Daily Archives: March 6, 2008

More FBI privacy violations confirmed

Associated Press | Mar 5, 2008

By LARA JAKES JORDAN

WASHINGTON – The FBI acknowledged Wednesday it improperly accessed Americans’ telephone records, credit reports and Internet traffic in 2006, the fourth straight year of privacy abuses resulting from investigations aimed at tracking terrorists and spies.

The breach occurred before the FBI enacted broad new reforms in March 2007 to prevent future lapses, FBI Director Robert Mueller said. And it was caused, in part, by banks, telecommunication companies and other private businesses giving the FBI more personal client data than was requested.

Testifying at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Mueller raised the issue of the FBI’s controversial use of so-called national security letters in reference to an upcoming report on the topic by the Justice Department’s inspector general.

An audit by the inspector general last year found the FBI demanded personal records without official authorization or otherwise collected more data than allowed in dozens of cases between 2003 and 2005. Additionally, last year’s audit found that the FBI had underreported to Congress how many national security letters were requested by more than 4,600.

The new audit, which examines use of national security letters issued in 2006, “will identify issues similar to those in the report issued last March,” Mueller told senators. The privacy abuse “predates the reforms we now have in place,” he said.

“We are committed to ensuring that we not only get this right, but maintain the vital trust of the American people,” Mueller said. He offered no additional details about the upcoming audit.

National security letters, as outlined in the USA Patriot Act, are administrative subpoenas used in suspected terrorism and espionage cases. They allow the FBI to require telephone companies, Internet service providers, banks, credit bureaus and other businesses to produce highly personal records about their customers or subscribers without a judge’s approval.

Last year’s audit by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine, issued March 9, 2007, blamed agent error and shoddy record-keeping for the bulk of the problems and did not find any indication of criminal misconduct. Fine’s latest report is expected to be released as early as next week.

Several Justice Department and FBI officials familiar with the upcoming 2006 findings have said privately the new audit will show national security letters were used incorrectly at a similar rate as during the previous three years.

The number of national security letters issued by the FBI skyrocketed in the years after the Patriot Act became law in 2001, according to last year’s report. Fine’s annual review is required by Congress, over the objections of the Bush administration.

In 2005, for example, Fine’s office found more than 1,000 violations within 19,000 FBI requests to obtain 47,000 records. Each letter issued may contain several requests.

In contrast to the strong concerns expressed by Congress and civil liberties groups after last year’s inspector general’s report was issued, Mueller’s disclosure drew no criticism from senators during just over two hours of testimony Wednesday.

Speaking before the FBI chief, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., urged Mueller to be more vigilant in correcting what he called “widespread illegal and improper use of national security letters.”

“Everybody wants to stop terrorists. But we also, though, as Americans, we believe in our privacy rights and we want those protected,” Leahy said. “There has to be a better chain of command for this. You cannot just have an FBI agent who decides he’d like to obtain Americans’ records, bank records or anything else and do it just because they want to.”

Following last year’s audit, the Justice Department enacted guidelines that sternly reminded FBI agents to carefully follow the rules governing national security letters. The new rules caution agents to review all data before it is transferred into FBI databases to make sure that only the information specifically requested is used.

Fine’s upcoming report also credits the FBI with putting the additional checks in place to make sure privacy rights aren’t violated, according to a Justice official familiar with its findings.

Critics seized on Mueller’s testimony as proof that a judge should sign off on the national security letters before they are issued.

“The credibility factor shows there needs to be outside oversight,” said former FBI agent Michael German, now a national security adviser for the American Civil Liberties Union. He also cast doubt on the FBI’s reforms.

“There were guidelines before, and there were laws before, and the FBI violated those laws,” German said. “And the idea that new guidelines would make a difference, I think cuts against rationality.”

Brainreading device sparks fears of Orwellian Minority Report dystopia

The research evokes sci-fi film Minority Report, where police in the future read people’s minds and arrest them for “thought crimes”.

Picture this: Scientists could take photos of your memories and dreams

Daily Mail | Mar 6, 2008

Scientists have developed a mind-reading technique

Scientists have developed a mind-reading technique which could one day allow them to take pictures of memories and dreams.

By comparing brain activity scans, they were able to correctly predict which of 120 pictures someone was focusing on in 90 per cent of cases.

The technique could one day form the basis of a machine to project the imagination on to a screen.

