Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

March 3 2015 7:06 PM

Did Hillary Clinton Compromise Her Email Security or Make it Stronger?

On Monday night, the New York Times unleashed a new controversy about Hillary Clinton's four years as secretary of state. It seems that Clinton exclusively used a non-government email address for professional correspondence during her tenure—apparently she didn't even have a state.gov address. The whole situation basically just seems like a perfect storm of HR screw-ups and shady communication practices. But maybe it was for the best.

Let’s put aside the question of whether Clinton violated the Federal Records Act, which says that public officials should store written communications on federal servers—they’re government records that must be available for review, with various exceptions for classified communications. (For more on the legal questions, read my colleague Josh Voorhees’ post on The Slatest.) Did Clinton’s email habit make her vulnerable to hackers?

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It seems that Clinton did all of her emailing through a domain called “clintonemail.com.” As the Washington Post points out, this address was created on Jan. 13, 2009, which was the first day of Clinton's Senate confirmation hearings. It’s not clear who set it up, but the domain was renewed in 2013 and is paid for through 2017.

In 2008, Farhad Manjoo wrote on Slate that "it's not a good idea for politicians to use personal e-mail accounts," because of the security risks. And in light of revelations about Clinton’s practices, this view is circulating again. American Civil Liberties Union principal technologist Christopher Soghoian tweeted on Tuesday, “While the American public didn't know about Hillary's private email account, it probably wasn't a secret to foreign intelligence agencies.” And Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Motherboard:

I don't actually have any less faith in Google than I do in the government to secure those emails, but it's still a terrible idea. Let's assume for the sake of argument she was using Gmail. If she was using Gmail, it means Google was scanning all of the email to present her with targeted advertising … Do we want a private company doing profiling on our Secretary of State?

It’s not clear whether Clinton actually used Gmail or some other commercially available service. But could Clinton have actually been smart to go outside the .gov email system? (Again, this is just about the security, not legality or ethics.) After all, U.S. government email systems are frequent targets for hackers, whether state sponsored or freelance. In November, the unclassified State Department email system was compromised by hackers and was temporarily shut down. This incident occurred long after Clinton's departure, but does call the State Department's cyberdefenses into question.

Joe Loomis, the founder and CEO of the security group CyberSponse, said that though there are risks, he can also see how there could be security benefits to setting up a personal email account for State Department work. He says that hackers looking to target Clinton's communications would normally have attempted to infiltrate her State Department email address and might have had knowledge about how the account was configured, making it an easier target.

"It’s one way that you can almost kind of mask yourself from being targeted by using off channel communication," he said. "[Hackers] have to guess what the email is against all the email providers, Yahoo, Outlook, MSN, Google, whatever." Loomis says that though the accountability issue is important, he has heard about a lot of people in government using personal email accounts to make their communication channel more difficult to guess. John Kerry is actually the first secretary of state to solely use a state.gov email account.

If Clinton and her advisers were savvy in setting up her personal account, it could have offered more protection than the unclassified government email system. If they implemented rigorous end-to-end encryption (in which a message is encrypted at every stage of its movement from server to server across the Internet and can only be locally decrypted by the recipient on the other end), and especially if Clinton's account only communicated internally via intranet with other government employees, her messages might have been highly secure. But using a standard consumer email service like Gmail or Yahoo wouldn't have been very secure at all.

Christopher Peikert, a cryptography researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, explained:

The majority of email ... travels unencrypted “in the clear” across a wide variety of networks (and even countries) as it goes from sender and receiver. It's fair to say that anyone with a computer on any one of those networks can read any of the email that passes through—there are easily available tools that make this possible.

Basically a personal email account would give Clinton the element of surprise—hackers might not have been able to find her account to target it. But once hackers had her clintonemail.com address in their sights, it might be easier to crack unless she and her team knew a lot about creating a secure email environment. And then again, the State Department email doesn’t seem to have been so secure, either. It feels like a no-win.

Evidence of Clinton's use of a personal email account surfaced a couple of years ago. In March 2013, Gawker reported that Clinton had been corresponding with former Bill Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal on a personal account. Gawker’s John Cook wrote at the time, “And why was Clinton apparently receiving emails at a non-governmental email account? The address Blumenthal was writing to was hosted at the domain ‘clintonemail.com,’ ... which is privately registered via Network Solutions. It is most certainly not a governmental account.”

