Monthly Archives: August 2013

Climate Change Politics: IPCC report leaked 2013

Carbon_dioxide_3D_ball, Ball-and-stick model of the carbon dioxide molecule. Oxygen in red, carbon in black

Climate sensitivity [:]This is the measure used by researchers of how much they expect the world’s average temperature to increase in response to particular increases in levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. According to one table from the unpublished [IPCC] report, which was seen by The Economist, at CO2 concentrations of between 425 parts per million and 485 ppm, temperatures in 2100 would be 1.3-1.7°C above their pre-industrial levels. That seems lower than the IPCC’s previous assessment, made in 2007. Then, it thought concentrations of 445-490 ppm were likely to result in a rise in temperature of 2.0-2.4°C.

climate change leaked report 2013

(Source the Economist, July 20, 2013, at 71)

The two findings are not strictly comparable. The 2007 report talks about equilibrium temperatures in the very long term (over centuries); the forthcoming one talks about them in 2100. But the practical distinction would not be great so long as concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse-gas emissions were stable or falling by 2100. It is clear that some IPCC scientists think the projected rise in CO2 levels might not have such a big warming effect as was once thought.

There are several caveats. The table comes from a draft version of the report, and could thus change. It was put together by the IPCC working group on mitigating climate change, rather than the group looking at physical sciences. It derives from a relatively simple model of the climate, rather than the big complex ones usually used by the IPCC. And the literature to back it up has not yet been published.

Still, over the past year, several other papers have suggested that views on climate sensitivity are changing. Both the 2007 IPCC report and a previous draft of the new assessment reflected earlier views on the matter by saying that the standard measure of climate sensitivity (the likely rise in equilibrium temperature in response to a doubling of CO2 concentration) was between 2°C and 4.5°C, with 3°C the most probable figure. In the new draft, the lower end of the range has been reduced to 1.5°C and the “most likely” figure has been scrapped. That seems to reflect a growing sense that climate sensitivity may have been overestimated in the past and that the science is too uncertain to justify a single estimate of future rises.

If this does turn out to be the case, it would have significant implications for policy. Many countries’ climate policies are guided by the IPCC’s findings. They are usually based on the idea (deriving in part from the IPCC) that global temperatures must not be allowed to increase by more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and that in order to ensure this CO2 concentrations should not rise above 450 ppm. The draft table casts doubt on how solid the link really is between 450 ppm and a 2°C rise. It remains to be seen whether governments conclude from this that it is safe to let CO2 concentrations climb even further, or whether (as some will doubtless argue) a 2°C rise was too much anyway and it is now possible to aim for less.

Excerpt, Climate science: Sensitive information, Economist, July 20, 2013, at 70

See also Coerced Transparency: the leaked IPCC Report 2012

Marine Pollution: the benefits of plastic in the sea

Beach at Msasani Bay,  Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. image from wikipedia

The malign effect of floating plastic debris on seabirds, turtles and other sea creatures is well known. But, as Dr Mincer and Dr Amaral-Zettler have discovered, plastic debris also provides a new habitat for organisms small enough to take advantage of it.  The two researchers collected pieces of plastic from various sites in the North Atlantic. They then examined each using DNA analysis, and also an electron microscope, to see what was living on it. Lots of things were. Altogether, they discovered about 50 species of single-celled plant, animal and bacterial life. Each bit of debris was, in effect, a tiny ecosystem.…Plastics are energy-rich substances, which is why many of them burn so readily. Any organism that could unlock and use that energy would do well….Less encouragingly, Dr Mincer and Dr Amaral-Zettler also found cholera-like bacteria in their tiny floating ecosystems. Both fish and seabirds act as vectors for cholera (the former bring it into human settlements when caught by fishermen, the latter when resting ashore or nesting), so anywhere that such creatures might pick up cholera bugs is something worth keeping an eye on.

The researchers paint an intriguing picture of the adaptability of nature, and provide another piece of the jigsaw that is the Anthropocene. Conservationists intent on preserving charismatic megafauna have reason to lament the spread of plastics through the ocean. But those interested in smaller critters have been given a whole, new sphere—the plastisphere—to study.

Marine ecology: Welcome to the plastisphere, Economist, July 20, 2013, at 7

The Economic Choking of Somalia: the role of the United States

somalia currency

For Mohamed Abdulle, sending money to his family in Somalia means a trip to a high street in Stratford, East London, home to a large expatriate community. Once there he hands over cash, a telephone number and a name, usually that of his grandmother who lives in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, to an agent. A few minutes later Mr Abdulle, who works as a shop assistant, gets a text message letting him know the cash has arrived on the other side. This fast and reliable system, developed during decades of war in Somalia, is used by hundreds of thousands in the global diaspora, as well as by some UN offices and aid agencies to pay staff.

