Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

March 27 2015 6:22 PM

FCC Finally Releases (Heavily Redacted) Manual for Controversial Surveillance Device

Details about StringRrays have trickled out slowly, but each new revelation comes with concerning implications for government agencies' ability to access the mobile communications of individuals. The surveillance tools, which pretend to be cell towers so mobile phones will be tricked into connecting to them and revealing their data, are manufactured by the Florida-based Harris Corp. In September, Matthew Keys at the Blot filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FCC to see the manual for the controversial devices. Six months later, he finally got the documents.

The manual describes two surveillance products, the StingRay and the KingFish (a cheaper and smaller option). Keys writes:

The manual indicates the StingRay and KingFish devices are sold as part of a larger surveillance kit that includes third-party software and laptops. Tables that contain the names of the other equipment is redacted in the copy provided by the FCC, but other records reviewed by TheBlot indicate the laptops are manufactured by Dell and Panasonic, while the software is designed by Pen-Link, a company that makes programs for cellphone forensics.
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Redactions in the manual covers things like instructions for operating the devices and diagrams. The manual is loaded with warnings that it contains proprietary information and shouldn't be shared or copied. The document also says that it includes information protected under the International Traffic in Arms Regulation.

The manual is difficult to read, to say the least. One chapter summary says, "This chapter provides a list of features and capabilities of the StingRay II hardware, an equipment inventory, system specifications, and StingRay II setup," followed by near-complete redaction. For example, "The StingRay II chassis REDACTED as shown in Figure 2-5." Figure 2-5 is ... also redacted. Shocking.

As the Blot notes, the manual says that its contents are “associated with the monitoring of cellular transmissions,” even though this phrase seems to be blacked out in other similar parts of the document. The FCC redacted information under the trade secret FOIA Exemption 4.

The most important thing the document reveals is concrete evidence of how StingRays are purchased and distributed, and hints about how they work. Plus, the FCC clearly feels that it and the company that makes these products has something to lose by revealing even just the use manual.

If you’re in the market for a powerful mobile surveillance device, keep in mind that StingRays come with a limited 12-month warranty!

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March 27 2015 2:03 PM

Apple Watch Could Make You a Walking Weather Station

Apple’s new watch will come with a suite of health-centric sensors—including, perhaps surprisingly, a barometer intended to track elevation changes during a workout and whether it’s outdoors or within a building. But for meteorologists, the advent of widespread wearable barometers is a game-changer when it comes to weather forecasting.

Last fall, after the announcement of the iPhone 6 and its barometer, meteorologist Cliff Mass wrote a giddy blog post about the promise of smartphone barometers. He said experimental results from his research team show that dense networks of mobile barometers alone can create highly accurate three-dimensional weather maps. That “almost sounds like magic” to Mass.

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The implications of highly localized weather forecasts are profound. The Weather Company, which owns the Weather Channel, has used local weather forecasts to drive increased revenue through context-specific advertising for years. But beyond creating clickier ads, dense networks of barometer-enabled smartphones in India and Africa could boost local economies by aiding agriculture and other weather-dependent sectors.

The potential for smartwatches to bring about a new generation of hyper-local forecasts reminds me of the below scene in Back to the Future. App developers are already working to make that past future 2015 a reality.

Adam Grossman is the co-founder of Dark Sky, the weather app that Apple featured during its launch event for the watch earlier in March. Though he’s excited about the potential of his new Watch app, he says Apple isn’t letting developers access the on-board barometer sensor yet. Since the watch requires an iPhone to work, its own on-board barometer is essentially redundant—but that will soon change.

“I don’t think Apple wants to require an iPhone with the watch,” said Grossman. “It always takes me longer to fish my phone out of my pocket than it does to check the weather. The watch is the right place for that kind of stuff.”

watch-now
Nearly sentient weather forecasts will soon be a reality, thanks to Apple Watch.

Dark Sky

Grossman hopes that future versions of Dark Sky will collect barometer data in addition to “manual entry” data, like whether it’s currently snowing or raining. After that, he’ll focus on actually using the barometer data to improve the forecast.

