The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Jan. 29 2015 12:37 PM

Google Can’t Tell You When the Government Wants Your Data. Here’s a Sneaky Solution.

Let’s imagine a world where telecommunications providers and online services pay more than lip service to users' privacy and security. In such a place, they send an email to every customer and user each morning, with words to this effect:

“As of this date, we have not received any requests or demands from law enforcement, or any other parties, seeking information about your data and/or other activities with our service.”

One morning, in the case of a (hopefully) small number of recipients, the email would not appear. This would, in effect, be a notification that such a request or demand had, indeed, arrived.

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Jan. 28 2015 5:34 PM

Would You Join a Social Network That Only Shows Posts From Friends Who Agree With You?

Social media is all about democratization of information, free expression, and widespread sharing. It's supposed to be a tool for getting closer to people and expanding open discourse. But that's not always what people are looking for when they log on. Often they just want others to affirm their beliefs. That's what JYNX is for.

The social network is a parody thought up by comedy network Above Average. On JYNX you only see posts from like-minded friends, and if you and a friend post the same thing you get jynxed! More jynxes mean a higher jynx score, which shows people how popular your opinions are, "regardless of whether they're right or wrong." The sketch explains:

With JYNX, you only see posts from friends who agree with your views on social issues, politics, and entertainment. ... You won't see any more updates from your slightly racist uncle unless you're slightly racist, in which case, that's all you'll see!

The sketch pokes fun at the ways in which our social circles are insular and homogenous. But it also brings up real questions about what it means to mute someone on Twitter or defriend them on Facebook (excluding attempts to reduce exposure to hate speech, of course). Some social networks are largely geared at people you know, or have at least met, in real life. If the people you know have similar views to yours, your feed will largely reflect that. But some services like Google Plus and Twitter allow you to see posts from pretty much any other user. Maybe those are the forums where you can get as far away from JYNX as possible.

Jan. 28 2015 4:48 PM

Governments Are Cracking Down on Drones. Why Are Drone-Makers Helping Them?

In the early morning hours Monday, a small drone operated by a drunk American spy agency employee crashed on the White House grounds. While many observers found the incident rather entertaining, the drone's manufacturer, DJI, did not: It announced that it was going to update the software controlling the drone to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. It will accomplish this by expanding the no-fly zones already coded into the aircraft's software. The ability of DJI to exert control from a distance over where its aircraft are flown is exemplary of what legal scholar Lawrence Lessig has called the threat code poses to liberty.

DJI is a privately held Chinese company. Company spokesman Michael Perry says that though DJI doesn't release specific sales figures, the Phantom line of drones (the type that crashed at the White House) are the world's most popular drones. DJI sells several variants of the Phantom, all of which are equipped with built-in GPS units. That GPS capability makes the Phantom easier to fly—it can, for instance, hover without pilot intervention at specific GPS coordinates even in a moderately strong wind. But the GPS also introduces the possibility of outside control.

Jan. 28 2015 2:44 PM

The Teeniest Chess Game Is 487 Bytes

In 2012 the average iOS mobile game was 60 MB and the average Android game was 40 MB. Those numbers have only increased since, but there's a countermovement happening, too. Writing tiny programs is challenging and engaging because every byte matters.

On Tuesday, Canadian development group Red Sector Inc. posted BootChess, which at 487 bytes takes the record for smallest digital chess game. The old record was held by the 1024 byte 1K ZX Chess, which reigned for 33 years. BootChess isn't flashy—there isn't a lot of room for graphics in 487 bytes—but most average chess players can enjoy the teeny version. (Skilled players will probably find BootChess easy to beat.)

The format uses standard chess notation with capital letters for white pieces and lower case letters for black pieces. BootChess runs on Windows, Linux, OS X, and other operating systems.

Since 1 MB equals 1,000,000 bytes and mobile games can easily reach 100 MB or even bigger (not to mention full desktop computer games), a 487-byte chess game is a tough thing to build. One commenter writes, "I just started a quick game ... i am already sure i'll win this, but hey, i am a club level chess player ;) Will dive deep into the code later, for now i'll just say : WOW! Great release!" Chess triumphs are happening all around us.

Jan. 28 2015 11:46 AM

The DOJ Gets It Wrong on Tor and Child Porn

This post originally appeared in WIRED.

The debate over online anonymity, and all the whistleblowers, trolls, anarchists, journalists, and political dissidents it enables, is messy enough. It doesn’t need the U.S. government making up bogus statistics about how much that anonymity facilitates child pornography.

At the State of the Net conference in Washington on Tuesday, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell discussed what she described as the dangers of encryption and cryptographic anonymity tools like Tor, and how those tools can hamper law enforcement. Her statements are the latest in a growing drumbeat of federal criticism of tech companies and software projects that provide privacy and anonymity at the expense of surveillance. And as an example of the grave risks presented by that privacy, she cited a study she said claimed an overwhelming majority of Tor’s anonymous traffic relates to pedophilia.

