Archive for the ‘CrashBlogging’ Category

Privacy groups walk out of US talks on facial recognition guidelines

Monday, July 6th, 2015

– Yes, I have a problem with systems that require us to ‘opt out’ before we can avoid them.

– In New Zealand, recently, one of the airlines was selling its passengers insurance that they specifically had to opt out of if they didn’t want to buy it.

– This one, having to do with facial recognition, is outrageous. It is a simple case of what’s good for the average Joe vs. what’s good for the corporations. And IMHO, the balance should always come down to favoring the average Joe and not the corporations.

– Look at how blatant the corporations are: “Not a single industry representative would agree on the most basic premise: that targets of facial recognition should opt in before companies identify them.

– dennis

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

A 16-month effort to set guidelines for use of facial recognition technology that satisfy consumers’ expectations of privacy and meet existing state laws went up in flames on Tuesday.

That’s when all nine civil liberties and consumer advocate groups participating in talks with trade associations on a voluntary code of conduct for US businesses to use facial recognition walked away from the table.

Their reason?

Not a single industry representative would agree on the most basic premise: that targets of facial recognition should opt in before companies identify them.

They’d been at it since February 2014, when the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) brought together industry representatives and privacy advocates to come up with voluntary guidelines.

The nine pro-privacy advocates, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Digital Democracy and other consumer advocates, put up a joint statementexplaining their move.

From the statement:

At this point, we do not believe that the NTIA process is likely to yield a set of privacy rules that offer adequate protections for the use of facial recognition technology. We are convinced that in many contexts, facial recognition of consumers should only occur when an individual has affirmatively decided to allow it to occur. In recent NTIA meetings, however, industry stakeholders were unable to agree on any concrete scenario where companies should employ facial recognition only with a consumer's permission.

According to The Washington Post, the camel’s back broke last Thursday, at the NTIA’s 12th meeting on the issue.

Insiders told the newspaper that this is how it went down:

First, Alvaro Bedoya, the executive director of Georgetown University's Center on Privacy and Law, asked if companies could agree to making opt-in for facial recognition technology the default for when identifying people - meaning that if companies wanted to use someone's face to name them, the person would have to agree to it. No companies or trade associations would commit to that, according to multiple attendees at the meeting.

That’s right: not a single company would agree that consumers should have the say-so in facial recognition.

But while this industry/advocates collaboration on voluntary guidelines has fallen apart, the images companies are collecting without any federal direction haven’t gone anywhere.

Face-slurping companies include tech giants Facebook, Google and Apple.

For its part, Facebook is facing a class action lawsuit over facial recognition, started by an Illinois man who claims the social network violated state privacy laws by not providing him with written notification that his biometric data was being collected or stored.

Also in the mix are retailers, such as Wal-Mart, which love to spot who’s looking at what and for how long inside their stores.

In the UK, things are very similar: Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket chain, in 2013 announced it was to install facial recognition technology in all 450 of its petrol station forecourts – all the better to target-market at you, my pretty.

The companies trying to hammer out guidelines in the US have turned away not only from the basic premise of opt-in, but also from a specific, concrete scenario of opt-in that was offered up by Justin Brookman, the director of the Center for Democracy & Technology’s consumer privacy project.

According to The Washington Post, Brookman sketched out the concrete scenario like so:

What if a company set up a camera on a public street and surreptitiously used it [to] identify people by name? Could companies agree to opt-in consent there?

The results were the same: not a single company went for opt-in, even under such specific circumstances.

Privacy advocates have said that their withdrawals from the multi-stakeholder process will be a fatal blow to the perceived legitimacy of the NTIA’s efforts, now that it’s just the foxes – as in, the companies implementing facial recognition – guarding the hen house (the hens being all us being surveilled).

But the NTIA says the talks will go on.

An agency spokesperson said this to The Washington Post:

NTIA is disappointed that some stakeholders have chosen to stop participating in our multi-stakeholder engagement process regarding privacy and commercial facial recognition technology. A substantial number of stakeholders want to continue the process and are establishing a working group that will tackle some of the thorniest privacy topics concerning facial recognition technology. The process is the strongest when all interested parties participate and are willing to engage on all issues.

The privacy advocates said in their letter that the barest minimum privacy expectation should be that we can simply walk down the street without our every movement being tracked and without then being identified by name, all thanks to the ever-more-sophisticated technology of facial recognition.

Unfortunately, we have been unable to obtain agreement even with that basic, specific premise. The position that companies never need to ask permission to use biometric identification is at odds with consumer expectations, current industry practices, as well as existing state law.

It might look good, at least on the surface, that the industry representatives are apparently playing ball by not walking away from the official guidelines-setting process.

But it’s hard to imagine anything privacy-positive coming out of that process now that the privacy advocates have walked away.

And without any guidelines, these companies will continue to use facial recognition in an unregulated environment.

– To the original:  

 

Afghanistan: No Country for Women

Sunday, July 5th, 2015

In war-torn Afghanistan it is not the Taliban that poses the greatest threat to women – it is their own families.

Thirteen years after the fall of the Taliban, women in Afghanistan continue to suffer oppression and abuse.

Research by Global Rights estimates that almost nine out of 10 Afghan women face physical, sexual or psychological violence, or are forced into marriage.

In the majority of cases the abuse is committed by the people they love and trust the most – their families.

While shelters are trying to provide protection and legal help to some, many women return to abusive homes because there is no alternative. Unable to escape their circumstances, some are turning to drastic measures like self-immolation to end their suffering.

…More:  

 

Sixth mass extinction has begun: Study

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

“We emphasise that our calculations very likely underestimate the severity of the extinction crisis, because our aim was to place a realistic lower bound on humanity’s impact on biodiversity,” the researchers wrote.

– We wander through our cities, each trapped in his or her little local world with no idea that the aggregate of all of us is destroying the planet’s ecosphere.  And how are we to know when those we trust to lead us sell our interests and the interests of our children and other species for momentary wealth.  They sell all the future generations and indeed a planet full of billions of years of biodiversity, they sell it all so that they can have ‘the better things’ in their small local dream of what their life’s about. Where are the leaders who truly lead and look out for the long and short term good of all of us?  Without them, we are doomed.  This beautiful world we are looking at is beginning to fade under our aggregate assault and most of us have no idea.

– dennis

New York, June 20 (IANS) The world is witnessing the sixth mass extinction that threatens even our very own existence, warns a new study.

The new study, published in the journal Science Advances, shows that even with extremely conservative estimates, species are disappearing up to about 100 times faster than the normal rate.

