MicroPython, bringing Python to hardware for everyone #OHM2019 #oshwa @ohsummit #opensource #opensourcehardware @opensourceorg @micropython #micropython

Mpheader

The next chapter for electronics is Python, from powerful Raspberry Pi computers to low-cost microcontrollers which are able to drive robotics, to running Machine Learning, the most popular programming language in the world (Python) has arrived on hardware, and we have MicroPython and its creator, Damien George, to thank.

First up, what is MicroPython? Glad you asked, here it is directly from micropython.org

MicroPython is a lean and efficient implementation of the Python 3 programming language that includes a small subset of the Python standard library and is optimised to run on microcontrollers and in constrained environments.

The MicroPython pyboard is a compact electronic circuit board that runs MicroPython on the bare metal, giving you a low-level Python operating system that can be used to control all kinds of electronic projects.

MicroPython is packed full of advanced features such as an interactive prompt, arbitrary precision integers, closures, list comprehension, generators, exception handling and more. Yet it is compact enough to fit and run within just 256k of code space and 16k of RAM.

MicroPython aims to be as compatible with normal Python as possible to allow you to transfer code with ease from the desktop to a microcontroller or embedded system.

There’s also a good history of MicroPython over on Wikipedia, and we’ve posted about some of the early days, history, and its recent 6th birthday…

  • 29th April 2013: first line of code written (in private, before anyone knew about it, before it was even called Micro-Python)
  • 17th Sept 2013: first code running on a microcontroller, on the very first prototype of the pyboard
  • 2nd Oct 2013: register micropython.org
  • 4th Oct 2013: first commit in what is now the main repository
  • late Dec 2013: source code up on GitHub
  • 21st June 2014: last of the Kickstarter rewards sent out (for the first Kickstarter)

The Early Days of MicroPython – YouTube.

April 29, 2019 is the sixth ‘birthday’ of MicroPython. At the April Melbourne Meetup, Damien George, creator of MicroPython, delves into his archives and shows the earliest code and notes about the goals of the language. The material pre-dates the first git commit! Listen in as Damien reveals how and why the language began and evolved. It’s a nice way to celebrate MicroPython’s sixth birthday!

In newsletter #8 from MicroPython, Damien published some never-before-seen details about the start of MicroPython.

Here is an excerpt from the initial notes. The title is “Python board” and the date is 29 April 2013:

Python board 29/4/2013

The smallest, cheapest python.

A piece of hardware that is small and cheap, runs python scripts, and has good low-level access to hardware. If we can do it with a single chip, that would keep it small and cheap. Need then something with a large amount of flash and a decent amount of RAM, that also is cheap enough. Atmel SAM’s have order 1MiB flash and 128KiB SRAM, for around $10 one-off.

Main features:

  • Implements Python 3 core language.
  • Flash presents as a flash drive with vfat filesystem.
  • Put python scripts on flash and it runs them (maybe have a (multicolour?) led that flashes on error and writes a “core” dump to the flash). This led can also double as a user output led.
  • Can run multiple scripts on once.

Our strength would be small, cheap, simple, easy to replicate.

Can have a range of boards with different features. But all must be basically compatible and capable of running the same scripts.

Adafruit 2019 2841

Pybv1 1

Schem

In addition to the open-source software, the PyBoard (2013) is open-source hardware.

You can learn more about MicroPython and keep up-to-date with developments via the following resources:


Open source hardware month @ Adafruit:


Ohm

October is open-source hardware month! Every single day in October we’ll be posting up some open-source stories from the last decade (and more!) about open-source hardware, open-source software, and beyond!

Have an open-source hardware (or software) success story? A person, company, or project to celebrate? An open-source challenge? Post up here in the comments or email opensource@adafruit.com, we’ll be looking for, and using the tag #OHM2019 online as well! Check out all the events going on here!

Read more »

How to build a Linear Actuator powered by Solenoids and controlled by an Adafruit Metro M4

Rad project and write-up from Adafruit community member Euguene So. Check it out in full here.

Hello! My name is Eugene So. I am a Master’s student at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) majoring in Electrical Engineering. This website describes how to build your own linear actuator or motor using a pair of solenoid valves and an Arduino microcontroller. The linear actuator I am describing was built at NJIT in 1994 by a Master’s student named Alex Rokhvarg under the direction of Dr. Bernard Friedland. My Master’s project was to retrofit the controller for this apparatus. I used the Adafruit Metro M4 as the new controller. Here is a video demonstrating the linear actuator.

Read more.

Read more »

Friday Product Post: Is it Secret? Is it Safe?

Hello everyone, and happy Friday! We have a few new products to show off this week, starting with a Qwiic-enabled, ATECC508A Cryptographic Co-Processor Breakout to add strong authentication security to your next project! Following that we have the new gator:circuit kit for micro:bit, and the brand new LIDAR-Lite v4. We are so excited for the new LIDAR-Lite that we're going to do a deep dive into it next Tuesday, so make sure to check back then! Now let's jump in a take a closer look!

