Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Nov. 15 2017 6:01 PM

In 2016, Russian Bots Were Busy Supporting Brexit, Too

Russians agents sure do seem to love Twitter. Before and after the Brexit vote in June 2016, more than 156,000 bots and troll accounts that had Russian registered as their language were posting in English in support of the British departure from the European Union. According the New York Times' report on a new study, those accounts tweeted about Brexit 45,000 times in the final 48 hours before the vote.

A separate report from the Guardian on Tuesday detailed that 3,500 tweets with Brexit-related hashtags came from 419 of the 2,752 accounts Twitter identified to Congress as stemming from the Kremlin-supported Internet Research Agency.

“These accounts were definitely using Brexit hashtags,” Laura Cram, a professor from the University of Edinburgh who co-authored the research on the Russian accounts shared with Congress, said in the New York Times. “But we cannot say whether they were primarily trying to influence Brexit or whether it was a side effect of them trying to wreak discord generally.” Seventy percent of these accounts were actually tweeting their Brexit content after the election. It is similar to what we’ve seen in the U.S., where bots and trolls continued to use their large social media following well after the 2016 election. After the alt-right rally in Charlottesville, for example, Russian-linked bots were tweeting divisive and counterfactual content that appeared tailored to deepen American political divisions.

This news comes a day after the British government’s lead cybersecurity official, Ciaran Martin of the National Cyber Security Center, shared remarks accusing Russian hackers of attacking British energy, telecom, and media companies over the past 12 months. Again, this account is parallel to incidents in the U.S. earlier this year. In July, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI found evidence that hackers had penetrated the networks of nuclear power plants, as well as computer networks critical to the U.S. energy sector. Those attacks uses similar techniques to those used by the Russian hacking group known as “Energetic Bear,” known for its ties to previous attacks on energy industry computer networks.

Finally, the fact that Russian Twitter accounts were cheering for Brexit is also suspicious in light of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement with the Leave.EU campaign. Cambridge Analytica, which also worked for the Trump campaign, has been roped into the U.S. special investigation into Russian interference in the election. And the CEO of the company, Alexander Nix, reportedly reached out to WikiLeaks about Hilary Clinton-related emails while in contract negotiations to join the Trump campaign. U.S. intelligence officials believe WikiLeaks worked with Russian military intelligence to release stolen Clinton-related emails in 2016.

Now it appears Russian agents and Cambridge Analytica were working in parallel during the U.S. 2016 presidential election and during Brexit. Still, just because Russian bots and Cambridge Analytica seemed to be rooting for the same teams at the same time and have some similar friends doesn’t mean that the two efforts were collaborating.

Nov. 15 2017 3:34 PM

Future Tense Newsletter: Policing Tech Isn’t Big Brother—It’s About Thousands of Little Brothers and Sisters

Greetings, Future Tensers,

When we think about government surveillance, we often lean on the idea of “Big Brother” to illustrate concerns. But we should be more concerned about thousands of little brothers and sisters, writes Andrew Guthrie Ferguson. Police departments from Baltimore to Los Angeles are deploying controversial big data surveillance technology to target resources and identify potential perpetrators (and victims) of crime. “Critical liberty and accountability issues are at stake in big data policing, and the conversation needs to be had before, not after, these technologies are implemented in your neighborhood,” Ferguson says.

Hoping to join a privacy debate? Now is the time to get a quick refresher on the FBI’s fight with Apple over encryption. Apple refused to assist the FBI in breaking the encryption on the iPhone belonging to one of the assailants in the 2015 San Bernardino shooting. Now the FBI may be looking to face off with Apple again over unlocking the iPhone of the shooter at the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church.

Other things we read this week while returning our iPhone X:

  • Addictive technology: Tech companies like Facebook use our psychological vulnerabilities against us to keep us hooked on their platforms. Will Oremus explores whether this makes them evil. Oremus and co-host April Glaser also discussed the topic in the latest episode of If Then, Slate’s new podcast about technology, society, and power.
  • Default settings: In an excerpt from her new book, Technically Wrong, Sara Wachter-Boettcher highlights the disadvantages of tech companies designing products for the “average” user.
  • Organic food fight: There is a turf battle waging over whether produce from high-tech soil-free farms can continue to carry the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s coveted organic certification label. Tamar Haspel writes it’s all about the money.
  • Viral tweets: Andrew Hudson shares what he learned about Twitter when his tweet about owl orgasms and socialism went viral.
  • Streaming-only: So much entertainment now exists exclusively online. Rachel Paige King explains we are at the mercy of the platforms that host streaming-only shows like Transparent and Good Girls Revolt to ensure that they’re archived for future generations.

