Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Feb. 23 2015 5:24 PM

Edward Snowden Has Just One Regret

A day after Citizenfour won the Oscar for best documentary feature, its subject, Edward Snowden, appeared on Reddit for an “Ask Me Anything” question-and-answer session.

One of the first things users asked the fugitive whistleblower was what he thought of Oscars host Neil Patrick Harris’s pun about him Sunday night. (“Edward Snowden couldn’t be here, for some treason,” NPH had quipped.) Many of Snowden’s allies, including Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, slammed the one-liner as insulting and irresponsible. But Snowden himself took it in stride:

To be honest, I laughed at NPH. I don’t think it was meant as a political statement, but even if it was, that’s not so bad. My perspective is if you’re not willing to be called a few names to help out your country, you don’t care enough.

For what it’s worth, Greenwald—who joined Snowden and Citizenfour director Laura Poitras on the Reddit AMA—insisted on Reddit that he had laughed it off too, despite earlier calling it “stupid and irresponsible” to a BuzzFeed reporter.

Another top question for Snowden on Monday was potentially a little more substantive. Reddit user TheJackal8 asked him: “Mr. Snowden, if you had a chance to do things over again, would you do anything differently? If so, what?”

Snowden’s response displayed the sort of nimble job-interview skills that one imagines helped him land that fateful Booz Allen gig in the first place. Regrets? Sure, Snowden has one:

I would have come forward sooner. I talked to Daniel Ellsberg about this at length, who has explained why more eloquently than I can.
Had I come forward a little sooner, these programs would have been a little less entrenched, and those abusing them would have felt a little less familiar with and accustomed to the exercise of those powers. … Once you grant the government some new power or authority, it becomes exponentially more difficult to roll it back.
Don’t let it happen in your country.

With that, Snowden implicitly brushed aside any notion that his time as a fugitive in Russia might have caused him to rethink the intelligence leaks that made him the target of an international manhunt. He has repeatedly said that his life in Russia is “great,” though he faces charges of theft and espionage back in the United States.

So, strong answer. And if you asked Snowden to name his biggest weakness, perhaps he’d tell you that he’s “principled to a fault.” (In his case, that might even be accurate.)

Redditors cheered Snowden’s resolve. That said, on a practical level, it’s unclear how much earlier he could have realistically come forward. After all, he had only worked at Booz Allen for a few months before he began leaking documents to Greenwald, Poitras, and the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, among others.

On the other hand, many of the documents he turned over to the media actually came from his time at Dell, where he worked on the computer firm’s CIA and NSA accounts from 2011 to 2013. Had he blown the whistle then, it’s conceivable the programs he revealed would have been slightly less far along. Whether they would have been any easier to dismantle is another question. I tried asking Snowden myself, but my question didn’t get enough upvotes from other Redditors to merit a response.

One other Snowden response worth noting: Asked how to make NSA spying an issue in the 2016 presidential election, he suggested actively fighting back against government overreach—and, if necessary, breaking the law. His answer, in part:

When we look back on history, the progress of Western civilization and human rights is actually founded on the violation of law. America was of course born out of a violent revolution that was an outrageous treason against the crown and established order of the day. History shows that the righting of historical wrongs is often born from acts of unrepentant criminality. Slavery. The protection of persecuted Jews. …

So how does that relate to our current political situation? Snowden went on:

We can devise means, through the application and sophistication of science, to remind governments that if they will not be responsible stewards of our rights, we the people will implement systems that provide for a means of not just enforcing our rights, but removing from governments the ability to interfere with those rights.
You can see the beginnings of this dynamic today in the statements of government officials complaining about the adoption of encryption by major technology providers. The idea here isn’t to fling ourselves into anarchy and do away with government, but to remind the government that there must always be a balance of power between the governing and the governed …

Call Snowden what you will, but he’s right about this much: The U.S. government today views its citizens’ privacy as a lower priority than its own spying capabilities. You can see this not only in the NSA’s surveillance programs, but in the words of President Obama, who supports strong encryption only if it’s weak enough for the government to get around it.