“Tor obviously was created with good intentions, but it’s a huge problem for law enforcement,” Caldwell said in comments reported by Motherboard and confirmed to me by others who attended the conference. “We understand 80 percent of traffic on the Tor network involves child pornography.”

That statistic is horrifying. It’s also baloney.

In a series of tweets that followed Caldwell’s statement, a Department of Justice flack said Caldwell was citing a University of Portsmouth study Wired covered in December. He included a link to my story. But I made clear at the time that the study claimed 80 percent of traffic to Tor hidden services related to child pornography, not 80 percent of all Tor traffic.

That is a huge, and important, distinction. The vast majority of Tor’s users run the free anonymity software while visiting conventional websites, using it to route their traffic through encrypted hops around the globe to avoid censorship and surveillance. But Tor also allows websites to run Tor, something known as a Tor hidden service. This collection of hidden sites, which comprise what’s often referred to as the “dark web,” use Tor to obscure the physical location of the servers that run them. Visits to those dark-web sites account for only 1.5 percent of all Tor traffic, according to the software’s creators at the nonprofit Tor Project.

The University of Portsmouth study dealt exclusively with visits to hidden services. In contrast to Caldwell’s 80 percent claim, the Tor Project’s director Roger Dingledine pointed out last month that the study’s pedophilia findings refer to something closer to a single percent of Tor’s overall traffic.

The Department of Justice didn’t respond to Wired’s questions about Caldwell’s comments.

Even with its focus on Tor hidden services, not general Tor use, the University of Portsmouth findings were troubling enough. The notion that the majority of the dark web’s visits involve pedophilia raises serious questions about the trade-offs between safety and privacy that Tor hidden services allow. But as Wired wrote at the time, the pedophilia sites represented only 2 percent of Tor hidden services—a small number of popular kiddie-porn sites draw a large percentage of the dark web’s traffic, it seems. Categories of sites ranging from drug markets to discussion forums to whistleblowing sites all accounted for larger slices of the dark web. Even Facebook has now launched its own Tor hidden service.

The Tor Project also identified numerous caveats that might have led to the overrepresentation of pedophilia sites in the study’s findings: Law enforcement and anti-abuse organizations often visit child-porn sites to track and infiltrate them. Hackers sometimes launch floods of fraudulent traffic at the sites with the aim of taking them offline. Unstable sites that frequently go offline might generate more visit counts in the study’s methodology. And sites visited through Tor2Web, a tool designed to make Tor hidden services more accessible to nonanonymous users, would be underrepresented, shifting more of the findings towards sites whose content requires strong anonymity.

But none of those possible fudges in the study comes close to the one Caldwell made in her statements Tuesday, conflating Tor hidden services with Tor itself. After all, some of the most central non-hidden-service applications of Tor are to enable Internet users in countries like China and Iran to evade their governments’ online repression, and even allowing U.S. intelligence and law enforcement to gather data online without detection. Both those uses explain why much of Tor’s funding comes directly from the American military and Department of State.

So to whoever at the Department of Justice is preparing these talking points for public consumption: Thanks for citing my story. Next time, please try reading it.

More from Wired:

Jan. 28 2015 9:40 AM

The Internet of Things Is Getting a Rule Book

The Internet of Things definitely has data privacy and security issues. With so many devices communicating all the time, it’s more likely that there will be a weak spot somewhere. So on Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission released a report detailing its best-practice recommendations for the Internet of things. But not everyone agrees with the agency’s approach.

The major message from the FTC is that companies should be self-policing their security measures, their transparency with customers, and—perhaps most controversiallytheir data-retention decisions. In a press release, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said, “We believe that by adopting the best practices we’ve laid out, businesses will be better able to provide consumers the protections they want and allow the benefits of the Internet of Things to be fully realized.”

The report, which is based on notes from an FTC IoT workshop that took place in 2013, emphasizes designing products and services with security as a primary focus—instead of considering it only midway through the development process. The agency also discusses the importance of training employees and choosing third-party partners with security in mind. It also emphasizes that companies should jettison customer data that they don't need.

Importantly, the FTC doesn’t call for new IoT legislation from Congress. “There is great potential for innovation in this area,” the report says. “IoT-specific legislation at this stage would be premature.” The agency did reiterate its request that Congress pass stronger security legislation, an issue that President Obama also mentioned in his State of the Union address last week. “The only way for the Internet of Things to reach its full potential for innovation is with the trust of American consumers,” FTC Chairwoman Ramirez said.

Industry advocates seemed relieved that the FTC wasn’t pushing for legislation that might make service development or device manufacturing more difficult. For example, the Software & Information Industry Association said in a statement, “We strongly agree that legislation or a broad regulatory framework to govern the IoT is premature, and could threaten its tremendous societal and economic potential.”

But not everyone agrees with the FTC’s analysis. Chief among them is FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright, who wrote a dissenting statement in response to the report, highlighting multiple aspects he feels are flawed. Wright argues that many of the agency’s recommendations aren”t based on adequate analysis. He says that he supports “reasonable and appropriate security measures” but that attempts to characterize and recommend specific structural approaches are doomed because the IoT is too nascent and there isn’t yet enough evidence about how it will function. He wrote:

An economically sound and evidence-based approach to consumer protection, privacy, and regulation of the Internet of Things would require the Commission to possess and present evidence that its policy recommendations are more likely to foster competition and innovation than to stifle it.

Wright and others also object to the “data minimization” recommendation in the FTC report. This section details the agency’s belief that companies should be limiting the data they keep and actively eliminating data that aren’t useful. In this way, the FTC says, industry can “minimize the individualized data companies have about consumers, and thus any potential consumer harm.” The agency does note that “some participants expressed concern that requiring data minimization could curtail innovative uses of data,” but its overall recommendation is to reduce data collection. Hackers can’t steal what you don’t have, right?

But some were disappointed by this stance. Daniel Castro, the director of the Center for Data Innovation at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, points out that the FTC report contains three pages on the benefits of the Internet of Things alongside nine pages detailing the risks. “I think they just don’t fully understand the benefits,” he said. “The whole point of [IoT] companies is they’re trying to collect data, that's the model of innovation right now. And to just say ‘don't have it’ ignores the reality of the technology today, it’s in every industry.”

The FTC isn’t the only agency thinking about how best to regulate the Internet of Things. Ofcom, the United Kingdom telecommunications regulator, published an outline of its approach to IoT regulation on Tuesday. The agency brought up many similar points as the FTC, but seemed to take data collection and retention as more of a given. It also had more focus on international interoperability. Ofcom wrote:

There is a danger that ... privacy issues could hinder the development and widespread take-up of the IoT if they are not addressed. We are therefore interested in stakeholders’ views on the scale and nature of privacy issues that will emerge.

Since it mainly outlines recommendations and best practices, the FTC report probably won't lead to significant change in itself. “The FTC has decided that they want to be more engaged in tech issues ... They're an agency that’s looking for problems, and they should be,” Castro said. But he added that the report would have been more constructive if it had provided concrete examples of how the FTC could specifically extend its authority to protect IoT consumers. “They didn't do that,” he said.

Jan. 27 2015 3:41 PM

Don’t Drink and Drone

This is why you don't drink and drive, people. An employee at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency told the Secret Service that he was responsible for the unidentified drone discovered on White House grounds early Monday morning. The man told investigators that he was drinking at an apartment near the White House before the 2-pound, 2-foot diameter quadcopter he was operating disappeared.

The New York Times reports that the man decided to go to bed, even though he thought the drone might have flown over the White House. He knew it was somewhere out in the wide world, but after a night of drinking, a body gets sleepy, you know?

The incident is relevant to an ongoing debate about the effectiveness of Secret Service security at the White House. It also provides commentary, though, on the increasingly widespread availability of small retail drones and the corresponding concerns that not enough has been done to regulate their use. Obama told CNN on Tuesday, “These technologies that we're developing have the capacity to empower individuals in ways that we couldn't even imagine 10-15 years ago.” But he added, “We don’t really have any kind of regulatory structure at all for it.” The man makes a good point.

Jan. 27 2015 2:53 PM

The iPad Is 5 Years Old Today. You Still Don’t Need One.

Five years ago today, Steve Jobs introduced the iPad. At a time when the press and the public were wondering whether anyone really needed a third computing device, Jobs was remarkably clear-sighted about what it would take for the tablet to succeed. Here's what he said in that famous keynote:

All of us use laptops and smartphones now. And the question has arisen lately: “Is there room for a third category of device in the middle? Something that’s between a laptop and a smartphone?” … In order to really create a new category of devices, those devices are going to have to be far better at doing some key tasks—better than the laptop, better than the smartphone.

Netbooks, Jobs said, “aren’t better at anything”—“they’re just cheap laptops.” The iPad, he insisted, would do several things better than either a laptop or a smartphone. Here are the specific tasks he cited:

  • Browsing the Web
  • Doing email
  • Enjoying and sharing photographs
  • Watching videos
  • Enjoying your music collection
  • Playing games
  • Reading e-books

Five years on, it might seem that Jobs was right. By most standards, the iPad has been a success, and the tablet has indeed emerged as a third category of computing device. And so today has brought some mea culpas from tech bloggers who had publicly doubted the iPad upon its unveiling. The most thoughtful of these may be Timothy B. Lee’s post on Vox: “Tech pundits like me hated the iPad—and that’s exactly why it worked.” Lee points out that the iPad was never aimed at “power users” who spent all day on computers and demanded powerful productivity features. Rather, it perfectly pitched to “ordinary users” more interested in casually consuming Internet content than creating it.