The world has seen five recognisable mass extinctions till now and the final one wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

“(The study) shows without any significant doubt that we are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event,” said Paul Ehrlich, senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

The researchers have warned that humans could be among the species lost as a result of the current mass extinction event.

“If it is allowed to continue, life would take many millions of years to recover, and our species itself would likely disappear early on,” said lead author Gerardo Ceballos from the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico.

There is general agreement among scientists that extinction rates have reached unparalleled levels since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago.

However, some have challenged the theory, believing earlier estimates rested on assumptions that overestimated the crisis.

Using fossil records and extinction counts from a range of records, the researchers compared a highly conservative estimate of current extinctions with a normal “background” rate estimate twice as high as those widely used in previous analyses.

This way, they brought the two estimates – current extinction rate and average background or going-on-all-the-time extinction rate – as close to each other as possible.

“We emphasise that our calculations very likely underestimate the severity of the extinction crisis, because our aim was to place a realistic lower bound on humanity’s impact on biodiversity,” the researchers wrote.

Now, the specter of extinction hangs over about 41 percent of all amphibian species and 26 percent of all mammals, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which maintains an authoritative list of threatened and extinct species.

“There are examples of species all over the world that are essentially the walking dead,” Ehrlich said.

Questions about ISIS

Friday, May 8th, 2015
Sun in Montreal
 
Its a beautiful Spring day here in Montreal, Canada, where I am now.  My partner, Colette, and I just spent an hour eating our sandwiches, sitting in the sun beside a huge square near the center of the city and watching the thousands of people nearby.  People were walking, talking, sitting and eating their lunches, sharing petitions to be signed, visiting, taking in the sun, clowning around, flirting and all of the many things free people do to enjoy such a gorgeous day.
 
In the past few years, Colette and I have spent extended time in several of our advanced democracies. I’m thinking here of New Zealand, France, Australia, The United States and now Canada.
 
Everywhere we’ve gone, I’ve seen people enjoying their rights and their freedoms.  In truth, most of us unconsciously assume the presence of our rights and freedoms; much as the birds assume the air and the fish assume the water.

 
It is so easy for us to forget that it was a long and hard struggle to bring our societies to where they are now.  These rights and freedoms have been with us for so long now that it is easy to forget the desperate places from where we began.
 
In the advanced democracies, that we now live in, we can freely practice our religions. We have certain inalienable human rights. Our women have the same rights as our men. The Rule of Law is firmly established and protects us from the arbitrary taking of our lives, our freedoms, and our goods  by those who think they can simply take what they want from us because they have more brains, money, weapons or power than we do.  We have democratic elections so we can freely choose who will perform the public service functions of our governments. We can go to a government office and get a license for driving, hunting or fishing without having to pay a bribe. We know that if we’re arrested and accused of committing a crime, that we have a right to a trial before a jury of our peers. 
 
You and I could both go on adding to this list.  We have so many fundamental freedoms and rights that we take for granted that it’s hard to even remember what they all are now.
 
But keen students of history and eclectic readers know that it wasn’t always this way. And intrepid world travelers know from direct experience that it is not this way in much of the world around us.
 
A Dark Cloud Rising
 
There is a dark cloud rising in the world.  And I find it is hard to say just why it is arising.  
 
Oh, there’s no shortage of theories and ideas around; including my own.  But they are all just like leaves whirling in a summer zephyr.
 
Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.  I still remember getting up to find the story on my TV screen one morning.  Little did I know all that would follow from that one morning’s news.
 
But somehow, now, 25 years on, the middle-east has become a maelstrom.  
 
I read the news from Iraq, from Afghanistan and from Yemen and I have no idea anymore who the main players are.  Or even if the players I am reading about are good guys or bad guys.  
 
The Shia, the Sunnis, Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, the Houtis, ISIS, the Syrian Rebels, and on and on.  Refugees are everywhere and they are risking their lives by the tens of thousands in leaky boats and desperate treks to get into Europe where they believe stability exists.  Or perhaps they are striving just to get away from where ever the terror is reigning the hardest behind them.
 
I watch BBC America most nights here in Montreal and often they will have important talking-heads who are former ambassadors or generals coming on to discuss the Middle-East.  I listen but I don’t hear clarity coming from what they have to say.  It all puts me in mind of the three blind men and the elephant parable elevated to the glitter of world news.
 
But, amid all of this, there is a particularly dark cloud to be seen in the midst of all the chaos and confusion and its name is ISIS.  
 
And ISIS puzzles me deeply.  How have they become so powerful so quickly in a world in which the flow of money is so highly regulated and where there are already so many people and weapons staked out on highly contested ground?  
 
Where does ISIS get its money, who is selling them their arms and who is secretly supporting them with both?
 
Everyone publicly disavows them, including the vast majority of moderate Muslims across the world.  And yet their political power, their wealth, their Internet presence, their numbers and their military power continue to grow.  How can this be so?
 
As I said, there are a lot of theories.  
 
One thing I’ve noticed is that in this latest upsurge in Middle-Eastern violence, the U.S. has remaining largely absent.  The U.S. went in after Saddam invaded Kuwait, and then it went in later to oust him, and then it went in after 9/11 to sort out Afghanistan.  
 
And each ‘going in’ was accompanied by great publicly expressed hopes that we’d ‘sort the mess out’ and spread American ideals like democracy, freedom and education far and wide.  And each time that was not the result obtained.  
 
Many American lives were lost, many more of our young lives were blighted by wounding, permanent crippling, and by mental damage from what they’d seen, done and experienced.  Billions of dollars of U.S. tax payer money was blown and the only obvious beneficiaries from these interventions were those U.S. industries that benefit from war.
 
In each case, what the U.S. left behind from their interventions was a bigger mess than when they arrived.  
 
In my mind, the only possible exception to this was when the U.S. ejected Saddam from Kuwait in 1991 and drove him back home with his tail behind his legs and left him there to lick his wounds.
 
So, maybe why we don’t see much U.S. presence in the current middle-eastern mess is because America’s lost heart with the idea that America can ‘sort things out’ with American boots-on-the-ground and American money because most times, it just hasn’t turned out well.  
 
Or, more cynically, maybe the American war industries just don’t see the opportunities for vast profits that they saw before.
 
Regardless of all that blather and the current confusion about what all is going on in the Middle-East, the simple and stark fact is that ISIS is there and they are rising and they are a dark cloud indeed.
 
Sunlight and shadows
 
I began this with a description of an idyllic afternoon in a square in Montreal and I was reflecting on all the hard-won freedoms and rights we enjoy in the advanced democracies.   And, so musing, I commented that after folks have had those rights and freedoms for a long time, it is easy to forget how precious they are and how hard the struggle was to secure them.
 
