Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Jan. 5 2017 2:27 PM

Russia Used Fake News to Influence the Election, Says U.S. Intelligence Chief

Fake news was part of the Russian government’s attempt to influence the U.S. presidential election, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a Senate hearing Thursday morning.

Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, asked Clapper about allegations that Russian government–backed groups had created or propagated false news stories as part of a broader campaign that included hacking and stealing emails. Clapper replied:

This was a multifaceted campaign. So the hacking was only one part of it, and it also entailed classical propaganda, disinformation, fake news.

Asked whether those disinformation efforts have continued in the election’s wake, Clapper said “yes.” He declined to elaborate on the nature of Russia’s propaganda campaign in Thursday’s hearing, or to speculate on what impact it might have had on the election’s outcome, if any. He said there will be more detail in an unclassified report that is scheduled to be released early next week.

Jan. 4 2017 6:29 PM

Why Mark Zuckerberg Is Suddenly Acting Like a Politician


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Mark Zuckerberg woke up on Christmas morning and posted his status on Facebook. The Facebook CEO was “celebrating Christmas,” he reported, adding a message so anodyne it would make a Hallmark card look edgy in comparison. Yet there was a revelation coming.

“But aren’t you atheist?” a Facebook user asked in a comment on Zuckerberg’s post.

Jan. 4 2017 2:09 PM

Future Tense Newsletter: Why We’re Still Talking About Frankenstein

Happy New Year, Future Tensers!

What better way to kick off 2017 than beginning the latest installment of Futurography—our online course offering monthly breakdowns of the science and tech topics that define our time. This month we’re taking a look at how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published 199 years ago, continues to affect the way we think about scientific and technological innovation. We’ll start you off with a conversational introduction and cheat sheet to guide you through the key players, lingo, and major debates around the topic. The rest of the month we’ll post pieces reflecting on the legacy of Shelley’s novel, and we’ll close the course with a live event in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 2.

Even though 2016 is over, you may still be looking for answers to why it was such a bad year. Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner suggest looking to Poe’s law—a decade-old internet adage—to offer an explanation. But 2016 wasn’t all that terrible; we did see some great memes come out of our shared misfortune. Plus there is a lot to look forward to in the New Year, specifically the reemergence of psychedelic drugs for therapeutic use. Groovy.

Here are some other articles you may have missed over the holidays:

  • The 2011 hack that changed the internet: Josephine Wolff tells the story of a little-known breach that led to critical changes to the internet’s infrastructure.
  • Media literacy: A pilot program is being launched in schools to teach high-school students how to spot fake news online. It’s probably safe to say we could all use a lesson.
  • Citizen science: Darlene Cavalier and Jason Lloyd argue that now more than ever, scientists should be engaging the public with their work.
  • Organ shortages: Driverless cars are sure to change the way we live and the way we die. An unexpected consequence of the reduction of road deaths could lead to a dire shortage in organ donation unless we prepare now, argue Ian Adams and Anne Hobson.

Events:

  • Join Terrell McSweeny, a commissioner with the Federal Trade Commission, for the latest installment of our “My Favorite Movie” series. She’ll be hosting a screening of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension at Washington, D.C.’s Landmark E Street Cinema on Jan. 12. Learn how to RSVP here.
  • Will the internet always be American? On Tuesday, Jan. 24, Future Tense will host a live event in Washington, D.C., to explore the internet’s nationality, the extent to which it’s an expression of American culture, and how that may be changing. You can RSVP to attend in person or watch online here.

Pushing my cat out of the way,
Emily Fritcke
for Future Tense

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.

Jan. 3 2017 1:44 PM

The Good Reason Why CNN Used Images From a Video Game to Illustrate a Story on Hacking

A sharp-eyed Reddit user was reading a CNN article about the White House response to Russian cyberattacks when he or she spotted something strange in the video playing at the top: As B-roll, the network was using a screenshot of a minigame from the post-apocalyptic role-playing game Fallout 4. (To be more specific, it was a hacking minigame included in Fallout 4.)

