Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Dec. 7 2016 11:39 AM

Law and Order Circa 2050: A Future Tense Event Recap

In approximately 90 cities throughout the United States, ShotSpotter sensors—gunfire detection technology—time stamp and triangulate the location of shots fired in an effort to aid law enforcement in cracking down on gun violence. In many underserved communities, citizens are not likely to call 911 to report gunshots, so this technology is supposed to increase the awareness of police to instances of gun use in their jurisdiction.

Across the country law enforcement agencies are already deploying powerful technologies like ShotSpotter, surveillance systems, body-worn cameras for police, and predictive algorithms that attempt to anticipate where crime will happen. Proponents of the technologies argue that they have the potential to increase accountability and improve the ways police engage with the community.

On Nov. 30, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—convened experts for a live event in Washington, D.C., to discuss the potential for technology to prevent crime and improve the relationship between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.

Ralph Clark, president and CEO of ShotSpotter, says that his company’s product gives police the ability to proactively protect the public by responding to unreported gun violence. Yet in many communities, the problem isn’t necessarily whether police are responding to crime—it’s how they respond. Kami Chavis, director of the criminal justice program at Wake Forest University, says, “Police departments indeed have an obligation to use technology and anything they can to keep communities safe. At the same time, though, we have this very delicate balance of protecting the civil liberties of people who live in those communities as well.”

Critics argue that high-tech law enforcement tools, when left unchecked, can threaten privacy and perpetuate harmful biases. Predictive policing, for example, relies on historic crime data to anticipate where crime is most likely to take place or who is most likely to commit a crime. But this data shows an incomplete picture. Logan Koepke, an analyst at Upturn, points out that patterns of biased enforcement will be translated into the algorithms that predict future crime. The result is increased police presence and surveillance in already over-policed and over-surveilled communities.

Even when we know the problems with a law enforcement technology, it isn’t easy to find solutions. Lauren Kirchner, senior reporting fellow at ProPublica, warns, “The speed at which technology is advancing and the infrastructure of surveillance are building up so fast that oversight and regulation can’t possibly keep up. Even public knowledge can’t keep up.”

In many cases, the people being surveilled by these technologies aren’t aware of it or don’t understand its implications for their future. For example, body-worn cameras, which many called for after the shooting and protests in Ferguson, Missouri, have the potential to alter police-community relations for the better. But some companies are working to integrate facial recognition software into their bodycams—and without strong regulation, that could make them just another tool to catalog, track, and monitor individuals. It’s easy to think there’s nothing to worry about if you’re not doing anything criminal, but Jennifer Lynch, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, pointed out that many social movements were once seen as unacceptable, such as LGBT rights. Imagine how things might be different had those communities been under constant surveillance by people who considered their behavior unlawful.

That’s why it’s so important for members of communities to work with law enforcement to create fair structures and systems as departments adopt and deploy these technologies. And for that to happen, we need better police-community trust. Samuel Sinyangwe, co-founder of WeTheProtesters, reminds us, “It is impossible to have police-community trust in a black community when the majority of black youth, either themselves personally or somebody that they know personally has experienced police violence.” He suggests a good start to addressing this issue is increased accountability and transparency from law enforcement. And technology itself can be part of it: As Philadelphia City Councilman David Oh put it, “The technology is not a problem—the technology is a promise of transparency and a uniformed protocol.”

There are a few ways to fulfill that promise—and chief among them is bringing together citizens, law enforcement, and the companies that create these technologies to identify areas of improvement and understanding. Denice Ross, co-founder of the White House Police Data Initiative, believes “data transparency can shift the dialogue from one of confrontation to collaboration.” Comprehensive data documenting police conduct is necessary for police reform. With it, communities can hold police accountable for their actions. Without it, citizens are limited in their ability to review the behavior of their police, widening the trust gap between citizens and law enforcement.

Data and technology have the potential to do a lot of good—but unless there is an open dialogue with members of the community, they could also perpetuate critical problems within our justice system. NYPD Deputy Commissioner Tracie Keesee says that we must be careful about how much we rely on technology to mediate human interaction. Or as she put it: “Trust is a human component, not something technology can build for you.”

