The RISKS Digest
Volume 29 Issue 72

Wednesday, 24th August 2016

Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems

ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy, Peter G. Neumann, moderator

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CALTRANS, the FCC, and the GAO on inter-auto comms
S Candice Hoke
'Smart' Power Outlets Are Now Botnets
techdirt via Al Mac
"New Approach Needed to IT, Says NIST's Top Cyber Scientist"
ACM TechNews
In India users may get 3-yrs in jail for viewing torrent site, blocked URL
Airlines' reservation systems
Werner U
France, Germany Want Encrypted App Makers to Help Stop IS
Closely Watched Ballots
Jon Grinspan
Which Way Do you Vote? Facebook Has an Idea
Jeremy Merrill
NSA-linked Cisco exploit poses bigger threat than previously thought
Ars Technica
Three relevant items on NSA hacking
Lawyer: Dark Web Child Porn Site Ran Better When It Was Taken Over by the FBI
HTTPS and OpenVPN face new attack that can decrypt secret cookies
Ars Technica
Why you *still* can't trust password strength meters
Naked Security
"When Hiding Passwords Is Stupid—or Worse!"
LW's blog
Private lives are exposed as WikiLeaks spills its secrets
Secret cameras record Baltimore's every move from above
With Windows 10, Microsoft Blatantly Disregards User Choice and Privacy: A Deep Dive
Self-driving motorcycle
WiReD via Al Mac
Re: Self-driving cars, accepting the moral dilemma
Martyn Thomas
Re: The Internet
Richard S. Russell
Re: Snowden Junior
John Levine
Re: "Android malware being spread via Google AdSense"
John Levine
Re: Facebook bypass adblockers/ Google ad settings/ need for ad-blockers/ growing impossibility of using ad-blockers
Jay Libove
Should You Charge Your Phone Overnight?
Sleep 'resets' brain connections crucial for memory and learning
Ian Sample
Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

CALTRANS, the FCC, and the GAO on inter-auto comms

S Candice Hoke <>
Wed, 24 Aug 2016 01:34:52 +0000 (GMT)
CALTRANS filed a submission to the FCC asking that the Fed agency not delay
its approval of wireless communications between autos, disputing that the
security & privacy risks are significant.  Law360 presented this yesterday:

  Caltrans Says FCC Mustn't Delay 'Life-Saving' Car Tech.  California's
  Department of Transportation warned the Federal Communications Commission
  on Friday against agreeing to delay a technology allowing vehicles to
  communicate with each other over shared wireless spectrum, saying security
  concerns are unfounded.

I'm also attaching [*] the CALTRANS submission to FCC.  As you can see,
CALTRANS spends most of its time assessing that human error causes vast
numbers of lives to be lost and injuries sustained on an annual basis, and
then devotes all of 1 paragraph on page 8 to assertions that security need
not be a concern.  The GAO report differs on security & privacy risks:

This expert review differs as well: Glancy (attached *) at 16, 17, 19-21,
35-40; the GAO also used her as an expert for its report.  I thought you and
RISK readers would want to know what CALTRANS is pursuing-- and ignoring.

  [* Attachment omitted for RISKS.  PGN]

FW: 'Smart' Power Outlets Are Now Botnets (techdirt)

"Alister Wm Macintyre \(Wow\)" <>
Wed, 24 Aug 2016 13:33:36 -0500
Your 'Smart' Power Outlets Are Now Botnets Thanks To The Internet of Broken
Things, from the I-just-hacked-your-stapler department

Making fun of The Internet of Things has become a sort of national pastime
<>, made possible by a laundry list
of companies jumping into the space without the remotest idea what they're
actually doing. When said companies aren't busy promoting some of the
dumbest ideas imaginable,
they're making it abundantly clear that the security of their "smart,"
connected products is absolutely nowhere to be found
<>. And
while this mockery is well-deserved, it's decidedly less funny once you
realize these companies are introducing thousands of new attack vectors
in home and business network the world over.

Overshadowed by the lulz is the width and depth of incompetence on display.
Thermostats that fail to heat
<> your home. Door locks that
don't protect you
. Refrigerators that leak Gmail credentials
Children's toys that listen to your kids' prattle,
<> then
(poorly) secure said prattle in the cloud.  Cars that could, potentially,
result in your death
<> . The list goes on
and on, and it grows exponentially by the week.

