Valve opens Linux video game store

Half-Life screenshotThe original Half Life game has been converted to run on Linux

Software firm Valve has launched a Linux version of its Steam game store.

The games made available via the online Steam store are playable on the Ubuntu version of the Linux open-source operating system.

Through the store, Ubuntu users can get at almost 60 games including popular titles such as CounterStrike and Team Fortress 2.

The launch comes as Valve lays off about 10% of its staff including some who were working on hardware projects.

Open-source software gives users access to all its underlying programming code and stands in contrast to closed or proprietary software which locks such information away,

No discussion

Players can get access to the Steam store using an add-on application available via the Ubuntu software centre.

As well as games made by Valve, the Linux version of Steam also sells titles made by other companies.

They include Amnesia, FTL, Serious Sam 3 and World of Goo.

As it opened the Linux store, Valve also cut the prices of the PC and Mac versions of games available to Ubuntu users by up to 75%. The sale will run until 21 February.

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We’re not going to discuss why anyone in particular is or isn’t working here”

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Valve boss Gabe Newell

David Pitkin, who works for Ubuntu developer Canonical, said he now expected “a growing number of game developers to include Ubuntu among their target platforms”.

Currently, few game makers produce a version that can run on Linux or other open-source operating systems.

While almost 60 titles are available on Steam, the store sells more than 2,000 games that run on Windows.

The launch is important for Valve because Linux is expected to be the operating system for the console it is developing to allow Steam games to be played on TVs.

As the curtain was being lifted on the Linux store, Valve sacked about 30 members of staff including high-profile developer Jeri Ellsworth who was reportedly working on the hardware behind the company’s console.

Valve boss Gabe Newell took the unusual step of issuing a statement about the lay-offs to curb speculation about what they would mean for the company’s many projects.

He said the sackings did not mean it was cancelling any projects or changing its priorities.

“We’re not going to discuss why anyone in particular is or isn’t working here,” he said.

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Chubby Checker sues over penis app

Chubby CheckerChubby Checker celebrated the 50th anniversary of The Twist in 2010

Rock’n'roll singer Chubby Checker is suing HP over an app that used his name as a euphemism for penis size.

The Chubby Checker app – which appeared on websites for Palm OS devices – claimed to guess the intimate measurement based on shoe size.

Lawyers acting for the singer are seeking $500m (£323m) in compensation, saying the app has done “irreparable damage” to his reputation.

HP said it removed the app as soon as it received a complaint from lawyers.

Lawyers for the 71-year-old singer – real name Ernest Evans – filed a “cease and desist” order against HP and its subsidiary Palm in September 2012, soon after the app became available.

Now they have launched a trademark infringement case against the two tech firms.

Chart topper

“He’s hurt,” his lawyer Willie Gary told Associated Press.

“He worked hard to build his name and reputation over the years.

“We cannot sit idly and watch as technology giants, or anyone else, exploits the name or likeness of an innocent person with the goal of making millions of dollars.”

The app had used his client’s name and trademark without permission, said Mr Gary,

In a statement, an HP spokesman said: “The application was removed in September 2012 and is no longer on any Palm or HP-hosted website.”

The German firm behind the offending program, Magic Apps, is no longer selling the software.

It is not clear how many copies it sold before HP and Palm but WebOSNation, which monitors the use of Palm smartphones, estimates it was downloaded only 84 times before it was pulled.

Chubby Checker is best known for his song The Twist which topped the US singles chart in both 1960 and 1962.

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Blue Peter honours Apple’s Jony Ive

Blue Peter Presenter Barney Harwood and Sir Jonathan Ive

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Watch presenter Barney Harwood present Sir Jonathan with the gold badge

The BBC’s Blue Peter programme has honoured Apple’s design chief Sir Jonathan Ive with its highest accolade – the gold Blue Peter badge.

The British executive helped create the iMac and iPhone and, in October, took responsibility for the look and feel of the firm’s software user interfaces.

Blue Peter said he was an “inspiration to children around the world”.

He will appear in a gadget-themed special broadcast on Saturday, offering advice to the viewers.

In the pre-filmed segment he reviewed designs sent in by children and recalled how he had enjoyed watching one of Blue Peter’s past presenters reuse a detergent bottle to create a paintbrush holder.

“I loved the way there was just products that you thought were no longer useful, but reusing them,” he said. “It was fantastic.”

Blue Peter has only presented about 1,000 gold badges in its history,

Other recipients include footballer David Beckham and author JK Rowling.

Sir Jonathan, known as Jony, described the news as “absolutely incredible”.

He also presented the show with his own version of the Blue Peter badge made out of solid aluminium, manufactured by Apple’s equipment, using the programme’s catchphrase: “Here’s one that we made earlier”.

The award adds to a series of honours.

In May, Sir Jonathan was knighted at Buckingham Palace for his services to design and enterprise.

In September, he brought his entire design team to London to celebrate winning the best brand and design studio of the previous 50 years prize at the Design and Art Direction (DAD) awards.

App redesign?

October’s management shake-up at Apple means a lot is now riding on his shoulders.

After the firm’s previous iOS software chief was ousted, it was announced Sir Jonathan would provide “leadership and direction for human interface across the company” in addition to being its industrial design boss.

There had been criticism that the firm’s iOS operating system – which powers its iPhones and iPads – was in need of an overhaul to help it fend off competition from Google’s Android and other rivals.

According to new figures from research firm IDC, 159.8 million Android-powered smartphones were shipped worldwide between October and December 2012, marking an 88% year-on-year gain.

By contrast, IDC suggests that 47.8 million iPhone were shipped over the same period – an annual gain of 29.2%.

In its analysis of the data, the consultancy said “what stands out is how iOS’s year-over-year growth has slowed compared to the overall market”.

It has been widely speculated that Sir Jonathan might now shift the Apple’s software away from its reliance on “skeuomorphic” textures and effects – in other words stop trying to make its apps look like their real-world equivalents.

This might see an end, for instance, to it showing stitched leather borders and torn paper in its Calendar app and lined yellow legal paper in its Notes product.

Sir Jonathan’s hardware designs have been praised for having a more minimalist approach.

However, it is unclear whether he will have had enough time in his new post to make such changes to Apple’s next iOS and Mac OS X system revisions which are expected later this year.

Blue Peter’s gadget special will be broadcast in the UK on the CBBC channel at 10:00 GMT on Saturday 16 February.

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Facebook ‘targeted by hackers’

Facebook logoFacebook has one billion active users worldwide

Facebook has revealed it was the target of a “sophisticated attack” by hackers last month, but found no evidence any user data had been compromised.

The US-based social network said that the attack occurred when employees visited a mobile developer website “that was compromised”.

Facebook said in a blog post that it was not the only company to have been attacked in this way.

More than one billion people use Facebook worldwide.

“Last month, Facebook security discovered that our systems had been targeted in a sophisticated attack,” the California-based company said.

“The attack occurred when a handful of employees visited a mobile developer website that was compromised.”

Malware was downloaded on to its employees’ laptops, the firm said, adding: “As soon as we discovered the presence of the malware, we remediated all infected machines, informed law enforcement, and began a significant investigation that continues to this day.”

“We have no evidence that Facebook user data was compromised in this attack,” Facebook said in its blog post.

The firm went on to say that it was “not alone in this attack”.

“It is clear that others were attacked and infiltrated recently as well. As one of the first companies to discover this malware, we immediately took steps to start sharing details about the infiltration with the other companies and entities that were affected,” Facebook said.

This is the latest attack by apparently sophisticated hackers targeting high-profile sites.

Twitter said earlier this month that the theft of 250,000 users’ passwords, as well as usernames, emails and other data, was “not the work of amateurs”.

The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal have all accused China of “persistently” hacking into their security systems – accusations China denies.

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Police hold 11 over ransomware scam

Europol cyber crime teamThousands of machines had been infected, Europol said

A complex cybercrime network spreading ransomware designed to extort money has been shut down, police have said.

Spanish authorities, working with the European Union’s law enforcement agency, Europol, arrested 11 people, from Russia, Georgia and Ukraine.

Software planted on targeted machines accused the user of having viewed illegal content, such as images showing child sex abuse, Europol said.

It then told the user to pay a “fine” before continuing to use the machine.