ISIS is forcing people to convert to their brand of fundamentalist Islam or to face death or slavery.
 
ISIS executes the opposition soldiers they capture in public and horrific manners to instill fear and submission into all that have not yet encountered them.
 
ISIS forces the women they capture to ‘marry’ their soldiers as sexual slaves.
 
ISIS has no tolerance for those who believe differently than they believe. 
 
ISIS takes over areas and imposes a new strict Muslim fundamentalist lifestyle on all whom they conquer.  Even when those whom they conquer are Muslims like themselves, they impose their will without exception.  They rule on how things should be done under penalty of death.  Girls shall not go to school and men shall not shave their beards and so on and so on.
 
I’ve read two chilling accounts of ISIS recently and I’d like to give you the links to these stories here.  I suggest that if you find what I am writing here of interest, that you go sideways for a few minutes and read these two articles.  They are chilling.
 
Article 1: http://tinyurl.com/o3tn7p7  “What ISIS Really Wants” from the Atlantic Magazine.
 
Article 2: http://tinyurl.com/mnajk2e “Searching for mercy in ISIS territory” from CBC Radio
 
Some tough questions you won’t find asked in the press
 
How, in an age wherein virtually everything we do on-line is analyzed under a microscope by governments, internet companies and those who want to sell us things … how can ISIS have such a huge presence on the Internet spewing hate and enticing new recruits and no one seems to be able to do anything about it?  If all these wanna-be jehadi kids are capable of find ISIS’s on-line propaganda, how can the western security services not find it?  And which Internet Service providers in which countries are putting up the web pages?
 
How, in an age when countries are swapping vast amounts of banking and tax information in an effort to clamp down on tax evasion, an age when every bank is mandated to “Know your customer”, how can ISIS own, move and spend millions of dollars on weapons and Internet propaganda?  These folks don’t even have a country!
 
How, in an age when oil supplies and prices are tracked with global precision, can ISIS profitably sell huge amounts of oil from the territories they take over?  Who is buying millions and millions of dollars of this oil and how can the international community not know that it is going on?
 
They have money, they have Internet presence and they are selling oil hand over fist … and it all seems to be a mystery to our governments how they can do such things?
 
And all this in a time when France has just passed new draconian security laws (http://tinyurl.com/mjatkbv) and Canada is about to vote on its new security law, C-51 (http://tinyurl.com/obf9svo).   And when the U.S.’s NSA has got their nose so deep in my underwear drawer that I’m sure they know all the brand names in there.  
 
How is ISIS even able to walk down the global street without getting mugged from six directions by our security services?
 
Where to from here, Dorothy?
 
Generally, I’m considered to be a liberal.  Cut me and you’ll find a tree hugger inside.  But I’m not cut from only one cloth.  
 
For instance, I believe in Capital Punishment.  Show me an incorrigible criminal who shows no signs of ever changing and who has blown several chances already and I’m quite willing to ‘off’ that person so the rest of us can get on with the business of making this a better world.
 
Perhaps, when you reflect on the hard-won freedoms we all enjoy, you may see why I am so deeply opposed to, and intolerant of, ISIS and Muslim Fundamentalism – or any fundamentalism, for that matter, that would impose its view of the world on me by force or stealth.  
 
These people want to throw away the hard-won advances it has taken us literally centuries to put into place like women’s rights, the rule of law and freedom from religious oppression.  
 
They want to take us back to Mohammed’s day in the 6th century.  
 
And I am bitterly opposed to this.  No one who has understood how long a road it has been to move from warlords to democracies, from woman as chattels to women as equals, and from power and corruption to the Rule of Law would ever want to go back.  
 
I am not afraid to tell you, my friends, that I would see the earth under their feet melted into nuclear glass before I would personally let them have a ghost of a chance at succeeding.
 
This world of our is, in fact, a damn mess; regardless of how nice it might be out in the sunlight in a square in Montreal on any given day.  We have got a ton of problems and a huge need to get them sorted out.  
 
But what we don’t need is a bunch of fanatics full of fundamentalist religious fervor who want to take us to the 6th century as a way to solve the world’s problems.
 
But back to the tough questions
 
I asked some questions earlier that I’ve wondered about a lot.  Questions that I have not seen in the press – and yet they are questions that demand answers.   
 
Here are some more.
 
Remember when U.S. forces simply blasted most of Saddam’s army to rubble in a matter of days once the U.S. decided to eject him and his Republican Guard from Kuwait in 1991?  I remember seeing videos of literally miles and miles of burned and destroyed military assets along the roads leading from Kuwait to Iraq.  He was barely left with two sticks to rub together.
 
Contrast this with the fact that more recently we hear that in Iraq ISIS’s forces are ‘threatening’ some town or other in Iraq.  They are coming towards the town and they are gathering outside the town and it is going to be a desperate battle; in spite of U.S. air strikes, we’re told.  What’s wrong with this picture?  ISIS must look like fleas on a linen napkin sitting out there in the desert ‘gathering’.  
 
But no, no one can do anything and after a short while, they take the town.  The U.S. made good efforts with its airstrikes – but what could be done?
 
Even more recently, we hear that the Iraqi’s have finally gotten their sh*t together and were going to eject ISIS from the Iraqi town of Tikrit.   There’s massive buildup of Iraqi forces on one side of Tikrit and then the Iraqi’s attack.  
 
What does ISIS do?  They fight a bit and then pull out of town on the other side and vanish to fight another day.  
 
Oh, nascent military strategists, what’s wrong with this picture?  Could someone not have been bright enough to have thought to have bottled them up from all sides – and ended their fighting days altogether?
 
A lot of this type of lame ‘news’ makes me really suspicious.
 
Here’s one that goes way back:  Remember a long time ago, in 2001, when U.S. forces had gone into Afghanistan and were closing in on Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora Caves of the White Mountains of Eastern Afghanistan?  Reports at the time said they had him ‘Bottled up’ with no escape.  Later, it was revealed that he had escaped into the tribal zones of western Pakistan.
 
How had this happened to the best and brightest of our military?   
 
Well, it came out later that the U.S. forces had let some of the local Afgani forces, who were fighting as allies of the U.S. military, into the plan.
 
Amazing!  Just damned amazing!   Think of all the fighting and dying that followed his escape – and we’d actually had him.
 
If the U.S. military had anyone on staff who understood Afghani culture, they would have known that tribal loyalties in Afghanistan cut far, far deeper than any loyalty that might be engendered by giving someone a rifle, a uniform and some pay for a few days.  
 
So, the locals who learned of the plan, communicated it to bin Laden’s folks and there you go … he was gone after all that cost, blood and effort to capture him.  And a lot of bad stuff followed on from that oversight.
 
So, where am I leading with all this cynicism?
 
Well, this is my suspicion, nasty as it may sound:
 
I think the folks in the U.S. who make such massive profits from war don’t mind if things run on for a bit.  After all, the money is made from conducting a war, not from ending it.
 
I think the folks in the U.S. who make such massive profits from war have been stung though in recent years by criticisms over how much they’ve spent and how little it has accomplished in the Middle-East.  
 
Every adventure they’ve lead into the Middle-East has left the area in even more turmoil.  And people are getting tired of it.  
 
The world is in worse and worse shape, the U.S. debt is climbing like crazy, the U.S. economy is struggling and we’ve poured billions of dollars into all of this – with very little to show for it.
 
I think the war industry folks have decided to hang back for awhile.   They have no doubt that they can crush ISIS when they need to – but they are in no hurry to proceed.
 
Let the killing and the atrocities continue.  Let the American people get really clear on just how bad ISIS really is.  
 
Let the perception grow that ISIS might get loose and begin attacking people anywhere out in the world.  Wait for the public to rethink its reservations about interventions in the Middle-East and then, when they are squeaking and scared, roll out the forces of truth, goodness and light and obliterate the bad guys.  
 
And, with such a build up and delay, the profits will be even better.

Hacking BIOS Chips isn’t just the NSA’s domain anymore

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

– I’m coming to believe that the only secrets left are the things in your head that you’ve never told another soul.  And I’m increasingly fearful that those who want to dominate our societies in the name of ‘security’ are developing the tools to disarm any who might try to organize against them.

– In the coming years, when the various dominator powers war against each other for global domination, those of us who understand little of these cyber wars will be like rats beneath the wheels of the passing chariots.

– As I see it, the only saving grace is that the type of intelligence it takes to participate in these wars is in no way exclusive to those with the urge to dominate.  But the Dominators do have the enviable advantage of money and organizational power.

– And note well, my friends, that nothing I’ve just said acknowledges in any way the other preeminent fact of our times – that our presence within, expansion into and carelessness with the natural environment around us is virtually certain to bring it down around our ears, unless we change our ways.

– Those going forward from here will increasingly live in ‘interesting times’.  We are truly at a pivot-point in human history and most of us are deeply asleep with regard to how fragile the world around us is becoming.

– dennis

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

THE ABILITY TO hack the BIOS chip at the heart of every computer is no longer reserved for the NSA and other three-letter agencies.  Millions of machines contain basic BIOS vulnerabilities that let anyone with moderately sophisticated hacking skills compromise and control a system surreptitiously, according to two researchers.

The revelation comes two years after a catalogue of NSA spy tools leaked to journalists in Germany surprised everyone with its talk about the NSA’s efforts to infect BIOS firmware with malicious implants.

The BIOS boots a computer and helps load the operating system. By infecting this core software, which operates below antivirus and other security products and therefore is not usually scanned by them, spies can plant malware that remains live and undetected even if the computer’s operating system were wiped and re-installed.

BIOS-hacking until now has been largely the domain of advanced hackers like those of the NSA. But researchers Xeno Kovah and Corey Kallenberg presented a proof-of-concept attack today at the CanSecWest conference in Vancouver, showing how they could remotely infect the BIOS of multiple systems using a host of new vulnerabilities that took them just hours to uncover. They also found a way to gain high-level system privileges for their BIOS malware to undermine the security of specialized operating systems like Tails—used by journalists and activists for stealth communications and handling sensitive data.

Although most BIOS have protections to prevent unauthorized modifications, the researchers were able to bypass these to reflash the BIOS and implant their malicious code.

Kovah and Kallenberg recently left MITRE, a government contractor that conducts research for the Defense Department and other federal agencies, to launch LegbaCore, a firmware security consultancy. They note that the recent discovery of a firmware-hacking tool by Kaspersky Lab researchers makes it clear that firmware hacking like their BIOS demo is something the security community should be focusing on.

Because many BIOS share some of the same code, they were able to uncover vulnerabilities in 80 percent of the PCs they examined, including ones from Dell, Lenovo and HP. The vulnerabilities, which they’re calling incursion vulnerabilities, were so easy to find that they wrote a script to automate the process and eventually stopped counting the vulns it uncovered because there were too many.

“There’s one type of vulnerability, which there’s literally dozens of instances of it in every given BIOS,” says Kovah. They disclosed the vulnerabilities to the vendors and patches are in the works but have not yet been released. Kovah says, however, that even when vendors have produced BIOS patches in the past, few people have applied them.

“Because people haven’t been patching their BIOSes, all of the vulnerabilities that have been disclosed over the last couple of years are all open and available to an attacker,” he notes. “We spent the last couple of years at MITRE running around to companies trying to get them to do patches. They think BIOS is out of sight out of mind [because] they don’t hear a lot about it being attacked in the wild.”

An attacker could compromise the BIOS in two ways—through remote exploitation by delivering the attack code via a phishing email or some other method, or through physical interdiction of a system. In that case, the researchers found that if they had physical access to a system they could infect the BIOS on some machines in just two minutes. This highlights just how quickly and easy it would be, for example, for a government agent or law enforcement officer with a moment’s access to a system to compromise it.

Their malware, dubbed LightEater, uses the incursion vulnerabilities to break into and hijack the system management mode to gain escalated privileges on the system. System management mode, or SMM, is an operations mode in Intel processors that firmware uses to do certain functions with high-level system privileges that exceed even administrative and root-level privileges, Kovah notes. Using this mode, they can rewrite the contents of the BIOS chip to install an implant that gives them a persistent and stealth foothold. From there, they can install root kits and steal passwords and other data from the system.

But more significantly, SMM gives their malware the ability to read all data and code that appears in a machine’s memory. This would allow their malware, Kovah points out, to subvert any computer using the Tails operating system—the security and privacy-oriented operating system Edward Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald used to handle NSA documents Snowden leaked. By reading data in memory, they could steal the encryption key of a Tails user to unlock encrypted data or swipe files and other content as it appears in memory. Tails is meant to be run from a secure USB flash drive or other removable media—so that conceivably it won’t be affected by viruses or other malware that may have infected the computer. It operates in the computer’s memory and once the operating system is shut down, Tails scrubs the RAM to erase any traces of its activity. But because the LightEater malware uses the system management mode to read the contents of memory, it can grab the data while in memory before it gets scrubbed and store it in a safe place from which it can later be exfiltrated. And it can do this while all the while remaining stealth.