Perhaps not for much longer. Barclays, a big retail bank, has served notice that it will close the accounts of some 250 money-transfer businesses. The bank said the decision followed a routine legal review. Some money remitters “don’t have the proper checks in place to spot criminal activity,” the bank says, or could “unwittingly” be financing terrorists.

Barclays was among the last British banks willing to deal with agents who cheaply transfer money to poor countries. Many European banks have become nervous about such cash transfers after the American government last year forced HSBC, another big British bank, into a $1.9 billion settlement over allegedly shoddy money-laundering controls…..

Meanwhile, a group of 100 academics and other notables [petition] written to the British government asking it to avert a humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa. An estimated 40% of Somalia’s population depends on money sent from abroad. A recent study showed that three-quarters of recipients need the money to buy essentials, such as food and medicine.

“This will mean children being pulled out of school, people going hungry or not getting medicines they need,” said Laura Hammond, a lecturer at the University of London. The Somali Money Services Association, another British trade body, warned that the consequences of the closure of the accounts would be “worse than the drought” that ravaged Somalia two years ago and killed tens of thousands.

So far attention has focused on Somalia, where years of conflict have destroyed the banks and left no real alternatives to cheap money transfers. But the 250 firms put on notice by Barclays also include some serving Ghana and Nigeria, as well as India and Bangladesh. More sophisticated and expensive competitors such as Western Union may now benefit. A reduction in competition in the African remittance market will drive up prices.  Africans already pay more than any other migrant group to send money home. The cost of remitting to sub-Saharan Africa, typically around 12%, is three percentage points higher than the global average…

Some observers are calling for the creation of new institutions that could replace private banks. One suggestion is a “remittance bank” hosted by the UN or a multilateral agency. Another is a code of conduct worked out by remitters, banks and regulators. “This needs to be driven by government,” says Leon Isaacs of the International Association of Money Transfer Networks. “Or the banks won’t get the comfort they want.”

African money transfers: Let them remit, Economist, July 20, 2013, at 43

See also

Family Ties: Remittances and Livelihoods Support in Puntland and Somaliland Study Report (pdf)

Milking the Internet: the trans-Atlantic Battle

milking

The raid by the European Commission’s antitrust gumshoes this month on Orange (formerly France Telecom), Deutsche Telekom and Telefónica of Spain seemed to come out of the blue. The companies professed a surprise verging on stupefaction. Even some Brussels insiders were caught on the hop.  Naming no names, the commission said the inquiry involved internet connectivity. The question is whether entrenched telecoms firms are abusing their strength in the market for internet traffic to deny video-streaming websites and other content providers full access to their networks to reach consumers. Besides the content providers themselves, the other potential plaintiffs are the “wholesalers” that the content providers use to ship their data across borders (and usually the Atlantic). These rely on incumbent internet-service providers (ISPs) such as Orange to take the data the last bit of the way to subscribers’ screens and mobiles.

All eyes turned to Cogent Communications, an American wholesaler which handles data for the likes of YouTube. Cogent has complained, fruitlessly, to French and German regulators that their former monopolies were asking too much to handle data, and throttling the flow to consumers when bigger fees were not forthcoming. It is appealing against the French decision.  In theory Orange and the other network providers might simply pass on to their customers the cost of all their streaming and downloading… But Europe’s market is fiercely competitive; and regulators place all sorts of constraints on how networks can charge for their services, while haranguing them to invest in new technology and new capacity to keep up with rising traffic. Though there are similar spats in America (for instance between Cogent and Verizon, a big network operator), it looks to some Europeans like another example of the rape of the old continent by America’s data-mining, tax-avoiding internet giants.

The broader issue—and the reason, perhaps, why the antitrust watchdogs chose to weigh in—is that Europe is on the brink of big regulatory change. A draft law to be published in September will subtly alter the principle of “net neutrality”, the idea that companies which own the infrastructure cannot give priority to some traffic (eg, from their own websites) over that of others.;”

Internet access: Congestion on the line, Economist, July 20, 2013

Justice Systems Run by Machines: predictive policing

crime

PredPol Places [a US company, has developed] one of a range of tools using better data, more finely crunched, to predict crime. They seem to promise better law-enforcement. But they also bring worries about privacy, and of justice systems run by machines not people.  Criminal offences, like infectious disease, form patterns in time and space….

Cops working with predictive systems respond to call-outs as usual, but when they are free they return to the spots which the computer suggests. Officers may talk to locals or report problems, like broken lights or unsecured properties, that could encourage crime. Within six months of introducing predictive techniques in the Foothill area of Los Angeles, in late 2011, property crimes had fallen 12% compared with the previous year; in neighbouring districts they rose 0.5%…

For now, the predictive approach works best against burglary and thefts of vehicles or their contents. These common crimes provide plenty of historical data to chew on. But adding extra types of information, such as details of road networks, can fine-tune forecasts further. Offenders like places where vulnerable targets are simple to spot, access is easy and getaways speedy, says Shane Johnson, a criminologist at University College London. Systems devised by IBM, a technology firm, watch how big local events, proximity to payday and the weather affect the frequency and location of lawbreaking. “Muggers don’t like getting wet,” says Ron Fellows, IBM’s expert.

