JASON Views Challenges of Electronic Health Data

The ongoing transition to electronic storage of individual health information was examined in a newly released study from the JASON scientific advisory panel.

“The two overarching goals of moving to the electronic exchange of health information are improved health care and lower health care costs. Whether either, or both, of these goals can be achieved remains to be seen, and the challenges are immense,” the JASON study says.

See A Robust Health Data Infrastructure, prepared for the Department of Health and Human Services, November 2013 (approved for release April 2014).

The JASON study addresses the tension between personal health information, which is “sensitive and therefore must be carefully safeguarded,” and aggregated population health data, which are “a highly valuable, and largely untapped, resource for basic and clinical research.”

“It is in the public interest to make such [aggregated population] information available for scientific, medical, and economic purposes.” Reconciling these competing imperatives of privacy and information sharing is one of the challenges to be overcome.

The JASONs, who normally deal with defense science and technology, strain to affirm a relationship between health and national security. (“From a national security perspective it is important to have an accurate assessment of the current health and potential health vulnerabilities of the population.”)

Interestingly, they suggest that because the United States is less ethnically homogenous than many other countries, it “has a special advantage” in conducting certain types of medical research.

The U.S. “is a genetic melting pot that can be a crucible for discoveries related to personalized medicine and the genetic basis of disease,” the JASONs said.


The Fermi Awards: A Celebration of Outstanding Science and Scientists

On February 3, two outstanding scientists, Dr. Allen Bard and Dr. Andrew Sessler, received the Enrico Fermi Award. Dr. Sessler has been a longstanding member of the Federation of American Scientists and served as the Chairman of FAS during part of the 1980s. In introductory remarks, Dr. Ernest Moniz, the Secretary of Energy, commented that earlier that day Dr. Bard and Dr. Sessler were at the White House, where President Obama said that it was great to be around rational people. According to Dr. Moniz, Dr. Sessler then urged President Obama to listen even more to scientists. In describing Dr. Sessler’s work on arms control and human rights, Dr. Moniz said that Dr. Sessler may have sacrificed a paper or two but it was worth it to serve society. Dr. Moniz called attention to Dr. Bard’s dedication to mentoring and collaborating with many scientists. According to the awards booklet, Dr. Bard has mentored or collaborated with “83 Ph.D. students, 18 M.S. students, 190 postdoctoral associates, and numerous visiting scientists.” These collaborations have resulted in more than 850 peer-reviewed research papers.

Continue reading

JASON on Enhanced Geothermal Energy Systems

The potential for new technologies to harvest energy from the Earth’s crust was considered in a new report from the elite JASON science advisory board on “Enhanced Geothermal Systems” (EGS).

“EGS offers important opportunities for increasing the contribution of geothermal energy to U.S. power production: by a few-fold over the next few years, according to our estimation, and much more so if this initial success is appropriately leveraged over subsequent years,” the report concluded.

As described in the report, EGS entails drilling deep into the Earth’s crust — 1 to 5 kilometers or more — and forcing a fluid (water or brine) through hot, permeable rock. Energy from the heated fluid can then be extracted.

Of course, the technology is not without hazards. One is the potential for pollution of potable water acquifers. Another more ominous concern is “induced seismicity” — or artificially-generated earthquakes.

“Induced seismicity is a relatively well-documented phenomenon associated with changing fluid pressures at depth,” the report notes. The JASONs assert that “there is a basis for controlling the induced seismicity and therefore for minimizing this potential hazard attributable to EGS.”

The new JASON report is elegantly written and can be at least partially understood by non-specialist readers who may have forgotten their heat and mass transfer equations. A copy was obtained by Secrecy News.

Over the past year, the JASONs completed eight classified studies containing sensitive compartmented information (SCI) that have not been disclosed. Several other unclassified reports were also performed and their release is pending.

In 2012, the Central Intelligence Agency refused to release a JASON report entitled “Metamaterials.”

Update: For more background on enhanced geothermal systems, see this story in Scientific American.

Defense Science Board Urges Expanded Global Monitoring

While others speak of curbing intelligence surveillance activities, the Defense Science Board argues in a new report that the U.S. government should expand and accelerate global monitoring for purposes of detecting nuclear proliferation as “a top national security objective.”