“Our SMM attacker lives in a place nobody checks today to see if there’s an attacker,” Kovah says. “System management mode can read everyone’s RAM, but nobody can read System Management Mode’s RAM.”

Such an attack shows, he says, that the operating system Snowden chose to protect himself can’t actually protect him from the NSA or anyone else who can design an attack like LightEater.

– To the original article:  

– research thanks to: K. M.

 

 

What ISIS Really Wants

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

– I just read this long piece in the Atlantic Magazine and it is the clearest (and the most frightening) thing I’ve read on ISIS, who they are, why they are and what they want.

– It is a long but, I think, essential read to understand what ISIS is about.

– dennis

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.

What is the Islamic State

Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.

The group seized Mosul, Iraq, last June, and already rules an area larger than the United Kingdom. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been its leader since May 2010, but until last summer, his most recent known appearance on film was a grainy mug shot from a stay in U.S. captivity at Camp Bucca during the occupation of Iraq. Then, on July 5 of last year, he stepped into the pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, to deliver a Ramadan sermon as the first caliph in generations—upgrading his resolution from grainy to high-definition, and his position from hunted guerrilla to commander of all Muslims. The inflow of jihadists that followed, from around the world, was unprecedented in its pace and volume, and is continuing.

Our ignorance of the Islamic State is in some ways understandable: It is a hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned. Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.

The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al?Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as “Sheikh Osama,” a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaeda’s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group’s priorities and current leadership.

Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)

We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature. Peter Bergen, who produced the first interview with bin Laden in 1997, titled his first book Holy War, Inc. in part to acknowledge bin Laden as a creature of the modern secular world. Bin Laden corporatized terror and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia. His foot soldiers navigated the modern world confidently. On Mohammad Atta’s last full day of life, he shopped at Walmart and ate dinner at Pizza Hut.

There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.

To take one example: In September, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman, called on Muslims in Western countries such as France and Canada to find an infidel and “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over with a car, or “destroy his crops.” To Western ears, the biblical-sounding punishments—the stoning and crop destruction—juxtaposed strangely with his more modern-sounding call to vehicular homicide. (As if to show that he could terrorize by imagery alone, Adnani also referred to Secretary of State John Kerry as an “uncircumcised geezer.”)

But Adnani was not merely talking trash. His speech was laced with theological and legal discussion, and his exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops alone—unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the lands of kuffar, or infidels, should be unmerciful, and poison away.

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

– More:  

 

How Trade Deals Boost the Top 1% and Bust the Rest

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

by Robert Reich – Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley

Suppose that by enacting a particular law we’d increase the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. But almost all that growth would go to the richest 1 percent.

The rest of us could buy some products cheaper than before. But those gains would be offset by losses of jobs and wages.

This is pretty much what “free trade” has brought us over the last two decades.

I used to believe in trade agreements. That was before the wages of most Americans stagnated and a relative few at the top captured just about all the economic gains.

Recent trade agreements have been wins for big corporations and Wall Street, along with their executives and major shareholders. They get better access to foreign markets and billions of consumers.

They also get better protection for their intellectual property — patents, trademarks, and copyrights. And for their overseas factories, equipment, and financial assets.

But those deals haven’t been wins for most Americans.

The fact is, trade agreements are no longer really about trade. Worldwide tariffs are already low. Big American corporations no longer make many products in the United States for export abroad.

The biggest things big American corporations sell overseas are ideas, designs, franchises, brands, engineering solutions, instructions, and software.

Google, Apple, Uber, Facebook, Walmart, McDonalds, Microsoft, and Pfizer, for example, are making huge profits all over the world.

But those profits don’t depend on American labor — apart from a tiny group of managers, designers, and researchers in the U.S.

To the extent big American-based corporations any longer make stuff for export, they make most of it abroad and then export it from there, for sale all over the world — including for sale back here in the United States.

The Apple iPhone is assembled in China from components made in Japan, Singapore and a half-dozen other locales. The only things coming from the U.S. are designs and instructions from a handful of engineers and managers in California.

Apple even stows most of its profits outside the U.S. so it doesn’t have to pay American taxes on them.

This is why big American companies are less interested than they once were in opening other countries to goods exported from the United States and made by American workers.

They’re more interested in making sure other countries don’t run off with their patented designs and trademarks. Or restrict where they can put and shift their profits.

In fact, today’s “trade agreements” should really be called “global corporate agreements” because they’re mostly about protecting the assets and profits of these global corporations rather than increasing American jobs and wages. The deals don’t even guard against currency manipulation by other nations.

According to Economic Policy Institute, the North American Free Trade Act cost U.S. workers almost 700,000 jobs, thereby pushing down American wages.

Since the passage of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, America’s trade deficit with Korea has grown more than 80 percent, equivalent to a loss of more than 70,000 additional U.S. jobs.

Since China’s admission to the World Trade Organization, the U.S. goods trade deficit with China increased $23.9 billion (7.5 percent) to $342.6 billion. Again, the ultimate result has been to keep U.S. wages down.

The old-style trade agreements of the 1960s and 1970s increased worldwide demand for products made by American workers, and thereby helped push up American wages.

The new-style global corporate agreements mainly enhance corporate and financial profits, and push down wages.

That’s why big corporations and Wall Street are so enthusiastic about the upcoming Trans Pacific Partnership — the giant deal among countries responsible for 40 percent of the global economy.

That deal would give giant corporations even more patent protection overseas. It would also guard their overseas profits.

And it would allow them to challenge any nation’s health, safety and environmental laws that stand in the way of their profits — including our own.

The Administration calls the Trans Pacific Partnership a key part of its “strategy to make U.S. engagement in the Asia-Pacific region a top priority.”

Translated: The White House thinks it will help the U.S. contain China’s power and influence.

But it will make giant U.S. global corporations even more powerful and influential.

White House strategists seem to think such corporations are accountable to the U.S. government. Wrong. At most, they’re answerable to their shareholders, who demand high share prices whatever that requires.

I’ve seen first-hand how effective Wall Street and big corporations are at wielding influence — using lobbyists, campaign donations, and subtle promises of future jobs to get the global deals they want.

Global deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership will boost the profits of Wall Street and big corporations, and make the richest 1 percent even richer.

But they’ll bust the rest of America.

– To the Original:  

 

 

NSA hiding Equation spy program on hard drives

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

– In 1999, Motorola, at my request, sent me to Silicon Valley for a week-long course in advanced Windows Win32 programming.  

– During this course, I remember talking with another participant; a young computer whiz who was from the NSA.  

– He talked about how they (the NSA computer guys) conducted red-team green-team battles to see who could infiltrate the other’s team’s computer systems.

