Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Oct. 13 2017 3:00 PM

Airbnb Is Opening an Apartment Building Near Disney World

Disney World will soon see a bit of Silicon Valley in its backyard. Airbnb is teaming up with a Miami-based developer, Newgard, to construct a 324-room building in Kissimmee, Florida—a few minutes away from the Disney World theme parks. The complex, which is set to open in early 2018, will be called “Niido by Airbnb.”

 

Oct. 13 2017 12:33 PM

Twitter May Have Erased Critical Evidence for the Russia Investigation

There is a big problem with Congressional investigators’ quest to learn how Russian-affiliated operatives used Twitter during 2016 to influence the election: Twitter deleted some of the data they need. According to a report in Politico, the company deleted information crucial to investigators’ understanding of how Russian actors exploited the platform to spread rumors and sow discord. The data, according to anonymous cybersecurity officials, could have helped investigators develop more detailed timelines for the bot-propelled fake news campaigns and discover tactics that trolls used to influence political discussions online. Some officials believe that the data could have even identified who was behind the cyber offensive. Twitter’s engineers are trying determine if they can retrieve or recreate some of this information, but the prospects look rather bleak.

It has become increasingly clear over the last couple of months that Russian operatives were using Twitter to spread falsehoods and half-truths largely supporting Trump and denigrating Clinton during the election. The Senate Intelligence Committee held a closed-door meeting with Twitter on Sept. 28 in which the company revealed that 22 of the 470 Facebook accounts run by Russian trolls also had corresponding Twitter accounts. An additional 179 Twitter accounts were very likely linked to Russian operatives according to the company, and three accounts associated with the Kremlin-backed news outlet RT spent $274,100 on Twitter ads in 2016.

Yet it was absurdly easy for these Russian trolls to evade detection from prying investigators. All they had to do was deactivate their phony accounts and delete their rumor-ridden tweets to wipe down the scene of the crime. Twitter has strict policies dictating that its records must reflect whatever users do with their content, so the platform would have deleted anything the Russians chose to delete. And it doesn’t help that these operatives typically do everything they can to dispose of any evidence, a former FBI official told Politico.

Twitter isn’t the only social media platform whose user privacy practices have made it difficult to uncover proof of Russian meddling. After a Columbia University analyst published findings suggesting the number of Facebook users that came into contact with Russian propaganda may have been much larger than what was previously disclosed, the company removed the thousands of posts and associated data that made the research possible. Facebook cited privacy policies in its decision to withdraw the “inactive content” from public view.

Slate has contacted Twitter about the Politico report and will update this post if we receive a response.

Oct. 13 2017 10:24 AM

It’s Cybersecurity Awareness Month. Do You Feel More Cybersecure and Aware Yet?

October is Cybersecurity Awareness Month. Click here for more information on ways to protect yourself! Or don’t. Because the link might lead to malware.

October is Cybersecurity Awareness Month. Offer internet users tips on how they might protect themselves! Or don’t. Because, apparently, there is such a thing as “security fatigue,” caused by too many warnings and offers of advice on the subject, which “may lead to risky computing behavior.”

October is Cybersecurity Awareness Month. Maybe the best one can do to raise awareness is to tell fellow internet users to read the news.

You may already be aware of some cybersecurity news about Equifax—the credit reporting company that recently revealed it had been hacked and had leaked key personal data about more than 145 million people. (For want of a software patch, timely installed … though maybe Cybersecurity Awareness Month is a good time to start referring not to “patches” but to “bandages” or “tourniquets”—things that prevent deeply damaging leaks. Language plays a part in building awareness, too.)

You may also already be aware of recent cybersecurity-related news about Yahoo, the SEC, Deloitte, and, most troublingly, the National Security Agency. If not, you might want to look up those stories. One hopeful outcome of this slew of failures is that legislators are becoming not just aware but angry, and appear to be ready to propose some legislative measures in response. Maybe part of Cybersecurity Awareness Month should also be to keep a close eye on the regulatory proposals to come, to ensure that they are comprehensive and properly targeted. There is much to be aware of.

And there is good news, too! In these yet-early days of the Cybersecurity Awareness Month, Mattel announced Thursday that it will not, after all, release its previously announced “kid-focused AI device” that was to be placed in children’s rooms and that generated privacy and cybersecurity concerns—a device that had been named, improbably, Aristotle.