The Authentic Deal!

SparkFun Cryptographic Co-Processor Breakout - ATECC508A (Qwiic)

added to your cart!

SparkFun Cryptographic Co-Processor Breakout - ATECC508A (Qwiic)

In stock DEV-15573

The SparkFun ATECC508A Crypto Co-processor Breakout allows you to add strong authentication security to your IoT node, edge d…

$4.95

The SparkFun ATECC508A Cryptographic Co-processor Breakout allows you to easily add strong authentication security to your IoT node, edge device or embedded system. It includes two Qwiic ports for plug-and-play functionality. Utilizing our handy Qwiic system, no soldering is required to connect it to the rest of your system. However, we still have broken out 0.1"-spaced pins in case you prefer to use a breadboard.


Complete the circuit!

SparkFun gator:circuit Kit for micro:bit

added to your cart!

SparkFun gator:circuit Kit for micro:bit

In stock KIT-15595

A kit with all the gator:bit ProtoSnap boards & 10 pk alligator clips for easy circuit building

$39.95

As part of SparkFun's gator:bit series of alligator-clippable accessories, the SparkFun gator:circuit Kit includes all of the current ProtoSnap gator:boards, and offers a handful of ways to interact with projects you create using only gator-clip cables. Each little board on this ProtoSnap can be kept as a whole while on the board, or broken apart for individual use! It includes three ProtoSnap micro:bit accessory boards along with the gator:bit. The gator:bit is an all-in-one “carrier” board for your micro:bit that provides you with a fully functional development and prototyping platform. This kit is recommended for all users, from beginners to engineers, and does not require any soldering!


Garmin LIDAR-Lite v4 LED - Distance Measurement Sensor

added to your cart!

Garmin LIDAR-Lite v4 LED - Distance Measurement Sensor

In stock SEN-15776

A small, lightweight, low-power optical ranging sensor with incorporated ANT profile wireless networking technology.

$59.99

The LIDAR-Lite v4 LED sensor is the next step in the LIDAR-Lite line – a small, lightweight, low-power optical ranging sensor. It's the first to incorporate ANT profile wireless networking technology into an optical sensor. Its built-in nRF52840 processor means developers can create custom applications, or be operated as a stand-alone device right out of the box by using the preloaded stock application.

SparkX came up with a version of the LIDAR-Lite v4 with an attached Qwiic connector and 0.1" spaced, single-row headers to make it the easiest LIDAR-Lite to access.


LoRa Fiberglass Antenna Type N - 5.8dBi (860-930MHz)

added to your cart!

LoRa Fiberglass Antenna Type N - 5.8dBi (860-930MHz)

In stock WRL-15597

If you need maximum distance for your LoRa project you need this incredibly durable, outdoor antenna with 5.8dBi gain.

$49.95

If you need maximum distance for your LoRa project, you need this incredibly durable outdoor antenna with 5.8dBi gain. This 860-930MHz antenna is 90cm / 35.5" long and includes hardware for pole mounting. Made of fiberglass and aluminum, this antenna is ideal for heavy-duty and high-power LoRa base stations, but can be used with LoRa nodes as well.


That's it for this week! As always, we can't wait to see what you make! Shoot us a tweet @sparkfun, or let us know on Instagram or Facebook. We’d love to see what projects you’ve made!

comments | comment feed

Read more »

Massachusetts: Tell Your Lawmakers to Press Pause on Government Face Surveillance

Face surveillance by government poses a threat to our privacy, chills protest in public places, and amplifies historical biases in our criminal justice system. Massachusetts has the opportunity to become the first state to stop government use of this troubling technology, from Provincetown to Pittsfield.

Massachusetts residents: tell your legislature to press pause on government use of face surveillance throughout the Commonwealth. Massachusetts bills S.1385 and H.1538 would place a moratorium on government use of the technology, and your lawmakers need to hear from you ahead of an Oct. 22 hearing on these bills.

TAKE ACTION

Pause Government Face Surveillance in Massachusetts

Concern over government face surveillance in our communities is widespread. Polling from the ACLU of Massachusetts has found that more than three-quarters, 79 percent, support a statewide moratorium.

The city council of Somerville, Massachusetts voted unanimously in July to ban government face surveillance altogether, becoming the first community on the East coast to do so. The town of Brookline, Massachusetts is currently considering a ban of its own. In California, the cities of San Francisco, Oakland—and just this week—Berkeley have passed bans as well.

EFF has advocated for governments to stop use of face surveillance in our communities immediately, particularly in light of what researchers at MIT’s Media Lab and others have found about its high error rates—particularly for women and people of color.

Even if it were possible to lessen these misidentification risks, however, government use of face recognition technology still poses grave threats to safety and privacy. Regardless of our race or gender, law enforcement use of face recognition technology poses a profound threat to personal privacy, political and religious expression, and the fundamental freedom to go about our lives without having our movements and associations covertly documented and analyzed.

