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October 27 2012

October 29, 2012



Order would give companies cyberthreat info


By Richard Lardner – The Associated Press

Posted : Friday Oct 19, 2012 16:06:22 EDT

WASHINGTON — A new White House executive order would direct U.S. spy agencies to share the latest intelligence about cyberthreats with companies operating electric grids, water plants, railroads and other vital industries to help protect them from electronic attacks, according to a copy obtained by The Associated Press.

The seven-page draft order, which is being finalized, takes shape as the Obama administration expresses growing concern that Iran could be the first country to use cyberterrorism against the United States. The military is ready to retaliate if the U.S. is hit by cyberweapons, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said. But the U.S. also is poorly prepared to prevent such an attack, which could damage or knock out critical services that are part of everyday life.

The White House declined to say when the president will sign the order.

The draft order would put the Department of Homeland Security in charge of organizing an information-sharing network that rapidly distributes sanitized summaries of top-secret intelligence reports about known cyberthreats that identify a specific target. With these warnings, known as tear lines, the owners and operators of essential U.S. businesses would be better able to block potential attackers from gaining access to their computer systems.

An organized, broad-based approach for sharing cyberthreat information gathered by the government is widely viewed as essential for any plan to protect U.S. computer networks from foreign nations, terrorist groups and hackers. Existing efforts to exchange information are narrowly focused on specific industries, such as the finance sector, and have had varying degrees of success.

Yet the order has generated stiff opposition from Republicans on Capitol Hill who view it as a unilateral move that bypasses the legislative authority held by Congress.

Administration officials said the order became necessary after Congress failed this summer to pass cybersecurity legislation, leaving critical infrastructure companies vulnerable to a serious and growing threat. Conflicting bills passed separately by the House and Senate included information-sharing provisions. But efforts to get a final measure through both chambers collapsed over the GOP’s concerns that the Senate bill would expand the federal government’s regulatory power and increase costs for businesses.


The White House has acknowledged that an order from the president, while legally binding, is not enough. Legislation is needed to make other changes to improve the country’s digital defenses. An executive order, for example, cannot offer a company protection from liabilities that might result from a cyberattack on its systems.

The addition of the information-sharing provisions is the most significant change to an earlier draft of the order completed in late August. The new draft, which is not dated, retains a section that requires Homeland Security to identify the vital systems that, if hit by cyberattack, could “reasonably result in a debilitating impact” on national and economic security. Other sections establish a program to encourage companies to adopt voluntary security standards and direct federal agencies to determine whether existing cyber security regulations are adequate.

The draft order directs the department to work with the Pentagon, the National Security Agency, the director of national intelligence and the Justice Department to quickly establish the information-sharing mechanism. Selected employees at critical infrastructure companies would receive security clearances allowing them to receive the information, according to the document. Federal agencies would be required to assess whether the order raises any privacy or civil liberties risks.

To foster a two-way exchange of information, the government would ask businesses to tell the government about cyberthreats or cyberattacks. There would be no requirement to do so.

The NSA has been sharing cyberthreat information on a limited basis with companies that conduct business with the Defense Department. These companies work with sensitive data about weapon systems and technologies and are frequently the targets of cyberspying.

But the loss of valuable information has been eclipsed by fears that an enemy with the proper know-how could cause havoc by sending the computers controlling critical infrastructure systems incorrect commands or infecting them with malicious software. Potential nightmare scenarios include high-speed trains being put on collision courses, blackouts that last days or perhaps even weeks or chemical plants that inadvertently release deadly gases.

Panetta underscored the looming dangers during a speech last week in New York by pointing to the Shamoon virus that destroyed thousands of computer systems owned by Persian Gulf oil and gas companies. Shamoon, which spreads quickly through networked computers and ultimately wipes out files by overwriting them, hit the Saudi Arabian state oil company Aramco and Qatari natural gas producer RasGas.

Panetta did not directly connect Iran to the Aramco and RasGas attacks. But U.S. officials believe hackers based in Iran were behind them.

Shamoon replaced files at Aramco with the image of a burning U.S. flag and rendered more than 30,000 computers useless, Panetta said. The attack on RasGas was similar, he said.

A spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Caitlin Hayden, said the administration is consulting with members of Congress and the private sector as the order is being drafted. But she provided no information on when an order would be signed. “Given the gravity of the threats we face in cyberspace, we want to get this right in addition to getting it done swiftly,” she said.



U.S. prepared for direct talks with Iran

By Matthew Daly – The Associated Press

Posted : Sunday Oct 21, 2012 11:12:50 EDT

WASHINGTON — The White House says it is prepared to talk one-on-one with Iran to find a diplomatic settlement to the impasse over Tehran’s reported pursuit of nuclear weapons, but there’s no agreement now to meet.

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said Saturday that President Obama has made clear that he will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and will do whatever’s necessary to block that from happening. Vietor said Iran must come in line with its obligations, or else faced increased pressure.

“The onus is on the Iranians to do so, otherwise they will continue to face crippling sanctions and increased pressure,” Vietor said in a statement. He noted that efforts to get Iran back to the table with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany — the so-called “P5+1” — continue.

Iran has been a recurring issue in the presidential election campaign and Vietor’s statement was released shortly after The New York Times reported Saturday that the U.S. and Iran have agreed in principle for the first time to negotiations. The paper said Iran has insisted the talks wait until after the Nov. 6 election.

Vietor, however, denied that any such agreement had been reached.

“It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” he said. “We continue to work with the P5+1 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will meet Monday night in a debate focusing on foreign policy and Iran’s nuclear ambitions will likely be a topic. Obama has said he’ll prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He hopes sanctions alongside negotiations can get Iran to halt uranium enrichment. But the strategy, which began during President George W. Bush’s administration, hasn’t worked. Obama holds out the threat of military action as a last resort. Romney has accused Obama of being weak on Iran and says the U.S. needs to present a greater military threat.

Despite unprecedented global penalties, Iran’s nuclear program is advancing as it continues to defy international pressure, including four rounds of sanctions from the U.N. Security Council, to prove that its atomic intentions are peaceful.

Those sanctions, coupled with tough measures imposed by the United States and European nations are taking their toll, particularly on Iran’s economy. Iranian authorities have in recent weeks been forced to quell protests over the plummeting value of the country’s currency. The rial lost nearly 40 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar in a week in early October, but has since slightly rebounded.

U.S. officials say they are hopeful that pressure from the sanctions may be pushing Iran’s leaders toward concessions, including direct talks with the United States. But several said on Saturday that they did not believe such discussions would happen any time soon.

If one-on-one talks are to occur, they would likely follow the model that the U.S. has used in six-nation nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea, the officials said.

In those discussions, U.S. negotiators have met separately with their North Korean counterparts but only as part of the larger effort, which also involves China, Japan, South Korea and Russia. Direct U.S.-North Korean talks are preceded and followed by intense consultations with the other members of the group.

However, the direct talks with North Korea have yet to bear fruit and U.S. officials warned that talks with Iran may not yield anything either. If U.S.-Iran talks do occur, they would likely be part of the P5+1 process, which groups the Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States, and is overseen by the European Union. The group has met numerous times with Iranian officials but has yet to achieve any significant progress.

In late September, the group instructed EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to reach out to Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, to organize another meeting. No date had been set for the possible resumption of talks.

Iran says its program is for peaceful energy and research purposes but Western nations fear the Islamic republic is determined to develop nuclear weapons and fundamentally reshape the balance of power in the Middle East. That would pose a grave threat to Israel.

Israel has threatened to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities if Tehran doesn’t stop uranium enrichment a process that can be a pathway to nuclear arms. Israel could decide to strike Iran’s nuclear sites on its own, and Israeli leaders say time to act is running out. They have also hinted they would like U.S. support for any such attack.

An Israeli strike on Iran with or without Washington’s involvement would likely draw retribution from Tehran including possible attacks on U.S. and Israeli interests overseas or disruptions to the transit of tankers through the Strait of Hormuz, which could send oil prices skyrocketing.

Obama has counseled patience as public as American public support for another Mideast conflict is low with the Iraq war over and the conflict in Afghanistan winding down.

Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Andrew Miga contributed to this report.

Death by defibrillator: FDA called to address hacking risk

October 21, 2012

Implanted defibrillators could be a target for hacking, a new report warns. More than 130,000 were implanted in patients in the U.S. in 2009.

By Brian Alexander, NBC News Contributor

It sounds like a scenario out of a James Bond movie: a villain spots his quarry and uses a small device to hack into the official’s heart defibrillator, sending a signal for mayhem. There’s chest grabbing, and a collapse, and alarms, but the bad guy walks free because there’s no gun, knife, poison dart — no evidence at all a murder has been committed.

According to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a non-partisan agency that works for Congress, not only is such a scenario possible, there’s a growing danger that grandpa’s heart rhythm device, or, say, a child’s insulin pump – any implantable device that can be accessed remotely — could be susceptible to hacking.

But the GAO report suggests that the Food and Drug Administration, which approves and regulates such devices, has been behind the curve when it comes to security and now is calling for the agency to set guidelines for manufacturers to help combat the threat of hacking.

According to the report, which had been requested by members of Congress in light of tests by researchers revealing the vulnerability of the medical technology, “there have been four separate demonstrations in controlled settings showing that the intentional exploitation of vulnerabilities in certain medical devices is possible.” The report stressed that there have been no proven cases of anybody actually doing this for nefarious purposes.

Still, when he released the GAO report, Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), one of the requesting legislators, issued a statement saying that “wireless medical devices are susceptible to increasingly advanced hacking techniques that could threaten patient health.”

The susceptibility stems largely from their wireless communications abilities, explained Nathanael Paul, chief scientist at the Center for Trustworthy Embedded Systems at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In 2010, Paul and a colleague demonstrated they could hack into an insulin pump, like the one Paul himself wears to treat his Type 1 diabetes.

Thanks to wireless communication, doctors can download diagnostic information and health status from the device to a computer and make changes in the performance of a device without surgery. For example, defibrillators can be programmed using a wand that communicates with the device inside a patient’s chest.

But as anybody who has experienced neighborhood confusion over garage door openers operating the wrong doors can attest, that can leave devices vulnerable to attack or simple accident.

“This year, for example, a young lady in the Salt Lake City airport asked TSA if she should walk through a security device,” Paul recalled by way of illustration. “TSA said yes, basing that on the experience of thousands of people with insulin pumps. She walked through and her pump responded in an unanticipated way that could have threatened her life.”


Causing a device to misfire intentionally to cause harm takes technical sophistication, but it’s certainly do-able, he said. And there are a lot of potential targets. According to a 2011 report from the World Society of Arrhythmias, in just one year, 2009, 133,262 defibrillators were implanted in patients in the United States — 434 devices for every million people — and that’s just one device for one condition.

Preventing potential hacking it might seem as simple as requiring a password for access. Another strategy could be to limit the distance devices can send information back and forth. The tests demonstrating vulnerability showed the range of some devices could be up to 300 feet. Paul has been exploring that possibility. Software changes are another avenue.

But enhancing security of a vital medical device isn’t as simple as it sounds. The primary purpose of any medical device is to preserve health, not keep out bad guys. Installing security software could put more demand on battery life, for example. And suppose a patient has a defibrillator, his doctor’s office is closed, and he feels chest pains? He could go to an emergency room, but, panicky, could easily forget the password. The ER doctors then could not get access to whatever the device has to tell them.
Whatever solutions are to be found, the onus for making sure manufacturers implement them has now fallen mainly on the FDA.

The GAO recommended the FDA make security risks part of premarket approval just like FDA’s more traditional criteria, safety and effectiveness. It also suggested FDA begin working with other federal agencies whose primary duties focus more on cyber security, make the issue one of the things it monitors during postmarket review, and “establish specific milestones for completing this review and implementing these changes.”