Clinton is certainly not the first official to skirt rules about government email. Before Gina McCarthy was approved as administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency in 2013, a Senate panel questioned her on the agency's known use of personal email accounts for business. In a hearing McCarthy openly admitted that she used her personal email address to send herself attachments so she could print them in her Boston home. As Bloomberg's Brendan Greeley noted at the time, “Either the EPA doesn’t have a cloud-based system to read and print documents at home, or it does, and it doesn’t work very well. Regardless, the problem is so universal that McCarthy felt perfectly justified telling a Senate panel she does it.”

Meanwhile, during hearings in June 2014 about how the Internal Revenue Service had lost emails relevant to a political targeting probe, Texas Republican Blake Farenthold made a suggestion: “I went on Amazon and found you could buy a terabyte hard drive for $59. Buy two of them, so $120.”

Though the State Department’s email security may need work, the agency hasn’t been completely out to lunch since the rise of email. In 2004, it was the first agency to “transfer electronic textual records” to the National Archives and Records Administration. And its Foreign Affairs Manual contains an extensive section on "Electronic Records, Facsimile Records, and Electronic Mail Records," which notes:

The Department’s Records Management Office (OIS/RA/RD) conducts periodic reviews of the records management practices both at headquarters and at overseas posts ... These periodic reviews now will include monitoring of the implementation of the Department’s E-mail policy.

It would seem that Clinton was never subject to a “periodic review.” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf did tell Bloomberg on Tuesday, “We have no indication that Secretary Clinton used her personal e-mail account for anything but unclassified purposes.”

It’s hard to imagine that Clinton was never even assigned a state.gov email address, but the situation is sort of understandable when you think about Clinton's rank. With so many aides to brief her on what was going on, she probably didn't need her work email to find out when there was cake in the break room.

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March 3 2015 5:52 PM

Can a 3-D Printing Company Stop People From Printing Their Own Guns?

This post originally appeared in WIRED.

The age of 3-D printing in carbon fiber has hardly arrived. But the controversy over 3-D printing carbon fiber guns is well under way.

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Starting in the second half of last year, 3-D printing startup MarkForged has been shipping the Mark One, a device it advertises as the world’s first 3-D printer that prints carbon fiber; The Mark One digitally fabricate objects in a material as light as plastic and as strong by some measures as aluminum. But one group isn’t about to receive its Mark One order: Defense Distributed, the non-profit political group that invented the first fully 3-D printed gun nearly two years ago.

Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson says he pre-ordered the Mark One about a year ago for $8,000, but was told last Friday in a phone call with a MarkForged salesman that the company refuses to sell him one, citing terms of service that disallow private citizens from using the machine to make firearms. So instead, Wilson is offering what he describes as a “bounty” to anyone who can get him MarkForged’s new carbon fiber printer.

“Anyone who’s got access to one, any reseller, any individual or business or entity that can deliver it to me, I will give them fifteen grand,” says Wilson, who has also released a YouTube video advertising his offer. “I’m going to get this printer. I’m going to make a gun with it. And I’m going to make sure everyone knows it was made with a MarkForged printer.”

In a statement to WIRED, MarkForged cited terms of service that “limit experimentation with ordnance to the United States Government and its authorized contractors.” In fact, the company’s terms of service page doesn’t include that statement. But it does reserve the right for the company to refuse sale to anyone, even after an order is placed.

“Our website automatically took Mr. Wilson’s pre-order, and we certainly regret that we did not catch this sooner,” MarkForged’s statement continues. “We are expediting his refund with interest.”

Wilson, of course, isn’t satisfied with a refund. Defense Distributed’s radically libertarian founder—who has said he seeks nothing less than to prove all government regulation irrelevant in the digital era—accuses MarkForged of denying Defense Distributed its printer based on hypocritical politics, given that it’s willing to let its machines be used to make weapons for the U.S. military and defense contractors.

“They’re happy to sign contracts with [a government contractor like] Boeing. There’s Department of Defense money in the mix here,” he says. “This isn’t about stopping us [from printing a gun.] They’re demonstrating which side they’re on.”

