Monthly Archives: January 2017

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Now Border patrol can search your cell phone

I’m not sure if it’s because he’s from Southern California—Bikkannavar was born in Pasadena—or because his side hobby, racing solar-powered vehicles, requires a certain amount of calm. Whatever the source, over the course of our 30-minute conversation about his experience being detained by US Customs and Border patrol, his voice betrays frustration only once. And it’s not when he admits—only after I ask him—that this wasn’t the first time.

“When there are random searches, I’ll often get pulled into the random search,” said Bikkannavar. “That doesn’t offend me. I know they need to search people and if it’s me, it’s me. You know, I know I have a foreign sounding name, I know my skin is a little darker, so if it makes me more likely to be searched so be it. I’ve really never taken issue with that or been offended by that.”

“But what happened this time,” he adds, “was different.”

Losing His Chill

What frustrated Bikkannavar, a self-described pretty private person, enough to make him talk to the press was this: “I’ve now compromised the privacy of my friends, and family, colleagues, contacts—anyone whose digital life kind of touched my phone.”

How did Bikkannavar betray his friends and family? He left the United States. Or, to be more precise, he returned.

The same weekend that President Trump signed an executive order restricting travel from certain countries, Bikkannavar arrived at the United States border in Houston, Texas. He’d spent two weeks racing cars down in the Patagonia Region of Chile. Chile was not on the list of countries outlined in the executive order, but even if it was Bikkannavar wouldn’t have automatically qualified for extra scrutiny.

To begin with, Bikkannavar is an American citizen. His father is of Indian descent, hence his name, but on his mother’s side his family has lived in the United States since colonial days. In fact, his grandparents worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) just like Bikkannavar does now.

“When we’re working with spacecraft,” said Bikkannavar, “we’re working with equipment that costs maybe billions of dollars or is highly dangerous, so there is a process to make sure that we are trustworthy and safe.”

JPL is part of NASA, but in addition to rocketry it does a significant amount of work for the Department of Defense. As a result, even low level employees at JPL undergo a background check invasive enough that employees once sued to stop it..

But even if Bikkannavar didn’t work for JPL, there’s still the fact that he forked over $100 and underwent a background check to qualify for Global Entry—the “U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States.”

Despite a level of vetting that some might even call extreme, Bikkannavar was still detained and placed in a holding room at Customs and Border Patrol.

“There were some people asleep [in the room]. I arrived at 5am in the morning, so I’m assuming that those people who were in there sleeping on the recliners and the cots had already been there stranded,” said Bikkanavar. “Eventually I get called into an interview room and they explain to me that because I’m trying to enter the country they need to search my property to make sure that I’m not bringing anything dangerous in. And they gave me a slip of paper that explains their rights to do all of this stuff.”

That stuff included searching his phone. After hesitating, and explaining that the phone was his work phone, he complied.

“As soon as I gave them the PIN they sort of pulled the phone back, wrote down the pin, and left with my phone,” said Bikkannavar. “They returned me to the waiting area with all of my luggage, and they didn’t search any of that. They didn’t swab it for bomb stuff, they didn’t even open it. They didn’t check what was in my pockets. They were only interested in the phone.”

 If they had gone through Bikkannavar’s luggage, that would have violated his privacy. But going through his phone? That violated the privacy of anyone who had texted, messaged, or otherwise contacted him since the last time he’d wiped the device.

“Not only is the privacy of the free speech rights of the device holder at stake,” said Sophia Cope, a staff attorney with the Electronic Freedom Foundation, “but also that of all of their associates.”

This may include people who have never set foot near a border, people who have never set foot in this country. That it’s considered a privacy issue is obvious—how happy would you be to have strangers flipping through your cell phone for no reason? But it’s also considered a free speech issue, because many argue that there’s no such thing as free speech without privacy. If your thoughts and words are closely monitored by the government, can you really consider yourself free?

“Free speech and privacy are considered human rights in international law,” said Cope, “So there’s that issue of whether or not the US is going to uphold those international principles.”

 If you’re wondering if this is legal, you’re not alone.