As Hayley Tsukayama explained in the Washington Post, Aristotle “was designed for a child's room. It could switch on a night light to soothe a crying baby. It was also designed to keep changing its activities, even to the point where it could help a preteen with homework. And the device would learn about the child along the way.” (“Poppins,” perhaps—but Aristotle?!)

Several petitions asking Mattel not to release the product garnered more than 15,000 signatures. And, as the Washington Post article announcing the decision “not to bring Aristotle to the marketplace” also pointed out, anther Mattel product, “Hello Barbie,” “didn't sell well at launch after poor reviews, many of which mentioned the privacy concerns.” (Media coverage had mentioned “Hello Barbie” cybersecurity concerns, too.)

Maybe this is a sign that as consumers we are, in fact, becoming more aware of cybersecurity issues, and doing what we can in response. Perhaps Aristotle is coming to the marketplace—but it’s the other Aristotle, the one who taught about “practical wisdom,” which is the kind required in the development of new products and new regulations, and in the way we all interact online.

Now we just need him to go to the IRS, which recently awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to Equifax for fraud-prevention services. According to Politico, the contract award was posted to the Federal Business Opportunities database on Sept. 30. That, of course, was the day before the start of Cybersecurity Awareness Month.

Oct. 12 2017 9:37 PM

The Strangest Incident of Russian Meddling in 2016 Involved Black Lives Matter and Pókemon Go

Were there any internet platforms that Russia-affiliated operatives didn’t use as part of their efforts to sway the 2016 election and secure Donald Trump’s victory? Facebook and Twitter were the first to come under scrutiny. Now, as CNN reported Thursday, we know that even Pokémon Go—seriously, Pokémon Go—was also enmeshed in Russia’s apparent misinformation campaign.

According to the report, a campaign that appeared to come from the Black Lives Matter movement calling itself “Do Not Shoot Us” was actually puppeted by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency, a known troll farm that has been behind scores of fake social-media accounts, Facebook groups, and campaigns that aimed at deepening political divides and manipulating voters in the run up to Election Day. The name “Don’t Shoot Us” is likely a play on the chant "Hands Up, Don't Shoot,” a hallmark of demonstrations against police violence after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The fake campaign could have been an attempt to ratchet up racial tensions in the U.S. during an already intense election cycle.

Do Not Shoot Us used an array of social-media platforms to broadcast incidents of police brutality, including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, and Pokémon Go. The Facebook page was one of the 470 pages that Facebook flagged as having possible ties to the Russian government that bought 3,000 ads on the social network during the 2016 campaign. Those ads were handed over to Congress, and Facebook says it will publicly share the content of them soon.

The YouTube videos linked to a website, donotshoot.us, which as of Thursday afternoon was still active. There’s also a Do Not Shoot Us Tumblr site, where CNN found a July 2016 post proposing the site’s visitors find Pokémon Go gyms near where alleged incidents of police voice had occurred. It then recommended that Pokémon Go players name their characters after victims—one post showed a Pokémon named Eric Garner, who died after being put in a chokehold by a police officer who was arresting him in 2014.  The Pokémon Go promotion included chopped English, likely because English isn’t the native language of the person who wrote it. “We will send a $100 Amazon Gifting Card for the person who will capture the most GYMS,” it read. It’s unclear if anyone fell for the contest.

"It's clear from the images shared with us by CNN that our game assets were appropriated and misused in promotions by third parties without our permission," said Niantic, the company behind Pokémon Go, in a statement to CNN. “This 'contest' required people to take screen shots from their phone and share over other social networks, not within our game.” That particular Tumblr, which was still active Thursday afternoon, has now become a site that posts about Palestine.

What appears to be the official Don’t Shoot Us campaign website has at least a dozen petitions that garnered thousands of signatures on issues related to police violence. One of those petitions calls for justice against a police officer named Sean Thompson in Bexar County, Texas, who shot a pit bull in August 2016. The petition, which appears to have collected more than 360 signatures, is rife with grammatical errors and odd capitalizations, again probably because the author isn’t a native English speaker. This incident actually did happen, according to Bexar County police, who I called Thursday. Still, it’s not clear why this particular incident was promoted by the Do Not Shoot Us campaign of alleged Russian origins other than to demonstrate police violence—and further inflame political tensions.