– But the thing he talked about, that caught my interest the most, was when he said the hot new frontier was getting into firmware as a way of exerting control over computers remotely.  It was a new idea that immediately fascinated me but once he saw my interest, I think he realized that he might be talking too much and clammed up.  He avoided me for the rest of the week.

– The story, below, says that the technique of firmware infiltration may have been around since 2001.  I’m sure I heard the sound of the other shoe dropping when I read that.

– The article says:

It is not clear how the NSA may have obtained the hard drives’ source code. Western Digital spokesman Steve Shattuck said the company “has not provided its source code to government agencies.” The other hard drive makers would not say if they had shared their source code with the NSA.

– I don’t find it all that mysterous.  How hard would it be for the NSA to field computer-savvy agents directed to seek employment in these companies?  Or, as the article says, to require the companies to provide their source code to the NSA for security reviews before the U.S. Government will allow it to be used in U.S. facilities?

– Once the NSA has the firmware’s source code, they can modify it and then intercept the firm’s drives in shipment and refresh the firmware on the intercepted drives with the NSA’s new stuff …  that does everything the old firmware does … and a bit more.  

– The interception-during-shipment technique was outed over a year ago as being one of their favorite techniques though in that case it had to do with routers.

– dennis

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

The US National Security Agency has figured out how to hide spying software deep within hard drives made by Western Digital, Seagate, Toshiba and other top manufacturers, giving the agency the means to eavesdrop on the majority of the world’s computers, according to cyber researchers and former operatives.

That long-sought and closely guarded ability was part of a cluster of spying programs discovered by Kaspersky Lab, the Moscow-based security software maker that has exposed a series of Western cyberespionage operations.

Kaspersky said it found personal computers in 30 countries infected with one or more of the spying programs, with the most infections seen in Iran, followed by Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Mali, Syria, Yemen and Algeria. The targets included government and military institutions, telecommunication companies, banks, energy companies, nuclear researchers, media, and Islamic activists, Kaspersky said.

The firm declined to publicly name the country behind the spying campaign, but said it was closely linked to Stuxnet, the NSA-led cyberweapon that was used to attack Iran’s uranium enrichment facility. The NSA is the agency responsible for gathering electronic intelligence on behalf of the United States.

A former NSA employee told Reuters that Kaspersky’s analysis was correct, and that people still in the intelligence agency valued these spying programs as highly as Stuxnet. Another former intelligence operative confirmed that the NSA had developed the prized technique of concealing spyware in hard drives, but said he did not know which spy efforts relied on it.

NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines declined to comment.

Kaspersky published the technical details of its research on Monday, which should help infected institutions detect the spying programs, some of which trace back as far as 2001.

The disclosure could further hurt the NSA’s surveillance abilities, already damaged by massive leaks by former contractor Edward Snowden. Snowden’s revelations have hurt the United States’ relations with some allies and slowed the sales of US technology products abroad.

The exposure of these new spying tools could lead to greater backlash against Western technology, particularly in countries such as China, which is already drafting regulations that would require most bank technology suppliers to proffer copies of their software code for inspection.

TECHNOLOGICAL BREAKTHROUGH

According to Kaspersky, the spies made a technological breakthrough by figuring out how to lodge malicious software in the obscure code called firmware that launches every time a computer is turned on.

Disk drive firmware is viewed by spies and cybersecurity experts as the second-most valuable real estate on a PC for a hacker, second only to the BIOS code invoked automatically as a computer boots up.

“The hardware will be able to infect the computer over and over,” lead Kaspersky researcher Costin Raiu said in an interview.

Though the leaders of the still-active espionage campaign could have taken control of thousands of PCs, giving them the ability to steal files or eavesdrop on anything they wanted, the spies were selective and only established full remote control over machines belonging to the most desirable foreign targets, according to Raiu. He said Kaspersky found only a few especially high-value computers with the hard-drive infections.

Kaspersky’s reconstructions of the spying programs show that they could work in disk drives sold by more than a dozen companies, comprising essentially the entire market. They include Western Digital, Seagate, Toshiba, IBM, Micron Technology and Samsung.

Western Digital, Seagate and Micron said they had no knowledge of these spying programs. Toshiba and Samsung declined to comment. IBM did not respond to requests for comment.

GETTING THE SOURCE CODE

Raiu said the authors of the spying programs must have had access to the proprietary source code that directs the actions of the hard drives. That code can serve as a roadmap to vulnerabilities, allowing those who study it to launch attacks much more easily.

“There is zero chance that someone could rewrite the [hard drive] operating system using public information,” Raiu said.

Concerns about access to source code flared after a series of high-profile cyberattacks on Google Inc and other US companies in 2009 that were blamed on China. Investigators have said they found evidence that the hackers gained access to source code from several big US tech and defense companies.

It is not clear how the NSA may have obtained the hard drives’ source code. Western Digital spokesman Steve Shattuck said the company “has not provided its source code to government agencies.” The other hard drive makers would not say if they had shared their source code with the NSA.

Seagate spokesman Clive Over said it has “secure measures to prevent tampering or reverse engineering of its firmware and other technologies.” Micron spokesman Daniel Francisco said the company took the security of its products seriously and “we are not aware of any instances of foreign code.”

According to former intelligence operatives, the NSA has multiple ways of obtaining source code from tech companies, including asking directly and posing as a software developer. If a company wants to sell products to the Pentagon or another sensitive US agency, the government can request a security audit to make sure the source code is safe.

“They don’t admit it, but they do say, ‘We’re going to do an evaluation, we need the source code,'” said Vincent Liu, a partner at security consulting firm Bishop Fox and former NSA analyst. “It’s usually the NSA doing the evaluation, and it’s a pretty small leap to say they’re going to keep that source code.”

Kaspersky called the authors of the spying program “the Equation group,” named after their embrace of complex encryption formulas.

The group used a variety of means to spread other spying programs, such as by compromising jihadist websites, infecting USB sticks and CDs, and developing a self-spreading computer worm called Fanny, Kasperky said.

Fanny was like Stuxnet in that it exploited two of the same undisclosed software flaws, known as “zero days,” which strongly suggested collaboration by the authors, Raiu said. He added that it was “quite possible” that the Equation group used Fanny to scout out targets for Stuxnet in Iran and spread the virus.

– To the Original:  

The 1847 lecture that predicted human-induced climate change

Monday, February 16th, 2015

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

A near-forgotten speech made by a US congressman warned of global warming and the mismanagement of natural resources

When we think of the birth of the conservation movement in the 19th century, the names that usually spring to mind are the likes of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, men who wrote about the need to protect wilderness areas in an age when the notion of mankind’s “manifest destiny” was all the rage.