A Europol statement said: “By dressing the ransomware up to look as if it comes from a law enforcement agency, cybercriminals convince the victim to pay the ‘fine’ of 100 euros [$130; £85] through two types of payment gateways – virtual and anonymous – as a penalty for the alleged offence.

“The criminals then go on to steal data and information from the victim’s computer.

“Since the virus was detected in May 2011, there have been more than 1,200 reported cases just in Spain, and the number of victims could be much higher.”

‘One million euros’

Investigators from Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre – which launched last month – said the network had infected “tens of thousands” of computers worldwide.

Estimated profits had been in the range of one million euros per year, the statement said. And the virus had been first discovered in May 2011.

The gang had been receiving the money in a variety of ways – including using virtual currency such as Bitcoin, Europol said.

They were also alleged to have used cash machines in Spain to withdraw money with compromised credit cards – one of which had been used to take out 26,000 euros prior to the suspects’ arrest.

Europol believe the head of the operation was a 27-year-old Russian man who had been in charge of the “creation, development and international distribution of the various versions of the malware”.

“He was arrested in the United Arab Emirates and is awaiting extradition to Spain,” the statement said.

Six Russians, two Ukrainians and two Georgians were also arrested.

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Blue-screen effects pioneer dies

Petro VlahosMr Vlahos helped perfect the ability to superimpose actors on separately filmed backgrounds

The special effects industry has paid tribute to Petro Vlahos – the pioneer of blue- and green-screen systems.

The techniques allow filmmakers to superimpose actors and other objects against separately filmed backgrounds.

He developed the procedure for 1959′s Ben-Hur and then went on to win an Oscar in 1964 after creating a related process for Disney’s Mary Poppins.

The death of the 96-year-old was announced by the company he founded, Ultimatte.

His innovations continue to be used and developed by the television, film, computer games and advertising industries.

“Our industry has lost a giant,” Everett Burrell, senior visual effects supervisor at Los Angeles-based studio Look Effects. told the BBC.

“It’s hard to even conceive of how we would do what we do without the amazing number of processes and techniques he pioneered. All visual effects professionals and movie fans owe him a debt of gratitude.”

Look Effects has built on Mr Vlahos’ achievements to create work for the movies Avatar, The Life of Pi and the upcoming Superman film, Man of Steel.

Bedknobs and BroomsticksMr Vlahos’s techniques were used in dozens of Disney movies

Six-month idea

Mr Vlahos was not the first to use a blue-screens – earlier versions of the technique can be seen in films including The Thief of Bagdad, and The Ten Commandments.

But he is credited with developing a way to use it that minimised some objects appearing to have a strange looking glow as a side-effect.

He called his invention the colour-difference travelling matte scheme.

Like pre-existing blue-screen techniques it involves filming a scene against an aquamarine blue-coloured background.

This is used to generate a matte – which is transparent wherever the blue-colour features on the original film, and opaque elsewhere. This can then be used to superimpose a separately filmed scene or visual effects to create a composite.

Mr Vlahos’s breakthrough was to create a complicated laboratory process which involved separating the blue, green and red parts of each frame before combining them back together in a certain order.

He also noted in a patent filing that the process allowed the blue-screen procedure to cope with glassware, cigarette smoke, blowing hair and motion blur which had all caused problems for earlier efforts.

Movie studio MGM had commissioned him to invent it. Mr Vlahos later noted that it had taken him six months of thought to come up with the idea, much of it spent staring out onto Hollywood Boulevard.

Velhos Patent drawingThe diagram used to outline Mr Vlahos’s original blue-screen colour separation processing technique

He later created a “black box” – which he called Ultimatte – to handle the process, first for film and then electronically for video.

Acting alongside cartoons

Mr Vlahos was also awarded a patent for his work on a related technique called sodium vapour illumination, which he developed for Disney.

This involved filming the actors’ scenes against a while backdrop using sodium-powered lamps which caused a yellow glow to bounce off the background.

The camera featured two film stocks shot simultaneously, and a prism on its lens.

The prism split the yellow sodium light away from the other colours, sending it to a black-and-white-based film stock which was then used to create the matte.

Meanwhile, the other film stock recorded the scenes in colour without the sodium’s yellow cast being visible.

The advantage was that this created an even cleaner effect than Mr Vlahos’ original blue-screen efforts.