The Don’t Shoot Us campaign also spilled offline. According to the report, Don’t Shoot Us created a Facebook event for a protest outside the St. Anthony Police Department near St. Paul, Minnesota, which was spotted by real local activists the day after Philando Castile was killed by police. The St. Anthony Police Department was where the officer who shot Castile was stationed. The local activists reached out to the Don’t Shoot Us page and looked into the registration of their website, which CNN notes included registration information that led to a mall address.

Individuals from the Don’t Shoot Us group also contacted journalists in the Baltimore area about a protest they were organizing outside a courthouse. One person who wrote about the protest conducted an email interview with someone claiming to be “Daniel Reed,” the “chief editor” of DoNotShoot.Us. His responses were sent in a Word doc. CNN examined the document and found "Название," the Russian word for "name,” as meta data in the file.

This new case shows how the Russian disinformation campaign stretched well beyond Facebook, Twitter, and Google, the three companies that have been asked to testify in Congress about how Russian-backed forces apparently manipulated their platforms to deceive Americans and meddle with the presidential election. It also clearly shows that these fake campaigns weren’t simply trying to convince Americans to not vote for Hillary Clinton or to vote for Donald Trump. This campaign appears to be engaged in a sustained, deep disinformation effort intended to rile up racial tensions in the United States. The involvement of Pókemon Go may feel strange and goofy, but it also suggests there were no corners of the internet where the operatives looking to throttle our elections were unwilling to go.

Oct. 12 2017 5:06 PM

Russia’s Use of Antivirus Software to Spy on the U.S. Shows Why We Need Strong Encryption

On Tuesday, the New York Times and the Washington Post published explosive allegations claiming that anti-virus software made by Kaspersky Labs, which is headquartered in Russia, had been programmed to target U.S. intelligence assets throughout the world. If these allegations are true, it implies that consumer security technology has been weaponized and turned into spyware for national governments. The implications will likely go far beyond Kaspersky, which has denied knowingly allowing the Russian government to use its software for this purpose.

With the Kaspersky scandal undermining faith in popular software, now might seem like a good time for our government to reassure consumers that this sort of thing won’t happen to U.S. firms. Instead, on the same day as the Kaspersky news broke, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein took a different approach. In a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, Rosenstein exhorted American tech companies to deploy what he called “responsible encryption.” What Rosenstein means is that he thinks Google, Facebook, and Apple should modify their software so that they can always hand over their customers’ data to the U.S. government on demand.

Oct. 12 2017 3:01 PM

Equifax's Website May Have Been Compromised. Again.

Equifax’s beleaguered website—or rather, Equifax’s beleaguered customers, which is to say all of us—just can’t catch a break. First, a vulnerability in credit agency’s web application software allowed hackers to breach into the system in May and potentially abscond with sensitive data on 145.5 million customers. Equifax revealed that hack in September. Then, on Wednesday, security researcher Randy Abrams discovered that the company’s website had again been compromised, this time with malware attempting to trick customers seeking credit report assistance to download a fake Adobe Flash update.

 

Oct. 12 2017 11:21 AM

Twitter Limits Rose McGowan’s Account After Her Allegations Against Weinstein and A-Listers

Twitter inexplicably suspended Rose McGowan for 12 hours, the actress wrote on Instagram on Thursday. It’s not clear from the screenshot she took of Twitter’s suspension notice what the social media platform found objectionable, though there is a requirement that she “Delete Tweets that violate our rules” before beginning the countdown.

 

Oct. 12 2017 10:51 AM

Can the Library of Congress Save Gawker’s Website From Extinction?

For more than a year, Gawker’s website has remained in a sort of stasis, a goodbye post from its founder, Nick Denton, adorning the top of the page. That might, however, soon change. In an article on the impending sale of the site—currently held by Gawker Media's bankruptcy estate—the Wall Street Journal suggests that buyers might consider purchasing the site in order to shut it down for good.