“Our rights are not granted by governments,” Snowden said. “They are inherent to our nature. But it’s entirely the opposite for governments: their privileges are precisely equal to only those which we suffer them to enjoy.”

Thomas Hobbes might differ with Snowden on the sort of rights that humans would enjoy in a state of nature. But John Locke, and many others, would agree with him that “there must always be a balance of power between the governing and the governed.” Snowden is convinced that balance is out of whack, and he has no regrets about allegedly breaking the law in order to realign it. Good for him.

Oh, and perhaps now we can all stop whining about that Neil Patrick Harris joke. It was one of the few funny things he said all night.

Previously in Slate:

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Feb. 23 2015 3:35 PM

How to Get a Degree Without Ever Paying for Textbooks

Over the past few years, the perennial concern over increasing college textbook costs has dovetailed with a larger, more forceful conversation about the rising cost of college. While these conversations are in many ways complementary, the national spotlight has shined brightest on the rising cost of college tuition—and has often left concerns over soaring textbook prices in the shadows.

The good news is that several colleges around the country have begun experimenting with not simply controlling or decreasing textbook costs for students, but eliminating the cost altogether. And the positive gains so far—for both students and faculty—have been more than just financial.

Feb. 23 2015 1:13 PM

Who’s Buying Drugs, Sex, and Booze on Venmo? This Site Will Tell You.

If Silk Road was a little too intense for you, there's another digital service where it's quick and easy to do your drug transactions. And all of your friends are there! This is gonna be great. A site called Vicemo reveals a hilariously seedy underbelly by offering a livestream of Venmo transactions that involve "drugs, booze, and sex."

Venmo is a popular hybrid of a mobile payment app and a social network. You use it to pay your friends when they buy the pizza, and get paid by them when you put six concert tickets on your credit card. And these transactions are public (so everyone will know how popular you are and how ultra fun your life is), unless you specifically set a transaction to friends-only or private.

Vicemo uses search terms related to drug culture, drinking, and sex to pull out relevant Venmo transactions. From there the stream basically runs itself. There are some accidental inclusions, like a mother paying for her baby's cough syrup, or someone talking about "coke" meaning Coca-Cola, but by and large it's all hookers and crack.

Most of the transactions are probably jokes, and don't actually involve the substances or sex acts they talk about. It’s a lot funnier to pay someone for, "Oral pleasure.....through breakfast foods" or "the crack salad" instead of just "lunch." But some among them must be real, especially as pot legalization ramps up. It also seems more legit when someone is using a pill or mushroom emoji and no words.

Vicemo was created by two developers, Mike Lacher and Chris Baker. Lacher says, "Venmo's pretty unique since there's a social component to the payments, with people posting publicly about what they're paying for. We thought it would be funny to see who's publicly posting about buying drugs, booze, and sex."

If you want to see what the kids are up to these days, there's some hilariously graphic stuff on Vicemo. Or you might get a rude awakening about how visible your recreational drug use is.

Feb. 23 2015 12:54 AM

ABC’s Live Stream of the Oscars Was Even Worse Than the Oscars

Sunday’s Oscar ceremony featured two historic moments. One was Poland’s first Oscar: Ida, the black-and-white movie about a nun traveling through ’60s Europe, won for Best Foreign Language Film. The second came when Pawel Pawlikowski, the movie’s dapper director, took the stage to accept the award.

Pawlikowski launched into a seemingly never-ending stream of thank-yous, prompting the inevitable swell of play-off music. The director sped up his speech but kept on going, and then … the music stopped. That’s right: Pawel Pawlikowski, hero of our times, went up against the music that dispensed hundreds of directors, actors, and producers before him, and won. The audience erupted in cheers, and several later awardees, inspired by his example, fought the music as well.

Welcome to 2015, when everyone’s afraid of superintelligent machines taking over the world and no one can run a half-decent live stream.

Last month, NBC streamed the Super Bowl for free to anyone who wanted to watch. The execution was pretty terrible. But at least it was a noble effort.  

On Sunday night, ABC streamed the Oscars—but only to people who were already paying for cable, and only if they happened to live in one of the eight U.S. cities in which ABC owns and operates a local station. Somehow, despite the tightly restricted audience, ABC’s execution was even worse.