Tell your lawmakers to support this bill and make sure that the people of Massachusetts have the opportunity to evaluate the consequences of using this technology before this type of mass surveillance becomes the norm in your communities.

Read more »

EFF Urges Congress Not to Dismantle Section 230

The Keys to a Healthy Internet Are User Empowerment and Competition, Not Censorship

The House Energy and Commerce Committee held a legislative hearing today over what to do with one of the most important Internet laws, Section 230. Members of Congress and the testifying panelists discussed many of the critical issues facing online activity like how Internet companies moderate their users’ speech, how Internet companies and law enforcement agencies are addressing online criminal activity, and how the law impacts competition. 

EFF Legal Director Corynne McSherry testified at the hearing, offering a strong defense of the law that’s helped create the Internet we all rely on today. In her opening statement, McSherry urged Congress not to take Section 230’s role in building the modern Internet lightly:

We all want an Internet where we are free to meet, create, organize, share, debate, and learn. We want to have control over our online experience and to feel empowered by the tools we use. We want our elections free from manipulation and for women and marginalized communities to be able to speak openly about their experiences.

Chipping away at the legal foundations of the Internet in order to pressure platforms to play the role of Internet police is not the way to accomplish those goals. 

mytubethumb play
%3Ciframe%20src%3D%22https%3A%2F%2Fwww.c-span.org%2Fvideo%2Fstandalone%2F%3Fc4822786%2Fcorynne-mcsherry-section-230%22%20allowfullscreen%3D%22allowfullscreen%22%20width%3D%22512%22%20height%3D%22330%22%20frameborder%3D%220%22%3E%3C%2Fiframe%3E
Privacy info. This embed will serve content from c-span.org

Recognizing the gravity of the challenges presented, Ranking Member Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) aptly stated: “I want to be very clear: I’m not for gutting Section 230. It’s essential for consumers and entities in the Internet ecosystem. Misguided and hasty attempts to amend or even repeal Section 230 for bias or other reasons could have unintended consequences for free speech and the ability for small businesses to provide new and innovative services.” 

We agree. Any change to Section 230 risks upsetting the balance Congress struck decades ago that created the Internet as it exists today. It protects users and Internet companies big and small, and leaves open the door to future innovation. As Congress continues to debate Section 230, here are some suggestions and concerns we have for lawmakers willing to grapple with the complexities and get this right.

Facing Illegal Activity Online: Focus on the Perpetrators

Much of the hearing focused on illegal speech and activity online. Representatives and panelists mentioned examples like illegal drug sales, wildlife sales, and fraud. But there’s an important distinction to make between holding Internet intermediaries, such as social media companies and classified ads sites, liable for what their users say or do online, and holding users themselves accountable for their behavior.

Section 230 has always had a federal criminal law carve out. This means that truly culpable online platforms can already be prosecuted in federal court, alongside their users, for illegal speech and activity. For example, a federal judge in the Silk Road case correctly ruled that Section 230 did not provide immunity against federal prosecution to the operator of a website that hosted other people’s ads for illegal drugs.

But EFF does not believe prosecuting Internet intermediaries is the best answer to the problems we find online. Rather, both federal and state government entities should allocate sufficient resources to target the direct perpetrators of illegal online behavior; that is, the users themselves who take advantage of open platforms to violate the law. Section 230 does not provide an impediment to going after these bad actors. McSherry pointed this out in her written testimony: “In the infamous Grindr case... the abuser was arrested two years ago under criminal charges of stalking, criminal impersonation, making a false police report, and disobeying a court order.”

Weakening Section 230 protections in order to expand the liability of online platforms for what their users say or do would incentivize companies to over-censor user speech in an effort to limit the companies’ legal exposure. Not only would this be harmful for legitimate user speech, it would also detract from law enforcement efforts to target the direct perpetrators of illegal behavior. As McSherry noted regarding the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA):

At this committee’s hearing on November 30, 2017, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation special agent Russ Winkler explained that online platforms were the most important tool in his arsenal for catching sex traffickers. One year later, there is anecdotal evidence that FOSTA has made it harder for law enforcement to find traffickers. Indeed, several law enforcement agencies report that without these platforms, their work finding and arresting traffickers has hit a wall.

Speech Moderation: User Choice and Empowerment

In her testimony, McSherry stressed that the Internet is a better place for online community when numerous platforms are available with a multitude of moderation philosophies. Section 230 has contributed to this environment by giving platforms the freedom to moderate speech the way they see fit.

The  freedom  that Section 230 afforded to Internet startups to choose their own moderation strategies has led to a multiplicity of options  for users—some more restrictive and sanitized, some more laissez-faire.  That  mix of  moderation philosophies contributes to a healthy environment for free expression and association online.

Reddit’s Steve Huffman echoed McSherry’s defense of Section 230 (PDF), noting that its protections have enabled the company to improve on its moderation practices over the years. He explained that the company’s speech moderation philosophy is one that prioritizes users making decisions about how they’d like to govern themselves:

The way Reddit handles content moderation today is unique in the industry. We use a governance model akin to our own democracy—where everyone follows a set of rules, has the ability to vote and self-organize, and ultimately shares some responsibility for how the platform works.

