The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Dec. 12 2014 7:04 PM

Bill Nye Can Explain Evolution In Under Two Minutes. With Emojis.

On Friday evening all anyone really wants to do is hang out with Bill Nye. And this video is the perfect way to get a quick fix of learning and fun. And emojis!

In this two-minute Mashable video, Nye explains how everything on Earth evolved from tiny molecules into poison ivy, barnacles, and your old boss. As he moves through 4.54 billion years of history, he uses emojis to animate the explanation, which is a relief, because that's a lot of time to cover in two minutes.

Between the huge number of Americans who believe in creationism (though maybe only tenuously) and snazzy creationist museums, Nye tries everything he can to make evolution extra catchy. He says, "We used emojis to tell the story of science. Emojically. Scientific ... emojonized. We emojonized it!"

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Dec. 12 2014 4:44 PM

Google Is Moving Its Engineers Out of Russia  

Between the Russian government's pressure on bloggers and its general track record of sporadically censoring digital media, it's not so surprising that Google has decided to remove the engineers from its Russian office.  

Google won't say why it's relocating the engineers, but a new Russian law, which takes effect in 2015, will require that Russian user data be stored on servers located within the country. The government says this legislation stems from a desire to improve data security, but critics say that it is an effort to have more oversight of citizens' personal information. Under the new law, tech firms that hold user data will also have to comply with specific regulations.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, marketing and business employees at Google's Russia office will stay in place. “We are deeply committed to our Russian users and customers and we have a dedicated team in Russia working to support them,” a Google spokesman told the Journal.

On Thursday, Google announced that it would stop offering Google News in Spain because a new Spanish law will require the company to pay news outlets to even preview their articles. And politicians from Germany and Spain in European Parliament have been trying to break up Google's divisions because it fears that the company, especially its ability to influence how search results are presented, is too powerful. Google has also been dealing with "Right to Be Forgotten" legislation in Europe for months.

Russia is a big market for Google, but veiled censorship legislation creates tricky situations to navigate. Recently, the company has shown that it wants to make inroads in China, and these experiences in Russia could inform its strategy there.

Dec. 12 2014 1:47 PM

ISIS’s Leading Twitter Propagandist Was an Executive in Bangalore

Britain’s Channel 4 News reported Thursday that the author of  @ShamiWitness, one of the most influential and widely followed pro-ISIS Twitter accounts, is actually not a fighter on the front lines but an executive at an Indian conglomerate in India’s technology capital. The account has since been shut down.

He turns out to have been fairly easy to doxx. Shami Witness used to tweet under a different handle, which he had also used to register a Google Plus account. From there, it was a quick step to the Facebook page of a man named Mehdi on which, according to Channel 4, “he regularly shares jokes, funny images and talks about superhero movies, posting pictures of pizza dinners with friends, and Hawaiian parties at work.” The report didn’t use Mehdi’s full name as he believes his life may be in danger, but it’s been reported on Twitter and in the Indian media.

Shami Witness had more than 17,700 followers, including an estimated two-thirds of the foreign fighters on Twitter. As Adam Taylor of the Washington Post notes, he had been sharing information about the war in Syria for years but only began actively defending ISIS at the beginning of this year. 

But he did interact frequently with British ISIS fighters and praised them after their deaths. "you bros talked the talk, walked the walk," he wrote about Iftikhar Jaman, a British ISIS fighter killed in Syria last December. When asked why he didn’t travel to Syria himself, Mehdi told Channel 4 “If I had a chance to leave everything and join them I might have.. my family needs me here.” In his own case, he was evidently satisfied with just talking the talk.

He also shared the video showing the beheading U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig multiple times.

ISIS has been renowned for its social media prowess, but Mehdi’s case suggests that much of the group’s propaganda and recruitment campaign may rely not on fighters themselves, but on self-starting keyboard jihadis, far from the battlefield. After Shami Witness’s identity was revealed, a number of other pro-ISIS Twitter accounts went dark.

This should also be a cautionary tale for outsiders following the war. The near impossibility of reporting within Syria has forced many journalists and analysts to rely on accounts like Shami Witness for information. These accounts, often anonymous, may not always have the firsthand perspective they claim.

