Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Sept. 16 2016 11:49 AM

Twitter Streamed Thursday’s NFL Game and No One Had Anything Bad to Say About It

Nothing went wrong with Twitter’s live stream broadcast of Thursday night’s NFL game in which the New York Jets beat the Buffalo Bills 37-31. But there was nothing really special about it, either.

Sept. 15 2016 5:41 PM

Google Street View Respects Cow’s Privacy, Blurs Its Face

In the photo, the cow’s face is totally blurred, raising the obvious question: Does this cow look more human than other cows? The cow next to the protected cow did not get the blur treatment, and they both seem to be fully bovine.

Sept. 15 2016 3:46 PM

Netizen Report: In Cuba, Text Messages With Controversial Content Are Disappearing

The Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in internet rights around the world. It originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Afef Abrougui, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Weiping Li, James Losey, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

GVA logo

Journalists in Cuba have evidence that the Cuban government is monitoring and selectively blocking mobile SMS messages based on certain keywords such as “human rights,” “hunger strike,” “plebiscite,” and “state security.” According to a report issued Sept. 3 by journalists Yoani Sanchez and Reinaldo Escobar, who run the Havana-based media outlet 14ymedio, text messages containing a range of sensitive keywords, along with the names of various high-profile anti-Castro activists, are not reaching their destinations. However, as they explain in a report on 14ymedio, the messages still appear as ‘sent’ on the sender’s telephone.

According to technologist and opposition blogger Eliecer Avila, at least 30 keywords have been identified as triggers for the blocking mechanism. It is not clear how long this has been in place. The journalists have not yet shared a full list of terms tested, nor did they indicate whether they believe the blocking is being targeted to specific users. Sanchez, Escobar, and Avila are all very high-profile opposition voices.

The discovery comes at a moment in which Cuban bloggers and independent journalists are facing increasing scrutiny and, in some cases, public condemnation, by leading government and Cuban communist party officials. Diario de Cuba writer Maykel González Vivero, who is also a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights on the island, was fired from his job with state radio station Radio Sagua two weeks ago for collaborating with “private media.” In late August, the well-established Uruguayan blogger and former BBC journalist Fernando Ravsberg, who has lived in Cuba since the mid-1990s and has a family there, was publicly condemned on television by the vice president of Cuba’s Press Workers’ Union, who she charged with offending the sentiments of “decent Cubans.”

Russian authorities jail Pokémon Go player for offending religious people
Ruslan Sokolovsky was jailed in early September for playing Pokémon Go inside a Russian Orthodox cathedral and posting a video of it on YouTube. Police are investigating the 21-year-old video blogger for committing extremism, offending religious people, and “violating the right to religion in a house of worship.”* If convicted of the charges, he could go to prison for up to five years. The video (now with English subtitles) has garnered more than 1.3 million views on YouTube.

On Sept. 7, Sokolovsky complained that a prison psychiatrist threatened his life in jail, warning that he could be institutionalized “where they don’t let the lawyers in.” Government investigators have also revealed that they discovered a camera-pen at his home—technology that is illegal in Russia. The media is describing the device as a “spy pen,” complementing allegations by pro-government bloggers that Sokolovsky’s atheist activism online and in the media is part of a larger, coordinated campaign by nefarious forces, designed to weaken Russia’s traditional values. He has since been released and placed under house arrest.

Algerian court upholds activist conviction over Charlie Hebdo link
An Algerian appeals court upheld the conviction of activist Slimane Bouhafs, decreasing his jail sentence from five to three years. Bouhafs originally was sentenced to five years in jail and a fine of 100,000 Algerian dinars (about $917) for “offending the Prophet” and “denigrating the creed and precepts of Islam” for linking to a cartoon by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo depicting the Prophet Mohammed crying.

Web journalist arrested in Venezuela
Chilean-Venezuelan journalist and lawyer Braulio Jatar is being held by Venezuelan authorities on charges of money laundering. Jatar, who is the director of the investigative news site Reporte Confidencial, was detained during a protest in the locality of Villa Rosa that forced President Nicolas Maduro to leave the city. Jatar’s supporters believe his coverage of the protest are the real reason he is in custody.

Another one bites the dust: Saudi Arabia bans LINE messaging app
The Saudi government added LINE to the long list of VOIP services and messaging apps blocked in the country, which includes Viber, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, and Skype. Responding to the block, Saudi users took to Twitter to protest the government’s strict Internet censorship policies, asking “what’s the point of having Internet?”