Butt dialing,
Emily Fritcke
For Future Tense

Nov. 15 2017 1:21 PM

Herpes Vaccine Research Supported by Peter Thiel Could Put a University’s Funding at Risk

A Southern Illinois University researcher’s offshore development of a herpes vaccine, which was buoyed by a $7 million investment from Peter Thiel’s investment firm and a related organization, could now put the school’s $15 million in federal research funding at risk.


Nov. 14 2017 4:32 PM

Uber Sued by Two Women Who Say They Were Sexually Assaulted by Drivers

Two anonymous women filed a complaint against Uber in a Northern California district court on Tuesday, with hopes of attaining class-action status on behalf of customers in the U.S. who were “subject to rape, sexual assault, physical violence or gender-motivated violence or harassment by their Uber driver in the last four years.”

The women are requesting damages for their own alleged assaults along with an injunction against the company that would require it to conduct more rigorous background checks on its drivers and change other company practices.

(Slate has reached out to Uber requesting comment on the complaint. We will update this post if we receive a response.)

The plaintiffs argue that Uber misrepresented the safety of its service and that the company’s current method of allegedly using credit-reporting systems to screen drivers is inadequate because it only goes back seven years. The complaint also claims this supposed negligence creates a dangerous environment for customers who are often intoxicated and vulnerable when they use the service. Jeanne M. Christensen, attorney for the two women, released the following statement:

"As alleged in the complaint filed today against Uber, the Company must come forward with information about how many reports it has received about rapes, sexual assaults and gender-motivated harassment to allow consumers to assess whether Uber really does provide safe rides, especially to women. Uber must make drastic changes to prevent another female rider from harm. As alleged, the recent #MeToo campaign has exposed the heinous acts that female riders have been forced to endure during Uber rides. It is time for Uber to ‘Do the right thing. Period.’ ”

Uber, along with Lyft, in fact left Austin in 2015 after the city council approved an ordinance that required the companies to use fingerprint-based background checks for their drivers. The companies argued that fingerprint databases can be outdated and that the process would slow the hiring process. Uber and Lyft returned to the city this May after the Texas Legislature passed a bill that, in part, allowed the rideshare titans to avoid collecting drivers’ fingerprints.

Uber’s approach to employment screening has raised the ire of cities beyond Austin. The company was banned from New Delhi in 2014 after a driver allegedly raped one of his passengers. Officials in London also revoked the company’s license in 2017 over similar concerns, though Uber is still allowed to operate in the city while the decision is under appeal.

Nov. 14 2017 12:52 PM

More Than 80 Ohio State University Students Are Accused of Using GroupMe to Cheat

Ohio State University’s academic misconduct committee accused 83 students of “unauthorized collaboration” over the summer, and the school’s student newspaper reported last week that the cheating ring was using the popular GroupMe app to share answers.


Nov. 13 2017 10:01 PM

WikiLeaks Was Really, Really Dumb to Send Twitter DMs to Donald Trump Jr.

Considering it’s a hacker organization whose calling card is the anonymity it provides to whistleblowers leaking government secrets, WikiLeaks sure seems to have some shoddy security practices. The transparency group, led by its chief-in-exile Julian Assange, sent a series of direct messages over Twitter to Donald Trump Jr. starting on Sept. 20, 2016, less than two months before Election Day, according to a report in the Atlantic.

In correspondence with Trump’s son, the WikiLeaks account shared details about a new anti-Trump website it said was about to launch, putintrump.org, and provided the login information for the site. “We have guessed the password. It is ‘putintrump,” the message read.

“Off the record I don’t know who that is, but I’ll ask around,” Donald Trump Jr. responded.

Sending a Twitter direct message was an incredibly dumb move, at least from a digital security perspective, but Assange’s WikiLeaks continued to communicate with Trump’s son over Twitter for at least another 10 months, long after his father became president. The direct messages were shared with congressional investigators by Trump Jr.’s lawyers.

Twitter’s direct messages are not encrypted, which make it a poor medium for correspondence with a high-profile, potentially soon-to-be U.S. president’s son, especially if that correspondence is about hacking into someone else’s website. That’s because stealing a password and then using it without authorization is a violation of a federal anti-hacking law called the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. If the Trump campaign did use the password to sneak into the backend of an opposition website, WikiLeaks potentially led the Trump campaign to participate in criminal activity.

U.S. intelligence officials reported in January that they’ve assessed with “high confidence” that WikiLeaks worked with Russian military intelligence to release stolen emails from the Democratic National Convention in July 2016. If that is true, WikiLeaks conspired with Russia to sway a U.S. presidential election, and then paved roads between itself, a Russian government conspirator, and the Trump campaign—not a good look for an administration trying to dismiss claims that it knowingly got a leg up from the Kremlin before Election Day.

