February 10, 2006 10:00 AM PST

Week in review: The spying game

A Senate panel failed to get much information from U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about a controversial eavesdropping program, but in the end the White House relented under pressure from fellow Republicans and disclosed details.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONTINUED: More privacy issues…
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