Professor Jack Gallant led the Californian research team.

Writing in the journal Nature, he said: “It may soon be possible to reconstruct a picture of a person’s visual experience from measurements of brain activity alone.

“Imagine a general brainreading device that could reconstruct a picture of a person’s visual experience at any moment in time.”

Two scientists volunteered to look at 1,750 images while data was recorded from their brains and linked mathematically to the “points” that make up a 3D thought image.

This link between brain activity and image was then used to identify which images were seen by each volunteer from a new set of 120, just by looking at their brain scans.

The research evokes sci-fi film Minority Report, where police in the future read people’s minds and arrest them for “thought crimes”.

But such a situation is a long way off, as the technique currently only works on viewed images, not imagined ones, and it takes hours for the scanners to take the brain images.

Professor Gallant said: “It is possible that decoding brain activity could have serious ethical and privacy implications in 30 to 50 years.

“We believe strongly that no one should be subjected to any form of brain-reading involuntarily, covertly, or without complete informed consent.”

. . .

Related

What’s on your mind? Neuroscientists may one day find out

AFP | Mar 5, 2008

PARIS (AFP) — Venturing into the preserve of science fiction and stage magicians, scientists in the United States on Wednesday said they had made extraordinary progress towards reading the brain.

The researchers said they had been able to decode signals in a key part of the brain to identify images seen by a volunteer, according to their study, published by the British journal Nature.

The tool used by the University of California at Berkeley neuroscientists is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a non-invasive scanner that detects minute flows of blood within the brain, thus highlighting which cerebral areas are triggered by light, sound and touch.

Their zone of interest was the visual cortex — a frontal part of the brain that reconstitutes images sent by the retina.

Using two of their number as volunteers, the team built a computational model based on telltale blood-flow patterns in three key areas of the visual cortex.

The signatures were derived from 1,750 images of objects, such as horses, trees, buildings and flowers, that were flashed up in front of the subjects.
Using this model, the programme then scanned a new set of 120 brand new pictures to predict what kind of fMRI patterns these would make in the visual cortex.

After that, the volunteers themselves looked at the 120 new pictures while being scanned. The computer then matched the measured brain activity against the predicted brain activity, and picked an image that it believed was the closest match.

They notched up a 92-percent success rate with one volunteer, and accuracy was 72 percent in the other. The probability of this happening on the basis of chance — i.e. the computer picking the right image out of the 120 — is only 0.8 percent.

In an email to AFP, lead author Jack Gallant likened the task to that of a magician who asks a member of the audience to pick a card from a pack, and then figures out which one it was.

“Imagine that we begin with a large set of photographs chosen at random,” Gallant said.

“You secretly select just one of these and look at it while we measure your brain activity. Given the set of possible photographs and the measurements of your brain activity, the decoder attempts to identify which specific photograph you saw.”

The ambitious experiment was taken a stage further, expanding the set of novel images from 120 to up to 1,000. The first volunteer took this test, and accuracy declined, but only slightly, from 92 percent to 82 percent.

“Our estimates suggest that even with a set of one billion images — roughly the number of images indexed by Google on the Internet — the decoder would correctly identify the image about 20 percent of the time,” said Gallant.

The researchers say the device cannot “read minds,” the common term for unscrambling thoughts. It cannot even reconstruct an image, only identify an image that was taken from a known set, they point out.

All the same, the potential is enormous, they believe.

Doctors could use the technique to diagnose brain areas damaged by a stroke or dementia, determine the outcome of drug treatment or stem-cell therapy and fling open a door into the strange world of dreams.

And, according to one futuristic scenario, paraplegic patients, by thinking of a series of images whose fMRI patterns are recognised by computer, may one day be able to operate machines by remote control.

Even so, brain-reading is hedged with potential controversy.

Within 30 or 50 years, advances could raise fears about breach of privacy and authoritarian abuse of the kind that dog biotechnology today, the authors say.

“No-one should be subjected to any form of brain-reading process involuntarily, covertly, or without complete informed consent,” they say.
Although the two subjects were also investigators, there was no risk that the outcome of the test was skewed by suggestion or subliminal cues, co-researcher Kendrick Kay told AFP.

“Decoding performance was evaluated on a dataset that is completely independent of the one used to estimate the computational model,” said Kay.

“There is no plausible way that a subject could somehow make the evaluation dataset easier to decode by our computational algorithms.”