Intelligence techniques and technologies that are used to combat terrorism should also be harnessed to address the threat of proliferation, said the new DSB report, entitled “Assessment of Nuclear Monitoring and Verification Technologies,” January 2014.

“The advances in persistent surveillance, automated tracking, rapid analyses of large and multi-source data sets, and open source analyses to support conventional warfighting and counterterrorism have not yet been exploited by the nuclear monitoring community…. New intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies, demonstrated in recent conflicts, offer significant promise for monitoring undesirable nuclear activity throughout the free world.”

The National Security Agency, among others, has pointed the way, the report suggested. A newly integrated global awareness system for counterproliferation should “build on lessons and experiences of successful national security capabilities, such as… NSA’s counterterrorism capabilities….”

“The ‘big data’ technologies for extracting meaning from vast quantities of data that are being developed commercially in the information technology (IT) industry, and for other purposes in DoD and the IC, need to be extended and applied to nuclear monitoring.”

In particular, “Exploiting the cyber domain should certainly be a big part of any nuclear monitoring effort. Both passive, depending on what is sent voluntarily, and active sources should be considered. Data gathered from the cyber domain establishes a rich and exploitable source for determining activities of individuals, groups and organizations needed to participate in either the procurement or development of a nuclear device…. Many of the new technology advances in data exfiltration, covert implantation, etc., hold promise for successful multi-INT collection and exploitation in non-permissive environments.”

“Monitoring for proliferation should be a top national security objective — and one that the nation is not yet organized or fully equipped to address.”

At the same time, the DSB report emphasized the need for increased openness and transparency, both to strengthen international confidence and stability and to simplify the challenge of global monitoring of proliferation. (As used by the DSB — and the USG — the term transparency in this context seems to mean the exchange of data among interested governments, and does not necessarily imply release of information to the public.)

The DSB authors recommend “a comprehensive, sustained, policy-based diplomatic approach coordinated across the U.S. Government and with other nations devoted expressly to advance the cause of openness and transparency writ large…. This situation should be addressed with the highest priority.”

“The Task Force envisions a multi-year effort, which can pay large dividends in terms of a universal transparency that would improve strategic and tactical stability against nuclear war among all nuclear weapons states, as well as achieve enhanced confidence building for nonproliferation efforts.”

“All parties would benefit from the national security stability that would ensue from having transparent knowledge of the numbers/types of other nations’ nuclear arsenals, while each nation in turn makes the knowledge of their own SNM [special nuclear material] and/or nuclear weapons inventories available to the others.”

(The report does not mention the case of Israel, whose policy of nuclear opacity — not transparency — is supported at least tacitly by the U.S. government.)

“The Task Force does believe that the times are now propitious to move forward on a path to develop universal transparency regimes that can simultaneously fulfill these goals and requirements through an international process for achieving universal knowledge of nuclear weapon inventories and SNM inventories, and that the U.S. should lead in such an effort.”

“Indeed, the U.S. has already declassified the size of its current nuclear arsenal.”

Unfortunately, that last assertion is not correct.  In May 2010, the U.S. government did declassify the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal as of September 2009.  (At that time, there were 5,113 warheads.) But if you ask how big the arsenal is today, it turns out that the answer is once again classified. The Federation of American Scientists has petitioned the Department of Energy to revise that judgment in favor of public disclosure.

The new DSB report contains several other incidental observations of interest.

*    To date, the U.S. has entered into roughly 25 agreements on nuclear cooperation with other countries (known as 123 Agreements).

*    Of the nearly 1,000 active satellites in earth orbit, there are 200 engaged in earth observation.

*    Some non-governmental analysis of commercial satellite imagery is of poor quality and “may introduce additional noise into U.S. and international monitoring systems. Some experts are concerned that bad data and bad analysis could increasingly tarnish or mask more reliable data…. There have already been major analytical errors made by untrained imagery analysts who have published openly.”

*    The efficient analysis of big data can be undermined by the “transmission latency” (or delayed transfer) of data stored in a cloud-based architecture. Therefore, the DSB says that when it comes to nuclear monitoring, “the analytics need to stay near the data.” Similar concerns concerning prompt access are said to arise in the context of NSA analysis of telephony metadata.