Predicting and forestalling crime does not solve its root causes. Positioning police in hotspots discourages opportunistic wrongdoing, but may encourage other criminals to move to less likely areas. And while data-crunching may make it easier to identify high-risk offenders—about half of American states use some form of statistical analysis to decide when to parole prisoners—there is little that it can do to change their motivation.

Misuse and overuse of data can amplify biases….But mathematical models might make policing more equitable by curbing prejudice…

This sort of transparency about what goes on in predictive systems, and what their assumptions are, may also be a partial solution to worries voiced by Andrew Ferguson, a law professor in Washington, DC. Mr Ferguson fears that judges and juries could come to place too much credence in the accuracy of crime prediction tools, jeopardising justice.

The legal limits on using social media to fish out likely wrongdoers, or create files on them, are contested. Most laws governing police investigations pre-date social networking, and some forces assert that all information posted to public forums is fair game. But Jamie Bartlett of Demos, a British think-tank, says citizens and police forces need clearer guidance about how to map physical-world privacy rights onto online spaces. He thinks gathering information about how someone behaves on social sites ought to require the same clearance needed to monitor them doggedly in public places. Officers who register anonymously or pseudonymously to read content, or send web crawlers to trawl sites against their owner’s wishes, would require yet more supervision.

Identifying true villains among the oddballs and loudmouths found by social-media searches is tricky. Most police efforts are embryonic. Evgeny Morozov, an academic and technology writer, thinks the privacy-conscious have more to fear from crime detection algorithms cooked up by social networks themselves. Some of those firms already alert investigators when they suspect users of soliciting minors. Unlike the cops they employ clever coders who can process private messages and other data that police may access only with a court order.

These projects make life difficult for many criminals. But smart ones use the internet to make predictions of their own. Nearly 80% of previously arrested burglars surveyed in 2011 by Friedland, a security firm, said information drawn from social media helps thieves plan coups. Status updates and photographs generate handy lists of tempting properties with absent owners. It does not take a crystal ball to work out what comes next.

Predictive policing: Don’t even think about it, Economist,July 20, 2013, at 24

In-Q-Tel and DOD: Opera to find needles in haystack

U.S. Department of Defense, August 21, 2013, Contracts, Air Force

Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), McLean, Va., and Signal
Innovations Group (SIG) Inc.*, Durham, N.C. are being awarded
indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts for Object Physics for
Exploitation and Recognition (OPERA) to obtain the capability to isolate and
model physical mechanisms responsible for exploitation performance earlier in
the exploitation development process.  Work will be performed at McLean, Va.,
and Durham, N.C., and is expected to be completed by Aug. 21, 2020.

Excerpt From the Department of Defense Website 

The Signal Innovations Group is supported by In-Q-Tel,  the technology arm of the CIA

What can Signal Innovations Group do for the Air Force?

From Website of Signal Innovations Group

The success of military objectives and the safety of military personnel depend on the ability to detect, classify, and identify harmful objects of interest, such as military vehicles, land and sea mines, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).  Since World War II, mines have damaged more U.S. Naval vessels than all other threats combined.  Roadside bombs and other IEDs are the single greatest threat to currently deployed coalition forces, and IEDs have been responsible for almost 40% of U.S. casualties in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

For decades, the U.S. military has been integrating advanced radar and sonar sensor systems on airborne and undersea platforms to aide in the detection, classification, and identification of air, ground, and underwater targets.  Recent growth in the development and deployment of unmanned systems, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs), has greatly expanded the utility of multiple sensor modalities (radar, sonar, Electro-Optical (EO)/Infrared (IR) Sensors) and the quantity of collected sensor data.  Human analysts are often tasked with manually examining sensor data.  However, the overwhelming volume of data exceeds the limited available human resources, and performance is often unreliable due to human fatigue and distraction.  Therefore, automated real-time sensor processing techniques are required to reliably detect and discriminate targets of interest while minimizing the number of false alarms.  The success of automated techniques depends on the sensor system, the observed background objects, and environmental conditions, all of which can influence the performance of automated systems.  SIG has developed advanced statistical data modeling and inference techniques that accurately and efficiently detect and discriminate targets in sensor data.  By maintaining a probabilistic framework, SIG’s predictive modeling capabilities produce more meaningful and useful results than typical discrimination strategies.  Model uncertainty can be quantified to determine if additional data is necessary, decision-making is aided by confidence values associated with target declarations, and model components and values can be probabilistically combined.  As data is collected, SIG’s techniques are capable of adapting to changes in sensors and environmental conditions, as well as exploit all available data regardless of whether object identifications are known.