(For the record, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo was among the few who praised the iPad’s simplicity from the start. “I love the iPad,” he declared as soon as Jobs announced it. “Apple’s new tablet is the computer I’ve always wanted.”)

There’s another way of looking at this, however.

Yes, Jobs was right about what the iPad would need to do in order to succeed. He was right to leave out the productivity features and go big on the simple tactile pleasure of holding the Internet in your hands. But for all its popularity and appeal, the iPad never has quite cleared the bar he set for it, which was to be “far better” at some key tasks than a laptop or a smartphone.

Is an iPad “far better” than a smartphone for reading or doing email on the go? It may have been when it was released. But smartphones have come a long way. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus and their Android equivalents are now convenient enough for most mobile computing tasks that there’s no need to carry around a tablet as well.

Is an iPad “far better” than a laptop for watching a movie or browsing the Web on your couch? Not if you have a MacBook Air, or a Chromebook for that matter. And it’s clunkier than either of those when it comes to things like email that require the use of a keypad.

To slightly twist Jobs’ jab at netbooks, iPads today aren’t “far better” than other categories of devices at anything—they’re mostly just bigger smartphones.

I’m not saying that the iPad was a failure, or that it doesn’t have its uses. I have an iPad Air 2 and my wife has an iPad Mini, and we both use them. I prop mine on the counter to watch SportsCenter while I do the dishes. She uses hers to check email and the weather and read the New York Times while she eats breakfast.

In general, tablets are nice for doing things while you’re also doing other things, which is why they’ve also found important niches in the workplace. They’re also great for entertaining kids who can’t be trusted with something as important as your phone or laptop. But two other companies have actually pushed tablets further in these directions than Apple has. Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 is better optimized for work. And Amazon’s Fire HD Kids’ Edition, with its low price, thick rubber case, and lifetime “no-questions-asked” return policy, is the smarter choice for a children's toy.  

And yet, five years on, the fundamental question that greeted the iPad on its arrival—do people really need a third type of computer?—has not melted away. If anything, the convergence between laptops and smartphones has made it more relevant than ever. That helps explain why iPad sales have plateaued, rather than continuing to ascend to the stratospheric levels of the iPhone. (As I pointed out last year, it’s also partly that iPads don’t need to be replaced as often.)

The iPad remains an impressive machine. But it also remains a luxury item rather than a necessity. Again, by most standards, it is a major success. Just not by the high standards that Jobs himself set for it five years ago.

Update, Jan. 27, 2015: More evidence that the iPad has reached a plateau: Apple reported on Tuesday that it sold 21.4 million tablets last quarter. That's about a 20 percent drop from the same quarter last year. And it came at the same time that Apple was reporting record iPhone sales of 74.5 million.

Previously in Slate:

Jan. 27 2015 11:00 AM

Watch GIF-iti Artist INSA Create the World’s Largest GIF

Yeah, your amateur photoshop creations are trés hilarious, but this is how you GIF. GIF-iti artist INSA, who has become famous for converting his street art to online-viewable GIFs, just raised the bar for his future projects to record heights—literally.

Over the course of six days in Rio de Janeiro, INSA and a team of 20 painted four massive (measuring 14,379 square meters) pieces, each done on top of the previous installment, and captured images of the different works of art from space via satellite. The result? Oh, no big deal, just the world’s largest GIF.

According to Mashable, the project came about when INSA was approached by Ballantine’s about pushing his work “to another level.” The Scotch-makers took a shine to his idea—“I said I want to paint something big enough to be seen from space and to animate it,” he said. “A week later they said ‘we’d like to help you do that’ ”—and the rest is history.

Watch the video above for an inside look at how the whole thing came together, and see below for the finished product. Pretty impressive.


Image via Ballantine's

Jan. 27 2015 9:58 AM

How Technology Is Changing the Family Tree: A Future Tense Event Recap

When A.J. Jacobs, the best-selling author and Esquire editor at large, started researching his family tree, he realized that he had begun to sense a connection with relations in even the most distant branches. For instance, he now felt irrationally warm toward Judge Judy, his seventh cousin three times removed—once an unpleasant TV personality, now part of the family.

America’s obsession with genealogy, given a jump-start by Silicon Valley startups and new online platforms, has the potential to rework how we feel about inheritance, race, and family itself. But like all America’s digital progress, it brings with it serious concerns about privacy and accuracy. At a Future Tense event in New York City last week, Jacobs, along with the author Maud Newton; Chris Whitten, the CEO of the collaborative family history site WikiTree; and genealogist Wilhelmina Rhodes Kelly discussed their experiences exploring their family histories, and their concerns about where the technology could take us.