From a certain perspective, the very possibility that such a development might play out is appalling. And yet, the immediacy of information on the internet often goes hand-in-hand with its instability: Now and again, articles vanish before crawlers can archive them. On poorly maintained sites, old interactives fall into obsolescence, rendering award-winning journalism inaccessible. And sometimes, maybe more often than we realize, people delete whole sites out of spite.

In centuries past, if an aggrieved plutocrat wanted to truly destroy a publication, he would have had to go to absurd lengths. Shutting an irksome newspaper down is one thing, but to remove all trace of its existence, you’d have to buy up every extant copy, including those still held in private hands. By contrast, eliminating Gawker’s supposed offensive might just be a matter of deleting the troublesome articles from its servers.

It’s a grim possibility, both because Gawker’s legal defeat was a blow to the free press and because the site itself is an important landmark of internet history. Bemoaning the prospect on Twitter, former Gawkerite Hamilton Nolan proposed that “a wealthy fan of journalism, the First Amendment, historic preservation, or speaking truth to power in general” should buy the site.

Here, one might reasonably wonder why such an intervention would be necessary at all. Couldn’t the Library of Congress do something? Doesn’t the Internet Archive already preserve records of such sites?

The Library of Congress, for one, does actively capture past versions of some websites, though it (like the Internet Archive) makes copies of sites rather than preserving the sites themselves. Further, the library neither strives to archive the web as a whole nor to pull items into its collection piecemeal. As it explains in a programmatic document on the topic, “This means that the usual practice is not to acquire individual web sites one‐by‐one, but as part of a named subject, event, or theme‐based collection.” Those collections tend to be selective and carefully constructed, encompassing topics such as specific Olympic games and past U.S. elections.

It would certainly be possible to make a case that Gawker should have a place in the library’s holdings: It is, after all, a key representative of the golden age of blogging, which might, for example, mean it has a place in the American Folklife Center’s Web Culture collection, which I’ve written about in the past. The trouble is, it might not be possible for the library to capture the site, even if it wanted to. As it notes in an FAQ about its archiving program, it regularly “asks permission to archive or to provide off-site access to researchers.” The institution’s commitment to this process means that it sometimes can’t include certain sites within its collections, even if it would be ideal to incorporate them. Further, it’s possible that even if Gawker’s current owners agreed to let the library archive the site, future owners could revoke those permissions. Much the same might be true for the Internet Archive’s collections, though nothing of the kind appears to have happened in the past.

(I have inquired about the Library of Congress and the Internet Archive’s policies and will update if I hear back.)

Other problems arise when you turn to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. While it has saved more than 17,000 images of Gawker over the past 14 years, most of those records are copies in the loosest possible sense. On my browser, at least, trying to visit some older images of the site effectively spits out unintelligible gibberish. All the information is clearly there, but it doesn’t render in a way that lets me get to it.

Screen Shot 2017-10-04 at 12.24.53 PM
Gawker on January 7, 2008, as rendered by the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.

Internet Archive

Perhaps more importantly, it’s difficult (though not entirely impossible) to search for information in the Internet Archive’s cloned Gawker pages. Because of the way the Internet Archive crawls sites, Gawker’s own search engine sometimes won’t turn up results, or will only show you the first page of hits. There might be ways around these difficulties, but even if there are, the original experience of the page has been lost. Unless you know exactly what you’re looking for and when it was published, you’ll have a hard time finding anything on the site.

Together, these uncertainties and frustrations speak to why it’s important to preserve sites like Gawker in their original condition. While digital archives provide a valuable service—buffering against the total loss of the internet’s past and showing us sites as they once were—they can’t replace sites themselves.

Oct. 11 2017 6:42 PM

Congress Is Investigating Trump Campaign’s Voter Targeting Firm as Part of the Russia Probe

The federal investigation of possible collusion between President Trump’s campaign with Russian operatives is expanding. And now Cambridge Analytica, the data firm the Trump camp used to reach voters with hyper-targeted messaging online, has been roped into the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, too, according to an article published Wednesday in the Daily Beast.

Cambridge Analytica is reportedly in the process of sharing documents with the House committee, and according to a statement the data firm gave the Daily Beast, it believes other companies that also worked on online campaigning during the 2016 election are being asked to do the same.

