The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Dec. 18 2014 11:05 AM

Netizen Report: Kyrgyz News Site Censored in Central Asia for ISIS Coverage

The Netizen Report originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Ellery Roberts Biddle, Lisa Ferguson, Arzu Geybullayeva, Grady Johnson, Chris Rickleton, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

We begin this week's report in Central Asia, where independent media workers have been gripped by controversy over a video that allegedly depicts children from Kazakhstan at an ISIS training camp in Syria. Kloop.kg, an independent news site based and hosted in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, republished the video as part of an article about Kazakh children purportedly living in ISIS training camps in the Middle East. When Kazakh authorities asked that Kloop remove the video, the site’s owners declined to do so. The Kazakh government promptly blocked the video.

Though often considered the most open country in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is now mimicking its neighbor. Kloop’s editors once again declined a removal request, this time from the Kyrgyz government. In response, the country’s prosecutor general requested on Dec. 10 that all local ISPs block access to the video. Carrying out that order would be technically complex.

Just five days later, local webhost ProHost said it planned to kick Kloop off of its servers, at the behest of the State Agency for Communications. For now, Kloop is de facto blocked in Kyrgyzstan.

Although authorities claim the video constitutes “extremist propaganda,” local experts suspect that officials wanted to make an example of Kloop—the site refused to remove the article on journalistic principle, causing the government embarrassment.

Muck-raking journalist arrested in Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan does not have much of a record of protecting free expression—President Ilham Aliev was recently afforded the dubious honor of winning a corruption watchdog’s “Person of the Year” award. Last week, the arrest of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayil illustrated just how far the Azeri government will go to shield itself from the unflattering reports of investigative journalists. But this was hardly unexpected—Ismayil has faced legal challenges, sexual harassment, and online intimidation for several years in response to her reports on shady financial deals by members of the Aliev family. While the charges against her are unclear due to gag orders placed on her lawyer and accuser, news of her arrest received international attention human rights groups and intergovernmental organizations alike.

In Japan, whistleblowers beware
A controversial state secrecy act became law in Japan on Dec. 10, increasing criminal penalties for individuals who leak information that has been classified as a state secret. The law provides sentences of up to 10 years for government workers who leak state secrets and up to five years for anyone that solicits information using “grossly inappropriate means.” The new law, which elicited mass protests in several of Japan’s major cities last spring, is widely expected to have a chilling effect on free speech in the country.

Swedes pounce on Pirate Bay
File-sharing site the Pirate Bay was shut down this week following a raid on its servers by Swedish police, who took down the site over alleged copyright violations. While there were no arrests, one of the Pirate Bay’s operators said they were not yet sure whether they would reboot the site.

U.S. Congress members make last-ditch effort to reverse IANA function promise
Republicans in the U.S. Congress added a provision to the recently passed budget bill seeking to prevent the Obama administration from giving up its oversight over the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority function, a key component of the U.S. government’s power over the domain name system for the global Internet. However, the measure is likely to be ineffective due to procedural errors. Among other things, the contract that gives the nation’s Commerce Department oversight over IANA will not run out until fiscal year 2016—the appropriations bill only applies to 2015.

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Dec. 18 2014 10:35 AM

The Navy’s New Robot Looks and Swims Just Like a Shark

Reprinted from

This article originally appeared in Wired.

The American military does a lot of work in the field of biomimicry, stealing designs from nature for use in new technology. After all, if you’re going to design a robot, where better to draw inspiration than from billions of years of evolution? The latest result of these efforts is the GhostSwimmer: The Navy’s underwater drone designed to look and swim like a real fish, and a liability to spook the bejeezus out of any beach goer who’s familiar with Jaws.

The new gizmo, at five feet long and nearly 100 pounds, is about the size of an albacore tuna but looks more like a shark, at least from a distance. It’s part of an experiment to explore the possibilities of using biomimetic, unmanned, underwater vehicles, and the Navy announced it wrapped up testing of the design last week.