Multiple times during the online broadcast, viewers were booted without warning from the Oscars to unrelated ABC programming. On the East Coast, I found myself suddenly watching the opening scenes of the 2010 David Fincher movie The Social Network. Friends on the West Coast reported that they were abruptly transported to Jeopardy. This happened both to people watching on the Web at abc.go.com and to those watching on mobile devices via the Watch ABC app.

In short, ABC accidentally changed the channel on its online audience at least twice. It took several minutes for the feed to revert to the Oscars telecast, although you could get there a little faster by refreshing the feed (and re-selecting your cable provider). Either way, there was a good chance you missed an award or performance while Alex Trebek or Jesse Eisenberg were talking.

When Sean Penn took the stage to present the award for Best Picture, I half-expected ABC to cut over to Heidi.

All of this, mind you, was on top of the slowness that typically mars network live feeds of big events. The lag on my Oscars feed wasn’t as bad as it was for the Super Bowl, but it was long enough to allow Twitter to tell me who won each award before the presenters did. On second thought, maybe I would have been better off just sticking with The Social Network.

Again, live-streaming events to a mass audience isn’t easy. But it can't be as impossible as the recent efforts of ABC, NBC, Microsoft, and Apple would lead us to believe. Just look at Major League Baseball, which routinely live-streams games on MLB.tv without a hitch. ABC’s own corporate sibling, ESPN, streams sporting events every night of the week on WatchESPN without ever (in my experience) randomly booting its audience over to First Take or Around the Horn. What gives, ABC?

Feb. 22 2015 9:30 AM

How to Watch the Oscars Online, and Why You Probably Can’t

Update, Feb. 23, 2015, 1:07 a.m.: ABC’s live stream of the Oscars didn’t go so well, abruptly cutting more than once to unrelated programming like The Social Network and Jeopardy. You can read more about the live-stream problems here.

Original story: Hollywood’s greatest annual festival of self-promotion will be televised nationally on ABC, with red-carpet coverage starting at 7 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday. The show itself starts at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.

Good news: The Oscars will also be broadcast online.

Bad news: You’ll only be able to watch the online broadcast if you already have a cable TV subscription—in which case, why would you need to watch it online? And even if you do have cable, you’ll only be able to watch it if you reside in one of the eight markets that have ABC-owned-and-operated stations.  

For those who meet the criteria, ABC will live-stream the show on the Web at the following URL: http://abc.go.com/watch-live.

You can also watch it on mobile devices by downloading the Watch ABC app, which is available for free on Apple’s App Store, the Google Play store, and the Amazon Appstore.

Again, in all of these cases, however, you’ll be asked to log in using credentials from your pay-TV provider before you can watch the show. No cable, no Oscars. And here are the eight markets in which the live stream will be available:

  • New York
  • Los Angeles
  • Chicago
  • Houston
  • Philadelphia
  • San Francisco
  • Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina
  • Fresno, California

Do you live in Atlanta, Seattle, Detroit, or any other U.S. city aside from the eight above? You’re out of luck if you were hoping to watch the Oscars online.

What you can watch without a verified cable subscription is an “Oscars backstage” live feed that will include red-carpet interviews and such, but not the actual telecast. That’s available on the Web, the Watch ABC app, or ABC’s Facebook page. It’s designed more as a “second-screen” option for people who are watching the actual show on their TV.

If you’re a cable cord-cutter, your best bet for watching the actual show is to watch it over the air, on a TV with a digital antenna.

If this all sounds rather cruel and arbitrary from the cord-cutter’s perspective, it is. But ABC has business reasons for limiting its live stream in this way. In short, networks don’t make as much money from the ads sold on live streams of their telecasts. And, in general, media companies have little interest in catering to cord-cutters, whom they view as undermining a bulwark of their business models. Yes, ABC networks are free to watch over the air, but ABC is owned by Disney, and the company also owns a slew of cable channels.

The Oscars are one case where even the much-hyped new “cable for cord-cutters” service, Sling TV, won’t help you. Sling TV so far is limited to a select group of cable channels, including CNN and ESPN, and does not include any of the major networks. Aereo, we miss you!