The latest gift of The Internet of Things industry, revealed last week by
security researchers at Bitdefender, is smart electrical sockets
<> that can be hacked to hand over e-mail credentials, create a botnet,
or (potentially) burn your house down by firing up connected appliances. The
devices are sold as an amazing new tool to help create a connected home,
allowing users to manage any device plugged into them via a smartphone
and/or The Internet. The problem, as usual, is an (unspecified) company that
treated security as an afterthought.  [From the full Bitdefender research

* Bitdefender researchers observed that the hotspot is secured with a weak
username and password combination. Furthermore, the application does not
alert the user to risks associated with leaving default credentials
unchanged. Changing them can be done by clicking 'Edit' on the name of the
smart plug from the main screen and choosing a new name and a new password.

* Secondly, researchers noticed that, during configuration, the mobile app
transfers the Wi-Fi username and password in clear text over the network.
Also, the device-to-application communication that passes through the
manufacturer's servers is only encoded, not encrypted. Encoding can be
easily reversed using a scheme that is publicly available, while encryption
keeps data secret, locked with a key available for a selected few. [...]

Now we all need a <> home cyber-security
solution designed for IoTs.

  [I must comment on AlMac's use of "IoTs".  Note that if an initialism or
  acronym relates to a singular form, then the plural needs the "s" after
  the appropriate literal, as in ACLs and RNGs!  So, if we were talking
  about the multiple (plural) internets of things, the would-be plural
  initialism would have to be "isot" or "IsoT" to distinguish "internets"
  from "internet"—*but not* "isots" or "isoTs" or even "IoTs" because the
  "T" for things is already substituting for a plural form!  Ugly, but we
  almost never see a plural internal to an acronym or initialism.
  Irrelevant note: in a discussion I had long ago with David Huffman, he
  jokingly suggested using the relation "but not" in logical expressions.

"New Approach Needed to IT, Says NIST's Top Cyber Scientist"

"ACM TechNews" <>
Wed, 24 Aug 2016 11:56:02 -0400 (EDT)
ACM TechNews, Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ron Ross, the top cybersecurity scientist at the U.S. National Institute of
Standards and Technology, on Tuesday told the U.S. Commission on Enhancing
National Cybersecurity the coming cybersecurity crisis can only be addressed
by building "more trustworthy secure components and systems."  He said it is
clear existing security measures are ineffective, given the rising number of
successful attacks and breaches despite record cybersecurity investment.
"You cannot protect that which you do not understand," Ross said.
"Increased complexity translates to increased attack surface."  He said
existing cybersecurity strategies "fail to address the fundamental
weaknesses in system architecture and design," and the solution is to apply
well-defined security design precepts in a life cycle-based systems
engineering process.  Safety, reliability, and other strengths must be
incorporated into systems from the outset, much like structurally sound
bridges and safe aircraft are designed via a "disciplined and structured
approach," Ross said.  Such solutions may not be suitable for every
scenario, but he noted "they should be available to those entities that are
critical to the economic and national security interests of the U.S.," such
as the electric grid, manufacturing facilities, financial institutions,
transportation vehicles, water treatment plants, and weapons systems.  He
stressed partnerships between government, industry, and academia are
essential to the success of this approach.

In India users may get 3-yrs in jail for viewing torrent site, blocked URL (SoftLinkWeb)

Lauren Weinstein <>
Sun, 21 Aug 2016 09:39:09 -0700
via NNSquad

  The Indian government, with the help of Internet service providers, and
  presumably under directives of court, has banned thousands of websites and
  URLs in the last five odd years. But until now if you somehow visited
  blocked all was fine. However, now if you try to visit such URLs and view
  the information, you may get three-year jail sentence as well as invite a
  fine ...

Meanwhile, rapists go free or get a slap on the wrist.