Markey, through his office, told NBC that FDA must place “renewed emphasis” on the security of the devices under its purview. “I look forward to hearing from the FDA on progress to address this risk,” he said.

The agency does seem to be gearing up to take a more aggressive stance. In its response to the GAO report, the FDA noted that it has recently begun collaborating with the Department of Homeland Security, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Defense, and law enforcement. The FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health has also a National Postmarket Surveillance Plan to better track adverse events related to devices.

“FDA concurs with GAO that the agency continuously develop and implement new strategies designed to assist the agency in its medical device premarket review and postmarket surveillance efforts relative to information security,” agency spokesperson Michelle Bolek told NBC.

The agency is studying the ways other industries are battling cyber security threats for any strategies manufacturers can incorporate into the devices. That’s where researchers like Paul come in.

The FDA and industry have begun consulting with him and others, he said, and he’s optimistic about progress. “I think they are doing a large amount of work. They are responding, and so are manufacturers,” said Paul, who doesn’t personally profit from such consulting.

He also argued that the potential risk to the security of medical devices is far outweighed by the benefits of the devices.

In other words, don’t panic.



Hawaii has the lowest voter turnout rate in the United States


October 1, 2012

Voter turnout rates by state.

The list below shows voter turnout in the 2008 general election. Shout-out to Michael McDonald, from George Mason University, who tabulated the numbers. For the data-minded, these percentages are the number of people who voted for the highest office on the ticket, divided by the voting-eligible population. Other measures, including a Census Bureau survey, also put Hawaii at the bottom of the list for voter turnout in the United States. We went with this list from McDonald in part because the Census Bureau bases its voter turnout numbers on surveys instead of direct ballot counts.

This list is just the start. We will be doing stories on voter turnout in Hawaii — and creating some social media campaigns — in hopes of bumping this place of luaus and sun off the bottom of the list. Check back on this site to learn how you can help.

And please take a look at the list, which is presented in reverse order, from the state with the lowest voter turnout rate to the highest.

Let us know what you think in the comments. How did your state fare? What do you think accounts for the differences in turnout?

Hawaii – 48.8%

West Virginia – 49.9%

Arkansas – 52.5%

Texas – 54.1%

Oklahoma – 55.8%

Utah – 56%

Arizona – 56.7%

Tennessee – 57%

Nevada – 57%

Kentucky – 57.9%

South Carolina – 58%

New York – 59%

Indiana – 59.1%

Alabama – 60.8%

California – 60.9%

New Mexico – 60.9%

Mississippi – 61%

Louisiana – 61.2%

District of Columbia – 61.5%

Rhode Island – 61.8%

Kansas – 62%

Georgia – 62.5%

North Dakota – 62.7%

Wyoming – 62.8%

Nebraska – 62.9%

Pennsylvania – 63.6%

Illinois – 63.6%

Idaho – 63.6%

South Dakota – 64.7%

North Carolina – 65.5%

Delaware – 65.6%

Florida – 66.1%

Montana – 66.3%

Washington – 66.6%

Connecticut – 66.6%

Massachusetts – 66.8%

Ohio – 66.9%

New Jersey – 67%

Virginia – 67%

Maryland – 67%

Vermont – 67.3%

Missouri – 67.6%

Oregon – 67.7%

Alaska – 68%

Michigan – 69.2%

Iowa – 69.4%

Maine – 70.6%

Colorado – 71%

New Hampshire – 71.7%

Wisconsin – 72.4%

Minnesota – 77.8%



Oct. 21, 2012 – 7:19 p.m.

Experts Project Future of Defense Spending Under Obama, Romney

By John M. Donnelly, CQ Staff

When President Obama and Mitt Romney debate for the final time Monday night with a focus on foreign policy and defense it may provide the last, best opportunity to clarify their views on military spending.

If Obama is re-elected he’s widely expected to accept more cutbacks at the Pentagon, while Republican presidential nominee Romney has said he would increase military spending above Obama’s projections by what experts estimate would be about $2 trillion over the next decade.

But neither candidate has delved deeply into what he has in mind for the defense budget. Romney, in particular, has not fully explained how he will avoid raising taxes, cut the deficit and still keep military spending at or above its current, near-record level.

In fact, many experts believe defense spending is likely to come down in the years ahead by more than either candidate acknowledges. The next president, analysts say, will have to effectively oversee an inevitable and deep downsizing at the Pentagon that will occur even if the automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, are avoided — and those cuts may amount to more than the half a trillion dollars in new reductions to planned spending that sequestration would require.

Gordon Adams, who oversaw defense programs at the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton administration, says if the Pentagon follows historical norms, it will lose about $1 trillion over the next decade, not gain it.

“The challenge to either candidate is: How do you manage a drawdown?” Adams said.


Rude Awakening

The defense budget, which nearly doubled in the decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, is only now starting to come down. The caps in last summer’s debt ceiling law (PL 112-25) would result in nearly half a trillion dollars less for the Pentagon over the next decade, compared to previous projections, and the same amount in non-defense reductions. The law also requires another roughly $500 billion in defense cuts over 10 years under sequestration, which will start in January unless Congress passes legislation before then to avert it.

The president has said that sequestration would endanger the military’s capacity to project power, but many observers believe that in a second term, he would still support reducing the Pentagon budget by additional scores of billions of dollars beyond the debt ceiling law’s caps — even if sequestration does not come to pass.

“I think we all know Obama is going to cut defense further,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the conservative Lexington Institute think tank. “Deficit reduction and rising entitlements will force him to cut defense.”

There would be the same pressure on Romney to cut defense that much, but whether he would do it or not remains to be seen.

Romney has said he would increase defense spending. His campaign literature says he would oppose the reductions triggered by the debt ceiling law’s caps and by sequestration. Moreover, he would like Pentagon spending to stay at least as high as 4 percent of GDP. It’s at about 4.3 percent now, including war spending, so he’s essentially talking about institutionalizing the current levels of spending even after the Afghan war ends.

Romney’s pledge would require spending $2 trillion more than Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget projects over the next decade, according to Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

But many top experts believe almost exactly the opposite will occur in the Pentagon budget. In the last three post-war drawdowns — in the 1950s, 1970s and 1990s — the reductions averaged about 30 percent, they said. And absent another Sept. 11, they say, it is reasonable to expect history to repeat over the next decade.

Harrison, for example, said the coming defense reductions will probably equal the $1 trillion called for in the debt ceiling law, but will be “more gradual and back-loaded.”

The first factor working against defense spending is external to the Pentagon. The political pressure to do something about the national debt is likely to remain strong. Obama would face politically difficult decisions, particularly on entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid. As wars recede, political support for military spending tends to wane.

Romney’s task in trying to keep defense spending high is especially difficult, because he has promised to reduce the deficit without raising taxes on Americans. He would seek to cut entitlements, but that will only go so far. And, significantly, Congress, which neither party is likely to dominate, may not go along with many of Romney’s prescriptions on taxes and spending.

Romney’s plans for the Pentagon include more money for additional submarines, destroyers and fighter jets. But he has not said how he would pay for them or, more broadly, for his no-cut approach to defense.

“Romney’s arithmetic is impenetrable to outsiders,” said Thompson of the Lexington Institute think tank, who believes that, notwithstanding the fiscal pressures, Romney would increase the deficit before he would cut defense.

The other pressure that complicates the challenge of funding the Pentagon is internal to the Defense Department. The growth in costs for military personnel, for general overhead and for major weapons will probably force the Pentagon to cut the number of people in uniform further than the roughly 100,000 reductions now planned, experts say. It will also drive a drawdown in weapon procurements, as was the case in other post-war periods, they add.

“This zero-sum trade-off will produce far more severe and disruptive consequences than is generally recognized by the department, requiring, at the very least, a wholesale recalibration of U.S. defense strategy and force posture,” concluded a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies released last week.

That is a message that neither campaign is delivering.



October 19, 2012

DARPA-Funded Radio HackRF Aims To Be A $300 Wireless Swiss Army Knife For Hackers

Since the days of Alan Turing, the promise of a digital computer has been that of a universal machine, one that can be a word processor one minute and a robot brain the next. So why are radios, a technology even older than computers, still designed stubbornly to do one thing–like 3G, Wifi, FM, or GPS–for their entire lives?

In fact, the era of the single-purpose radio is over, says Michael Ossmann, the founder of an Evergreen, Colorado company called Great Scott Gadgets. And he believes he’s built the one cheap, hacker-friendly radio to rule them all.

At the ToorCon hacker conference in San Diego Saturday, Ossmann and his research partner Jared Boone plan to unveil a beta version of the HackRF Jawbreaker, the latest model of the wireless Swiss-army knife tools known as “software-defined radios.” Like any software-defined radio, the HackRF can shift between different frequencies as easily as a computer switches between applications–It can both read and transmit signals from 100 megaherz to 6 gigaherz, including frequencies as low as the range used by FM radio up to the gigaherz frequencies used by Wifi or experimental wireless protocols for cars communicating in traffic. In between those bookends lies everything from police radio to cellular signals from AT&T and Verizon to garage door openers–all signals that HackRF can instantaneously intercept or reproduce. And at Ossmann’s target price of $300, the versatile, open-source devices would cost less than half as much as currently existing software-defined radios with the same capabilities.

“Pretty much any wireless device that you can think of would be in the frequency range covered by HackRF,” says Ossmann.”Just from observing [a signal] over the air, you can reverse engineer it completely to figure out the information transmitted over the network, and potentially inject your own transmissions onto that network. All of that can be done with one HackRF device and a laptop.”

With HackRF in the hands of hackers or security researchers, in other words, no wireless signal would remain secure just by virtue of using a unique, unfamiliar frequency. Ossmann says that tools like HackRF mean wireless communications will need to evolve beyond the “security through obscurity” model of protecting communications that has long been considered outmoded in the wired computing world.

In a presentation at the Black Hat and Defcon security conference in July, for instance, French security researcher Andre Costin presented vulnerabilities in the next-generation air traffic control system known as ADS-B that he said would allow a hacker with a software-defined radio to track and even spoof planes in the sky, potentially creating dangerous distractions for pilots. The more accessible software-defined radios become, he warned, the more that threat materializes.

But Costin argued that meant ADS-B needs more security–not that software-defined radios themselves are dangerous. “Software-defined radios are a good thing and an important tool for research,” he told me. “A knife is a good thing in the kitchen but can be abused to do bad things. SDRs are the same.”

The Pentagon, at least, seems to think software-defined radios are a promising tool. To fund the beta testing phase of HackRF, the Department of Defense research arm known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) pitched in $200,000 last February as part of its Cyber Fast Track program.

HackRF is far from the only attempt to create an affordable software-defined radio. A device called the USRP has been available for a few years from the company Ettus Research, though it ranges in price from $800 to $2000 depending on its capabilities. Hackers have also created far cheaper models of software defined radio adapted from TV tuners that cost less than $50. But those bootleg versions have a more limited frequency range and can only receive signals, not transmit them. “HackRF fits right in the middle,” says Tom Rondeau, who manages the open-source radio software project GNU Radio. “There hasn’t been a way to transmit and receive at such a low cost, and that’s a big deal.”

Before founding Great Scott Gadgets, Ossmann honed his wireless expertise as a security researcher at the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration Lab in Boulder, Colorado, a job he described as being “the one security guy in a lab full of radio engineers.” But he says HackRF’s low cost is also largely the result of Moore’s Law: cheaper integrated circuits available only in the last few years have made the intensive computing needs software-defined radios far more accessible.

Ossmann isn’t shy about admitting the ways HackRF’s capabilities and cost could disrupt current security models for wireless communications. Better to put cheap software-defined radios in the hands of penetration testers who can demonstrate the insecurity of those communications than to reserve the technology only for better-funded attackers who would exploit the same wireless communications in secret.

But Ossmann also hopes it will be adopted by a wide spectrum of hackers and researchers who will use it for experimentation and creative purposes even he can’t predict. “If someone does something cool with HackRF and I say ‘Wow, I’ve never thought of that,'” he says, “That’s when I’ll know the project is a success.”


