Should you worry about the IRS reading your email?

A new ACLU report claims the IRS has been accessing emails without a warrant. According to Keith Wagstaff, you might want to reconsider that email to your accountant with the subject line "Hey, thanks for helping me commit tax fraud!" According to the ACLU, the IRS could be reading your emails — even if they don't have a warrant.

The ACLU studied documents released by the Freedom of Information Act and found that, despite the Fourth Amendment's prohibitions against unreasonable searches and seizures, it has been IRS policy "to read people's email without getting a warrant."

Doing so wasn't always illegal because of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which says that email that has been stored on a provider's server for more than 180 days can be accessed without a warrant. But that should have changed in 2010 when, after hearing United States v. Warshak, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that "the government must obtain a probable cause warrant before compelling email providers to turn over messages."

The vital question is whether the IRS continued reading private emails without a warrant after that case was decided. The ACLU's report says that the IRS still tells its employees "that no warrant is required for emails that are stored by an ISP for more than 180 days."

So, is it time to start conducting all of your business via carrier pigeon?

Not if you use certain email services. Ryan Gallagher at Slate writes that "not all providers will play along if the IRS is still attempting to obtain emails without a warrant," noting that earlier this year "Google said that it is effectively ignoring the 180-days ECPA loophole by always requiring a search warrant from authorities seeking to obtain user content stored using its Gmail, Google Drive, or other services." Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook all told The Hill they adopted similar policies after 2010.

Still, that leaves a lot of people unprotected. CNET's Declan McCullagh points out that the ECPA "was adopted in the era of telephone modems, BBSs, and UUCP links, long before gigabytes of e-mail stored in the cloud was ever envisioned." That's why corporate America wants Washington to change the policy:

A phalanx of companies, including Amazon, Apple, AT&T, eBay, Google, Intel, Microsoft, and Twitter, as well as liberal, conservative, and libertarian advocacy groups, have asked Congress to update the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act to make it clear that law enforcement needs warrants to access private communications and the locations of mobile devices. [CNET]

Until the law is changed, you will just have to, in the words of ACLU staff attorney Nathan Freed Wessler, "hope you never end up on the wrong end of an IRS criminal tax investigation." Good luck with that.

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Calligraphy in the Age of Texting

China is in the midst of a “handwriting crisis” according to Sheng Hui of Yanzhao Evening News.

We already know that many adults have begun to forget how to draw basic Chinese characters since, in this computer age, they type far more often than they write by hand. But an expose has revealed that our children aren’t even learning the characters in the first place. In one high school class, for example, fully one third of students couldn’t write “sauce,” and half couldn’t even draw the characters for something as basic as “acupuncture.”

Part of the reason is simply our technological society: Students communicate with each other and their parents via text message and email. But our schools are to blame as well. Calligraphy classes have been widely dropped in favor of math and science. And in urban areas, teachers hardly ever write on blackboards anymore; “they just click the mouse to display their lesson plans” on a screen.
Students simply aren’t exposed to the sight of an adult hand drawing the character strokes. China will have to set standards for handwriting education, including competitions and mandatory testing, at both primary and secondary levels. If we don’t, we will soon have to “apply for world cultural heritage status” for Chinese characters.

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In love with a bot

When robots look like people or pets, says Robert Ito, it’s hard not to develop feelings for them.

"The robot is smiling at me, his red rubbery lips curved in a cheery grin. I’m seated in front of a panel with 10 numbered buttons, and the robot, a 3-foot-tall, legless automaton with an impish face, is telling me which buttons to push and which hand to push them with: “Touch seven with your right hand; touch three with your left.”

The idea is to go as fast as I can. When I make a mistake, he corrects me; when I speed up, he tells me how much better I’m doing. Despite the simplicity of our interactions, I’m starting to like the little guy. Maybe it’s his round silvery eyes and moon-shaped face; maybe it’s his soothing voice—not quite human, yet warm all the same. Even though I know he’s just a jumble of wires and circuitry, I want to do better on these tests, to please him.