In theory, the fourth amendment of the US Constitution (which begins, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,against unreasonable searches and seizures…”) sounds like it protects us from, well, unreasonable searches and seizures.

“But the law,” said Cope, “is unfortunately fuzzy.”

Here’s what’s clear: within the United States, the fourth amendment prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. Pretty much every procedural court drama gets this part right. A government entity shows up in court, presents evidence that there was probably a crime, and that searching the item in question will confirm it. If the judge thinks that the evidence supports a reasonably high chance—say 60-70 percent—of criminal activity she will issue a search warrant. A warrant isn’t a carte blanche though. It’s “particularized” to the crime. If they’re searching your phone looking for a terrorist threat and discover that you’ve illegally downloaded the Rolling Stone’s entire back catalog, that’s a separate issue.

But there is some wiggle room.

If a police officer sees you stuff a pile of crisply-bound $100 bills into a duffel as you run out of a bank that’s sounding its alarm, that’s enough probable cause to seize you—i.e. arrest you. Checkpoints like the kind used to check for drunk drivers are another exception. After all, everyone gets checked whether or not the police officers suspect them of being drunk. The Supreme Court rules this is ok because the scope is narrow and it’s in the broader public interest.

“At the border,” said Cope, “the Supreme Court says there’s a discrete interest in protecting the welfare and the safety of our nation.”

Basically, it’s in the national interest to make sure that we pay duties on the $3,000-dollar bottle of wine we picked up in Italy, that we don’t secretly bring in seeds that pose a threat to the American farm industry or drugs and weapons that pose a risk to the American people. So the Supreme Court ruled that routine searches at the border are permitted, even without a warrant or probable cause. This decision was made, however, before we were carrying around computers, never mind ones that contain the level of information contained in a smartphone.

“The problem now,” said Cope, “is that a piece of luggage Is nowhere near that type of personal information, sensitive information. Even if you have a diary or some sexy photos in your luggage that still does not equate to what is essentially your entire life, particularly on your smartphone.”

The decision also doesn’t take into consideration the fact with cell phones, it’s not just the person who crosses the border whose information is being searched and potentially cataloged, but anyone who has communicated with that person. It’s this that compelled Bikkannavar to speak out, and a thought that should give us all pause.

It’s also an act that chills speech. How freely would you speak (or text) if you knew all of your communications were being observed? You don’t even have to work very hard to see the difference—compare your text and email conversations to your public social media posts.

The directive that guides U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) electronic seizure rules dates back to 2009—it’s called CBP Directive No. 3340-049. It was only released because of a Freedom of Information Act, or public disclosure request. And while lawsuits in recent years suggest that there have been policy changes, those changes have not been disclosed to the public. That makes it awfully difficult for citizens to know their rights.

In 2009, the year of CBPs publicly available guidelines, the iPhone was 2 years old. Most of us were using blackberries or a flip phone, and apps were few and mostly entertainment based. Now our phones contain personal photos, banking information, inside jokes…the shape and breadth of our lives. We are expected to entrust that information—without cause—to a department that, according to the The New York Times, recently found that over 10 years almost 200 employees and contract workers had taken nearly $15 million dollars in bribes. In 2015 police officers found 110 pounds of cocaine in a US Border Patrol agent’s car. One could be rightly concerned as to what an agent might do if they had access to banking information, blackmail fodder, or proprietary info from a border crosser’s business life.

The policy as disclosed says that they can only search—not copy or hold onto the device—unless they see evidence of a crime.

“But we were hearing reports at the border of CBP officers writing down like names of people from contact lists and stuff,” said Cope. And in Bikkannavar’s case the phone was taken out of the room, making it impossible to know whether the contents were copied.

To be clear, what’s happening isn’t new. There are reports Customs and Border Patrol searching laptops and phones dating back to 2008. Hard data on searches is difficult to find (and PopSci will update if it becomes available), but anecdotes suggest that it is becoming more frequent.

And Cope argues that even one person is too many. Especially when you consider how many people are in your contact list.

Protecting Yourself

The natural question, is how can we protect our information at the border?

Since technology, in part, created this problem, it can be tempting to turn to technology to resolve it. For example, it’s possible to partition a laptop’s hard drive to boot one way with one passcode and another way with a different one.

