The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Dec. 24 2014 1:43 PM

You Have Your Pick of Santa Trackers This Year

Christmas eve is really going digital this year. Whether you think Santa is a big white guy or a penguin wearing a fake beard, you can get your fill of the flying sleigh from a few different trackers.

Google's offering, which you can access by searching "santa" on Google or Google Maps, includes route information, a latitude and longitude game, a present counter, and "sleigh selfies." Santa looks jovial in his sleigh, but Google doesn't show any reindeer pulling it, so the (magical) propulsion method is kind of unclear.

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Meanwhile, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which has a long history of mapping Santa's movements, partnered with Microsoft to make its service this year. The tracker features both 2D and 3D views of Santa, the sleigh, and all nine reindeer, plus a counter of how many gifts have been delivered on the route, and information about last and next stop. The tracker also includes prominent Internet Explorer branding no matter what browser you're viewing it on.

Both NORAD and Google also released apps for following Santa on mobile devices. Google's is Android-only and NORAD has options for Android, iOS, and, of course, Windows Phone.

If you want a third option, there's TrackingSanta.net, which has been online in various forms since 1994, and is run as a collaboration between santaupdate.com, Kringle Radio, and mymerrychristmas.com.

Since none of this is, you know, real, the trackers don't sync up in terms of placing Santa in the same place at any given time. It's a rare moment on the Web where there's no such thing as bad information.

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Dec. 23 2014 6:57 PM

Apple Did Its First Ever Automatic Security Update on Macs Today

It doesn't feel like there's been a lot of decisive action related to cybersecurity lately. So perhaps just for a change of pace, Apple released its first automatic security update ever on Tuesday. At some point during the day, Macs all over the world showed a notification that a security update was complete. No checking or clicking required.

The update addressed a vulnerability related to the network time protocol (NTP) in OS X operating systems. NTP synchronizes clocks within a computer and also across the global Internet. The bug, which was revealed by the Department of Homeland Security and Carnegie Mellon on Friday, could allow hackers remote access to affected computers. Apple products were listed among many others as being potentially vulnerable.

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Usually software vendors, including Apple, make users manually download security updates. But this approach requires consumers to actually go through the update process. Since lots of people can't be bothered to do that, many computers remain vulnerable to bugs that have patches available. Apple added universal automatic updates about two years ago, but this is the first time the company is using the feature.

Apple spokesperson Bill Evans told Reuters that, "The update is seamless ... It doesn’t even require a restart." He added that Apple pushed the automatic update because it felt the vulnerability was significant, though the company has no evidence of hackers exploiting the bug in its products.

It's hard to know exactly how Apple made the call that this was the vulnerability it was going to use automated updates for. All the more so since there have been a few serious bugs in Apple's products this year that were addressed with the usual user download approach. On the other hand, the U2 incident shows just how judicious Apple needs to be when it comes to automatic downloads.

Dec. 23 2014 10:29 AM

Despite What the Cyber Skeptics Say, North Korea Is Behind the Sony Hack

It is healthy to be a cynic sometimes. Taking information as it is handed out as fact is dangerous. The goal should be to investigate, to interrogate the nature of our beliefs as they meet the facts and context to settle on some wisdom as to what actually happened. The problem with the emerging narrative on the Sony hack is that in the convergence of evidence and cynicism, some still side with the idea that North Korea did not perpetuate an attack on Sony’s networks.

The Sony hack was perpetuated by either the North Korean government itself or by its third party proxies. There is really no doubt about this. It’s that not that we need to accept U.S. government sources on this or the FBI, but the context the attack leaves little doubt. This is often the flaw in the logic of the cyber security narrative. The engagement of cyber security issues often is done completely devoid of knowledge of the wider international security processes of the time. Dissecting the case against North Korea with little reference to history, culture, or capabilities leaves much of the story out.