Nuclear Weapons Scientists Are Sad

Scientists in the nuclear weapons program at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) are feeling blue, according to a recent internal report.

“We heard that there is a sense of increased stress and reduced morale among LLNL technical employees in the weapons program, stemming from a (perceived, at least) combination of reduced resources and increased work requirements,” the report said.

Of course, many people are sad, for many reasons. The Shekhinah is in exile. But low morale among weapons scientists can have negative programmatic and national security consequences.

Therefore, “We recommend attention to the potential danger that activities that are important for long-term stockpile stewardship may be dropped in favor of seemingly urgent near-term requirements,” the report said. See “Predictive Science Panel: Unclassified Report,” LLNL Meeting, August 20-22, 2013.

A new study of the future of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal proposes “a framework for evaluating future reductions or modifications of the U.S. nuclear force.”  The study, performed for the Department of Energy, warns against irreversible changes in the arsenal (which it calls “roach motels of reduction”), reversible but undesirable changes (“box canyons in the Valley of Disarmament”), and other types of unfavorable actions (“wrong turns on the road to the future”). See “Reductions Without Regret” by John A. Swegle and Douglas J. Tincher, Savannah River National Laboratory, September 2013. The report does not necessarily represent the views of DoE or the US Government (or FAS).

A new report from the CATO Institute calls for the elimination of two legs of the nuclear triad (missiles and bombers) in favor of an entirely submarine-based nuclear force.  See “The End of Overkill?” by Benjamin Friedman, Christopher Preble, and Matt Fay, September 24, 2013.

Meanwhile, Hans Kristensen of FAS discovers a surprising fact: “The latest data from the New START Treaty shows that Russia has reduced its deployed strategic nuclear forces while the United States has increased its force over the past six months.” This is an anomalous result of the counting process, not a new arms buildup, but it is noteworthy nonetheless. See “New START Data Shows Russia Reducing, US Increasing Nuclear Forces,” FAS Strategic Security Blog, October 2.

Cryptographer Adi Shamir Prevented from Attending NSA History Conference

In this email message to colleagues, Israeli cryptographer Adi Shamir recounts the difficulties he faced in getting a visa to attend the 2013 Cryptologic History Symposium sponsored by the National Security Agency. Adi Shamir is the “S” in the RSA public-key algorithm and is “one of the finest cryptologists in the world today,” according to historian David Kahn. The NSA Symposium begins tomorrow. For the reasons described below, Dr. Shamir will not be there.

From: Adi Shamir

Date: October 15, 2013 12:16:28 AM EDT


Subject: A personal apology

The purpose of this email is to explain why I will not be able to attend the forthcoming meeting of the History of Cryptology conference, even though I submitted a paper which was formally accepted. As an active participant in the exciting developments in academic cryptography in the last 35 years, I thought that it would be a wonderful opportunity to meet all of you, but unfortunately the US bureaucracy has made this impossible.

The story is too long to describe in detail, so I will only provide its main highlights here. I planned to visit the US for several months, in order to attend the Crypto 2013 conference, the History of Cryptology conference, and to visit several universities and research institutes in between in order to meet colleagues and give scientific lectures. To do all of these, I needed a new J1 visa, and I filed the visa application at the beginning of June, two and a half months before my planned departure to the Crypto conference in mid August. I applied so early since it was really important for me to attend the Crypto conference – I was one of the founders of this flagship annual academic event (I actually gave the opening talk in the first session of the first meeting of this conference in 1981) and I did my best to attend all its meetings in the last 32 years.

To make a long story short, after applying some pressure and pulling a lot of strings, I finally got the visa stamped in my passport on September 30-th, exactly four months after filing my application, and way beyond the requested start date of my visit. I was lucky in some sense, since on the next day the US government went into shutdown, and I have no idea how this could have affected my case. Needless to say, the long uncertainty had put all my travel plans (flights, accommodations, lecture commitments, etc) into total disarray.

