Google Finally Lets You Download Your Own Calendar, Gmail Data
A welcome bit of news from Google’s “don’t be evil” department: You can now download a copy of your own Gmail and Google Calendar data.
The move is part of the growing menu of “Google Takeout” options that includes YouTube, Drive, and several other products. They’re being developed by a team or engineers within Google that calls itself the “Data Liberation Front.” (Yes, that’s a Monty Python reference.) Your Google Calendar data is available for download as of today, and the option to download your Gmail messages will be rolled out over the next month. Just go to your account settings, click “download your data,” and select the data sources you’re interested in.
The ability to download your own data is useful in couple ways. First, it allows you to easily transfer that data if you want to switch to a different service, like iCal or Microsoft Outlook. Second, it gives you a backup should anything happen to your Google data. More fundamentally, it gives you ownership over your personal information in a way that just isn’t possible when your only access point is through Google’s proprietary apps and interfaces. Information is power, and while many of us have grown comfortable entrusting it to for-profit Internet companies in exchange for free services, the least we ought to demand in return is the right to keep a copy of it for ourselves.
As much as we mock Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” slogan as nebulous or self-serving, Google Takeout is a concrete example of how it can actually influence the company’s actions for the better, at least in small ways. The Data Liberation Front’s FAQ page cites a quote from Google Chairman Eric Schmidt as one of the primary motivations for its work:
How do you be big without being evil? We don't trap end users. So if you don't like Google, if for whatever reason we do a bad job for you, we make it easy for you to move to our competitor.
At the time Schmidt said that, though, Google didn’t really make it that easy, as the DLF admits: “We started looking at our products and discovered that while the door to leave wasn't locked, in some cases it was a bit ‘stuck’ and we thought that we could do better.”
That said, Google could still do a lot better. As the Register’s Jack Clark points out, Google Takeout does not include your search history or the history of online ads you’ve clicked on. To get that, you have to go through a much more intricate set of steps involving an RSS reader and multiple batches of data. Clark’s pointed conclusion:
The process is laborious, and seems to discourage users from accessing this data. A strange coincidence, given that search is what Google uses to refine its algorithms and make its money.
Why Obama Still Uses a BlackBerry
Barack Obama is the world’s most prominent BlackBerry user. For years he has clung to the original smartphone even as the rest of the world has moved on. But it turns out that even he wouldn’t mind upgrading to an iPhone, in theory. (He does seem to love his iPad.) The problem: He’s not allowed to.
In a speech to some young folks about Obamacare at the White House yesterday, Obama digressed into tech territory in order to draw another strained analogy between healthcare.gov and one of the world’s most popular consumer products. From the transcript:
Now, I am not allowed, for security reasons, to have an iPhone. (Laughter.) I don’t know what your bills are. I have noticed that Sasha and Malia seem to spend a lot of time on it. (Laughter.) My suspicion is that for a lot of you, between your cable bill, your phone bill, you're spending more than 100 bucks a month. The idea that you wouldn’t want to make sure that you've got the health security and financial security that comes with health insurance for less than that price, you guys are smarter than that. And most young people are, as well.
Leaving aside the dubious claim that most young people are smart enough to prefer health insurance to an iPhone and cable TV, Obama’s remarks raised an interesting tech question that few media outlets have bothered to answer: What is it, exactly, that makes the president’s BlackBerry more secure than an iPhone?
For starters, there’s the fact that his BlackBerry is apparently locked down in multiple ways, including a personal email address to which only 10 contacts have access. That’s one of the concessions he had to make in order to be allowed to keep a smartphone at all when he took office. As computer-security blogger Graham Cluley points out:
… A smartphone is, at its most basic level, a tracking device. It knows where you are in the world, and in some cases can geolocate you with extraordinary precision. That’s why you need to be really careful about what apps you allow to record your location, and where they might share that information.