The robot’s name is Bandit. We’re together in a tiny room at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey, Calif., where Bandit regularly puts stroke victims through their paces. They’re very fond of him, says University of Southern California researcher Eric Wade, who has worked with Bandit and his predecessors for five years. The stroke victims chitchat with Bandit, chide him, smile when he congratulates them. “People will try to hug the robots,” says Wade. “We go out to nursing homes, and people ask, ‘When’s the robot coming back?’”

Bandit is one of a growing number of social robots designed to help humans in both hospitals and homes. There are robots that comfort lonely shut-ins, assist patients suffering from dementia, and help autistic kids learn how to interact with their human peers. They’re popular, and engineered to be so. If we didn’t like them, we wouldn’t want them listening to our problems or pestering us to take our meds. So it’s no surprise that people become attached to these robots. What is surprising is just how attached some have become. Researchers have documented people kissing their mechanized companions, confiding in them, giving them gifts—and being heartbroken when the robot breaks, or the study ends and it’s time to say goodbye.

And this is just the beginning. What happens as robots become ever more responsive, more human-like? Some researchers worry that people—especially groups like autistic kids or elderly shut-ins who already are less apt to interact with others—may come to prefer their mechanical friends over their human ones.

Are we really ready for this relationship?

There are over 100 different models of social robots worldwide. The family includes machines that can act as nursemaids and housekeepers, provide companionship, talk patients through physical rehabilitation, and act as surrogate pets. The most popular, Sony’s Aibo (Artificial Intelligence Bot) robot dog, sold more than 140,000 units before it was discontinued. The Japan Robot Association, an industry trade group, predicts that today’s $5 billion a year market for social robots will top $50 billion a year by 2025.

What makes these machines’ popularity all the more remarkable is that they are a long way from the charming pseudo-humans of science fiction, your chatty C-3POs or cuddly WALL-Es. Many of these helpmates are little more than animatronic Pillow Pets.

The Japanese-made Paro, for instance, looks like a plush-toy version of a baby harp seal. It coos, moves its head and tail, bats its long lashes—and that’s about it. Even so, people adore it. More than a thousand Paros have been sold since its creation in 2003, making it one of the most popular therapeutic robots ever produced. In one study, a few people in two nursing homes seemed to believe that the Paro was a real animal; others spoke to it and were convinced that the Paro, which can only squeak and purr, was speaking back to them.

Or consider the Roomba, a robot vacuum cleaner that has sold more than 6 million units. In a 2007 study, researchers from Georgia Tech’s College of Computing looked at the ways in which Roomba owners bonded with their gadgets. Though the machines have neither faces nor limbs, and do little more than scuttle around and pick up lint, users were noted speaking to them, describing them as family members, even expressing grief when they needed to be “hospitalized.”

“I love the silly thing,” says Jill Cooper, co-founder of the frugal-living website Cooper, like many Roomba owners, gave her robot a name (Bob), speaks to him, and shows him off to visitors. “I hate to get too deep here,” she says, “but it’s like trying to explain what it feels like to be in love to somebody who’s never been in love before.”

“I’ve had to say goodbye to a lot of robots,” laments Kjerstin Williams, a senior robotics engineer at the research-and-development firm Applied Minds in Glendale, Calif. “If you have animals as pets, you go through the same process: You grieve and move on, and you try to re-engage with the next animal, or the next set of robots. It’s just that socially, it’s perfectly acceptable to grieve over a dog and maybe never get another one. If you’re a roboticist, you can’t do that.”

And it’s not just social robots spawning teary farewells. When a U.S. Marines explosives technician in Iraq brought the blasted remains of Scooby-Doo, his bomb-disabling robot, to the repair shop, Ted Bogosh, the master sergeant in charge of the shop, told him the machine was beyond repair. Bogosh offered the Marine a new robot, but the mournful man insisted he didn’t want a new robot—he wanted Scooby-Doo back. “Sometimes they get a little emotional,” Bogosh told The Washington Post.

In another instance reported by the Post, a U.S. Army colonel halted an experiment at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona in which a 5-foot-long, insect-like robot was getting its many limbs blown off one at a time. The colonel, according to Mark Tilden, the robotics physicist at the site, deemed the spectacle “inhumane.”

If veteran military officers can get choked up over a mechanized centipede, how hard might, say, a stroke patient fall for an artificial roommate? “Imagine a household robot that looks like a person,” says Matthias Scheutz, a computer science professor at Tufts University. “It’s nice, because it’s programmed to be nice. You’re going to be looking for friendship in that robot, because the robot is just like a friend. That’s what I find really problematic.”

Robots already are used extensively in Japan to help take care of older people, which concerns Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.

“The elderly, at the end of their lives, deserve to work out the meaning of their lives with someone who understands what it means to be born, to have parents, to consider the question of children, to fear death,” says Turkle. “That someone has to be a person. That doesn’t mean that robots can’t help with household chores. But as companions, I think it is the wrong choice.”

Then again, assistive robots for the elderly are a hot topic precisely because, as populations age, there are fewer human caregivers to go around. “Our work never aims to replace human care,” says Maja Mataric, director of USC’s Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems. “There is a vast gap in human care for all ages and various special needs. The notion that people should do the caring is not realistic. There simply aren’t enough people. We must find other ways to care for those in need.”

And the robots do seem to help. A 2009 review of 43 studies published in the journal Gerontechnology found that social robots increase positive mood and ease stress in the elderly. Some studies also reported decreases in loneliness and a strengthening of ties between the subjects and their family members.

But Turkle wonders if such human-robot relationships are inherently deceptive, because they encourage people to feel things for machines that can’t feel anything. Robots are programmed to say “I love you” when they can’t love; therapeutic robot pets, like Aibos and Paros, feign pleasure they don’t feel. Are programmers deluding people with their lovable but unloving creations?

“People can’t help falling for these robots,” says Scheutz. “So if we can avoid it, let’s not design them with faces and humanoid forms. There’s no reason that everything has to have two legs and look like a person.”

Unfeeling or not, a robot and its charms can be hard to resist. In the weeks following my meeting with Bandit, I find myself Googling his name and USC just to see if there’s been any news about him. I don’t think I miss him, really. I just want to know what he’s been up to.

Williams, the roboticist at Applied Minds, understands what I’m going through. As a graduate student at Caltech, Williams became attached to an Aibo, one of many that she would take around to local schools to get kids interested in robotics. She took this particular Aibo home, named him Rhodium (her husband is a chemist), played with him, learned his likes (a pink ball) and dislikes (having the antenna on his ear pushed the wrong way). But after graduation, she had to return Rhodium to the university.

“I do wonder where he went,” says Williams. “And I hope he still has his pink ball, because he’d be awfully sad if he couldn’t find it.” Sorry to say, the little robot dog undoubtedly misses his pink ball as much as he misses Williams—which is not at all.

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China’s Cyberwarriors and the Pursuit of Information Dominance

An ongoing campaign of computer attacks on the U.S. this year has been traced to China. What are the hackers after?

Who has been hacked?
Government agencies, newspapers, utilities, and private companies—literally hundreds of targets. The cybersecurity firm Mandiant, which has been tracking these attacks since 2004, says data has been stolen from at least 140 companies, mostly American, including Google, DuPont, Apple, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, as well as think tanks, law firms, human-rights groups, and foreign embassies. A company that provides Internet security for U.S. intelligence was attacked; so was one that holds blueprints for the nation’s pipelines and power grids. Hackers even stole classified information about the development of the F-35 stealth fighter jet from subcontractors working with the plane’s producer, Lockheed Martin. Congressional and federal offices have reported breaches. In 2007, the Pentagon itself was attacked—and it won’t say what was stolen.