Another company is a bit further ahead. Katerina Stroponiati is co-founder of Sunshine, a crowdsourced weather app that’s currently in beta and recently announced a significant new round of funding. Sunshine is planning a public launch in April.

“Sunshine is a weather network based entirely on mobile, which means that instead of just using traditional weather providers like [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], we use the sensors of the smartphones to collect the data,” Stroponiati said. “The more data, the better.”

Sunshine is planning to launch in cities across the United States once it receives enough data density to show a measurable improvement over existing forecasts—San Francisco will be one of its initial focus areas. Eventually, the goal is to “build a ground observation network of millions of devices.” Sunshine doesn’t yet have a Watch app but is planning one.

In addition to collecting weather data from phones and wearables, the company plans to use distributed computing on the mobile devices themselves to generate the forecasts. That would help bypass the need for expensive supercomputers.

Though small companies like Dark Sky and Sunshine are promising big results, Mass thinks a true transformation in meteorology will only happen when device makers like Apple and Samsung start to see themselves as weather data providers. Mass currently has access to about 120,000 pressure measurements an hour—enough to improve forecasts in some cases—“but there’s 40 million [mobile barometers] out there. There’s not many people with these apps, that’s the problem.”

March 26 2015 6:50 PM

Instapaper Joins the Slow Creep of Speed Reading

Instapaper, the reader app that lets you save Web pages and look at them later, released a new feature on Thursday called Speed Reading. Starting today, users can speed-read 10 articles per month for free, and premium users can do infinite speed-reading on their mobile devices. The feature joins a growing group of speed-reading software that's pushing the limit of how much content we can consume.

Instapaper offers speed reading as an option within its “action icon” on mobile as well as in its navigation bar on desktop. All you have to do to start blazing through all those articles you (optimistically) saved on the train yesterday is hit the “Speed” button and watch the words fly by. In a blog post, the company explains that this speed-reading approach is called rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP). It's “meant to help you eliminate subvocalization, that voice in the back of your mind repeating words as you read them, and reduce time lost scanning between words. The result is a more focused, faster reading experience,” the company writes.

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Researchers have been studying RSVP for years, and it does seem to significantly increase reading speed, by eliminating the need for eye movement. But the research also indicates that comprehension can decline as reading pace increases. At some point there starts to be a tradeoff between speed and understanding.

The Instapaper feature is reminiscent of software from the speed-reading company Spritz, which started licensing its product for inclusion in other apps and services last year. There's also the app Spreeder, and others too, that have similar functionality. Instapaper developed its speed-reading capabilities in-house, but the goal of bringing instant reading-speed improvements to any user who wants them seems similar.

On Slate last year, Jim Pagels wrote of Spreeder, “My dependency on this application is so great that print text now seems difficult to focus on, and I find myself seeking out ebooks rather than print ones so that I can feed them into Spreeder.”

Maybe it's all an elaborate conspiracy to hook us on speed reading so we can ... OK, yeah, it's probably just a cool app feature.

March 26 2015 2:12 PM

The HTML Tags the New York Times, CNN Use During Tragedies

When big news stories evolve into tragedies and people are flocking to read the latest online, website design becomes the backdrop for grave information. And as Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Parker Higgins points out, you can tell a lot about how different sites react to tragic stories by checking out what's going on behind the scenes in their HTML.

You may not know anything about coding, but you can still see what's behind the websites you visit by using a tool called the element inspector. Most browsers, like Firefox and Chrome, let you hover your cursor over any part of a website and then "Inspect Element" to see the commands, components, and style sheets that underlie any part of the site.

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With news breaking about Germanwings Flight 4U 9525 over the past couple of days, Higgins noticed that the New York Times had a line of code on its news story about the incident that read:

<meta property="ad_sensitivity" content="noads" />

Basically, this shows an effort to monitor ad content and reduce ad intensity around a topic that was at first mysterious and then increasingly tragic. And when Higgins reached out to contacts at the Times, they confirmed that the site has a manual switch that can put individual articles in "sensitivity" mode. The settings seem to be either standard, "noads," or finally "tragedy," depending on the content of the story. In the case of Germanwings Flight 4U 9525, the Times eventually upgraded to tragedy.