In an environment where platforms have their own approaches to content moderation, users have the ultimate power to decide which ones to use. McSherry noted in her testimony that while Grindr was not held liable for the actions of one user, that doesn’t mean that Grindr didn’t suffer. Grindr lost users, as they moved to other dating platforms. One reason why it’s essential that Congress protect Section 230 is to preserve the multitude of platform options.

“As a litigator, [a reasonableness standard] is terrifying. That means a lot of litigation risk, as courts try to figure out what counts as reasonable.”

Later in the hearing, Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL) asked each of the panelists who should be “the cop on the beat” in patrolling online speech. McSherry reiterated that users themselves should be empowered to decide what material they see online: “A cardinal principle for us at EFF is that at the end of the day, users should be able to control their Internet experience, and we need to have many more tools to make that possible.”

If some critics of Section 230 get their way, users won’t have that power. Prof. Danielle Citron offered a proposal (PDF) that Congress implement a “duty of care” regimen, where platforms would be required to show that they’re meeting a legal “reasonableness” standard in their moderation practices in order to keep their Section 230 protection. She proposes that courts look at what platforms are doing generally to moderate content and whether their policies are reasonable, rather than what a company did with respect to a particular piece of user content.

But inviting courts to determine what moderation practices are best would effectively do away with Section 230’s protections, disempowering users in the process. In McSherry’s words, “As a litigator, [a reasonableness standard] is terrifying. That means a lot of litigation risk, as courts try to figure out what counts as reasonable.”

Robots Won’t Fix It

There was plenty of agreement that current moderation was flawed, but much disagreement about why it was flawed. Subject-matter experts on the panel frequently described areas of moderation that were not in their purview as working perfectly fine, and questioning why those techniques could not be applied to other areas.

The deeper you look at current moderation—and listen carefully to those directly silenced by algorithmic solutions—the more you understand that robots won’t fix it.

In one disorienting moment, Gretchen Peters of the Alliance to Counter Crime Online asked the congressional committee when they’d last seen a “dick pic” on Facebook, and took their silence as an indication that Facebook had solved the dick pic problem. She then suggested Facebook could move on to scanning for other criminality. Professor Hany Farid, an expert in at-scale, resilient hashing of child exploitative imagery, wondered why the tech companies could not create digital fingerprinting solutions for opioid sales.

Many cited Big Tech’s work to automatically remove what they believe to be copyright-infringing material as a potential model for other areas—perhaps unaware that the continuing failure of copyright bots is one of the few areas where EFF and the entertainment industry agree (though we think they take down too much entirely lawful material, and Hollywood thinks they’re not draconian enough.)

The truth is that the deeper you look at current moderation—and listen carefully to those directly silenced by algorithmic solutions—the more you understand that robots won’t fix it. Robots are still terrible at understanding context, which has resulted in everything from Tumblr flagging pictures of bowls of fruit as “adult content” to YouTube removing possible evidence of war crimes because it categorized the videos as “terrorist content.” Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) pointed out the consequences of having algorithms police speech, “Groups already facing prejudice and discrimination will be further marginalized and censored.” A lot of the demand for Big Tech to do more moderation is predicated on the idea that they’re good at it, with their magical tech tools. As our own testimony and long experience points out—they’re really not, with bots or without.

Could they do better? Perhaps, but as Reddit’s Huffman noted, doing so means that the tech companies need to be able to innovate without having those attempts result in a hail of lawsuits. That is, he said, “exactly the sort of ability that 230 gives us.”

Reforming 230 with Big Tech as the Focus Would Harm Small Internet Companies

Critics of 230 often fail to acknowledge that many of the solutions they seek are not within reach of startups and smaller companies. Techniques like preemptive blocking of content, persistent policing of user posts, and mechanisms that analyze speech in real time to see what needs to be censored are extremely expensive.

That means that controlling what users do, at scale, will only be doable by Big Tech. It’s not only cost prohibitive, it will carry a high cost of liability if they get it wrong. For example, Google’s ContentID is often used in the copyright context is held up as one means of enforcement, but it required a $100 million investment by Google to develop and deploy—and it still does a bad job.

Google’s Katherine Oyama testified that Google already employs around 10,000 people that work on content moderation—a bar that no startup could meet—but even that appears insufficient to some critics. By comparison, a website like Wikipedia, which is the largest repository of information in human history, employs just about 350 staff for its entire operation, and is heavily reliant on volunteers.

A set of rules that would require a Google-sized company to expend even more resources means that only the most well-funded firms could maintain global platforms. A minimally-staffed nonprofit like Wikipedia could not continue to operate as it does today. The Internet would become more concentrated, and further removed from the promise of a network that empowers everyone.

As Congress continues to examine the problems facing the Internet today, we hope lawmakers remember the role that Section 230 plays in defending the Internet’s status as a place for free speech and community online. We fear that undermining Section 230 would harden today’s largest tech companies from future competition. Most importantly, we hope lawmakers listen to the voices of the people they risk pushing offline.

Read McSherry’s full written testimony.

Read more »

Plastic Jellyfish Dress – Recycled Fashion with a Cause

Jellyfish Dress

Our oceans are our largest natural resource, filled with beauty and mystery and life. There are more than 15 trillion pieces of trash in the ocean. It’s estimated that there is six times as much plastic in the ocean as there is plankton. Plastic bags drift through the water and look just like Jellyfish to a hungry turtle. The turtles eat the plastic and die. 

This dress by Erin St. Blaine uses recycled plastic bags, bubble wrap, and soda bottles along with Adafruit electronics to create a bioluminescent jellyfish costume. Erin hopes to draw awareness to the problem of so much plastic in the oceans, and help to save our turtle friends.

Featured in the Reinvent the Runway Show 2019

Build Process

The Idea

I’ve wanted to make a jellyfish costume for ages. A few years ago I made the world’s first LED swimmable mermaid tail, Mermaid Glimmer, which was partially inspired by the bioluminescent jellies I saw at the aquarium. They had beautiful pulsing rainbow lights and I just loved the idea of mimicking that with LEDs.

I was invited to showcase a piece in the Reinvent the Runway fashion show put on by the Placer Arts Council this fall. The theme of the show was Science, and the rules stated that the fashion should be made from recycled materials. I’m passionate about the problem of plastic in the oceans, and specifically about turtles mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish, and the idea came to life from there.

Materials

California has done a great job in the last few years of minimizing plastic shopping bags. I wanted to build the whole dress from plastic bags, but being the hippie mermaid I am, I didn’t have any — I switched to cloth bags a long time ago. I posted on Nextdoor.com to see if any neighbors had recyclable single use plastics they’d be willing to donate to the project, and .. success! My neighbors had plenty of plastic for me to use in the form of bags, cups, bubble wrap, and plastic bottles. I had my materials!

The Build

I patterned the skirt off my Cinderella ball gown. I had a lot of Rayley’s bags, so laid them all out and hot glued them together into large fabric sheets, then cut the pattern just like I would with fabric. Instead of sewing, I attached the whole skirt together with hot glue, with a velcro closure. This was very satisfying. Plastic bags and hot glue go together like chocolate and peanut butter.

For the bodice, I built on top of an old costume corset I found in the back of my closet. I laid out the prettiest bags so they’d look nicely arranged and hot glued them to the corset. My favorite bit was using a plastic bag from Target on the back.

For the lights, I used Adafruit’s NeoPixel Dot Strands. I created five strands with 10 dots each, and wired them together to a Circuit Playground Express. For diffusion, I used clear plastic wine cups (also donated by a neighbor) that I painted the inside of with an iridescent spray paint. This diffused the lights so beautifully! I was really happy with how this came out.

I decorated the outside of the dress with bubble-wrap spirals. Cutting a spiral in fabric (or bubble wrap!) creates a beautiful swirly tentacle. I made a lot of them! I also made an underskirt from more bubble wrap spirals sewn to an elastic band, so that when I “fly” the skirt up and mimic the motion of a jellyfish, the tentacles underneath will show, creating that classic jellyfish shape.

Accessories

For my head, I created a glowing turtle fascinator. I used a plastic soda bottle for the turtle’s shell, and bits of plastic bottle, bubble wrap, and some googly eyes to finish him off. His feet are made of wire and they can “swim” around, and he’s entagled in fishing line as he swims through his sea of plastic. I lit him from underneath with another Circuit Playground Express.

I created a choker necklace from plastic soda bottle rings. This was inspired by images we’ve all seen as children of ducks, turtles, or other aquatic creatures with their heads stuck inside these rings. It turned out surprisingly pretty!

I made the bracelets from the same material, and connected them with fishing line to the hoop skirt.

Functionality

The bracelets allow me to “puppet” the dress without touching it. While wearing the bracelets, I can lift my arms up and down and the skirt will pulse like a jellyfish. The motion looks really cool, and really does say “jellyfish” to me! So, of course, I had to create a motion-sensing animation using the Circuit Playground Express’ onboard accelerometer, so that every time the jellyfish pulses, the lights animate. I did the programming in Microsoft MakeCode. Here’s the project if you’re interested to see how it works!

Reinvent the Runway

Here are a few more photos from the Reinvent the Runway Show. There were so many creative projects and costumes!  A lot of folks used lights and technology, and one entry even sported an Adafruit MonsterM4sk!

Read more »

Secret Court Rules That the FBI’s “Backdoor Searches” of Americans Violated the Fourth Amendment

But the Court Misses the Larger Problem: Section 702’s Mass Surveillance is Inherently Unconstitutional

EFF has long maintained that it is impossible to conduct mass surveillance and still protect the privacy and constitutional rights of innocent Americans, much less the human rights of innocent people around the world.