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The robot uses its tail for propulsion and control, like a real fish. It can operate in water as shallow as 10 inches or dive down to 300 feet. It can be controlled remotely via a 500-foot tether, or swim independently, periodically returning to the surface to communicate. Complete with dorsal and pectoral fins, the robofish is stealthy too: It looks like a fish and moves like a fish, and, like other underwater vehicles, is difficult to spot even if you know to look for it.

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Down the line, it could be used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, when it’s not assigned to more mundane tasks like inspecting the hulls of friendly ships. Animal lovers will be glad to hear that the GhostSwimmer could take the jobs of the bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions the Navy currently trains to spot underwater mines and recover equipment.

The GhostSwimmer joins the ranks of animal-based awesome/creepy robots like the “Cheetah” that can run at nearly 30 mph, the Stickybot that climbs like a gecko, and the cockroach-inspired iSprawl that can cover 7.5 feet per second. And it may get a baby brother: The Department of Homeland Security has been funding development of a similar, smaller robot called the BIOSwimmer.

True to military form, there’s a whole suite of acronyms to go along with the new toy: The UUV (unmanned underwater vehicle) has been in testing at the JEBLC-FS (Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story), and was developed by the CRIC (Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell) project, called Silent NEMO (actually, this one doesn’t seem to stand for anything). It was developed by the Advanced Systems Group at Boston Engineering, a Navy contractor that specializes in the development of robotics, unmanned systems and something called “special tactical equipment”. The company and Navy haven’t said much about when GhostSwimmer might be deployed or how much it would cost, but next time you’re at the beach and see a fin sticking out of the water, it might be a killer shark—or it might just be a Navy robot.

More from Wired:

Dec. 17 2014 4:46 PM

New York's Fracking Ban Is About Politics, Not Science. And That's Just Fine.

New York will ban fracking, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration announced Wednesday. “I cannot support high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York,” said acting health commissioner Howard Zucker, according to the New York Times.

Cuomo had dithered for years on this decision, leaving in place a de facto moratorium on fracking in the state as he called for further study on the health risks. Wednesday’s announcement sparked an outpouring of glee from a vocal anti-fracking lobby that includes the likes of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo.

Fracking—a method of extracting natural gas and oil from shale deposits—has driven a natural gas boom in the United States over the past decade. Because natural gas burns cleaner than coal, the boom has helped to cut the United States’ carbon emissions. But fracking comes with risks of its own, including potential health and safety threats, which depend in part on how carefully it is carried out.

So did Cuomo make the right call? He did, but not for the reasons he’d have you believe.

Cuomo has promised all along to base his fracking decisions on scientific evidence. But, as is often the case with controversial new technologies, the scientific evidence points in both directions. We know there are risks, benefits, and uncertainties. We just can’t agree on how to weigh them. That’s why, as Adam Briggle argued convincingly in Future Tense last year, the fracking debate cannot be settled by science alone. It can only be settled by appeals to values, priorities, and interests—which is to say, politics.

To understand Cuomo’s decision, then, you have to understand the political context. For years, he has been haunted at nearly every public appearance by anti-fracking protesters enraged by his waffling on the issue. But the moderate Democrat was reluctant to take an anti-fracking stand before his November re-election, lest Republicans seize on the issue to whittle away at his majority. (He ended up winning with 54 percent of the vote.) With the campaign behind him, Cuomo was finally free to make a decision that would get the anti-fracking crowd off his back.

Obama Keystone
Cuomo isn't the only moderate Democrat who's been putting off a tough environmental decision.

Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A second factor may also have spurred him to action: The recent steep decline in oil prices has stifled demand for drilling and fracking, undercutting Republicans’ efforts to paint fracking as an economic imperative.

Cuomo insisted Wednesday that the fracking ban was the result of a bureaucratic, evidence-based process. “I don’t think I even have a role here,” he said in a news conference. Yeah, right—and Obama doesn’t have a role in the Keystone pipeline decision.