Surprise, surprise: New Snowden leaks reveal more mind-blowing surveillance tools
The Intercept released new documents from the Snowden leaks that reveal how the NSA aided “ ‘a significant number of capture-kill operations’ across the Middle East and North Africa, fueled by powerful eavesdropping technology that can harvest data from more than 300 million emails and phone calls a day.”

New Research

*Correction, Sept. 19, 2016: This post originally misstated that Ruslan Sokolovsk was arrested in early August. He was arrested in early September. The post also misstated that he was still in police custody; he is now under house arrest.

Sept. 15 2016 3:33 PM

What’s the Best Way to Cover Your Webcam?

This week, FBI Director James Comey reaffirmed a position he’s expressed in the past, claiming that he covers his computer’s camera with tape. “I think people ought to take responsibility for their own safety and security,” Comey proposed at a Center for Strategic and International Studies conference, according to the Hill.

Comey’s not alone in that commitment: Mark Zuckerberg supposedly obscures his laptop’s camera as well, and as Will Oremus points out, he’s right to do so. Covering your camera may make you look paranoid, but webcam snooping is very real, especially for powerful figures like Zuckerberg. Back in 2013, Tyler Lopez made just such a case in Future Tense, writing, “almost anyone—from foreign governments to the creepy teenager down the street—could be recording you while you sit at your computer.” The following year, documents leaked by Edward Snowden indicated that the NSA uses plug-ins to hijack cameras, information that surely informs Comey’s own decisions.

Here, however, is where I admit that even knowing all of that, I’ve never covered my own camera. Spurred by Comey’s latest statement, I realized it was time to change my ways. The only question was how. Like Oremus, I hope that computer manufacturers will start adding physical covers to machines, though we shouldn’t expect them to do so any time soon. In the meantime, you can buy physical covers online, sure, but having already delayed too long, I wanted something fast. In an attempt to determine the best option as quickly as possible, I quizzed others at Slate and raided the magazine’s supply closets for materials.

In evaluating my options, I had a few criteria:

  • Flexibility: Since I routinely use my computer’s camera for video conferencing, I need an option that I can take off and put back on again without much effort.
  • Adhesion: Simply put, I want my covering to stay on, but I also don’t want it to be so sticky that it leaves goo on the lens when I take it off.
  • Opacity: I want a cover that will actually block the camera’s functionality.
  • Looks: While webcam paranoia is clearly warranted, I’d rather not have a covering that actively broadcasts my fears. It would be nice if it looks cool too.

With those expectations in mind, I’ve rated each of the options below on a scale of one to five shadowy emoji silhouettes.

Post-It Notes: In the past, I've noticed that a few of my colleagues simply employ a torn-off fragment of a post-it notes. My own testing indicated that this option was highly contingent on the hue of the paper itself, since lighter shades (including the common yellow varietal) may let enough light through to capture the hint of an image. This option also inclines toward the ugly, since the tattered squares stand out on my computer’s frame. Finally, the adhesive on the notes I tested seems weak enough that it seems as if it would come off easily during ordinary usage of my machine.

Rating: 👤

Duct tape: Short of permanently destroying your camera, this may be the most brutally effective method. My testing suggested that nothing’s going to get through, but its pragmatic qualities are arguably surpassed by its ugliness. In that regard, it’s probably the closest equivalent to a tinfoil hat on this list. Further, one Slatester reported that it left a sticky residue on her camera at first, though that effect faded in time, even as the tape itself remained adhesive.

Rating: 👤👤👤

Painter’s tape: Designed to go on even and come off clean, painter’s tape—Oremus’ favored option—just edges out duct tape. It may, however, be harder to find. What’s more, the classic blue shade may be even more unpleasantly inelegant atop monitors.

Rating: 👤👤👤👤

Cute cat stickers: One Slate editor protects herself with adorable stickers that depict kittens dressed up in sushi costumes. Just the right size and featuring a pull tab on top that makes removal and reattachment a cinch, they seem ideally designed for this purpose. Indeed, she’s been pulling hers on and off for months, and it still hasn’t lost its stickiness. She offered me one to try (I chose a puffy-faced kitten adorned with spicy tuna sashimi). Alas, the sticker I tried was sufficiently translucent that my camera was still able to capture a phantasmatic image of me (see below). My editor's slightly darker sticker seems to work a bit better, and even the one I chose would likely be enough to make any images pulled from my camera relatively useless. It’s a charming method, then, but maybe not the most secure if you really want to prevent hackers from checking in on you. There are plenty of other similar stickers available online, but be sure you know what you’re getting into.

