Strata Week: Wireless body area networks bring humans into the Internet of Things

Humans as nodes, pills and electronic tattoo password authenticators, NSA surveillance leaks, and hiding data in temporal cloaks.

Collaborative sensor networks of humans, and your body may be the next two-factor authenticator

There has been much coverage recently of the Internet of Things, connecting everything from washers and dryers to thermostats to cars to the Internet. Wearable sensors — things like FitBit and health-care-related sensors that can be printed onto fabric or even onto human skin — are also in the spotlight.

Kevin Fitchard reports at GigaOm that researchers at CEA-Leti and three French universities believe these areas are not mutually exclusive and have launched a project around wireless body area networks called CORMORAN. The group believes that one day soon our bodies will be constantly connected to the Internet via sensors and transmitters that “can be used to form cooperative ad hoc networks that could be used for group indoor navigation, crowd-motion capture, health monitoring on a massive scale and especially collaborative communications,” Fitchard writes. He takes a look at some of the benefits and potential applications of such a collaborative network — location-based services would be able to direct users to proper gates or trains in busy airports and train stations, for instance — and some of the pitfalls, such as potential security and privacy issues. You can read his full report at GigaOm.

In related news, wearable sensors — and even our bodies — may not only be used to connect us to a network, but also to identify us as well. Casey Johnston at Ars Technica reports this week on two password protection systems that Motorola presented at All Things Digital’s D11 conference: electronic tattoos and consumable pills that would replace the security tokens from the two-factor authenticator.

The tattoos, Johnston reports, aren’t branded onto skin, but are more like flexible stickers, “islands of high-performance silicon connected by accordion-like structures,” that move with a person’s body and remain adhered to the skin. Johnston does point out, though, that the long-term plan likely is to embed the silicon and wires into the skin “to make the user a proper bionic human.”

The pills are just that — a pill that the user swallows that “turns one’s entire body into an authenticator,” Johnston writes. Regina Dugan, senior vice president of the Advanced Technology and Projects group at Motorola Mobility explained that the pills use stomach acid to power a switch to “[create] an 18-bit EKG-like symbol in your body, and your body becomes the authenticator.” You can read Johnston’s full report at Ars Technica.

The NSA is spying on us

Headline news this week surrounded the U.S. National Security Agency. First, Glenn Greenwald posted a report at The Guardian publishing a leaked copy of a court order that “requires Verizon on an ‘ongoing, daily basis’ to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.”

The order covers “all call detail records or ‘telephony metadata,'” Greenwald reports, including telephone numbers, location data, call duration and time of call, and unique identifiers — but it doesn’t cover conversation content. Because the information is classified as “metadata,” or transactional information, as opposed to “communications,” it does not require a warrant, Greenwald explains.

Jane Mayer at the New Yorker took a close look at this “metadata” to see just how bad it could be. Susan Landau, a mathematician and former Sun Microsystems engineer, told her that people don’t understand — “[metadata] is more intrusive than content.” With the amount of information that can be gathered, she explained, “you know exactly what is happening — you don’t need the content.” You can read Mayer’s in-depth report at the New Yorker.

Megan Garber at The Atlantic put together a FAQ on the situation, covering exactly what data is being gathered, who has access to it, what they’re doing with it (“as far as we know”), why it doesn’t violate the Fourth Amendment, if the surveillance is limited to Verizon customers, and much more. You can read the FAQ at The Atlantic.

An additional NSA surveillance program came to light this week as well. Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill at The Guardian report they received a 41-slide PowerPoint presentation describing a program called PRISM that allows the NSA direct access to the servers at nine U.S. Internet companies: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple, and according to Greenwald’s and MacAskill’s report, “[t]he program is continuing to expand, with other providers due to come online.” According to their report Dropbox is “described as ‘coming soon.'”Harrison Weber

Victor Luckerson at Time broke down the program particulars, noting that the program was established in 2007 with Microsoft and that the program allows NSA officials direct access to 10 types of data: email messages, instant messages, videos, photos, stored data, voice chats, file transfers, video conferences, log-in times and profile details on social networks.

In an in-depth report at the Washington Post, Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras quote from a statement issued by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper: “information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats. The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans.” The Washington Post also published a selection of the slides with annotations.

Philip Rucker, Sean Sullivan and and Aaron Blake report at the Washington Post that President Obama defended the program, saying that such programs “make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity” and that “[y]ou can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.”

Harrison Weber at The Next Web notes (as do the reports at the Washington Post and The Guardian) that the major Internet companies named as participants have denied involvement in and knowledge of the PRISM program. Weber points out that the NSA wouldn’t have given the Internet companies the program’s name, and that “those who receive national security letters are prevented from discussing their existence by law.”

Temporal cloaks hide telecommunication data

Zeeya Merali reports at Scientific American that ultrasecure communications may soon be at hand via a temporal cloak. “Electrical engineers have used lasers to create a cloak that can hide communications in a ‘time hole’,” Merali writes, “so that it seems as if they were never sent.” The first working temporal cloak was built last year by a team at Cornell, but the cloaking windows opened too rarely to hide data at telecommunication speeds. Merali describes how Joseph Lukens, an electrical engineer at Purdue University and author of this latest study, solved the problem:

“To speed up the cloaking rate, Lukens and his colleagues exploited a wave phenomenon that was first discovered by British inventor Henry Fox Talbot in 1836. When a light wave passes through a series of parallel slits called a diffraction grating, it splits apart. The rays emanating from the slits combine on the other side to create an intricate interference pattern of peaks and troughs. Talbot discovered that this pattern repeats at regular intervals, creating what is now known as a Talbot carpet. There is also a temporal version of this effect in which you manipulate light over time to generate regular periods with zero light intensity, says Lukens. Data can be then be hidden in these holes in time.”

When testing the cloak, the research team determined the cloak was able to hide data added at a rate of 12.7 gigabits per second. You can read more about the research and watch a video showing how it works at Scientific American. You can also access the team’s published paper at Nature.

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