DARPA’s ‘Transient Electronics’ Will Disappear Anywhere


Sep 27 2012

Katie Drummond, Contributor

9/27/2012 @ 2:11PM |4,627 views

Called “transient electronics,” these devices can be subtly affixed, or implanted, before disappearing within a set period of time. Photo: John Rogers

Imagine electronic medical devices, implanted to heal wounds and then dissipating inside the human body. Environmental sensors dispersed over an oil spill, collecting data before dissolving into the earth. Or clandestine listening devices, sending recorded conversations back to military operatives and then vanishing before they can be found.

In the near-future, these three scenarios could become reality. All courtesy of a military-backed venture into “transient electronics.” The idea, in essence, is to flip the hallmark elements of electronics technology — durability and long lifespans — in favor of devices that actually disappear within a set period of time.

The technology behind the project, a collaborative effort by researchers at Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Tufts University, is described in a paper published this week in the journal Science.

“Historically, the field of electronics has been spectacularly successful because of devices that were stable over time,” Dr. John Rogers, a professor of engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says. “We wondered whether asking the opposite question of electronics could have interesting results.”

Turns out, it did. With funding from the National Science Foundation and military research agency DARPA, the team used “an eclectic mix” of biocompatible materials — which vary depending on the application — combined with nano-layers of silicon and encapsulated in silk. Every single part of each device, from sensors to power sources, dissolves over a period of time. Depending on how the devices are constructed (namely, how thick each layer is) they can last for hours, days, months or even years.

“The electronics are designed to be stable and fully-functional during their lifetime,” Rogers says. “It’s the lifetime itself that sets them apart from the devices that are being used today.”

Already, the team has developed and tested several device prototypes. In one particularly nifty instance, they used a mouse model to demonstrate that an implanted medical device could accelerate wound healing and kill bacteria, then dissolve once the job was done.

“Either these devices would be digested by the body, or they would dissolve within it,” Dr. Yonggang Huang, a professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern, says of the technology. “We used only metals that already exist in the body, so we’re confident they can dissolve without concerns about toxicity.”

The medical implications of such devices are myriad. Implantable electronics could monitor vital signs, deliver medications or track patient recovery. The devices would also circumvent many existing challenges that hamper implantable electronics, namely concerns over longterm effects inside the body, as well as painful or costly implant removal and replacement.

In an environmental or military context, the devices have the potential to save money and time — not to mention lives. “Imagine an oil spill, dropping 100,000 sensors that give realtime information on an area during clean-up,” Rogers says. “Collecting them would be almost impossible, so what if you just didn’t need to?” The same is true, of course, for sensors dropped into combat regions — particularly urban areas or buildings, where collecting the devices is dangerous and preventing their detection is tricky.

The prospects of transient electronics are so far-ranging, and so far-out, that even the researchers behind them haven’t yet grasped every possibility. “Admittedly, we might not be perceiving all the potential uses,” Rogers says. “We’re still asking new questions.”

For now, the team is refining the devices, and evaluating how they operate and dissipate at various temperatures, in different environmental conditions and at several pH levels. They’re also conducting additional animal studies on medical implants, with an eye on human trials in coming years.

And fickle consumer tech aficionados, take note: Rogers also imagines a day where conventional consumer electronics, like smartphones or laptops, might also be designed with transience in mind. “Disposing of these devices is a major waste problem,” he says. “But the reality is, most people don’t want to keep their phone for more than a few years.”

Facing Medicare pay cut, many doc groups ready to curtail service: survey

By Jessica Zigmond

Posted: October 22, 2012 – 4:45 pm ET

Almost half (45%) of physician group practices responding to an MGMA-ACMPE survey said they would cut back on appointments for new Medicare patients if Congress does not act to avert a steep Medicare physician pay cut.

Meanwhile, 76% of those surveyed said they would reduce staff salaries and/or benefits, and 60% reported they have delayed buying new equipment or facilities in the past decade as lawmakers made short-term fixes to Medicare’s sustainable growth-rate formula. Absent congressional action, physicians who participate in the Medicare program will face a 27% reduction in reimbursement come February.

Bottom of Form

“Our research shows that physician practices are willing to engage in new Medicare payment and delivery models that reward high-quality, cost-effective patient care outside of fee-for-service,” Dr. Susan Turney, president and CEO of MGMA-ACMPE, which represents medical group practices, said in a news release accompanying the survey results. “Now Congress must do its part, repeal the SGR, and provide stability in Medicare payments so physicians can explore and test new patient-centered approaches.”

The survey received responses from more than 1,000 group practices where more than 26,000 physicians practice. Of those who responded, 18% said they were currently participating in a new Medicare payment delivery model or demonstration, such as the Medicare Shared Savings-ACO program, the Pioneer ACO model or bundled payments. Those not participating in a new model cited lack of stability in current Medicare payments as the reason.

MGMA-ACMPE combines the Medical Group Management Association and the American College of Medical Practice Executives, which sets standards for MGMA. The Englewood, Colo.-based organization—which represents 22,500 members who lead about 13,200 organizations—is hosting its annual meeting in San Antonio through Oct. 24.



Sequestration outlook remains cloudy

By Amber Corrin

Oct 22, 2012

The threat of sequestration continues to loom over the federal government, and perhaps the only thing more evident than concerns about deep budget cuts is the sense of paralysis surrounding the possible implementation.

It is still far from certain that the 10 percent, $1.4 trillion across-the-board cuts to federal spending will actually kick in on Jan. 2. And directives from the White House and Office of Management and Budget have reinforced that sense of mere possibility, offering little in the way of concrete guidance for agencies to prepare for the so-called fiscal cliff.

Still, there are mixed signals. Defense Department officials have continued to warn of sequestration’s devastating effects. Those calls have come as recently as Oct. 19, when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reminded a Hampton Roads, Va., audience that such cuts would jeopardize defense operations and that Congress must act to overturn the measure, which is mandated by last year’s Budget Control Act.

“There’s still time to prevent sequestration,” Panetta said, according to a DOD statement. “Let me be clear, no one wants this to happen…but for God’s sake, don’t just kick this can down the road.”

Yet according to a TechAmerica Foundation market forecast released this month, a most likely scenario will be just that: a plan that pushes the most dramatic action into the future, and at less-steep levels.

Under those circumstances – which TechAmerica pegged as a 35 percent chance of happening among five possible outcomes – there would be no sequestration, but instead a bipartisan deal featuring a mix of tax and spending changes that would defer discretionary cuts to out years. All told, it would result in less than $1 trillion in cuts – far short of the $1.4 trillion currently mandated by the Budget Control Act.

“We anticipate a sequestration-like cut, but it’s going to involve Congress and the next President coming together and resolving it in a political fashion,” said Trey Hodgkins, TechAmerica senior vice president of the global public sector. “It’s not changing the outcomes; it’s changing the mechanism to achieve the outcome.”

The likelihood of sequestration actually happening is not the only question mark – also debatable is the fallout if it does happen. Some reports, including one commissioned by the Aerospace Industry Association, predict job losses numbering in the millions and a significant decline to U.S. GDP. Another from the Center for Strategic Budgetary Assessment projects DOD civilian government employees would be hit first with job cuts, before contractors.

However, the Project on Government Oversight has questioned those projections. In an Oct. 17 post, POGO’s Ben Freeman pointed out that numbers are being manipulated across the board, skewing the actualities of sequestration’s potential impact. In particular, he questioned the findings in the AIA report, which featured an analysis by George Mason University professor of economics and consultant Stephen Fuller.

According to Freeman, the information Fuller presented was narrow in scope and crafted to fit a specific agenda on the part of the AIA, and actually in direct contradiction with findings by other economists and researchers.

“Even in a town known for half-truths, the sequestration debate has been riddled with misleading statistics from paid industry advocates who can find ‘statistics to support almost anything,’ as Fuller [previously] said,” Freeman wrote.

Another wildcard in the sequestration debate is the handling of job-cut notifications required under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act. According to that law, contractors with at least 100 employees must provide written notice to workers at least 60 days ahead of a certain plant closing or mass layoffs if they are reasonably foreseeable.

In an OMB memo 7 released Sept. 28, federal officials – including the Labor Department, which is the agency responsible for administering the WARN Act – told chief financial officers and senior procurement executives that issuing WARN Act notices would be “neither necessary nor appropriate.” It also stated that, under certain circumstances, the government would reimburse contractors fined for violating WARN Act requirements.

On the same day, a DOD Director of Defense Procurement and Acquisition Policy Richard Ginman issued a letter echoing that stance, Federal News Radio reported. Shortly thereafter, at least two major defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems, said they would not issue WARN Act notices.

Critics of the move, including Republican senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, question the legality of the White House asking companies not to issue WARN Act notices, which per the 60-day timeline would go out just days before the election.

“We are seriously concerned about the OMB’s memorandum and the DOL’s letter,” the senators wrote in a joint release announcing an inquiry into the matter. “In particular, we are concerned about the authority of the Executive Branch to instruct private employers not to comply with federal law and to promise to pay the monetary judgments and litigation costs that arise out of the lawsuits that may follow.”

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), meanwhile, has asked 10 key defense contractors for details on the administration’s role in their decision not to issue notices.

However, Rick McHugh, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project, told the San Francisco Chronicle that potential sequestration layoffs are not subject to the WARN Act. “The obligation to give notice arises once the employer believes or should have known that a mass layoff or plant closing is going to happen at a particular worksite,” McHugh said. “At this point, no one knows with any certainty that layoffs will be taking place or not at a particular worksite.”

That uncertainty is palpable, and not just within the Beltway – but according to the Professional Services Council’s Stan Soloway, it does not mean that panic is setting in.


“We’ve been hearing people assume that [Congress] will figure something out in the lame duck…but we have yet to see anything on the table that could overcome the hurdles to stop it. There’s nothing to adequately close the gap,” Soloway said, predicting action will be punted into fiscal 2014 – and leaving agencies and companies in the lurch.

“Agencies are in a pickle,” Soloway said. “They know the cuts will be drastic, but they’re under OMB direction not to plan. There’s just only so much they can do.”


Defense News

Anticipating UAV boom, states vie to host test sites

Oct. 22, 2012 – 07:11PM |

By ARAM ROSTON | Comments

Last summer the state of Oklahoma took its economic aspirations overseas: It sent a delegation to the Farnborough air show in the U.K. to pitch Oklahoma as the Silicon Valley of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Oklahoma is one of more then two dozen states hoping to cash in on a hoped-for UAV boom. As drones get integrated into U.S. airspace, the theory goes (for surveillance, cargo hauling, crop dusting and traffic control), along will come federal and industry cash streams. One study predicts spending on UAVs could reach $90 billion over the next 10 years.

Certainly K Street has seen an economic benefit from the UAV industry, which launched an effective lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill. Four hundred thousand dollars went to just one lobbying firm over the last two years, according to federal databases. Not without results: Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to push forward on two fronts. First, the agency has to create six “test sites” for UAVs. The sites would let researchers experiment with technologies to help drones “sense and avoid” airliners and other aircraft. Without pilots onboard, that’s the key obstacle to safety.

The second congressional mandate is that the FAA is supposed to “fully integrate” unmanned drones into the U.S. airspace by September 2015. The agency estimates that within 20 years up to 30,000 unmanned planes or helicopters will be zipping through the U.S. air corridors.

Almost 30 states are scrambling now to prepare for the coming UAV boom. Many want to be selected for the test sites and a chance at the federal money that will come along.

Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma’s secretary of science and technology, said the state organized an elaborate package of airspace to use for a test site, but is waiting for the FAA to make its move.

“We are sort of stuck in limbo,” he said, “because we don’t know what the FAA will be asking for and therefore we don’t know what assets to line up.”

States have adopted the “build it and they will come” model of federal procurement.

Take Ohio. In August the state announced it was establishing the Ohio Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center and Test Complex. James Leftwich, the state’s special adviser for UAS initiatives, said the state is partnering with Indiana for the effort, and he pointed out that Ohio is already home to research centers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and elsewhere.

Alaska, Utah, Maryland, Virginia, Texas, North Dakota, Arizona and Florida are some of the states trying to get a piece of the drone business.

“Just mentioning the word UAS brings at least 28 states to attention,” said Charles Huettner executive director of the Aerospace States Association. His group recently sent a letter to the FAA pushing for a decision. “Everyone wants some piece of the action,” he said.


Detroit Free Press

U.S. could soon be world’s top oil producer

October 24, 2012 |

By Jonathan Fahey

Associated Press

NEW YORK — U.S. oil output is surging so fast that the U.S. could soon overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest producer.

Driven by high prices and new drilling methods, U.S. production of crude and other liquid hydrocarbons is on track to rise 7% this year to an average of 10.9 million barrels per day. This will be the fourth straight year of crude increases and the biggest single-year gain since 1951.

The boom has surprised even the experts.

“Five years ago, if I or anyone had predicted today’s production growth, people would have thought we were crazy,” says Jim Burkhard, head of oil markets research at IHS CERA, an energy consulting firm.

The Energy Department forecasts that U.S. production of crude and other liquid hydrocarbons, which includes biofuels, will average 11.4 million barrels per day next year. That would be a record for the U.S. and just below Saudi Arabia’s output of 11.6 million barrels. Citibank forecasts U.S. production could reach 13 million to 15 million barrels per day by 2020, helping to make North America “the new Middle East.”

The last year the U.S. was the world’s largest producer was 2002, after the Saudis drastically cut production because of low oil prices in the aftermath of 9/11. Since then, the Saudis and the Russians have been the world leaders.

The U.S. still will need to import lots of oil in the years ahead. Americans use 18.7 million barrels per day.

But thanks to the growth in domestic production and the improving fuel efficiency of the nation’s cars and trucks, imports could fall by half by the end of the decade.

The increase in production hasn’t translated to cheaper gasoline at the pump, and prices are expected to stay relatively high for the next few years because of growing demand for oil in developing nations and political instability in the Middle East and North Africa.

Still, producing more oil domestically, and importing less, gives the economy a significant boost.

The companies profiting range from independent drillers to large international oil companies, such as Royal Dutch Shell, which increasingly see the U.S. as one of the most promising places to drill.

ExxonMobil agreed last month to spend $1.6 billion to increase its U.S. oil holdings.

Increased drilling is driving economic growth in states such as North Dakota, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Montana and Texas, all of which have unemployment rates far below the national average of 7.8%. North Dakota is at 3%; Oklahoma, 5.2%.


Congress Could Punt On the Fiscal Cliff

By Dan Friedman and Billy House

Updated: October 25, 2012 | 2:56 p.m.

Lawmakers are downplaying hopes that they will avert the so-called fiscal cliff of expiring tax cuts and automatic budget cuts set to hit in January with a major deficit-reduction and tax deal, but they suggest a partial fix is likely.

Leading lawmakers have no intention of letting the sequester happen or all of the tax cuts expire. Nor will Congress vote to punt those events entirely, even for a few months, congressional aides said. Instead, congressional leaders are discussing a plan to make a down payment of targeted cuts worth about half of the $110 billion in sequestration cuts set to hit in January, while establishing a framework for additional cuts.

Ideas of Congress taking bold legislative steps during the postelection lame-duck session have given way to talk of temporary fixes and handing over these longer-term policy implications to the next Congress.

“It will be very difficult to put together a comprehensive plan in just six weeks,” House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen , D-Md. said in an interview. “Everyone’s going to have to scramble” to find resolution, Van Hollen said. A framework including a down payment has been floated repeatedly over the last few months, but shifted recently from a suggestion by the so-called Gang of Eight to a proposal entertained by Democratic leadership, albeit one that remains a backup option. The framework would task committees of jurisdiction with finding additional cuts that would be imposed later next year.


That idea is a part of conversations between the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid D-Nev., and the White House Office of Management and Budget, Democratic aides said. But staffers said talks are covering a range of options and do not focus on one plan. Staffers have also reached out to the Congressional Budget Office, sources said.

Democrats warn that two big obstacles loom. The parties will not agree on a ratio between domestic and defense cuts before the election, nor on including tax revenue in a deal in terms of a sequester replacement or to offset extending the Bush tax cuts.

Democrats in both chambers said the framework depends on Republicans agreeing to let taxes rise for top earners. But “tax hikes are a nonstarter, as the speaker has made clear,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner , R-Ohio. Aides in both parties said all talks before the election will be at best vague—and pointless at worst. Democratic aides acknowledge their plans rely on President Obama winning. Obama said during Monday’s debate with GOP nominee Mitt Romney that the sequester “is something that Congress proposed. It will not happen.” White House aides played down the statement, saying Obama meant that no one wants sequestration to occur. In an interview with the Des Moines Register published on Wednesday, Obama described the budget sequester as a “forcing mechanism” to help push a sharply divided Congress to try to work out a deal on long-term deficit reduction. He added that he believed that a grand bargain with Republicans on the budget would be achievable within the first six months of his second term if he is re-elected.

Democratic aides said on Tuesday that the statement will not reduce Obama’s leverage much if he wins reelection, since the automatic cuts will take effect if no bill superseding them passes.

But Obama’s statement, coupled with the warnings from Van Hollen and, previously, Boehner that it may be too difficult to enact any large deal regarding comprehensive tax and entitlement reform during the session between the election and Christmas, provide brackets within which negotiating will occur. A deal will avert sequestration without providing a permanent deficit-reduction solution.

The chances that the election will produce any clear beacon from voters settling differences on such pressing questions as renewing tax cuts—and for whom—appear to be fading. Instead, the growing worry of yet more delays and dead ends is already prompting warnings from business leaders and experts that more economic damage could be done through inaction, with still more challenges around the corner. For instance, as early as a few days into the new Congress, the nation will again reach its debt limit.

“At a time when economic growth is less than 2 percent, and with nearly 25 million Americans either out of work or underemployed, the still-fragile U.S. economy cannot sustain—and the American people do not deserve—the impact of more gridlock in Washington,” warned a letter last week to Obama and members of Congress from the Financial Services Forum, which comprises the CEOs of 20 of the largest and most-diversified financial firms.

Beyond sequestration and the Bush-era tax cuts, a number of tax items are coming up for renewal or expiration. One of these is the 2 percentage-point cut to the payroll tax first enacted in 2010 and extended through 2012 as a form of economic relief for the middle class. The tax is set to revert back to 6.2 percent on Jan. 1. While many Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California , are calling for letting the cut expire, Van Hollen said he believes a permanent extension “should be part of the conversation.”



Corrected Oct. 22, 2012 – 10:59 a.m.

Fear of Prying

By Tim Starks, CQ Staff

Stephen McKeever, a transplanted Brit living in Oklahoma, dreams of turning his state into the capital for drones — the unmanned aircraft that, the Federal Aviation Administration predicts, will swarm the skies by the thousands within two decades.

Overseas, drones have bombed terrorist targets to smithereens. In the United States, drones have flown into hurricanes to monitor storm developments, hovered along borders to monitor drug smugglers and spied on suspected cattle thieves. This year, Congress ordered the FAA — via a provision quietly tucked into a long-delayed authorization law — to speed up and expand its integration of drones into domestic airspace for use by both government entities and businesses. The number of uses could grow exponentially; in some fanciful scenarios, they’re even envisioned delivering pizzas.

“We’re at the beginning of really a brand-new industry,” says McKeever, a professor at Oklahoma State University and the science and technology secretary for Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican. With the university’s drone-engineering program, a Department of Homeland Security test site and a variety of industries that could benefit from using domestic drones, Oklahoma is poised to become an economic hub for the unmanned aircraft, McKeever believes. “The estimates for how this is going to grow globally, nationally — the figures are very attractive,” he says.

But just as McKeever sees a wealth of opportunity in the expansion of drones into U.S. airspace, others see potential problems. The FAA reauthorization bill passed Congress overwhelmingly, but some lawmakers now question whether current regulations will safeguard citizens’ privacy when thousands of drones are airborne. Also, members of Congress and airline pilots, among others, have raised questions about whether drones can be flown safely in crowded airspace and whether the Department of Homeland Security should have a stronger role in ensuring that the aircraft don’t become terrorist weapons.

Those worries crystallized only after the FAA bill was enacted, in February. When the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved the legislation, they didn’t even mention the drone language. Rep. Jeff Landry, a Louisiana Republican, voted for the bill but says people were soon stopping him at Wal-Mart, or pinging him on Facebook, to voice concerns about the possibility of a fleet of robotic aircraft watching their every move. That led him to sponsor and win approval for an amendment to the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill that would forbid any Department of Defense drone data from being used in a court of law without a warrant.

“At the end of the day, the American people have a distrust of their government,” Landry says. “Congress’ approval rating is at an all-time low, mainly because they don’t trust the government. The reason they don’t is because they intrude on our business lives and our personal lives. Do we want to live out the Orwellian Big Brother future?”


Unexpected Consensus

At a time when bipartisanship is in short supply on Capitol Hill, fears about drones have drawn Democrats and Republicans into unusual alliances. Democratic Rep. Rush D. Holt of New Jersey, who attached to the fiscal 2013 Homeland Security appropriations bill an amendment that would prohibit the Department of Homeland Security from arming its drones, says that at one summer meeting he was surprised to find himself in agreement with conservative Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz.

Industry officials and others who would benefit from the expanded use of the technology, such as law enforcement agencies, have seen the concerns proliferate and are responding. Perhaps more privacy safeguards are needed, they acknowledge, but none that would have unintended consequences. One police association has issued drone-use guidelines that address both privacy and security.

Some of the fretting has arisen simply because the technology is in its infancy; it’s so new that there is no agreed-upon terminology for the devices. The public knows them as drones, but their proponents alternately call them unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned aerial systems (UASs), remotely piloted aircraft or remotely piloted vehicles. And Tim Adelman, an aviation attorney at Adelman, Sheff and Smith, notes that aircraft-specific and privacy-specific bodies of law exist whereas a drone-specific doesn’t.

But new technology can introduce new problems, and as the FAA faces a series of deadlines to speed the aircraft into the sky, some critics contend that the policies haven’t yet caught up to the technology. The FAA is supposed to issue by Nov. 10 guidelines for government drones as well as a comprehensive plan to integrate non-government drones into the national airspace by Sept. 30, 2015.

“The technology has gotten out ahead of us,” says Holt. “This applies domestically and internationally. A lot of people are discovering this is a pretty nifty technology, and they’re using it without fully considering the implications.”

The current Congress, which has little time in which to address a long agenda, is unlikely to delve into drones again. But as constituents continue to react to every news headline that contemplates some potentially objectionable use of drones, and as industry looks to head off opposition, lawmakers might find the next session an opportune time for revisiting what they have wrought, before that final FAA rule-making deadline comes and goes.


Growth Industry

There is little doubt that drones would be beneficial in the United States. The list of safety, industrial and commercial applications is virtually endless, and that in turn means job-creation opportunities for a struggling economy.

Drones range in size from the Air Force’s 16,000-pound Avenger, manufactured by General Atomics, to the Nano Hummingbird, a device being developed by AeroVironment Inc., which weighs less than an ounce. Both companies are in the Los Angeles area.

Most of the drones flying domestically would be on the smaller side. Those regulated by the FAA include the very small variety, up to 4.4 pounds in weight, and those up to 55 pounds. They could be used in myriad ways and could perform hazardous tasks.

“Anything you can think of that would be putting a pilot in harm’s way, a UAS can do,” says Gretchen West, executive vice president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).