Sources at sites like the Guardian told Higgins that they have similar measures in place so there isn't a dancing Geico newt competing with dire news.

Meanwhile, CNN's coverage of Flight 4U 9525 included an enormous home page banner that read "DELIBERATE" in a huge font. If you check the HTML, as Slate Director of Technology Doug Harris thought to, CNN calls this a "screaming banner" (see top image). There has even been evidence that services like Gmail reduce their ad load when messages contain trigger words like "suicide."

As Higgins writes, "It’s interesting in part because it’s almost an acknowledgement that ads are invasive and uncomfortable." The Internet is filled with lists of unfortunate ad placements, and the worst ones are probably upbeat ads intruding on solemn moments.

Update, March 26, 2015, 4:30 p.m.:  A spokesperson confirmed that, like the New York Times, CNN Digital didn’t run ads on any of its videos related to Germanwings Flight 4U 9525. "In these types of tragedy cases, it’s an editorial decision that we make," she wrote.

March 26 2015 12:43 PM

Giant Leap: The Race to Mars and Back—a Future Tense Event

Humans have long been fixated on Mars, first as a metaphor of what lies beyond our reach, and now, increasingly, as a destination—for our probes and ourselves and perhaps even for our first base in deep space. Still, fulfilling our Mars yearnings in the next few decades requires enormous technological advancement. Can we now build a spacecraft capable of sustaining prolonged human travel in deep space? What are the remaining logistical hurdles to solve in finally launching our first mission to Mars? Do we know all we need to know about the human body, and its limits, in order to take this next leap into space? Join us to learn about these interplanetary challenges and opportunities, and their surprising implications for the future.

On Thursday, April 9, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—will discuss these issues at an event in Washington, D.C.  The two-hour event will begin at noon and will be held at the New America offices at 1899 L Street NW.

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For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website. Follow the discussion online using #MarsAndBack and follow us @FutureTenseNow.

Agenda:

Noon: A Day in Deep Space: Technology, Research, and the Human Condition

Kate Greene
Science and technology writer
Former crew writer for NASA-funded HI-SEAS project

Josh Hopkins
Space exploration Aachitect, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co.

Dr. Tara Ruttley
Associate ISS program scientist, NASA’s International Space Station

Moderator:
Phil Plait
Slate’s Bad Astronomy blogger

1 p.m.: How Will We Tax in Space?

Adam Chodorow
Professor of law, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University

1:15 p.m.: Will Entrepreneurs Face Red Tape in Deep Space?

Richard DalBello
Vice president of business development and government affairs, Virgin Galactic

Henry Hertzfeld
Space analyst, Space Policy Institute, George Washington University

Jeffrey Manber
Managing director, NanoRacks

Moderator:
Patric Verrone
Writer/Producer, Futurama

This event is underwritten by Lockheed Martin.

March 26 2015 11:30 AM

Congressional Republicans Are Risking the Internet Economy

Congressional Republicans, displeased with the recent re-enactment of net neutrality rules have increasingly turned to a new line of argument. Republicans promised a “major confrontation,” but now the fact is that most Americans, including 85 percent of Republicans, oppose allowing broadband providers to charge websites for higher speeds. That makes criticizing the actual principles of net neutrality a losing game. Instead, in the Washington version of an ad hominem attack, the target is no longer net neutrality itself but the agency that enforces it, the Federal Communications Commission, and its chairman, Tom Wheeler. Wheeler is accused, among other things, of paying attention to the president’s views on the issue—something the current Congress takes as a kind of mortal sin. But more substantively, some Republicans, like Bob Goodlatte of the Judiciary Committee, are pushing to replace the FCC as net neutrality enforcer altogether, putting in its place the Federal Trade Commission wielding the antitrust laws. It may sound merely technical, but it is a reckless idea that puts at risk a regime and policy that has generated both two decades of impressive economic growth, not to mention great cultural flourishing. It also violates the basic and supposedly conservative principle: “If it isn't broke, don't fix it.”