The news of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in the Russia probe comes as Facebook, Twitter, and Google are also being swept into the larger investigation of how exactly Russia worked to manipulate voters in the run-up to Trump’s election victory. Cambridge Analytica’s website claims that the company has “up to 5,000 data points on over 230 million American voters,” which it can use to create psychological profiles to “effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations” that appeal to each person on an emotional level. A group from the firm worked in the same office as Trump’s digital campaign team, according to Theresa Hong, one of the main brains behind the Trump team’s online push.

While it’s not clear at this point whether there was any collusion between Cambridge Analytica and Russian operatives, the company does have ties to Russia (as does SCL, the data firm in the U.K. that Cambridge Analytica spun off from in 2013). In May, the Guardian reported that sources from Cambridge Analytica shared details about “trips to the country, meetings with executives from Russian state-owned companies, and references by SCL employees to working for Russian entities.” That’s not totally surprising, since the company’s business model is to work for federal campaigns, but with so much tension mounting about Russian efforts to target U.S. voters, it’s not inconsequential.

Hillary Clinton has also alluded to the possibility that Russian groups had assistance in their efforts during the U.S. presidential race to rile the far edges of America’s polarized political landscape. So far, details about how those groups used social media reveal a deft understanding of how to provoke voters on some of the country’s most divisive political issues, like racial justice and gun control. "The Russians could not have known how to use that intelligence information unless they were guided by Americans," Clinton said in an interview with Kara Swisher at the Code Conference in May.

Until August of last year, former Trump campaign chairman and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon was on the board of Cambridge Analytica. Bannon is also personally invested in the company to the tune of $1 million to $5 million, according to a Bloomberg report from April. But the primary financier of Cambridge Analytica is Robert Mercer, the secretive hedge fund billionaire who has also invested millions in Breitbart, where Bannon is now working again after being ousted from the White House in August.

The House committee isn’t the only governmental body looking into Cambridge Analytica’s practices. Since March, the U.K.’s Information Commissioner, the country’s privacy regulator, is also investigating Cambridge Analytica for its work in the successful Leave.eu campaign, which ended in a vote for Britain to part ways with the European Union.

There’s also a separate case on the horizon that could expose exactly how Cambridge Analytica classified and targeted U.S. voters in the 2016 election. David Carroll, a professor at Parsons School of Design who studies media, data-targeting, and campaigns, is preparing for a potential lawsuit against the company for violating British data protection law, which requires a company that engages with personal digital data to provide information about how that data is collected, used, and shared if requested. Carroll put in a request, but he says the information that he was sent back was insufficient. He’s working with legal experts in the U.K. to begin filing pre-trial actions for a potential legal fight that could bring to light more information about exactly how Cambridge Analytica leverages voter data in its campaign work.

The Trump campaign spent about $85 million on Facebook advertising and promotion, and according to Hong, Facebook and Google both sent liaisons to the Trump campaign and Cambridge Analytica to help them better use the tech companies’ ad targeting tools. If a link between Cambridge Analytica’s work with the Trump campaign and collusion with Russia does surface, those social media companies could be implicated as well.

Oct. 11 2017 4:59 PM

When the Waters Come, Will Our Cities Survive?: A Future Tense Event in New York

From Superstorm Sandy to the recent devastating effects of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, natural disasters make it difficult to ignore the rapid changes our climate is undergoing.

Sea levels and global temperatures are rising, threatening the very existence of small island communities and historic cities alike. In response, scientists and policy makers are fighting to hold back the devastating effects of a drowning world, as Jeff Goodell chronicles in his new book, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World.

Will international efforts be able to save us from an impending "water world"? What are policy makers doing in light of the uptick of natural disasters and the devastation they bring communities? Will markets begin to price the risk of catastrophic damage inflicted by climate change?

Join Future Tense on Wednesday, Oct. 25, at 6:30 p.m. for a discussion about The Water Will Come with Class of 2016 New America fellow Jeff Goodell and a panel of environment and development experts. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America NYC website.

Speakers:

Daniel Zarrilli
Senior Director, Climate Policy and Programs, and Chief Resilience Officer, Office of the Mayor, City of New York

Jay Koh
Managing Director, The Lightsmith Group

Moderator:

Sommer Mathis
Editor-in-Chief, Atlas Obscura

READ MORE STORIES