MarkForged is far from the first company to try to disassociate itself from Defense Distributed’s anarchist, gun-loving mission. Indiegogo pulled the group’s initial fundraising campaign in 2012. 3-D printer maker Stratasys refused to rent a printer to the group after it learned what it was being used for. 3-D printing websites like Thingiverse and Shapeways have banned gun components from their collections of CAD models. Even Fedex and UPS have refused to ship a computer-controlled milling machine that Defense Distributed began selling late last year.

Those obstacles didn’t stop Wilson’s gun-making organization from creating and test-firing the Liberator, the world’s first fully 3-D printed firearm, in May, 2013. If the group gets its hands on one of MarkForged’s carbon fiber 3-D printers, it could potentially demonstrate homemade, lethal weapons that are far more durable and practical. MarkForged advertises that its material—plastic polymer laced with carbon fiber strands—is 20 times stiffer than typical 3-D printing plastic and five times stronger, with a higher strength-to-weight ratio than aluminum.

That material could make a firearm that doesn’t crack or deform after a few shots, as the plastic Liberator tends to. Defense Distributed engineer John Sullivan says one of the biggest barriers to the Liberator’s durability has been the expansion of its barrel with every firing. A barrel with strands of carbon fiber wound around it in rings would withstand much greater “hoop stress,” as Sullivan calls it. “The barrel won’t expand. It’s just beautiful,” Sullivan says. “This is a gun machine they’ve made, and we want to make a gun on it.”

Wilson says a more durable barrel is only the beginning. Defense Distributed has been working on 3-D printed carbon fiber gun designs since it pre-ordered MarkForged’s printer last year. “We’re talking about paradigmatically different stuff,” Wilson says. “The gun is entering a new chapter.”

Printing a gun on one of MarkForged’s new carbon fiber printers—if Defense Distributed does obtain one—would be a bit of a stretch from the group’s original goal of making a gun that anyone could download and create on a cheap printer with a click of a mouse. But as 3-D printing evolves and becomes more mainstream, carbon fiber printing is sure to become more accessible, too.

MarkfFrged and other companies’ attempts to publicly distance themselves from that gun-printing won’t prevent it from happening, says Michael Weinberg, a 3-D-printing-focused policy analyst for the non-profit Public Knowledge. “On any sort of scale, this is not particularly sensical,” Weinberg says. “For the printer companies, they don’t have the time or resources or inclination to figure out everything that’s coming out of their machines. That’s an impossible task.”

Weinberg argues that companies like Stratasys or MarkForged refusing business to a group like Defense Distributed is largely a public relations move more than a practical attempt to stymy gun printing. “They’re not thinking ‘now no one will be able to 3d print firearms,’” he says. “They’re thinking, ‘we don’t want to be associated with this high profile example of it.’”

In a marketing video for its new printer, MarkForged founder Greg Mark almost seemed to acknowledge the company’s lack of control over how its customers will use its machines.

“We’ve now enabled you to print carbon fiber,” Mark says in the final line of the video, “And God knows what you’re going to do with it.”

Also in WIRED:

March 3 2015 5:00 PM

Designing for Happiness: The Ultimate Sustainability Solution?

We’ve all been there before—took a wrong turn and ended up in a “scary” neighborhood. Quickly now, roll up the windows, lock the doors—¼ inch of glass will save our lives. What causes us to react this way? Humans are incredibly in tune with their surroundings, subconsciously analyzing environmental factors that drive mental and physical responses—it is the basis for our survival. Our favorite restaurant might evoke a sense of relaxation and familiarity, while a busy elevator makes us feel cramped, anxious, and insecure. Neighborhoods incite similar responses, causing our bodies to prepare for battle or for peace. Some of us are able to live in neighborhoods that make us feel safe, secure and at home. Others aren’t as fortunate, often a result of disinvestment and poor planning policies. Consider, for a moment, how your neighborhood makes you feel. Now, take it a step further: How happy does your neighborhood make you feel? Happiness is a common value we all strive for and deserve the opportunity to pursue—each and every one of us.

How often do you contemplate your happiness and the levels to which it is affected by your neighborhood? Never? Join the club—most lack a sense of connection between happiness and the neighborhood. However, even as sustainability transcends its earlier buzzword status, happiness is missing from the conversation. Sustainability is literally about the survival of the human race—why wouldn’t we want that survival to equal a happy life? A shortsighted lens will no longer work and we are foolish to think so. I suggest that a happy neighborhood might just be a sustainable neighborhood, and vice versa.