McKeever sees drones as “a brand-new commercial industry,” one that’s “going to open a lot of economic-development doors.” Besides Oklahoma State’s drone-engineering program and Homeland Security test site, he says, the state has a number of industries that could prosper from using domestic drones: Oil and gas are a big part of Oklahoma’s economy, and drones could be deployed for pipeline inspection; agriculture is also significant there, and drones could be used to spray crops.

Teal Group Corp., an aerospace and defense consulting firm, predicts that drones will “continue as the most dynamic growth sector of the world aerospace industry this decade,” becoming an $89 billion industry worldwide within 10 years. The United States will account for 55 percent of all purchases and 62 percent of research-and-development funding.

In its 2012 aerospace forecast, the FAA estimated a fleet of 10,000 domestic drones within five years. The 2011 forecast went so far as to predict that the fleet of domestic drones could reach 30,000 by 2030. Customs and Border Protection already operates 10 drones for border patrol, and the FAA has issued more than 1,300 certificates of authorization to operate drones, 358 of which are currently active, the agency says. Some of the certificate holders were disclosed as the result of a records request from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based digital-rights group. The list includes local law enforcement entities, universities and federal agencies.

But some in Congress grew impatient with the pace at which the FAA was issuing licenses, and the drone provision — the result of work by subcommittees of the House and Senate panels that wrote the authorization measure — was added. Drone lobbyists have been cited in media accounts as the source of the language but, West says, her organization did not write it. The group has, however, boasted of getting its alterations to the language adopted.

Drone-related lobbying has been taking off. AUVSI more than doubled its lobbying budget in 2011, to $280,000. That year, lobbying budgets for manufacturers authorized to fly drones domestically and those seeking permission to do so, as compiled by First Street Research, totaled more than $25 million; manufacturers included powerful defense contractors such as Raytheon Co. and General Atomics, which might find Defense Department drone spending on the decline as the Afghanistan War winds down.


But even as the industry is poised for expansion and the FAA is under orders to expedite that expansion, some Americans have misgivings.

According to a June poll by Monmouth University in New Jersey, a majority of Americans supports the expansion of drones into U.S. skies for a variety of purposes, such as border protection, search-and-rescue and tracking criminals. But a majority opposes the use of drones to issue speeding tickets, and 64 percent are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about the effect on privacy of law enforcement using drones equipped with high-tech cameras.


‘Potential for Abuse’

Those concerns about privacy have reached Congress, and such ideologically distant lawmakers as Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democratic Rep. Edward J. Markey Massachusetts have filed legislation to institute privacy rules for domestic drones. Some had supported the FAA measure.

“I did not have concerns until after the bill was passed and after constituents brought the potential for abuse to my attention,” says Rep. Austin Scott, a Georgia Republican who voted for the FAA bill and now is sponsoring a domestic-drone privacy bill. “Quite honestly I did what a congressman should do, which is investigate those concerns and move forward to try to see that it was a legitimate concern.”

The FAA bill included no reference to privacy safeguards. The FAA says that its “chief mission is to ensure the safety and efficiency of the entire aviation system, and the agency is working to ensure the safe integration of unmanned aircraft,” but adds that privacy concerns need to be addressed during integration.

In a September letter to Markey, the agency noted that some pre-existing measures might protect privacy, such as the FAA making available information about individual registration data for drones and citizens filing Freedom of Information Act requests.

Several headlines have contributed to the worries about privacy. Last year, a North Dakota sheriff chasing cattle thieves sought help from a Customs and Border Protection Predator drone so he could find out whether the rustlers were armed; when the drone’s sensors detected that they were not, he arrested them.

In a more recent example, Virginia’s Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell in May endorsed the use of police drones over his state.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “We need to address civil liberties like privacy, but I believe if you’re keeping police officers safe and you’re making them more productive and you’re ultimately saving money,” then it’s “absolutely the right thing to do.”
In determining whether surveillance without a warrant is lawful, one of the legal standards used is a person’s “reasonable expectation of privacy.” As technology evolves, though, it alters the definition of “reasonable expectation.” The courts have already been permissive with regard to which types of aerial surveillance are legal, say privacy advocates, and drones — closer to the ground and able to continuously monitor a target with powerful cameras — could be a very powerful tool for aerial surveillance.


In Kyllo v. United States, the Supreme Court in 2001 decided that the warrantless deployment of a thermal imager to detect activity within a house was unconstitutional, citing the government’s use of a “device that is not in general public use.” But if the cost of domestic drones drops and their use increases, as is the case with most technologies, then the reasonable-expectation standard will be weakened, say privacy advocates.

Courts, too, are unsure of how to proceed with some of these new technologies; at least one Supreme Court justice thinks Congress should have a bigger role in regulating them. In a concurring opinion on United States v. Jones, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote this year that Congress should consider legislation for new technologies, such as GPS, that enable police to conduct surveillance without installing equipment.

Much of Congress’ response to the drone-related concerns about privacy has addressed the circumstances in which a warrant is required. That is the focus of Landry’s amendment to the defense authorization bill; Scott’s bill would require the federal government to obtain a warrant for gathering evidence or other information pertaining to the violation of regulations, with exceptions for border patrol, in emergencies and if the risk of a terrorist attack were high; and Paul has introduced a Senate version of that bill.

Privacy advocates support those and other measures. Amie Stepanovich, litigation counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management in July that Congress should enact language that bars nonspecific, untargeted surveillance; requires independent audits of drone use; and specifies the circumstances in which Customs and Border Protection drones may be deployed for non-border-protection purposes.

Also, Markey has written draft legislation that would require the Transportation Department to study domestic drones’ probable impact on privacy and to incorporate privacy protections in its rulemaking and its license-application process.

Scott says that, were his legislation to come up for debate in committee, lawmakers would surely propose amendments governing the use of drones in the private sector. In some scenarios, drones could be used by the paparazzi or by others to invade privacy.

Fear of Overregulation

The strongest proponents of domestic-drone expansion in Congress, in law enforcement and in industry acknowledge the concerns about privacy. They are, however, trying to guard against overly intrusive rules.

“We probably need to look at some legislation,” Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar, co-chairman of the House’s unmanned systems caucus, said at the July Homeland Security subcommittee hearing. “As you know, a lot of the privacy issues have already been decided by the Supreme Court. All we’re looking at is use in a different type of platform, so whether it’s a helicopter, an airplane or, in this case, a UAV, a lot of those privacy issues have been addressed by the Supreme Court.”


Adelman, the aviation attorney, says that some of the fears are overblown and that some of the proposed legislation is an overreaction. Requirements for warrants, he says, could become very restrictive.

“If there is a car accident and it results in criminal charges, and a UAS takes pictures, do you have to get a warrant for that?” Adelman asks.

Both AUVSI and the International Association of Chiefs of Police have introduced domestic-drone-usage guidelines that touch on privacy. The police association’s guidelines reflect some concerns of privacy advocates; for example, they recommend that warrants be obtained for collecting evidence. And Don Roby, the police chief of Baltimore County and the chairman of the association’s aviation committee, emphasizes that few law enforcement agencies can afford to buy even modest drones, which are priced between $50,000 and $100,000.

“People need to understand,” Roby says, that “local law enforcement is not going to be out there operating Predator drones.”

The American Civil Liberties Union praises the police standards but contends that legislation is needed because guidelines are not requirements.

Scott says he is working with drone manufacturers to mitigate their concerns about his bill.

“We met with the industry. It was a very positive meeting,” he says. “They understand that it’s better for us to be proactive than reactive. They just put out a best-practices with their industry, which is an indication that they do recognize the potential for abuse is there. I’m hopeful we can have their support as we go forward. They understand the risk of what a couple of bad actors could do to their industry.”


Eyeing Security

Most of the concerns about domestic drones have been privacy-related, but some critics are more worried about safety and security. Although Congress has given the FAA the job of integrating domestic drones into a crowded airspace, it has not addressed every detail; its next steps might depend on how the FAA handles the task before it.

“That’s the very question that not just the FAA but the whole of the community is asking: How can we do this in a very safe way so we’re not going to be colliding or landing on top of somebody’s head?” McKeever says.

Crashes are inevitable, as is the case with any aircraft. Last year a CIA drone crashed in Iran, and downed drones are not uncommon in Afghanistan. In June, a RQ-4A Global Hawk crashed during what officials said was a routine training flight from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, landing in a marsh in Salisbury, Md.

Right now, for safety reasons, most drones may be operated domestically only if they remain below 400 feet and in their pilots’ lines of sight, under a standard known as “see and avoid.” Congress wrote into the FAA bill requirements that any civilian drone include “sense and avoid” capability. Under the provision, the FAA could allow pilotless aircraft to be outfitted with technology, such as a GPS-like anti-collision system, that would enable it to meet the standard. Such technology hasn’t been perfected, though.

“We just don’t know what those rules are going to look like yet,” says West.

And if the number of domestic drones increases, safety issues will arise even if regulations are on the books. For example, a fixed altitude for drone flight won’t necessarily avoid collisions, says Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, because helicopters fly lower than planes. And even with limits on the size of drones, a collision could be catastrophic.

“If one of those were to hit a jet — jets are not capable of sustaining impacts of those type of aircraft in the air,” Moak says. He is confident, he says, that the FAA will address these potential problems, because it has a great track record for safety. Also, he thinks, the emphasis should be on the ground-based pilots of drones.

“I believe the pilot who is operating this needs to go through the same certification process that other pilots do,” he says. “He needs to have all the same requirements to fly in the national airspace.” Oversight of pilots is also needed, he says, to ensure their compliance.

In addition, some lawmakers are concerned about drones being used as terrorist weapons. Last year, a Massachusetts man pleaded guilty to a plot to attach a bomb to a remote-controlled model aircraft, prompting questions about whether drones could be used in a similar manner.

Hijacking is another threat. Todd Humphreys, an assistant professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, this year demonstrated how the GPS systems that operate drones can be jammed, and he used the tactic to bring down an unmanned civilian helicopter.

AUVSI responds to those concerns by noting that it took a college professor several years to develop the capability to hijack a drone, meaning that the risk of someone else doing so is low, and by noting that anti-hijacking technology is under development. But lawmakers are still worried by the possibility presented by the University of Texas experiment.

“These findings are alarming and have revealed a gaping hole in the security of using unmanned aerial systems domestically,” East Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul said at the July hearing of the Homeland Security subcommittee he chairs.

Under an amendment that was added to the FAA bill, the Department of Homeland Security would be consulted on a comprehensive plan for integrating civilian drones into U.S. airspace.

“The FAA is operating with their own mission in mind,” says Michigan Republican Candice S. Miller, who chairs the Border and Maritime Subcommittee of the House Homeland Security panel and who sponsored the amendment. “The Department of Homeland Security needs to have a seat at the table.”

More specifically, McCaul says, the department should take the responsibility “to address the proliferation of unmanned aerial systems in U.S. airspace, the potential threats they pose to our national security and the concerns our citizens have of how drones flying over our cities will be used, including protecting civil liberties of individuals under the Constitution.”


Like all new rules, strict safety rules could have an impact elsewhere. West says that the FAA’s prediction of huge numbers of drones overhead within 20 years could be undone by the agency itself. “If the rules are still very restrictive for flight, it could potentially limit that number,” she says.

And Moak says that involving agencies other than the FAA when regulating drones could cause confusion and reduce safety.

Congress may be able to address its second thoughts about domestic drones even after 2015. The FAA has already fallen behind on some deadlines and “could miss others,” according to the Government Accountability Office. Hurdles include concerns about privacy, safety and security as well as questions about whether these devices will be accompanied by the technology — such as “sense and avoid” — needed to address those concerns and to meet Congress’ deadlines.

“While FAA has taken steps to meet them, it is uncertain when the national airspace system will be prepared to accommodate UAS, given that these efforts are occurring simultaneously and without monitoring to assess the quality of progress over time toward the deadlines Congress established,” a September report concluded.

