The Switchboard: Wait, there are federal agencies still using floppy disks?

December 9, 2013

This undated U.S. government photo shows an aerial view of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Fort Meade, Md. The Obama administration is defending the National Security Agency's need to collect telephone records of U.S. citizens, calling such information "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats." (AP Photo/U.S. Government)

Tech giants issue call for limits on government surveillance of users. "Eight prominent technology companies, bruised by revelations of government spying on their customers’ data and scrambling to repair the damage to their reputations, are mounting a public campaign to urge President Obama and Congress to set new limits on government surveillance," report Edward Wyatt and Claire Cain Miller at the New York Times. Led by Google and Microsoft, the Reform Government Surveillance coalition is launching today with a Web site and full page advertisements in national newspapers.

Agencies collected data on Americans’ cellphone use in thousands of "tower dumps."  "Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies conducting criminal investigations collected data on cellphone activity thousands of times last year," writes Ellen Nakashima at the Washington Post, "with each request to a phone company yielding hundreds or thousands of phone numbers of innocent Americans along with those of potential suspects." A congressional inquiry led by Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) has revealed that law enforcement made more than 9,000 requests for tower dumps, a bulk collection method in which information on all calls bounced off a cellphone tower during a period of time, last year.

Slowly they modernize: A federal agency that still uses floppy disks."Every day, The Federal Register, the daily journal of the United States government, publishes on its website and in a thick booklet around 100 executive orders, proclamations, proposed rule changes and other government notices that federal agencies are mandated to submit for public inspection," writes Jada F Smith at the New York Times. But some of it is still delivered via floppy disks, which some of you may remember as "the 3.5-inch plastic storage squares that have become all but obsolete in the United States."

Spies’ dragnet reaches a playing field of elves and trolls. "American and British spies have infiltrated the fantasy worlds of World of Warcraft and Second Life, conducting surveillance and scooping up data in the online games played by millions of people across the globe, according to newly disclosed classified documents," report Mark Mazzetti and Justin Elliot at the New York Times. "Fearing that terrorist or criminal networks could use the games to communicate secretly, move money or plot attacks, the documents show, intelligence operatives have entered terrain populated by digital avatars that include elves, gnomes and supermodels."

This silly joke about wine actually explains a lot about the wireless industry. The Switch's Brian Fung uses a joke by Federal Communications Commission Chair Tom Wheeler to explain the upcoming spectrum launch. Once you read the story, you'll understand this (pretty bad) joke: "As you've noticed, we've got a good supply of wine here tonight. But it's a limited supply. So, AT&T and Verizon? I'm going to have to ask you to limit. And T-Mobile and Sprint? Go ahead, guys! [Laughter.] But listen. T-Mobile and Sprint — would you show up and buy something?"

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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Andrea Peterson · December 8, 2013