In fact, Obama’s pipeline quandary resembles Cuomo’s fracking dilemma in several respects, including his risk-averse handling of it. Politicians are often criticized for putting off tough decisions. But Cuomo’s fracking decision shows that procrastination can pay off, provided you act once the opportunity arises. Perhaps Obama, whose State Department has been "reviewing" Keystone XL for six years, will be the next to kill a controversial energy project. Why not strike while the oil is cheap?

Previously in Slate:

Dec. 17 2014 4:45 PM

What We Do and Don't Know About the Sony Pictures Hack

We do know that Kanye wants to make a movie and that there's a big pay gap between the genders at Sony. But not much information about the Sony Pictures hack itself is public right now. We don't know who did it or even really how they did it, but here's a rundown of where things stand.

How did it start?
Sony's networks went down on Monday, Nov. 24, after computers displayed a red image of a skeleton and the words "Hacked By #GOP." A Sony Pictures representative, Jean Guerin, told Reuters that there was "a system disruption" and that Sony IT was "working diligently" to fix the problem. She didn't comment on whether the situation was a cyberattack, but rumors started swirling, and Sony quickly confirmed that it had been hacked.

Where did it come from?
At least one of the command and control servers (which control distributed malware) used in the hack is located in Bolivia. Sources also told Bloomberg that the malware was phoning home to the hackers through an IP address at a university in Thailand, and on a network at the St. Regis Bangkok. Some security experts have also speculated that the attack or some aspects of it originated in Japan, based on forensic IP address evidence.

And that's ... about it in terms of knowledge of the hack itself. It clearly penetrated deep into Sony Pictures' networks since the hackers have been sharing hundreds of gigabytes of data. But Sony, which is working with law enforcement and FireEye Inc.'s Mandiant cybersecurity unit, is keeping details of the hack quiet. Sony Pictures did not respond to a request for comment on the nature of the hack.

Is North Korea behind this or not?
Yeah, unclear. Could the nation state itself pull this off? Are the hackers part of a group like DarkSeoul that is thought to have ties to North Korea? Did the country hire outside hackers to do this? Did North Korean sympathizers launch the attack independently? Is a disgruntled former Sony employee involved? Is it all a viral marketing campaign? No one knows yet.

Update, Dec. 17, 6:15 p.m.: The New York Times reports that U.S. officials believe the North Korean government was indeed connected to the attack. From the Times:

American intelligence officials have concluded that the North Korean government was “centrally involved” in the recent attacks on Sony Pictures’s computers, a determination reached just as Sony on Wednesday canceled its release of the comedy, which is based on a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader.
Senior administration officials, who would not speak on the record about the intelligence findings, said the White House was still debating whether to publicly accuse North Korea of what amounts to a cyberterrorism campaign. Sony’s decision to cancel release of “The Interview” amounted to a capitulation to the threats sent out by hackers this week that they would launch attacks, perhaps on theaters themselves, if the movie was released.

This must be a pretty sophisticated hack if we still don't know who did it, right?
The Sony Pictures hack is definitely a big deal and affects thousands of people. But in terms of how it was executed (as far as anyone knows right now), it doesn't seem to have been particularly ingenious. Jonathan Carter, the technical director of Arxan Technologies, told Security Week on Dec. 5:

So far, the evidence seems to suggest that the Sony hack was accomplished via execution of malicious malware. Hackers typically conduct these attacks by somehow tricking the user into executing something that is malicious in nature from within a system that is sensitive in nature. The recent iOS Masque and WireLurker vulnerabilities clearly illustrate that the delivery and execution of malicious code can take some very clever approaches. In light of these recent revelations, it is reasonable to expect to see a rise in distribution of malware ... via mobile devices owned by employees that have access to sensitive backend systems.

In the case of the Target breach, it took about 10 weeks to discover the identity of the hackers. And it took more than four months to track down the collective that launched the Neiman Marcus cyberattack.

Is this cyberwar?
That is an excellent question! No one knows. The hackers have now started threatening physical attacks on movie theaters that show The Interview. And some, like David Auerbach on Slate, are already calling the hackers terrorists. But we don't know at this point what the hackers really want—aside from generally keeping Sony Pictures from making money off of The Interview—so it's hard to predict what will happen next.

