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By Brian Robinson

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DARPA lays out bedrock R&D privacy principles

Privacy is one of those squishy issues that government has typically not been very good with. It usually gets conflated with data security, but in fact it’s a very different animal. Security is about protecting data from prying eyes, whereas privacy is about protecting people from the effects of information being seen by those prying eyes. And what is privacy to one government bureaucrat is just an annoyance to another. As I said, squishy.

A recent New York Times blog post points to the silence of the Obama Administration on privacy, at least so far, compared to the very loud pronouncements it’s made on such things as cybersecurity. One of the theories proffered for this was the dichotomy the administration is facing between the need for privacy on the one hand and the increasingly privacy-deficient world of Web 2.0, which the administration champions.

Interesting, therefore, to see that the boffins at DARPA have come up with a set of privacy principles that, at least at first glance, seem to give some hope that privacy could become a part of fundamental technology R&D. In other words, privacy would no longer be an afterthought of technology, or something to be layered on top, but the technology itself would be defined by the potential impact it will have on privacy.

As DARPA itself points out, the administration’s recent National Security Strategy lays out some of the criteria for privacy protection, though really it only mentions it in passing as a part of its rhetoric on cybersecurity, without really defining what privacy is or how it should be protected.

Which, if it can really turn its privacy principles into something concrete, is why DARPA’s approach seems potentially so important. It’s going to get the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study on the ethical implications of technology advances, create an independent privacy review panel to tell it what effect its bleeding edge R&D is likely to have on privacy and work with the National Science Foundation to assess the dangers to “personally identifiable information” of science and technology development.

That could all turn out to be as squishy as the original issue, of course. The trick is how it’s implemented into DARPA’s work. If it’s successful, that could turn out to be as equally a high-payoff development as any of the actual technology it produces.

Posted on Aug 10, 2010 at 7:27 PM0 comments

Could WikiLeaks story put a damper on battlefield intell?

Most of the reaction to the dumping of classified Afghan war documents at the WikiLeaks whistleblower Web site has so far focused on the broader damage the release might cause to the U.S. in that fight. But might the affair also impact the future ability of frontline troops to do their job?

A story published in MIT’s Technology Review implies that it could. The story said the WikiLeaks data dump was made possible by recent efforts in the military to deliver the freshest possible intelligence to frontline fighters. A probable restriction on the distribution of that material in the future could throttle the flow of potentially lifesaving information to those soldiers.

Technology Review links this to a clampdown on information flowing across DOD’s Secret IP Router Network (SIPRNet), which carries secret information and was presumably where Bradley Manning, the Army private and intelligence analyst who has been charged with an earlier release of documents to WikiLeaks and could be implicated in the latest Afghan affair, got much of that data.

The problem for the military is not only that up-to-date intelligence is becoming more vital for warfighters, particularly in the urban environments they are now fighting in, but it’s central to the way the military intends to use technology to fight wars in the future. Army Chief Information Officer Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson says the Army is “net-dependent” in carrying out its mission, and Air Force CIO Lt. Gen. William Lord says the network is crucial to making up for the reduced size of future armed forces.

The recent WikiLeaks debacle poses a big problem for DOD. The point of the network is to get good information to the warfighter as quickly as possible, while keeping the data as secure as possible. You could keep it secure by strictly limiting access to data, but what does that do to its availability?

Another Technology Review piece suggests that the bird has already flown when it comes to putting a lid on leaks. Maybe the focus should be more on tracking down leakers and prosecuting them, leaving the data to flow to where it will do the most good. Maybe we also need a rethink what secret and secure really means these days.

Posted on Aug 06, 2010 at 7:27 PM0 comments

Industry hopes fed computers go dark on Power IT Down Day

I don’t know about you, but at our house everything goes dark at bedtime. I’m pretty good about turning the lights off, but my wife pulls the plug on everything that can connect to the power grid so that we can save on the last possible cent before it dribbles away into the power company’s coffers.

Power IT Down Day is an attempt by a group of companies to convince the government IT universe to do the same. Despite all the push for green IT, apparently agencies are still pretty wasteful with their power consumption.

There have been mandates for agencies to reduce their energy use, there’s a goal to cut government energy use and emissions by 28 percent by 2020, and the Obama Administration earlier this year launched its GreenGov Challenge. Given that the federal government accounts for around 1.5 percent of the total U.S. annual energy consumption, and is the largest user, just a little savings could add up to a lot of green.

The trouble is getting this message down into the trenches, or in this case down to the regular government employee at his or her desk or workplace. It doesn’t matter what the muckety-mucks in the White House or on the upper floors at agency headquarters dream up: If those employees aren’t convinced to turn their computers, printers or other devices off when they leave at night, then it’s just talk.

Most of the efforts around green IT have so far centered around the data center and other large energy users. But the largest user population, those everyday government grunts, probably have the greatest effect on energy consumption but haven’t been the focus of anything much. Hence, Power IT Down Day.

This is the third of the annual Power IT Down Days, which this year is happening on Aug. 27. The number of participants last year doubled from that of the initial event to 5,600 and achieved a total energy savings of around 73,000 kWh. The Wounded Warrior Project got $45,000 as a result.

This year, the event’s sponsors -- Citrix, Intel, Hewlett Packard and GTSI -- have a goal of getting 6,100 people to participate and, given that Aug. 27 is the first day of a weekend, save a total of 335,000 kWh of energy. That’s around $45,000 in hard dollar savings. And the Wounded Warrior Project gets another donation.

For the goals of the sponsor’s corporate citizenship, the intent is to be positive. Get people to sign up at the Power IT Down website to participate and, broadly, show government what the ROI is on better managing this every day power drain.

Here’s a more devious idea. On Aug. 27, get someone to drive around town with some kind of luminosity meter. I’m sure some bright spark can invent that in time. See which agency comes out as the best saver, and which the worst. The winner gets a shiny gold star it can put onto its Web home page proclaiming it the government energy champion, while the loser has to pay the winner’s energy bill for that weekend.

Who do you think will be the winner and the loser? Leave us a comment.


Posted on Jul 30, 2010 at 7:27 PM5 comments

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