Who’s doing it?
Ten years ago, Chinese patriots working independently were behind many of the attacks. These young hackers were outraged by the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, an accident during the Kosovo War. Using the name Honkers, or Red Guests, they launched a series of denial-of-service attacks on U.S. government websites. But within a few years some of them had begun working with the Chinese government, targeting Tibetan and Taiwanese independence groups, the religious group Falun Gong, and anyone in the West who communicated with Chinese dissidents. In recent years, says anti-malware specialist Joe Stewart, the number of hackers has doubled, with 10 major hacking groups in China. “There is a tremendous amount of manpower being thrown at this from their side,” Stewart told Bloomberg Businessweek. China’s government now appears to be directing the attacks. “We’ve moved from kids in their bedroom and financially motivated crime to state-sponsored cybercrime,” said Graham Cluley, a British security expert.

Why is China doing this?
China sees cyberwarfare as a valid form of international business and military competition, and is pursuing what it calls “information dominance.’’ Mandiant has traced many of the U.S. attacks to a Shanghai office building that appears to be the home of the People’s Liberation Army’s cyberwarfare unit. Thousands of hacks, including ones by two of the prominent aliases, Ugly Gorilla and SuperHard, were traced definitively to the district, and in recent years, that building has installed super-high-tech fiber-optic cables able to handle massive data traffic. About 2,000 people are estimated to be working in the building. This group appears to specialize in English-language computers, and hackers seem well versed in Western pop culture; one of the hackers used Harry Potter references for his passwords. China has issued a blanket denial, calling Mandiant’s claims “groundless” and “irresponsible.”

How do the hackers get access?
Mostly by the technique known as “spear phishing”. They send an email with a link that an employee of a targeted company then opens, activating malware programs that sweep through databases, vacuuming up information, including emails, blueprints, and other documents. Some phishing emails are recognized as spam by the recipients—but the Chinese are getting better at disguising them, sometimes using email accounts with real people’s names that are known to the recipient, and using colloquial English, so the emails read as plausible company business.

What does China do with the information?
The corporate secrets are worth a lot of money to Chinese business. Blueprints of advanced plants or machinery could help many Chinese industries, and so could data on corporate finances and policies. Energy companies, for example, can benefit from knowing what their foreign competitors are willing to bid for oil field sites. Chinese companies have already been sued for allegedly stealing DuPont’s proprietary method for making chemicals used in plastics and paints. More ominously, some of the information could be used to disrupt U.S. industry or infrastructure (see below). And while China is the main source of attacks, other countries also frequently hack U.S. sites, including Russia, North Korea, and Iran.

What is the U.S. doing to protect itself?
Congress refused to pass a comprehensive cybersecurity act last year because of opposition from business groups, which complained that new computer regulations would be costly and onerous. As a result, President Obama recently issued an executive order requiring Homeland Security to identify “critical infrastructure where a cybersecurity incident could reasonably result in catastrophic regional or national effects on public health or safety, economic security, or national security.” Those companies will have to beef up their cybersecurity by installing multiple layers of protection for the most sensitive systems. Right now, some companies have only a single firewall, and once that is breached, all the data is available. “The dirty little secret in these control systems is once you get through the perimeter, they have no security at all,” said Dale Peterson of security company Digital Bond. Hackers “can do anything they want.”

A worst-case scenario
Derailed trains. Air traffic control systems suddenly shut down with thousands of planes in the air. Exploding chemical plants and gas pipelines. Blackouts over large parts of the country, lasting weeks or even months. These are some of the apocalyptic events cybersecurity experts fear—hacks that could kill people and sow widespread panic. But what might be even more damaging, the experts say, is a coordinated attack on multiple banks in which hackers alter—not wipe—much of the financial data stored on their computers. With balances, debts, and other data changed, no transaction would be trustworthy. Nobody’s bank account or mortgage statement could be deemed accurate. “It would be impossible to roll that back,” said Dmitri Alperovitch of the computer security company CrowdStrike. “You could wreak absolute havoc on the world’s financial system for years.” Leon Panetta, the outgoing defense secretary, warns that hackers are now testing the defenses of banks, utilities, and government agencies, and figuring out how to launch a paralyzing attack. “This is a pre-9/11 moment,” Panetta recently told business executives in New York. “The attackers are plotting.”

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