Trump Jr.’s correspondence with WikiLeaks began as the investigation into Russian interference in the run-up to 2016 election was starting to heat up, only months after the WikiLeaks release of the DNC emails and right before WikiLeaks released a second trove of emails from Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta. WikiLeaks, according to the Atlantic’s report, continued to contact Donald Trump Jr. months after his father, Donald Trump, entered the White House and while multiple investigations into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russian agents were well under way. In other words, it appears WikiLeaks collaborated with hackers, likely Russian, to release stolen emails in an effort to support Trump’s candidacy, and in the midst of the chaos around the release the stolen Clinton-related emails, Assange’s organization maintained some level of communication with the Trump campaign through the candidate’s son.

If Assange was getting advice from a security professional that this was a fine move, that person was either giving intentionally bad advice or is terrible at their job. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in cryptography to know that it would make sense to keep some real distance from the campaign you’re trying to boost with stolen emails, hacked passwords, and a strong connection to Russia, which was already suspected of interfering with the election. Assange’s organization either terribly miscalculated how far the federal investigations into Russian meddling in the U.S. election would go, or his team just wasn’t worried about it. If the latter is true, the temerity and naivety of WikiLeaks is nothing short of phenomenal.

What’s more, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday that the CEO of the data firm hired by the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica, had reached out to WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange to ask if it could “help better organize” the emails WikiLeaks was releasing about Hilary Clinton. That contact apparently happened in early June, at the same time Cambridge Analytica was in negotiations to join the Trump campaign. WikiLeaks didn’t start publishing documents stolen from the DNC until July.

Nov. 13 2017 6:13 PM

Google CEO Reportedly Confused a Black Female Engineer With an Administrative Assistant


A New Yorker article published online on Monday, as part of its Nov. 20 issue, recounts the alleged slights against women of color at Google.




The piece, entitled “The Tech Industry’s Gender-Discrimination Problem” details a number of stories from women who say they’ve been sexually, financially, professionally, and verbally degraded at some of Silicon Valley’s most revered institutions. Reporter Sheelah Kolhatkar documents how unequal pay, inappropriate advances, exclusion from leadership roles, and other both subtle and blatant forms of discrimination can make tech workplaces a cruel environment for women.


Nov. 13 2017 5:37 PM

Australia’s Newly Named Boat, Ferry McFerryface, Is Democracy in Action

When Sydney decided to turn over naming its ferries to the good people of the internet, Andrew Constance, the state Minister for Transport and Infrastructure, basically pleaded, “Let’s really generate some of the best names possible.”

But the good people of the internet, as they are wont to do, denied Minister Constance his wish. On Monday, it was announced that the newest member of Sydney’s fleet would, by popular demand, be christened Ferry McFerryface. The backlash was, of course, immediate. People claimed the name was a childish blight on Sydney’s illustrious harbor, devaluing the names of other boats that were dedicated to real Australian heroes like Catherine Hamlin, a pioneer in fistula repair and safer birthing. While these critiques are entirely reasonable in an era when the democratic process is under assault, Contrarypants McSlatepitch feels compelled to stand by Ferry McFerryface.

Australia’s principled decision to keep the inelegant ferry name was never guaranteed. The list of stories of naming sabotage is long and includes more than a few examples of governing bodies who refused to go along. In Slovakia in 2012, for example, legislators asked internet users to select the name of a pedestrian bridge. The overwhelming winner? “Chuck Norris.” But the government ended up naming it the “Freedom Cycling-Bridge,” in memory of those who died escaping Communist rule in Eastern Europe. It’s an important commemoration of the region’s troubling history and a fitting memorial to the people who fled by any means necessary, even by foot. But it was still a rejection of the will of the people! And the Slovakians weren’t the only ones to put their foot down when the democratic process went awry. Residents of Austin, Texas, tried and failed to rename their waste department the “Fred Durst Society of the Humanities and Arts,” after the Limp Bizkit frontman. They, too, were foiled.

In recent years, however, online naming polls have largely been honored. Unfortunately, they’ve also been totally unoriginal. In March 2016, Slate’s Katy Waldman wrote about Britain's latest research vessel, Boaty McBoatface. Sound familiar? That’s because the trope, Waldman writes, has been around for just shy of forever:

The practice of affixing “Mc” to nouns, adjectives, or verbs “to create mock names denoting a person who … is considered an exemplar or personification” goes back at least to the late 1940s, according to the OED. The cartoon Cool McCool, about an incompetent spy with an air of mystery, aired in 1966… In the ’80s and ’90s, a dismissive Mc often prefaced “something that is of mass appeal, a standardized or bland variety,” says the OED… But the Internet didn’t take up the “X-y McXerson” construction in earnest until 2001[.]