“You have to be careful,” said Scope. “If there is evidence that you are lying or misleading a government agent, that is itself a crime.”

At minimum, you should practice basic digital security: enable two factor authentication on your social media accounts. Disable any biometric locks—fingerprint locks in particular area notoriously easy to forge, and it’s not hard for a CPB agent to simply press your finger against your phone to make it unlock. Enable hard disk encryption.

None of that matters, however, if you unlock your device for an agent.

American citizens traveling to the United States have the right to return. You can’t be denied entry into your own country. So you can simply refuse to comply—though you do risk them taking the device.

Increasingly, customs and border patrol agents have been asking people—primarily foreign nationals—for the passwords to their cloud accounts. Americans don’t have to comply, and Americans do have the right to an attorney—but foreign nationals have less of a choice.

Bikkannavar said that the interaction between he and the CBP agents was unfailingly polite on both sides, but the situation itself intimidating, in part, because he didn’t really know his rights. So before you travel, make sure you know yours.

Cope suggests literally wiping the device before you’re forced to hand it over. Or, if you’re an American citizen, encrypting the device in the strongest way possible and refusing to comply. They might take the device away, but at least you’ll know they (probably) can’t get at your information.

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This Watch a snake robot wriggle

A snake is a tube that eats, a wriggling cylinder that carries a stomach and not much else. So it was a natural inspiration for Eelume AS, a Norwegian underwater robotics company, when they needed to design an efficient, minimalist robot. They decided to replicate a snake’s bendy body, creating a compact form adorned only with small sideboard motors and cameras.

Here’s what that looks like in practice:

We first saw the Eelume remotely operated vehicle last year, when aprototype writhed around obstacles in a testing tank. Today, Eelume released the first footage of a robot undergoing trials in ocean water, at the PREZIOSO Linjebygg Subsea Test Center in the Trondheimsfjord. With a face full of lights and cameras, and a flexible body carrying engines and side-facing cameras, the Eelume looks like quite the minimalist submarine.

Unlike snakes, the Eelume has a modular structure. That lets users attach various tools to its front end, adding or subtracting engines, cameras, joint sections, and other tools. People can also reconfigure the robot at different lengths for different functions.

Once outfitted, the robots can settle into their watery home: Eelume AS designed them to stay underwater permanently, in a little docking station on the bottom of the sea. From there, they can swim out to inspect and repair undersea infrastructure, like pipelines or oil rigs, without any concern about the weather above the ocean’s surface.

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Info Robotic food delivery is rolling into the United States

Starship Technologies, co-founded by Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis of Skype fame, raised $17.2 million in January to build a fleet of six-wheeled delivery robots. More feasible for large-scale rollouts than drones, these delivery bots are scheduled to have their American debut in Washington, D.C. and Redwood City, California in early February.

On test day, the Starship company will have an employee walking behind the bot—which is basically a secured container box rolling along at 4 mph—to deal with unexpected incidents and too-curious pedestrians, according toCNN Money. For the lucky crowds who are going to live-tweet this scene, the spectacle may bear resemblance to a parent following their toddler as it learns how to walk, the parent ready to save the little tyke from tripping and crying.

 

Evan Long via flickr

Mom with her walking baby

Will a robot learning its route to your doorsteps be cuter than this toddler?

The company’s first two U.S. customers will be Postmates and DoorDash, but their product is already pretty street savvy. The Starship baby has already been tested in the U.K., Germany, and Switzerland, where it has delivered food orders, groceries, and parcels. As of November 2016, the bot had over 12,000 miles under its belt (or under its wheels, if you will).

Despite its 4 mph speed, the robot actually sounds pretty high-tech, according to an Ars Technica story from late 2016. It has “nine cameras, a 360-degree ultrasonic sensor array, and an Nvidia Tegra K1 processor” to take in its surroundings, map the environment and avoid obstacles. And its navigation system is reportedly more precise (by 1.5 meters) than “the best non-military GPS receivers” out there.

 

Starship Technologies

Bot meets runners on street

If you are in D.C. or Redwood City, you may run into a Starship delivery robot on an urban jogging trip—and easily outrun it.

Starship isn’t the world’s only attempt at automated food delivery, and the competing bots are already having playful rivalries. When Domino’s Pizzalaunched its self-driving, four-wheeled bot in Australia last spring, Starship’s official Twitter advised its buddy DRU (Domino’s Robotic Unit) to seriously consider losing some weight:

DRU weighs 419 lbs. Starship? 35 lbs. But DRU’s extra heft helps give it more power, allowing it to zip along at a cool 12 mph—three times faster than Starship.

Ubiquitous robot delivery is probably a long way off. Starship’s current robots can only carry 20 pound loads within a 3-mile radius. As Postmates’ senior vice president of business Holger Luedorf put it, the upcoming test is part of a learning process. The company will analyze data like delivery time, delivery quality rated by customers, and feedback from merchants to determine whether they want to pursue this ground-based robot delivery strategy on a grander scale.

Customers won’t be asked to shell out extra for the privilege of a robotic delivery—at least for now. “We are treating these robots just like any other Postmates carrier,” Luedorf says.

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Wow cheap and easy lab-on-a-chip could save lives

From detecting breast cancer to screening for HIV, surviving serious disease depends on early detection. When regular testing isn’t available, lives are lost. But early detection often requires expensive lab equipment, and specialty training that isn’t easily common in many parts of the world. According to the World Health Organization, breast cancer—the most common cancer in women—has a survival rate that’s roughly twice as high in high-income nations as it is in low-income countries.

“It basically emphasized that we needed to have access to early diagnostic tools,” said Rahim Esfandyarpour, an engineering associate at the Stanford Technology Center.

So Esfandyarpour and a team of researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine endeavored to do something about it. They’ve developed a diagnostic ‘lab-on-a-chip’ that can be manufactured on the cheap and produced with your run-of-the-mill inkjet printer.

A lab-on-a-chip is a device that integrates multiple laboratory functions—such as DNA analysis—onto a single chip spanning a few millimeters to a few centimeters in size. Like a microchip, it’s an integrated circuit—though Esfandyarpour’s is designed to assess and analyze bodily fluids, not make mathematical calculations.

The concept of a lab-on-a-chip isn’t new. Researchers have been working to shrink complex laboratory processes for more than 20 years.

“But designing the diagnoses platform for the developing world requires different considerations,” said Esfandyarpour.

First, it should be easy to use without much experience, since rural clinics might be short on staff members with extensive medical training. It should be adaptable, capable of testing for more than one disease. And finally, it should be cheap to account for the scant funding and modest public health infrastructure in some developing countries.

 

Zahra Koochak/Stanford University

Rahim Esfandyarpour holds the electronic strip he helped to design.

To achieve this, Esfandyarpour and his team developed a two-part system. The first is a clear, silicone microfluidic chamber. The chamber is a clear sheet in which small amounts of the test sample (blood or other cells) are placed. In other lab-on-a-chip contraptions, the silicon chip is etched with designs. In Esdandyarpour’s version the chip is left blank. That’s where the second part of the system comes in: using nanoparticle ink, healthcare workers imprint a circuit design onto a piece of flexible plastic that costs as a little as a penny. Nanoparticle ink might sound fancy, but it’s often found incircuit drawing kits designed for children.

When the silicone chamber is placed atop the plastic strip and an electrical field is applied to the printed circuit, cells located in the microfluid chamber get pulled in different directions depending on their “polarizability”—their ability to separate out into positive and negative charges.

Precisely how the cells behave depends on the kinds of cells placed in the chamber—cancer cells, for example, behave differently than healthy cells—and on what design is printed onto the electronic strip. So for example, one strip design could screen for breast cancer, while another detected AIDS. Technicians wouldn’t necessarily need to create the designs themselves. If the idea takes off, they could just print previously-created designs via an existing template. And because the system is contactless, each electronic strip can be reused. In addition to clinical applications in poor nations, the chip also frees researchers with tighter budgets to experiment.

“It gives you the freedom to not only use it for diagnosis, but for basic and applied research as well,” said Esfandyarpour.