The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Sept. 30 2014 5:47 PM

California Governor Vetoes Bill Requiring Warrant for Police Surveillance Drones

On Sunday California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill aimed at creating stricter guidelines for the use of drones in law enforcement surveillance. Under the bill, which had passed the state’s Senate and Assembly, police would have needed a warrant to use drones except in emergency situations like a hostage situation or fire.

The bill also would have allowed for public agency drone use without a warrant if the information being gathered was unrelated to any type of crime. These agencies would have had to destroy any recorded footage within a year. The California police chiefs and sheriff's associations opposed the bill.

In a statement about his decision to veto, Brown wrote that while he believes some law enforcement drone use should require a warrant, the exceptions in the proposed bill were too narrow and exceeded privacy protections offered by the state and federal government in other contexts.

Jeff Gorell, the Republican assemblyman who sponsored the legislation, tweeted, “It's very disappointing Gov. Brown vetoed #AB1327 - The #Drone Privacy Protection Act. The era of govt. surveillance continues.”

The Federal Aviation Administration has been working on broad drone policy for years, but states have been moving forward with their own decisions in the meantime. As the Wall Street Journal notes, 20 states have passed drone laws since 2013, including 13 states that have restricted drone use for law enforcement.

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Sept. 30 2014 4:59 PM

China’s Not the Problem With Carbon Emissions. We Are.

We are all familiar with this hard truth: The world is barreling full-speed toward a fundamentally different climate, and we’re the ones responsible.

Not we as in the royal we—humanity, civilization, the West, or whatever—but actually we: you and me. We, as in, you, the one reading this article; and me, the one writing it.

The seemingly good news is that U.S. emissions have likely already peaked. Not so for China, where total emissions have doubled just in the last 10 years. But that’s missing the point.

Sept. 30 2014 2:38 PM

Scientists Use Electrical Impulses to Help Paralyzed Rats Walk Again

Even after he lost the use of his limbs, Christopher Reeve believed in keeping fit. All the scientists working on cures to paralysis had warned him “it won't do you any good if you don't keep your body in shape,” he said. The millions who now suffer (about 1 in 50 Americans has some paralysis, according to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation) would do well to heed his advice—for they are closer to being able to walk again.

Gregoire Courtine and his colleagues at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology have been working on ways to coax limbs paralyzed by spinal cord injury to move again. So far, their work has only been in rats, but they have seen much progress. In 2012, the researchers came upon a promising approach that combined chemical and electrical neuron stimulation, which they described in a paper in Science: Rats with damaged spines could use their legs anew. Now Courtine’s team has established how to control that motion automatically, even in rats with severe spinal cord injuries. Their most recent findings are published in the current issue of Science Translational Medicine.

In their earlier work, the scientists paralyzed their lab rats’ hind legs by cutting their spines without completely severing them, which is common in real spinal cord injuries. Some signals from the brain can still get through what attached nerves remain, but they are not strong enough to cause movement. Using pulses of electrical stimulation, chemicals to mimic neurotransmitters from the brain, and food placed in front of a rat’s nose, Courtine and his co-authors were eventually able to train dozens of paralyzed rats not just to move their hind legs, but to walk and to dodge obstacles. Upon dissecting the rats afterward, the team found that new nerve fibers had grown in the injured areas, restoring some of the spinal cord.

Though their original experiment showed incredible recovery in the rats they had injured, it could not tell the researchers how to adjust electrical frequencies and amplitudes to change an animal’s gait (which is needed to walk over different terrains and elevations). They have figured this out in their latest study, and they can now show what electrical stimulation frequencies and intensities produce a step of a specific height. Using this knowledge, they built an electric stimulator that modulated its signal. They then placed rats—this time with completely cut spines, representing the worse possible (and extremely rare) injury—in a harness that moved them forward through an obstacle course with stairs of various heights. By automatically changing the electrical signals according to the researchers’ calculations, they successfully altered how high a rat raised its leg in order to climb a stair.

With this breakthrough, the scientists hope to replicate their therapy in humans. That would benefit those with all kinds of paralysis, from mild to severe. Current therapies help some to regain a bit of motion, but the results are limited. Those with the worst injuries have almost no chance. Courtine’s team may have found a way to take a real step forward. They plan to begin trials next year. Superman would have been proud. 