It’s also simply a fascinating digital-age story of a man with dual identities. While the mild-mannered executive Mehdi condemned rape on his Facebook page, for instance, his alter-ego on Twitter joked about ISIS captors raping female Kurdish fighters.

The reaction among Shami Witness’ longtime Twitter antagonists has been positively gleeful. “So basically the Islamic State was outsourcing to Bangalore. Wait till the Daily Mail hears about this,” tweets the Lebanese architect and satirist Karl Sharro.     

As for Mehdi himself, he says he will not resist arrest but fears that police will kill him. “I haven’t done anything wrong. I haven’t harmed anybody,” he told Channel 4 in a follow-up Friday.

While doxxing and social media manhunts generally make me uncomfortable, it’s pretty hard to feel sympathy for someone who cheered the killing of innocent people and urged others to their deaths while hiding behind anonymity for his own safety. 

Dec. 12 2014 1:41 PM

This Is What It Looks Like When the Grand Canyon Is Filled With Fog

On Thursday, a thick fog filled Arizona’s Grand Canyon—a rare weather phenomenon called a “total cloud inversion.” The fog’s exceptional fluffiness turned the canyon into a mystical sea of clouds, complete with “tides,” as a timelapse from the National Parks Service shows.

Cool, wet weather several days ago helped give rise to the foggy extravaganza. Over the last few days, all the extra moisture condensed into fog and was held in place by a high-pressure system that quickly followed. On Thursday morning, a slight eastward shift of the winds funneled all that fog down the Colorado River and into the canyon, meteorologist Cory Mottice told me. The clouds were trapped there most of the day by relatively heavier, drier air that moved in overhead, completing the “inversion”—a stable atmospheric condition where temperature actually rises with height.

The moment was so perfect that Mottice, who works for the National Weather Service in Flagstaff, decided to make his first-ever trip to the canyon to see the fog after his overnight shift ended on Thursday morning. I reached him by phone on Friday.

“We started noticing it when I got into work around 3:30 in the morning or so. From there I decided, it’s fairly rare, it doesn’t happen too often, so it was a one-chance thing for me to get up there and see it.”

Mottice said he spoke to several tourists, many of whom were disappointed that they couldn’t see a more typical view. “I explained to them how lucky they were to see it that way, and they were a little bit happier after that.” The last time this happened was December 2013.

While Mottice was driving along the south edge of the canyon, small eddies in the wind occasionally pushed waves of fog over the rim, resulting in brief periods of zero visibility for only seconds at a time. He descended down into the fog for a closer look:

Dec. 12 2014 10:58 AM

London Airspace Closed After Power Outage Leads to Computer Failure

EuroControl tweeted Friday that thanks to a computer failure, airspace over London has been shut down. Intense delays are expected as a result.

A note on the agency's website explained, "ALL LONDON Airspace closed due to computer failure." The announcement says that the "Flight Data Computer Server" at the London Air Control Centre in southern England failed, and that engineers are working to fix it. Air News Agency cites a power outage as the cause of the failure. It tweeted that no outbound flights are taking off, though some inbound flights are still arriving, according to a source.

EuroControl said that it expects normal traffic to resume at 19:00 UTC or 2 p.m. Eastern. We'll update as we hear more.

Dec. 11 2014 5:08 PM

A Cyber Attack May Have Caused a Turkish Oil Pipeline to Catch Fire in 2008

In his book @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex, journalist Shane Harris describes how some of America’s top hackers came up with Stuxnet, a cyber-weapon that was to be the “first-of-its-kind.” (Harris is a fellow at New America, where I work; Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State.) Stuxnet was discovered in 2010 after it had degraded an estimated 1,000 centrifuges in Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant. It was widely considered the first such digital weapon. But a new report from Bloomberg, published Wednesday, suggests that at least one cyber attack beat Stuxnet to the technological punch.