Dec. 5 2016 5:41 PM

Come Hear Tim Wu Discuss His New Book The Attention Merchants

It’s nearly impossible to do anything today without being exposed to some form of branding, messaging, or sponsored content meant to capture our attention.

Every successful medium over the past century—from newspapers to radio and television to Google and Facebook—has attained commercial viability as advertising platforms. And the reach of advertising seems to know no limits—have you seen those ads on the bottom of Transportation Security Administration bins at airport security checkpoints?

 In his new book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, Tim Wu documents how the capture and resale of human attention has grown into the defining industry of our time. He argues that technologies—the devices and social media platforms that never leave our sides—are not the source of our distraction; rather they’re a conduit for the messaging that makes it more inescapable than ever before.

Join Future Tense on the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 14, in New York for a happy hour conversation with Tim Wu and New York Times writer (and Slate alum) Amanda Hess to discuss the impact of advertisement and consequences we might face for leading more artificially moderated lives. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Dec. 2 2016 10:23 AM

There Is Nothing Lonelier Than an Abandoned Space Colony

Watching a recent trailer for the forthcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, I caught a brief glimpse of an old-fashioned control panel, its huge, brightly lit buttons shining out against the imperial dark. For all the familiar futuristic trappings of the surrounding shots, that one image is immediately recognizable as the residue of an older fantasy. It is a trace not just of the earlier films in the series but also of the moments in which those films were made, evidence of a way we once imagined the world could someday be.

As I contemplated that shot, I found myself pulled back to Tom Gauld’s recent comic book, Mooncop. At once poignant and quietly comical, Gauld’s short novel, published in September, follows an unnamed police officer while he goes about his business during a peaceful lunar colony’s final days. Everything has an oddly outmoded quality, from the modular modernist buildings—which look like Le Corbusier dwellings as interpreted by NASA—to the fishbowl glass helmets people wear in place of more functional spacesuits. There’s no crime to solve, his therapist robot is on the fritz, and the satellite’s population is dwindling as the colonists give up and return to Earth, leaving him increasingly alone among its washed-out craters and crags. This is an earlier idea of the future, one that’s already largely been forgotten when it failed to line up with the unfolding present.


Tom Gauld/Drawn & Quarterly

Over email, Gauld told me that he’d gone back into his own past to find inspiration for the book. “I was thinking of the science fiction I ingested as a child and which, at the time, I perhaps didn’t entirely realize was fiction,” he wrote. More recently, he recalls seeing “a 1960s tin toy of a silver moon patrol police car with a figure driving from within a glass dome,” a reminder, as he puts it, that we once imagined “not only that we would colonize the Moon but that it would be so successful that we’d need a police force up there to maintain order.” Yet the box of that same toy showed the officer surveilling an empty lunar landscape: Much like the hero of the book Gauld would eventually write, the officer was patrolling just to patrol.

Gauld’s most resonant themes here are disconnection and isolation. In one elegant, melancholy sequence, our protagonist observes the distant Earth from a lunar bluff, watching enormous clouds kiss the continents. “It seems like the party’s over and everybody’s going home,” he complains later. That lament vibrates throughout the surrounding pages: A few notable exceptions aside, he is almost always the only character in any given panel. When others join him, he still typically stands apart, secure and distant in the glass bubble of his space helmet.


Tom Gauld/Drawn & Quarterly

Even the most dogged residents of Gauld’s moon aren’t quite sure why they’re doing on its inhospitable surface. “Whatever were we thinking? It seems rather silly now,” one of the earliest colonists wonders aloud, shortly before departing. Silly is exactly the right word: Despite the somber blue and gray shades of Gauld’s art, Mooncop’s tone is much like that of the science fiction he enjoyed as a child—“hopelessly naive, but often sweetly so,” as he puts it.

