The Citizen's Guide to the Future

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?

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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.

Dec. 11 2014 10:38 AM

We Might Be Able to 3-D-Print an Artificial Mind One Day

I’m an artificial-intelligence skeptic. My problem isn’t with the software, but the hardware. Current computer technologies may give us faster, lighter laptops, but AI needs more than the PC equivalent of go-faster stripes —it needs a revolution in how we build processors. Such a revolution may be just around the corner though. As I discuss in a new article in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, the convergence of technologies such as 3D printing, advanced processor architectures, and nanotechnology are opening up radical new possibilities in how we might construct brain-inspired computers in the future.

If what we think of as the human mind is the product of a biological machine (albeit a complex one), there is little to suggest that we won’t one day have the ability to emulate it. This is what’s driving artificial intelligence research and the emergence of computers like IBM’s Watson that are getting close to thinking like a person. Yet powerful as Watson is, current manufacturing techniques will never enable such technologies to become ubiquitous.

Dec. 10 2014 7:02 PM

The FAA Won't Release Drone Regulations Until 2017, Which Is Absurd and a Problem

It feels like just yesterday that I was writing about Amazon's impatience with the Federal Aviation Administration's drone regulatory process. Oh right, that's becuase it was yesterday. Today there's bad news for Amazon and all the other companies and individuals that are waiting for the agency's drone regulations: They're not coming until 2017—at the earliest.

Originally targeted for September 2015, the Government Accountability Office now says that it will realistically take about two more years to finalize the FAA's plan for drones. According to the Washington Post, the GAO's director of civil aviation Gerald Dillingham said, "The consensus of opinion is the integration of unmanned systems will likely slip from the mandated deadline until 2017 or even later." Even later??

FAA safety official Peggy Gilligan said at a congressional House panel Wednesday that there is a regulation proposal under executive review, but it will need a public comment period and months of revisions before it's ready for prime time. Rep. Tom Massie, R-Ky., noted that the effort is moving forward on a "geological time scale."

Drones pose significant safety risks, and it's reassuring that the FAA is taking its regulatory job seriously, but this is ridiculous. While the agency tries to figure out what to do, everyone else is finding ways to move ahead with drone use on an individual or industry scale. If the FAA waits too long to implement regulations it will at best stifle innovation and at worst struggle to maintain authority. I am in awe of how impressively bad this situation is.  

Dec. 10 2014 6:50 PM

European #Weatherbomb Forces Waterfall Uphill  

You don’t see this every day. On Wednesday towering waves and powerful winds from a roaring storm in the North Atlantic briefly fought gravity and won.

The storm has brought hurricane-force winds to parts of mainland Ireland and Scotland, and gusts as high as 144 mph to offshore islands. Power outages affected thousands of homes as trees toppled and lightning crackled on Wednesday, but no major damage was reported.

Instead, the storm lived mostly through astounding photographs that seemingly defied the laws of physics. In Scotland, intense winds reportedly forced a waterfall uphill:

On Wednesday, a buoy 50 miles off the west coast of Ireland recorded that country’s largest series of waves on record—51.5 feet, with an individual wave measured at more than 70 feet tall. In an official graphic, the Irish Meteorological Service quaintly showed that that’s five times the height of a double-decker bus. An analysis showed these waves were the biggest waves anywhere on the planet on Wednesday.

The waves and wind are coming thanks to a particularly strong extratropical cyclone that’s garnered its own hashtag: #weatherbomb, so named because it’s undergone extreme rapid deepening known as “bombogenesis.” Believe it or not, that’s the technical term for a drop of its central pressure of more than 24 millibars in 24 hours.

This storm developed when a weak low-pressure center off the U.S. East Coast and a stronger Arctic low-pressure center merged near the southern tip of Greenland earlier this week. By Wednesday, the center of the storm was between Greenland and Iceland, with a minimum pressure roughly equivalent to Hurricane Sandy at the moment of its New Jersey landfall in 2012. Storms like this are relatively common this time of year in the north Atlantic, but the waves from this one were particularly high thanks to persistent winds aimed squarely at the Irish and Scottish shores.

Here’s how the storm looked on satellite from Tuesday night into early Wednesday:

One wave in Ireland sent spray nearly 500 feet into the air:

Closer in, the waves were breathtaking:

The waves drove feet of foam onto beaches, resembling snow:

The wild weather may not be over soon. Another strong storm will pass over Northern Europe on Thursday and Friday.

Dec. 10 2014 5:12 PM

How to Get Rid of All Your Terrible Passwords at Once

2014 has been a banner year for hacks: Sony Pictures, Home Depot, the Post Office. Nothing is safe. So you tried password managers and tricks for creating/remembering strong passwords. Great! But then you immediately abandoned both efforts and went back to password1 because anything else is too annoying and complicated to deal with.