Rating: 👤👤

Cuteness: 😻😻😻😻😻

Cat sticker
Self-portrait through cat sticker.

Jacob Brogan

Invisible tape: While you would think that a translucent barrier would be ineffective, the invisible tape I put over my computer’s camera actually obscured the resulting image better than the more colorful sticker I tried, though a faint outline was still visible. Significantly, the tape also largely disappeared against my computer’s frame, while still making it easy to tell when the camera’s activity light was on, making it an ideal option for paranoiacs who don’t want to publicize their paranoia, but do want to know when they should be paranoid. If anything, though, it was so hard to see that I worry I might forget it was there, which could be a problem when I actually need to use the camera. And when I did try to take it off, I found that it was difficult to remove: By the time I had gotten it off, I had destroyed it so thoroughly that it was unusable.

Rating: 👤👤👤

Washi tape: Recommended by Slate’s resident stationery-head June Thomas, washi tape is typically used to decorate envelopes, journals, and other paper products. Like painter’s tape, it peels off easily, but unlike that more industrial material, it comes in a wide array of shades, prints, and other colorful designs. As such, it may be an ideal—even attractive—option for those who want to turn cybersecurity into an opportunity for stylish self-expression. Thomas’ chosen tape also features a print that helpfully reminds us why we’re doing this in the first place.

Rating: 👤👤👤👤👤

june washi
June Thomas' washi tape covered monitor is still watching her.

June Thomas

Sept. 15 2016 2:03 PM

Happy 30th Birthday to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act—Perhaps the Worst Law in Technology

The 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act remains one of the most controversial federal tech-regulating laws on the books. The “anti-hacking” measure was meant to protect against a range of online crimes, but 30 years later there is still little consensus about what a computer crime is, and what the law actually covers. The drafting was so imprecise, it’s conceivable we are all breaking the law all the time. Courts across the country have interpreted the CFAA in a variety of contradictory ways. Meanwhile, high-profile examples of its enforcement, such as the case against Aaron Swartz for downloading millions of academic articles, have prompted the passage of new state laws as well as proposed changes to the CFAA itself. An upgrade is sorely needed.

On Thursday, Sept. 29, Future Tense and New America’s Open Technology Institute will host a lunchtime conversation in Washington, D.C., on the legacy and future of the law—and what lessons it offers for those crafting tech-related legislation. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Participants:

Orin Kerr
Fred C. Stevenson research professor of law, George Washington University

Josephine Wolff
Assistant professor of public policy, Rochester Institute of Technology
Faculty associate, Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society
Fellow, New America Cybersecurity Initiative

Moderator:
Robyn Greene
Policy counsel and government affairs lead, New America’s Open Technology Institute

Sept. 15 2016 12:56 PM

Drone Racing Is Now on ESPN. Will People Watch?

Drones are going mainstream: The Federal Aviation Administration anticipates that by the end of 2016, people will own more than 2.5 million in the United States alone. But competitive drone-ing is newer still, and televised drone sports are practically uncharted territory, at least in the U.S. That will change Thursday night when the first of a 10-episode season featuring the Drone Racing League airs on ESPN2 at 11 p.m. Eastern.

Sept. 15 2016 12:25 PM

How Oculus and the NBA Made a VR Movie That’s Actually Fun to Watch

Making movies in virtual reality—that is, 360-degree video—is hard. Really hard. The cameras are big and expensive. They can’t zoom. Move the cameras, or cut too quickly from one to the next, and you risk making viewers sick. Keep the cameras in the same spot and you risk wearing viewers down.

But the biggest obstacle facing VR movies, according to some critics, is that viewers can look in any direction at any time, making it impossible for the director to control exactly what they see. In a May Scientific American column, tech writer David Pogue called audience attention “the towering problem that no VR filmmaker has yet cracked.” It’s part of why some VR experts, including Stanford University’s Jeremy Bailenson, think the medium simply doesn’t lend itself to narrative.

Pioneering VR filmmakers have coped with these constraints in various ways: limiting the number of cameras, avoiding frequent scene changes, abandoning traditional narrative structure, and above all, keeping films short. In the process, they’ve come up with some fascinating experiments, but few crowd-pleasers.

An ambitious new VR documentary about the 2016 NBA Finals, the result of a partnership between the NBA and Oculus VR, may help to change all that.

Follow My Lead: The Story of the 2016 NBA Finals, released Wednesday on the Oculus Store for Samsung Gear VR, is not an artistic or journalistic masterpiece, by any means. But it does challenge some common assumptions about what’s possible in a VR film. It embraces linear narrative. It cuts easily and frequently between cameras and venues—as often as every six to eight seconds, according to the filmmakers. And it clocks in at 24 minutes—short by cinematic standards, but a veritable epic in VR terms.