After the post on Reddit, the gaming press quickly piled on. A new video now leads the CNN story, but the clip that appears to show Fallout 4 graphics can still be found elsewhere on the site. (CNN didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about why and/or how shots from the game ended up in the video.)

It’s pretty easy to dismiss the whole thing as a clueless media blunder, just another sign that journalists don’t understand cybersecurity much more than Trump does—or can’t tell fiction from reality.

But everyone should cut CNN a little slack.

I’m a tech writer, and I cover privacy and security. And I’ve learned something over the years: Finding a good image for hacking stories can make you want to pull your hair out. If you’re covering a data breach at a specific company or government agency, you can usually get away with an image of a sign out front of their headquarters. But for more general cybersecurity pieces, you’re usually picking from a limited selection of stock images.

And the choices can be pretty bleak. Think generic keyboard shots, The Matrix–style streaming binary text, and Hollywood stereotypes of someone wearing a hoodie or ski mask typing at a laptop—typically illuminated by light shining from the screen.

In the rush to get stories online, it’s easy to default to the same picture time and time again once you find one that works. That’s why you’ve probably seen the same image of a glowing, binary-spewing keyboard in dozens of stories—including some of my own—if you follow digital security news.

Cybering hacker hacking the internet.
Just your typical cybering hacker hacking the internet.

scyther5/Thinkstock

Technical topics like encryption or specific strains of malware are hard to translate into imagery. And when you can illustrate the technology, well, it isn’t very eye-catching.

“To be honest, a photo of some real hacking would be just too boring,” one illustrator who makes stock hacking illustration told Motherboard last year. “That’s why you usually create an attractive, exaggerated image—like in cinema,” said the artist, who goes by the handle “Welcomia” on image marketplace Shutterstock. The pseudonymous illustrator also acknowledged knowing “nothing about hacking.”

The kind of images Welcomia makes drives some cybersecurity experts crazy. They think that the graphics perpetuate stereotypes of the creepy loner at a computer—and the images definitely include more men than women. A few years ago, a San Francisco tech collective called the Hacker Dojo even took its own over-the-top “hacker” pictures and posted them on public Flickr accounts as a prank, to see whether news sites would use them in stories. (They did.)

But broadcast outlets like CNN have it even harder than print media because they have to find engaging visuals for an entire video segment instead of just an image to top a story.

Of course, a lack of good images isn’t necessarily a good excuse for using video game graphics to get cybersecurity issues across in a serious news story. But it perhaps makes it easier to forgive.

Dec. 29 2016 11:40 AM

The Best Meme of 2016

From David Bowie’s death in January to Donald Trump’s election in November, this year offered a steadily intensifying stream of indignities and offenses. While any responsible historian will tell you that every year is terrible, social media made avoiding our latest round of horrors all the harder. As Jia Tolentino writes in the New Yorker, “There is no limit to the amount of misfortune a person can take in via the Internet, and there’s no easy way to properly calibrate it.”

Indeed, in 2016 there was nothing less refreshing than refreshing your Twitter feed, and nothing that made you want to log out altogether more than logging into Facebook. It was a self-reinforcing loop: Social media brought home the miseries of 2016, even as 2016 made social media that much more miserable.

Small wonder, then, that the year’s best—or at least most necessary—meme sought out ways to frame our experience of the year’s awfulness, and not just all that awful news itself. In its basic form, it shows us two images—one typically cheery and hopeful, the other most often grim and despondent—then ties them together with a caption: “Me at the beginning of 2016 vs me at the end of 2016.” More often than not, it’s the same character or performer in both, full of hope in the one, spirit broken in the next. These are stories of catastrophic decline, played for laughs:

Dec. 28 2016 2:40 PM

Oh Great, Ransomware Is Infecting Smart TVs Now

On Christmas day, a family member of software developer Darren Cauthon received an unwelcome gift. According to Cauthon, that person “downloaded an app to watch a movie” on his or her LG smart TV, and the device froze soon after. When it rebooted, it was stuck on a screen purporting to show a letter from the desk of FBI Director James Comey, one claiming in subgrammatical English that the device had been locked up for “your attendance of the forbidden pornographic sites.” To make good, the letter warned, the device’s owner would have to pay a $500 fine.