Also, Congress isn’t ready yet to delve into the subject in depth, Scott says, at least not this year. But it is poised to do so.

“I want to get the committee process started,” he says. “There may be a tremendous number of new members in Congress soon, so maybe this is an issue the 113th takes up. Americans need to pay attention to the issue. The technology is here. The technology is going to expand.”

Maybe Congress wasn’t prepared for the backlash against domestic drones the first time around. But those on all sides of the debate plan to make sure that everyone’s eyes are wide open for the next round of domestic-drone legislation.

In a news release last month announcing the formation of a Senate caucus on unmanned aerial systems, Oklahoma Republican James M. Inhofe and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III, who will co-chair the group, repeatedly emphasized the positive uses of drones as well as the concerns about privacy, and they said they planned to educate their fellow senators on both.


“The increased use of unmanned aerial systems carries great potential,” said Manchin, “and great risk.”

FOR FURTHER READING: Military demand for drones, CQ Weekly, p. 1968; House fiscal 2013 Homeland Security spending bill (HR 5855), p. 1201; House fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill (HR 4310), p. 1040; FAA reauthorization law (PL 112-95), p. 301. The Paul bill is S 3287; the Scott bill is HR 5925.

First posted Oct. 20, 2012 1:05 p.m.


Windows 8 cheat sheet

How to find your way around Microsoft’s new OS and make the most of its features

Preston Gralla

October 26, 2012

Ready or not, Windows 8 is here. One of the most controversial versions of the operating system ever released, its main interface feels designed more for touch-screen tablets than traditional computers. What’s more, the Desktop has been hidden away and weakened with the removal of the Start button.

But I’m not here to talk about the controversy. I’m here to help you use Windows 8, because whichever version of Windows you’re upgrading from, you’ll find it a new experience. The horizontally oriented Start screen (once called the Metro interface) sports big tiles that practically beg you to touch them. And the Start screen and the Desktop feel as if they’re dueling operating systems, because each works differently from the other in many ways.

All this might sound overwhelming, but as you’ll see, it’s not that tough to master Windows 8. In this cheat sheet I’ll show you how to get the most out of the new Start screen and its apps, the Desktop, the new Charms bar, Internet Explorer 10 and plenty more. I’ve also provided quick reference charts listing useful touch-screen gestures and keyboard shortcuts.

Note: If you want to get the most out of Windows 8, you’ll have to use a Microsoft ID as your user account. Without a Microsoft ID, you won’t be able to use a number of new Windows 8 apps, including Mail and People, and you won’t be able to sync settings among multiple devices. So when you set up Windows 8 for the first time, sign in with an existing Microsoft ID or create a new one. (You can also switch to a Microsoft ID account later on via the “PC settings” screen.)

There’s a new lock screen in town

When you start Windows 8 (whether booting up initially or waking from sleep), you’ll see the first big difference from previous versions of Windows — a whole new look for the lock screen. Like the lock screens on Windows Phone devices, it sports a big graphic image and displays a variety of information, such as the date and time, the local weather, the number of new emails you have, the strength of your network connection and how much power you’ve got left on your device.

Windows 8’s new lock screen mimics the lock screens on mobile devices. Click to view larger image.

This information isn’t interactive; you can’t click or tap to see your email, for example. (Later in the story I’ll cover how to change the information that appears on your lock screen.)

To log into Windows, tap a key or click the mouse — or, on a touch system, swipe from the bottom up — and you’ll come to a sign-in screen. Select an account if you’ve got multiple accounts, then type in your password and press Enter to sign into Windows 8.

Meet the Start screen

Once you’ve logged into Windows from the lock screen, you head directly to the new Start screen rather than the familiar Desktop interface. Like it or not, this is the new face of Windows.

Initially Microsoft called this design the “Metro” interface, but now it’s just calling the new UI “Windows 8 design.” Laptop and desktop PC users might dislike the Start screen’s big tiles and horizontal orientation, but I’ve got some advice for you: Get used to it — it’s your new home. Here’s what you need to know about it.

Tiles. The Start screen is made up of a grid of colorful tiles. Each tile represents an app; click (or tap) the tile to run the app.

Your new home: the Windows 8 Start screen. Click to view larger image.

To begin with, you’ll find tiles for several simple new apps — People, Mail, Calendar, Messaging and others — that are built into Windows 8 and have the same look and feel as the Start screen. Formerly called Metro apps, they’re now variously referred to as Windows 8 apps, Windows Store apps, Modern apps or Start apps by industry watchers. In this cheat sheet, I’ll call them Windows 8 apps to distinguish them from Desktop apps (more about those in a moment).

Notifications. Some Windows 8 apps grab information from the Internet and show live updates known as notifications on their tiles. For example, the Calendar app displays upcoming events and friends’ birthdays on its tile, the People app tile displays social media updates from friends, and the Mail app tile displays the sender and subject line of your most recently received emails. (Some notifications can also appear on the lock screen, depending on how you’ve configured Windows 8.)

A word about Windows RT

Buying a new Windows-based tablet this fall? Some tablets, such as Microsoft’s own Surface RT, don’t come with Windows 8 but are instead based on Windows RT, a lightweight version of Windows 8 that’s designed for devices with energy-efficient ARM processors. Windows RT shares the new Windows 8 interface and many of its features and apps, and it ships with its own version of the Office 2013 productivity suite. It doesn’t, however, run most traditional Desktop-based applications.

This cheat sheet is for users running the full version of Windows 8, but Windows RT users can use this guide to learn about the Start screen, the Charms bar, Windows 8 apps and navigational gestures.

(Deciding between a Windows 8 tablet and a Windows RT tablet? See Seven things to consider for a Windows tablet.)

By default, those apps that show notifications have larger Start screen tiles than those that don’t.

You’ll also find tiles for Desktop-based apps on the Start screen, and the Windows Desktop itself is now accessed via a Desktop tile. Desktop apps are traditional programs like Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop; as a general rule, any application that you’ve run on previous versions of Windows is a Desktop-based app.

Desktop-based app tiles don’t show notifications, and they have smaller graphics on them. Also, tiles for Desktop apps often appear on the right side of the screen, and they (and other tiles as well) may be off of its edge, so you’ll have to scroll (or swipe, if you’ve got a touch-screen device) to see them.

Charms bar. If you move your mouse pointer to the upper-right or lower-right corner of the screen, the Charms bar appears as an overlay on the screen — sometimes directly on top of tiles or other content. This bar gives you quick access to features such as search and system settings from anywhere in Windows 8. I’ll provide a detailed look at the Charms bar later in the story.

Scroll bar. The Start screen has a horizontal orientation, so when you want to see more tiles on the screen, you’ll have to scroll or swipe to see them. The scrollbar is not normally visible, but it makes its appearance when you move your mouse. You use it as you would any normal scroll bar, except you’ll scroll to the right and left rather than up and down.

User account. This shows the name of the current account logged into Windows 8, along with the picture associated with the account. Click it to change the picture, lock your device, sign out or switch to another account.

Check out “Customize the Start screen” later in this article for details about how to change tile sizes, rearrange tiles on the screen and more.

Your old friend the Desktop

The Desktop is no longer front and center in Windows 8, having been delegated to second-class status by the Start screen. As befits a second fiddle, you don’t boot directly into it when you log into Windows. Instead, you run it like any other app by clicking the Desktop tile on the Start screen.

When you get there, you’ll find a familiar-looking Desktop minus what had been one of its key features in previous versions of Windows — the Start button and its menu. And that means that you’re going to have to get used to a new way of using the Desktop and put up with some kludgy ways of accessing apps and features that previously were directly in reach. (But don’t fret — as I’ll show you later in the story, there are non-Microsoft-approved ways to reinstate the Start button and even to boot directly into the Desktop.)

The Windows 8 Desktop, notable for what’s missing: the Start button. Click to view larger image.

Other than that, the Desktop is essentially the same as it was in Windows 7. It shows icons for Desktop apps that you’ve installed; run them by clicking them. (See “Meet the Start screen” for the differences between Desktop apps and Windows 8 apps.) There’s a taskbar where you can pin apps and that shows currently running apps as well as a notification area all the way to the right that displays icons showing your network status, the time and date, and more.

Additionally, the Desktop supports all of Windows 8’s systemwide navigation features, including the Charms bar and keyboard shortcuts. We’ll cover those later in the story.

There is, however, a significant visual change from Windows 7 and Vista. The Desktop no longer uses the Aero interface, along with its transparency, animations and other visual effects and graphics-intensive traits. Instead, windows are now flatter and with simpler colors.

You can’t run the new Windows 8 apps from the Desktop. You’ll have to either go back to the Start screen (press the Windows key) and click their tiles, or else use the Search charm: Run the Search charm, type the app’s name, and then click the icon when it appears. (Complete instructions below.)

Typically, when you install Desktop applications, they show up both as icons on the Desktop and as tiles on the Start screen, so you can launch them from both locations. Some system utilities and other Desktop apps don’t appear as icons on the Desktop by default; you can use the Search charm to search for and launch them.

This handy menu provides takes you to a plethora of power user tools. Click to view larger image.

The lack of a Start button makes the Desktop annoying to use, but it does offer one useful trick: Right-click in the lower-left portion of the screen (or press the Windows key + X), and a menu pops up that gives you access to the Control Panel, File Explorer (called Windows Explorer in previous versions of Windows), the Task Manager, the command prompt and a variety of other administrative and power user tools. (You can also bring up this power tools menu from the Start screen using the same methods.)

Introducing the Charms bar

The new Charms bar offers quick access to several powerful tools for navigating and working with Windows 8. When you move the mouse to the upper-right or lower-right corner of the screen to make the Charms bar appear, its icons aren’t labeled, so at first it’s not clear what they do. As you move your mouse toward them, though, the full Charms bar appears with labeled, easy-to-see icons on a black vertical bar.

At the same time, a black rectangle appears toward the lower-left portion of the screen, displaying the time and date and, if you’re using a portable device, the state of your Internet connection and power supply.

The full Charms bar appears on a black background as you move your mouse toward it.
Click to view larger image.

You can also display the full Charms bar by pressing the Windows key + C on your keyboard — or, if you have a touch-screen device, by swiping from the right edge of the screen toward the center.

You can get to the Charms bar no matter where you are in Windows 8 — on the Start screen, on the Desktop, in a Windows 8 app, and even in a Desktop app. This feature is one of the ways in which Microsoft has attempted to bolt together the Start screen and the Desktop.

There are five charms on the Charms bar. Several of them are context-sensitive and offer slightly different options depending on what you’re doing at the time you invoke the bar. Here’s a brief description of what each charm does.

Search. Click this and you can search for apps, files and settings; you can also search inside any app. Underneath the search box is a list that includes Apps, Settings, Files and each of your individual Windows 8 apps. When you type in a search term, click anything in the list to search it. So to search for an app, you’d click Apps, and to search inside an individual app, click the name of that app — for example, to search your email, click Mail.

Windows 8’s Search charm with Apps selected. Click to view larger image.

Windows 8 supports three keyboard shortcuts that take you directly to the Search charm without going through the Charms bar first: Pressing the Windows key + F takes you to Search with Files already highlighted, the Windows key + Q takes you to Search with Apps selected, and the Windows key + W takes you to Search with Settings selected.

Because the Desktop no longer includes a Start button, you’ll frequently use the Search charm to run apps from the Desktop. It’s kludgy — press the Windows key + Q to launch the Search charm, type the first few letters of the app’s name and click the icon of the app you want to run.

Note that when you’re on the Start screen you don’t need to launch this charm in order to do a search. Instead, just start typing what you want to search for, and the Search charm appears with your text in the search box. You can’t do this from the Desktop, though.

To close the panel for the Search charm or any other charm, just press the Esc key.

Share. Some of the new Windows 8 apps include a built-in Share feature that lets you share information from the app via email, social media, SkyDrive or messaging.