Airlines' reservation systems

Werner U <>
Tue, 23 Aug 2016 12:12:19 +0200
The airlines' reservation system appears to have evolved based on some
1960's technology IBM software marketed since the 70's as "Transaction
Processing Facility" (TPF, last updated 10 years ago) with varied customers'
add-on software bolted on top by each airline.  Recovering from a crash
(i.e., restarting and resynchronizing with the rest of the networked
aviation world 'out there') must be "a nightmare" --WU

France, Germany Want Encrypted App Makers to Help Stop IS

Lauren Weinstein <>
Tue, 23 Aug 2016 09:30:18 -0700
*The New York Times* via NNSquad

  He and German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere insisted they're not
  pushing to ban encrypted services.  Instead, Cazeneuve said they want to
  work with companies that offer such apps or services to ensure they can't
  be abused by militants. They also expect those companies to give
  investigators access to encrypted messages when needed.

Their apparent goal: Only terrorists will have strong crypto—they'll just
use their own strong crypto apps—while honest citizens like us will be
left exposed to terrorists and other criminals by weak crypto. Sixth-graders
could do a better job on this one than these "world leaders."

Closely Watched Ballots (Jon Grinspan)

"Peter G. Neumann" <>
Wed, 24 Aug 2016 12:13:57 -0700
Jon Grinspan, *The New York Times*, 24 Aug 2016

Graf: There's a long history of partisan poll observers,
      most of it quite ugly.

End:  So we might occasionally pause to look back at what
      worked, and what didn't.  We tried election observers.
      There's a reason we left them in the past.

Which Way Do you Vote? Facebook Has an Idea (Jeremy Merrill)

"Peter G. Neumann" <>
Wed, 24 Aug 2016 13:49:54 -0700
Jeremy Merrill, *The New York Times*, 24 Aug 2016
Categorizing Users' Political Leanings

"Facebook has come up with its own determination of your political

If you are a Facebook user, go to "" .
Under "Interests" click on "Lifestyle and Culture" .
Then click on "US Politics"   (or "See More" first if necessary.)

NSA-linked Cisco exploit poses bigger threat than previously thought (Ars Technica)

Lauren Weinstein <>
Tue, 23 Aug 2016 13:45:50 -0700
via NNSquad

  Recently released code that exploits Cisco System firewalls and has been
  linked to the National Security Agency can work against a much larger
  number of models than many security experts previously thought.  An
  exploit dubbed ExtraBacon contains code that prevents it from working on
  newer versions of Cisco Adaptive Security Appliance (ASA), a line of
  firewalls that's widely used by corporations, government agencies, and
  other large organizations. When the exploit encounters 8.4(5) or newer
  versions of ASA, it returns an error message that prevents it from
  working. Now researchers say that with a nominal amount of work, they were
  able to modify ExtraBacon to make it work on a much newer version. The
  finding means that ExtraBacon poses a bigger threat than many security
  experts may have believed.

Three relevant items on NSA hacking

"Peter G. Neumann" <>
Wed, 24 Aug 2016 8:50:56 PDT
Bruce Schneier:

Steve Bellovin's blog:

Margo Schlanger:
Intelligence Legalism and the National Security Agency's Civil Liberties Gap

Lawyer: Dark Web Child Porn Site Ran Better When It Was Taken Over by the FBI (Motherboard)

Lauren Weinstein <>
Tue, 23 Aug 2016 10:39:52 -0700
via NNSquad

  Newly filed court exhibits now suggest that the site performed
  substantially better while under the FBI's control, with users commenting
  on the improvements. The defense for the man accused of being the original
  administrator of Playpen claims that these improvements led to the site
  becoming even more popular.  "The FBI distributed child pornography to
  viewers and downloaders worldwide for nearly two weeks, until at least
  March 4, 2015, even working to improve the performance of the website
  beyond its original capability," Peter Adolf, an assistant federal
  defender in the Western District of North Carolina, writes in a motion to
  have his client's indictment thrown out.  "As a result, the number of
  visitors to Playpen while it was under Government control [increased] from
  an average of 11,000 weekly visitors to approximately 50,000 per week.
  During those two weeks, the website's membership grew by over 30%, the
  number of unique weekly visitors to the site more than quadrupled, and
  approximately 200 videos, 9,000 images, and 13,000 links to child
  pornography were posted on the site," he continues.

