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US Visitor Surveillance System Brings Some Solace to Families of MH17 Victims

By Aliya Sternstein // January 30, 2015

Pro-Russian rebel fighter guard an area of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 plane crash in the village of Hrabove, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine.
Pro-Russian rebel fighter guard an area of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 plane crash in the village of Hrabove, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine. // Mstyslan Chernov/

A Department of Homeland Security database that warehouses the fingerprints of almost all foreign visitors to catch terrorists recently was used for a different purpose -- bringing closure to bereft families.

U.S. authorities checked the system’s records against residual, or “latent,” prints left behind at the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash site. As a result, DHS was able to help identify “a few” victims of the July 2014 disaster in Ukraine, department officials said. 

A mission to identify all 298 MH17 passengers and crew is being led by the Dutch National Forensic Investigations Team, which lost 193 fellow countrymen and women. 

"Our fingerprint examiners were actually able to go through and search our database and found possible latent print matches," said Ken Fritzsche, director of the identity technology division at the DHS Office of Biometric Identity Management. 

The positive matches were relayed to the FBI, which has been aiding the recovery effort. The FBI, in turn, passed on the victims' names to the Dutch investigators.

"It essentially eliminated the need for family members to have travel to the Netherlands and identify remains,” Fritzcshe said. He spoke Tuesday at the 2015 Biometrics for Government and Law Enforcement conference.

On Friday...

DHS Reveals Super Bowl Surveillance Techniques -- Sort Of

By Aliya Sternstein // January 28, 2015

The Super Bowl XLIX logo is displayed on the University of Phoenix Stadium, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz.
The Super Bowl XLIX logo is displayed on the University of Phoenix Stadium, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. // Charlie Riedel/AP

The Secret Service will be searching social media messages this Sunday to discern between real and bogus threats during the Super Bowl, according to Department of Homeland Security officials. But agents will not be using sarcasm-detecting software they have expressed an interest in buying, the agency said. 

Social media-tracking technology is just one piece of surveillance gear the government will deploy for the face-off between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks at the University of Phoenix Stadium.

In addition, DHS and the Pentagon will be "providing airspace security around the venue," DHS officials said Wednesday afternoon. "No drones," DHS spokesman S.Y. Lee told Nextgov

DHS cybersecurity professionals paid to try hacking into systems have been probing Internet-connected devices at the stadium to check for weaknesses that miscreants could breach. Department officials would not comment on any specific systems being tested, though we hope they're securing instant replay feeds and any equipment that could be used to, say, deflate a football.   

Also, the Secret Service will conduct "open-source social media monitoring for situational awareness," officials said. As Nextgov first reported last summer, the agency has been shopping for software that can identify sarcasm, among other things.


Beware Stricter Drone Laws

By Russell Berman // The Atlantic // January 28, 2015

Secret Service officers search the south grounds of the White House after a drone accidentally crashed there.
Secret Service officers search the south grounds of the White House after a drone accidentally crashed there. // Susan Walsh/AP

Forget fence-jumpers. News that a small drone crashed onto the White House lawn early Monday morning immediately stoked fears about whether the technology that the U.S. government uses to target terrorists overseas could be used against the homeland. Are the president and his family vulnerable to attack by an unmanned, too-tiny-to-detect device that virtually anyone could send to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Predictably, politicians reacted with alarm. "The eagle has crash-landed in Washington," cried Senator Charles Schumer of New York, in a statement that used the incident to amplify his call for FAA regulations on drones. President Obama was characteristically more cautious, but on Tuesday morning he noted that the drone that landed on his lawn "you buy at Radio Shack." He told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that more rules were needed, "to make sure these things aren’t dangerous and that they aren’t violating people’s privacy."

Yet viewed another way, the incident seems way overblown. The drone that penetrated the White House grounds and triggered a lockdown of the complex was essentially a toy, flown by a man who frantically called the Secret Service after it got...

DHS to Launch Iris and Facial Recognition at the Border

By Aliya Sternstein // January 27, 2015


The Department of Homeland Security this summer plans to roll out iris and facial recognition services to the U.S. Border Patrol, according to DHS officials.  

The service will be able to share images with the FBI's massive multibiometric system, officials said. 

The test is part of a coming overhaul of the department's "IDENT" biometric system, which currently contains more than 170 million foreigner fingerprints and facial images, as well as 600,000 iris templates. DHS last November released two sets of system specifications as part of market research for the new project. 

"It’s the Border Patrol stations that are doing the actual collections" of iris and face images from individuals processed through Customs and Border Patrol stations, Ken Fritzsche,director of the identity technology division at the DHS Office of Biometric Identity Management, told Nextgov. He spoke Tuesday at the 2015 Biometrics for Government and Law Enforcement conference.

"They’ve been collecting irises and storing the data with us," Fritzsche said. "Now, we’re going to provide matching capability in a limited production pilot to CBP."

DHS anticipates the expansion of IDENT's infrastructure, in addition to new capabilities, will support the matching of more than...

After Drone Crashes in its Backyard, White House Calls for New Regulations

By Kaveh Waddell // National Journal // January 27, 2015

The drone that crashed onto the White House grounds in Washington, Monday, Jan. 26, 2015.
The drone that crashed onto the White House grounds in Washington, Monday, Jan. 26, 2015. // US Secret Service/AP

President Obama on Tuesday emphasized a need for regulations on commercial drones, just a day after a drone crash-landed near the White House. The regulations should ensure that drones are operated safely and do not violate others' privacy, the president said.

Obama said he directed federal agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration, responsible for drawing up regulations that would apply to drones, to consider the implications of drones' increasing commercial availability.

"There are incredibly useful functions that these drones can play in terms of farmers who are managing crops and conservationists who want to take stock of wildlife, so there are a whole range of things we can do with it," the president said on CNN. "But we don't really have any kind of regulatory structure at all for it."

The drone that landed on the White House lawn early Monday morning was a commercially available vehicle about 2 feet in diameter. The Secret Service said the crash occurred when the drone's operator, a government employee who was flying it recreationally, lost control.

Obama noted Tuesday that the drone was the kind "you buy at Radio Shack."

The man told Secret Service investigators that he had been...

VA’s System for Managing IT Projects Comes Under Scrutiny

By Hallie Golden // January 26, 2015

everything possible/

In 2009, the Department of Veterans Affairs launched a new system to keep close watch on the agency’s IT initiatives.

The Program Management Accountability System, or PMAS, was supposed to help VA officials monitor the development of IT projects, check for any red flags and deliver functionality on large-scale projects in short-term increments.

But a new inspector general report finds the system needs some monitoring of its own.

“More than five years after its launch,” VA officials have not “fully infused PMAS with the discipline and accountability necessary for effective management and oversight of IT development projects,” the Jan. 22 IG report stated.

Among the problems uncovered in the report, the IG found some officials from the Office of Information and Technology had not always conducted review sessions to determine whether projects were ready to be moved out of the planning stages or whether they needed to be re-evaluated or shut down entirely.

The review sessions are a key part of the project management system, and VA Chief Information Officer Stephen Warren has frequently touted his willingness to kill failed programs based on the outcome of the reviews.  

Still, in two particular IT offices -- the Office of Product Development...

SpaceX Founder Drops Lawsuit Against Air Force, Will Compete for Future Satellite Contracts

By Tim Fernholz // Quartz // January 26, 2015

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk // Paul Sancya/AP

In the end, it took John Ashcroft to get the US Air Force and Elon Musk to play nice together.

SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company, announced a settlement with the Air Force, ending a lawsuit that accused the military of unfairly awarding an $11 billion launch contract to United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that is the sole contract provider of space access to the US military.

The US government is the world’s largest spender on space access, so its contracts remain a key point of competition for space companies already battling for private satellite business. SpaceX had expected to win out over ULA to put military satellites—and drones—in orbit because of its significantly lower launch costs. But SpaceX was disappointed, and many observers were surprised, when a last-minute decision awarded 36 launches to ULA in a single deal.

Musk upset government officials by bringing a lawsuit accusing the military of breaking a promise to allow competition for the launch contracts. Musk even suggested that an Air Force official had been given a job after the awarding of a contract to ULA. ULA has dismissed such allegations, pointing to an industry-leading record of reliability...

Drone Crashes on White House Lawn

By Dustin Volz // National Journal // January 26, 2015

Secret Service officers search the south grounds of the White House after a  device, possibly an unmanned aerial drone, was found on the White House grounds.
Secret Service officers search the south grounds of the White House after a device, possibly an unmanned aerial drone, was found on the White House grounds. // Susan Walsh/AP

A small drone crashed at the White House complex early Monday morning, according to The Associated Press.

The Secret Service is currently investigating the apparent intrusion of a four-rotor quad copter, a commercially available small unmanned aircraft, that crashed on the southeast side of the White House.

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are on a diplomatic trip to India and were in no way put at risk, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.

Last year, the Secret Service became mired in scandal after multiple security breaches were reported on the White House grounds. In September, one man scaled the executive mansion's fence, sprinted across the lawn, and made it inside the building before being tackled by a Secret Service officer. Drone enthusiasts were quick to condemn the "clear misuse" of the nascent technology.

"This incident represents a clear misuse of [unmanned aerial systems] technology," said Brian Wynne, president of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a prominent drone lobby. "Flying any aircraft around the White House is a serious violation of the restricted and prohibited airspace in Washington, D.C. We hope the individual or individuals responsible are found and held accountable."

The Federal...

Watch a Drone Fly Around—and Crash—During a Congressional Hearing

By Dustin Volz // National Journal // January 22, 2015

Kin Cheung/AP

Congressional hearings tend to be staid affairs, but on Wednesday some lawmakers got to watch a drone take flight—and then crash into the floor.

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee's hearing on the integration of commercial drones took an unusual turn when Colin Guinn, senior vice president of sales for 3D Robotics, decided to show off his Parrot Bebop drone during his testimony.

As the device flies around the room, lawmakers find it difficult to contain the awe on their faces. Thankfully, the magic was caught on C-SPAN:

"I was hoping you would fly over the whole room, not just one location," Chairman Lamar Smith said after the device landed.

"You said no haircuts!" Guinn quipped.

At another demonstration at the hearing, the drone had a faulty takeoff and crashed, but it was uninjured. Watch below:

Congress has tasked the Federal Aviation Administration with readying airspace for the integration of commercial drones. Drones are currently prohibited for use, but the FAA has granted a growing number of exemptions for certain industries. Earlier this month, regulators gave CNN the go-ahead to test drone systems for news-gathering purposes.

Obama Pledges to Release Report on NSA Spying Reforms

By Dustin Volz // National Journal // January 21, 2015

An aerial view of the NSA's Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah.
An aerial view of the NSA's Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah. // Rick Bowmer/AP

 President Obama on Tuesday promised in his State of the Union address to reveal new updates next month about his administration's efforts to rein in the National Security Agency's mass-surveillance programs.

"As Americans, we cherish our civil liberties—and we need to uphold that commitment if we want maximum cooperation from other countries and industry in our fight against terrorist networks," Obama said. "So while some have moved on from the debates over our surveillance programs, I have not."

"As promised, our intelligence agencies have worked hard, with the recommendations of privacy advocates, to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse," Obama said. "And next month, we'll issue a report on how we're keeping our promise to keep our country safe while strengthening privacy."

Last week, National Journal reported that an announcement would come from the intelligence community by the end of January. Multiple privacy groups were contacted by the White House last week to review the pending updates but the meeting was canceled.

One year ago, Obama gave a major policy speech to address the ongoing revelations from Edward Snowden exposing the NSA's spying programs. He proposed a series of "concrete and...

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