ by Robert J. Gordon

Paul Krugman Reviews ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth’ by Robert J. Gordon
By Paul Krugman
Jan 25 2016

Back in the 1960s there was a briefly popular wave of “futurism,” of books and articles attempting to predict the changes ahead. One of the best-known, and certainly the most detailed, of these works was Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener’s “The Year 2000” (1967), which offered, among other things, a systematic list of technological innovations Kahn and Wiener considered “very likely in the last third of the 20th century.”

Unfortunately, the two authors were mostly wrong. They didn’t miss much, foreseeing developments that recognizably correspond to all the main elements of the information technology revolution, including smartphones and the Internet. But a majority of their predicted innovations (“individual flying platforms”) hadn’t arrived by 2000 — and still haven’t arrived, a decade and a half later.

The truth is that if you step back from the headlines about the latest gadget, it becomes obvious that we’ve made much less progress since 1970 — and experienced much less alteration in the fundamentals of life — than almost anyone expected. Why?

Robert J. Gordon, a distinguished macro­economist and economic historian at Northwestern, has been arguing for a long time against the techno-optimism that saturates our culture, with its constant assertion that we’re in the midst of revolutionary change. Starting at the height of the dot-com frenzy, he has repeatedly called for perspective: Developments in information and communication technology, he has insisted, just don’t measure up to past achievements. Specifically, he has argued that the I.T. revolution is less important than any one of the five Great Inventions that powered economic growth from 1870 to 1970: electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine and modern communication.

In “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” Gordon doubles down on that theme, declaring that the kind of rapid economic growth we still consider our due, and expect to continue forever, was in fact a one-time-only event. First came the Great Inventions, almost all dating from the late 19th century. Then came refinement and exploitation of those inventions — a process that took time, and exerted its peak effect on economic growth between 1920 and 1970. Everything since has at best been a faint echo of that great wave, and Gordon doesn’t expect us ever to see anything similar.

Is he right? My answer is a definite maybe. But whether or not you end up agreeing with Gordon’s thesis, this is a book well worth reading — a magisterial combination of deep technological history, vivid portraits of daily life over the past six generations and careful economic analysis. Non-economists may find some of the charts and tables heavy going, but Gordon never loses sight of the real people and real lives behind those charts. This book will challenge your views about the future; it will definitely transform how you see the past.

Indeed, almost half the book is devoted to changes that took place before World War II. Others have covered this ground — most notably Daniel Boorstin in “The Americans: The Democratic Experience.” Even knowing this literature, however, I was fascinated by Gordon’s account of the changes wrought by his Great Inventions. As he says, “Except in the rural South, daily life for every American changed beyond recognition between 1870 and 1940.” Electric lights replaced candles and whale oil, flush toilets replaced outhouses, cars and electric trains replaced horses. (In the 1880s, parts of New York’s financial district were seven feet deep in manure.)


People keep going to this home looking for their lost phones — and nobody knows why

People keep going to this home looking for their lost phones — and nobody knows why
By Peter Holley
Jan 26 2016

For months now, angry strangers have been showing up at Christina Lee and Michael Saba’s front door with a curious demand: “Give me back my stolen phone!”

Sometimes, families will show up; other times, it’s groups of friends or a random person with a police officer in tow, according to Fusion. Despite using different service providers, everyone who bangs on their door has been led to the suburban Atlanta home by a phone-tracking app.

The problem — as the couple desperately tries to explain visitors — is that the missing phones aren’t at the house and never have been.

They are not, in fact, thieves. Saba is an engineer; Lee is a journalist.

The pair doesn’t understand why exactly, but both Android and iPhone users on various networks are being directed to their house by phone-tracking apps.

Once the awkward situation is explained, most lost-phone-seekers are understanding. But the couple told Fusion that a smaller number of people who place absolute faith in their tracking technology are convinced that the couple is lying, provoking potentially volatile conflicts.

“My biggest fear is that someone dangerous or violent is going to visit our house because of this,” Saba told Fusion by email. “If or when that happens, I doubt our polite explanations are gonna go very far.”

“The majority of incidents happen later at night, after dinner,” Lee told the BBC, noting that neither she nor Saba have an idea why the problem persists.

On several occasions, Fusion reports, the problem has led to serious misunderstandings, such as an incident in which the couple briefly became suspects in a missing persons case:

In June, the police came looking for a teenage girl whose parents reported her missing. The police made Lee and Saba sit outside for more than an hour while the police decided whether they should get a warrant to search the house for the girl’s phone, and presumably, the girl. When Saba asked if he could go back inside to use the bathroom, the police wouldn’t let him.

“Your house is a crime scene and you two are persons of interest,” the officer said, according to Saba.

On a separate occasion, Lee told the BBC, three “frantic” young men showed up outside their door looking for someone.

“The minute Michael opened the door they were, ‘like where is he?'” she said.


Pursuing critics, China reaches across borders. And nobody is stopping it.

Pursuing critics, China reaches across borders. And nobody is stopping it.
By Emily Rauhala and Simon Denyer
Jan 26 2016

BEIJING — China’s campaign against dissent is going global.

Amid extraordinary moves to rein in criticism at home, Chinese security personnel are reaching confidently across borders, targeting Chinese and foreign citizens who dare to challenge the Communist Party line, in what one Western diplomat has called the “worst crackdown since Tiananmen Square.”

A string of incidents, including abductions from Thailand and Hong Kong, forced repatriations and the televised “confessions” of two Swedish citizens, has crossed a new red line, according to diplomats in Beijing. Yet many foreign governments seem unwilling or unable to intervene, their public response limited to mild protests.

The European Union is divided and appears uncertain about what to do. Hong Kong is in an uproar, with free speech under attack, activists looking over their shoulders and many people saying they feel betrayed by a lack of support from Britain.

“China seems bent upon broadcasting to the world its disdain for the rule of law,” said Jerome A. Cohen, a China legal scholar and professor at New York University.

[Televised ‘confession’ was absurd and incoherent — and that’s the point]

With Secretary of State John F. Kerry in Beijing, where he landed late Tuesday, the leaders of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, an independent U.S. government agency, have voiced alarm. The body’s chairman, Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), said Friday that President Xi Jinping’s push toward “hard authoritarianism” threatens U.S.-China ties, a view echoed by his co-chairman, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

“On Xi’s watch, Hong Kong’s autonomy is under threat, and Beijing’s reach is ever-expanding to include foreign soil and foreign nationals living, working and doing business in China,” said Rubio, a presidential candidate. “President Xi is ruling by fear, not by the rule of law.”

Before this became a story about cross-border abductions, televised confessions and China’s long, throttling reach, it was a story about a book — a gossipy work on Xi’s love life. The book, which has not been published, is said to allude to the alleged girlfriends the president had before he took office.

It was to have been issued in the semiautonomous Chinese city of Hong Kong by a small publishing house, Mighty Current Media, whose name seems to foreshadow the rush of abductions by Chinese security forces that has swept up five men associated with the firm, including two foreign nationals.

On Oct. 17, Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong-based publisher and naturalized Swedish citizen, vanished from his 17th-floor vacation condominium in Thailand. Days later, three Mighty Current employees disappeared while visiting the Chinese city of Shenzhen.

In late December, Lee Bo, a British citizen, was apparently abducted from a warehouse in Hong Kong — an action that appeared to violate the “one country, two systems” principle Beijing pledged to uphold after taking control of the city from Britain in 1997. In a series of odd communications with his wife, Lee said he was “assisting with an investigation” in China and that “everything is fine.”


Cops hate encryption but the NSA loves it when you use PGP

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Rosenthal.  DLH]

Cops hate encryption but the NSA loves it when you use PGP
It lights you up like a Vegas casino, says compsci boffin
By Iain Thomson
Jan 27 2016

Although the cops and Feds wont stop banging on and on about encryption – the spies have a different take on the use of crypto.

To be brutally blunt, they love it. Why? Because using detectable encryption technology like PGP, Tor, VPNs and so on, lights you up on the intelligence agencies’ dashboards. Agents and analysts don’t even have to see the contents of the communications – the metadata is enough for g-men to start making your life difficult.

“To be honest, the spooks love PGP,” Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute, told the Usenix Enigma conference in San Francisco on Wednesdy. “It’s really chatty and it gives them a lot of metadata and communication records. PGP is the NSA’s friend.”

Weaver, who has spent much of the last decade investigating NSA techniques, said that all PGP traffic, including who sent it and to whom, is automatically stored and backed up onto tape. This can then be searched as needed when matched with other surveillance data.

Given that the NSA has taps on almost all of the internet’s major trunk routes, the PGP records can be incredibly useful. It’s a simple matter to build a script that can identify one PGP user and then track all their contacts to build a journal of their activities.

Even better is the Mujahedeen Secrets encryption system, which was released by the Global Islamic Media Front to allow Al Qaeda supporters to communicate in private. Weaver said that not only was it even harder to use than PGP, but it was a boon for metadata – since almost anyone using it identified themselves as a potential terrorist.

“It’s brilliant!” enthused Weaver. “Whoever it was at the NSA or GCHQ who invented it give them a big Christmas bonus.”


Ignoring cable industry protest, FCC says it will “unlock the set-top box”

Ignoring cable industry protest, FCC says it will “unlock the set-top box”
Cable TV customers could save a lot of money on set-top box rental fees.
By Jon Brodkin
Jan 27 2016

Pay-TV providers would have to make video programming available to the makers of third-party devices and software under a proposal by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler.

The FCC is planning for a software-based, cardless replacement for CableCard. Without needing a physical card that plugs into a third-party set-top box, consumers would be able to get TV channels on tablets, smart TVs, or set-top boxes that they can buy from other companies instead of renting a box from a cable company.

“Consumers should be able to choose how they access the Multichannel Video Programming Distributor’s (MVPDs)—cable, satellite, or telco companies—video services to which they subscribe,” the FCC’s summary of the proposal said. “For example, consumers should be able to have the choice of accessing programming through the MVPD-provided interface on a pay-TV set-top box or app, or through devices such as a tablet or smart TV using a competitive app or software. MVPDs and competitors should be able to differentiate themselves and compete based on the experience they offer users, including the quality of the user interface and additional features like suggested content, integration with home entertainment systems, caller ID and future innovations.”

The proposal summary says the goal is to “unlock the set-top box.”

As we previously reported, Comcast and other pay-TV providers wanted a far more restrictive framework that would involve cable companies building their own apps for third-party devices. Consumer advocates and device makers pushed a proposal to give third parties access to TV content and information, allowing them to build their own user interfaces that could be better than ones cable providers offer.

While Wheeler’s plan hasn’t been fully detailed, it appears to reject the cable companies’ proposal and give consumer advocates and device makers most of what they asked for.

Customers would still have to buy TV service from a cable, telco, or satellite firm. But just as mobile broadband customers can choose from many smartphones to use on a wireless network, pay-TV customers should be able to choose what device they watch TV on, an FCC official said in a phone call with reporters. FCC officials say the software-based successor to CableCard should be more successful in giving consumers a choice.

Few choices for cable TV customers

Under the CableCard system, 99 percent of customers still rent set-top boxes directly from their providers and pay an average of $231.82 a year in rental fees, US senators found in a survey of TV providers last year. Lack of competition in the set-top box market has resulted in prices rising much faster than they do in other hardware markets, an FCC official said.

Wheeler wants TV providers to give third parties access to three main categories of information and content: information about what programming is available to consumers, including channel listings and video-on-demand; information about what a device is allowed to do with that content, such as recording; and the video content itself.


Oklahoma Lawmakers Vote Overwhelmingly To Ban Advanced Placement U.S. History

[Note:  This article is from 2015. I thought it was appropriate to post it now given recent events, so we have some context. DLH]

Oklahoma Lawmakers Vote Overwhelmingly To Ban Advanced Placement U.S. History
By Judd Legum
Feb 17 2015

An Oklahoma legislative committee overwhelmingly voted to ban Advanced Placement U.S. History class, persuaded by the argument that it only teaches students “what is bad about America.” Other lawmakers are seeking a court ruling that would effectively prohibit the teaching of all AP courses in public schools.

Oklahoma Rep. Dan Fisher (R) has introduced “emergency” legislation “prohibiting the expenditure of funds on the Advanced Placement United States History course.” Fisher is part of a group called the “Black Robe Regiment” which argues “the church and God himself has been under assault, marginalized, and diminished by the progressives and secularists.” The group attacks the “false wall of separation of church and state.” The Black Robe Regiment claims that a “growing tide of special interest groups indoctrinating our youth at the exclusion of the Christian perspective.” 

Fisher said the Advanced Placement history class fails to teach “American exceptionalism.” The bill passed the Oklahoma House Education committee on Monday on a vote of 11-4. You can read the actual course description for the course here. 