Previously in Slate:

Feb. 20 2015 6:36 PM

Here’s How to Remove the Ghastly Superfish Adware From Lenovo Laptops

Whether you have a Lenovo PC or not, you’ve probably heard about the the “virulent, evil adware” called Superfish that’s been shipping on the company’s consumer laptops since September. And if you do own a Lenovo, you probably know that you should check whether your machine is affected. But maybe you haven’t because there was a Long Island Medium marathon on TV and then you had to eat two bowls of cereal. Totally understandable. But now it’s time to deal with this. It won’t take long.

A few sites have cropped up that quickly tell you whether your laptop is running Superfish, like this test from Filippo Valsorda and this one from LastPass. Lenovo also provided a list of laptop models that could have shipped with the adware pre-installed. The company says, “Lenovo never installed this software on any ThinkPad notebooks, nor any desktops, tablets, smartphones or servers.” As PCWorld points out, you’ll also know that Superfish is lurking if you get ads when you’re browsing the Internet that are “Visual Search results powered by VisualDiscovery.”

The first thing to do if you find out you have Superfish installed is to navigate through Control Panel --> Programs --> Uninstall a Program, then find “VisualDiscovery,” and uninstall.

Then make sure that the root certificate Superfish put in your trusted certificate list gets deleted, because that’s the primary component that compromises your secure browsing. On Friday, Microsoft released an update for its Windows Defender that uninstalls both the Superfish program and the root certificate, so if you run that you should be in good shape. Tests of the Windows Defender update show that it is effective.

You can also manually go into your computer’s certificate manager and remove the certificate. In Windows search look up “certmgr.msc” to open the right window. From there, click “Trusted Root Certification Authorities” and then “Certificates.” Find the Superfish Inc. certificate and delete the crap out of that sucker.

If you use Firefox, the last step is specifcally removing the certificate from the browser’s own certifcate storage. Navigate to Preferences --> Advanced --> Certificates --> View Certificates, and then scout for your old friend Superfish. Then rock some “Delete or Distrust.”

If your laptop has been running this hideous adware, you probably should also change all of your passwords and watch for any strange activity on important accounts. Thanks a lot, Lenovo.

Feb. 20 2015 2:10 PM

Scottish Police Accidentally Deleted 20,000 Records, Blame Programming Error

Scottland’s police stop-and-search policy has been controversial for years, and a parliamentary justice subcommittee has been trying to get to the bottom of some fishy statistics about recent stop-and-search rates for groups like children. But it turns out that there’s something really basic at work: The police department accidentally deleted 20,000 relevant records.

In a meeting with the subcommittee, Assistant Chief Constable Wayne Mawson said that the stop-and-search records disappeared because a “computer programmer pressed a wrong button between May and July last year, and that lost the results data from those records.” Ah, the magic poof! button.

He went on to say, “They’d been properly put on the system by the officers as a result of stopping and searching people, but we lost the outcome of it as a computer programming error.” He also said that they are working to reconstruct the results from officer notes and other sources.

Alison McInnnes, a member of the justice subcommittee, said that the police response was “incoherent.” And Guardian data journalist and former programmer Marc Ellison points out that almost all databases have redundancies to avoid these exact types of situations. He also notes that it’s pretty standard practice in 2015 to create backups of important data. You don’t even have to be a former programmer to know that.

Feb. 20 2015 11:21 AM

Will Technology Put an End to Disability? A Future Tense Event.

Attention-grabbing advances in robotics and neurotechnology have caused many to rethink the concept of human disability. A paraplegic man in a robotic suit took the first kick at the 2014 World Cup, for instance, and the FDA has approved a bionic arm controlled with signals from the brain. It’s not hard to imagine that soon these advances may allow people to run, lift, and even think better than what is currently considered “normal”—challenging what it means to be human. But some in the disability community reject these technologies; for others, accessing them can be an overwhelmingly expensive and bureaucratic process. As these technological innovations look more and more like human engineering, will we need to reconsider what it means to be able and disabled?

