Posts Tagged ‘emerging technologies’


Yahoo Inc last year secretly built a custom software program to search all of its customers’ incoming emails for specific information provided by U.S. intelligence officials, according to people familiar with the matter.

The company complied with a classified U.S. government demand, scanning hundreds of millions of Yahoo Mail accounts at the behest of the National Security Agency or FBI, said three former employees and a fourth person apprised of the events.

Some surveillance experts said this represents the first case to surface of a U.S. Internet company agreeing to an intelligence agency’s request by searching all arriving messages, as opposed to examining stored messages or scanning a small number of accounts in real time.

It is not known what information intelligence officials were looking for, only that they wanted Yahoo to search for a set of characters. That could mean a phrase in an email or an attachment, said the sources, who did not want to be identified

Reuters was unable to determine what data Yahoo may have handed over, if any, and if intelligence officials had approached other email providers besides Yahoo with this kind of request.

According to two of the former employees, Yahoo Chief Executive Marissa Mayer’s decision to obey the directive roiled some senior executives and led to the June 2015 departure of Chief Information Security Officer Alex Stamos, who now holds the top security job at Facebook Inc.

“Yahoo is a law abiding company, and complies with the laws of the United States,” the company said in a brief statement in response to Reuters questions about the demand. Yahoo declined any further comment.

Through a Facebook spokesman, Stamos declined a request for an interview.

The NSA referred questions to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which declined to comment.

The request to search Yahoo Mail accounts came in the form of a classified edict sent to the company’s legal team, according to the three people familiar with the matter.

U.S. phone and Internet companies are known to have handed over bulk customer data to intelligence agencies. But some former government officials and private surveillance experts said they had not previously seen either such a broad demand for real-time Web collection or one that required the creation of a new computer program.

“I’ve never seen that, a wiretap in real time on a ‘selector,'” said Albert Gidari, a lawyer who represented phone and Internet companies on surveillance issues for 20 years before moving to Stanford University this year. A selector refers to a type of search term used to zero in on specific information.

“It would be really difficult for a provider to do that,” he added.

Experts said it was likely that the NSA or FBI had approached other Internet companies with the same demand, since they evidently did not know what email accounts were being used by the target. The NSA usually makes requests for domestic surveillance through the FBI, so it is hard to know which agency is seeking the information.

Alphabet Inc’s Google and Microsoft Corp, two major U.S. email service providers, separately said on Tuesday that they had not conducted such email searches.

“We’ve never received such a request, but if we did, our response would be simple: ‘No way’,” a spokesman for Google said in a statement.

A Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement, “We have never engaged in the secret scanning of email traffic like what has been reported today about Yahoo.” The company declined to comment on whether it had received such a request.


Under laws including the 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, intelligence agencies can ask U.S. phone and Internet companies to provide customer data to aid foreign intelligence-gathering efforts for a variety of reasons, including prevention of terrorist attacks.

Disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and others have exposed the extent of electronic surveillance and led U.S. authorities to modestly scale back some of the programs, in part to protect privacy rights.

Companies including Yahoo have challenged some classified surveillance before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret tribunal.

Some FISA experts said Yahoo could have tried to fight last year’s demand on at least two grounds: the breadth of the directive and the necessity of writing a special program to search all customers’ emails in transit.

Apple Inc made a similar argument earlier this year when it refused to create a special program to break into an encrypted iPhone used in the 2015 San Bernardino massacre. The FBI dropped the case after it unlocked the phone with the help of a third party, so no precedent was set.

“It is deeply disappointing that Yahoo declined to challenge this sweeping surveillance order, because customers are counting on technology companies to stand up to novel spying demands in court,” Patrick Toomey, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

Some FISA experts defended Yahoo’s decision to comply, saying nothing prohibited the surveillance court from ordering a search for a specific term instead of a specific account. So-called “upstream” bulk collection from phone carriers based on content was found to be legal, they said, and the same logic could apply to Web companies’ mail.

As tech companies become better at encrypting data, they are likely to face more such requests from spy agencies.