Of course, such naiveté isn’t always a design choice, just as it isn’t always sweet. In ways Gauld couldn’t have anticipated while working on the book, it’s tempting to read it in dialogue with Donald Trump’s anti-scientific agenda. At least one of the president elect’s advisers has suggested that the incoming administration plans to abandon NASA’s climate change research, and instead pump funds into space exploration. As with most of Trump’s nebulously-defined goals, that plan has more to with re-creating past glories—Space Age triumphs, in this case—than it does with building a better, more livable, tomorrow. He would rather reconstruct an obsolete vision of the future than protect against imminent threats in the present.

On a too facile reading, Mooncop’s retrofuturistic style might seem to align Gauld’s work with Trump’s perverse rejection of immediate, terrestrial realities. Like the aesthetics of Star Wars—aesthetics that inspired some of Gauld’s own design choices—this is a dream that we cling to, even as the waking world chips away at it. Ultimately, though, Mooncop instead revels in the persistent promise of possibilities that never quite found their way into the waking world. It hollows out a space within those evacuated visions and invites us to live within.

Mooncop, in other words, makes poetry from the act of dwelling on what could have been, however improbable it might seem in retrospect. This is a story about recommitting to dreams that others have abandoned. If Mooncop is a lonely book, it’s likely because dreaming is lonely work, even when we struggle—as Gauld's hero ultimately does—to dream together. But as Gauld shows, the very effort can also be surprisingly beautiful.

Nov. 30 2016 12:59 PM

Future Tense Newsletter: As American As the Internet

Greetings, Future Tensers,

Feeling a bit lost today after Gray Thursday, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Sofa Sunday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday? Well, lucky for you it’s Future Tense Newsletter Wednesday! (It’ll catch on eventually.)

Nov. 29 2016 2:19 PM

The U.K. Has Passed a New Law Permitting Outrageous Surveillance. The U.S. Could Be Next.

An ill wind is blowing in places that have championed freedom.

This erosion of civil rights didn’t start in the era of Donald “Burn the flag, go to jail” Trump, though he’s made clear his intentions to accelerate it (particularly when it comes to freedom of expression). And the United States isn’t the only place it’s happening.

Some of the most disappointing moves to limit people’s human rights have already taken place in Europe. The United Kingdom—which gave the world the Magna Carta—just enacted its so-called “snooper’s charter,” which will enshrine what can only be called the first full-on surveillance state among Western democracies. Among other notable intrusions into people’s privacy, it will give government vast new authority to hack people’s devices; force companies to decrypt personal information when the government asks for it; and require telecommunications companies to store users’ online activities, with a host of government agencies being able to fish around in that data without a warrant. As Jack Schofield observes in the Guardian, “It more or less removes your right to online privacy.”

Even before Trump takes office, the U.S. has been heading down some similar paths. As Edward Snowden showed, American surveillance services have been longstanding abusers of privacy and the law while Congress has, in general, winked at it all. For example, beginning Dec. 1—barring an unlikely last-second miracle in Congress—federal law enforcement will have a legal right to hack remotely into everyone’s devices with just a wink and nod from any magistrate who’ll authorize it. You probably haven’t heard about this, because our news media have largely failed to notice it except in passing.

In fact, Congress has, with few exceptions, been a champion of surveillance for years. Democrats and Republicans have supported all kinds of incursions on the privacy not just of foreigners but of Americans as well, in the name of protecting us. So it would be foolish to expect much pushback from our national lawmakers when Trump takes power, even though what’s coming should alarm anyone who believes in basic liberty. (Congress does occasionally do the right thing on freedom of speech, as it has with the just-passed legislation forbidding companies from gagging their customers’ right to post negative online reviews.)

If Congress is feckless about liberty, Trump looks reckless. He’s has been clear throughout his campaign: He will be as authoritarian as he’s permitted to be, using the levers of government—including our vast surveillance apparatus and law enforcement—to accomplish his goals.

His campaign tirade against Apple when the company was battling with the FBI over the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone was telling. Apple and some other tech companies are moving to help users encrypt more of their data, a trend that governments, especially authoritarian ones, hate with a passion. It will not surprise me at all if Trump insists that Congress pass a law banning the use of encryption that the government cannot break. Never mind that security experts overwhelmingly agree that compromising strong encryption leaves everyone less safe in the end.