Dec. 22 2014 7:36 PM

Don't Fly Your Drone Too Close to a Kangaroo

There's definitely something satisfying about watching a bird take down a quadcopter that's bothering it. It's similar to the feeling of watching Dikembe Mutombo block a shot, as Geico rightly pointed out last year. So what happens when kangaroos get added to the mix? Hilarious things.

News network Newzulu posted this video of a drone taking footage of kangaroos and then encountering one up close. Too close. For me, knowing what was coming made it even better when I saw the kangaroo take decisive action against the quadcopter. This is exactly the type of situation that led to United States national parks banning drones in June. It turns out lots of animals know how to pull a Kanye

Dec. 22 2014 5:19 PM

North Korea’s Internet Is Down, and It’s Probably Not a Coincidence

North Korea's Internet is down. And this isn't just the result of  a weird accident or a broken modem. Something's up, and it probably has to do with the Sony Pictures hack.

The New York Times reports that the country, which doesn't have a ton of Internet connections to begin with, has had inconsistent access for a few days and is now experiencing a total outage. Most North Koreans are presumably unaware of the situation since they don't have Web access anyway, but for the nation's elites, the outage would be noticeable. The country has roughly 1,024 IP addresses or slightly more, but that is compared with millions or billions in most countries. The U.S. Department of Defense alone has more than 200 million IP addresses.

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Some security experts are speculating that North Korea's network has buckled under a distributed denial-of-service attack. Doug Madory, the director of Internet analysis at Dyn Research, said, “Their networks are under duress ... This is consistent with a DDoS attack on their routers.”

It's possible that the loss of connectivity is an offensive move by the United States. Last week, President Obama promised a "proportional response" to the Sony Pictures hack as U.S. government sources began confirming that they suspected North Korea-sponsored hackers were behind the cyberattack. As the Times notes, it's unlikely that the U.S. would ever confirm that it caused the outage. In the past the U.S. has also shied away from cyberattacks that limit citizens' Internet access, but perhaps it would make an exception for a place like North Korea where most people don't have the option of connectivity anyway.

There are many potential alternative explanations as well. Anti-North Korean hacktivists could have attacked the nation's network, though no groups have come forward yet. North Korea might also be shoring up defenses for an anticipated attack, or preparing to launch another one of its own.

Meanwhile, as if things weren't weird enough, White House National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan told Fox News, "We have no new information to share regarding North Korea today ... If in fact North Korea’s Internet has gone down, we’d refer you to that government for comment." Oh OK, so just casually contact a reclusive regime that doesn't even have an Internet connection right now. Got it, thanks.

*Correction, Dec. 22, 2014, 7 p.m.: This article originally misstated that North Korea had commented that its Internet outage was due to upgrades on its network. The country actually has not commented on the reason for the outage. The tweet stating this and references to it have been removed.

Dec. 22 2014 2:32 PM

Seattle Police Held a Hackathon to Figure Out How to Redact Body Cam Video Streams

Along with police departments in New York City and Los Angeles, Seattle police are preparing to test body cams on officers in the field. In an attempt to find a balance between releasing footage and redacting private details, Seattle police held a hackathon of Friday.

Discussion around whether law enforcement agents should wear body cams has surged in the months since the shooting of Michael Brown. And as funding comes through for pilot programs, it's increasingly important to answer question about how these devices will be implemented.

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As GeekWire reports, about 80 people—including developers, community members, and law enforcement agents—attended the Seattle Police hackathon. The goal was to work on techniques for redacting things captured in streamed dashboard or body cam video such as people's faces or license plate numbers. The hackathon was specifically looking to address these topics as they relate to Washington’s privacy laws, but the work could be relevant all over the country.

“With 1,612,554 videos already on our servers—and more on the way through our upcoming body cam pilot program—our department is looking for a better, faster way redact those videos and make them accessible as public records,” Seattle police said in an announcement about the event. "SPD is working to release more video than ever before, while striking the right balance between transparency and privacy. ... We’re looking for a few good hackers who can help."