Sept. 30 2014 11:55 AM

The Justice Department Is Cracking Down on Sales of Spyware Used in Stalking

If you agree to let your boss track your fitness data, it’s legal for her to check how active you’ve been whenever she wants. Maybe your tracker even uses geofencing to tell her how many times you've been to the gym. If you signed on for it, it’s allowed. But when stalkers or someone who is abusive uses spyware to track victims, that’s illegal, and the Justice Department wants it to stop.

Working with the Eastern District of Virginia and the FBI, the Justice Department indicted 31-year-old Hammad Akbar on Monday for allegedly selling spyware. Akbar is the CEO of InvoCode Pvt Ltd., the company that markets and sells an app called StealthGenie. The case against Akbar is the first to directly address spyware sales. Akbar is Pakistani, but StealthGenie was hosted (before the Justice Department disabled the hosting) at a data center in Ashburn, Virginia.

A stalker only needs a few minutes with a victim’s phone to plant StealthGenie. The app is easy to install and then runs almost undetectably. It monitors calls and file transfers; key logs to see what the victim is texting, putting in a calendar, or writing in notes and emails; and also tracks the smartphone’s position.

Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said in a Department of Justice statement that:

Selling spyware is not just reprehensible, it’s a crime. Apps like StealthGenie are expressly designed for use by stalkers and domestic abusers who want to know every detail of a victim’s personal life—all without the victim’s knowledge. The Criminal Division is committed to cracking down on those who seek to profit from technology designed and used to commit brazen invasions of individual privacy.

As part of an investigation about the role of smartphones in stalking and domestic abuse, NPR published a survey of 72 domestic violence shelters around the country. Eighty-five percent reported working with victims who had been digitally tracked by their abuser. Seventy-five percent encountered victims who reported being surveiled by their abusers, and 54 percent advised “survivors” to turn off their smartphones’ GPS functions.

NPR points out that many spyware services pretend to be for monitoring employees or children—to make it seem like they’re on the up and up—but they are still used for stalking. StealthGenie apparently didn’t bother with a cover story: The Justice Department says that the business plan for marketing and selling StealthGenie specifically described an app for “[s]pousal cheat: Husband/Wife of (sic) boyfriend/girlfriend suspecting their other half of cheating or any other suspicious behaviour or if they just want to monitor them.”

At $100 to $200 per year depending on which premium features a subscriber wants, StealthGenie is as easy and cheap to get as Netflix, but the drama is way too real.

Sept. 29 2014 6:17 PM

The CIA Still Redacts How Much It Paid for PCs in 1987

In 1987 the Amiga 500 cost $699, and the Amiga 2000 cost $2,395. I’m letting you in on these confidential CIA secrets because I trust you, but you’re not supposed to know.

Former CIA employee Jeffrey Scudder made a Freedom of Information Act request four years ago in an attempt to surface problems within the intelligence agency. Earlier this month the CIA finally released hundreds of relevant documents—including a paper with titled “NPIC, Amiga, and Videotape.” It’s about a CIA multimedia division called the National Photographic Interpretation Center (now part of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency), which was using PCs from Amiga to expand its capabilities in the late 1980s.

But a strange aspect of the paper, the secrecy policy blog Secrecy News points out, is this bizarre redaction. The paper says, “We bought our first Commodore Amiga in 1987 for less than [price redacted] including software.” Wait, how much was that again?

The redaction is labeled “(b)(3)(c),” meaning it is justified under the CIA Act of 1949, which says that the CIA doesn't have to disclose information about the “organization, functions, names, Officials, titles, salaries, or numbers of personnel employed.”

But since information about the cost of the computer at that time is publicly available, it seems strange that it would need to be redacted. Based on conversations with the CIA about related topics, though, Secrecy News theorizes that the CIA doesn’t want to disclose exactly how much it was willing to expend, even if the retail price of the machines is known. And the redaction seems to be consistent with a broader goal to redact all expenditures. As Secrecy points out, though, this blanket policy could lead to unnecessary withholding of information that should be public.

Maybe the CIA just got a criminally good deal on the computers.

Sept. 29 2014 4:55 PM

On Facebook's New Ad Platform, Your Data Will Follow Everywhere

Facebook has a new way to make money off of your data—and, potentially, to learn more about you than it ever could before.

If you’re a Facebook user, the company’s machines already know all the things you’ve explicitly told Facebook over the years, like your name, age, email address, friends, likes, and interests. They also already know how you behave on Facebook, including which types of stories you’re likely to click on and which friends’ status updates you like the most.

Now they’re beginning to learn more about how you behave when you aren’t on Facebook. For instance, they have the ability to know whenever you visit a Web page that has a “like” button. For years Facebook insisted it wouldn’t use this sort of data to track your activity for commercial purposes. Recently, it decided it might start doing that after all.

On Monday, the company announced the next step: a new advertising platform called Atlas. Atlas will allow advertisers to harness Facebook’s data about you to target you on non-Facebook sites and apps, with ads not purchased through Facebook. Again, these are not Facebook ads, and they won’t be shown on Facebook—but they’ll be drawing on all of Facebook’s knowledge of you as an individual in order to target you. They’ll be able to do that even if you’re not logged into Facebook and have browser cookies turned off, although you can still block it by selecting "limit ad tracking" on your iPhone or "opt out of interest based ads" on your Android device.* Facebook calls this "people-based marketing."

The move puts Facebook in direct competition with Google’s DoubleClick service, offering advertisers the chance to target users and measure their ads’ reach on a potentially wide array of sites as well as mobile apps. The potential edge, for Facebook, is that Atlas won’t rely on browser cookies. Cookies can be cleared, they don’t cross from one browser to another, and they’re notoriously ineffectual on mobile devices. Google has been working to address this problem. But with Atlas, Facebook may be leaping ahead.

If you’ve ever logged into Facebook on your phone, Facebook has linked your phone’s unique identification number to your Facebook account. So when you use another app or a different browser on the same device, Facebook’s computers still know it’s you, and Atlas will be able to use that information to help advertisers reach you. Visit a site from your desktop computer using a browser on which you've logged into Facebook, and Facebook will know you’re the same person who visited it from your mobile phone awhile back.

Facebook has responded to privacy concerns by clarifying that Atlas won’t actually give third-party advertisers any information about you. It will just use that information to make sure they’re reaching their intended audience.

But one of the biggest long-term impacts of Atlas may be to expand Facebook’s own ability to track you across the Web and mobile apps. When you visit a site that uses Atlas to serve ads, you’ll be giving Atlas more information about yourself that it could potentially add to the ever-expanding database that Facebook has on you.

A Facebook spokesman told me that the information Atlas gleans about your browsing habits will not be sent back to Facebook. “Atlas doesn’t tell marketers who you are, and Atlas also doesn’t share information about you back to Facebook,” he said. Of course, Facebook has been known to change its mind about such things. When I asked the spokesman if he could promise users that Atlas would never share this information, he declined to comment.

*Update, Sept. 30, 2014: This post has been updated to clarify that it is possible to opt out of Atlas ad targeting on mobile devices.

Sept. 29 2014 4:29 PM

Barry Bonds Finally Admits to Glassing

Barry Bonds, Major League Baseball’s all-time home run record holder, has publicly admitted using Google Glass. A photo posted to Bonds’ Instagram account illustrates the controversial practice in vivid detail, putting an end to public speculation as to whether the retired outfielder has been using wearables. As if that wasn’t enough, he even spells it out in the photo’s caption: “I’m Glassing.”

In the photo, Bonds enjoys a coffee on a balcony while gazing out toward the horizon. (Or perhaps he is gazing into the device on his face? Who knows?!) As if to hammer the final nail into the coffin of pre-tech takeover San Francisco, he caps it off with the hashtag #Onlyinthebay.

The #glassing trend is the brainchild of designer Anthony Phills, and is not sponsored by Google. In an interview with Slate, Phills explained that he wanted to make the technology “a bit more personal.” Phills says he has worked with Bonds on projects in the past, and is currently testing a prototype of a Glass application that would document and authenticate athletic memorabilia as it is signed.

What better figure to put a human face on the oft-maligned wearables that than Barry Bonds? His April 2011 conviction on one count of obstruction of justice was upheld in September 2013, but a federal appeals court is now weighing whether to overturn that felony verdict. Bonds was never convicted of any charges relating to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but is still tainted by his association with steroids. If only Glass had existed in time to record his past interactions with trainer Greg Anderson, who was jailed for refusing to testify in Bonds’ trial, perhaps legacy-crippling scandal could’ve been avoided.

At the very least, the photo confirms that Google Glass frames can fit big-headed people, too. The cranially gifted among us needn’t worry about the pinching and poking that comes along with ill-fitting dumb-glasses. Thanks, Barry!