In other words, the FBI was actively engaged in causing massive additional
harm to exploited children, irrespective of their stated goals.

HTTPS and OpenVPN face new attack that can decrypt secret cookies (Ars Technica)

Lauren Weinstein <>
Wed, 24 Aug 2016 09:03:02 -0700
via NNSquad

  Despite the difficulty in carrying out the attack, the researchers said it
  works in their laboratory and should be taken seriously. They are calling
  on developers to stop using legacy 64-bit block-ciphers.  For transport
  layer security, the protocol websites use to create encrypted HTTPS
  connections, that means disabling the Triple DES symmetric key cipher,
  while for OpenVPN it requires retiring a symmetric key cipher known as
  Blowfish.  Ciphers with larger block sizes, such as AES, are immune to the

Why you *still* can't trust password strength meters (Naked Security)

Monty Solomon <>
Wed, 24 Aug 2016 10:16:59 -0400

"When Hiding Passwords Is Stupid—or Worse!"

Lauren Weinstein <>
Tue, 23 Aug 2016 12:46:17 -0700

As I've noted a number of times previously, the fact that we still have
accounts "secured" by passwords this far into the 21st century is pretty
much a security abomination. Adding on multiple-factor security tokens and
such is a big help, but passwords themselves remain a weak link in the chain
of security, and a vast number of sites and apps rely on passwords without
any additional authentication measures at all.

Since the dawn of online systems, it has been standard practice to obscure
the display of entered passwords by one means or another.

There are basically two reasons for this. One is the obvious issue of
someone looking over your shoulder while you're logging in.

The other is steeped in computing history.

Early online systems were primarily accessed with paper printing terminals
(e.g. Teletype Model 33, IBM 2741, etc.), and leaving around or carelessly
disposing of a printout with your password visible could be a serious

The earliest printing terminal systems were often "half-duplex" in design,
meaning that typed characters were echoed locally. To obscure passwords in
this instance, the common technique was for the system to overprint a bunch
of characters a number of times before the user entered their password over
the resulting black blob of ink. This wasn't foolproof, but was remarkably
effective at the time.

For printers on full-duplex circuits, it was possible simply to suppress any
echoing of the user password at all, or to print a character like asterisk
in place of each typed character.

This same basic model continues today on the Web and in app ecosystems.

Entered passwords either aren't echoed, or commonly are replaced with
asterisks. Some app systems will give you a brief glimpse of the input
character before replacing it with an asterisk.

Unfortunately, these kinds of techniques have become decreasingly useful as
users have been encouraged or required to use ever longer, ever more complex
passwords and passphrases, because the probability of mistyping these
entries increases with their complexity.

And it isn't just a matter of having problems logging in.

The same obscuration techniques are often employed when setting or changing
passwords, typically combined with the ever-popular "enter it again" prompt
or field, based on the flawed theory that you'd never type the same obscured
input in error twice and so set your password incorrectly (and locking
yourself out) as a result.

For that matter, even typing the same complex password twice in a row in an
obscured field to set the password correctly can be an exercise in

Recently, the trend toward obscuring input fields has been spreading to all
manner of other entries as well, including check account data, credit card
numbers, even dates of birth—and much more. I've seen forms where even
the fields for inputting your first and last names were obscured with

Such obfuscations wouldn't be such a significant problem if there existed a
routine way for the user to disable them on demand.

It's stupid—bordering on insane—to force users to jump through the
hoops of blindly entering complicated passwords or other data when they're
alone and there's no risk of anyone surreptitiously peering at their screen.

And for users with poor typing abilities, motor skill or visual limitations,
or other related issues, these input methodologies can be downright
abusive. This is one of the most common complaints showing up in my inbox
about interface issues.

But wait, it gets even worse!

Many user interface designers, laboring under a twisted misconception of
security, purposely make it even more difficult for users to enter their
passwords, by rigging their pages or apps to prevent copy/pasting of
passwords, and/or by blocking the use of password managers, field autofill
systems, and so on.

This really isn't rocket science.

Except in crucial enterprise environments or especially elevated security
situations, it should be common practice for user interfaces to provide a
method for the user to see their passwords or other data as they enter it if
they choose to do so—a simple enabling checkbox with an appropriate
warning would suffice. And this would be the display of the entire password
or other input, not just a flash of each letter as it's being typed.

Some systems already provide this to one degree or another, but this is
relatively unusual to find.

Android for example has a little "eye" symbol next to where you enter Wi-Fi
passwords, that can be clicked to display the password. This is good, though
I've had many users tell me that they had no idea of what that symbol meant
and so didn't realize that they could view their Wi-Fi passwords in that

But again, this is an exception to the more general situation of user
interfaces across the Web and app worlds that don't provide such options.

We should be striving to completely eliminate passwords from our systems,
replacing them with more robust authentication and security models.

For now though, we still must live with passwords in most cases, and the
option should be routinely provided for users to display entered passwords
or other obscured data when they choose to do so.

And as for those user interface designers who purposely and unnecessarily
block tools and techniques that would make it simpler for users to enter
complex passwords—well, since this is a family-friendly blog I won't
mention here what I feel should really happen to them!

Private lives are exposed as WikiLeaks spills its secrets

Lauren Weinstein <>
Tue, 23 Aug 2016 09:42:14 -0700
via NNSquad

  WikiLeaks' global crusade to expose government secrets is causing
  collateral damage to the privacy of hundreds of innocent people, including
  survivors of sexual abuse, sick children and the mentally ill, The
  Associated Press has found.  In the past year alone, the radical
  transparency group has published medical files belonging to scores of
  ordinary citizens while many hundreds more have had sensitive family,
  financial or identity records posted to the web. In two particularly
  egregious cases, WikiLeaks named teenage rape victims. In a third case,
  the site published the name of a Saudi citizen arrested for being gay, an
  extraordinary move given that homosexuality is punishable by death in the
  ultraconservative Muslim kingdom.

Julian Assange cares about only one thing: Julian Assange.  [...]

Secret cameras record Baltimore's every move from above (Bloomberg)

Lauren Weinstein <>
Wed, 24 Aug 2016 08:37:59 -0700

  Since January, police have been testing an aerial surveillance system
  adapted from the surge in Iraq. And they neglected to tell the public.

With Windows 10, Microsoft Blatantly Disregards User Choice and Privacy: A Deep Dive (EFF)

Lauren Weinstein <>
Mon, 22 Aug 2016 07:17:18 -0700
via NNSquad

  The trouble with Windows 10 doesn't end with forcing users to download the
  operating system. Windows 10 sends an unprecedented amount of usage data
  back to Microsoft, particularly if users opt in to "personalize" the
  software using the OS assistant called Cortana.  Here's a non-exhaustive
  list of data sent back: location data, text input, voice input, touch
  input, webpages you visit, and telemetry data regarding your general usage
  of your computer, including which programs you run and for how long.

Self-driving motorcycle (WiReD)

"Alister Wm Macintyre \(Wow\)" <>
Sun, 21 Aug 2016 18:16:20 -0500

I was not aware that wireless power transfer had been perfected.  Can that
be used to power space ships into orbit?  How about aid to rescue of ships
at sea.

When a consumer sells some electricity excess, via wireless, to another
consumer, how are the sales taxes measured?

In the real world, motorists fail to give adequate air space when passing 2
& 3 wheelers, and because of this, 2 & 3 wheelers are banned from some high
speed highways, and need special lanes in big cities.

Do the designers of self-drive-assist vehicle recognize this need to provide
added safety margins for 2 & 3 wheelers?

Re: Self-driving cars, accepting the moral dilemma (RISKS 29.64)

Martyn Thomas <>
Sun, 21 Aug 2016 17:01:58 +0100
 > If the car is really autonomous, then any "fault" belongs to the
 > manufacturer—who will have to pay the damages.

And who holds the data and expertise to determine whether an accident
was caused by a "fault"?

I think that the real issue is that fully automated vehicles will be in
widespread use before there is enough evidence to be confident that they are
safer, and that if they appear safer they will rapidly become too widespread
to withdraw or to remediate if their software turns out to be as insecure
and buggy as most other software is.  It's a very rare programmer who
delivers fewer than 1 defect in a thousand lines of code—so that's at
least 100,000 defects in the software in a typical car.  Testing will find
the most common failures, so those that remain will be the more obscure
ones.  How will the accident investigators ever be able to attribute cause
and effect?  Especially when much of the required information will be
proprietary to the manufacturers and they are not likely to want to prove
their own liability.

Re: The Internet (Bos, RISKS-29.71)

"Richard S. Russell" <>
Mon, 22 Aug 2016 09:59:37 -0500
With regard to whether to capitalize "Internet", I think your Dutch
correspondent, Richard Bos, hits the nail on the head with the distinction
between a unique institution (capitalize) and a general category (lower
case).  Back when I was copy editor for my college paper and we were setting
up our own style manual, we had the same conversation about personal titles
like "pope" and "president". We went with what appeared to be the standard
(at least as it seemed in the late 1960s) of lower case when referring to
the office, however unique it was ("the pope"), but upper case for a
specific individual ("President Johnson").

But my concern is less with the capitalization of the noun than with the
preceding article: “the”.  I ardently believe that the great virtue of the
Internet is its universality. There *should* be only the one ("*The*
Internet", not "*an* internet"), accessible to all people everywhere.
That's why I loathe the very concept of parallel, duplicative, competing
systems like China's Baidu, America's Facebook, or whatever godawful thing
ISIS is inflicting on its captive populations.  They contribute all too
heavily to the commercialization and siloization of information and culture,
when the whole planet should be moving in the direction of data democracy.

Richard S. Russell, 7350 Old Sauk Road, Madison  WI 53717-1213 608+841-1174

  ["Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of sQFFch, or the right
  of the people peaceably to BTTemble, and to peUJUion the government for a
  redress of grievances (but your ISP might)."  RSR PGN-ed for cryptographic
  purity.  RSR had the same XYZ for all 3 three-letter upper-case strings,
  which overloaded the hidden message.)]

Re: Snowden Junior (RISKS-29.71)

"John Levine" <>
22 Aug 2016 16:38:48 -0000
>"It's Snowden Junior" - Former NSA Employees Say NSA Hack Is The Work Of A
>  "Rogue Insider"

Well, duh.

I've always wondered why people assume that Snowden was the only person to
do what he did.  The access he had was not unusual for NSA contractors, and
he didn't need any great technical skill to collect the material he did.

What we do know is that he's the only one to collect all that material, and
then tell the press about it.  I assume the others quietly sold it to
whichever of Russia or China paid better.

Re: "Android malware being spread via Google AdSense"

"John Levine" <>
22 Aug 2016 16:33:37 -0000
>  [I like to quote a relevant portion so RISKS readers can determine
>  whether
>  they should go to the full article.  Neowin disables cut-and-paste on the
>  article on my computer.  Let InfoWorld get the hits.]

Odd, I had no problem copying text in Chrome on a Mac:

It was found that the malware can actually be contracted via AdSense,
Google's own advertising network. What is also very alarming is that
millions of websites on The Internet, from news sites, to the smallest blog
websites utilize the network, in order to monetize their content. Moreover,
Svpeng is downloaded automatically as soon as the page with the
advertisement is visited.

The Kaspersky researchers found the malware on state-owned news company
Russia Today (RT), as well as the Meduza news portal. In light of the
discovery, the latter has already disabled AdSense advertising on their
pages. Svpeng will disguise itself as a browser update, shown on the
screenshot, in order to trick users into thinking that the download is safe.

Re: Facebook bypass adblockers/ Google ad settings/ need for ad-blockers/ growing impossibility of using ad-blockers (Bos. R-29.71)

Jay Libove <>
Wed, 24 Aug 2016 10:37:10 +0000
I agree almost completely with Richard (on 3rd party cookies, Google opt-out
-- although the Google no-analytics plug-in is a valid solution, and the
general need for ad-blockers/ tracker-blockers).  The caveat is that more
and more websites incorrectly (or, if I were to be cynical - what, me?
cynical?? - deliberately) tie core functionality to 3rd party cookies and
analytics and other data collection scripts working. (That's illegal in
Europe and anywhere else in the world following Europe's Data Protection
Directive/ upcoming GDPR model, by the way, but allowable - if commercially
stupid - in the US).  It's one thing for a newspaper to pop up "we see
you're using an ad-blocker, so how would you like to pay today?" (although,
there's still the total lack of transparency of how much the tracking and
ads are worth to the web property vs. how much we're asked to pay to not
suffer the intrusions), and quite another for logins to fail unless 3rd
party cookies and/or analytics scripts are permitted.  -Jay