But a far less remembered American – a contemporary of Muir and Thoreau – can claim to be the person who first publicised the now largely unchallenged idea that humans can negatively influence the environment that supports them.

George Perkins Marsh (1801-1882) certainly had a varied career. Here’s how Clark University in Massachusetts, which has named an institute in his memory, describes him:

Throughout his 80 years Marsh had many careers as a lawyer (though, by his own words, “an indifferent practitioner”), newspaper editor, sheep farmer, mill owner, lecturer, politician and diplomat. He also tried his hand at various businesses, but failed miserably in all – marble quarrying, railroad investment and woolen manufacturing. He studied linguistics, knew 20 languages, wrote a definitive book on the origin of the English language, and was known as the foremost Scandinavian scholar in North America. He invented tools and designed buildings including the Washington Monument. As a congressman in Washington (1843-49) Marsh helped to found and guide the Smithsonian Institution. He served as US Minister to Turkey for five years where he aided revolutionary refugees and advocated for religious freedom. He spent the last 21 years of his life (1861-82) as US Minister to the newly United Kingdom of Italy.

In other words, he kept himself busy. But I would argue his defining moment came on 30 September, 1847, when, as a congressman for the Whig party (a forerunner of the Republican party), he gave a lecture to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, Vermont. (The speech was published a year later.) It proved to be the intellectual spark that led him to go on and publish in 1864 his best-known work, Man and Nature: Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action.

More than 160 years on, it really does pay to re-read his speech as it seems remarkably prescient today. It also shows that he was decades ahead of most other thinkers on this subject. After all, he delivered his lecture a decade or more before John Tyndall began to explore the thesis that slight changes in the atmosphere’s composition could cause climatic variations. And it was a full half a century before Svante Arrhenius proposed that carbon dioxide emitted by the “enormous combustion of coal by our industrial establishments” might warm the world (something he thought would be beneficial).

Yes, in his speech, Marsh talks about “civilised man” and “savages” – and the language is turgid in places – but let’s cut him a little slack: this was 1847, after all. It’s about half way through he gets to the bit that matters most to us today:

Man cannot at his pleasure command the rain and the sunshine, the wind and frost and snow, yet it is certain that climate itself has in many instances been gradually changed and ameliorated or deteriorated by human action. The draining of swamps and the clearing of forests perceptibly effect the evaporation from the earth, and of course the mean quantity of moisture suspended in the air. The same causes modify the electrical condition of the atmosphere and the power of the surface to reflect, absorb and radiate the rays of the sun, and consequently influence the distribution of light and heat, and the force and direction of the winds. Within narrow limits too, domestic fires and artificial structures create and diffuse increased warmth, to an extent that may effect vegetation. The mean temperature of London is a degree or two higher than that of the surrounding country, and Pallas believed, that the climate of even so thinly a peopled country as Russia was sensibly modified by similar causes.

Some of the terminology he uses is clearly a little archaic to our ears today, but, broadly speaking, his hunch has subsequently proved to be correct. You can see him grappling with concepts that we now know as the urban heat island effectand greenhouse effect.

But in the speech he also called for a more thoughtful approach to consuming natural resources, despite the apparent near-limitless abundance on offer across the vast expanses of northern America. As the Clark University biography notes, he wasn’t an environmental sentimentalist. Rather, he believed that all consumption must be reasoned and considered, with the impact on future generations always kept in mind: he was making the case for what we now call “sustainable development”. In particular, he argued that his audience should re-evaluate the worth of trees:

The increasing value of timber and fuel ought to teach us that trees are no longer what they were in our fathers’ time, an incumbrance. We have undoubtedly already a larger proportion of cleared land in Vermont than would be required, with proper culture, for the support of a much greater population than we now possess, and every additional acre both lessens our means for thorough husbandry, by disproportionately extending its area, and deprives succeeding generations of what, though comparatively worthless to us, would be of great value to them.
The functions of the forest, besides supplying timber and fuel, are very various. The conducting powers of trees render them highly useful in restoring the disturbed equilibrium of the electric fluid; they are of great value in sheltering and protecting more tender vegetables against the destructive effects of bleak or parching winds, and the annual deposit of the foliage of deciduous trees, and the decomposition of their decaying trunks, form an accumulation of vegetable mould, which gives the greatest fertility to the often originally barren soils on which they grow, and enriches lower grounds by the wash from rains and the melting snows.
The inconveniences resulting from a want of foresight in the economy of the forest are already severely felt in many parts of New England, and even in some of the older towns in Vermont. Steep hill-sides and rocky ledges are well suited to the permanent growth of wood, but when in the rage for improvement they are improvidently stripped of this protection, the action of sun and wind and rain soon deprives them of their thin coating of vegetable mould, and this, when exhausted, cannot be restored by ordinary husbandry. They remain therefore barren and unsightly blots, producing neither grain nor grass, and yielding no crop but a harvest of noxious weeds, to infest with their scattered seeds the richer arable grounds below.
But this is by no means the only evil resulting from the injudicious destruction of the woods. Forests serve as reservoirs and equalizers of humidity. In wet seasons, the decayed leaves and spongy soil of woodlands retain a large proportion of the falling rains, and give back the moisture in time of drought, by evaporation or through the medium of springs. They thus both check the sudden flow of water from the surface into the streams and low grounds, and prevent the droughts of summer from parching our pastures and drying up the rivulets which water them.
On the other hand, where too large a proportion of the surface is bared of wood, the action of the summer sun and wind scorches the hills which are no longer shaded or sheltered by trees, the springs and rivulets that found their supply in the bibulous soil of the forest disappear, and the farmer is obliged to surrender his meadows to his cattle, which can no longer find food in his pastures, and sometime even to drive them miles for water.
Again, the vernal and autumnal rains, and the melting snows of winter, no longer intercepted and absorbed by the leaves or the open soil of the woods, but falling everywhere upon a comparatively hard and even surface, flow swiftly over the smooth ground, washing away the vegetable mould as they seek their natural outlets, fill every ravine with a torrent, and convert every river into an ocean. The suddenness and violence of our freshets increases in proportion as the soil is cleared; bridges are washed away, meadows swept of their crops and fences, and covered with barren sand, or themselves abraded by the fury of the current, and there is reason to fear that the valleys of many of our streams will soon be converted from smiling meadows into broad wastes of shingle and gravel and pebbles, deserts in summer, and seas in autumn and spring.
The changes, which these causes have wrought in the physical geography of Vermont, within a single generation, are too striking to have escaped the attention of any observing person, and every middle-aged man, who revisits his birth-place after a few years of absence, looks upon another landscape than that which formed the theatre of his youthful toils and pleasures. The signs of artificial improvement are mingled with the tokens of improvident waste, and the bald and barren hills, the dry beds of the smaller streams, the ravines furrowed out by the torrents of spring, and the diminished thread of interval that skirts the widened channel of the rivers, seem sad substitutes for the pleasant groves and brooks and broad meadows of his ancient paternal domain.
If the present value of timber and land will not justify the artificial re-planting of grounds injudiciously cleared, at least nature ought to be allowed to reclothe them with a spontaneous growth of wood, and in our future husbandry a more careful selection should be made of land for permanent improvement. It has long been a practice in many parts of Europe, as well as in our older settlements, to cut the forests reserved for timber and fuel at stated intervals. It is quite time that this practice should be introduced among us.
After the first felling of the original forest it is indeed a long time before its place is supplied, because the roots of old and full grown trees seldom throw up shoots, but when the second growth is once established, it may be cut with great advantage, at periods of about twenty-five years, and yields a material, in every respect but size, far superior to the wood of the primitive tree. In many European countries, the economy of the forest is regulated by law; but here, where public opinion determines, or rather in practice constitutes law, we can only appeal to an enlightened self-interest to introduce the reforms, check the abuses, and preserve us from an increase of the evils I have mentioned.