Technologists are trying to solve this problem, though. The current system makes it difficult for everyone—including governments, companies, and consumers—to protect themselves, and that’s just bad. Alternatives like biometrics haven’t seemed so solid in the past, but two new approaches are working to address the problem.

One is the idea of making it extremely easy to change any or all of your passwords whenever you want. Instead of having to go through a multistep process for each account, password managers like Dashlane and LastPass implemented automatic systems on Tuesday that sync across your devices and with the services your accounts belong to. The idea is that by using automatic password change features you can regularly revise the passwords for your accounts on Gmail, Amazon, Facebook, and everywhere else.

LastPass’s automatic password changer currently supports more than 75 types of accounts. Its password changes are also all stored locally instead of in the cloud, so companies don’t have access to your actual passwords. Dashlane’s password changer works with more than 50 sites right now and will be supported on mobile in addition to desktop versions soon.

Dashlane’s CEO, Emmanuel Schalit told the Next Web, “We have created an identity layer which turns the password into a purely technical device that exists in the background but which humans don’t interact with it.”

But if you just don’t want to work with password managers at all, there’s another security strategy in the works that’s totally password-free. The FIDO (Fast IDentity Online) Alliance is a trade nonprofit that includes members like Google, Samsung, Alibaba, and PayPal, and is essentially working to implement password-free two-factor authentication.

The idea is to use something physical, like a special flashdrive or biometrics, as part of two-factor authentication. On Tuesday the Alliance announced FIDO 1.0, a standard for implementing this type of authentication in a uniform way. We’re a long way from universal implementation, but now that there’s a free standard it seems more likely that a world without passwords could evolve.

If the year’s hacks have taught us anything, it’s that we need to be protecting our cyber-selves now. But if you’re still struggling to find the motivation, better options that are more secure (and will enable maximum laziness) seem to be on their way.

Dec. 10 2014 4:56 PM

Netizen Report: Draft Security Law in Kenya Could Bring Surveillance, Stiff Penalties

The Netizen Report originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Ellery Roberts Biddle, Lisa Ferguson, Alex Laverty, Mohamed ElGohary, Ephraim Percy Kenyanito, Weiping Li, Bojan Perkov, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

Global Voices Advocacy’s Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. This week’s report begins in Kenya, where a new proposed national security law would leverage stiff criminal penalties for media workers who publish information that authorities deem undermining to “investigations or security operations relating to terrorism” and for Internet users who “post updates that praise, advocate or incite acts of terrorism.” Local experts say that broadly speaking, the policy shift would further limit the degree to which law enforcement and military agencies can be held accountable before the public.

The bill would also allow national security agencies to “intercept communication for the purpose of detecting, deterring and disrupting terrorism and related activities,” but it does not specify what procedures would be used in order to authorize and ensure accountability for interception procedures. This comes after a June 2014 announcement that the government had contracted with Safaricom, the country’s largest mobile phone service provider, to implement a new telecommunication and street-level surveillance system nationwide.

The bill is being fast-tracked due to time constraints and will undergo just one day’s worth of deliberation, rather than the standard 14 days.

GitHub takes hit in Russia
Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor blocked the developer website GitHub after it discovered the site hosted content related to suicide. The agency also blocked GitHub briefly in October of this year. In response, GitHub instituted localized blocks on the relevant content in Russia so that its other services would remain accessible there. It also established a page where takedown notices such as the one it received from Roskomnadzor may be posted publicly for users to see.

Vodaphone blocks historic hacker association site in Britain
British mobile operator Vodafone is blocking the website of Chaos Computer Club, a global hacker association. CCC representatives believe their site has fallen victim to the new ISP-level filtering mechanisms in the United Kingdom, created by government mandate in 2013. CCC spokesman Dirk Engling said the block was “proof that censorship infrastructure—no matter for which reasons it was set up, and no matter which country you are in—will always be abused for political reasons.”

Vietnamese bloggers arrested over “bad content”
Vietnamese police detained bloggers Hong Le Tho and Nguyen Quang Lap for “posting online articles with bad content and false information” that allegedly “discredits” the state, according to the Ministry of Public Security. Both bloggers were known for writing critically about government activities.

Iran’s new smart filters could bring more precise censorship (and better surveillance)
Iranian Minister of Communications and Information Technology Mahmoud Vaezi recently alluded to plans to institute a smart filtering system. According to Vaezi, “the system will determine which parts of a website are criminal. So just those parts will be blocked and the rest will be accessible.” The system also will reportedly allow authorities to more precisely track the IP addresses of users as they browse the Internet.