BlackBerry has long enjoyed a reputation for greater security in its devices than Apple or Android, thanks to its strong encryption practices. As AFP notes, that’s one reason it remains popular with Washington officials, even as its market share slides everywhere else. Yet even two years ago Ars Technica was reporting that iPhone and Android devices were catching up in security features like encryption, forced PIN entry, and the ability to wipe your phone remotely if it’s stolen. On the other hand, that same piece added that organizations find it easier to control how their employees use BlackBerries, including app installations and operating-system upgrades. The mere idea of Obama trying out iMessage or automatically upgrading to iOS 7 before it’s been fully vetted would probably give the Secret Service heart palpitations. They probably figure: Why take the risk?
The more sinister explanation is that U.S. security officials know of big holes in Apple’s privacy and security features—because the government itself has exploited them. For one thing, Apple was one of several major tech companies identified in leaked NSA documents as being part of the agency’s PRISM surveillance program. And while Apple has insisted that its users’ iMessages are secure, hackers have called those claims into question.
In short, no one knows for sure why the president isn’t allowed to use an iPhone. But Cluley neatly distills what will surely be the main takeaway for the security-conscious consumer: “If the people responsible for security give you a nod and a wink that maybe an iPhone *isn’t* the most sensible device in the world for an American president to rely upon for his privacy and security, I guess they must have their reasons, right?”
NORAD's Fighter Escort for Santa: Another Example of Wasteful Government Spending
Most of the year, NORAD—the North American Aerospace Defense Command—watches the skies for incoming nukes. But every Christmas Eve since 1955, it’s switched gears and tracked Santa instead, giving kids updates on his progress across the globe. This year, though, there’s a twist: Rather than simply watching Santa, NORAD has also provided him with a USAF fighter escort.
Predictably, this angered some bleeding-heart types, who claimed NORAD was using Christmas to aim recruiting messages at kids. Well, maybe that’s true, but there’s something even worse about this program: Santa doesn't need an armed escort. The jolly old elf is fully capable of defending himself against attack, making this unnecessary expenditure yet another example of government waste.
First of all, NORAD needs to establish why Mr. Kringle warrants government protection. Has U.S. intelligence uncovered a credible threat against Santa Claus? If so, the chatter must’ve been dramatic to prompt such drastic action—despite being a high-value target, Santa has no known enemies. On the other hand, perhaps NORAD is taking precautions in light of China’s new air-defense zone, worrying that Santa may overfly the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and cause an international incident. They needn’t be concerned, however—Santa has countermeasures Lockheed Martin only dreams about.
Santa's primary defense against air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles is speed. One popular estimate posits that Santa travels 650 miles per second, more than Mach 3,000 in ideal conditions. By contrast, most air-to-air missiles travel at a pokey Mach 4, and even Russia's S-400 SAM would lag far behind at Mach 12. Target acquisition would be another challenge for attackers, since without an engine or radar, the sleigh doesn't give off any signature that heat-seeking or radar-guided missiles can pick up, and it moves too fast for electro-optical guidance systems to get a digital image.
Missiles are a wash: Can't lock him, can't catch him.
Theoretically a hostile state could down Santa with a traditional WWII-style air defense grid—firing enough AAA into the sky that one shell is bound to hit him. But history debunks this scenario. Santa managed to deliver to British air raid shelters during the Blitz, so he’s not afraid of a little flak. Still, this vulnerability to traditional artillery may explain why the big man steers clear of North Korea.
In fact, the only time Santa appears vulnerable is when he's dismounted. He’s such a soft target during his deliveries that even children have managed to catch him off-guard, and in stand-your-ground states there’s a danger he might be mistakenly shot as a home invader. If the U.S. military is truly worried for Saint Nick’s safety, they should scrap the fighter escort and deploy a team that can secure his LZs against hostile homeowners, lone actors, or extremists with MANPADs. A Marine Corps Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST) would be ideal. After all, FAST companies train for this type op, and Santa’s already works with the Marines on Toys for Tots.