Disney used Mr Vlahos’s version of the technique to make Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and Pete’s Dragon – among other movies – letting its actors appear to interact with cartoons.

Alfred Hitchcock also borrowed the technique for The Birds, and Warren Beatty later used it in Dick Tracy.

AdvantEdgeUltimatte now offers a software plug-in for Avid and Apple’s Final Cut editing programs

However, it has since fallen out of favour because the equipment involved is more expensive and cumbersome to operate, and the quality of blue- and green-screen techniques has improved.

‘Extraordinary significance’

Mr Vlahos ultimately racked up more than 35 movie-related patents and went on to co-found his company, Ultimatte Corp, with his son Paul in 1976.

It now focuses its efforts on making AdvantEdge, a compositing software plug-in.

Robin Shenfield, chief executive of visual effects studio The Mill, recalls meeting Petro Vlahos several times in the 1980s and says he came across as “unassuming”, despite his many achievements.

“I remember him being rather quiet,” he told the BBC.

“He was a scientist – he wasn’t a showman, although I think he rather liked the involvement of his technology in the world of entertainment. Ultimatte had a bit of razzmatazz about it as a company.”

Jeremy Vine uses green-screenThe BBC is among the many organisations which commonly used green-screen techniques in its programmes

The Mill has since used blue- and green-screen technologies to create visual effects for the film Gladiator, the BBC’s Dr Who television series and director Guy Ritchie’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 trailer among other works.

“It’s the absolute building block of all the visual effects that you see in television and movies,” added Mr Shenfield.

“It’s significance is extraordinary. Everything people like us and others are still built on that fundamental ability to take lots of elements from lots of places and seamlessly mesh them into a new convincing reality.

“Mr Petro – and his family – were pioneers in our industry for which he should be remembered.”

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Self-driving car given UK test run

Self-driving car

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The BBC’s Richard Westcott tests out the self-driving car

A car that is able to drive itself on familiar routes has been shown off at an event at Oxford University.

The technology uses lasers and small cameras to memorise regular journeys like the commute or the school run.

The engineers and researchers behind the project are aiming to produce a low-cost system that “takes the strain” off drivers.

Other companies, such as Google, have also been testing driverless vehicle technology.

The search giant has pushed for law changes in California to allow its car to be tried out in real-life situations.

The Oxford RobotCar UK project is seeking to do the same in the UK, said Prof Paul Newman from Oxford University’s department of engineering science.

“We’re working with the Department of Transport to get some miles on the road in the UK,” said Prof Newman, who is working alongside machine learning specialist Dr Ingmar Posner.

Gaining ‘experiences’

Until the car can hit the streets, the team is testing it out in a specially-made environment at Begbroke Science Park in Oxfordshire.

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Frankly, it is a bit disconcerting being driven around by a robotic chauffeur, but then I remember thinking the same thing when I first used cruise control on a motorway.

It’s amazing how quickly you adjust to things. Within five minutes I’d got used to the wheel turning on its own, and I wasn’t remotely concerned when someone walked out in front of us (it was a tightly controlled safety experiment before anyone emails in, and the car did stop in plenty of time).

Fully autonomous cars won’t appear in showrooms overnight. But it seems inevitable we will be handing over more of the driving to computers as the years roll by, and this Oxford University system could well be the next step.

There are barriers of course. Makers will have to prove they are safe. Then they’ll have to convince the public. And there’s the sticky question of who’s liable if there’s a crash.

Still, most car crashes are down to the human at the wheel. Plenty of people believe robotic cars could save thousands of lives in the future.

“It’s not like a racetrack – it’s a light industrial site with roads and road markings,” Prof Newman told the BBC.

“Crucial for us, it can show our navigation and control system working.

“It’s not depending on GPS, digging up the roads or anything like that – it’s just the vehicles knowing where they are because they recognise their surroundings.”

The technology allows the car to “take over” when driving on routes it has already travelled.

“The key word for us is that the car gains ‘experiences’,” Prof Newman explained.

“The car is driven by a human, and it builds a 3D model of its environment.”

When it goes on the same journey again, an iPad built into the dashboard gives a prompt to the driver – offering to let the computer “take the wheel”.

“Touching the screen then switches to ‘auto drive’ where the robotic system takes over, Prof Newman added.