As Catalin Cimpanu writes on BleepingComputer, the TV in question “appears to be infected with a version of the Cyber.Police ransomware, also known as FLocker, Frantic Locker, or Dogspectus.” While Frantic Locker has primarily affected Android smartphones, the TV was, Cauthon has explained on Twitter, an early model Google TV, one that runs a version of the Android operating system.

Ransomware works by taking over a system until a user pays a fee, often in the form of cryptocurrency or digital gift cards. One recent high-profile ransomware attack shut down much of San Francisco’s public transit system while another targeted a Hollywood hospital. More mundane ransomware has been reported on Android devices since at least 2014, and Frantic Locker first began to show up on phones in 2015. Although such programs can be dangerous, especially for the unprepared, they can often be relatively easy to clear off of a system, even if you don’t want to pay the fee.

TV-based ransomware is somewhat more worrisome, in part because it can be difficult to remove, as security researchers from Trend Micro warned in a report earlier this year. Seeing that risk realized in the wild seems to substantiate those fears, not least of all because traditional Android workarounds failed to fix the problem, according to Cauthon.

In its report, Trend Micro suggested that users with infected devices “contact the device vendor for solution first.” Cauthon, for his own part, apparently tried just that. But as Cimpanu reports, LG representatives “told him to visit one of their service centers, where one of its employees could reset his TV.” That service came with a hefty price tag attached—$340, enough that Cauthon’s family member might have been better off buying a new television outright.

As it happens, though, not every story has a grim ending in 2016. On Wednesday morning, Cauthon tweeted that LG had provided him with instructions for a factory reset.

Whether or not that procedure works, his story is further evidence that so-called smart devices are often anything but.

Dec. 27 2016 12:41 PM

An Amazon Echo May Help Solve a Murder. That Should Worry Privacy Advocates.

Back in March, Amazon treated users of its Echo devices to a peculiar game, inviting them to solve the fictional murder of Bruce and Martha Wayne, Batman’s parents. That diversion was little more than a promotional tie in for Batman v Superman, but Amazon’s popular devices are now playing an important role in a real murder investigation.

In the Information, Tom Dotan and Reed Albergotti report that police in Bentonville, Arkansas, “issued a warrant to Amazon.com to turn over audio and other records from an Echo.” They were seeking information about a murder that had occurred in James Andrew Bates’ house, where the device was found. Bates has been charged in connection with the murder.

Amazon apparently “twice declined to hand over information the Echo transmitted to its servers.” Nevertheless, the police reportedly did glean some information directly from the device itself, though it’s not yet clear how useful that information was to their investigation. Dotan and Albergotti suggest that this “may be the first case of its kind,” but it’s ultimately hard to say, partly because Amazon has declined to provide information on government wiretap requests for the Echo in the past.

All of this matters in large part because the Echo is an always-on device, constantly listening in on speech around it. As Dotan and Albergotti note, the devices supposedly only record users’ voices when they speak a keyword or phrase. But as Will Oremus showed earlier this year, unexpected triggers can sometimes activate Amazon’s devices. Despite that, it’s unlikely that this one contains audio of the alleged murder, even if the act itself somehow occurred in proximity to it.

Unless someone just happened to ask Alexa to provide tips for ideal murder strategies, the real investigative value of the device may derive from other data it contains. It might, for example, demonstrate that the accused was in the house when the crime occurred. Indeed, Dotan and Albergotti note that data from another device in the house—a smart water meter—might be more useful to the investigators, since it shows “someone used 140 gallons of water between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. at Mr. Bates’ house, a much heavier than usual amount.” As they go on to explain, “Prosecutors allege that was a result of Mr. Bates using a garden hose to spray down the back patio area from the blood.”

All of this should offer an important reminder that it’s not always wise to blindly commit to smart devices, even if you’re not planning criminal acts. In the name of providing us with easy access to information, they’re also collecting enormous amounts of information about us, information that can be put to surprising ends. As Oremus has put it, “A world of conversational machines is one in which we treat software like humans, letting them deeper into our lives and confiding in them more than ever.” Such privacy concerns, this case suggests, may well hold even for devices that aren’t explicitly designed to listen in on our lives.