It turns out that I am not alone, and many foreign scientists are now facing the same situation. Here is what the president of the Weizmann Institute of Science (where I work in Israel) wrote in July 2013 to the US Ambassador in Israel:

“I’m allowing myself to write you again, on the same topic, and related to the major difficulties the scientists of the Weizmann Institute of Science are experiencing in order to get Visa to the US. In my humble opinion, we are heading toward a disaster, and I have heard many people, among them our top scientists, saying that they are not willing anymore to visit the US, and collaborate with American scientists, because of the difficulties. It is clear that scientists have been singled out, since I hear that other ‘simple citizen’, do get their visa in a short time.”

Even the president of the US National Academy of Science (of which I am a member) tried to intervene, without results. He was very sympathetic, writing to me at some stage:

“Dear Professor Shamir

I have been hoping, day by day, that your visa had come through. It is very disappointing to receive your latest report. We continue to try by seeking extra attention from the U. S. Department of State, which has the sole authority in these matters. As you know, the officers of the Department of State in embassies around the world also have much authority. I am personally very sympathetic and hopeful that your efforts and patience will still yield results but also realize that this episode has been very trying. We hope to hear of a last-minute success.

Yours sincerely, Ralph J. Cicerone”

What does all of this have to do with the History of Cryptology conference? In January 2013 I submitted a paper titled “The Cryptology of John Nash From a Modern Perspective” to the conference, and a short time afterwards I was told by the organizers that it was accepted. In July 2013 I told the NSA-affiliated conference organizers that I was having some problems in getting my visa, and gently asked whether they could do something about it. Always eager to help, the NSA people leaped into action, and immediately sent me a short email written with a lot of tact:

“The trouble you are having is regrettable…Sorry you won’t be able to come to our conference. We have submitted our program and did not include you on it.”

I must admit that in my 35 years of attending many conferences, it had never happened to me that an accepted paper of mine was yanked out from the official program in such a unilateral way. However, since I never try to go to places where I do not feel wanted, I decided to inform MIT that a window had become available in my busy schedule. They immediately invited me to visit them on October 17 and 18, and to give a major lecture during my visit. Naturally, I accepted their gracious invitation.

The final twist in this saga happened a few days ago, when out of the blue I was suddenly reinvited by the conference organizers to attend the event and to present my paper. However, this is too late now, since I am already fully committed to my visit to MIT.

So what is the bottom line of this whole unhappy episode? Clearly, no one in the US is trying to see the big picture, and the heavy handed visa bureaucracy you have created seems to be collapsing under its own weight. This is not a security issue – I have been to the US close to a hundred times so far (including some multi-year visits), and had never overstayed my visas. In addition, the number of terrorists among the members of the US National Academy of Science is rather small. As a friend of the US I am deeply worried that if you continue to delay visas in such a way, the only thing you will achieve is to alienate many world-famous foreign scientists, forcing them to increase their cooperation with European or Chinese scientists whose countries roll the red carpet for such visits. Is this really in the US best interest?

Best personal wishes, and apologies for not being able to meet you in person,

Adi Shamir

FAS Joins Emerging Threats Working Group

Appointment provides a unique opportunity for FAS to collaborate with NATO and other Euro-Atlantic states to better address the emerging security threats arising from science and technology breakthroughs.

The rapid pace of scientific discovery and technological innovation demands the redoubling of efforts by scientists, policymakers, non-governmental experts, and the business community to adapt to the security implications. That is why FAS is pleased to announce that Michael Edward Walsh, the Adjunct Fellow for Emerging Technologies and High-end Threats at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), was recently named to the Partnership for Peace Consortium of Defense Academies and Security Studies Institutes (PfPC) Working Group on Emerging Security Challenges. Continue reading

Why Physicists Have a Responsibility to Society

Presentation to the March Meeting of the American Physical Society, February 27, 2012, Boston, MA.

The debate and controversy over the National Science Foundation (NSF) criterion on broader societal impacts of NSF-funded research have served the important function of challenging the physics community to reexamine why public money should support pure and applied physics research and what is the role of physicists in society. I will argue that the criterion, while well intentioned, appears ill informed and runs the risk of creating a check list of activities that will seemingly fulfill physicists’ responsibility to connect their work to larger societal issues. Continue reading