In 2008, two years before Stuxnet was noticed, a Turkish oil pipeline mysteriously caught fire without triggering any sensors or alarms. Although Kurdish separatists claimed the attack, according to Bloomberg, a number of U.S. intelligence officials credit Russia, which was opposed to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

“The timing really is the significance,” said Chris Blask, chairman of the Industrial Control System Information Sharing and Analysis Center, which works with utilities and pipeline companies. “Stuxnet was discovered in 2010 and this was obviously deployed before that. This is another point on the timeline” in the young history of cyberwar.

Investigators found that the hackers used the security camera system’s vulnerable software to gain entrance to the pipeline’s control network and get to work. Bloomberg writes:

The central element of the attack was gaining access to the operational controls to increase the pressure without setting off alarms. Because of the line’s design, the hackers could manipulate the pressure by cracking into small industrial computers at a few valve stations without having to hack the main control room.
The presence of the attackers at the site could mean the sabotage was a blended attack, using a combination of physical and digital techniques. The super-high pressure may have been enough on its own to create the explosion, according to two of the people familiar with the incident. No evidence of a physical bomb was found.

Beyond damaging the pipeline, the attack cost BP, the State Oil Fund of the Republic of Azerbaijan, and others millions of dollars, and also caused thousands of barrels of oil to spill close to a water aquifer.

Security experts are increasingly convinced that America needs to prepare for an inevitable cyber-attack on its own energy, transport, or financial infrastructure (though as my New America colleagues Emily Schneider and Scott Janz recently wrote in Slate, there’s debate over what counts as “super-critical infrastructure”). NSA Director Admiral Michael Rogers has called America’s energy sector our “Achilles heel,” and in 2012, former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta warned of a pending “cyber-Pearl Harbor.” The incident in Turkey is particularly worrisome, because, as Bloomberg notes, there are thousands of pipelines throughout the United States: “182,000 miles of pipelines that carry oil, chemicals and other hazardous liquids, 325,000 miles of pipelines that transmit natural gas in bulk between states, and 2.2 million miles of pipelines that distribute natural gas to homes and businesses.”

Any cyber-attack against American infrastructure able to be credited to a foreign country could well be considered an act of war. The real perpetrators of the 2008 pipeline explosion remain a mystery, but the incident demonstrates that the rules of play in this new era of cyber warfare are far from settled.

Dec. 11 2014 4:50 PM

Iowa Will Let You Use a Mobile App As Your Driver's License

There are a lot of mobile wallets out there. Apple Pay, Coin, Google Wallet, and others are all trying to turn your bulky physical billfold into a sleek digital system. All you need is a smartphone. And now there's a way to take your digital wallet a step further, but it's not coming from Silicon Valley. It's straight from the Iowa Department of Transportation.

Beginning sometime in 2015, the state will offer a free app that will display an official driver's license. According to the Des Moines Register, during a budget hearing on Monday, Iowa DOT Director Paul Trombino told Gov. Terry Branstad, "We are really moving forward on this, ... It is basically your license on your phone." He added, "The way things are going, we may be the first in the nation."

The app will require a PIN before it displays the driver's license, and the Iowa DOT claims that the app will be very secure, "an identity vault app." Physical licenses will still be available, but the digital version will be accepted for traffic stops, at Iowa airports, and in other situations where people need to show their ID in the state. More than 30 states, including Iowa, currently allow drivers to show electronic proof of insurance during traffic stops.

The approach has potential to cut down on fake IDs and help people keep their personal data secure, but it could also make it easier to fabricate a license depending on the security measures in the app and how wily criminals want to get.

The Register reports that the Iowa DOT is testing a number of digital strategies, including dashboard snowplow cameras and driver's license kiosks. Who would have thought that a DMV could be a hotbed for innovation?

Dec. 11 2014 1:19 PM

Report: Sony Pictures Is Using Its Own Cyber-Attacks to Keep Leaked Files From Spreading

Sony Pictures has been dealing with a terrible hack since late November, but the company is taking a stand and counterhacking to keep its leaked files, which include five unreleased movies, from spreading across torrent sites.

Two sources told Recode that Sony is using hundreds of computers in Asia to perform distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attacks on sites that are hosting exposed files from the original hack. But apparently this isn’t happening in a sketchy warehouse somewhere—sources say that Sony is working with Amazon Web Services (Amazon’s cloud service) to launch the counterattacks. 