Picture it. The team breaches a house via multiple entry points. Santa crashes in the window wearing NVGs. Delivers the package. Eats cookies. Rolls a grenade across the floor—it stops in front of a sleepy beagle and ejects doggie treats. His work done, Santa exfils to the rooftop where the sleigh retrieves him by skyhook.
But it’s not really his style, is it? Santa is minimally invasive, preferring stealth and evasion to confrontation. And with all respect to the U.S. Marine Corps, the old guy doesn't need the help. Don’t let it fool you when he lets kids catch him—Santa is an infiltrator without peer. He's bypassed more security systems than Anonymous and has a better intel network than the NSA. He breaks into military bases on a regular basis, even though they know he’s coming.
We're talking about a guy who slipped into the White House three months after 9/11, planted multiple suspicious packages and left undetected—I think he can handle his personal security. (Though you never know, he may have clearance. That dude's connected way up.)
Given Santa's capabilities, it’s clear a fighter escort serves no tactical purpose. On the contrary, Santa will have to decelerate in order to keep formation, both putting Christmas behind schedule and making the sleigh vulnerable to attack. Add the high cost of coordinating and refueling a round-the-world escort—a mere Super Bowl flyover costs $450,000—and it’s clear the American taxpayer can’t afford empty pageantry.
Given the situation, I’m begging you NORAD: Just stand back and watch the man work. Who knows? You might learn something.
Why Did This Man Get Arrested for Charging His Electric Car?
Early last month, a police officer approached Kaveh Kamooneh outside of Chamblee Middle School in Georgia. While his 11-year-old son played tennis, Kamooneh was charging his Nissan Leaf using an outdoor outlet. When the officer arrived, he opened the unlocked vehicle, took out a piece of mail to read the address, and let a puzzled Kamooneh know that he would be arrested for theft. Kamooneh brushed the entire incident off. Eleven days later, two deputies handcuffed and arrested him at his home. The charge? Theft of electrical power. According to a statement from the school, a “local citizen” had called the police to report the unauthorized power-up session.
The total cost of the 20 minutes of electricity Kamooneh reportedly used is about 5 cents. So why did he end up in jail for 15 hours? Sgt. Ernesto Ford of the Chamblee Police Department dismissed the idea that it wasn’t worth arresting someone over a nickel, telling reporters that “It doesn't matter. He broke the law. He stole something that wasn't his. … A theft is a theft.” (The police dispute Kamooneh's account, saying in a statement that he, not his son, was the one playing tennis and that Kamooneh was not supposed to be on school grounds. The statement also says, "He made no attempt to apologize or simply say oops and he wouldn't do it again.")
Are political attitudes toward environmentally friendly electric vehicles to blame? North Carolina legislators proposed (and later abandoned) a bill to ban Teslas in the state, citing a need to prevent “unfair competition.” (These are the same legislators who celebrate their own “free-market reforms.”) A similar effort in Ohio also failed. Outgoing Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, proposed a $100 annual fee levied against “alternative fuel” car owners. In New Jersey, one Democratic politician suggested electric car owners to pay a mileage-based tax. But Georgia has a handful of initiatives to promote electric vehicle ownership. What gives?
Kamooneh’s case is different, of course, because it involves using a public outlet to juice up the battery. In a way, this is also more troubling. With the growing popularity of electric vehicles outpacing the infrastructure enhancements needed to keep them charged, this problem could become increasingly common. Or could Kamooneh’s misfortune simply be a case of overzealous and reactionary law enforcement officers proving a perverse point?
I recently used a public outlet in New York City during a desperate attempt to juice up my dying smartphone, and law enforcement didn’t come after me. The only risk I considered was my unprotected USB. Undoubtedly, thousands of Americans have stopped to plug in various devices at cafes, airports, convention centers, schools, and parks across the country when they need a quick charge. Are we guilty of theft, or are we simply using publically available outlets in a pinch?
Of course, there is a precedent: The practice of piggybacking Wi-Fi has been around since the dawn of wireless Internet. While there have been a handful of arrests for Wi-Fi theft, it remains a common practice among the general public. Unlike electrical grids, however, unauthorized access to a Wi-Fi network can lead to a whole host of ugly problems—including use of the network for criminal activity. Strong password protections can easily solve the problem. Should we start protecting electrical outlets in a similar way?
One solution would be to cover and lock public outlets when not in use, or to switch off power from a control room outside of business hours. A more practical solution is to implement some kind of reasonable use policy. The costs of charging an electric car are difficult to calculate but generally rather low; a few minutes at a public outlet won’t exactly drain the public coffers. Plus, public outlets charge cars incredibly slowly, often requiring up to 15 hours for a full charge. (In contrast, a top-of-the-line charging station can boost a battery in as little as 30 minutes.) For his misdemeanor, Kamooneh spent about 15 hours in jail, or just long enough to charge his car from a public outlet. If only Georgia had more charging stations, he could have powered up in a fraction of that time—and avoided a night at the police station, too. Until the infrastructure catches up with electrical vehicles, it should be considered fair game for drivers to plug in at publicly available outlets.
Update, Dec. 5, 2013: This post has been updated to include a statement from the police about the incident.
What Amazon Reviewers Think of Samsung’s $45,000 TV
It has an 85-inch screen, a 120-watt speaker system, and a quad-core processor. And for a limited time, the Samsung UN85S9 85-Inch 4K Ultra HD 120Hz 3D Smart LED TV is on sale for $5,002 off on Amazon.com. Granted, it will still set you back $39,997.99.
Does it get good reviews from Amazon users? Of course it does—if by “good” you mean “brutal.” A few excerpts:
Five stars: “Very satisfied”:
My wife and I bought this after selling our daughter Amanda into white slavery. We actually got a refurbished. It's missing the remote, but oh well-- for $10K off, I can afford a universal, right? The picture is amazing. I've never seen the world with such clarity. …
- James Thach
Five stars: Great Investment!
… Let's just say the Samsung UN85S9 85-Inch 4K Ultra HD 120Hz 3D Smart LED TV looks a lot better on the wall than any college diploma could.
- Anuj K.
Five stars: Simply Amazing
I needed an additional television for my breezeway walking from the side courtyard to the master quarters. Ever since Carlton renovated the Elephant exhibit, I only have the noise of the waterfall and the Harp player outside.…
Five stars: Did you see it comes with FREE Batteries?
- Cheryl Gustafson
Three stars: Nigerian money right in time!
After I got the $20 million from a Nigerian prince in exchange for assisting him in money transfers (so glad I opened that email), I was looking for a good TV and found this …
- IWon "the Ramesh"
The reviews aren’t all positive, however.
One star: “So sad”
It makes those abused-animal commercials with the Sarah Mclachlan music playing so much sadder when the one-eyed pug is four feet tall.
- Jon S
The Samsung Smart TV seems like it would go perfectly with that $500 Denon AKDL1 Dedicated Link Cable, no?
This Video Game Could Improve Airport Security
A half-empty water bottle, a bottle of shampoo, a pocketknife keychain—baggage screeners see these items every day. But after spotting so many minor infractions, most of them accidents and nearly none of them a threat to national security, do TSA screeners become desensitized to rarer and more dangerous items? According to data pulled from a popular video game, the answer may be yes.
You may already know the game Airport Scanner, a smartphone app that lets you X-ray virtual luggage for contraband. But Airport Scanner is more than a chaotic and endless array of upgrades and high scores. Beneath it all, researchers at Duke University saw a massive data set containing valuable clues as to how visual recognition works.
In the game, players become accustomed to flagging luggage that contains anything from the TSA’s prohibited items list. This includes everything from the seemingly innocuous (wine bottles) to the obviously dangerous (crossbows). However, some items appear more frequently than others, and analysis of the data showed that while gamers got quite efficient at identifying the more usual threats, the identification rates plummeted when it came to tagging the ultra-rare-items.