To Washington outsiders the difference between the FCC and FTC may represent the epitome of Beltway meaninglessness. But there is an important difference rooted in both history and substance.

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Since at least the 1970s depending on how you count, the FCC, originally tasked with oversight of the Bell monopoly, has employed some version of a net neutrality rule (though the phrase, which I’m at least partially responsible for, was not used until the 2000s). By this I mean an FCC rule protecting the idea of the communications networks as an innovation platform by protecting the businesses that operate “on top” of the nation's communications networks from the underlying firms, usually monopolists or duopolists, that own the pipes. In the 1970s and ’80s, this meant protecting companies like Compuserve or AOL from the Bell Company (and then Bell Companies). In the 2000s it meant protecting companies like Skype from DSL providers, and today it mainly means protecting much of the Internet sector from both cable and telephone carriers. The point is that while the companies may change, the principles do not.

This longstanding neutrality policy has been an incredible success by any measure. Under one or another version of the regime, the Internet economy has created at least a million jobs and contributed greatly to the economic growth of the entire country, even when the rest of the economy was flat. Nonetheless congressional Republicans are willing to put this at risk—as they would, by abruptly placing an antitrust agency in charge of overseeing this innovation platform.

For there are important substantive differences between the generalist antitrust law and net neutrality rules. Antitrust law is episodic and focused on prices; its enforcement nowadays mainly targets price-fixing schemes and mergers. Yes, it can do more (the Microsoft case being an example), but such instances are rare and extremely time- and resource-intensive. The net neutrality regime, in contrast, is fundamentally concerned with the protection of an innovation platform by maintaining low barriers to entry for entrepreneurs. That just isn’t something that the antitrust law is particularly attuned to.

Net neutrality also supports a rich and very diverse cultural output, something that the antitrust law has trouble valuing. There is a difference between a television and a toaster, and the FCC is able to take into account important noneconomic values that the people who actually use the Internet care about. The human value of connecting with friends and family is not always captured well in antitrust’s economic equations.

In short, leaving the Internet’s fate as an entrepreneurial platform to antitrust enforcement strikes me as taking a serious economic and cultural risk. This is not in any way to malign the FTC, which is a very fine place—it has an impressive staff of lawyers and economists and also is housed in a more attractive building than the FCC. In full disclosure, I worked there myself and have a great affection for the place. I just don’t think, as a generalist agency, it has the tools for this particular job.

I also have more than a little suspicion that the real reason congressional Republicans want to move net neutrality enforcement is a deeper opposition to the principles of Internet openness that they'd prefer not to make public. For it is not as if either the current Republican Party or the telephone companies have been enthusiastic about strong antitrust enforcement, making the sudden enthusiasm for the Sherman Act somewhat surprising. The real point of the operation may not really be to relocate the net neutrality regime, so much as to bury it.

March 25 2015 3:46 PM

Netizen Report: Are France’s Human Rights Commitments Crumbling Post-Charlie?

The Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.. It originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Ellery Roberts Biddle, Lisa Ferguson, Hae-in Lim, Filip Stojanovski, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

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French human rights defenders are navigating new depths of hypocrisy in national policymaking in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack. Since January, hundreds of Internet users have been punished over comments on political controversies surrounding the attack. And just last week the French Interior Ministry ordered Internet service providers to block five websites that it says condoned terrorism. According to AFP, the blocked sites included al-Hayat Media Center, which has been identified as a media producer associated with ISIS. Also blocked was Islamic-news.info, which now appears to have been taken down from the Web altogether. None of these blocking orders were reviewed by a judge. An unnamed Interior Ministry official said that it expected to issue such bans on “dozens” of additional websites, exercising new counterterrorism rules proposed in November and passed in February.

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Nils Muižnieks, the human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe, criticized France for the measures, saying that “limiting human rights to fight against terrorism is a serious mistake and an inefficient measure that can even help the terrorists’ cause.”