We’ll discuss these questions and more at noon on Wednesday, March 4, at the New America office in Washington, D.C. The event is presented by Future Tense in collaboration with the award-winning documentary on disability and technology Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement. You can find the event agenda and the trailer for Fixed below; to RSVP, click here. The venue is wheelchair accessible, and an American Sign Language interpreter will be present.

The event will also be streamed live on the New America website.  


Noon: Engineering Ability

​Jennifer French
Executive director, Neurotech Network

Larry Jasinksi
CEO, ReWalk Robotics

Will Oremus 
Senior technology writer, Slate

12:45 p.m.: T​he Promise and Peril of Human Enhancement

​Gregor Wolbring
Associate professor, University of Calgary

Julia Bascom
Director of programs, Autistic Self Advocacy Network

Teresa Blankmeyer Burke
Assistant professor of philosophy, Gallaudet University

Lawrence Carter-Long
Public affairs specialist, National Council on Disability

Feb. 19 2015 7:29 PM

U.S. Treasury Wakes Up in the 21st Century, Starts Accepting PayPal

The U.S. government's Fiscal Service does collections for money owed to federal agencies. And that's not chump change. Last year it collected $3.73 trillion in revenue from more than 400 million transactions. That's a lot to keep track of. So in an attempt to become hip to the haps, the service announced Wednesday that it is going to start accepting certain payments through PayPal and the online payment service Dwolla.

The first step will be rolling out PayPal and Dwolla on Pay.gov, one of the government's electronic suites that handles collections. Corvelli McDaniel, the assistant commissioner for revenue collections management for Fiscal Service, said in a statement, "Digital wallets provide convenience, simplicity, and a trusted customer experience, while achieving cost effectiveness for the Federal Government."

Dwolla said in a blog post about the collaboration, "Dwolla is now a live payment option for many U.S. agencies (and this will grow over time)–allowing any taxpayer with a U.S. bank or credit union account to ... pay for a whole host of federal fees, products, and permits."

Modernizing feels like a good thing, especially for an entity like the federal government that always seems so far behind. But when it comes to digital services, privacy and security is on everyone’s minds these days. This initiative will create one more way for the government to get hacked. They just can't win.

Feb. 19 2015 4:07 PM

Hacker Says He Was Hit With 44 Felonies After He Declined to Work With FBI

This post originally appeared in WIRED.

A year ago, the Department of Justice threatened to put Fidel Salinas in prison for the rest of his life for hacking crimes. But before the federal government brought those charges against him, Salinas now says, it tried a different tactic: recruiting him.

A Southern District of Texas judge sentenced Salinas earlier this month to six months in prison and a $10,600 fine after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of computer fraud and abuse. The charge stemmed from his repeatedly scanning the local Hidalgo County website for vulnerabilities in early 2012. But just months before he took that plea, the 28-year-old with ties to the hacktivist group Anonymous instead faced 44 felony hacking and cyberstalking charges, all of which were later dismissed. And now that his case is over, Salinas is willing to say why he believes he faced that overwhelming list of empty charges. As he tells it, two FBI agents asked him to hack targets on the bureau’s behalf, and he refused.

Over the course of a six-hour FBI interrogation in May 2013, months after his arrest, Salinas says two agents from the FBI’s Southern District of Texas office asked him to use his skills to gather information on Mexican drug cartels and local government figures accepting bribes from drug traffickers. “They asked me to gather information on elected officials, cartel members, anyone I could get data from that would help them out,” Salinas told Wired in a phone interview before his sentencing. “I told them no.”

“Fundamentally this represents the FBI trying to recruit by indictment,” says Salinas’ lawyer Tor Ekeland, who took the case pro bono last year. “The message was clear: If he had agreed to help them, they would have dropped the charges in a second.”

Salinas, to be clear, has no proof of his claims. He had no lawyer present at the time of the questioning, made no recordings, and his story couldn’t be independently confirmed. The FBI has flatly denied his account, writing in a statement to Wired that Salinas “was never asked to conduct any investigative activity on behalf of the government.” A Department of Justice spokeswoman pointed out in a statement that “at no point during the case did the defense ever present any testimony or evidence to show that any of the defendant’s hacking attempts had been made at the behest of the government or at the request of any alleged victim.”