Dec. 27 2016 5:45 AM

When a Cat Crashes a Video Conference Call, Is It Charming or Irritating?

My husband was in a Skype-based job interview a couple of years ago when he noticed that the men he was talking to suddenly looked a little puzzled. Then he saw their eyes move across the screen. They had spotted one of our cats, or rather the tip of her tail, as she walked through the background. When he realized what was going on, Chris picked her up and said, "Callie, not now." His interviewers laughed, and their conversation continued.

He got the job.

When you’re in the office, holding conference calls on Skype, Zoom, or Google Hangouts is terrible: There’s always some problem with the technology, and everyone gets a little snippy, blaming the other side when things go haywire. (No, New York office, you froze.)

Doing a video conference call from home is even worse. You have to clear out any mess in the frame, fuss with the lighting, think about thinking about fixing your hair, maybe put on a bra. (OK, this isn’t completely logical, but I always do it anyway.) As my colleague L.V. Anderson put it, “Video conferencing counteracts the benefits of working from home, makes participants distracted and self-conscious, and fails to reproduce the social benefits of meeting in person.”

It’s true. There is just one reason why it’s worth putting up with video meetings while working from home: the opportunity to see pets.

Callie crashes
Callie doing her thing on Zoom.

Callie seems to be somehow drawn to the sound—she also gets very worked up when calls are on speakerphone—and so crashes my video calls on a regular basis. Her ears will show up in the corner of the screen, or she’ll headbutt my face, or she’ll place her front paws on my shoulders. She’s quiet, luckily—though I always keep myself on mute when not speaking, just in case. In my heart, Callie’s antics are utterly delightful. My kind-souled colleagues are good sports about it, sending me enthusiastic messages that say “CAT!” when they spot her on Zoom. I’m not the only Slatester with a feline interloper. My colleagues Jim Newell, Rebecca Onion, and Jacob Brogan all have cats—Leo, Behemoth, and Molly, respectively—who make guest appearances in our regular meetings. Their better-behaved pets typically sleep in frame, instead of winding their way back and forth the way Callie does.

But not everyone finds a cat cameo so endearing. I was once Skyping with a potential contact whom I didn’t know very well. Callie did her thing, this time walking on the table right in front of the camera. “Oh, sorry, it’s my cat!” I said, grinning. The woman I was talking to nodded and kept talking, not giving me even a little bit of a smile. I was miffed.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that it can be distracting—like when Callie nonchalantly positions her butt in the exact wrong place. And then I don’t quite know what to do: Do I just ignore it and hope everyone else does, too? Do I gently shove her away? Do I let her blackmail me into petting her off-camera so she doesn’t interrupt more? My standard practice after the first intrusion is to smile with a self-deprecating roll of my eyes to acknowledge that it’s ridiculous, and then ignore her. But at times, her presence is undeniably intrusive—like when Slate Editor Julia Turner had to ask me to repeat something because Callie was blocking the mic. (Julia was very nice about it. Still: Sorry, boss!)

When I informally polled some people about whether it’s distracting or charming when a cat crashes a meeting, most expressed enthusiasm. But a candid few admitted it could be a problem. “It’s charming and great unless the cat owner decides to use it as an opportunity to turn the conversation onto his/her cat, in which case it’s unprofessional (and also very un-cat-like),” one former colleague told me. And while I certainly don’t want to turn the conversation onto my cat, this does hit at my “What do I do when it happens?” anxiety. It was a good reminder me not to spend too much time apologizing for the cat.

Another friend mused that this is another example of how the line between work and life is blurring. When your co-workers can literally see into your home, professionalism has to lose some of its gloss. Normally, I’m simply taken by how tastefully decorated my colleagues’ apartments are—but it’s comforting to sometimes see a little disorder, a little lived-in chaos, like a messy living room or a poorly behaved cat.

A colleague who is a mother took this idea a bit further. “I think it’s kind of cute when it happens. But I’m annoyed because I know everyone wouldn’t laugh and say it’s OK if someone’s kid crashed their conference call, which I’m always terrified of when I’m working from home.” When she Zooms in from home for a call, she said, she goes into a room and locks the door so her young son can’t interlope. It was disheartening to hear. I’d like to say that I would laugh and say it’s OK if her kid—who is lovely—popped up.

