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Monday, June 17, 2013

The Latest to Disclose Government Requests, Yahoo Reveals the Least

Following in the footsteps of Facebook, Microsoft and Apple, Yahoo disclosed late Friday some broad data about the number of requests that American law enforcement authorities had made for data about its users.

From Dec. 1, 2012, to May 31, 2013, the Internet company received between 12,000 and 13,000 requests from the government, related to everything from local crimes to terrorism investigations under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. “The most common of these requests concerned fraud, homicides, kidnappings, and other criminal investigations,” the company said in a post on Tumblr, the blogging platform it recently acquired.

Unlike the other companies, which have been criticized for disclosing too little information, Yahoo did not specify how many users were included in the 12,000 to 13,000 requests.

But like the other companies, Yahoo said that the government would not permit it to break out more specific data on the number of FISA data requests, which the government considers so secret that companies aren’t supposed to even acknowledge their existence.

Yahoo went to a secret intelligence court in 2008 and challenged the government’s requests under FISA as unconstitutional, but lost the case. It subsequently joined the government’s secret Prism surveillance program.

In its post, signed by its chief executive, Marissa Mayer, and its general counsel, Ron Bell, Yahoo said it would continue to press for more disclosure of FISA data.

Yahoo said it would also issue later this summer its first global law enforcement transparency report, which will cover the first half of the year, and will continue making similar reports every six months.

Daily Report: Secret Court Ruling in 2008 Put Technology Companies in Bind

In a secret court in Washington, Yahoo’s top lawyers made their case. The government had sought help in spying on certain foreign users, without a warrant, and Yahoo had refused, saying the broad requests were unconstitutional, Claire Cain Miller reports in The New York Times.

Iran’s President-Elect Confronted With Plea for Detained Opposition Leader’s Freedom

At the end of his first news conference since winning Iran’s presidential election, the moderate cleric Hassan Rowhani was confronted, live on state television, with the raised expectations his election has stirred.

Video of the incident, which was quickly copied to YouTube and shared on social networks by Iranian expatriates, showed Mr. Rowhani speaking at the end of the event when a voice from the back of the crowded hall shouted a plea for him to remember the detained opposition leader Mir Hussien Moussavi, who has been under house arrest for two years.

Video of a man calling for the release of Iran’s detained opposition leader, Mir-Hussein Moussavi, at the end of President-Elect Hassan Rowhani’s news conference on Monday.

Mr. Rowhani, who emerged from Iran’s conservative clerical establishment but was supported in the election by its reformist wing, quickly wrapped up the news conference without comment.

The fate of the detained politician, who claimed that the last presidential election, in 2009, was rigged in favor of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has remained a focal point for the opposition, as the expatriate Iranian journalist Golnaz Esfandiari observed on Twitter.

Chants in his honor were heard at Rowhani campaign rallies last week, and on the streets of Tehran and other cities during post-election celebrations on Saturday, but none of those events were carried live on state television, as the Reuters reporter Yeganeh June Torbati noted minutes after the incident.

There was some dispute over the exact wording of the plea, but Rasmus Elling, a sociologist who studies Iran and has worked as a translator, suggested that it was, “Rouhani yâdet bâshe, Mir-Hosein bâyad bâshe,” a chant that could be roughly translated as, “Rowhani do not forget, Mir Hussein should be here.”

According to a blogger who writes as @MishaZand on Twitter, this phrase is a slogan that was already circulating on Iranian social networks before it was shouted out on Monday.

Iranian bloggers initially suggested that the news conference was called to a halt because of the shout, but Mohammad Davari, who reports from Tehran for Agence France-Presse, said later that the man timed his outburst to come at the end of Mr. Rowhani’s last answer, “before fleeing the press room unharmed.”

Although no mention of the incident was included in most reports on the news conference in Iran’s state-run media, the semiofficial Mehr News Agency claimed later that the “heckler” was not a reformist but a supporter of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a close associate of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Several observers cast doubt on that report, however, including Gissou Nia, the director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.

Since Mr. Mashaei, like Mr. Ahmadinejad, is increasingly out of favor with the unelected clerics who hold ultimate power in Iran, and was barred from running in the election, suggesting that the man who interrupted the news conference was simply a trouble-maker associated with that political faction could be an attempt to discredit him and explain away the disruption. (As Ms. Nia pointed out, Mr. Ahmadinejad himself was ordered on Monday to appear before a criminal court after he leaves office later this year, apparently as a result of his falling out with conservatives in Iran’s Parliament.)

During a campaign event at a Tehran university last month, Mr. Rowhani clearly committed himself to the release of political prisoners when he was asked directly whether he would work to free Mr. Moussavi â€" who is currently detained along with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, in their home in central Tehran â€" and Mehdi Karroubi, another leader of the 2009 protests, who is now confined to one floor of a three-story home under the control of the country’s intelligence ministry.

Video of Hassan Rowhani telling students in Tehran last month that he would work to free political prisoners, including the leaders of the 2009 protest movement who are now under house arrest.

Video of that event, posted online with English subtitles by supporters of the Rowhani campaign, showed that the man who is now Iran’s president-elect said: “I hope that the next government will be able to bring about a non-securitized environment. I don’t think it will be difficult to bring about a condition in the next year where not only those under house arrest but those who have been detained after the 2009 elections will be released.”

Robert Mackey also remixes the news on Twitter @robertmackey.

Supercomputing for Everyone

With the aid of the Chinese military, Intel has won itself big bragging rights: the world’s fastest supercomputer runs entirely on Intel semiconductors. It is the first time in 15 years, Intel says, that an all-Intel machine has held top honors.

More important is what this news says about computing: the kind of work done by supercomputers is increasingly applicable to the kind of work done by business. Intel doesn’t want to sell its biggest computers to researchers and the world’s armies; it wants to sell them to companies like Amazon for its Amazon Web Services.

The new computer, called a Tianhe-2, or Milkyway-2, was built at the National University of Defense Technology in Changsha, China. At its peak, it can perform at a speed of nearly 55 petaflops - with a petaflop akin to one thousand trillion instructions per second. The previous record-holder, announced last November, had a peak performance of 27.1 petaflops. Five years ago, a single petaflop machine was record-breaking.

In addition to the usual supercomputing tasks like weather analysis or geophysical research, makers of the new supercomputer also listed its capabilities for Big Data analysis. The Tianhe-2 can process 600 terabytes of data on just 1,024 of its 16,000 computing nodes.

Details on the machine were first revealed at a meeting of supercomputing specialists in late May. Its formal ranking as the world’s fastest was announced Monday at a meeting in Germany, where Intel also laid out its business vision.

Intel believes that many ordinary businesses, possibly even consumers, will soon be accessing what were once the most expensive and rarefied computers.

“The insatiable need for computing is driving this” rapid development, said Raj Hazra, the head of Intel’s high performance computing business.

Even traditional uses appear to be affected by both the power of the machines, and a new sensibility of the way problems should be addressed. Mr. Hazra noted that this much power enables atmospheric climate models to also take into account the effect of ocean behavior as well. Geologists can examine not just rock formations, but the behavior of gasses and liquids within different rocks.

This ecosystem view of data analysis has its own parallels in the commercial world. Increasingly, companies are deploying sensors across many environments to see how their products perform in the real world, or looking at mixtures of human and machine behavior to analyze things like traffic flow.

Google and NASA recently obtained a kind of superfast quantum computer to look at things like facial recognition. Lockheed Martin has also purchased one to examine complex systems.

Intel is hoping that its familiarity has an edge in this arcane world, however. Many computer engineers are already trained in Intel’s basic architecture, x86, and so could arguably move into supercomputing without having to learn the particulars of other machines. “If you force people to learn new things, your total addressable market is slowed,” Mr. Hazra said. “A world that has invested 30 years of software and knowledge shouldn’t have to learn something new.”

“We have a close relationship with all the cloud computing providers,” he said, “you could see high performance computing as a service.”

Mr. Hazra said the computer was being used for “open science,” or access by different researchers over a network. He could not say, however, whether China was also using the computer for defense purposes such as nuclear weapons research. “We are a worldwide business,” he said. “This was no different than any other business deal.”

The x86 supercomputing world is, of course, a convenient argument for Intel. It is likely that Nvidia, which contributed to last November’s record-holding supercomputer, will make its own run at the next title, however. Even more likely, according to the author of the initial report on the Tianhe-2, is the prospect that China will develop its own chips and designs.

“The Tianhe-2 is using processors from Intel, but think of the processor as a motor and they are building a racecar. They can easily swap out the motor for one of their own,” Jack Dongarra, a professor at the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Lab, another supercomputing center, said in an e-mail. “Most features of the system were developed in China.”

“Intel would think the world is x86,” he said, but “the parts that go around the motor are more important.” In addition, he noted, engineers elsewhere are working on supercomputers using designs from low-power cellphone chips.

Apple Releases Some Data on Government Requests

Amid reports that technology companies cooperated with the United States government’s surveillance efforts, Apple has maintained that it does not provide the government with unfettered access to its servers. On Monday, the company released some numbers and information about its online services to try to prove it.

In a statement on its Web site, Apple said that from December 2012 through May 2013, it received between 4,000 and 5,000 requests from American law enforcement agencies for customer data. Among those requests, government officials asked for information about roughly 10,000 accounts or devices, Apple said.

Apple said the requests came from federal, state and local authorities regarding both national security matters and criminal investigations. It said the most common types of request came from police investigations of robberies and other crimes, searches for missing children, attempts to prevent a suicide or searches for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Apple also published details about its online communication services, iMessage and FaceTime. It said it chooses not to store the content of exchanges between customers on these services, and therefore it does not hand over this type of data to law enforcement agencies. Furthermore, it said, those conversations are encrypted, so nobody but the sender and the receiver can see them.

“Apple has always placed a priority on protecting our customers’ personal data, and we don’t collect or maintain a mountain of personal details about our customers in the first place,” the company said in the statement.

Apple said it also does not store data related to customers’ location, map searches or search requests “in any identifiable form,” meaning it likely stores the data without linking it to a named individual.