The hackers who infiltrated Sony Pictures, known as “Guardians of the Peace,” have released five troves of Sony data over the past few weeks. The company’s countermeasure involves overwhelming torrenters with network requests if they attempt to download files from the leak.

Sony used to use a similar approach in the early 2000s, when illegal file sharing exploded. Sony would plant fake torrent “seeds” on popular sites, and when someone tried to use them, the download would take hours, be extremely processor-intensive, and yield ... nothing. Sony developed the strategy with anti-piracy firm MediaDefender, and the idea was to make the experience painful enough for torrenters that they would want to avoid it in the future by purchasing legitimate media.

Using counterattacks to contain leaks and deal with malicious hackers has been gaining legitimacy. Some cybersecurity experts even feel that the Second Amendment can be interpreted as applying to “cyber arms.” But this approach could also escalate cyber-battles in unintended ways. It’s understandable that Sony Pictures wants to take countermeasures, but it also probably shouldn’t have kept its passwords in a folder named “Password.”

Dec. 11 2014 1:12 PM

The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly on Google

Google News, responsible for aggregating news media and making it searchable for users, will soon become unavailable in Spain. The reason why is maddening: Starting Jan. 1, recently enacted Spanish legislation will require the search giant to pay the publications it links to. For previewing their articles. In addition to the article title, Google News offers a small content snippet, beckoning users to click on the link visit the news site. For that, the Spanish government believes, they should pay the publisher. You can furrow your brow and scratch your head now.

The foolishness of the legislation is painfully obvious. A newsstand in the town square will do little business without pedestrian traffic, even with a beautiful display of different publications. But imagine a system in which each newsstand vendor must pay surcharges to each publisher for displaying parts of their front pages. With Google News, this vendor is nothing but an algorithm. Inasmuch as published content generates revenue, Google News only serves to drive traffic directly to the publishers’ websites. So what’s the deal?

Spain (and the European Union as a whole) have long been at odds with Google. Earlier this year, the European Court of Justice struck a blow against the search giant in Google Spain v AEPD, establishing an EU-wide “right to be forgotten.” The ruling came after Mario Costeja González—a Spanish citizen embarrassed by a 1998 newspaper story detailing his social security debt—lodged a complaint because the story  showed up in search results for his name. The ruling has since been criticized as dangerous to free speech, hindering user access to information and leading to possible censorship. In September, the European Commission threatened Google with a $6 billion anti-trust fine. In November, European Parliament held a symbolic vote to break up the company.

Richard Gingras, who heads Google News, expressed regret in a blog post today regarding the new legislation, often referred to as the “Google tax.” “Publishers can choose whether or not they want their articles to appear in Google News—and the vast majority choose to be included for very good reason. Google News creates real value for these publications by driving people to their websites, which in turn helps generate advertising revenues,” he explained. Gingras says that publications will be required to charge Google for news previews, whether they want to or not.

Google News will leave Spain on Dec. 16. All Spanish-based publications will be removed from other Google News sites. Similar legislation in Germany caused a dramatic decline in Web traffic to involved publishers’ sites. But at least German publishers can choose whether or not to charge Google for featuring news snippets. At least one publisher that opted for payments quickly did an about face when traffic tanked. In Spain, knee-jerk anti-Google sentiment seems to be giving way to thoughtless legislation. So adios, Google News.  In this case, no news is not good news.

Disclosure: Google Chairman Eric Schmidt is the president of New America's board of directors.   

Dec. 11 2014 12:00 PM

NASA’s Chief Scientist: The Future of Space Exploration Is International Partnerships

This piece originally appeared in New America’s Weekly Wonk.

Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientist, saw her first rocket launch at age 4, thanks to her father’s job at NASA as an engineer. But at a Future Tense film screening of The Dish in Washington, D.C., last week, Stofan said that for many people she meets, what first sparked a space obsession was the Apollo program—President John F. Kennedy’s audacious commitment in 1961 to putting Americans on the moon before the end of the decade.