Meanwhile, anti-terror legislation before the French Parliament would grant the country’s intelligence services expansive powers of surveillance for both phone and Internet communications. The bill would enable authorities to access the private data of terror suspects and would require communications firms to allow intelligence services to record metadata.

The bill does provide for the creation of an independent body overseeing surveillance activities and includes an appeals process for individuals to contest monitoring. It also grants France’s top administrative court the power to order an end to surveillance, a right it does not currently have. But it still lacks basic tenets of due process. Paris digital rights group La Quadrature du Net lamented that the measures are unfortunately skewed toward post-facto recourse—instead of asking a judge for prior permission to spy on citizens, authorities will surveil citizens en masse and handle the consequences if and when they are challenged.

Turkey uses French example to justify censorship
The Turkish Parliament approved a new article to an omnibus bill that would allow the Telecommunications Directorate, or TIB, to remove or block online content within four hours of a decision made by any minister—without receiving court authorization. The TIB would then be required to submit the decision to a judge for approval, and if it is not authorized within 48 hours, the block would automatically be removed. The article targets content that authorities believe to “endanger an individual’s right to life and property, be deemed a threat to national security or public order, incite criminal activity or present a risk to public health.” The rules also enable TIB to demand that Internet service providers submit users’ information to help law enforcement locate suspects. Responding to criticisms that the measures would violate human rights, Turkey’s EU minister said the bill is compatible with EU standards and cited recent website censorship in France to justify his claim.

Macedonian journalist speaks out on surveillance
In the aftermath of revelations that the Macedonian government conducted mobile phone surveillance on thousands of citizens, many of them human rights advocates and media workers, investigative journalist Meri Jordanovska decided to speak publicly about her experience. Several journalists, including Jordanovska, received the contents of these recorded conversations through data leaks passed to political opposition leaders. After reviewing her own leaked file, which contained records of multiple private conversations with sources and personal contacts, Jordanovska wrote:

This folder was more than enough for me to clearly see what is happening in my country. I can clearly see that someone knew in advance what story I was working on. Enough for me to conclude that my sources of information were endangered. Enough for the centers of power to be able to react preventively before the story was published.

China anti-censorship site GreatFire.org under attack
Chinese censorship monitoring site GreatFire.org was hit with a distributed denial of service attack, receiving 2.6 billion requests an hour for its mirrored websites on Thursday, March 19. The attack took place shortly after the site was featured in a Wall Street Journal article. GreatFire wrote on its blog: “We are under attack and we need help. … This kind of attack is aggressive and is an exhibition of censorship by brute force.” As is typical in attacks of this nature, it is unclear who was responsible for the attack. GreatFire.org provides users in mainland China with access to major websites including the New York Times, BBC News, Google.com, and Deutsche Welle. The attacks have required substantial upgrades in technical protections that bring a heavy financial burden. GreatFire.org says that the costs run at up to $30,000 per day, and it’s asked Amazon, which hosts the site, to waive the fees.

Human Rights Watch website blocked briefly in Egypt
The website for Human Rights Watch was blocked for Wi-Fi users at the Egypt Economic Development Conference, also known as Egypt the Future. The block was noticed by Egyptian journalist Salma Elmardany and appears to have been lifted after she tweeted about it to her 80,000 followers.

Twitter’s verified users test new anti-harassment feature
Twitter has begun testing a new “quality filter” that would screen for tweets that contain threatening and abusive language from their timeline. The new feature, which is currently available for verified users only, is the latest attempt by Twitter to curtail harassment on the platform.

March 25 2015 2:27 PM

Reddit Users Should Be Very Worried About Changes to the Site 

Reddit is the Mos Eisley spaceport of the Internet—a hive of scum and villainy that can carry you to the stars if you ask around in the right places. While the site was originally developed to facilitate social bookmarking, it is most interesting today for the conversations that unfold in the comment threads of its almost uncountable subreddit communities. Content—racist diatribes, clever quips, and everything in between—from those threads frequently finds its way onto other websites, but when it does, the link back to Reddit is often broken. That’s about to change, and the site’s users should be worried.