But I can understand where the anxiety might come from. Of course, a child can actually speak, while my cat is (usually) just a visual interruption. And it’s not socially acceptable to shove a child away—with love—as you can do with a cat.

But maybe it’s that we find a glimpse of a home life endearing, but we don’t want to see too much. A friendly cat and a ratty couch are fine. A child and an unmade bed in the background, with a CPAP machine on the nightstand? Unfair as it is, that might be too far. At least for now.

Dec. 20 2016 1:11 PM

Uber’s Self-Driving Cars Turn in a Way That Can Kill Bicyclists

No one sets out in the morning planning to be an angry bike commuter, the one banging a fist on a car’s hood after swerving to avoid being hit, but sometimes it’s the only way to tell a distracted motorist that he or she nearly pancaked you. Right now, Uber is previewing a future in which we’re banging our fists at an empty driver’s seat. As the Guardian reports, the self-driving Ubers currently tooling around San Francisco have a bike lane problem.

Uber has long envisioned replacing the human drivers on its platform with autonomous vehicles, an ambition it has been testing on the roads of Pittsburgh since this summer (with human backup drivers in tow). Last week, it rolled out an autonomous-vehicle pilot in San Francisco, but didn’t seek a permit from California, which regulates tests of self-driving cars, like Google’s. After one of the autonomous Ubers blew through a red light—the company says a human engineer was in control of the car at the time—the California Department of Motor Vehicles said it would crack down on Uber if it did not stop the testing and apply for a permit. Uber, being Uber, defied the threat and said it would continue testing its cars in San Francisco.

On Monday, the Guardian reported that Uber’s engineers were trying to fix a problem with the way its self-driving cars cross bike lanes when making right turns. That’s not a small issue in a dense environment like San Francisco, which has 200 miles of bike lanes and, hilliness aside, a robust population of bike commuters.

Like being doored, getting “right-hooked” is a first-order worry for anyone who uses bike lanes. Bicyclists die that way. Brian Wiedenmeier, the executive director of a local cycling advocacy group called the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, rode in a self-driving Uber as part of a demonstration two days before the test launched and observed the vehicles taking a dangerous right-hook turn—that is, abruptly crossing over a bike lane to make a right turn in an intersection. (The safer practice is to check to see if bikes are approaching and, if possible, merge into the bike lane or parking lane before completing the right turn.) He says he shared his concern with Uber, which told the Guardian that it is now instructing its testers to take control of the cars to make right turns on streets with bike lanes.

It’s reassuring that Uber has made that move, and it’s true that self-driving cars, which may ultimately reduce vehicular deaths, will need to be tested on the streets in order to improve. I can’t help but think, however, that Uber would not have addressed this issue had a bicycling advocate not been present at its demonstration and had that bicycling advocate not been willing to make a public stink. And the autonomous Ubers’ initial trouble with bike lanes further deepens the sense that the future envisioned by self-driving car proponents—of a perfectly efficient urban latticework of autonomous-vehicle byways—is one that doesn’t account for the other people who share the road on foot or on bike. Or as Washington City Paper’s bike columnist recently tweeted:

It is likely for the greater good that companies like Uber and Google and General Motors are racing to perfect the self-driving car. But to do so they need to respect public space—something Uber, whose M.O. is to enter cities no matter their laws and later lobby for favorable regulations, has often not done. (Its argument in San Francisco is that its self-driving Ubers are closer to Teslas, which have an Autopilot mode, than to the Google car.) And they need to respect our roads as they are currently designed and used, not as they eventually might be, which means working with the agencies that design and regulate them, and not asking for forgiveness instead of permission.

Then again, if this is where we’re headed, American cities can do something, too: Give bicyclists protected bike lanes that cars can’t swerve into even if they want to.

Dec. 20 2016 10:07 AM

How Bad Was Imperial Cybersecurity in Rogue One? We Asked Some Experts.

This post contains spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. But come on: If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already seen it.

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