Sept. 29 2014 1:20 PM

North Korea Issues Cellphone Etiquette Guide

You know when you're on a crowded public bus and a guy is talking really loudly on his cellphone about how just because he once cared deeply for his ex-wife that doesn't mean he should be obligated to give her a kidney, and then once he gets off the phone all the commuters standing around him have an impromptu life talk about what he should do? OK, maybe that has only ever happened to me (and the other people on that New York City bus in 2006—shoutout!) but the point is that cellphone etiquette is important. 

And, surprising no one, the North Korean government takes it very seriously. There are almost 2.5 million North Koreans—about 10 percent of the population—using Koryolink, the wireless carrier for the country that launched in 2008.

That number may not go up unless prices go down: Last year BBC News reported that cell phones are prohibitively expensive for most North Koreans, given that Koryolink offers handsets for a few hundred dollars and estimated average North Korean salaries are less than $1,000 per year.

Nevertheless, the government clearly feels that cellphones are a growing trend, because a cultural magazine obtained by South Korean news agency Yonhap includes information about making and answering calls in public along with a general etiquette lesson. Don’t forget that all official media in North Korea is controlled by the regime.

According to Yonhap’s translation, the North Korean article explains, “As mobile phones are being used increasingly in today's society, there has been a tendency among some people to neglect proper phone etiquette. ... Speaking loudly or arguing over the phone in public places where many people are gathered is thoughtless and impolite behavior.”

The article seems to really emphasize appropriate and polite greetings: “On mobile phones, unlike on land lines, conversations usually take place with knowledge of the other person. However, even in such cases, one must not neglect to introduce oneself or offer greetings.” Caller ID is no excuse for rudeness!

And if someone calls you and doesn’t open the conversation by explicitly stating who they are, the article says you should prompt them by asking, “Hello? Is it you, comrade Yeong-cheol?” I mean, this is just common sense, people.

It seems unlikely that North Koreans are loudly divulging personal information while riding on public buses or walking around, given the constant threat of being sent to work camps or even being killed for inappropriate behavior. But maybe the etiquette guide is a way for the government to remind citizens, whether they can afford mobile phones or not, that North Korea is incredibly technologically advanced.

Sept. 29 2014 1:16 PM

Tweeting While Watching TV Linked to Fewer Brain Cells

This article originally appeared in Science of Us.

If you are the sort of person who has a hard time just watching TV—if you’ve got to be simultaneously using your iPad or laptop or smartphone—here’s some bad news. New research shows a link between juggling multiple digital devices and a lower-than-usual amount of gray matter, the stuff that’s made up of brain cells, in the region of the brain associated with cognitive and emotional control.

Sept. 29 2014 12:23 PM

Antarctic Ice Melt Causes Small Shift in Gravity

Gravity—yes, gravity—is the latest victim of climate change in Antarctica. That’s the stunning conclusion announced Friday by the European Space Agency.

“The loss of ice from West Antarctica between 2009 and 2012 caused a dip in the gravity field over the region,” writes the ESA, whose GOCE satellite measured the change. Apparently, melting billions of tons of ice year after year has implications that would make even Isaac Newton blanch. Here’s the data visualized.

It reminds me of those first images of the ozone hole, decades ago.

To be fair, the change in gravity is very small. It’s not like you’ll float off into outer space on your next vacation to the Antarctic Peninsula.

The biggest implication is the new measurements confirm global warming is changing the Antarctic in fundamental ways. Earlier this year, a separate team of scientists announced that major West Antarctic glaciers have begun an “unstoppable” “collapse,” committing global sea levels to a rise of several meters over the next few hundred years.

Though we all learned in high-school physics that gravity is a constant, it actually varies slightly depending on where you are on the Earth’s surface and the density of the rock (or, in this case, ice) beneath your feet. During a four-year mission, the ESA satellite mapped these changes in unprecedented detail and was able to detect a significant decrease in the region of Antarctica where land ice is melting fastest.

The new results in West Antarctica were achieved by combining the high-resolution gravity field measurements from the ESA satellite with a longer-running but lower resolution gravity-analyzing satellite mission called Grace, which is jointly operated by the United States and Germany. Scientists hope to scale up this analysis to all of Antarctica soon, which could provide the clearest picture yet of the pace global warming is taking in the frozen continent. Current best estimates show that global seas could be as much as 50 inches higher by century’s end, due in large part to ice melt in West Antarctica.

Previous research with data from a third satellite, CryoSat (also from ESA), has shown ice loss from this portion of West Antarctica has increased by three-fold since just 2009, with 500 cubic kilometers of ice now melting each year from Greenland and Antarctica combined. That’s an iceberg the size of Manhattan, three-and-a-half miles thick.