Is it just me, or has Sony been hacked before?
Yes. A bunch of times. (Remember the 2011 PlayStation hack?) Yet clearly the company did not prioritize its cybersecurity protections the way it should have. As Chester Wisniewski, a senior security advisor at Sophos, explained to Gizmodo, "Sony's been raising the ire of hackers for as long as I can remember, so you have to think that they've known they're a serious target. ... I'm not justifying what these people did. But [Sony people] are kind of the perfect people to go after."

This is ridiculous. When are companies going to start taking this stuff seriously?
Perhaps the sheer magnitude of the Sony hack, the cost of containing it, the loss of revenue, and the class action lawsuit Sony Pictures employees are now filing will all combine to motivate companies to prioritize their cybersecurity. Hacks don't have to use novel strategies to be devestating and extremely difficult to trace. As security expert Bruce Schneier said, "That we live in the world where we aren't sure if any given cyberattack is the work of a foreign government or a couple of guys should be scary to us all."

Update, Dec. 17 5p.m.: Sony is cancelling the Christmas Day theatrical release of "The Interview." The company said in a statement

In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film The Interview, we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release. We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.

Dec. 17 2014 3:44 PM

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Stephen Hawking, Black Holes, and The Theory of Everything

“You go into science because you want to make a discovery, you want to advance our understanding of the universe,” says Neil deGrasse Tyson in the video above. “Not everyone gets to accomplish that. Stephen Hawking has."

While we all know Hawking has made an enormous impact on the world of knowledge, lots of us don’t quite understand the science that made him famous. But his fellow genius Neil deGrasse Tyson is here to help you out. In the video, Tyson discusses Hawking radiation—arguably the theoretical physicist’s most famous contribution—and how it fundamentally changed our understanding of black holes. He describes Hawking’s merging of quantum physics with the general theory of relativity as, in a word, “badass.” It’s because of all of this that Tyson is “enchanted” by the uptick in the production of movies like the Oscar buzz-worthy The Theory of Everything, which portray scientists as the heroes that many of them are.

 

Dec. 17 2014 2:37 PM

A New Surveillance Blimp Takes to the Skies Over Maryland

Be warned, all those from North Carolina to Massachusetts receiving quadrocopters and various and sundry flying devices for Christmas. Your government may be watching you—from a giant militarized blimp.

Dan Froomkin reports in the Intercept that in the next few days, the Army will launch the first of two planned surveillance blimps, or helium-filled aerostats, from the Aberdeen Proving Ground near Baltimore, Maryland. As Slate has previously noted, the Raytheon Company-built blimps, succinctly known as the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS), are intended to watch for missiles. They’ll  hover at a height of 10,000 feet, and at around 600,000 cubic feet each, they’ll be a sizeable floating landmark near the Interstate 95. The blimps will be able to constantly scan up to 340 miles in 360 degrees, reaching from Raleigh in North Carolina to Boston—an area the size of Texas, as Froomkin points out.

The Army has been exploring the use of airships in warzones for a number of years. But the Baltimore blimps’ 24/7 radar mean that they’re technically capable of watching for more than just missiles or hostile aircraft and drones. Although representatives for the JLENS program deny that they will be used to track people or civilian cars, Raytheon PR materials have boasted that their system is able to detect and follow cars, trains, boats, and trucks. Civil rights groups are particularly concerned about the potential for mission creep—“If we’re going to have massive blimps hovering over civilian areas, or within radar-shot of civilian areas, then we need some very ironclad checks and balances that will provide confidence that there’s no domestic surveillance going on,” the ACLU’s Jay Stanley told the Intercept.

Until I’d heard of this new generation of military airships, my only association was the Hindenburg and The Simpsons' Duff Blimp. Now whenever I hear “Hey there, blimpy boy, flying through the sky so fancy free,” I’m not going to think of a beloved American cartoon series. I’m going to think of omnipotent surveillance. Thanks, JLENS.

Dec. 17 2014 12:59 PM

The Most Important Cybersecurity Story That No One Is Talking About

There’s no doubt what the most discussed cybersecurity story of the month is—with belligerent attackers, sophisticated counterhacks, corporate lawyers threatening journalists, speculation about the potential involvement of a rogue nation state, entertaining sniping about movie stars, and even real-world threats, the Sony data breach has all the excitement of one of the action-packed films pilfered from the studio’s networks.

At the far other end of the computer security sexiness spectrum—lacking every single one of those elements, and garnering maybe 0.1 percent of the media attention devoted to Sony—was another incident. Security researcher Brian Krebs reported last week that thousands of devices used to process credit card payments in the United States stopped working on Dec. 7.

There was no attacker behind the incident, which affected a specific brand of credit card terminals manufactured by Hypercom, which is now owned by Equinox Payments. The culprit: an expired digital certificate, created in 2004 and valid for 10 years. Digital certificates provide a crucial security function by assigning public keys to be used for cryptographic purposes, including digital signatures and encryption. The authority that issues those certificates determines how long the assigned key will be valid—in this case, 10 years—before the certificate needs to be replaced or updated.

Dec. 17 2014 10:21 AM

An Illuminated Manuscript About Space Exploration, Science Fiction, and Physics

You just don't see many illuminated manuscripts these days. There’s a good reason why: They take a long time to make.

I learned this recently when I set out to commission a thoroughly modern illuminated manuscript: not a religious text, but an interview with theoretical physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies, a professor at Arizona State University and the author of books like How to Build a Time Machine. In the interview, Davies discusses the feedback loop between science-fiction storytelling and real-world innovation and discovery; lauds science fiction as an important vehicle for social and political commentary; ponders why our visions of the future are so often mired in gloomy dystopian thinking; and shares his insights on the art of communicating cutting-edge scientific concepts to the public.

The manuscript was created as a holiday gift for Project Hieroglyph’s digital community members. Hieroglyph, which is based at Arizona State University, is a network of science fiction authors, scientists, and other creative people who collaborate on hopeful, technically grounded stories about the future. (I work for Hieroglyph; Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, ASU, and New America.)

The interview with Davies originally appeared in the anthology Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, a collection of short stories set in the near future that aims to rekindle our ambitions for the future by creating new, inspiring icons of scientific and technological progress and achievement to match Isaac Asimov’s robots and Robert Heinlein’s rockets.

In a particularly compelling exchange, Davies argues that establishing colonies on Mars is possible today without any new technological breakthroughs—if only the funding and public support were there. He explains how the “national virility contest” of the Cold War drove the development of advanced physics throughout most of his career. Now that hostilities have subsided, funding for “big science” is much harder to come by: “The plan was when we stop spending this obscene amount of money on armaments ... the nonmilitary science would absolutely flourish. The exact opposite occurred. The peace dividend turned out to be a negative once the arms race faded away.”

Davies also discusses the role of science fiction not only in inspiring young people to pursue careers in science and technology, but also in communicating “the science process”—how inquiry at the forefront of scientific knowledge is conducted. He admires writers like Stephen Baxter and David Brin who create meticulously researched fictional worlds and keep abreast of cutting-edge discoveries, and is a lifelong fan of Fred Hoyle, a fiction writer and renowned cosmologist who ended up giving Davies his first job.

The artist (or should I say “illuminator”?) is Roy Wasson Valle, an Arizona-based printmaker. Valle was inspired by Davies’ discussion of medieval cathedrals and the idea of ambitious, long-term human projects. We decided to use a devotional art form to express the way that interplanetary missions and particle accelerators might function as the scientific cathedrals of our era. These enormous investments of capital and labor are designed to give us a window on the universe, a way of grasping at something larger than ourselves. In Davies’ words, they represent “a great, collective human venture for trying to understand our place in nature.”

We hope you enjoy reading the manuscript as much as we enjoyed creating it. It’s free to read, download, and share.

