Monthly Archives: January 2014

How Fiber Optic Cables can Listen to You

fiber optic cable

[T]he technology known as distributed acoustic sensing (DAS)… allows underground fibre-optic cables, like those used by telecoms companies, to be turned into a giant string of microphones. They can then be used to monitor all sorts of sensitive locations, from oil and gas pipelines to railway tracks, military bases and international borders. In its latest guise, DAS is even being used to help make hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” as it is known, more efficient at releasing natural gas and oil trapped in rocks.

There are some limitations to the technology. Its powers of hearing are not sufficiently acute to pick up a conversation, for example. And since the cables inside buildings are typically a tangle of short lengths interrupted by junction-boxes, it is unlikely to work there. However, a long cable buried outdoors can provide the equivalent of a microphone every ten metres.  Algorithms are used to establish acoustic “fingerprints” for the sounds that are detected; and depending where and when they occur, each is assigned a level of risk, says Magnus McEwen-King, OptaSense’s managing director. Footsteps around a guarded facility at midday may not be unusual, but at 2am they would be.

OptaSense is also using the system to monitor sounds coming from below ground, in particular those produced by the water, sand and chemicals pumped under high pressure to fracture rock during fracking. There is concern about exactly what is going on underground, and in particular if the process might contaminate aquifers. Various seismic sensors can be used to monitor the fracking process, sometimes from test bores drilled nearby. But it is a costly and tricky process.

Shell and other oil companies are using a DAS system, which OptaSense calls vertical seismic profiling, to monitor their fracking. It uses a fibre-optic cable inserted into a well bore to build up an acoustic picture of the fracking fluid going into the rock at multiple levels. This means that potential problems, such as blockages, or leaks from one layer of rock to another, can be spotted before they become serious. And by having a clearer idea of how much fluid is going where, the fracking process can be constantly adjusted so that it runs in the most efficient way.

Listening for intruders and monitoring the efficiency of fracking are just two of the potentially lucrative applications of DAS technology. No doubt there will be others in the pipeline.

Acoustic sensing: The ear underground, Economist,  January 4, 2014, at 62

A Humanitarian Crisis for the Sake of Conservation: the Sengwer in Kenya

Kerio River, Kenya

For decades, the Kenyan government has attempted to evict indigenous people from the forests of Embobut and Cherangany, in the western county of Elgeiyo Marakwet. Past tactics have even included torture and setting fire to homes, those affected say…The government – accused in recent weeks of preparing to carry out yet another forced eviction – maintains that communities living in 12 forest glades must leave so it can rehabilitate the degraded forest and the water services it provides to the surrounding regions and beyond.

“This is a government initiative aimed specifically at conserving the country’s second-largest water tower – nothing else,’’ said Inspector Stephen Chessa, who works for the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and is in charge of the Embobut eviction…

But one forest warder who preferred to remain anonymous told Thomson Reuters Foundation he and his colleagues had been instructed to evict forcefully anyone who resists the move.  On Monday, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, expressed deep concern about this prospect, urging the Kenyan government “to ensure that the human rights of the Sengwer indigenous people are fully respected, in strict compliance with international standards protecting the rights of indigenous peoples”.  Most families are asking for more time to assemble their things and harvest crops before leaving the forest.   But Solomon Mibei, head of conservation for the KFS, said families would not be given extra time and the evictions would continue as planned. “They have no reason to continue staying in the forest – they were compensated,’’ he said.

The situation is complex because there are different communities living in Embobut: the Sengwer indigenous people; groups displaced by disasters and political violence; and others who have come to benefit from cultivation opportunities.  “Why should the government treat us equally with the victims of post-election violence and landslides?’’ asked Sengwer spokesperson Yator Kiptum. “The forest is our home – our case is different, it’s not fair at all.”…According to Article 63 of the constitution, community land shall be vested in and held by communities identified on the basis of ethnicity, culture or similar community of interest. Community land consists of ancestral lands and lands traditionally occupied by hunter-gatherers.

Justin Kenrick of the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), a UK-based rights organisation, said the government’s justification for evicting people is forest conservation, but research has long since shown that forests are best preserved not by evicting ancestral communities but by supporting them to regain secure rights to their land.  Payments to evictees by the government are “intended to distract the public and the communities themselves from addressing the real issues”, Kenrick said. “According to international treaties to which Kenya is a party, the Sengwer should have been consulted, and accepted or rejected the proposal,’’ he added.  Kiptum, however, claims the Sengwer were not consulted, did not sign anything, and have not agreed to hand over their land for the small amount of money that has been paid into some people’s bank accounts.  “You cannot create a humanitarian crisis for the sake of conserving biodiversity while there are other ways of doing it better,” said Stephen Cheboi, coordinator of the North Rift Human Rights Network based in nearby Eldoret town. He also called for an audit of the compensation process.

Excerpts from Caleb Kemboi, Indigenous rights clash with forest protection in Kenya, Reuters, Jan. 17,, 2014

See also Biodiversity and Human Rights

China in Antarctica: the value of flagpoles

antarctica flags

Over the past two decades China’s annual Antarctic spending has tripled to $55m, three times its Arctic investment… The Southern Ocean is full of fish. A large petroleum field was recently discovered in West Antarctica. The continent also has deposits of coal and other valuable minerals. The Protocol on Environmental Protection, a document signed in Madrid in 1991 by countries involved in Antarctica, has imposed a mining ban until 2048, when it is to be reviewed.

China acceded in 1983 to the Antarctic Treaty, which maintains the continent as a demilitarised science preserve and forms the basis of a system of governance. The goal of its current five-year polar plan, says Chen Lianzeng of China’s State Oceanic Administration, is to increase the country’s status and influence. On November 7th China’s 30th Antarctic expedition, complete with construction crew, set sail from Shanghai. It will scout a site for China’s fifth station, in Terra Nova Bay. Its fourth base, Taishan, is still unfinished.

Sovereignty in Antarctica is disputed. States assert themselves by building bases. “You put a huge flag on a flagpole close to the research station,” says Klaus Dodds, a professor of geopolitics at the University of London. “It is not very subtle.” If China builds all five planned stations it will have more than either Britain or Australia, and only one fewer than America.

Science matters, too. It gives cachet and influence in matters of joint governance. In 2008 China built Kunlun station, a base with capabilities for deep-space research in a place so remote that it took six attempts to get there. The ice underneath could help scientists work out the climatic record of the past 1.5m years, which would be a scientific coup.But the influx of new Antarctic actors has rattled the old establishment and its former scientific hegemony. “China is saying, ‘We don’t give a damn about Shackleton, Scott, all these white European heroes. You can keep that. What we’re interested in is the future,” says Mr Dodds. The Chinese have raised even more concerns by giving Chinese names to more than 350 places, including Great Wall Bay.  Chinese scholars call the Antarctic Treaty a “rich man’s club”, in which China has only second-class citizenship—with some justification, says Ms Brady, since the choicest spots for research stations were snapped up by the first countries to arrive. Publicly, though, China buries its grumbles and complies with protocol. An inspection regime installed by the treaty is ineffectual, and there is little check on states’ affairs.

Meanwhile, the exploitation of Antarctic resources may come sooner than predicted. At a recent meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, delegates from 24 countries failed to agree on proposals for two marine protected areas. Plans for the reserves have been discussed for decades, but consensus was required and China, Russia and Ukraine withdrew their support. If Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are to remain some of the planet’s last unspoilt wilderness, an updated framework is needed, and quickly.

Antarctic research: They may be some time, Economist, Nov. 16, 2013, at 50

The Transparent Individual

x ray brain

By integrating data you want into the visual field in front of you Google Glass is meant to break down the distinction between looking at the screen and looking at the world. When switched on, its microphones will hear what you hear, allowing Glass to, say, display on its screen the name of any song playing nearby…It could also contribute a lot to the company’s core business. Head-mounted screens would let people spend time online that would previously have been offline. They also fit with the company’s interest in developing “anticipatory search” technology—ways of delivering helpful information before users think to look for it. Glass will allow such services to work without the customer even having to reach for a phone, slipping them ever more seamlessly into the wearer’s life. A service called Google Now already scans a user’s online calendar, e-mail and browsing history as a way of providing information he has not yet thought to look for. How much more it could do if it saw through his eyes or knew whom he was talking to…

People may in time want to live on camera in ways like this, if they see advantages in doing so. But what of living on the cameras of others? “Creep shots”—furtive pictures of breasts and bottoms taken in public places—are a sleazy fact of modern life. The camera phone has joined the Chinese burn in the armamentarium of the school bully, and does far more lasting damage. As cameras connect more commonly, sometimes autonomously, to the internet, hackers have learned how to take control of them remotely, with an eye to mischief, voyeurism or blackmail.  More wearable cameras probably mean more possibilities for such abuse.

Face-recognition technology, which allows software to match portraits to people, could take things further. The technology is improving, and is already used as an unobtrusive, fairly accurate way of knowing who people are. Some schools, for example, use it to monitor attendance. It is also being built into photo-sharing sites: Facebook uses it to suggest the names with which a photo you upload might be tagged. Governments check whether faces are turning up on more than one driver’s licence per jurisdiction; police forces identify people seen near a crime scene. Documents released to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a campaign group, show that in August 2012 the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “Next Generation Identification” database contained almost 13m searchable images of about 7m subjects.

Face recognition is a technology, like that of drones, which could be a boon to all sorts of surveillance around the world, and may make mask-free demonstrations in repressive states a thing of the past. The potential for abuse by people other than governments is clear, too…In America, warrants to seize user data from Facebook often also request any stored photos in which the suspect has been tagged by friends (though the firm does not always comply). Warrants as broad as some of those from which the National Security Agency and others have benefited in the past could allow access to all stored photos taken in a particular place and time.

The people’s panopticon, Economist,  Nov. 16, 2013, at 27

The Clandestinization of Weapons Production

Shkval

By far the world’s fastest torpedo, Russia’s rocket-powered VA-111 Shkval (Squall) can slice through the sea for more than 11km at a speed above 370 kilometres per hour. It packs a 210kg warhead and cannot be dodged or stopped by the West’s big warships. Christopher Harmer, a commander in the US Navy until 2011, says vessels must therefore remain beyond the Shkval’s “pretty nasty range”, or strike the enemy above or below water quickly enough to prevent a launch.

No wonder, he says, that the West tries to keep tabs on each model which leaves its manufacturer, Dastan Engineering, a Russian-owned enterprise in Kyrgyzstan. That is hard: unlike big strategic missiles, the Shkval, 8.2 metres (27 feet) long, fits in an ordinary lorry. The resources used to monitor these facilities cannot be revealed, says a former Western naval chief. But, he adds, given the Shkval’s power, “Why wouldn’t you choose everything you had?”

The tracking of Shkval exports is but one part of a broad and increasing effort by the West to track a class of “showstopper” weapons that are both rare and easy to hide. Russia and other countries have stepped up the lucrative export of advanced weapons, especially missiles, designed with an eye to constraining rival Western forces, says Tor Bukkvoll, head of the Russia programme at Norway’s Defence Research Establishment, a defence-ministry body. Such “area denial” munitions allow an attack to be launched without the giveaway of first having to amass troops or hardware.

These weapons can be user-friendly enough even for non-state groups. On July 14th 2006 Hizbullah militants in Lebanon hit an Israeli corvette more than 15km offshore with an Iranian-made C-802 anti-ship missile, killing four sailors and severely damaging the warship. If Israel had known that Hizbullah possessed this weapon, the corvette’s automated countermeasure systems would not have been switched to standby and the attack would have failed, says Alex Tal, a former head of Israel’s navy.

The subsonic C-802 is not even particularly formidable. It is an old variant of a Chinese missile. Newer anti-ship or land-attack missiles fly faster and farther, and dodge interceptors. Their solid fuel means that they can be launched discreetly on short notice, Mr Tal says. Older types such as China’s widely exported Silkworm missiles require lengthy mixing and loading of volatile liquid propellants, a process which can be spotted from planes or satellites. With the newer models, the satellites have to keep watch on lorries leaving factories, which is costly and uncertain.

Among the most feared exports are Russia’s supersonic Klub (3M-54) and Yakhont guided missiles. Faster than their Western counterparts, they can be launched from land batteries, aircraft, ships and submarines, carry large warheads, and reach targets 300km away. The Klub (called the Sizzler by NATO) accelerates to three times the speed of sound in the stretch before striking. Countries publicly known to have the Klub or Yakhont include Algeria, China, India, Syria and Vietnam.

America has “a pretty good idea” of other secret exports, because it tracks ships worldwide, says Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defence under Ronald Reagan who is now at the Centre for American Progress, a think-tank. But countries without such capabilities (or close ties to America) can be left in the dark. Even top-notch spy services are uncertain about some of the most burning questions. Has Syria’s Assad regime passed along some of its Yakhont missiles to Hizbullah for use against Israel? Is Iran’s boast of possessing the Shkval a bluff? Do North Korean subs have it? (Some reports suggest that a Shkval was used to sink a South Korean ship in 2010.) Mr Harmer, now at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, DC, says that keeping track of every such device manufactured is impossible.

Uncertainty over arsenals is growing as a result of increasing “clandestinisation” of munitions manufacture and transport, says Jim Thomas, a senior Pentagon official until 2007. Now at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, another Washington think-tank, Mr Thomas says missiles are now emerging from “dual-use” factories that also ship non-military goods, and from factories made to appear as producers of solely civilian ones. This makes it harder for “squints” (intelligence officers who study satellite and drone imagery) to identify munitions of interest.

Manufacturers are marketing and designing munitions with concealment in mind. A Moscow firm calledThe Klubhas offered a system of four Klub missiles and an erector, with a control compartment for two operators, all concealed inside a standard shipping container. The “Club-K Container Missile System”, can be transported and fired from a merchant ship, freight train, or lorry. An expert at a European missile-maker says, “before you could see a Klub missile from space; now you can’t—you need spies.”

Israel already relies heavily on human sources to detect arms shipments to its enemies, says Shlomo Brom, a former intelligence officer and retired head of strategic planning at Israel’s General Staff. This is partly because Israel does not have enough satellites to monitor all the far-flung facilities where the most worrisome munitions are made. And arms shipments to Israel’s adversaries, he says, are increasingly disguised as civilian products.

The “vast majority” of munitions leaving Russian ports for Syria now travel on merchant ships that call at commercial ports rather than Russia’s naval base at the Syrian city of Tartus, says Farley Mesko, chief operating officer at C4ADS, an American investigative group. In September it published a report on concealed arms shipments calledThe Odessa Network” (pdf). Missiles are separated from their bulky launchers and transporters, and travel in containers that could just as well be carrying televisions, he says. Ten Shkvals could fit in just one container.

The spies’ efforts are bearing fruit. In January, May and July (2013) Israeli air strikes destroyed Russian- and Iranian-made missiles at locations in Syria. In October Sudan’s government accused Israel of bombing a weapons factory in Khartoum. Military-intelligence officials elsewhere are encouraged. They are pushing for more spies to conduct more missions.

Japan wants greater efforts to go into locating missiles in China and North Korea, says Narushige Michishita, a former specialist on the two countries’ arsenals at Japan’s defence ministry. His country’s intelligence on North Korea’s launching pads and procedures is excellent, he says, thanks largely to a 1998 decision to splurge on optical and radar satellites. But more human intelligence is now needed—North Korea has increased its fleet of “transporter-erector-launcher” lorries for Ro-Dong medium-range ballistic missiles from nine to about 50. Mr Michishita, now at Tokyo’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, says these can lurk inconspicuously while Ro-Dong missiles are taking on their liquid fuel—and then pull out and fire.

At least these weapons are broadly known. The next threat is arms developed in secret, so adversaries will not even know what to look for, says Mr Thomas, the former Pentagon official. Such devices may feature targeting systems which use location co-ordinates freely available from Google Earth. This would give even small and poor attackers the chance to deliver formidable weapons accurately.

Amid the growing demand for good intelligence, smaller countries see a role in helping allies. They may not be targeted by the weapons systems in question, says Todor Tagarev, a former Bulgarian defence minister, but passing nuggets along to bigger allies cultivates goodwill.

Outside the spy world, business is booming too. Big countries may be worried about the threat. But they see an upside too. It is their defence industries which are also the best source of countermeasures to the new weapons. Briefing an ally about threats can also be an implicit sales pitch. Seen this way, says the expert at a European missile-maker, insights from military intelligence are also part of defence-industry marketing.

Weaponry and espionage: A shot from the dark, Economist,  Nov. 30, 2013, at 58

Finance: the BlackRock Dominance

BlackRock headquarters

BlackRock, an investment manager, owns a stake in almost every listed company not just in America but globally. (Indeed, it is the biggest shareholder in Pearson, in turn the biggest shareholder in The Economist magazine.) Its reach extends further: to corporate bonds, sovereign debt, commodities, hedge funds and beyond. It is easily the biggest investor in the world, with $4.1 trillion of directly controlled assets (almost as much as all private-equity and hedge funds put together) and another $11 trillion it oversees through its trading platform, Aladdin.

Established in 1988 by a group of Wall Streeters led by Larry Fink, BlackRock succeeded in part by offering “passive” investment products, such as exchange-traded funds, which aim to track indices such as the S&P 500. These are cheap alternatives to traditional mutual funds, which often do more to enrich money managers than clients (though BlackRock offers plenty of those, too). The sector continues to grow fast, and BlackRock, partly through its iShares brand, is the largest competitor in an industry where scale brings benefits. Its clients, ranging from Arab sovereign-wealth funds to mom-and-pop investors, save billions in fees as a result.

The other reason for its success is its management of risk in its actively managed portfolio. Early on, for instance, it was a leader in mortgage-backed securities. But because it analysed their riskiness zipcode by zipcode, it not only avoided a bail-out in the chaos that followed the collapse of Lehman, but also advised the American government and others on how to keep the financial system ticking in the darkest days of 2008, and picked up profitable money-management units from struggling financial institutions in the aftermath of the crisis.

Compared with the many banks which are flourishing only thanks to state largesse, BlackRock’s success—based on providing value to customers and paying attention to detail—is well-deserved. Yet when taxpayers have spent billions rescuing financial institutions deemed too big to fail, a 25-year-old company that has grown so vast so quickly sets nerves jangling. American regulators are therefore thinking about designating BlackRock and some of its rivals as “systemically important”. The tag might land them with hefty regulatory requirements.

If the regulators’ concern is to avoid a repeat of the last crisis, they are barking up the wrong tree. Unlike banks, whose loans and deposits go on their balance-sheets as assets and liabilities, BlackRock is a mere manager of other people’s money. It has control over investments it holds on behalf of others—which gives it great influence—but it neither keeps the profits nor suffers the losses on them. Whereas banks tumble if their assets lose even a fraction of their value, BlackRock can pass on any shortfalls to its clients, and withstand far greater shocks. In fact, by being on hand to pick up assets cheaply from distressed sellers, an unleveraged asset manager arguably stabilises markets rather than disrupting them.

But for regulators that want not merely to prevent a repeat of the last blow-up but also to identify the sources of future systemic perils, BlackRock raises another, subtler issue, concerning not the ownership of assets but the way buying and selling decisions are made. The $15 trillion of assets managed on its Aladdin platform amount to around 7% of all the shares, bonds and loans in the world. As a result, those who oversee many of the world’s biggest pools of money are looking at the financial world, at least in part, through a lens crafted by BlackRock. Some 17,000 traders in banks, insurance companies, sovereign-wealth funds and others rely in part on BlackRock’s analytical models to guide their investing.

That is a tribute to BlackRock’s elaborate risk-management models, but it is also discomfiting. A principle of healthy markets is that a cacophony of diverse actors come to different conclusions on the price of things, based on their own idiosyncratic analyses. The value of any asset is discovered by melding all these different opinions into a single price. An ecosystem which is dominated by a single line of thinking is not healthy,

The rise of BlackRock, Ecomomist, Dec. 7, 2013, at 13