This week, we were once again proven right. We learned new and disturbing information about the FBI’s repeated and unjustified searches of Americans’ information contained in massive databases of communications collected using the government’s Section 702 mass surveillance program.

A series of newly unsealed rulings from the federal district and appellate courts tasked with overseeing foreign surveillance show that the FBI has been unable to comply with even modest oversight rules Congress placed on “backdoor searches” of Americans by the FBI.  Instead, the Bureau routinely abuses its ability to search through this NSA-collected information for purposes unrelated to Section 702’s intended national security purposes.

The size of the problem is staggering. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) held that “the FBI has conducted tens of thousands of unjustified queries of Section 702 data.” The FISC found that the FBI created an “unduly lax” environment in which “maximal use” of these invasive searches was “a routine and encouraged practice.”

The court should have imposed a real constitutional solution: it should require the FBI to get a warrant before searching for people’s communications

But as is too often the case, the secret surveillance courts let the government off easy. Although the FISC initially ruled the FBI’s backdoor search procedures violated the Fourth Amendment in practice, the ultimate impact of the ruling was quite limited. After the government appealed, the FISC allowed the FBI to continue to use backdoor searches to invade people’s privacy—even in investigations that may have nothing to do with national security or foreign intelligence—so long as it follows what the appeals court called a “modest ministerial procedure.” Basically, this means requiring FBI agents to document more clearly why they were searching the giant 702 databases for information about Americans.

Rather than simply requiring a bit more documentation, we believe the court should have imposed a real constitutional solution: it should require the FBI to get a warrant before searching for people’s communications.

Ultimately, these orders follow a predictable path. First, they demonstrate horrific and systemic constitutional abuses. Then, they respond with small administrative adjustments.  They highlight how judges sitting on the secret surveillance courts seem to have forgotten their primary role of protecting innocent Americans from unconstitutional government actions. Instead, they become lost in a thicket of administrative procedures that are aimed at providing thin veil of privacy protection while allowing the real violations to continue.

Even when these judges are alerted to actual violations of the law, which have been occurring for more than a decade, they retreat from what should now be clear as day: Section 702 is itself unconstitutional. The law allows the government to sweep up people’s communications and records of communications and amass them in a database for later warrantless searching by the FBI. This can be done for reasons unrelated to national security, much less supported by probable cause.

No amount of “ministerial” adjustments can cure Section 702’s Fourth Amendment problems, which is why EFF has been fighting to halt this mass surveillance for more than a decade.

Opinion Shows FBI Engaged in Lawless, Unconstitutional Backdoor Searches of Americans

These rulings arose from a routine operation of Section 702—the FISC’s annual review of the government’s “certifications,” the high-level descriptions of its plans for conducting 702 surveillance. Unlike traditional FISA surveillance, the FISC does not review individualized, warrant-like applications under Section 702, and instead signs off on programmatic documents like “targeting” and “minimization” procedures. Unlike regular warrants, the individuals affected by the searches are never given notice, much less enabled to seek a remedy for misuse.  Yet, even under this limited (and we believe insufficient) judicial review, the FISC has repeatedly found deficiencies in the intelligence community’s procedures, and this most recent certification was no different.

Specifically, among the problems the FISC noticed were problems with the FBI’s backdoor search procedures. The court noted that in 2018, Congress directed the FBI to record every time it searched a database of communications collected under Section 702 for a term associated with a U.S. person, but that the Bureau was simply keeping a record of every time it ran such a search on all people. In addition, it was not making any record of why it was running these searches, meaning it could search for Americans’ communications without a lawful national security purpose. The court ordered the government to submit information, and also took the opportunity to appoint amici to counter the otherwise one-sided arguments by the government, a procedure given to the court as part of the 2015 USA Freedom Act (and which EFF had strongly advocated for).

As the FBI provided more information to the secret court, it became apparent just how flagrant the FBI’s disregard for the statute was. The court found no justification for FBI’s refusal to record queries of Americans’ identifiers, and that the agency was simply disobeying the will of Congress.

Even more disturbing was the FBI’s misuse of backdoor searches, which is when the FBI looks through people’s communications collected under Section 702 without a warrant and often for domestic law enforcement purposes. Since the beginning of Section 702, the FBI has avoided quantifying its use of backdoor searches, but we have known that its queries dwarfed other agencies. In the October 2018 FISC opinion, we get a window into just how disparate the number of FBI’s searches is. In 2017, the NSA, CIA and National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) “collectively used approximately 7500 terms associated with U.S. persons to query content information acquired under Section 702.” Meanwhile, the FBI ran 3.1 million queries against a single database alone. Even the FISC itself did not get a full accounting of the FBI’s queries that year, or what percentage involved Americans’ identifiers, but the court noted that “given the FBI's domestic focus it seems likely that a significant percentage of its queries involve U.S.-person query terms.”

The court went on to explain that the lax—and sometimes nonexistent—oversight of these backdoor searches generated significant misuse. Examples reported by the government included tens of thousands of “batch queries” in which the FBI searched identifiers en masse on the basis that one of them would return foreign intelligence information. The court described a hypothetical involving suspicion that an employee of a government contractor was selling information about classified technology, in which the FBI would search identifiers belonging to all 100 of the contractor’s employees.

