Week in review: The spying game

Attorney general didn't reveal much about controversial eavesdropping program, but White House gave details.

Steven Musil
Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
Expertise I have more than 30 years' experience in journalism in the heart of the Silicon Valley.
7 min read
A Senate panel failed to get much information from U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about a controversial eavesdropping program, but in the end the White House relented under pressure from fellow Republicans and disclosed details.

Gonzales told a Senate subcommittee that agents operating a controversial National Security Agency surveillance program may have inadvertently spied on the e-mails and phone calls of Americans with no ties to terrorists. Gonzales stressed that the program is "narrowly focused" and that adequate steps are taken to protect privacy, though he said he was unable to describe such procedures because of the program's classified nature.

Gonzales shunned all questions that he deemed were about "operational" matters, such as how many people have been subject to the tapping, how the government goes about cooperating with telecommunications companies and Internet service providers from a legal perspective, and whether additional secret surveillance programs have been authorized by the same logic.

But in a sign that political pressure from other Republicans was having an effect, the White House later disclosed details about the program in a secret meeting with members of a House of Representatives intelligence panel. The move comes after a recent spate of criticism from fellow Republicans, including a call this week for a full congressional inquiry from Rep. Heather Wilson, a Republican who heads the subcommittee overseeing the NSA.

In addition, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, warned on Wednesday that the controversy "is not going to go away" and said he is drafting legislation to bring the NSA's spying under the umbrella of a court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Some reports have identified executives at "major telecommunications companies" who chose to open their networks to the NSA. Because it may be illegal to divulge customer communications, though, not one company has chosen to make its cooperation public. Under federal law, any person or company that helps someone "intercept any wire, oral or electronic communication"--unless specifically authorized by law--could face criminal charges. Even if cooperation is found to be legal, it could be embarrassing to acknowledge opening up customers' communications to a spy agency.

A series of interviews with technical experts by CNET News.com during the last few weeks shed some light on how the program may work in practice.

CNET News.com readers were sharply divided on the subject, with discussions and debates running the gamut of topics.

"Every American citizen has the right to know what the people that we pay to look after our interests are doing," wrote Andrew Bright in CNET News.com's TalkBack forum. "We certainly didn't authorize them to spend our money on various data mining and other spying programs that invade our privacy."

In the chips
Intel wants you to call on the chipmaker when making Internet phone calls. The latest version of Skype's Internet-calling software can host up to 10 users on a conference call, but only if your PC has a dual-core processor from Intel. Intel's Core Duo and Pentium D processors have been designated the mass conference-calling processor of choice for Skype 2.0, launched last month.

Skype's software allows PC users to make free voice calls to other Skype users over the Internet and to call cell phones and landlines for a fee. Intel approached Skype with its plan to optimize code on its chips for Skype's software so users would have a good experience while hosting a multiperson conference call.

Meanwhile, at the International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco, the chip industry showed off a couple of the chip concepts that are still on the drawing board.

Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology have developed a chip that allows you to listen to an iPod using your forearm as the transmission wire for the audio signals. The chip was detailed in one of several presentations during a session called "Silicon in Biology."

Low power consumption was a common design thread in the several chips presented by university researchers. The need to reduce power consumption of chips has become an area of concern for the PC and server processor industry, but low power consumption takes on a new meaning when referring to chips that will be used inside the human body or on skin.

Researchers are also working on chips that will eliminate much of the pressure and anxiety that comes when a waiter hovers nearby as you taste the wine. Electronic nose vapor sensors are printed arrays of transistors that can detect ambient chemicals and odors and then alert a consumer if the contents of a medicine bottle or bottle of wine have changed.

One of the sensors' key features is that they should be cheap to

manufacture, allowing them to be inserted into wine bottles. An integrated nose--which would include a sensor array and a silicon chip--could cost a few dimes apiece to manufacture now and drop to less than 5 cents over time. A nose based on all printed semiconductors would be even cheaper and could be feasible over time.