“At any time, a tap on the brake pedal will return control to the human driver.”

Spinning lasers

At the moment, the complete system costs around £5,000 – but Prof Newman hopes that future models will bring the price of the technology down to as low as £100.

Autonomous technology is being tested by several car manufacturers and technology companies.

Simple self-driving tasks, such as cars that can park themselves, are already in use across the industry.

The Holy Grail is a fully-autonomous vehicle that is location-aware, safe and affordable.

An iPad display in the self-driving carThe iPad display tells the driver when the car is able to take over

Google has been testing its car for several years, with the company boasting of 300,000 computer-driven miles without an accident.

While at an earlier stage of development, Oxford University’s car has significant key differences to Google’s offering, Prof Newman said.

“Well if you look at it, we don’t need a 3D laser spinning on the roof that’s really expensive – so that’s one thing straight away. I think our car has a lower profile.”

He added: “Our approach is made possible because of advances in 3D laser mapping that enable an affordable car-based robotic system to rapidly build up a detailed picture of its surroundings.

“Because our cities don’t change very quickly, robotic vehicles will know and look out for familiar structures as they pass by so that they can ask a human driver ‘I know this route, do you want me to drive?’”

Prof Newman applauded Google’s efforts in innovating in the space – but was buoyant about the role British expertise could have in the industry.

“This is all UK intellectual property, getting into the [driverless car] race.

“I would be astounded if we don’t see this kind of technology in cars within 15 years. That is going to be huge.”

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‘More accurate’ sat-nav revealed

AFPToyota is one of several car manufacturers working on automated vehicles

Researchers in Spain have developed a system they say can greatly improve the accuracy of car sat-navs.

It combines a conventional global positioning system (GPS) signal with those of other sensors – accelerometers and gyroscopes – to pinpoint a car’s location to within 2m (6ft 6in).

It can be cheaply installed in any car and may eventually work on smartphones, the researchers say.

Such a system has the potential to help the burgeoning driverless car industry.

The system was jointly designed and developed by the Applied Artificial Intelligence Group and the Systems Intelligence Laboratory – both based at Carlos III University in Madrid (UC3M).

“We have managed to improve the determination of a vehicle’s position in critical cases by between 50 and 90%,” said researcher David Martin.

According to the scientists, the margin of error of commercial GPS used in cars is about 15m in an open field, where the receiver has good visibility from the satellites.

However, in cities where the signal bounces off buildings and trees, the calculation of a vehicle’s position can be off by more than 50m.

In certain cases, such as in tunnels, communication is lost completely.

At that point, the system reverts to essentially guessing the location. While this may be sufficient for in-car navigation systems, it would not be suitable for automated vehicles, which are currently being developed by the likes of Google.

“Cars are becoming increasingly connected,” said Prof David Bailey from the Coventry University Business school.

“There is a lot of research into driverless cars and, for that, GPS needs to be as accurate as possible,” he added.

The system developed in Madrid makes use of a unit comprised of three accelerometers and three gyroscopes, which keep track of the speed and direction of a vehicle at all times.

The data from these is combined with that from a conventional GPS unit to pinpoint a location of a car to within 2m in cities.

Using smartphones

The next step for the Spanish researchers is to develop a system that can work with smartphones.

Most are equipped with a range of sensors, including an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a magnetometer, GPS and cameras, in addition to wi-fi, Bluetooth and GSM communications.

“We are now starting to work on the integration of this data fusion system into a mobile telephone,” said researcher Enrique Marti.

“It can integrate all of the measurements that come from its sensors in order to obtain the same result that we have now, but at an even much lower cost, since it is something that almost everyone can carry around in their pocket.”

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Mobile phone sales ‘go into reverse’

Samsung Galaxy phoneGartner said Samsung was the bestselling mobile manufacturer, accounting for 22% of all sales

Global sales of mobile phones fell in 2012 compared with the previous year, according to a report from research company Gartner.

It said 1.75 billion handsets had been bought, marking a 1.7% decline.

Analysts at the firm suggested “tough economic conditions” had been partly responsible for the drop.

It follows official data from Spain indicating its number of mobile telephone and datacard subscriptions fell by 5% over the same period.