In a recent blog post, Reddit administrator Tiffany Dohzen announced that comments posted to the site would now be embeddable. This means that it will be easier than ever to display the wit, wisdom, and wretchedness of its core users elsewhere on the Internet. As with Twitter embedding before, it also means that the visual style of Reddit will bleed out onto other websites, helping to develop the site’s branding.

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Many commenters quickly jumped on this new feature’s potential for trolling, suggesting that it would be possible to edit a comment after it was linked to make those who cited it look bad. Others quickly chimed in to point out that Reddit’s developers had included a feature that would allow you to hide a comment if anything about it changed, an option I have selected here:

More troublingly, for the site, this feature may make it easier for critics to demonstrate the worst that it has to offer. Where Gawker and other sites tended to screencap or summarize the vitriol of some Reddit users in the past, they’ll now be able to more directly stage display the site’s ugliest elements in a way visually and technically linked to its corporate brand. Reddit’s much discussed racism and misogyny may become more visible than ever in the coming months.

If comment embedding is risky for Reddit, it also promises rewards. Reddit comments—especially those derived from its joke threads, its explainers, and its other, more approachable segments—have long been appropriated by sites like BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post where they are often used without attribution. Reddit’s administrators claim that their new embedding feature was meant to fight back against content theft. Dan McComas, an admin who posts on the site as kickme444, writes in the comment below, “This is something we will be spending a lot of time on this year, making sure you all get the attribution you deserve. It's pretty frustrating to see your content on the homepage of buzzfeed every day.” And others, such as site co-founder Alexis Ohanian, likewise insist that this change is about “making sure you all get the credit you deserve.”

These assertions play into a corporate myth that Reddit has carefully calculated over the years, one of deep intimacy with its users. Its administrators often make themselves available for questioning, producing the appearance of trustworthy accessibility. We’re not regular tech administrators, they seem to be saying. We’re cool tech administrators!

More tellingly, they almost always address their users in the familiar second person, employing a vocabulary that suggests partnership and equity. McComas, for example, speaks of “your content,” while Dohzen explains that this change will make it easier “showcase reddit comments on your website or blog” (emphasis added). This language suggests that Reddit’s main interest is in keeping everything in the family, making life easier for a close circle of friends.

In practice, however, these changes probably have less to do with protecting a tight-knit community than they do with expanding that community while making more money. When other sites draw from Reddit without linking back to it, it’s harder for Reddit to pull in new users. Though some commenters on Dohzen’s blog post optimistically suggested that these changes would spell doom for BuzzFeed and Gawker, the truth is probably that Reddit is hoping to enter into a more symbiotic relationship with its erstwhile competitors.

Perhaps more importantly, Reddit’s own policies conflict with the language of ownership employed by its administrators. At present, users will receive no notification when their comments appear elsewhere on the Internet.

What’s more, users of public subreddits cannot opt out of comment embedding, meaning that “your content” can be used without your permission. As one commenter pointed out, this is woven into Reddit’s own user agreement, which grants the site “a royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive, unrestricted, worldwide license” to do almost anything they want with material posted to the site.

Reddit wants its users to think that they’re special, that they’re part of the team. Ultimately, however, they’re no different from users of Facebook or Twitter: They are the commodity. Their bon mots, their discoveries, even their outbursts are all marketable. The trouble is that sites like BuzzFeed have done a better job of selling that product than Reddit itself. By convincing other sites to embed comments instead of merely appropriating them, Reddit hopes to regain control of their most valuable product. 

March 24 2015 6:53 PM

Ugh, This Awesome Augmented Reality Video Is Probably Fake

An amazing video has been circulating since late last week claiming to show a new augmented-reality product by Magic Leap. The “cinematic reality” company raised $542 million in October from Google corporate and others to take a stab at replacing all of the world's screens with some sort of virtual reality blend. The company's latest splash started with a tweet:

The video is facinating. It shows a seamless and effortless interaction between our digital and physical lives. And since Magic Leap has tons of money to work on exactly this type of thing, it could be coming soon, right? Unfortunately, skeptics say no.