Should You Charge Your Phone Overnight? (NYT)

Monty Solomon <>
Tue, 23 Aug 2016 01:00:24 -0400
Leaving your phone plugged in when its battery is already fully charged
shouldn't be bad for it. Except that the act of charging can itself hurt our

Sleep 'resets' brain connections crucial for memory and learning (Ian Sample)

Dewayne Hendricks <>
August 24, 2016 at 1:21:52 AM GMT+9
Ian Sample, *The Guardian*, 23 Aug 2016
Discovery that sleeplessness causes neurons to become muddled with
electrical activity could help develop new treatments for mental health

For Jules Verne it was the friend who keeps us waiting. For Edgar Allan Poe
so many little slices of death. But though the reason we spend a third of
our lives asleep has so far resisted scientific explanation, research into
the impact of sleepless nights on brain function has shed new light on the
mystery - and also offered intriguing clues to potential new treatments for

In a study published on Tuesday, researchers show for the first time that
sleep resets the steady build-up of connectivity in the human brain which
takes place in our wakeful hours. The process appears to be crucial for our
brains to remember and learn so we can adapt to the world around us.

The loss of a single night's sleep was enough to block the brain's natural
reset mechanism, the scientists found. Deprived of rest, the brain's neurons
seemingly became over-connected and so muddled with electrical activity that
new memories could not be properly laid down.

But Christoph Nissen, a psychiatrist who led the study at the University of
Freiburg, is also excited about the potential for helping people with mental
health disorders. One radical treatment for major depression is therapeutic
sleep deprivation, which Nissen believes works through changing the
patient's brain connectivity. The new research offers a deeper understanding
of the phenomenon which could be adapted to produce more practical

“Why we sleep is a fundamental question. Why do we spend so much of our
lives in this brain state? This work shows us that sleep is a highly active
brain process and not a waste of time. It's required for healthy brain
function,'' said Nissen.

The results are a boost for what is called the synaptic homeostasis
hypothesis of sleep, which was developed by scientists at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison in 2003. It explains why our brains need to rest after a
day spent absorbing all manner of information, from the morning news and the
state of the weather, to a chat over lunch and what we must buy for tea.

Known more simply as SHY, the hypothesis states that when we are awake, the
synapses that form connections between our brain cells strengthen more and
more as we learn and eventually saturate our brains with information. The
process requires a lot of energy, but sleep allows the brain to wind down
its activity, consolidate our memories, and be ready to start again the next

Writing in the journal *Nature Communications*, Nissen describes a series of
tests that 11 men and nine women aged 19 to 25 took part in, either after a
good night's sleep, or after a night without sleep. On the sleepless night,
participants played games, went for walks and cooked food, but were not
allowed caffeine. Staff watched them throughout to make sure they stayed

In the first round of experiments, Nissen used magnetic pulses to make
neurons fire in the volunteers' brains and cause a muscle in the left hand
to twitch. When sleep deprived, far weaker pulses were sufficient to make
the muscles move. This implied that sleepless brains are in a more excitable
state, with their neurons more strongly connected than they are after a good
night;s sleep.

Nissen next turned to another form of brain stimulation to mimic the way
neurons fire when memories are laid down. He found it harder to get the
neurons to respond in sleep-deprived people, a sign that the process of
writing memories was impaired by sleep loss. [...]

  [Why is this RISKS-relevant?  Perhaps because people are trying to create
  computerized models of the brain?  Perhaps because many people are trying
  to understand and learning through AI and other approaches?  Perhaps
  because some folks have been reportedly trying to control other people's
  minds (MK-Ultra)?  Perhaps become some of us are so addicted to our
  computers that we are actually losing a lot of sleep?  I don't know,
  but this item somehow seems relevant to me.  PGN]

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