March 3 2015 9:00 AM

The Best Adaptive Technologies Are Designed by, Not for, People With Disabilities

This post is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. At noon on Wednesday, March 4, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on technology and the future of disability. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Consider for a moment all of the visual cues you rely on when you walk into a room full of people. You can see how many people are there, where they are located, which directions they are facing, and whether they are moving.

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You can also read the many nonverbal cues that add to what they are saying. Does a person smile with recognition when you walk in the room, or furrow their brow trying to remember who you are? Does your suggestion elicit a disapproving smirk or a nod of the head? Are your anecdotes met with rapt attention, or is the listener yawning and toying with their cellphone?

Sighted people take these cues for granted, interpreting this vast supply of information subconsciously. For people who are blind or visually impaired, the absence of this information can make social interactions extremely difficult and/or awkward. Fortunately, we can now develop technologies that provide the information in nonvisual ways.

Technology—particularly multimedia and ubiquitous computing—can help enrich life, enhance productivity and promote independent living for people across the entire spectrum of abilities. For example, the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC) at Arizona State University is developing a social interaction assistant to address the problems listed above for people with visual impairments.  (Disclosure: I work for ASU; ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.)

One thing we have learned from working with potential users is that people with visual impairments rely heavily on their sense of hearing. If an assistive device provides auditory feedback, it could drown out important situational information. In the case of missed conversation, this would be inconvenient. In a situation like a traffic crossing, it would be hazardous. As a result, we are developing a wearable device that uses tactile cues such as pattern of vibrations to convey information.

Truly revolutionary technologies require engagement with users throughout the design and development process. While it’s helpful to get feedback and ideas from focus groups on users’ needs, short sessions don’t give us a full understanding of the challenges and opportunities in developing assistive technology solutions. It is imperative that people with disabilities play a leading role in envisioning, conceptualizing, developing, implementing, deploying, testing, and validating potential solutions, tools, and technologies.

Several years ago, an ASU student came to me asking about technology that might help him get access to the content of the blackboard in his classes. David Hayden was a freshman double-majoring in math and computer science, and he also was visually impaired. Even sitting at the front of the class couldn’t get him the access to the board to understand the process being enumerated in solving math problems or designing an algorithm by his professors.

I encouraged him to  come work in my lab with a team to see how we could solve this problem. After all, who better understood this problem than David?

In his sophomore year, he began working at the CUbiC lab, developing an application on a tablet connected to a camera with a pan-tilt-zoom feature. He could take the device to his classes and have the video of the blackboard piped into his laptop. Then he did something even more clever—he split the screen into two halves. One side of the screen showed the video of the blackboard while the other was used to design a “notes” interface. He linked sections of the class notes to individual frames from the video.

David took the prototype to the classroom and shared it with other visually impaired students for obtaining their feedback, which he then used to further improve the device. At the end of his junior year, he submitted his invention to the worldwide Microsoft Imagine Cup competition in the “touch and tablet” category. He won both the national and world competitions in that category.

After graduation, David received an internship opportunity at NASA and is now pursuing a Ph.D. at MIT. He’s also manufacturing his Note-Taker prototype for use by others.

Once visually impaired students started using Note-Taker in classrooms, something truly remarkable happened. Sighted students began asking for the technology for their own use. This is not actually uncommon among well-designed assistive devices. For example, the first commercially successful typewriter, the Hansen Writing Ball, was designed to help blind people write through touch-typing. The QWERTY keyboards we use with our computers today are descendants of this accessibility tool.  

In reality, we are all looking for ways to enhance our abilities. For instance, a soldier on the battlefield needs better access to information at night or in stressful environments. One could argue that blindness is not only a disability but a concept. We are all blind from a touch perspective to distant environments like exploring the surface of Mars. Assistive technologies have the power to transcend our limitations and enrich our lives.

March 2 2015 7:13 PM

Ikea Wants You to Wirelessly Charge Your Smartphone on Tables, Desks, and Lamps

Ikea is always releasing new furniture lines, and some of them debut with nifty updated features. But a table is basically a table, right? Maybe not. On Sunday, the Swedish furniture maker announced that it will be incorporating wireless charging stations into new desks, lamps, and even tables.

Using the Qi inductive charging standard (developed by the Wireless Power Consortium), Ikea is hoping to tie its furniture more closely to the devices we always have in hand. It's a good stab at renewed relevance, and advocates are presumably hoping it will help Qi adoption spread. But currently only certain devices—like Nexus phones from Google and the Motorola Droid line—support Qi charging, so keep that in mind. Gizmodo also cautions that there's evidence of degraded battery life after consistent wireless charging.

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If you have a phone with wireless charging capabilities, though, and you need a new lamp (or want to take a stab at future-proofing your lamp purchase), the line will be available in April. There will also be standalone charging pads for furniture purists. 

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Plug in your furniture so you don't have to plug in your phone.

Photo from Ikea

March 2 2015 3:20 PM

New Study Says Climate Change Helped Spark Syrian Civil War

By now, it’s pretty clear that we’re starting to see visible manifestations of climate change beyond far-off melting ice sheets. One of the most terrifying implications is the increasingly real threat of wars sparked in part by global warming. New evidence says that Syria may be one of the first such conflicts.

We know the basic story in Syria by now: From 2006-2010, an unprecedented drought forced the country from a groundwater-intensive breadbasket of the region to a net food importer. Farmers abandoned their homes—school enrollment in some areas plummeted 80 percent—and flooded Syria’s cities, which were already struggling to sustain an influx of more than 1 million refugees from the conflict in neighboring Iraq. The Syrian government largely ignored these warning signs, helping sow discontent that ultimately spawned violent protests. The link from drought to war was prominently featured in a Showtime documentary last year. A preventable drought-triggered humanitarian crisis sparked the 2011 civil war, and eventually, ISIS.

A new study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science provides the clearest evidence yet that human-induced global warming made that drought more likely. The study is the first to examine the drought-to-war narrative in quantitative detail in any country, ultimately linking it to climate change.

March 2 2015 3:17 PM

ISIS Supporters Publicly Threaten Twitter Co-Founder Jack Dorsey

On Sunday, ISIS supporters posted violent threats against Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and other employees of the service.

BuzzFeed published excerpted translations of the threats:

You started this failed war. ... We told you from the beginning it’s not your war, but you didn’t get it and kept closing our accounts on Twitter, but we always come back ... When our lions [brave men] come and take your breath, you will never come back to life.
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ISIS frequently turns to Twitter to post and share its propaganda, but accounts used for this purpose can be shut down because Twitter’s terms of service prohibits “direct, specific threats of violence against others, ... [or use] for any unlawful purposes or in furtherance of illegal activities.” BuzzFeed points out that the exact source of the threats is unknown, though they are being shared by ISIS supporters.

Last month, Twitter told Yahoo News that it doesn't monitor accounts for suspected terrorist behavior itself, but rather relies on users to flag inappropriate posts and accounts. “Like our peer companies, we do not proactively monitor content,” a Twitter spokesman said at the time. “Users report potential rules violations to us, we review their reports and take action if the content violates our rules.”

A representative for Twitter told BuzzFeed and others, “Our security team is investigating the veracity of these threats with relevant law enforcement officials.”

Jillian C. York pointed out in a June piece for Slate that Twitter has been inconsistent about removing content. “The company has been opaque when it comes to taking terrorist content offline,” she wrote. But members of Congress having been pressuring Twitter to monitor and contain terrorist messages on the social network. And at the same time, groups like WikiLeaks have condemned Twitter’s actions against ISIS and others as free-speech violations.

Twitter is certainly between a rock and a hard place, but making everyone unhappy could be the only way for the company to navigate such a murky situation. Personal threats against employees may raise the stakes, though.

twitter
A target on Jack Dorsey's face.

Screencap from justpaste.it

March 2 2015 12:46 PM

Google Is Thinking About Ranking Search Results Based on Facts Instead of Links

New hoaxes and misinformation crop up on the Internet every day, and it can be hard to tell fact from fiction. This is especially true on the most popular platforms, but help may be on the way. Facebook, for one, has been working on reducing the spread of phony news stories in its newsfeed. And now Google is researching methods to improve how it ranks its search results.

In a February arXiv paper, Google researchers outlined progress on a new approach that would allow factual validity to contribute more heavily to a page’s search ranking. Currently the biggest factor is how many other pages link to the page in question, but this isn’t always a good metric for determining quality content. Often viral hoaxes are linked to tons of times simply because they're being talked about, not because they’re correct.