As the court observed, these “compliance” issues demonstrated “fundamental misunderstandings” about the statutory and administrative limits on use of Section 702 information, which is supposed to be “reasonably likely to return foreign intelligence information.” Worse, because the FBI did not document its agents’ justifications for running these queries, “it appears entirely possible that further querying violations involving large numbers of U S.-person query terms have escaped the attention of overseers and have not been reported to the Court.”

With the benefit of input from its appointed amici, the FISC initially saw these violations for what they were: a massive violation of Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights. Unfortunately, the court let the FBI off with a relatively minor modification of its backdoor search query procedures, and made no provision for those impacted by these violations to ever be formally notified, so that they could seek their own remedies. Instead, going forward, FBI personnel must document when they use U.S. person identifiers to run backdoor searches—as required by Congress—and they must describe why these queries are likely to return foreign intelligence.  That’s it.

Even as to this requirement – which was already what the law required -- there are several exceptions and loopholes.  This means that at least in some cases, the FBI can still trawl through massive databases of warrantlessly collected communications using Americans’ names, phone numbers, social security numbers and other information and then use the contents of the communications for investigations that have nothing to do with national security.

Secret Court Rulings Are Important, But Miss the Larger Problems With Section 702 Mass Surveillance

It is disturbing that in response to widespread unconstitutional abuses by the FBI, the courts charged with protecting people’s privacy and overseeing the government’s surveillance programs required FBI officials to just do more paperwork. The fact that such a remedy was seen as appropriate underscores how abstract ordinary people’s privacy—and the Fourth Amendment’s protections—have become for both FISC judges and the appeals judges above them on the Foreign Intelligence Court of Review (FISCR).

But the fact that judges view protecting people’s privacy rights through the abstract lens of procedures is also the fault of Congress and the executive branch, who continue to push the fiction that mass surveillance programs operating Section 702 can be squared with the Fourth Amendment. They cannot be.

First, Section 702 allows widespread collection (seizure) of people’s Internet activities and communications without a warrant, and the subsequent use of that information (search) for general criminal purposes as well as national security purposes. Such untargeted surveillance and accompanying privacy invasions are anathema to our constitutional right to privacy and resembles a secret general warrant to search anyone, at any time.

The Founders did not fight a revolution to gain the right to government agency protocols

Second, rather than judges deciding in specific cases whether the government has probable cause to justify its surveillance of particular people or groups, the FISC’s role under Section 702 is relegated to approving general procedures that the government says are designed to protect people’s privacy overall. Instead of serving as a neutral magistrate that protects individual privacy, the court is several steps removed from the actual people caught up in the government’s mass surveillance. This allows judges to then decide people’s rights in the abstract and without ever having to notify the people involved, much less provide them with a remedy for violations. This likely leads the FISC to be more likely to view procedures and paperwork as sufficient to safeguard people’s Fourth Amendment rights. It’s also why individual civil cases like our Jewel v. NSA case are so necessary.

As the Supreme Court stated in Riley v. California, “the Founders did not fight a revolution to gain the right to government agency protocols.” Yet such abstract agency protocols are precisely what the FISC endorses and applies here with regard to your constitutionally protected communications.

Third, because Section 702 allows the government to amass vast stores of people’s communications and explicitly authorizes the FBI to search it, it encourages the very privacy abuses the FISC’s 2018 opinion details. These Fourth Amendment violations are significant and problematic. But because the FISC is so far removed from overseeing the FBI’s access to the data, it does not consider the most basic protections required by the Constitution: requiring agents to get a warrant.

We hope that these latest revelations are a wake-up call for Congress to act and repeal Section 702 or, at minimum, to require the FBI to get individual warrants, approved by a court, before beginning their backdoor searches.  And while we believe current law allows our civil litigation, Congress can also remove government roadblocks by providing clear, unequivocal notice, as well as an individual remedy for those injured by any FBI or NSA or CIA violations of this right. We also hope that the FISC itself will object to merely being an administrative oversight body, and instead push for more stringent protections for people’s privacy, and pay more attention to the inherent constitutional problems of Section 702.

But no matter what, EFF will continue to push its legal challenges to the government’s mass surveillance program and will work to bring an end to unconstitutional mass surveillance.

Read more »

Friday Product Post: We’ve Got Powerful Connections

Hello everyone, and happy Friday! We have a few new products this week, starting with an ATX Power Connector soldering kit to safely add power to your project from those laptop brick power supplies! We also have all of the associated parts included in the kit. Let's jump in a take a closer look!

High, power! How are you?

SparkFun ATX Power Connector Breakout Kit - 12V/5V (4-pin)

added to your cart!