For a film that breaks so many unwritten rules, the result is a surprisingly straightforward, watchable, and at times engrossing look back at a historic series of basketball games, from a perspective that’s worthwhile for more than its sheer novelty. Impressively, for a VR experience of its length, it’s rarely confusing or disorienting.

Many early VR films feel futuristic and experimental. Some eschew plot altogether in search of a radically new vocabulary for the medium. In contrast, Follow My Lead takes its inspiration from slickly produced behind-the-scenes sports documentaries like ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, albeit without the provocative journalistic edge. You can get a vague sense of its aesthetic from the trailer below, which converts the footage to conventional, flat video. But the full experience is possible only in VR.

Taking us from the pre-series media buildup through the Cavaliers’ victory parade, the film hops confidently from in-game highlights to crowd reaction shots to quieter moments in the teams’ locker rooms and press conferences. It captures the scene and the mood outside the arenas as well as in, juxtaposing idyllic scenes of the San Francisco Bay with gritty shots of downtown Cleveland. The plot focuses on the underdog bid by Cleveland and its star, LeBron James, to disrupt Golden State’s anointment as the greatest team of all time and bring their blue-collar city its first championship in five decades. In the films best moments, it reveals the key players—especially James—in their capacity as humans as well as performers.

To film it, the NBA granted wide-ranging access to Oculus VR and the production company Missing Pieces. Much of the game footage comes from stationary Facebook Surround 360 cameras attached to the basketball hoops and held or mounted on the court’s sidelines, just above the team’s benches. The former vantage point proves well-suited to dunks and blocks; the latter, to arcing 3-pointers and close-ups of coaches prowling the sidelines.

No doubt the production was extremely expensive, not to mention the priceless access. This is not the type of movie that an indie filmmaker could hope to imitate. Moreover, sporting events may be uniquely suited to VR filming, because you know in advance exactly where the action will transpire. For that reason, Follow My Lead can’t by itself disprove the doubters who see VR movies as a boondoggle. But it does offer reason to think that the medium has a real future with mainstream audiences.

Follow My Lead VR movie screenshot
The film was shot on Facebook Surround 360 cameras, so you can turn your head and see what's behind you.

Courtesy of the NBA

The film has one real shortcoming. Whether due to the limitations of VR filmmaking, the film’s relatively short length, or the simple fact that we know the series’ outcome before we begin, it does not fully capture the drama of the contests themselves. Oculus’ head of video, Eugene Wei, told me the producers debated various ways to convey the in-game context for key plays before deciding to let the highlights speak largely for themselves, with an occasional assist from narrator Michael B. Jordan. It’s a tasteful choice, but the downside is that we watch spectacular plays without really understanding their significance to the game’s outcome. For example, at the end of the decisive Game 7, we see a Steph Curry launch a three-pointer that clangs off the rim, and then the clock expires on a Cavs’ win. Only afterward do we learn that the final margin was four points, rendering Curry’s miss mostly irrelevant.

What we do get is an enthralling new view of iconic moments such as James’ thunderous Game 7 chase-down block of Andre Iguodala, a play that the filmmakers rightly emphasize as a visual metaphor for the series. As impressive as the play was on TV, it’s even more so in 360 degrees, thanks to the sense of physical immediacy that VR uniquely conveys. From behind the basket, you see two extremely large men approaching very fast—and then, suddenly, there’s James, emerging from behind them and launching himself straight at your face as he rises above Iguodala to swat the ball away.

Therein lies the chief appeal, of both the film and the medium. VR advocates call it “presence”—the compelling illusion of being there to experience something in person.

Interestingly, this feeling is sometimes stronger in Follow My Lead’s off-court moments than it is when you’re watching in-game action, probably because the camera can get much closer. In one memorable scene, you hover directly over the shoulders of the Cavaliers players as they huddle in a tunnel somewhere in the bowels of Oracle Arena before Game 7. There, without any coaches present, James delivers a pep talk to his teammates in the voice of a battle-scarred veteran who has experienced enough disappointment to understand the magnitude of the stakes.

It would be great footage even for a conventional documentary. But in VR, you feel like you’re part of that huddle. Look left or right and you’ll see your towering, thickly muscled teammates closing their eyes and bobbing their heads as the King speaks. Above you are rafters, behind you—I don’t know, because I wasn’t tempted to look. As in other key scenes, the directors left zero doubt as to where to focus your gaze. By the time James finished, I felt like I was ready to run out and beat the Golden State Warriors.

When I asked Oculus’ Wei how he tackled the problem of audience attention, he said one technique his team has developed is to make sure that when they open each scene, the primary action is unfolding in the same place where the viewer was looking before the cut. Over time, he said, that should help viewers to trust the directors, so that they don’t feel compelled to glance all around them to get their bearings each time the scene changes.

But why, I asked, shoot in VR at all if you don’t expect the viewer to spend much time looking all around? Wei’s answer was persuasive. He said the point of 360-degree video is not that you shouldkeep turning around to see what’s behind you, but simply that you know you can. That knowledge, he says, is the key to the illusion of presence. “If you looked back and it’s all black,” he said, “then you know what’s in front of you isn’t real.”

*Correction, Sept. 15, 2016: In an earlier version of this post, Cleveland Cavaliers player Kyrie Irving was misidentified in the photo caption.

Previously in Slate:

Sept. 14 2016 10:34 AM

Future Tense Newsletter: All Tomorrow’s Yesterdays

Greetings, Future Tensers,

To understand the future of technology, you first have to get a sense of its past. Accordingly, as we push ahead with our Futurography course on nanotechnology, we’re looking backward, via this history of the field from W. Patrick McCray. It’s a story that stretches back at least to 1959, when Richard P. Feynman gave a talk that still resonates with researchers and engineers. But McCray’s narrative also describes fierce public debates, bold government initiatives, and ongoing uncertainty. As McCray writes, “the future is a contested arena of speculation,” but his account of how we started to dream it into being is well worth your time.

Of course, that’s not the only history of a trending topic that we looked into this week: If you’ve been following the news about Samsung’s flammable phones, for example, you might be interested in this exploration of lithium ion batteries, which offers an important reminder that such explosive problems aren’t new. And looking into Facebook’s supposed censorship of an iconic photograph, Kate Klonick argues that the incident fits into the long-developing entanglement of speech and platform governance on social media. Examining previous incidents, Klonick points out that it’s what Facebook does next that matters most.

Here are some of the other stories that we read while trying to remember that cyber isn’t a noun:

  • Gadgets: When Apple debuted its new wireless AirPods, it may have been slyly introducing a whole new class of devices, not just an expensive set of headphones.
  • Internet freedom: In the wake of violent protests, the Indian government has largely cut off internet access in Kashmir, arguably going against its own stated ideals.
  • First contact: Science fiction teaches that if aliens really do reach out to us, we need to think carefully about who should respond to the signal.
  • Distance learning: The hardest part about taking a course online may be the once simple act of raising your hand to participate.

Events:

  • The issue of government hacking is now front-page news. But how should we govern such initiatives? New America’s Open Technology Institute is convening a pair of panels where a wide range of experts will tackle these questions and more. The event will be held at New America in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Sept. 19, 9:15 a.m.­ to 12:30 p.m. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Jacob Brogan

for Future Tense

Sept. 13 2016 4:01 PM

Now the Head of NSA Is Concerned About Russia Hacking U.S. Elections

The head of the National Security Agency, Admiral Michael Rogers, said on Tuesday that he is concerned about the possibility of Russia hacking the U.S. electoral process.

Sept. 13 2016 2:30 PM

How Should We Govern Government Hacking?

This past spring, the FBI bought a hacking tool to break into the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone—then refused to disclose it to Apple. In August, the mysterious “Shadow Brokers” published a stolen cache of NSA’s hacking tools—revealing two previously unknown or “zero-day” vulnerabilities in Cisco routers that the NSA had secretly stockpiled and that Cisco had to rush to patch. And just a few weeks ago, researchers discovered three new iPhone vulnerabilities by analyzing spyware being sold to repressive governments to spy on human rights defenders.

The issue of government hacking—and the question of when and how the government should disclose the software vulnerabilities it buys or discovers—is now front-page news. This news in turn raises hard questions: Do we need new laws to regulate government hacking or the government’s disclosure of vulnerabilities, and if so, what should they look like? Should law enforcement be allowed to hack, or participate in the market for hacking tools, at all?

Building upon its recent paper on the topic, Bugs in the System: A Primer on the Software Vulnerability Ecosystem and its Policy Implications, New America’s Open Technology Institute is convening a pair of panels where a wide range of experts with backgrounds in government, industry, civil society and academia will tackle these questions and more. The event will be held at New America in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Sept. 19, 9:15 a.m.­ to 12:30 p.m.

For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

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