SIG’s target recognition software suite offers a combination of state-of-the-art detection, classification, and identification techniques that can be tailored to any application space.  The software contains multiple statistical data models within a flexible and modular architecture that is readily optimized for any sensor modality, including the fusion of multiple sensors.  The software can be configured for onboard integration with manned or unmanned platforms to provide real-time processing or delivered as stand-alone modules to support analysts and post-mission objectives.

Hacking Back: controlling hackers from defense to offense

CrowdStrike is a vocal advocate of “active defence” technologies that are generating much buzz in the cyber-security world. Their proponents argue that those who think firewalls, antivirus programmes and other security software are enough to keep their networks safe are kidding themselves. Instead, companies should work on the assumption that their systems have been breached, and take the fight to the hackers. The methods they prescribe include planting false information on their systems to mislead data thieves, and creating “honeypot” servers, decoys that gather information about intruders.  There are worries that such talk of active defence may encourage companies to go further, and “hack back” at their tormentors, even though many countries have laws that forbid such activity. In a survey of 181 delegates at last year’s Black Hat event, just over a third said they had already engaged in some form of retaliation against hackers.

Concerns about cyber-vigilantism have not deterred financiers from investing in tech firms that see active defence as a money-spinning opportunity. Take the case of Endgame, a secretive outfit that is adapting technology developed for intelligence agencies for commercial use. In March it raised $23m in a second round of funding and added Kenneth Minihan, a former director of America’s National Security Agency, to its board. Endgame has reportedly developed a system called “Bonesaw” that detects which software is being used by devices connected to the web. This could be used defensively by companies to detect vulnerabilities on their own devices, but could also be used to spot them on someone else’s.

Like many other information-technology businesses, the active-defence firms are deploying cloud computing (the delivery of software and data storage over the internet) and big-data crunching. CrowdStrike has developed a cloud-based service that scoops in intelligence about online threats from across the web and merges them with analysis from its own research team. It charges its customers from $25,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for its services. At the Black Hat conference researchers from Endgame demonstrated a system dubbed “BinaryPig”, which crunches huge amounts of data swiftly to help identify and understand hackers by seeking patterns in the “malware” that they use to enter others’ systems.

Other companies are concentrating on technology to foil software that hackers use to enter websites to indulge in wholesale “scraping”, or extraction, of their content. CloudFlare, one such start-up, has developed a service called Maze, which it proudly describes as “a virtual labyrinth of gibberish and gobbledygook”. The service detects content-scrapers and diverts them from the site’s useful material into dummy web pages with useless content.

John Strand, an expert in active-defence techniques at SANS Institute, a computer-security training outfit, says the goal of all these technologies is to drive up the costs that hackers incur in the hope this will deter them in future. It is not to wreak havoc in enemy servers. “We deal in poison, not venom,” he says.

But some security boffins argue that companies should be given more legal latitude to probe those servers. Stewart Baker, a former Department of Homeland Security official who now works for Steptoe & Johnson, a law firm, thinks firms should be allowed to “investigate back” in certain carefully prescribed situations. “There’s a difference between being a vigilante and a private investigator,” he insists. He also suggests that governments should consider licensing specialist firms to conduct investigations according to strict guidelines, rather than relying solely on their own cyber-detectives.

Other voices in the industry give warning that letting private companies hack into others’ servers, even to protect their own property, could lead to trouble. “It’s a foolish strategy to up the ante when you don’t know who you are attacking,” says Jeffrey Carr of Taia Global, a security consultancy. Mr Carr notes that hackers who are provoked might strike back even harder, triggering an escalation of hostilities.  Even some of the techniques employed by firms such as CrowdStrike could land firms in trouble. For instance, it might seem cunning for a company to try to trick hackers into losing money, by planting dummy accounts somewhere on their system that made the company’s financial health seem much worse than it is. But if instead of just using the misinformation to make unwise trades, the hackers leaked the figures to the financial markets, the company could find itself in hot water with regulators.

In spite of such risks, which can be minimised through close co-ordination between companies’ IT and legal teams, security experts are predicting that the popularity of active-defence techniques will grow. One reason is that businesses are making increasing use of cloud computing and mobile devices such as smartphones, which make it harder to establish clear defensive perimeters around their IT systems. “If you don’t really know where your castle starts and ends, you can’t really build an effective wall and moat around it,” explains Nils Puhlmann, formerly chief security officer of Zynga, a social-gaming company, and a founder of the Cloud Security Alliance, an industry group.

Business and cyber-crime: Firewalls and firefights, Economist, Aug. 10, 2013, at 53