A little privacy
A bill announced in Congress would require every Web site operator to delete information about visitors, including e-mail addresses, if the data is no longer required for a "legitimate" business purpose. The proposal, introduced by Rep. Ed Markey, seeks to import European-style privacy regulations by imposing a broad data-deletion requirement. It would apply to every U.S. Web site, even ones run by individuals, bloggers or nonprofit groups and charities.

Markey said the measure would help stop identity theft. "This warehoused personal information about consumers' Internet use should not be needlessly stored to await compromise by data thieves or fraudsters, or disclosure through judicial fishing expeditions," the Massachusetts Democrat said in a statement. Also, Markey said, the bill would help address the issue of search engines storing data about their customers' search terms, a subject that received attention when the Department of Justice subpoenaed Google, Yahoo and other sites for such information.

Another bill in Congress proposes fines of up to $500,000 and prison sentences of up to 20 years for anyone who "fraudulently" acquires and resells records of calls made by a telephone subscriber. But it's not entirely clear that the measure is necessary. The Federal Trade Commission has for decades enjoyed the power to stop "deceptive" business practices, a term that also encompasses fraudulent behavior. In addition, state attorneys general have the ability to file civil and criminal suits to halt illicit business practices.

Congress took particular interest in the topic of phone record privacy after reports that online brokers may be "pretexting"--that is, posing as legitimate customers--to obtain such records and then sell them cheaply on the Web.

Meanwhile, a new law targeting "annoying" e-mail messages and Web posts is being challenged in federal court. The plaintiff, a Web site that lets people send anonymous e-mail for a fee, said the suit was necessary because the law is so broad it makes providing the service a crime.

As reported earlier by CNET News.com, President Bush last month signed into law a massive bill for the Justice Department that includes the new criminal sanctions aimed at Internet communications that "annoy." The law prohibits anyone from posting annoying Web messages or sending annoying e-mail messages without disclosing his or her true identity.

Executive exodus
Wayne Inouye, CEO of Gateway since its merger with eMachines two years ago, resigned as the company focuses on building up its direct sales to consumers and to professional markets. The sudden resignation of Inouye comes amid a rebound for the company.

In 2005, Gateway saw its market share in the U.S. rise to 6.1 percent, making the company the third-biggest PC maker in the country. The problem is that the gains have mostly come through selling low-price retail machines, and Gateway wants to expand its government and business sales.

The Web search landscape shifted a little after Google snatched the leader of Amazon.com's A9 subsidiary, Chief Executive Udi Manber, causing some experts to question the future of the e-commerce company's search efforts. Manber will become Google's vice president of engineering after he leaves A9 at the end of the week.

A9 is a general Web search site, like the more popular Google or Yahoo, and it powers the Web search and site search on Amazon.com. With Manber's departure, some Amazon watchers now question whether the A9 search effort is just an experiment for the Seattle company or a defensive move to protect e-commerce turf against Google and Yahoo.

Sometimes new leadership is unavoidable, which is the case with Internet phone provider Vonage. Vonage filed to go public, but it can't do so with its current CEO.

The company filed documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission, registering to become a public company and disclosing that it has hired a new CEO. Vonage founder Jeffrey Citron had been the company's chief executive since its inception.

But in 2003, Citron settled an SEC complaint that focused on a scheme involving improper use of the Nasdaq Stock Market's Small Order Execution System, or SOES. Without admitting or denying the allegations in the complaint, he paid a $22.5 million fine and agreed to accept an SEC order that bars him from associating with any securities broker or dealer.

Patent problems
Microsoft's recent warning that customers must use an updated version of Office in new installations is likely to affect a significant number of businesses...Computer code that could be used in cyberattacks on Firefox users has been released, increasing the urgency for people to upgrade to the latest version of the Web browser...Microsoft plans to ship a new security product in June, charging $49.95 a year to shield up to three PCs against viruses, spyware and other cyberthreats...Apple Computer introduced a lower-end, less expensive iPod Nano, with 1GB capacity, and lowered the price of its iPod Shuffle.