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The Google research team wants to revise the current system to look for inaccuracies instead of links. The strategy isn’t being implemented yet, but the paper presented a method for adapting algorithms such that they would generate a “Knowledge-Based Trust” score for every page. To do this, the algorithm would pick out statements and compare them with Google’s Knowledge Vault, a database of facts. It would also attempt to assess the trustworthiness of the source—for example, a reputable news site versus a newly created Wordpress blog. Another component of the strategy involves looking at “topic relevance.” The algorithm scans the name of the site and its “about” section for information on its goals.

The aim is to create “web-source quality–knowledge-based trust.”

As New Scientist points out, there are already some services available that try to highlight misinformation, like the LazyTruth browser extension, which claims to surface “quality information when you receive an email forward full of political myths, urban legends, or security threats.” But adding even the most basic fact-checking capabilities to Google has the potential to produce broad-reaching effects, since so many people refer to the search engine multiple times per day.

On the other hand, algorithm tweaks that affect information surfacing can have unintended consequences, so implementing them is always a process. The Google method is still in development, but the researchers say it shows “promise” and “improvement.”

March 2 2015 12:31 PM

Could the Supreme Court’s Fish Case Decision Free the Boston Bomber’s Friend?

Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in one of the wackier cases this term, Yates v. United States. Yates involved a fisherman who was discovered illegally catching undersize grouper and quickly threw the evidence—his shrimpy grouper—overboard. The government tried to charge Yates under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which forbids the destruction or concealment of “any record, document, or tangible object” in order to impede a federal investigation. Five members of the court held that fish aren’t a “tangible object” within the context of the statute. Four disagreed. Both sides made some good jokes, and the court moved on to its next order of business.

But for Azamat Tazhayakov, a good friend of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Yates was the beginning, not the end, of a complex legal struggle. Back in July, Tazhayakov was found guilty of obstruction an investigation into Tsarnaev. But the judge delayed his sentencing because the Supreme Court’s ruling in Yates, which was then pending, could affect his case. Now the justices have decided Yates—and the outcome looks pretty good for Tazhayakov. (“I would say that I am purchasing champagne,” his attorney told the Boston Globe, “but I am not ready to open it yet.”)

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Here, in a nutshell, is how Yates could create a loophole through which Tazhayakov might wriggle his way to freedom. Soon after the bombing, Tazhayakov went into Tsarnaev’s room and removed a laptop computer and a backpack. The computer contained various documents and images; the backpack contained fireworks, a jar of Vaseline, and a thumb drive. Federal prosecutors argued that these items were “tangible objects” under Sarbanes-Oxley and charged Tazhayakov with illegally concealing them. A jury mostly agreed and convicted Tazhayakov, who could face up to 20 years for the charge.

So far, so good for the government. But here’s where the waters get muddy. In Yates, the Supreme Court held that a “tangible object” is either an item used “to record or preserve information”—especially “paper and electronic documents and records”—or an item “similar to records or documents.” Surely a computer fits into those broad categories. But here’s the problem: The jury didn’t convict Tazhayakov of removing the computer. The jurors seem to have believed that Tazhayakov innocently took the computer to resell it, but nefariously took the backpack to impede the investigation. In effect, the jury split the difference, which didn’t seem like a big deal at the time.

That outwardly minor decision, however, may soon drive a stake through the heart of the government’s case. A backpack is surely not an item used “to record or preserve information,” and doesn’t sound particularly like an item “similar to records or documents.” Under the newly minted Yates rule, then, Tsarnaev’s backpack is likely not a “tangible object” within the meaning of Sarbanes-Oxley—rendering his conviction under that law unjust.

But what about the thumb drive contained within Tsarnaev’s backpack? Surely that qualifies as a “tangible object” used to store information. If prosecutors had proved that Tazhayakov removed the backpack with the intent to hide the thumb drive—if they had simply proved that Tazhayakov peeked inside the bag, saw the thumb drive, and went ahead with his plan to hide it—Tazhayakov’s conviction would be sound. Yet prosecutors inexplicably failed to present any evidence at trial that Tazhayakov knew about the presence of the thumb drive. And because Tazhayakov is protected against double jeopardy, the government will never get a chance to reargue the case with a focus on the thumb drive.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of this mess is how entirely unnecessary and avoidable it is. Prosecutors had a slam-dunk obstruction of justice case against Tazhayakov. But rather than charging Tazhayakov under a garden-variety obstruction statute, the government chose Sarbanes-Oxley, an obstruction statute on steroids. (The law was enacted post-Enron to bust companies that destroy their own records of malfeasance.) The reason for this choice is obvious: Under another statute, Tazhayakov might have gotten a few years behind bars; under Sarbanes-Oxley, he could get 20. Now, thanks to prosecutors’ hubris, he might get none. Tazhayakov’s saga, then, is ultimately just another case of prosecutorial overreach—one that appears poised to backfire spectacularly. 