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First of all, Magic Leap originally planned to present at a TED conference in Vancouver, but backed out at the last minute and posted the video online instead. The company also indicates that what you see in the video is technology that actually exists in its office, but we haven't gotten to see any hardware yet. Additionally, the video has a prominent watermark from Weta Workshop in its upper right corner. As CNET notes (in a podcast titled "That cool Magic Leap AR demo is probably fake, but we love it anyway"), Weta Workshop is known for doing special effects on projects like, oh you know, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As Eric Johnson of Re/code wrote, "This is probably fake."

Similar questions came up about the video Microsoft showed when it unveiled its HoloLens augmented-reality headset in January. The difference was that Microsoft had at least showed off some hardware and let journalists demo it. So far Magic Leap hasn't announced anything tangible.

It's disappointing to watch the video and then realize that we're probably not really there yet, but at least there's progress. Don't worry, you'll be scrolling through your email in thin air before you know it.

March 24 2015 4:40 PM

Every Police Department Needs to Have a Wikipedia Policy

Wikipedia is quickly and quietly becoming the newest battleground in the struggle over police malfeasance. Last week, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that users within the San Diego police department—some of them anonymous—had edited their department’s page to remove information from the “Misconduct” section. Not long before, Capital New York discovered that numerous IP addresses associated with the NYPD had been used to edit entries on departmental brutality.

Wikipedia discourages what it calls “conflict of interest editing,” revisions to the encyclopedia made by those with a direct interest in the topic under review. As the site’s guidelines explain, such edits are incompatible with “the aim of Wikipedia, which is to produce a neutral, reliably sourced encyclopedia.” William Beutler, author of the blog the Wikipedian, explains that, however controversial, these changes by police representatives are not necessarily exceptional. Since “most editors gravitate toward topics they are interested in,” he writes, some conflict is almost inevitable. Nevertheless, in context the edits by the SDPD and NYPD remain deeply troubling, constituting what Gizmodo rightly calls “blatant attempts to bend the narrative on horrific state-administered brutality.”

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Computers play an increasingly central role in the way that law enforcement officers interact with the public. As such, departments are obliged to recognize that the way their employees and other representatives conduct themselves online reflects on the agency as a whole. This has become especially clear with regard to social media. As one sample social media policy notes, those affiliated with a law enforcement agency effectively speak on its behalf whenever they post “during work hours” or “using agency equipment,” even if they don’t actively identify their connection with it. While this is critically important on Twitter or Facebook, it is just as true on the rest of the Internet.

In a statement to the Union-Tribune, a representative of the San Diego Police Department denied any responsibility for the edits. “The editing of content found on the Wikipedia page regarding the San Diego Police Department is not, nor has it ever been, assigned to any Police Department Personnel,” he said. But whether or not these editors were acting on the orders of their superiors, they were doing so in an implicitly official capacity, precisely because they were employing the department’s technology and working through Internet connections that it owned.

You don’t need to endorse Wikipedia’s own policies, then, to recognize that these edits were problematic. To the contrary, they can and should be understood as quasi-official cover-ups, attempts to deceive the people these departments ostensibly serve.

One SDPD-affiliated Wikipedia editor told the Union-Tribune that he made changes because he was frustrated by the ways that “the sometimes untrue or misrepresented actions of [a] few” officers had been used to denigrate the department as a whole. But, that’s precisely what’s at issue: When they assume their official roles, whether on the street or online, officers do represent the department as a whole, and their conduct should reflect on the department. To deny this fact is to abet the forces that underwrite police violence by shunting off any misdeeds onto individual bad seeds, while ignoring the structures that empower them to commit those actions in the first place.

Police departments need to admit that they are responsible for the actions, good or bad, of their officers. Acknowledging that their employees should stay off of Wikipedia pages connected to their work may be a small step in that direction, but it’s an important one. If your police department doesn’t have a Wikipedia policy, you should probably worry. There’s no telling what else they might be denying.

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