In a climate for liberty that can only be called chilly, we have to start planning for the worst even if we hope for the best. Given our climate of fear, I suspect most people don’t care enough. But what should you do if you do care?

As Schofield notes, there’s relatively little you can do if the government individually targets you. A nation-state has more than enough resources to overcome almost any measure you might take. But we do have some ways to make mass, pervasive surveillance and hacking more difficult—and thereby be safer from criminals, not just governments we may not trust.

Some of the measures are easy. We can be certain to keep our software up to date; unpatched operating systems and applications are a favorite way for criminals—and government—to penetrate our devices.

We can use virtual private networks that encrypt data in ways that our ISPs can’t decipher. (You should absolutely do this in any case when you’re using a public Wi-Fi hotspot and hotel connection, and probably even at home as well given the notorious insecurity of consumer routers.)

Activists and others whowant to challenge the people in power will face sterner test. As the Intercept explained in an article titled “Surveillance Self-Defense Against the Trump Administration,” it is vital to encrypt mobile devices; use encrypted messaging such as an app called Signal; move away from Facebook discussion groups for sensitive conversations, and much more.

But technology is not enough. As Snowden told European investigative journalists last month, they can’t win surveillance arms race against the National Security Agency or the U.K.’s GCHQ or other powerful government bodies. They have to lobby for privacy-protecting policies. So do everyday citizens who want to preserve liberty in this scary time.

Nov. 28 2016 8:23 AM

Hackers Breached San Francisco’s Transit System and Demanded a Ransom

The computer system that serves San Francisco’s Muni was hacked late last week, giving locals tens of thousands of free rides on the nation’s seventh-largest transit system. The ransom, according to correspondence between the San Francisco Examiner and the email address displayed on Muni employees’ hacked computer screens, was 100 Bitcoin, or about $74,000.

By Sunday, station ticket machines were up and running again, but the hackers indicated to Hoodline, a local news site, that they had compromised more than 2,000 computers in the Muni network in addition to agency-wide functions like payroll, email, and real-time bus locations. To cope, the transit agency was assigning routes to bus drivers via hand-written notes on bulletin boards, the Examiner reported.

The ransomware at work appears to be HDD Cryptor, also known as Mamba, which blocks access to compromised computers entirely. Its rapid takeover of Muni demonstrates—again—the extensive vulnerabilities of networked devices and “smart" infrastructure.

Nov. 22 2016 8:21 PM

Trump Says Humans May Have “Some Connectivity” to Climate Change

Donald Trump might not be quite the hardcore climate change denier he pretended to be during the campaign. Or he might just be a guy who knows his audience.

Speaking with reporters and editors from the New York Times on Tuesday, the president-elect was asked whether he believes human activity is linked to climate change, according to tweets from the Times’ Mike Grynbaum, who was present. “I think there is some connectivity,” Trump replied. “Some, something. It depends on how much.”

Nov. 22 2016 2:18 PM

Why the Ruling Against Wisconsin’s Gerrymander Could Change Redistricting in America

On Monday, a federal district court ruled that Wisconsin’s hyper-partisan gerrymander violates the U.S. Constitution. The three-judge panel’s 2-1 decisionmarks a turning point in the way the judiciary evaluates gerrymandering: Never before has a federal court invalidated a gerrymander for providing an unfair advantage to one political party. If the Supreme Court affirms the decision—and the ruling appears to be catered toward the idiosyncratic constitutional philosophies of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who could be the deciding vote—it will overhaul congressional maps across the country and fundamentally alter representation in the United States.

Gerrymandering, the practice of drawing districts to benefit one party, has been used by the majority party in America for more than 200 years. But recent technological advances have allowed parties to create extraordinarily specific gerrymanders that keep the minority party out of power indefinitely. Republicans have spent an immense amount of money developing and utilizing these resources; Democrats are only just beginning to catch up.

The courts have struck down race-based gerrymanders as a violation of equal protection—but until now, they have consistently held that nakedly partisan gerrymanders do not by themselves pose a resolvable constitutional problem. That’s because of a muddled Supreme Court decision in 2004 called Vieth v. Jubelirer. In Vieth, five justices agreed that partisan gerrymanders are likely unconstitutional. But Justice Kennedy refused to actually strike them down. Kennedy wrote that extreme gerrymanders may unconstitutionally burden the “representational rights of voters,” but that there was not yet any “manageable standard” by which to assess whether a gerrymander ran afoul of the Constitution. He hoped such a standard might “emerge in the future,” leaving the door open to a future challenge.

Nov. 18 2016 5:00 PM

Netizen Report: U.K. Passes Blanket Surveillance Law

The Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. It originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Afef Abrougui, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Weiping Li, Leila Nachawati, Laura Vidal and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

GVA logo

The U.K. Parliament passed the long-debated Investigatory Powers Act on Nov. 16, codifying practices of requiring telecommunications companies to store and provide the government with access to a wide range of user data, and to break encryption at the government’s behest.

Ethiopia blocks Global Voices, jails more writers
Befeqadu Hailu, a member of the Zone9 collective, a Global Voices author, and one of the best-known voices in Ethiopia’s stifled media environment, was arrested Nov. 10. Authorities told him that the reason for his arrest was an interview he gave on Voice of America about Ethiopia's state of emergency. Since the government declared an official state of emergency last month, social media and mobile internet connections have been periodically blocked, and any form of speech or gesture indicating opposition to the government can merit punishment.

A few days prior to Hailu’s arrest, Global Voices contributors and others in Ethiopia reported that the international citizen media website was no longer accessible in the country. Technical tests conducted by Global Voices’ partners have since confirmed their findings.

#IamMyOwnGuardian: Saudi women’s rights activist arrested
Saudi authorities arrested women’s rights activist Mariam al-Oteebi on Nov. 1, following a complaint submitted by her father for “parental disobedience.” Al-Oteebi has been very active in the online campaign #IamMyOwnGuardian, launched by women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia to call for an end to Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system. Under the system, women must have the consent of a “male guardian”—usually a father, husband, brother, or even a son—to travel, get married, and work. According to Saudi activists, al-Oteebi has previously been harassed by her brother over her Twitter profile photo, which displays her passport and national ID card.

Copyright case against Colombian biologist carries on
The trial of Colombian biologist Diego Gomez, who is facing charges for sharing an academic paper online for which he did not have copyright, has been postponed yet again. The case against Gomez, which has been in progress for three years, is likely to set an important precedent in Colombia about the right to access knowledge online.

Bahrain protests are met with internet service cuts
According to estimates by the Bahraini rights advocacy group Bahrain Watch, internet disruptions in the protest-village of Duraz, have cost residents at least $265,000 since June 20. A previous investigation published by the same group revealed that internet service providers were imposing “an internet curfew” in Duraz, a hotbed of anti-regime protests, by deliberately shutting off internet service from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. locally on a daily basis.

Turkey ups censorship game, blocks beloved anonymity tools
Turkey expanded the network throttling campaign it began in Kurdistan in late October by blocking circumvention tools including Tor, Hotspot Shield, Tunnel Bear, and Psiphon. Though Turkey has instituted internet blockages before, Turkish netizens say the current blocks are unusually expansive. The disruptions have been linked to the arrests of Kurdish party leaders.

Ecuadorean draft law would protect privacy of citizens—and public servants
Ecuador’s national assembly is debating a draft law addressing privacy and data protection. The draft law aims to protect the privacy of personal data that can be found in databases, electronic archives, and other physical and digital platforms. It also extends specific protections for data pertaining to public servants. This element of law has raised concern among academic and civil society groups.

Oman’s sweeping censorship of independent media
In Oman, the online independent newspaper Albalad—which was launched in 2012 and covered a range of topics in the sultanate including politics, economy and culture—put an end to its operations on Nov. 3. In a farewell post, the newspaper mentioned pressures it had faced in the past but did not specify a reason behind this decision. Albalad’s closure coincides with a broader crackdown on press freedom in Oman. Last August, the government closed the daily newspaper Alzamn and suspended its website over a report on government interference with the judiciary.