Feb. 27 2015 6:19 PM

Google’s Plan for a New Googleplex Could Not Be Googlier

Google’s headquarters, known as the Googleplex, was a pretty spiffy joint when it was constructed in the 1990s as the home base for Silicon Graphics. But two decades have sapped the luster from its sprawling office-park design. Meanwhile, rival tech firms like Apple, Amazon, and Facebook have been busy erecting gleaming, futuristic monuments to their own unfathomable wealth and self-image.

Not surprisingly, Google has its eye on a sparkling new showpiece of its own. On Friday, it revealed its plans for a new Googleplex in the North Bayshore section of Mountain View, California, adjacent to its current headquarters. They’re wildly ambitious, high-concept, weird, and perhaps a little naively utopian. Which is to say, they’re just as Googley as you’d imagine.

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Instead of solid buildings, the plans call for a series of soaring, tentlike structures with canopies of translucent glass. Arrayed beneath each glass canopy are lightweight, modular subbuildings that can be easily rearranged to accommodate different types of spaces and projects. Snaking around them are tree-studded walking and biking paths, some of which would be lined with shops and restaurants and open to the public. Meadows and creeks would link the campus to the neighboring San Francisco Bay.

Googleplex North Bayshore plans - nature trails
Is it an office complex or a nature preserve? Trick question: It's both.

Image courtesy of Google

Conceptually, the project is about minimizing the boundaries between indoors and out, permanent and temporary, public and private. Architect Bjarke Ingels and designer Thomas Heatherwick and some other trendy-looking people explain their thinking at some length in the video below:

I can see them now: hordes of bright-tailed, bushy-eyed Googlers, coasting silently to work on their self-driving solar-powered bikes, saving the world by lunchtime and then rearranging their offices to save it again in a different way before dinner. All while mingling fruitfully with the diverse yet clean-cut local Mountain Viewers who for some reason will find it convenient to cut through North Bayshore on their daily constitutionals.

Radical as the drawings might seem at first glance, they carry echoes of other major office projects by tech goliaths. The Big Top superstructures call to mind Amazon’s downtown Seattle biospheres. And Apple has been building Apple Stores out of transparent glass for years.

Googleplex yoga and cycle track
Who says you have to leave the office to do yoga?

Image courtesy of Google

Still, the openness and irregularity of the proposed Googleplex contrasts aptly with the monolithic insularity of Apple’s new “spaceship” headquarters in Cupertino. The difference in approach aptly reflects the two companies’ corporate philosophies.

The big question is how much of this Google will be allowed to build. The City of Mountain View is entertaining various options for its planned development of the North Bayshore area, of which Google’s is one. According to the Silicon Valley Business Journal, LinkedIn plans to submit its own proposal for the area by the city’s Friday afternoon deadline.

Mountain View harbors mixed feelings about becoming Googletown, U.S.A. The company’s prominence has helped to put the once-sleepy, suburban city of 75,000 on the world map. But it and other Silicon Valley enclaves, including Cupertino, are wary of becoming de facto company towns, dependent on the fortunes of a single megacorporation—especially one in an industry as volatile as technology.

Google headquarters plans - outdoor activities
"Be together, not the same!"

Image courtesy of Google

They’re also besieged by traffic, thanks to zoning laws and traffic infrastructure that are better suited to a bedroom community than a global tech hub. (The plot on which today’s Googleplex sits was literally a farm before SGI built on it in the 1990s.) This is despite the big tech companies’ earnest efforts to help their employees get to work by bike, train, and private bus rather than by car.

Handing a portion of North Bayshore to LinkedIn rather than Google wouldn’t exactly solve everything. That said, local planning processes aren’t so much about solutions as they are about compromises—a word you’ll rarely hear on the tree-lined bike paths of a Googleplex.

Previously in Slate:

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