SparkFun ATX Power Connector Breakout Kit - 12V/5V (4-pin)

In stock KIT-15701

The ATX power connector breaks out the standard 4-pin computer peripheral port for you 12V & 5V devices from one wall adapter…

$14.95

Do you need to power a project with 12V and 5V from one power supply? The ATX Power Connector Kit breaks out the standard 4-pin computer peripheral port for your 12V and 5V devices! Once you have chosen a power supply (whether it be an ATX power supply or the included 12V/5V wall adapter), you're ready to give your project some life! This kit has everything you need to solder together an ATX breakout and screw terminals for powering your project directly, or for pumping power into a breadboard.


SparkFun ATX Power Connector Breakout Board

added to your cart!

SparkFun ATX Power Connector Breakout Board

In stock BOB-15035

The ATX power connector breaks out the standard 4-pin computer peripheral port for you 12V & 5V devices from one wall adapter…

$1.95

If you are looking to just pick up the PCB of the ATX Power Connector Breakout, we also have that available! This is a great option for those with specific connectors and power supplies in mind.


Power Supply - 12V/5V (2A)

added to your cart!

Power Supply - 12V/5V (2A)

In stock TOL-15664

This 2A "laptop brick" supply outputs both 5V and 12VDC and is terminated with a 4-pin ATX connector.

$10.95

Does your project need a little more umph than our wall wart adapters can supply? Why not give this a shot? This 2A "laptop brick" supply outputs both 5V and 12VDC, and is terminated with a 4-pin ATX connector. And yes, this is the same power supply in the kit above!


ATX Right Angle Connector - PTH 4-pin

added to your cart!

ATX Right Angle Connector - PTH 4-pin

In stock PRT-15700

The ATX power connector breaks out the standard 4-pin computer peripheral port for you 12V & 5V devices from one wall adapter…

$0.50

Last this week is a 4-pin, ATX, right angle connector that mates up to the standard 4-pin computer peripheral port often found on ATX power supplies. It's a pretty simplistic connector that mates perfectly with the power supply above.


That's it for this week! As always, we can't wait to see what you make! Shoot us a tweet @sparkfun, or let us know on Instagram or Facebook. We’d love to see what projects you’ve made!

comments | comment feed

Read more »

App note: Paralleling eFuses

ON Semiconductors guide to cover much higher current capacity from eFuses. Link here (PDF)

The standard 12 V, 5 V and 3.3 V electronic fuses from ON Semiconductor provide overcurrent and overvoltage protection and come in different current limit configurations. As an example, the 5 V NIS5452 eFuse has a recommended operational 5 A current limit. Sometimes the operating current for the user system might be much higher than the maximum allowed current limit provided by the eFuse.

Read more »

Astronomy Cookies

Galaxy, globular cluster and nebula cookies

We love any excuse to create science themed food, and we had a blast brainstorming our contribution to “Astro-Gastro” contest at the annual member meeting at the Fremont Peak Observatory. We settled on some of the things we love to show visitors to the observatory: Galaxies, globular clusters, and nebulas.

Cinnamon Pinwheel Galaxy

Cinnamon Pinwheel Galaxies are inspired by palmiers. They are made with puff pastry that is coated in cinnamon sugar and rolled up, sliced and baked. The recipe is identical to palmiers except that you first fold the pastry over itself a little further than halfway, and then roll up from the folded edge to create the spiral pattern that shows when you slice them.

Globular Cluster Cookie

Chocolate Globular Clusters start with the same chocolate graham crackers we used for our Edible Asteroids project.

We iced them with a chocolate icing derived from a recipe for Black And White cookies from Baking Illustrated. Melt 2 oz unsweetened chocolate in double boiler. Bring 2 Tbsp light caro syrup and 3.5 Tbsp water to a boil in small saucepan. Remove from heat and stir in 2.5 cups powdered sugar and 1/4 tsp vanilla. Stir icing into chocolate in the double boiler. You may need to reheat the chocolate icing in the double boiler to keep it at a good consistency for spreading.

Immediately after spreading the icing on a cookie, very slightly moisten the top of the icing with water. You can either dip a finger in a dish of water and smooth a bit over the surface of the icing or use a water mister to give it a very light spritz. The water on the surface will make it sticky enough for the sprinkles to adhere to. Drop small white non pareil sprinkles over the center of the cookie. We used a small funnel held over center of the cookie, to create a dense cluster in the middle, and fewer and fewer as you reach the edges.

Meringue nebulas

For the Meringue Nebulae, we divided a batch of meringue into two, and colored half of it with black food coloring. The other half we split again and colored with red and blue respectively, stopping before it was fully mixed in to allow for some color variation. We spread the blue meringue along one side of a piping bag, and red along the other. Then we filled the middle with the grey. We piped the mixture out with a #12 icing tip in a wavy, uneven fashion. Using two different sizes of non pareil sprinkles made it look like there were stars of different brightness in our nebulae.

Meringue Nebula closeup

Other astronomers brought moon rock smores, almond asteroid cookies, and an Orion constellation cake. We’re tickled that the Cinnamon Pinwheel Galaxy won the contest against such fun competition.

Read more »