A footnote: it is 150 years ago this year since Marsh was personally appointed by Abraham Lincoln to be the US’s first ambassador to Italy. (Marsh was buried in Rome.) Just three years later, Lincoln approved the legislation which would lead to the creation of Yosemite National Park in California. This acted as a precedent across the world for federal and state governments to purchase or secure wilderness areas so they could be protected in perpetuity from development or exploitation. It’s speculation, of course, but I’ve always wondered whether Marsh and Lincoln ever discussed such matters, be it in person or in correspondence. Perhaps, there’s a keen historian out there who knows the answer?

– To the Original:  

– Research thanks to:  Piers L.

Warming Pushes Western U.S. Toward Driest Period in 1,000 Years

Friday, February 13th, 2015

Study Warns of Unprecedented Risk of Drought in 21st Century

During the second half of the 21st century, the U.S. Southwest and Great Plains will face persistent drought worse than anything seen in times ancient or modern, with the drying conditions “driven primarily” by human-induced global warming, a new study predicts.

The research says the drying would surpass in severity any of the decades-long “megadroughts” that occurred much earlier during the past 1,000 years—one of which has been tied by some researchers to the decline of the Anasazi or Ancient Pueblo Peoples in the Colorado Plateau in the late 13th century. Many studies have already predicted that the Southwest could dry due to global warming, but this is the first to say that such drying could exceed the worst conditions of the distant past. The impacts today would be devastating, given the region’s much larger population and use of resources.

“We are the first to do this kind of quantitative comparison between the projections and the distant past, and the story is a bit bleak,” said Jason E. Smerdon, a co-author and climate scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, part of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “Even when selecting for the worst megadrought-dominated period, the 21st century projections make the megadroughts seem like quaint walks through the Garden of Eden.”

“The surprising thing to us was really how consistent the response was over these regions, nearly regardless of what model we used or what soil moisture metric we looked at,” said lead author Benjamin I. Cook of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “It all showed this really, really significant drying.”

The new study, “Unprecedented 21st-Century Drought Risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains,” will be featured in the inaugural edition of the new online journal Science Advances, produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which also publishes the leading journal Science.

Today, 11 of the past 14 years have been drought years in much of the American West, including California, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona and across the Southern Plains to Texas and Oklahoma, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a collaboration of U.S. government agencies.

The current drought directly affects more than 64 million people in the Southwest and Southern Plains, according to NASA, and many more are indirectly affected because of the impacts on agricultural regions.

Shrinking water supplies have forced western states to impose water use restrictions; aquifers are being drawn down to unsustainable levels, and major surface reservoirs such as Lake Mead and Lake Powell are at historically low levels. This winter’s snowpack in the Sierras, a major water source for Los Angeles and other cities, is less than a quarter of what authorities call a “normal” level, according to a February report from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. California water officials last year cut off the flow of water from the northern part of the state to the south, forcing farmers in the Central Valley to leave hundreds of thousands of acres unplanted.

“Changes in precipitation, temperature and drought, and the consequences it has for our society—which is critically dependent on our freshwater resources for food, electricity and industry—are likely to be the most immediate climate impacts we experience as a result of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Kevin Anchukaitis, a climate researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Anchukaitis said the findings “require us to think rather immediately about how we could and would adapt.”

Much of our knowledge about past droughts comes from extensive study of tree rings conducted by Lamont-Doherty scientist Edward Cook (Benjamin’s father) and others, who in 2009 created the North American Drought Atlas. The atlas recreates the history of drought over the previous 2,005 years, based on hundreds of tree-ring chronologies, gleaned in turn from tens of thousands of tree samples across the United States, Mexico and parts of Canada.

For the current study, researchers used data from the atlas to represent past climate, and applied three different measures for drought—two soil moisture measurements at varying depths, and a version of the Palmer Drought Severity Index, which gauges precipitation and evaporation and transpiration—the net input of water into the land. While some have questioned how accurately the Palmer drought index truly reflects soil moisture, the researchers found it matched well with other measures, and that it “provides a bridge between the [climate] models and drought in observations,” Cook said.

The researchers applied 17 different climate models to analyze the future impact of rising average temperatures on the regions. And, they compared two different global warming scenarios—one with “business as usual,” projecting a continued rise in emissions of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming; and a second scenario in which emissions are moderated.

By most of those measures, they came to the same conclusions.

“The results … are extremely unfavorable for the continuation of agricultural and water resource management as they are currently practiced in the Great Plains and southwestern United States,” said David Stahle, professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Arkansas and director of the Tree-Ring Laboratory there. Stahle was not involved in the study, though he worked on the North American Drought Atlas.

Smerdon said he and his colleagues are confident in their results. The effects of CO2 on higher average temperature and the subsequent connection to drying in the Southwest and Great Plains emerge as a “strong signal” across the majority of the models, regardless of the drought metrics that are used, he said. And, he added, they are consistent with many previous studies.

Anchukaitis said the paper “provides an elegant and convincing connection” between reconstructions of past climate and the models pointing to the risk of future drought.

Toby R. Ault of Cornell University is a co-author of the study. Funding was provided by the NASA Modeling, Analysis and Prediction Program, NASA Strategic Science, and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

– To the Original: