Data Mining, Without Big Brother


How can we trust but verify?

IN the wake of revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, President Obama has acknowledged the imperative to balance privacy and security. But so far, his administration’s defense of the programs has failed to assure the public that this balance has been achieved — or that basic privacy rights and civil liberties are being protected.

Now that these programs have been leaked, Americans need to decide what this balance should look like. How do we devise a program that can allow the intelligence community to use big data and the latest technology to prevent terrorist attacks while ensuring we have not created a Big Brother state? In other words, how can we trust but verify?

We know because we’ve done it before.

In 2006, this newspaper revealed the existence of the classified Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, which was developed and overseen by the United States Treasury. T.F.T.P. was, and still is, run by the Treasury Department using information subpoenaed from the Society for Worldwide International Financial Telecommunication. During the program’s first few years, one of us headed Swift; the other helped oversee T.F.T.P. at Treasury.

Swift is an industry-owned, global-financial-messaging system based in Brussels. Its transmissions carry financial messages for most of the world’s banks across borders. Swift’s data show who is transferring money, how much, and to whom, and contains specific identifier information. Soon after 9/11, Treasury began to subpoena Swift’s data to allow government analysts to track the movement of terrorist funds.

The Swift system doesn’t contain private bank account information. But if a terrorist financier in one country were sending funds to a terrorist in another, it would be in the data of subpoenaed Swift messages.  The sender’s and receiver’s names and bank account information would also be in the message.

From the start, privacy and civil liberties protections were central to the program. Unlike the N.S.A., we assumed it would eventually have to endure public scrutiny — in America and abroad.

Given the importance and confidentiality of its data, Swift demanded that the government’s access be targeted and limited, preventing broad data-mining but allowing focused searches and analysis to prevent terrorist attacks. Searches for any other purpose were forbidden.

Both the Treasury and Swift ensured that the constraints on the information retrieved and used by analysts were strictly enforced. Outside auditors hired by Swift confirmed the limited scope of use, and Swift’s own representatives (called “scrutineers”) had authority to stop access to the data at any time if there was a concern that the restrictions were being breached. These independent monitors worked on site at government agencies and had real-time access to the system. Every time an analyst queried the system, the scrutineer could immediately review the query. Each query had to have a reason attached to it that justified it as a counterterrorism matter. Over time, the scope of data requested and retained was reduced.

This confirmed that the information was being used in the way we said it was — to save lives.

When European data privacy advocates and politicians objected to the program, the eminent French counterterrorism judge Jean-Louis Burguière was assigned to review the program in detail for the European Parliament. He reported in 2008, and again in 2010, that Treasury had complied with civil liberties protections.

The program was also highly effective. The financial intelligence it provided helped thwart terrorist attacks in America, Germany, Spain and Britain. Information gleaned from Swift databases provided thousands of leads — including ones that helped capture Al Qaeda’s principal representative in Southeast Asia and uncover a terrorist-financing network in New York City and Pakistan.

The use of the data was legal, limited, targeted, overseen and audited.

Read more . . .

via The New York Times – LEONARD H. SCHRANK and JUAN C. ZARATE


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Researchers Develop Effective Thermal Energy Storage System

Energy storage using the concrete method cost only $0.78 per kilowatt-hour, far below the Department of Energy’s goal of achieving thermal energy storage at a cost of $15 per kilowatt-hour.

Engineering researchers at the University of Arkansas have developed a thermal energy storage system that will work as a viable alternative to current methods used for storing energy collected from solar panels. Incorporating the researchers’ design into the operation of a concentrated solar power plant will dramatically increase annual energy production while significantly decreasing production costs.

Current storage methods use molten salts, oils or beds of packed rock as media to conduct heat inside thermal energy storage tanks. Although these methods do not lose much of the energy collected by the panels, they are either expensive or cause damage to tanks. Specifically, the use of a packed rock, currently the most efficient and least expensive method, leads to thermal “ratcheting,” which is the stress caused to tank walls because of the expansion and contraction of storage tanks due to thermal cycling.

“The most efficient, conventional method of storing energy from solar collectors satisfies the U.S. Department of Energy’s goal for system efficiency,” said Panneer Selvam, professor of civil engineering. “But there are problems associated with this method. Filler material used in the conventional method stresses and degrades the walls of storage tanks. This creates inefficiencies that aren’t calculated and, more importantly, could lead to catastrophic rupture of a tank.”
As an alternative to conventional methods, Selvam and doctoral student Matt Strasser designed and tested a structured thermocline system that uses parallel concrete plates instead of packed rock inside a single storage tank.

Thermocline systems are units — bodies of water, such as oceans and lakes, for example, but also smaller units that contain fluids or gas — with distinct boundaries separating layers that have different temperatures. The plates were made from a special mixture of concrete developed by Micah Hale, associate professor of civil engineering. The mixture has survived temperatures of up to 600 degrees Celsius, or 1,112 degrees Fahrenheit. The storage process takes heat, collected in solar panels, and then transfers the heat through steel pipes into the concrete, which absorbs the heat and stores it until it can be transferred to a generator.

Modeling results showed the concrete plates conducted heat with an efficiency of 93.9 percent, which is higher than the Department of Energy’s goal and only slightly less than the efficiency of the packed-bed method. Tests also confirmed that the concrete layers conducted heat without causing damage to materials used for storage. In addition, energy storage using the concrete method cost only $0.78 per kilowatt-hour, far below the Department of Energy’s goal of achieving thermal energy storage at a cost of $15 per kilowatt-hour.

Read more . . .

via University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

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