Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Dec. 22 2017 5:23 PM

You Can Now Check if You Interacted With Russian Agents on Facebook

Facebook is offering an olive branch for those left shaken by the recent revelations that the company was swarming with Russian operatives spreading anti-immigrant, pro-Trump commentary leading up to, and even after, the 2016 election. Now you can go to the social network’s help center, where Facebook is showing users whether they liked or followed a known Kremlin-backed account. While the tool isn’t complete—it only covers one known troll group and won’t tell you if you saw this content without liking or following it—it is users’ first real opportunity to date to reckon with how they personally may have interacted with the Russian disinformation campaign.

In September, Facebook identified roughly 470 accounts as being linked to the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg–based troll group affiliated with the Kremlin that worked to inflame political unrest online by creating thousands of fraudulent accounts and content across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google, and Tumblr. (In at least one incident, it even looped in Pokémon Go!) Facebook later admitted that roughly 126 million users saw content from the Internet Research Agency, before joining Twitter and Google at three congressional hearings where executives from companies answered questions from unhappy lawmakers. From those hearings came a demand for Facebook to reveal to users how they were impacted.

The new tool also searches Instagram to see if you liked or followed any uncovered Russian propaganda accounts on there, too. Facebook, which owns Instagram, told Congress earlier this year that it had expunged more than 170 accounts on the photo-sharing app that posted photos reaching some 16 million people between October and Election Day last year.

Facebook announced toward the end of November that it would roll out the new transparency tool, which spans interaction with known Russian government–backed accounts that posted between January 2015 and August 2017. The move was likely in response to pressure from Congress. In November, after the hearings, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, sent a letter to Facebook asking the company to give notice to users about exactly how their time on Facebook was undermined by the Russian troll campaign.

The posts, memes, events, and ads made by Russian agents for Facebook were nothing short of surreal, and targeted some of American’s culture fissures from both sides. Some accounts, like Blacktivist and BlackMattersUs, appeared to be in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Another puppet Russia account, Secured Borders, railed against the “stupid PC idea to forbid people from saying ‘Merry Christmas.’ ” Others were aimed at veterans and people in the military. Some supported Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders.

If you want to see if you engaged with any content from Russian operatives on Facebook or Instagram, click the question mark icon in the top right corner of Facebook when logged on. (It only works on desktop.) Type in “Russia” and click on the first question: “What’s is our action plan against foreign interference?” The answer will lead you to an explanation that invites you to “check to see if you liked or followed a Facebook Page or Instagram account created by the Internet Research Agency - the organization associated with these accounts and Pages.” Or you can just click on this link.

Dec. 22 2017 1:52 PM

OkCupid Is Doing Away With Usernames. But Why Is It Making Fun of Its Users in the Process?

In its latest attempt to rejoin the rest of us in the Tinder era, dating site OkCupid is getting rid of usernames. That’s not shocking at a time when online anonymity isn’t just an occasional annoyance but a legitimate threat to democracy, but it is curious in one way: In its blog post announcing the change, OkCupid seemed to go out of its way to mock its own users. It’s lame, according to the site, to masquerade as DaddyzPrincess29, kinkyweedzz, or laidback__stu, even in an online forum that once required anonymity. “We want you, BigDaddyFlash916, to go by who you are, and not be hidden beneath another layer of mystique,” the post says. “Even if that mystique is crucial to you and your dating life, unicorn__jizz.” First AIM shuttered, and now this?

Making fun of the people who keep your lights on is never a good look. OkCupid asked its users to come up with names, and so they did—and even the kind of awkward ones helped cement the site’s vibe. Do only people with clever screennames deserve dating success? And who’s in charge of deciding what’s clever? The blog post includes a graphic of “usernames we will miss” and “usernames we will not miss,” but there’s not much to distinguish those that meet OKC’s approval from those that don’t: BeautyMssingBeast is on the nice list, but suuperlonelyman is on the naughty one, which seems fairly arbitrary. I get that having any numbers in your username reads as kind of early-2000s (sorry, bag_o_Stewart101) and therefore a little less savvy and with-it, but otherwise, why the judgment? Usernames were a staple of the internet until fairly recently, and OkCupid benefitted enormously from the way its users embraced them: Among its peers, OkCupid felt like the dating-site equivalent of a chat room (for better or for worse!). Some users might have liked the anonymity. They might have even appreciated the big clue it provided when people gave themselves names like “unicorn__jizz”—for some, that’s an extremely useful red flag.