A report by the Spanish regulator CMT said there were nearly 2.8 million fewer such contracts at the end of the year than at the beginning, with Telefonica’s Movistar unit and Vodafone bearing the brunt of losses in December.

The country’s gross domestic product (GDP) shrank by 1.3% in 2012, according to its central bank.

Android gains

Gartner’s data suggests weakening demand for feature phones – lower-end devices with limited functionality – led to the drop. It said that in the final three months of the year, 264.4 million such devices had been sold – 19.3% fewer than over the same period in 2011.

Although smartphones had seen a 38.3% year-on-year gain over the fourth quarter, they had still remained in the minority with 207.7 million units sold, the study said.

The firm added that Apple and Samsung had dominated the smartphone market, with a combined 52% share in the October-to-December quarter.

“There is no manufacturer that can firmly lay claim to the number three spot,” said the company’s principal research analyst Anshul Gupta.

“Their direct competitors, including those with comparable products, struggle to achieve the same brand appreciation among consumers.”

He added that the overall fall in sales marked the first time the market had contracted since 2009.

Gartner’s data also indicated that in the fourth quarter, Android had powered 69.7% of all smartphones sold, while iOS had accounted for 20.9% of devices.

For the year, that marked a gain in share for Google’s operating system, but a decline for Apple’s – although in terms of units sold, both firms made gains.

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US pursues tighter cybersecurity

President Obama President Obama warned of cyber threats facing the US during his State of the Union address

US officials have been ordered to draw up procedures to reduce the country’s exposure to cybersecurity threats.

President Obama warned that the country’s enemies were “seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions and our air traffic control systems”.

He added that Congress also needed to pass related laws.

The House Intelligence Committee has said it now planned to revive its cyber threat information-sharing bill.

The legislation – known as Cispa – had previously been attacked by privacy campaigners and the White House itself had threatened to veto the bill if passed in its original form.

Executive order

The US president’s executive order on Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity was issued in conjunction with his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

It instructs the National Institute of Standards and Technology (Nist) to work with the relevant government agencies and industry bodies to draw up standards and practices to combat cyber threats.

It also calls on officials to share both classified and unrestricted information about attacks with at-risk companies.

It adds that “strong privacy and civil liberties protections” should be incorporated into the new procedures.

President Obama told Congress the standards would “protect our national security, our jobs and our privacy”.

But because the order does not amount to a new law it does not compel the private sector to take any action.

As a result, the president added that “Congress must act as well by passing legislation to give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks”.

In response, the US Chamber of Commerce welcomed the emphasis on information sharing, but warned it would oppose any follow-up effort to impose new regulations on industry.

Privacy concerns

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also said it was “encouraged” by the order’s wording – but has made clear it would oppose any effort to reintroduce the House Intelligence Committee’s Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (Cispa).

Congressmen Mike Rogers and Dutch RuppersbergerCongressmen Mike Rogers (left) and Dutch Ruppersberger (right) plan to reintroduce Cispa

The proposed law would give permission to US companies to share cyber threat information with the government and others in the private sector. Firms would be offered “liability protection” if their conduct was later challenged.

Chairman Mike Rogers, a Republican, said: “This is clearly not a theoretical threat – the recent spike in advanced cyber attacks against the banks and newspapers makes that crystal clear.”

The committee’s senior Democrat, Dutch Ruppersberger, added: “We need to do everything we can to enable American companies to defend themselves… our bill does just that by permitting the voluntary sharing of critical threat intelligence.”

However, the ACLU warned that exactly what counted as a threat remained “undefined” and the law “would trample on decades of privacy law”.

It has suggested that once data was handed over it might “also be used for purposes completely unrelated to cybersecurity”.

Second life

The House of Representatives passed Cispa last April. IBM, Oracle, Microsoft and Facebook backed the bill, saying efforts would continue to address civil liberty concerns.

But the White House warned that the president might veto any resulting law unless it added “clear legal protections and independent oversight” to address privacy concerns.

However, the president later wrote an op-ed broadly supporting related legislation when it went before the Senate a few months later.

Despite this, the bill failed to clear the upper house after senators failed to agree on proposed amendments.

Congressmen Rogers and Ruppersberger now intend to reintroduce April’s version of Cispa to the House next week.

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