Windows 8’s Share charm, accessed from the Photo app.
Click to view larger image.

It’s context-sensitive, so you can share what you’re currently viewing as long as the app has been written to take advantage of the Share feature. For example, the Photo app can share via Mail and SkyDrive, and the Music app lets you share via Mail and the People app.

At this point, not many apps support the Share feature, and of those that do share, not all can share in all ways — it’s up to the app developer to decide. Desktop apps can’t use the Share feature at all. Pressing the Windows key + H activates this individual charm.

Start. Clicking this charm sends you back to the Start screen. If you’re already on the Start screen, you’ll return to wherever you were before you headed to the Start screen — an app or the Desktop. Pressing the Windows key by itself accomplishes the same thing as clicking the Start charm.

Windows 8’s Devices charm, accessed from the Photo app.
Click to view larger image.

Devices. This charm is context-sensitive, so what appears when you click it depends on what you’re doing at the time and what kind of devices you’ve connected to your Windows 8 computer or tablet.

Generally, you use the Devices charm to print from a Windows 8 app and to manage your printers and other connected devices. For instance, if you’ve got two or more displays connected to your device, Devices lets you control how the screens work.

Pressing the Windows key + K activates the Devices charm.

Settings. This charm, which you can also launch by pressing the Windows key + I on your keyboard, gives you access to a wide variety of application-specific and systemwide settings. When you click it, you’ll see that it’s divided into two parts.

The top part is context sensitive, showing settings related to what you’re currently doing in Windows 8. If you click the Settings charm while you’re in the Windows 8 Photo app, for example, you can designate which folders, computers and websites (such as Facebook and Flickr) you want photos displayed from, among other options. From the Start screen, you can change settings related to tiles, such as whether to show tiles for administrative tools like the Control Panel.

The Settings charm, as activated from the Start screen. Click to view larger image.

The bottom part of Settings is the same no matter where you are; it lets you change global Windows 8 settings for your network, sounds, screen, notifications, power and keyboard. Click the “Change PC settings” link at the bottom of the screen to get to the new “PC settings” screen, which lets you customize how the most important features of Windows 8 work from a single location.

For example, its Personalize section lets you change your account picture and the background images for your lock screen and Start screen, and choose which Windows 8 apps — Weather, Mail and so on — should deliver information to the lock screen. (Desktop apps can’t send information to the lock screen.)

The PC settings screen: one-stop shopping for customizing how Windows 8 works.
Click to view larger image.

If you’re signed into Windows with a non-Microsoft ID account, here’s where you can change that. Click Users, then click “Switch to a Microsoft account” and you’ll be able to sign in with an existing Microsoft ID, or else create a new one and sign in with that.

You can also change myriad other system settings, including app notifications, search preferences, privacy options and more. The settings are all straightforward and self-explanatory. Just click the one you want to change and get to work.

One noteworthy section in the PC settings screen is “Sync your settings.” Microsoft built Windows 8 assuming that people would be using it with multiple devices. This feature lets you sync some of your settings among them.

You can sync your lock screen; account picture; Desktop personalizations; passwords for apps, websites and networks; app, browser and mouse settings; and so on. Simply turn on or off which items you want to sync or not sync.

You can customize how your settings sync among multiple devices. Click to view larger image.

More systemwide navigation

When you first start using Windows 8, the navigation will probably confuse you — particularly because Windows 8’s two interfaces coexist uneasily. To help ameliorate that, Windows 8 has a number of systemwide navigational features that are available wherever you are — on the Start screen, the Desktop, inside a Windows 8 app or in a Desktop app. The Charms bar is one of them, but there are others as well.

One is a longtime Windows favorite: the Alt-Tab key combination. Press it, and as with previous versions of Windows, a strip of thumbnails of your running programs appears. While holding down the Alt key, keep pressing the Tab key until you come to the thumbnail of the program you want to run. Release the keys, and you’ll switch to that program.

The old standby, Alt-Tab, works in Windows 8. Click to view larger image.

Another way to switch among your running apps is to move your mouse pointer to the upper-left corner of the screen (called a “hot corner”). A small thumbnail appears of the last app you were running, or where you last were. Click it to switch there. Keep clicking, and you’ll cycle through all your apps and open locations.

There’s a caveat, though: You won’t cycle through all your Desktop apps. If you’ve got three Desktop-related items running, only the last app that was opened full screen, or else the Desktop itself, will appear in the upper-left corner. It’s just one more example of the Desktop’s afterthought status in Windows 8. (See “Meet the Start screen” for the differences between Desktop apps and Windows 8 apps.)

Here’s another navigation trick to try: Move your mouse pointer to the upper-left hot corner until the thumbnail of your previous location appears, then move the mouse pointer down. You’ll see thumbnails of all of your running apps. Click any to switch to it. However, the same caveat holds here about Desktop apps. Even if you’ve got multiple Desktop apps running, you’ll see only a single Desktop-related thumbnail, either the last full-screen Desktop app you were running on the Desktop itself.

Viewing thumbnails of open apps in Windows 8. Click to view larger image.

As I’ve mentioned before, pressing the Windows key acts as a location toggle between the Start screen and the place you last were before going there. If you’re a fan of the mouse rather than the keyboard, you can do the same thing by moving your cursor to the lower-left corner of the screen. A small thumbnail of the Start screen appears (or if you’re at the Start screen, of where you were previously). Click it to go there.

Touch-screen navigation

Windows 8 supports a whole host of touch-screen gestures, including the swiping, pinching and rotating motions familiar to smartphone and tablet users. Tapping an item opens it; pressing and holding an item pops up a menu to display more information about it. Note, however, that these gestures often don’t work in Desktop apps. (See “Meet the Start screen” for the differences between Desktop apps and Windows 8 apps.)

Windows 8 also uses something called edge UIs, in which you swipe from the edge of the screen toward the center. Swiping in from the right edge of the screen displays the Charms bar. Swiping quickly in and back out from the left edge of the screen cycles through your open apps.

While the previous edge UI gestures work universally, some are specific to Windows 8 apps. When you’re in a Windows 8 app, swiping up from the bottom of the screen or swiping down from the top of the screen displays the App bar (more on that in a moment). And you can close a Windows 8 app by pulling down from the top edge of the screen all the way to the bottom of the screen. The app shrinks to a thumbnail and then disappears.

Following is a list of useful Windows 8 gestures, including more edge UI gestures. Keep in mind that not all of the following gestures work in all places and apps. Typically, they don’t work in Desktop apps.

Windows 8 touch gestures


What it does 


Open an item. It’s the equivalent of clicking with a mouse.  

Press and hold 

Pop up a menu to display more information about the item.  

Press and hold, slide and release

Move an item to a new location. It’s the equivalent of dragging an item with a mouse.  

Pinch with two fingers 

Zoom out. Used in apps such as Maps where you commonly zoom in and out.  

Spread two fingers apart 

Zoom in. Used in apps such as Maps where you commonly zoom in and out.

Rotate with two fingers 

Rotate the display in the direction you move your fingers. Very few apps use this gesture.  

Swipe horizontally 

Scroll sideways through a screen, such as the Start screen to see apps off to the right side.

Swipe vertically 

Scroll up or down.  

Short downward swipe on an item 

Select the item and show additional options, often in an App bar.  

On the lock screen, swipe up from the bottom edge of the screen 

Display the login screen.

In a Windows 8 app, swipe in from the upper or lower edge of the screen 

Activate the App bar.  

Swipe in from the right edge of the screen to the center 

Display the Charms bar.  

Swipe quickly in from left edge of the screen 

Display a thumbnail of the previously run app.

Swipe slowly in from the left edge of the screen 

Display a second app side-by-side with the current app on your screen.  

Swipe quickly in from the left edge of the screen, then swipe quickly back 

Display thumbnails of all your running apps.

Pull down from the top of the screen to the bottom 

Close a Windows 8 app.  

In Internet Explorer (Windows 8 version only), swipe right or left 

Go forward or back.  

Keyboard shortcuts

Not using a touch-screen device? Like previous versions of Windows, Windows 8 includes a host of keyboard shortcuts, so you don’t need to spend your life clicking. Those earlier keyboard shortcuts — for example, Ctrl-C to copy text — still work. But Windows 8 also has keyboard shortcuts for many of its new features.

The following table shows some of the most useful shortcuts for Windows 8; it includes both new keyboard shortcuts and some that worked in previous versions of Windows.

Windows 8 keyboard shortcuts

Key combination 

What it does 

Windows key shortcuts 

Windows key

Go to the Start screen or toggle between the Start screen and your previous location  


Open the Charms bar  


Show the Desktop  


Open File Explorer  


Go to Files in the Search charm  


Go to the Share charm


Go to the Settings charm  


Go to the Devices charm  


Lock the device  


Minimize all windows (only on the Desktop)  


Lock the screen orientation  


Go to Apps in the Search charm  


Launch the Run box  


Put the focus on the taskbar and cycle through your running Desktop apps  


Cycle through your notifications  


Go to Settings in the Search charm  


Open a menu of tools for power users  


Launch the App bar (or make it disappear if it’s already showing)  

Windows-1 through 9 

Go to the app in the corresponding position on the taskbar (Desktop only)  

Windows-, (comma) 

Peek at the Desktop (on Desktop only)


Switch the input language and keyboard layout  


Minimize non-active Desktop apps  

Windows-Page Up 

Move Start screen to left monitor  

Windows-Page Down

Move Start screen to right monitor  

Windows-up arrow 

Maximize a Desktop app  

Windows-down arrow 

Restore/minimize a Desktop app  


Run Windows Help and Support  

Other keyboard shortcuts 


Cycle through thumbnails of open apps  


Close a Windows 8 app  


Select all  




Select the Search box in the Windows 8 Internet Explorer app; select the Address bar in Desktop version of IE  


Open a new window in Internet Explorer (Desktop version only)  












Close the active document in Desktop apps  

Ctrl-mouse click 

Select multiple items in File Explorer  


Select a group of contiguous items in File Explorer  


Close the current window in Internet Explorer (Desktop version)


Run the Task Manager  


Create a new folder in File Explorer  


Take a screenshot and place it on the Clipboard  

Working with the new Windows 8 apps

As I mentioned above, Windows 8 ships with a complement of new Windows 8 apps including Mail, People, Weather, Music, Bing, Photos, Maps and others. You can also download third-party Windows 8 apps through the Windows Store, although there aren’t a great many available yet.

Providing details about how each of these apps works is beyond the scope of this article. So instead, I’ll show you how to work with Windows 8 apps in general. (See “Meet the Start screen” for the differences between Desktop apps and Windows 8 apps.)

One thing to keep in mind about most Windows 8 apps: They’re generally not powerful. Some are downright anemic. They’re more like tablet apps than they are full-blown applications written for traditional computers. In Mail, for example, you can’t create new mail folders, read mail using threaded messaging or make rules to route incoming mail to specific folders. And the SkyDrive Windows 8 app doesn’t sync files between your Windows 8 devices and your SkyDrive cloud-based storage (for that you’ll have to download the SkyDrive Desktop app).

Most of the other Windows 8 apps have similar limitations. They’re fine for tablets, but they’re often not so fine for traditional computers.

Windows 8 apps are designed to run in full-screen mode, so you won’t be able to resize them like Desktop apps. And there’s no apparent way to close Windows 8 apps. It can be done, however: When you’re in the app, press the Alt key + F4 — or if you have a touch screen, drag from the top of the screen until the app shrinks to a small size in the middle of the screen, then keep dragging it to the bottom of the screen.

However, you can also just leave Windows 8 apps running and let Windows 8 handle closing them for you. If you’ve launched one and aren’t using it any longer, Windows 8 will eventually close it down if you don’t come back.