Seven groups presented redaction tools, each with a different balance of automation and human review. The challenge is quickly processing large amounts of footage so the videos can become part of the public record without violating privacy. Many videos need no redaction if they are filmed in public spaces, but some groups, such as minors and people on private property, are afforded protections that must be reflected in the footage. Redaction of faces and facial blurring was a popular topic, with presenters from a group of University of Washington students as well as Simon Winder from the robotics and machine learning company Impressive Machines.

Though programs to test body cams are becoming more ubiquitous, they—like any technology—aren't an inherent good. Their utility depends on how humans use them. Criminologists Justin T. Ready and Jacob T.N. Young of Arizona State University have made this point in Slate pieces about police training and myths related to body cams. They write, "Monitoring police behavior and demonstrating accountability are in the public’s interest as well as police departments’. But accomplishing this goal will require great attention to conveying recorded information honestly."

The Seattle hackathon seems to have been a step in that direction. GeekWire wrote, "Mike Wagers, the SPD Chief Operating Officer, was very pleased by the results, saying they exceeded his wildest expectations, although admitting he had no specific expectations from the session."

Dec. 22 2014 12:31 PM

Your Cat Will Hate These Wireless Christmas Lights

My cat will chew anything he can get his teeth around. Plastic bags. My glasses. The corners of Amazon boxes. Six ruined MacBook power cords and counting. How he has not yet been fatally electrocuted, I do not know (although this Reddit thread propounds some theories).

To such a cat, a string of Christmas lights must look like a giant, blinking strip of Bubble Tape hung from the tree. Thankfully, someone has finally had the bright idea to build a set of Christmas lights that does not come on a string. Aura, a Kickstarter project that has raised $75,000 and counting, is billed by its inventors as a high-tech charging device that makes possible “the first-ever wirelessly powered Christmas lights.”

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That may not be strictly accurate. Nineteenth-century Christmas trees were lit with candles, a practice that sometimes resulted in the entire house becoming suddenly and unfortunately illuminated.

But Aura founders Chris Higgins and Hardeep Johar have alighted on what they believe is a safer solution: a charging ring that transmits power wirelessly to receivers embedded in LED bulbs that you hang from the tree’s branches like ornaments. Snap the charging ring around the base of a small tree or around the middle of a large one, plug it into the wall, and it will keep the lights on until you flick them off with the tap of a free smartphone app. No batteries are required, and there are no strings to untangle. Yes, there’s still one power cord, but that’s what cord protectors are for.

The project takes advantage of resonant inductive coupling, a technology that is also used in wireless cellphone charging and RFID systems. Higgins tells me the idea was inspired by a famous 2007 demonstration at MIT in which researchers used a pair of resonantly coupled metal coils to wirelessly power a 60-watt light bulb six feet away. “My background is as a systems integrator,” Higgins says. “It’s about taking technologies that already exist and pushing them into different fields.”

Higgins and Johar don’t explicitly tout the lights’ cat-thwarting qualities on their Kickstarter page, and Higgins says he didn’t have any feline friends in mind when they conceived the project. (“I’m not a huge animal person, because I’m allergic to everything.”) Instead, he was thinking of his mother, who “just wraps the hell out of the tree” with so many wires that they burden its branches. Wireless lights means no wrapping, no tangling, and less of a fire hazard.

Plus, Higgins and Johar say the LEDs should last for up to 20 years at full brightness. “Since the LEDs never need to be changed, we are able to permanently seal the ornament so that they can’t be damaged, creating a more reliable Christmas light, and saving you from buying new lights every year,” they write on the Kickstarter page. The original seal was glass, but they added a plastic option after hearing from parents concerned that their children would smash the glass balls somehow.

Unfortunately, the lights won’t be ready in time to put on this year’s trees. The estimated delivery date is October 2015. But you can pre-order a box of 12 for a donation of $65 or more on Aura’s Kickstarter page.

One caveat: Because the project is still in progress, it’s hard to know for sure how reliably the charger works or how brightly the lights shine. Some skeptics on tech forums have raised questions as to how efficiently the charging ring can power the lights at the top of the tree. But Higgins says all the parts have been tested and the charging works at a range of up to five feet. “We wouldn’t have launched this thing if we weren’t confident on delivering.”

Assuming the lights function as advertised, Pinot is going to be one very disappointed kitty next Christmas. But at least he won't be fried.

Dec. 21 2014 4:23 PM

Baltimore Police Sent a Fax and Teletype to Reach NYPD Ahead of Brooklyn Cop Shooting

Two New York police officers were shot and killed on Saturday in Brooklyn by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who is believed to have traveled from the Baltimore County area that day after shooting his ex-gilfriend around 5:45 a.m. Baltimore County Police warned the NYPD that Brinsley's cellphone had been traced to Brooklyn, but not in time to prevent the shootings.

The Baltimore County Police and the New York Police Department are inconsistent in their reporting about the exact time that Baltimore alerted New York to the suspect's potential presence in Brooklyn. This discrepancy suggests that the use of outdated communication technology—fax machines and teleprinters—in these exhanges may be significant.

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New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said in a press conference Saturday that the NYPD received a faxed wanted poster from Baltimore County Police at 2:45 p.m. Baltimore County Police said in a statement Saturday that they called the 70th Precinct in New York at 2:10 p.m. and also faxed the wanted poster at that time. The officers who were killed were from the 84th Precinct, but had been dispatched to the area the 79th precinct patrols to assist in a community violence reduction initiative.

The Baltimore County police also said that at 2:50 p.m., right as the two police officers were being murdered, they sent the information from the wanted posted to the NYPD's "real-time crime center—essentially, a data warehouse" in the form of a teletype. Teletypes, also known as teleprinters, are typewriters that can independently type out messages sent over non-switched telephone circuits, the public telephone network, radio, or microwave links. They were popular for remote communication before fax machines and the rise of the Internet, and their use has declined since the 1980s. For example, the Teletype Corp. made its last teleprinter unit, the Teletype Dataspeed 40, which included a CRT monitor and a high-speed printer terminal, in 1979.

The Twitterverse quickly started discussing the old-skool technology and speculating about whether its use could have slowed communications.

Baltimore County Police did use analysis of Instagram posts to trace Brinsley's phone to Brooklyn, but at that point the high-tech sleuthing gave way to retro communication. Fax machines are still frequently used by businesses and agencies instead of email to send sensitive communications, but they aren't necessarily more secure. Depending on the type of line they connect to and whether the data being sent is encrypted, they may be secure or vulnerable to eavesdropping on the line. Teleprinters may offer some security simply because they are obsolete, but their use in law enforcement seems to come from tradition. A Baltimore County Police Liaison told Slate that the department uses teleprinters because they're "very reliable."

Dec. 19 2014 7:20 PM

Google and MPAA Clash Over Movie Piracy. Google Swiftly Files Suit.

It's been a long week. A lot of stuff has been hacked, and we're all pretty sick of it. If only there were a juicy feud to revive our spirits before the weekend. Enter Google and the Motion Picture Association of America, which have really thrown down in the last 24 hours over anti-privacy measures.

Documents in one of the Sony Pictures data dumps revealed that some media companies, backed by the MPAA, had been working on anti-piracy tactics codenamed "Project Goliath." Noting similarities between the initiative and the SOPA bill, which was defeated in 2012, Google angrily took to its public policy blog on Thursday.

We are deeply concerned about recent reports that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) led a secret, coordinated campaign to revive the failed SOPA legislation through other means, and helped manufacture legal arguments in connection with an investigation by Mississippi State Attorney General Jim Hood. ... [O]ne disappointing part of this story is what this all means for the MPAA itself, an organization founded in part “to promote and defend the First Amendment and artists' right to free expression.” Why, then, is it trying to secretly censor the Internet? 
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Oooooh, burn. The MPAA was obviously not going to take that. The Verge reports that a spokesperson shot back:

Google's effort to position itself as a defender of free speech is shameful. ... Freedom of speech should never be used as a shield for unlawful activities and the internet is not a license to steal. Google's blog post today is a transparent attempt to deflect focus from its own conduct and to shift attention from legitimate and important ongoing investigations by state attorneys general into the role of Google Search in enabling and facilitating illegal conduct—including illicit drug purchases, human trafficking and fraudulent documents as well as theft of intellectual property.

Wait, human trafficking and drug purchases? What? Basically, what's going on is that Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, along with other state attorneys general, has been working with a number of advocates for months to pressure Google to be more diligent about policing ads for/links to websites that sell illegal drugs, facilitate human trafficking, or promote media piracy. Hood had subpoenaed Google for information on how it polices ads that promote illegal activities. And now, presumably because it's ticked off at the MPAA, Google has filed a lawsuit to block Hood's subpoena.

Hood is not amused. The Washington Post reports that he said in a statement:

My Consumer Protection Division issued an administrative subpoena asking for documents. Google sent more than 99,000 jumbled, unsearchable documents in a data dump. I agreed to give Google additional time to comply with our request and hoped we could reach an agreement. Instead, after the Sony hack, Google’s General Counsel Kent Walker began blogging and feeding the media a salacious Hollywood tale. Now, feeling emboldened with its billions of dollars, media prowess and political power, some of its more excitable people have sued trying to stop the State of Mississippi for daring to ask some questions.

Dem's fightin' words, Jim. Google said that it goes above and beyond what the law requires in policing content on its sites, and that Hood's subpoena violates the First Amendment in attempting to compel a private company to censor itself. But Google added, "To be clear, Google agrees that much of the third-party content about which the attorney general complains is objectionable."

Dec. 19 2014 7:09 PM

Google Wants to Turn Your Car Into a Computer. Who’s Going to Stop It?

Google is building an Android operating system for cars, Reuters reported this week, citing anonymous sources. According to the report, the company plans to introduce the car-compatible software as part of its next Android release, expected late next year or early in 2016.

If that’s true, it would be a major milestone in the race to turn your car into yet another mobile computing platform.

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Google and Apple, among others, are already competing on products that allow you to control your smartphone via the screens built into the dashboards of many new cars. These systems, known as Android Auto and CarPlay, respectively, require you to connect your phone to the dashboard via a charging cable. Your dashboard screen then lights up with options to make a call, send a text message, get maps and directions, or play music, all of which is accomplished via your phone.

The rumored Google project would essentially cut out the middleman. You’d just turn your car on and the screen in your dashboard would automatically load a version of the Android operating system. You’d control it via the touchscreen or voice commands.

From the driver’s perspective, it makes a lot of sense for your car’s operating system to mirror that of your phone and tablet. It sounds great to the tech companies, too. Building user-friendly mobile operating systems is something they’re already quite good at.

There is, however, one group of stakeholders that might well balk at handing over the dashboard to Silicon Valley. That’s the car companies.

For decades they’ve succeeded in controlling just about every aspect of your driving experience. They build the drivetrain, the body, the interior furniture, and the dashboard controls, and they even maintain the car for you after you’ve bought it. Sure, they contract with other companies to build components, but with few exceptions, they retain control over the specifications and branding.

CarPlay dashboard
Apple's CarPlay system.

Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

In the future, however, mobile computing is likely to become essential to the driving experience. Self-driving features will rely on navigation software; you’ll stream music from the Internet; you’ll reply to emails on your commute via voice controls. Companies like Google would love to provide the software that handles all of that, because in turn they’ll be gathering all sorts of valuable data on you.

If that happens, however, the car companies risk losing control over an important and potentially lucrative aspect of their products. They’ll still build the hardware, but the software will be out of their hands.

On the other hand, the car companies don’t necessarily have the resources or expertise to build software that can compete with that of Apple and Google. So if Hyundai is offering full iOS and Android integration in its new models—and, by the way, it appears to be on that path—then the likes of Mitsubishi and Kia are going to have a hard time holding out.

Previously in Slate:

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