But Ekeland says Salinas didn’t testify about his claims of the FBI’s hacking request because there wasn’t a trial. Ekeland advised Salinas not to tell the story until after his sentencing to avoid scuttling his plea deal. And Ekeland believes that story helps to explain the pile of unsupportable charges Salinas faced soon after. The 44 felony charges against Salinas, Ekeland says, were “an intimidation tactic designed to get him to fold, to get him to take a plea or cooperate.”

Salinas’ troubles with the law began when his house was raided in early 2012 as part of the investigation of his alleged hacking. He was arrested and all of his computer equipment seized, then released on bail. In May 2013, as he tells it, he was called by the FBI and told to come to the local field office to retrieve his confiscated computers. When he arrived at the office with his wife, however, he claims he was instead put in a room and questioned. His wife, who was pregnant at the time, was, he says, left to wait for six hours in the building’s lobby.

During those six hours, Salinas says FBI agents showed him evidence that he had logged into Anonymous IRC chatrooms. He says they brought up OpCartel, an aborted Anonymous plan in 2011 to hack Mexico’s Zeta drug cartel. And finally, he claims they asked him to help them gather information on both the cartels and local officials who had accepted money from them.

“We think you can help us,” Salinas says he was told. “You can help us stop some of this corruption and stop the cartels.”

“I’m not going to snitch,” Salinas says he replied. They insisted that they weren’t asking him to inform on his friends or Anonymous associates.

“Think of it like this, you have a superpower,” Salinas says the agents told him. “And you should use your superpower to help us help people.”

Salinas says he refused. Four months later, he was hit with a single computer fraud and abuse charge. Six months after that, prosecutors filed a superseding indictment, adding 13 more counts. The next month they added another 30, adding up to a total of 44 charges. Eighteen of those charges were for cyberstalking an unnamed victim, and each charge was based on a single instance of Salinas submitting junk text in a contact form on the victim’s website.

As those charges mounted, Salinas says he wasn’t asked again to hack for the FBI or otherwise contacted by agents. But he nonetheless believes the series of superseding indictments was meant to convince him to change his mind. “I think with the first charge they thought I would cop a plea and help them, but I didn’t,” Salinas says. “I do believe they were upping the charges to put pressure on me, out of spite for not helping them out.”

When Ekeland took Salinas’ case and began to push back, the charges quickly fell to 28 counts and then a single-misdemeanor plea deal. “As soon as they got caught, they folded,” Ekeland told Wired in November. “I feel sorry for all the people that don’t have the support that Fidel had … There are a ton of Fidel Salinases out there that aren’t as lucky.”

In her statement, Justice Department spokeswoman Angela Dodge emphasized that Salinas had in the end been convicted, and she defended the decision to bring the 44 charge indictment against him. “A federal grand jury found probable cause for each of the charges alleged in the indictment and … it is not uncommon for some charges to be dismissed as part of a plea,” she wrote. “We always consider what will serve as a deterrent to similar crimes and what is in the best interest of justice for all parties involved.”

But Ekeland says the overreaching charges fit into a pattern of the FBI and Justice Department’s threatening hackers with ruinous charges to turn them into informants, and in at least one other prominent case, cooperative hackers. While working as an FBI informant, Anonymous hacker Hector “Sabu” Monsegur led hacking operations against more than 2,000 internet domains, according to the leaked sentencing statement of Jeremy Hammond, another Anonymous hacker who took direction from Monsegur. Those targets included government websites in Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria, Turkey, and Brazil.

Securing a defendant’s cooperation by threatening him or her with a mountain of charges is nothing new, says Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Hanni Fakhoury. But that’s usually accomplished by first charging the defendant and then allowing him or her to reduce punishment by working as an informant or offering information. “I’ve represented many defendants who were propositioned by the government to come into a room and cooperate,” says Fakhoury.

In this case, Salinas’ claims—if they’re at all true—could represent the opposite: a vindictive indictment after a refusal to cooperate. “To proposition him first and punish him after is much rarer and would be much more problematic,” says Fakhoury. “If this is true, it’s very troubling and very improper.”

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