Former NSA General Counsel Stewart Baker said email providers “have the power to encrypt it all, and with that comes added responsibility to do some of the work that had been done by the intelligence agencies.”


Mayer and other executives ultimately decided to comply with the directive last year rather than fight it, in part because they thought they would lose, said the people familiar with the matter.

Yahoo in 2007 had fought a FISA demand that it conduct searches on specific email accounts without a court-approved warrant. Details of the case remain sealed, but a partially redacted published opinion showed Yahoo’s challenge was unsuccessful.

Some Yahoo employees were upset about the decision not to contest the more recent edict and thought the company could have prevailed, the sources said.

They were also upset that Mayer and Yahoo General Counsel Ron Bell did not involve the company’s security team in the process, instead asking Yahoo’s email engineers to write a program to siphon off messages containing the character string the spies sought and store them for remote retrieval, according to the sources.

The sources said the program was discovered by Yahoo’s security team in May 2015, within weeks of its installation. The security team initially thought hackers had broken in.

When Stamos found out that Mayer had authorized the program, he resigned as chief information security officer and told his subordinates that he had been left out of a decision that hurt users’ security, the sources said. Due to a programming flaw, he told them hackers could have accessed the stored emails.

Stamos’s announcement in June 2015 that he had joined Facebook did not mention any problems with Yahoo. (

In a separate incident, Yahoo last month said “state-sponsored” hackers had gained access to 500 million customer accounts in 2014. The revelations have brought new scrutiny to Yahoo’s security practices as the company tries to complete a deal to sell its core business to Verizon Communications Inc for $4.8 billion.

(Reporting by Joseph Menn; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Tiffany Wu)



Robotic building by Contour Crafting won the grand prize in a NASA magazine's Create the Future contest.

In the not-too-distant future, building a new home may be as simple as printing it out.

The process of wielding 3D printers to make homes is in its infancy today, but someday soon you may look out your window at a large-scale printer, swiftly spitting out a whole home under the instruction of just one operator.

“Generally, they’ll be much cheaper, much faster, much safer and with much nicer architectural features [than traditional homes],” says Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis, creator of and lead researcher for Contour Crafting, one of the leading companies working on scaling 3D-printed homes for the masses.

A 3D printer from the WASProject (which stands for World's Advanced Saving Project) builds walls at the Maker Faire Rome.

A 3D printer from the WASProject (which stands for World’s Advanced Saving Project) builds walls at the Maker Faire …

It’s really not as crazy as it sounds. There are 3D printers making dishes, building furniture and repairing appliances right now. But a home needs a much bigger printer.

On any scale, 3D printing works like this: Someone creates a three-dimensional digital design and sends it to the printer, where it’s translated into something called a “G-code” file that slices a 3D design into thin layers.

The printer also contains the building material, which in the case of large-scale printing can be plastic or cement – any sturdy material that can go from solid to liquid and back again. The material is melted or liquefied within the printer, and layer by layer the printer follows a path until the object in the 3D digital design is completely constructed. The layers build upon one another and solidify as they cool.

Using this kind of technology for home construction may be a few years out, but it’s already in use in a few select projects around the world, from an artistic, design-driven canal house in Amsterdam to a utilitarian operation that can churn out a house in just one day in China.

Still, a lot of details have to be worked out before this technology is launched on a large scale. Factors like fireproofing, insulation and waterproofing are still in testing stages for many projects.

And in most cases, no building codes regulate the materials and construction processes used to print buildings, nor are there industry standards or best practices yet that builders can rely on. Every element — printers, software, building materials — is evolving.

Here are some of the more notable projects…

When DUS Architects in Amsterdam was looking for new ways to make home design interesting, the firm decided to craft an experimental 3D printer. They wanted to build something grand, so they selected a spot along the Buiksloterkanaal to build a traditional canal house, mimicking the iconic traditionally-built canal homes throughout the city.

The KamerMaker on site in Amsterdam at night.

The KamerMaker on site in Amsterdam at night.

The group came up with the KamerMaker (or room-builder in English). It works exactly like a small-scale 3D printer, with a digital design being translated into a G-code. The printer moves along the designated path and spits out the material – in this case a special bioplastics granulate.

Although the technology is a work in progress, DUS has designed a house that will use the KamerMaker to print rooms using the recycled bioplastic materials. The 13 rooms will form a nearly 50-foot-high, 20-foot-wide, plastic house when they are stacked on top of each other.

Construction on the actual house began in March and is expected to last for about three years – not a quick process. But the process is a vehicle for learning, DUS says.

According to Tosja Backer, who manages the project for DUS, people started coming by to watch and offer advice before construction on the house even began. That’s when the project became a “co-creation platform.”

A rendering of what DUS Architects hopes to create with its 3D Print Canal House.

A rendering of what DUS Architects hopes to create with its 3D Print Canal House.

“We are a platform much more than we are just a firm building a house,” Backer says. “We don’t know all the answers yet, but we now have lots of people to help us with that. The key to it is research by doing. It’s really a research project. We find solutions we couldn’t have found if we didn’t print it.”

In the end, Backer says, the idea is to be able to create an adequate living space fairly quickly using reusable plastics. That way, the technology could be used to help people, particularly after disasters. In that case, the homes could be built quickly and cheaply and then melted down when they’re no longer useful. The very same plastic that was used to build those temporary homes could be used to build more homes after another disaster.

Total Kustom’s cement castle

Though not technically a home, contractor Andrey Rudenko built this DIY small castle using a 3D printer he designed himself.

Though not technically a home, contractor Andrey Rudenko built this DIY small castle using a 3D printer he designed …

A contractor in Shorewood, Minnesota, had an interest in 3D printers and decided to go out and design one of his own using a computer, steel rails, motors and chains.

The printer – invented by contractor Andrey Rudenko, who calls it an “extruder” – spits out a special, very viscous blend of concrete and sand. The printer currently fits inside a two-car garage, although Rudenko is looking to make it smaller as he improves on the design.

Rudenko can program this self-made printer to print layers of concrete in patterns he designs.

Recently, he used his printer to create a large-scale, 12-foot-tall, 3D castle in his backyard, which, while technically not a home, operates on the same principles as 3D-printed homes and is the most notable example of how 3D-printed structures could become DIY projects.

Just like the homes, the castle is printed in parts and then assembled.

Just like the homes, the castle is printed in parts and then assembled.

The castle stands mostly on its own, but Rudenko did place steel bars throughout the structure as extra support for the cement-printed parts. He also added some tower details on top of the castle after the fact, which were printed separately and then lifted onto the main structure. The castle was finished in late August.

Rudenko says his next project will be a two-story, 32-foot-by-50-foot, 3D-printed house.

Fine-tuning architectural features is also one of the main focuses of the 3D Print Canal House project, Backer says.

“With the technique that we use, you can create lots of different forms that you can’t get when you use a cast or mold. … Different structures that we’ve printed, you can integrate into your design,” she says. “The cool thing is you totally bridge the gap between design and production. You can make each design unique again.”

Win Sun’s printed-overnight homes

A Win Sun home can be printed in 24 hours.

A Win Sun home can be printed in 24 hours.

Arguably the project with the most real-world results is one by Win Sun, a company in China that has already printed 10 houses in Shanghai.

All 10 houses were printed in less than 24 hours at a cost of about $5,000 each.

Unlike Rudenko’s castle project, Win Sun created building blocks instead of layering the base of the whole home at once. Using a cement and glass mixture in diagonally reinforced patterns, the huge printer (about 22 feet tall and 33 feet wide) can very rapidly put out these building blocks.

Win Sun's 3D printing in progress.

Win Sun’s 3D printing in progress.

The company used its large-scale 3D printer in a factory, then transported the fabricated blocks to the housing site where they were assembled into actual homes.

Win Sun hopes to use the technology for cheap, fast, low-income housing. According to Runji Shen, a marketer for the Win Sun project, 3D-printed homes of the future will be constructed in weeks – and for far less money than homes cost to build now.

The company says it’s in talks with several construction companies in the U.S. about potentially exporting printers and technology.

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