Dec. 16 2014 6:48 PM

Drone Footage Shows Just How Much Damage Greenpeace Did to Peru’s Nazca Site

Last week, amid the United Nations’ climate talks in Lima, Peru, members of Greenpeace made a serious pro-sustainability statement. They arranged huge yellow letters to form the message “Time for change! The future is renewable. Greenpeace.” But they did it on the Nazca Lines World Heritage Site, an area that is restricted to preserve delicate, 1,500-year-old drawings of animals in the soil.

Greenpeace has apologized for the damage it did and said that it won’t use images from the campaign in future promotions. PBS NewsHour, working with the Culture Ministry of Peru, got access to the first drone footage assessing the impact on the Nazca Lines from the air. And ... it doesn’t look great. 

Luis Jaime Castillo, Peru’s deputy culture minister, told NewsHour that:

These things were damaged, they have to be returned to their original status. Some people will have to face criminal charges, because that is unavoidable and the process has already started. ... When you step on [the surface] you simply break the patina and expose the bottom surface. How long does it take for the nature to lift again all that sand and expose again and create the patina? Hundreds of years? Thousands of years? We really don't know.

From the drone footage you can see where the Greenpeace letters were laid out and where the activists walked. Standard practice is for experts to wear special pads on their shoes when they examine the Lines, sort of like snow shoes, to distribute their weight and avoid leaving marks like Greenpeace did.

According to the Guardian, Castillo has told state media that Peru is considering seeking extradition so the Greenpeace workers can be held accountable.

Dec. 16 2014 2:25 PM

Microsoft: Customers Won’t Trust Us With Their Data if the Government Has Easy Access

This year, Microsoft has been working to oppose a search warrant from the Department of Justice that seeks emails and other personal data for a suspect. Microsoft claims that since the information is stored in one of its Irish data centers, it doesn't have to comply with a domestic search warrant. Microsoft has been raising awareness and rallying tech companies, trade groups, and computer scientists to weigh in on the case, because it has implications both for the security of Americans' data overseas and the ability of other governments to demand data stored in U.S. data centers.

On Monday, Microsoft announced that 10 groups are filing amicus briefs on its behalf signed by a total of 28 technology and media companies, 35 computer scientists, and 23 trade associations. Supporters include Apple, Verizon, the Guardian, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Microsoft, which has had setbacks in both the initial ruling and subsequent appeals, seems to be hoping that broader support will help it show the court the implications of the ruling, should law enforcement officials be allowed to issue search warrants for overseas data centers.

In a Microsoft-sponsored event on Monday, two panels discussed the case and the broader issues it raises related to data privacy and international law. Nuala O’Connor, the president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology, said, “People need to trust the technology they use. The U.S government’s actions risk undermining that trust and the privacy protections of people around the world, including those of U.S citizens.”

Andrew Pincus, a partner at Mayer Brown, pointed out that the value of the cloud comes from its ability to reduce costs for industry and individuals by creating an economy of scale for data storage. He said actions like overseas searches errode companies' confidence that they can store their confidential documents and trade secrets with companies like Microsoft. "Basically no one will use the cloud if companies think that they are going to lose control of their data," he said.

And when moderator Charles Gibson asked about Microsoft's financial stake in barring these types of actions, Brad Smith, executive vice president and general counsel for Microsoft, said:

Of course the entire tech sector understands that this is about this country’s ability to create technology that leads the world and has access to the foreign market. It is about economics. ... But ultimately it’s about trust. ... This case is about whether people will have the right to have their email protected by their own laws and their own governments and their own constitutions.

Microsoft and its allies emphasize that there is already a system in place for countries to work together on information gathering for law enforcement. Known as mutual legal assistance treaties, or MLATs, these agreements are the way Microsoft thinks the Department of Justice should seek the information that is stored in the Irish data center. If Microsoft received a data request through an MLAT rather than a domestic U.S. warrant, it would presumably cooperate.

Smith said that tech companies have become like banks. And if Mary Poppins or the 2008 financial crisis have taught us anything, it's that people want to feel like they still control their money, even when it's held by another entity. "You’re not gonna put your data in a data center or the cloud if you don’t have confidence about who can and can’t get access to it," Smith said.

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