This has obvious implications for the industry on which the game is based. We’re always reading about how people try to sneak totally insane things through airport security, but how often does each screener have to I.D. an explosive cannonball? Not all that often, and if data from the game is any indicator, this represents a blind spot.
The study is also interesting on another level. If you’re going to run tests based on rarity of items, then you need to show participants a massive number of images before you’ll have any real clue as to how they react to ultra-rarity. But thanks to the standard Apple User Agreement and some generosity on the part of the Kedlin Co., the research team was able to work with data from 20 million virtual suitcases generated from Airport Scanner—and that was just between December 2012 and March 2013. Over the last year, the team has gained access to 1.5 billion trials.
“This is the first visual search experiment to include targets so rare they parallel actual cancer rates,” said Adam Biggs, one of the paper’s authors. “It’s a mammoth amount of data.”
Interestingly, this silly little video game may already be helping make our airports safer. Biggs and his colleagues work closely with the TSA and have conducted research to determine what kind of cognitive differences there might be between the searches of a trained professional and the kid killing time on his iPhone.
However, as to whether the TSA has implemented anything specifically based on his research, Biggs laughed and said, “Nothing that I’m positive I can talk about.”
On a personal note, I can tell you that after playing a few rounds of Airport Scanner, I will approach the slowly-moving security line with newfound patience—because that kind of pressure is enough to give a person an anxiety attack.
Xbox One, PlayStation 4 Games Punish Players for Swearing. WTF?
It sees you when you’re sleeping. It knows when you’re awake. It knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good, for Xbox’s sake.
Microsoft’s new video game console, the Xbox One, has been greeted by privacy hawks as a “twisted nightmare.” The impressive Kinect technology that powers it can sense your motion, recognize your voice, even monitor your heart rate by training its infrared cameras on you. But the real nightmare may be when the console makes you wash your mouth out with soap.
A YouTuber named randomfrankp has uploaded a video that appears to show NBA 2K14 slapping him with a technical foul for cussing. That is, his player on the court gets penalized because randomfrankp said the F-word aloud in his living room.
(Warning: “Foul” language.)
Deadspin, for its part, has unearthed a second example of Kinect-powered scolding: a FIFA 14 player getting an in-game letter from his soccer team beseeching him to “Please be aware that you are an ambassador for this football club and the language you have used puts us all in a bad light.”
These instances of video-game tsk-tskery may set off your fakedar, in this age of Internet hoaxes, but game-maker 2K says they’re real. And as fans of the NBA 2K series know, this isn’t even new.
“This was a feature we incorporated to NBA 2K13 that we felt brought both realism to the game, and a more civilized online environment for our players,” 2K told me in a statement. “The result was so positive we have continued it in NBA 2K14.”
And sorry, Sony fanboys. The Xbox One isn’t the only spy in your living room. The PlayStation 4 version of NBA 2K14 will also penalize you for cussing, via the microphone on the PlayStation Camera. Your living-room Big Brothers are always listening.
What’s happening here isn’t entirely new. Video games have acknowledged gamers’ profanity long before they could actually hear it. Old text-based adventure games, which required you to type commands like “Unlock the door,” would make jokes if you included profanity. Cuss at 1986’s King’s Quest III, and the game would write back, “Obviously, you were raised by a naughty wizard.” (Almost 30 years later, cuss at Siri and she’ll say, “Hey! I don’t think I deserve that.”)
What’s new is video games reacting not to specific game input, per se, but what’s passively happening around the act of gaming. Which is a bit absurd. To give your player a technical foul for you swearing assumes your player is also running down the court saying, “How do I do a head fake, again? Oh yeah, hit A.”
This is also the first instance that I know of, at least, of a game punishing you for cussing, rather than making a joke out of it. (If you can think of an earlier one, put it in the comments.)
2K’s innovative use of the sensory arrays accompanying the new generation of consoles is well-intentioned, and kind of funny, but we don’t play video games to be scolded; we play them to escape the world of scolds.
An exasperated randomfrankp put it best: “I can’t curse in my own house. I spend $530 for an Xbox One, and you’re gonna penalize me?”
The Internet Has Run Out of Four-Letter Dot-Com Names
None. Zero. Nada.
That’s how many four-letter dot-com domain names are left unregistered on the Internet, according to new research by WhoAPI.com, a Croatian startup that analyzes domain data.
We’re not just talking about four-letter names that spell actual words, like cars.com or pets.com (R.I.P). We’re not even just talking about pronounceable four-letter combinations, like eBay, Yelp, Etsy, and Hulu. We’re talking every possible four-letter combination, from aaaa.com to zzzz.com. That’s a total of 456,976 combinations. WhoAPI checked all 456,976 of them, and confirmed that not one remains unregistered.
Gone. Done. Over. Past.
They’re not all being actively maintained, of course. Many are for sale across the Internet by various domain-name resellers, but none are just sitting around waiting to be claimed.
Short domain names have long been prized because they’re easy to remember, even if they don’t spell anything in particular—think xkcd.com. All the two- and three-letter combinations were snapped up years ago, but the WhoAPI report is the first I’ve seen to definitively declare that the four-letter combinations, known in the industry as LLLLs, are all occupied as well.
Drat. Heck. Rats. Grrr.
For those still bent on obtaining a four-character URL, Lifehacker a few years back suggested replacing one letter with a number. WhoAPI did not check all of the additional combinations that formula makes possible. There are also short domain names available on top-level domains other than .com, including .biz, .net, and many more.
For the rest of us, the good news is that domain names have become less important over the years as people navigate the Web via Google search rather than by typing URLs into their browser bars. And for what it’s worth, it should be a while before all the five-character combinations are claimed: 26 to the fifth power is 11,881,376.
Previously in Slate:
Drone U Podcast: What a Greek Mythological Creature Tells Us About Autonomous Systems
Every week on Future Tense, we highlight a talk from Drone U in which a leading thinker speaks about what our drone future may look like. Drone U is produced in cooperation with the New America Foundation. (Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.)
This week, Drone U features a podcast from Arthur Holland and Dan Gettinger, founders of the Bard Center for the Study of the Drone. Holland and Gettinger explain why an interdisciplinary center for the study of autonomous technology is absolutely necessary for the future of “drone literacy.”
It’s easy to get carried away with what drones can do—take this week’s flurry of interest in Amazon’s PrimeAir, for example—but Holland and Gettinger argue for taking a step back. To productively discuss drones, they contend, the public must be grounded in the historical, ethical, and social dimensions of this technology. What, for example, can studying the mythical Greek harpy teach us about autonomous systems?
Join us on Dec. 11 for the next episode from Drone U.
Netizen Report: Microsoft Announces Plan to Protect Chinese Skype Users
Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. This week's report begins in Vietnam, where social media users will soon face new threats of penalties for political speech. Comments that qualify as “propaganda against the state” or “reactionary ideology” will cost 100 million dong (USD $4,740) in fines—unless they merit criminal charges. Other fine-worthy acts include uploading a map inconsistent government claims of sovereignty and operating e-commerce sites without proper licensing. These penalties reportedly aim to rein in speech that doesn’t quite necessitate prison time, but it is anyone's guess what it will mean in a country that has jailed 46 bloggers in this year alone.
Le Quoc Quan, one of the country’s most prominent bloggers, has been in prison for nearly a year. A human rights lawyer and advocate, Quan was arrested on trumped-up charges of tax evasion and convicted after a brief trial in October. This week, a U.N. Human Rights Council working group reviewed the case and surmised that “the real purpose of [Quan’s] detention and prosecution might eventually be to punish him for exercising his rights under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and to deter others from doing so.”