In the post, OkCupid doesn’t specify the thinking behind the decision beyond that “it’s time to keep up with the times” and the names are “a pain to come up with and a pain to remember.” (You know what else is a pain? Keeping straight all the guys named “Dave” on any dating platform. Sorry, Daves.) Earlier this month, OkCupid changed the way its messaging works, so that now users only receive messages from people they have indicated interest in. The reason for that shift was to combat harassment, but the company didn’t indicate that similar thinking is at work in its choice to ditch usernames. In fact, requiring users to go by their real names seems like a way to open them up to more harassment, since bad actors will have an easier time identifying people and contacting them off the platform if they wish to. The blog post doesn’t spell out whether users will be expected to use their full names or if, as on Tinder, something like first name and last initial will suffice, nor does it explain if there will a process for verifying that real names are being used.

If this is a move for safety or trustworthiness or even something else, OkCupid should say so. Otherwise, I’m on the side of DaddyzPrincess29 and unicorn__jizz.

Dec. 22 2017 11:47 AM

The "Start Your New Year Off Right" Meme Is a Reminder That Twitter Can Be Glorious

From the death of net neutrality to an onslaught of data breaches and questionable decisions by major tech companies coming to light, it's been a rough year online. This is especially true for Twitter users who, despite the platform's many changes in 2017, might be wondering what purpose the site has left aside from dunking on people with dumb ideas.

Yet tweeters have come up with 2017's last great answer to all this internet angst, in the form of the “Start off your new year right” meme:

If you weren't an angsty adolescent in 2004 and aren't familiar with the song, you can hear what @tmcripple is talking about at 1:03 in this YouTube video:

While 2017 taught us that memes can be weaponized for bad as well as good, this newest meme (and its slight deviations) shows that the internet as a positive force isn't lost. Within days, hundreds of users were replicating the idea, and like any good meme, it quickly demonstrated its versatility. Not so into rock music? How about a nice film or TV reference?

(In truth, I've never seen Inception, but seems inspiring to me!)

There are also options for sports fans:

And history buffs!

Or, if you're more of "drown your-sorrows in enough Champagne to forget 2017 even existed" kind of gal (cough), this tweet would pair nicely:

That's the beauty of this meme—it appeals equally to cynics like me and to people who actually do things like listen to music with people they love on New Year’s Eve. Brilliant! Given that most millennials don't have a TV to even watch crusty ball-drop countdown specials mostly hosted by white men, it's also the perfect alternative entertainment for the digital age. What's not to like?

Alas, even the purest memes cannot stay that way for long. It took about as long as it does to get to the chorus of Smash Mouth's "All Star" for brands and celebrities alike to swoop in and use the trend for their own promotional needs:

Phil Collins got in on it, too:

But that tweet's time-stamping methods proved controversial:

If you want the actual experience on, you can play this YouTube video three minutes and 16 seconds before midnight. (Or, for a full audio-visual experience, play this Vine at exactly two seconds before the clock strikes midnight.)

The pure and innocent nature of this meme has convinced me that pockets of hope exist even on a platform I dislike as much as Twitter. While I'm sure the internet cynic in me will return shortly after the clock strikes midnight this New Year, at least for now this meme has inspired me to start 2018 the right way: with a a momentary reprieve from how horrible 2017 was.

Dec. 22 2017 11:35 AM

The List of Places That Scan Your Face Is Growing

The burger chain CaliBurger on Tuesday began testing a facial recognition kiosk in its Pasadena, California, branch that can recognize customers who set up loyalty accounts. The kiosk allows select customers to access their accounts without any passcodes or card swipes and displays their order histories once the facial scan confirms their identities. “Our goal for 2018 is to replace credit card swipes with face-based payments. Facial recognition is part of our broader strategy,” CEO John Miller told the Verge.

Facial recognition, it seems, is becoming part of the “broader strategy” in many industries nowadays, from fast food joints to social media companies to security systems. Some of it may be familiar at this point. Facial recognition has become a litmus test for a phone’s technological sophistication, as Apple, Samsung, Android, and other brands have incorporated various versions of the software in their devices. The Face ID login feature was a highlight of the iPhone X, according to early reviews (though security researchers claimed they’d figured out how to hack it a week after the phone’s release).

In 2014, Facebook announced it had developed software called “Deepface” that could determine with 97.25 percent accuracy if two photographs feature the same face—around the same accuracy with which a human can identify faces. On Tuesday, the company unveiled a feature called Photo Review that informs users when their faces appear in photos, even if the uploader hasn’t tagged them.

Law enforcement agencies have been active as well. Watchdogs discovered in 2016 that around half of all American adults have their photos in the FBI’s facial recognition database, which the bureau has been using since 2011 to track and identify suspects. Yet, the software had a 15 percent rate of inaccuracy—higher than Facebook’s—and incorrectly identified black people more often than white people.

CaliBurger is part of the trend’s extension into commercial uses. As the sampling below shows, it may start popping up in places you're not used to having your face scanned. These are mostly tests right now, but they're also a sign of where the technology may be headed next.

KFC

In September, a KFC branch in Hangzhou, China, revealed that it would be allowing customers with registered accounts to pay for their meals using facial scans, similar to the system that CaliBurger has set up. The software also recommends orders based on a customer’s age, mood, and gender.

A branch in Beijing reportedly also has the technology; a press release provided to the Guardian notes that the software would recommend “a set meal of crispy chicken hamburger, roasted chicken wings and coke” to “a male customer in his early 20s,” and a breakfast of “porridge and soybean milk” to “a female customer in her 50s.”

Saks Fifth Avenue

Canadian branches of the luxury outlet began using facial ID technology in 2016 for security and tracking customers. Images of people from camera feeds in stores are cross-referenced with a shoplifter database to weed out threats and with VIP databases to identify who should receive special treatment.

The Airport

Airlines such as JetBlue and Delta have announced last summer that they would be partnering with Customs and Border Protection to test facial recognition technology for identifying passengers at gates in a handful of airports. The aim is to replace tickets by using the technology to compare facial scans from boarding passengers to a federal database of passports and visas.

Walmart

The retail giant reportedly filed for a patent in 2012, which resurfaced earlier this year, that would use recognition software to identify unhappy customers from their facial expressions. While it’s possible that Walmart won’t end up developing the technology, the patent filing reveals the company’s thinking on the matter. At one point, it reads, “Often, if customer service is inadequate, this fact will not appear in data available to management until many customers have been lost.” It also notes that the facial recognition software could allow the chain to cut down on staffing costs.

Dec. 22 2017 11:10 AM

Bitcoin's Value Plummeted Overnight and No One Knows Why

While the Western Hemisphere slept, Bitcoin plummeted.

Just after midnight Eastern Time on Friday, the cryptocurrency was valued at a little over $15,000, on the digital currency exchange Coinbase. At that point, it was already well below the $19,783 all-time high it had hit the week before.

Over the course of the night, Bitcoin began to decline erratically, occasionally spiking but following a general downward trend. Around 9:22 a.m. Eastern, it hit a temporary floor, valued at a mere $10,400. By that point, it had declined more than $6,000 from its short-term peak the morning before, having lost more than one-third of its value.

FT-171222-bitcoin

Screenshot from Coinbase

Bitcoin wasn’t the only currency hit by a sharp drop. Tech Crunch’s Jon Russell reports that most other prominent cryptocurrencies also fell, including Ethereum, Litecoin, and Bitcoin Cash (which is, confusingly, separate from Bitcoin proper). As Russell notes, it’s hard to say why this is happening, “in the same way that nobody knows exactly why bitcoin’s price has [shot] up from a touch under $1,000 at the start of the year.”

Taking a similar stance, Quartz’s John Detrixhe writes, “Looking for reasons to explain bitcoin’s recent drop could be futile.” He points, however, to Coinbase’s claim that it “was investigating insider trading on its platform.” As Aaron Mak explained in Slate on Wednesday, that investigation began when the value of Bitcoin Cash suddenly surged after it was introduced to the exchange, leading some to speculate that traders close to the company (perhaps its own employees) had “stocked up” in advance. Given that no news seems to have emerged on that front, however, it’s not clear how or why it might be connected to the overnight decline.

There is, in any case, good news for cryptocurrency devotees. After its morning low, Bitcoin began to climb again on Coinbase. In the hour after it hit its low point, the currency rose by 25 percent, reaching a value of more than $13,000 by 10:22 a.m. Just as it’s difficult to say why it fell, it’s hard to know why it’s climbing again, whether it will its prior heights, or where it might stop. If nothing else, its earlier descent may offer a warning about the seemingly arbitrary volatility of cryptocurrencies more generally.

Update, Dec. 22, 1:45 p.m.: Coinbase “temporarily disabled” buying and selling for more than two hours Friday because of "high traffic," but it appears to have been restored.

Dec. 22 2017 8:58 AM

A Bipartisan Group of Senators Wants to Protect Elections From Hacking. Will Congress Act?

Time has declared that the recently passed tax bill proves bipartisanship in Congress is dead. It’s hard to argue with that assessment. And yet, there is one critical issue where members of both parties seem to be building momentum toward an actual bipartisan solution: protecting American elections from hacking.

In the same week that Congress passed its tax legislation without a single Democratic vote, Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla.; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Lindsay Graham, R-S.C.; Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., introduced the Secure Elections Act, which would authorize federal money for several measures that cybersecurity experts have been pushing for years. This follows a series of bipartisan statements and proposals promoting the need to bolster the security of our election systems.

The big question now is whether Congress can manage to pass something in time to meaningfully safeguard our elections. With the 2018 general election just 10 months away, they don’t have much time.

Cyberattacks against election systems around the world have become increasingly common. We don’t even have to delve into the (unfortunately) still controversial topic of Russian meddling in the 2016 election to understand this. In 2014 alone, hacks targeted election systems in Ukraine, the Philippines, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic. While Russia has also been implicated in the Ukraine cyberattacks, it is clearly not the only adversary we need to worry about. The U.S. government has blamed North Korea’s spy agency for the ransomware attack that locked up the computers of government agencies and businesses in 150 countries in May, while al -Qaeda and ISIS have shown their willingness to hack foreign government websites. It would be naïve in the extreme to believe these enemies of the United States might not be interested in wreaking havoc on our elections in the coming years.

Meanwhile, it’s been more than 15 years since Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which provided states with money to upgrade their election infrastructure. Since that time, as these systems have aged, Congress has done almost nothing to assist states and localities to adjust to evolving cyberthreats. Today, America’s antiquated voting machines and outdated registration databases often run on obsolete software that is more vulnerable to hacking and less likely to be serviced with security patches from their vendors. Unless something changes soon, in 2018 nearly 40 states will use voting machines that are at least a decade old, perilously close to the end of their projected lifespans. Many of these systems will not have a voter-verified paper record that can be used to independently confirm that the software they run on was not hacked.

The steps we need to take to secure our systems aren’t a secret, and the Securing Elections Act contains the relevant ingredients. Perhaps most importantly, it would establish a $386 million grant program that states could access to implement a set of voluntary cybersecurity guidelines developed by a panel of independent experts. While $386 million is a tiny amount compared to the billions of dollars Congress authorized to upgrade America’s election infrastructure with HAVA in 2002, an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, where I work, shows that this amount of money could still go a long way to shoring up the most vulnerable systems.

Most importantly, the bill would help states replace old voting machines with new ones that process paper ballots.* It would also create new federal guidelines for post-election audits of those paper ballots. Regularly checking the paper ballots against the electronic vote tally helps ensure that if there is a breach of the voting machines, it will be caught.

The bill also would also authorize immediate grants to election agencies that conduct a “risk and vulnerability” assessment, with subsequent funds to take actions to fix vulnerabilities identified. Election officials interviewed by the Brennan Center have argued that such evaluations are a critical first step in securing our election infrastructure.

Finally, the bill would foster more timely and thorough communication on election security issues, something that proved to be a problem in 2016. Many local election officials and members of Congress expressed frustration that it took the Department of Homeland Security nearly a year to notify 21 states that their registration systems had been targeted by Russian government hackers. An information-sharing clause in the bill would set up a clear process for notifying election officials quickly of any potential hack. And election system vendors and officials would be required to report suspected security breaches to law enforcement. The failure to quickly communicate security breaches or system malfunctions could be the difference between a contained problem and a national crisis.

In sum, the Securing Elections Act aims to do just what a bill meant to guard American elections from tampering should. But just because it has bipartisan support doesn’t mean congressional leaders will act with necessary speed. Time is running out. If Congress doesn’t want to get blamed for an attack that our intelligence leaders agree is likely to come, they need to act soon.

*Correction, Dec. 22, 2017: This piece originally stated that the bill would help states purchase voting machines that process paper ballots or produce a paper record of an electronic vote. The bill does not include support to purchase electronic machines that will produce a paper trail. It would provide money for machines that scan voter-marked paper ballots.

Dec. 21 2017 12:09 PM

Long Island Iced Tea’s Stock Price Up 432 Percent After It Pivoted to Blockchain

The Long Island Iced Tea Corporation’s stock rose by 432 percent on Thursday after the company announced that it would be changing its name to “Long Blockchain Corp.”

According to a statement, the company is now “shifting its primary corporate focus towards the exploration of and investment in opportunities that leverage the benefits of blockchain technology,” though its subsidiary, Long Island Brand Beverages, will continue to sell drinks.

A UK company, On-line Plc, had a similar experience when its shares rose by 394 percent after it changed its name to “On-line Blockchain Plc” in October.

Blockchain is a digital ledger that allows people to make instant and secure transactions. It’s the underlying technology for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and has attracted billions of dollars of investments in the tech industry.

Blockchain evangelists have been preaching that the technology will revolutionize everything from financial services to toasters. Major tech companies like Microsoft and IBM are currently running experiments with blockchain, and more than 100 banks are now trying to find ways to incorporate the technology into their transactions.

Dec. 20 2017 3:41 PM

Future Tense Newsletter: The Truth Is Out There

Greetings, Future Tensers,

The Federal Communications Commission has officially pulled the plug on net neutrality, but internet activists have just begun to fight back. At least nine states are planning on suing over the ruling and even Luke Skywalker himself got up in arms when Ajit Pai tried to use the Force for evil. Congress is also looking to challenge the decision—though Republicans cozied up with communications companies could prove a threat.

But while we were distracted by net neutrality, you might have missed that the Federal Election Commission decided to do something good. As April Glaser reports, the FEC has now clarified that like television and print ads, most online political ads must have a disclaimer about who purchased them. As the share of campaign budgets spent on online advertising skyrockets (candidates spent more than $1.4 billion in 2016), this move could make major political waves. Twitter also started to do some good by beginning to enforce stricter hate speech policies, resulting in a purge of white nationalist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim accounts.

In more Earth-shattering news, the New York Times broke a story this weekend that the Pentagon has spent $22 million investigating UFOs. Jacob Brogan argues, however, that we should be investing defense resources in hiding from aliens instead of trying to make contact. More important than if aliens are actually real is the imaginative power space continues to provide us, Joey Eschrich and Ed Finn discuss.

Other things we read while conspiring about aliens:

  • 2017 in searches: How did Matt Lauer make it on to Google’s annual “Year in Search” list but not Donald Trump? Lila Thulin breaks it down.
  • The Talk 2.0: Priya Kumar explains how to teach your kids about privacy and security online beyond simple stranger-danger warnings.
  • Digital rights are human rights: In 2017, online rights are critical to global freedom.
  • World Wide Web crisis: Hija Kamran explains how the FCC’s decision to kill net neutrality could hurt the cause of digital rights activists in Pakistan who are seeking to end content prioritization in the country.
  • Dark money: State governments have started seizing bitcoin from dark web criminals.
  • Space billboards: A Japanese company has raised $90 million to advertise on the moon, but is it legal? Neel V. Patel provides answers.
  • Facebook doesn’t need your friends to tag you to recognize your face. Is it a privacy concern?

See you in 2018,
Tonya Riley
For Future Tense

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

Dec. 20 2017 2:42 PM

The Insane Hour After Coinbase Added Bitcoin Cash

Coinbase went haywire Tuesday night when the popular cryptocurrency platform began allowing users to trade bitcoin cash, a fork of bitcoin that’s supposed to be more scalable.

 

Dec. 19 2017 7:55 PM

How Conspiracy Theorists on Reddit Are Reacting to That New York Times UFO Story

After the New York Times published a piece on Sunday revealing the existence of a $22 million program in Pentagon that investigates UFOs, conspiracy spinners were active in the bizarro corners of Reddit, Twitter, and 4chan to anxiously speculate about the news. Yet users seemed to be consumed less by the possibility of a forthcoming alien invasion, and more by the theory that the government is scheming to use fake extraterrestrials to manipulate the population.

 

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