For other lawmakers, however, Fisher is thinking too small. Oklahoma Rep. Sally Kern (R) claims that all “AP courses violate the legislation approved last year that repealed Common Core.” She has asked the Oklahoma Attorney General to issue a ruling. Kern argues that “AP courses are similar to Common Core, in that they could be construed as an attempt to impose a national curriculum on American schools.” 

Advanced Placement courses are actually developed by a private group, the College Board, and are not required of any student or high school. They are the primary way that student can earn college credit in high school. Taking advanced placement course can save students money and are generally seen as a prerequisite to admission to elite colleges. A representative from the College Board called the claims by Fisher and others “mythology and not true.”


Record hot years near impossible without manmade climate change – study

Record hot years near impossible without manmade climate change – study
New calculations shows there is just a 0.01% chance that recent run of global heat records could have happened due to natural climate variations
By Damian Carrington
Jan 25 2016

The world’s run of record-breaking hottest years is extremely unlikely to have happened without the global warming caused by human activities, according to new calculations.

Thirteen of the 15 hottest years in the 150-year-long record occurred between 2000-14 and the researchers found there is a just a 0.01% chance that this happened due to natural variations in the planet’s climate.

2015 was revealed to have smashed all earlier records on Wednesday, after the new study had been completed, meaning the odds that the record run of heat is a fluke are now even lower.

“Natural climate variations just can’t explain the observed recent global heat records, but manmade global warming can,” said Prof Stefan Rahmstorf, at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and one of the research team.

He said the record heat brought substantial impacts: “It has led to unprecedented local heatwaves across the world, sadly resulting in loss of life and aggravating droughts and wildfires. The risk of heat extremes has been multiplied due to our interference with the Earth system, as our analysis shows.”

The UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) confirmed on Monday that the global average surface temperature in 2015 shattered all previous records and said 15 of the 16 hottest years on record have all occurred since 2000. “We have reached for the first time the threshold of 1C above pre-industrial temperatures. It is a sobering moment in the history of our planet,” said WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas. 

The new research by Rahmstorf and colleagues, published in the journal Scientific Reports, is based on a statistical analysis that combines real-world measurements with comprehensive computer simulations of the climate system. This allowed natural climate variability to be better separated from human-caused climate change. The results did not vary significantly when UK Met Office temperature data was used instead of Nasa data.

The research was prompted by earlier claims that the run of record-breaking years was vanishing unlikely, a one in 650m shot, according to one report.

However, the average global surface temperature of the planet each year is influenced by the warmth of the previous year, meaning that a record broken one year is not independent of the year before. The UK Met Office expects 2016 to break the record set in 2015, partly because of the continuing El Niño weather phenomenon.


What World Are We Building?

[Note:  This item comes from friend Judi Clark.  DLH]

What World Are We Building?
By danah boyd
Jan 25 2016

It’s easy to love or hate technology, to blame it for social ills or to imagine that it will fix what people cannot. But technology is made by people. In a society. And it has a tendency to mirror and magnify the issues that affect everyday life. The good, bad, and ugly.

0. Internet
I grew up in small town Pennsylvania, where I struggled to fit in. As a geeky queer kid, I rebelled against hypocritical dynamics in my community. When I first got access to the Internet, before the World Wide Web existed, I was like a kid in a candy store. Through early online communities, I met people who opened my eyes to social issues and helped me appreciate things that I didn’t even understand. Looking back, I think of the Internet as my saving grace because the people that I met — the strangers that I met — helped me take the path that I’m on today. I fell in love with the Internet as a portal to the complex, interconnected society that we live in.

I studied computer science, wanting to build systems that connected people and broke down societal barriers. As my world got bigger, though, I quickly realized that the Internet was a platform and that what people did with that platform ran the full spectrum. I watched activists leverage technology to connect people in unprecedented ways while marketers used those same tools to manipulate people for capitalist gain. I stopped believing that technology alone could produce enlightenment.

In the late 90s, the hype around the Internet became bubbalicious, and it started to be painfully clear to me that economic agendas could shape technology in powerful ways. After the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, I was part of a network of people determined to build systems that would enable people to connect, share, and communicate. By then I was also a researcher trained by anthropologists, curious to know what people would do with this new set of tools called social media.

In the early days of social network sites, it was exhilarating watching people grasp that they were part of a large global network. Many of my utopian-minded friends started dreaming again of how this structure could be used to break down social and cultural barriers. Yet, as these tools became more popular and widespread, what unfolded was not a realization of the idyllic desires of many early developers, but a complexity of practices that resembled the mess of everyday life.