Windows 8 apps don’t have visible menus or immediately obvious ways to control or customize them. To do so, right-click anywhere in the app or press the Windows key + Z; on a touch screen, swipe down from the top of the screen or up from the bottom of the screen. An App bar appears at either the top or the bottom of the screen, or both. The App bar is context-sensitive, so what it displays varies according to the app you’re running, and even according to what you’re currently doing in the app itself.

In the Weather app, the App bar appears at the top and bottom of the screen.
Click to view larger image.

If you right-click when you’re on the main screen of the Weather app, for instance, you’ll be able to tell the app to refresh itself to check for the latest weather, change the degrees between Fahrenheit and Celsius, navigate to other places you’ve chosen to display weather, and so on.

If you display the App bar from the main screen of the People app, you can add a new contact or show which of your contacts are currently online. And if you display the App bar from the Notifications page of the People app, you can only refresh the page to check for the latest notifications.

Also, when you’re in any app you can run the Settings charm and change the settings for that specific app.

The two Internet Explorers

In Windows 8, Microsoft introduces Internet Explorer 10. No, let me amend that slightly. It introduces two different versions of Internet Explorer 10: one a Windows 8 app and one a Desktop app.

The Windows 8 IE app, like many other Windows 8 apps, is somewhat underpowered. Its greatest shortcoming is that it doesn’t have a Favorites manager. You can pin sites to the Start screen, but that’s no substitute for a Favorites manager, because you won’t be able to group the sites into folders — and if you pin too many sites, your Start screen gets so cluttered it’s barely usable. The Windows 8 version of IE also won’t run add-ons, browser extensions or ActiveX controls.

What’s more, the two versions of Internet Explorer don’t always play well together. When you open a website in one version, that site doesn’t open in the other version — so you can have one set of sites open in the Windows 8 version and another set of sites opened in the Desktop version.

For these reasons, some traditional PC users will choose to forgo the Windows 8 version of IE in favor of the Desktop version. If you do want to try out the Windows 8 version, here are a few tips for using it.

Using the Windows 8 IE10 app

The Windows 8 version of Internet Explorer shows just a full-screen Web page.

When you launch the Windows 8 version of IE, at first all you see is a Web page, with no address bar or other controls. Right-click or press the Windows key + Z (or swipe down from the top or up from the bottom of a touch screen) to display the App bar, and two sets of controls appear.

The Windows 8 IE app with controls. Click to view larger image.

On the top are thumbnails for the most recent sites you’ve visited or tabs you’ve opened; click any to go there, or click the X at the top of any to close it.

To go to a new site, click the + button to the far right of the thumbnails and a page appears with a blank address bar at the bottom, a list of sites you’ve visited frequently, and any sites you’ve pinned to the Start screen. Click a frequently visited site or pinned site to go there, or type an address into the Address bar.

Opening a new blank tab in the Windows 8 version of Internet Explorer: nothing on top, thumbnails and an address bar at the bottom. Click to view larger image.

Also at the top when you display the App bar is a button with three dots on it. Click it and you get two choices: Close all of your tabs or launch a new InPrivate Browsing tab that prevents IE from storing cookies, site history and other data about your browsing session.

Down at the bottom of the screen when you display the App bar in IE is an Address bar; forward, back and refresh buttons; a pin button that lets you pin the current site to the Start screen or add it to Favorites (which you will be able to use only in the Desktop version of IE); and a wrench button that, when clicked, lets you search for text on the current Web page, view the page in the Desktop version of Internet Explorer, or download a Windows 8 app associated with the site you’re visiting, if it has one.

The Address bar does double duty as a way to go to websites and to perform searches: Just type a Web address or a search term into the bar. When you type in a search term, you’ll see several kinds of results — those from sites you’ve visited often, those from sites you’ve pinned, those from your Favorites, and those from the Web, via Bing.

Note that you don’t have to make all the controls appear to use the back and forward buttons. When you’re on a Web page, move your mouse cursor to the left edge of the screen and a back arrow appears; move it to the right edge and a forward arrow appears.

The bottom set of controls — the Address Bar and various buttons — also pops up from time to time without you having to display the App bar. For example, they appear when you click a link or when you use the back and forward arrows as described in the previous paragraph.

To make the controls go away, right-click, press the Windows key + Z or swipe down from the top on a touch screen.

Using the Desktop version of IE10

The changes to the Desktop version of IE are generally under the hood: notably, improved performance and an overhauled rendering engine. So just use the Desktop version of IE in the same way you’ve always used it.

Other new features

There have been plenty of other changes in Windows 8, too numerous to list in this article. Here are some of the more important ones.

File Explorer

The file management app once called Windows Explorer has been renamed File Explorer. The change is not just in name only. It has also been redesigned and now has a Ribbon interface. (New to the Ribbon interface? Check out our Word 2010 cheat sheet to get acquainted.)

Note that the first time you use File Explorer the Ribbon might be hidden. To expand the Ribbon (or collapse it if it’s already expanded), either press Ctrl-F1 or click the small down arrow in the top right corner of the window. You can also leave the Ribbon collapsed and simply click on any tab to see its available commands.

File Explorer, with the Ribbon turned on. Click to view larger image.

The Ribbon’s Home tab contains a grab bag of file-management commands, such as copy, paste, copy a path, move, rename and open. You can also create a new folder, select multiple files or folders, and more. The Share tab lets you share files and folders via email, by burning to disc, by printing and so on. The View tab lets you customize the overall File Explorer interface (by, for example, turning the left-side navigation pane on or off) or the display of files and folders (by showing hidden items or not, changing the icon size and configuration, and so on).

Clicking the File tab on the left pops up a small box that lets you open new File Explorer windows, shows you a list of your frequently visited places so you can navigate to them quickly, and includes several other features.

File History

This new feature, turned off by default, backs up files stored in your Libraries, Favorites, Contacts and Desktop. Keep in mind that your Libraries include many folders, including public and private Documents, Music, Pictures and Videos folders, so you can use this feature to back up plenty of files. And you can add other locations you want backed up as well. It’s a vast improvement over the less-than-useful Windows 7 feature called Previous Versions.

Of course, you’ll need storage media such as a USB drive to back up your files to, or you can back up to local network storage. File History uses compression to reduce the amount of disk space you’ll need.

And File History does more than just back up files. It also keeps interim versions of them, so that you can see previous versions of a file.

To turn on File History, first run Control Panel by typing “Control Panel” at the Start screen and clicking the Control Panel icon that appears. Then, in the Control Panel search box, search for “file history” and click the File History link that appears. Click the “Turn on” button and make any selections necessary, such as which drive you want to back up your data to.

Turning on Windows 8’s new File History feature. Click to view larger image.

Three tips for getting more out of Windows 8

It may take you a little while to become comfortable with Windows 8, so I’ve put together three tips to help you get up to speed. The first two will help you make the most of the new interface, and the third will bring back an old friend: the Start button.

1. Customize the Start screen

The Start screen that appears by default is not necessarily the Start screen that’s best for you. There are many ways to customize it, though. Here I’ll show you how to add, remove, rearrange and otherwise tweak the tiles on your screen.

To remove a tile from the Start screen, right-click it and select “Unpin from Start” from the bar that appears at the bottom of the screen. You can select multiple apps by holding down the Ctrl key as you right-click them, and then unpin them in one fell swoop.

If you don’t want a live tile such as the Weather app to display changing information, right-click it and select “Turn live tile off.” To make a large tile smaller or a small tile larger, right-click it and select “Smaller” or “Larger.”

Adding tiles to the Start screen takes a little more work than unpinning them, but not a lot. If you’re on the Start screen and you know the name of the app you want to add, type its name. You’ll be sent to the Search charm, and the app will show up on the left. Right-click it, and from the bar that appears at the bottom of the screen, select “Pin to Start.” If you search for a Desktop app and right-click it, you’ll also be able to pin it to the Desktop taskbar. If it’s already pinned to the taskbar, you can unpin it.

To browse a list of your apps (or many of them, at least), you can right-click any tile on the Start screen and select “All apps” on the far right of the bar at the bottom — or just press the Windows key + Z. You’ll see a list of every Windows 8 app on your PC, and some — but not all — of your Desktop apps. (I have yet to figure out how Windows decides which Desktop apps to list under “All apps.”) Right-click any apps you want to pin and proceed as above.

By default, the tiles on the Start screen seem to be randomly placed into groups, but you can group them however you like. To move a tile to a different group, just drag and drop it wherever you want it, including in the middle of a group — the other tiles in the group will automatically rearrange themselves to accommodate it.

To create a new group, drag a tile away from an existing group. When you drag it far enough away from the group, and also far enough away from other groups, a vertical bar appears. That means you can drop the tile, and a new group will be formed with the app in it. Now drag other tiles into the group.

To name the new group, hover your mouse over the bottom right corner of the Start screen and click the (minus) icon. All of your groups and tiles will minimize to small thumbnails. Right-click a group, and a “Name group” icon appears in the bar at the bottom of the screen. Click the icon, type in the group’s name, click the Name button and you’re done. You can also move the group to a different location on the Start screen: Right-click its thumbnail, drag it where you want it to be and drop it there.

Customizing the Windows 8 Start screen. Click to view larger image.

2. Run apps side by side

Windows 8 apps normally run full screen — unlike Desktop apps, they don’t appear in resizable windows, and at first glance, it appears that you can’t run them side by side. However, using a feature that Microsoft calls Snap, you can run two Windows 8 apps, two Desktop apps, or one of each side by side. (Note that Snap works only if you have a minimum screen resolution of 1366 x 768.)

First, make sure you’re running both apps. When you’re in one of the apps, move your mouse to the upper-left hot corner. When a thumbnail of your last location appears, move your mouse down, and thumbnails of your currently running apps will appear. Click and hold the thumbnail of the app you want to run side by side with the current one, and then drag the thumbnail to the right and drop it. The two apps will now be running side by side, with the one you just dragged appearing in a sidebar on the left.

Running apps side by side in Windows 8. Click to view larger image.

You can use each app as you would normally. There’s a border with three dots on it running on the right side of the app running in the sidebar, separating the apps. Drag it to the left or right to resize the app so it takes up more or less of the screen. To go back to running just one app, drag the dotted bar to the edge of the screen.

3. Bring back the Start button

One of the biggest complaints about Windows 8 is that Microsoft killed the very useful Start button on the Desktop. However, I’ve found two downloads that bring back some of the Start button features. One of them even lets you bypass the Start screen entirely and go directly to the Desktop when you log into Windows 8.

StartFinity Starter Edition from WinAbility Software adds a Start button to the Desktop. Click it, and up pops a list that looks quite similar to the old Windows 7 Start menu, with links to Documents, Pictures, Music, Control Panel and so on. You can also click Programs to see and run all your Desktop apps. The Starter Edition is free, but if you want to customize the program, you’ll have to pay $14.95 for the full version.

StartFinity adds its own Start button and menu to the Windows 8 Desktop.
Click to view larger image.

Another option is Start8 from Stardock. It offers a menu that’s much like the old Windows 7 Start menu, with links to programs, Control Panel, Documents and so on; it also includes a search bar for finding programs and files.

In addition to offering a menu like Windows 7’s Start menu, Start8 lets you bypass the Start screen and head straight to the Desktop when you sign into Windows 8. Click to view larger image.

It may be slightly confusing to use at first, though, because in order to pop up the menu, you press the Windows key instead of clicking a Start button. (In place of the Start button at the left edge of the taskbar is a Windows button; if you click that you’ll go to the Windows 8 Start screen.)

Start8 also lets you boot directly to the Desktop, bypassing the Windows 8 Start screen. It offers some other extras as well, such as letting you disable the Charms bar when you’re using the Desktop and disabling top-left hot corner on the Desktop. Start8 costs $4.99, but you can try it for 30 days for free.

See more Computerworld Windows 8 launch coverage including news, reviews and blogs.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for and the author of more than 40 books, including Windows 8 Hacks (O’Reilly, 2012). See more by Preston Gralla on


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