New research
It’s Parliamentary: KeyBoy and the Targeting of the Tibetan Community”—Citizen Lab, University of Toronto

Nov. 18 2016 3:59 PM

How Pokémon Go Violates the Original Vision for Pokémon

On Feb. 27, 1996, the first Pokémon games, Pokémon Red Version and Pokémon Green Version, were released in Japan for the Nintendo Gameboy. After six years of development that nearly drove Game Freak, Pokémon’s parent company, into bankruptcy, Satoshi Tajiri and his comrades had taken the first step toward realizing his dream for the series: giving kids the same thrill and anticipation that he experienced collecting bugs and tadpoles as a child. The success of the video games would soon lead to a separate trading card game, a manga adaptation, and a hyperpopular anime series that transformed Pokémon from a popular game to a global sensation.

Twenty years later, Pokémon is still one of the most popular franchises in the world. The seventh generation of Pokémon video games—Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon—came out Friday for the Nintendo 3DS and is widely expected to be one of the highest-selling games in the series. Yet it’s unlikely to match the popularity of Pokémon Go, the latest and most divergent adaptation to the franchise to date, released for iOS and Android earlier this year. Pokémon Go’s use of augmented reality, location-based gaming, and mobile technology to collect Pokémon in the real world, plus a heavy dose of nostalgia, drove record-breaking first-week downloads (and drove some distracted players to make mistakes like falling off cliffs).

The conversation around Pokémon Go has already changed the way we think about games, particularly how they encourage us to interact with one another and our environments. But these conversations miss a significant point: The closer augmented reality and location-based gaming bring us to fully realizing Satoshi’s dream for Pokémon, the fewer people get to participate in that dream.

This is because Pokémon Go’s emphasis on real-time location as an element of gameplay introduces real-time location-based inequity. Before the app, Pokémon games came with shared experiences. A person starting Pokémon Blue and another starting Pokémon Red play through the same story with the same ending, save for a few exceptions. As James Paul Gee, a professor of literary studies at Arizona State University, highlights in his writings on education, these games are leveled playing fields that can enable and encourage learning. (ASU is a partner with Slate and New America, where I work, in Future Tense.) He says that with the analog version, there is no “Pokémon Gap” between the poor or players of color and their peers.

But Pokémon Go is different, because it is structured around Pokéstops, checkpoints based on popular real-world locations. As documented by outlets as varied as Grist, the Belleville News-Democrat, and the Urban Institute, the concentration of Pokéstops is significantly lower in predominantly black and ethnically diverse neighborhoods and in rural areas.

This is significant because interacting with a Pokéstop is the only free way a player can collect items critical to the game, like Pokéballs and Potions. Without them, Pokémon Go can’t be played as designed. Players who live in areas with low concentrations of Pokéstops experience a less complete version of Pokémon Go than their peers, and often have to resort to making in-app purchases to level the playing field. These implications are made even more troubling when considering that Pokéstop distribution is divided by lines of race and wealth. The disparities that traditionally poorer, smaller, and less-white communities already face are replicated in Pokémon Go, unlike in other Pokémon games before it.

Four months since Pokémon Go came out and these criticisms began, there have been no large-scale adjustments to geographical data to correct uneven Pokéstop distribution. Even though Niantic’s CEO acknowledged the severity of the issue and mentioned plans to crowdsource Pokéstop user submissions in an interview with Recode in October, the Pokémon Go support page still suggests players look for local parks and other “interesting locations” in their area. In fact, Niantic has instead focused on updates intended to sweeten the experience for the players who stuck around. Even the next massive update, which will reportedly make good on the promise of adding trading, player vs. player battling, and new Pokémon, appears to be lacking a geographic data correction. Adjusting and correcting the software to improve player experience is an attainable, short-term goal; adjusting for and correcting reality, and the inequities baked into it, is infinitely more complicated.