Now, “X-y McXerson” is hard to escape. Soon after Boaty McBoatface was bequeathed to the small research vessel (it was originally supposed to go to a full-size ferry), the Swedes ushered in Trainy McTrainface, and Australians, who are apparently McCrazy, bestowed a racehorse with the rather undignified name Horsey McHorseface. In fact, the construction is so popular, Ferry McFerryface actually only earned second place in the Sydney ferry poll; Boaty McBoatface won there, too, but the government decided it couldn’t steal another boat’s name and settled on the runner-up instead. (Not purely democratic, but we’ll hand it to them.)

In the end, Australia’s Minister Constance was good natured about the result. “I hope it brings a smile to the faces of visitors and locals alike,” he said. And what else could he say? Either we stop asking web saboteurs for their opinions and allowing the dumb internet to make a mess in the real world, or we grin and bear it. Personally, I’m all for Democracy McDemocracyface.

Nov. 13 2017 3:54 PM

Sean Hannity’s Brief War With Keurig Was the Internet Fight We All Needed

Fox News host and Trump bestie Sean Hannity made a new enemy this weekend: a coffee maker. Or rather, a coffee-maker maker. Keurig announced Friday that it has pulled its ads from Hannity’s show on Fox News after learning that Hannity defended Roy Moore against recent allegations in the Washington Post that in his 30s, the Alabama Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate made advances toward teenage girls, including one encounter with a 14-year-old that Hannity implied was consensual. (On Hannity’s radio show, Moore denied having been involved with the 14-year-old but only kind-of sort-of denied having dated other teenagers.)

Keurig’s decision to yank advertising led enraged Hannity fans who also owned Keurig coffee makers to take matters into their own hands, resulting in videos of angry men dropping Keurig coffee makers from balconies or smashing them with baseball bats. By the end of the weekend, the hashtag #BoycottKeurig was trending on Twitter. Though Hannity encouraged the Keurig-bashing throughout the weekend by retweeting videos, polls, and supportive statements from fans about boycotting the brand, he changed his tune Monday. Hannity tweeted to his fans to "Hold on to your coffee machines," and that Keurig realized it had been "mislead." Still, the weekend did result in some impressive footage of angry people decimating home appliances.

Here’s a supercut of Hannity fans demolishing their Keurigs:

“Liberals are offended by this video of a Keurig being thrown off of a building. Please retweet to offend a liberal,” read an early tweet on Saturday from an angry conservative.

The #BoycottKeurig hashtag originally surfaced after Angelo Carusone, the president at Media Matters for America, a left-leaning media watchdog group, tweeted Friday urging Keurig and other brands to pull ads from Hannity’s show following his defense of Roy Moore. But the #BoycottKeurig hashtag changed meaning Saturday afternoon following the company’s decision to pull advertising. A handful of other advertisers also decided to no longer run ads on Hannity’s program, including 23 and Me and Nature’s Bounty.

This is the second time this year advertisers have fled Hannity’s show. In May, Cars.com and others pulled their ads after Hannity promoted a conspiracy theory about the murder of a Democratic National Committee staffer, Seth Rich. This kind of advertising pressure can get results: After a New York Times report detailed settlements Bill O’Reilly had made with at least five women who accused him of sexual assault or harassment, 50 brands pulled advertising, and Fox News canceled O’Reilly’s show.

Roy Moore aside, Keurig is a reasonable nemesis for coffee snobs and environmentalists. The company’s individualized coffee pods aren’t easily recyclable. Besides, the coffee is, in my opinion, terrible. What’s particularly odd about this protest from Hannity fans, though, is that in smashing a coffee machine they already bought, Keurig isn’t really losing any money, and former owners may have a hard time finding out what to do with their unused coffee pods. What's more, people who did smash their Keurigs may end up just buying a new one now that Hannity has rescinded his support of the Keurig-bashing.

In the meantime, Hannity and some of his fans are expressing excitement for Black Rifle Coffee Co., which is owned by veterans and promotes itself with a video of white men shooting machine guns and women in their underwear. “Instead of worrying about microagressions and what bathroom we’re gonna use, I believe it’s important to support the people that actually serve our country,” the video’s narrator says before throwing an ax at an employee who catches it. That employee then uses the ax to tear open a bag of unroasted coffee beans. “Fresh roasted freedom,” he yells.

Watch the full video from Black Rifle Coffee here:

Nov. 13 2017 2:46 PM

A Computer Glitch Likely Extended a Man's Jail Sentence by Five Months

David Reyes was set to leave a Louisville prison on Sept. 25, 2016, after serving a nearly year-long sentence.


Yet he remained in the corrections facility until this February, five months after his release date. According to an internal investigation, the jail’s $1.5 millionsoftware system had glitches previously known to the facility’s technicians, which likely led to Reyes’s erroneously-extended sentence.