NSA’s data-slurping PRISM program is okay by us, says U.K. tribunal
The Investigative Powers Tribunal, a court overseeing British intelligence agencies, ruled that mass electronic communications surveillance programs such as PRISM are legal. The ruling comes after a complaint from privacy and human rights advocates, who plan to appeal the decision before the European Court of Human Rights. “Today’s decision by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal that this is business as usual is a worrying sign for us all,” said Eric King, a deputy director at Privacy International.

Ethiopian bloggers face limits of international law
The case of the Zone9 bloggers, who were arrested in Ethiopia in April, were held for months without a formal charge, and were denied the ability to communicate with the outside world, illustrates the limits of the international legal system, writes Global Voices’ Ivan Sigal. “The implementation of international commitments seems to rest primarily upon a negotiated process of politics, not a functioning and enforceable system of law,” he writes. “Considering the ease with which national law is employed or ignored for political ends, it is a grim irony that only political pressure can hope to resolve the case in their favor.”

Uncool Things
On Dec. 4, China’s Constitution Day, the country’s most censored word on Weibo was—you guessed it—“constitution.”

New Research

Dec. 10 2014 2:20 PM

No, Instagram Is Not Bigger Than Twitter

Facebook isn’t cool. You know what’s cool?


The photo-sharing network, acquired by Facebook for $1 billion in 2012, announced Wednesday that 300 million people now use the site each month. That’s up from 200 million just nine months ago—an astonishing growth rate for such a large service.

It’s still much smaller than Facebook, but it’s reaching a younger audience, including teens who view Facebook as their parents’ social network. To them, Instagram feels more private and personal, and the “creepiness” associated with the Facebook brand does not appear to have tainted that impression so far. Or, as Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom tactfully phrased it in an interview with the Wall Street Journal: “Instagram can help continue to engage generations of people that may not be on Facebook yet.”

We’ll see whether Instagram can retain its cachet as it ramps up its advertising business, which is still in its formative stages. “We have to be a profit center to really be valuable to Facebook,” Systrom acknowledged. Still, at this point, Mark Zuckerberg’s strategy of running Instagram like a separate business is looking pretty canny.

Instagram’s rapid growth is a story in its own right, but the tech press instantly latched onto a juicier angle: “Instagram Is Now Bigger Than Twitter” was the headline everywhere from CNBC to Re/Code to the New York Times.

“Comparisons are odious,” someone smarter than me once said. Certainly they can be misleading.  

Instagram is indeed larger than Twitter if you look solely at monthly active users, of whom Twitter has 284 million at last count. MAUs, as they’re called, are one useful metric of a social network’s size. But they aren’t the only one. Others might include the amount of time users spend on the network, the amount of content they post, and the number of people who see that content. Look at those, and it quickly becomes impossible to say whether Instagram or Twitter is larger.

Dick Costolo
Twitter CEO Dick Costolo wants analysts to judge Twitter on its reach, not just its user base.

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Twitter, more than most social media platforms, has suffered from the tech industry’s fixation on monthly active users, as I’ve explained in the past. Investors sell off its stock each time it reports disappointing growth on that count. The problem for Twitter is clear: Newcomers find it intimidating and hard to get into, and it doesn’t lend itself to casual, occasional use.

The flipside of that problem is that Twitter’s heavy users are absolutely obsessed with it, and they include a huge number of very influential figures in sports, entertainment, politics, and the media. Their tweets often make news far beyond the confines of the Twitter app or, far more so than Facebook or Instagram posts, let alone private conversations on Whatsapp or Snapchat. The result is that a given tweet may reach orders of magnitude more people than an Instagram post, including millions who never sign into Twitter. MAUs don’t reflect that.

In the media industry, that would be reflected in a metric like impressions or monthly unique visitors (MUVs). Social networks don’t typically report those. But Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has begun to nudge the company’s analysts in that direction. He revealed last month that 500 million people visit Twitter each month without logging in, and that tweets receive some 185 billion impressions each quarter. I don’t have comparable numbers for Instagram, but I’m confident Twitter would blow them away on both scores. Meanwhile, Twitter generates about 500 million tweets a day, while Instagram sees about 70 million photos and videos.

So is Instagram larger than Twitter? No—it’s different than Twitter. One is largely private, the other largely public. One focuses on photos, the other on ideas. They’re both very large, and they’re both growing.

Right now, Instagram is adding users much faster. That’s important, but it’s also worth noting that it’s largely a product of Instagram’s first aggressive attempt to expand internationally. The WSJ says 210 million of its 300 million users are now outside the U.S., compared to 120 million in March, implying that the lion’s share of its recent growth has come outside its home market. Twitter has been internationalizing for much longer, leaving it less low-hanging fruit.

In short, Instagram’s growth is impressive, but it’s no cause for further hand-wringing about Twitter. After all, we know which of the two platforms that hand-wringing would take place on, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.

Previously in Slate: