The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Dec. 21 2014 4:23 PM

Baltimore Police Sent a Fax and Teletype to Reach NYPD Ahead of Brooklyn Cop Shooting

Two New York police officers were shot and killed on Saturday in Brooklyn by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who is believed to have traveled from the Baltimore County area that day after shooting his ex-gilfriend around 5:45 a.m. Baltimore County Police warned the NYPD that Brinsley's cellphone had been traced to Brooklyn, but not in time to prevent the shootings.

The Baltimore County Police and the New York Police Department are inconsistent in their reporting about the exact time that Baltimore alerted New York to the suspect's potential presence in Brooklyn. This discrepancy suggests that the use of outdated communication technology—fax machines and teleprinters—in these exhanges may be significant.


New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said in a press conference Saturday that the NYPD received a faxed wanted poster from Baltimore County Police at 2:45 p.m. Baltimore County Police said in a statement Saturday that they called the 70th Precinct in New York at 2:10 p.m. and also faxed the wanted poster at that time. The officers who were killed were from the 84th Precinct, but had been dispatched to the area the 79th precinct patrols to assist in a community violence reduction initiative.

The Baltimore County police also said that at 2:50 p.m., right as the two police officers were being murdered, they sent the information from the wanted posted to the NYPD's "real-time crime center—essentially, a data warehouse" in the form of a teletype. Teletypes, also known as teleprinters, are typewriters that can independently type out messages sent over non-switched telephone circuits, the public telephone network, radio, or microwave links. They were popular for remote communication before fax machines and the rise of the Internet, and their use has declined since the 1980s. For example, the Teletype Corp. made its last teleprinter unit, the Teletype Dataspeed 40, which included a CRT monitor and a high-speed printer terminal, in 1979.

The Twitterverse quickly started discussing the old-skool technology and speculating about whether its use could have slowed communications.

Baltimore County Police did use analysis of Instagram posts to trace Brinsley's phone to Brooklyn, but at that point the high-tech sleuthing gave way to retro communication. Fax machines are still frequently used by businesses and agencies instead of email to send sensitive communications, but they aren't necessarily more secure. Depending on the type of line they connect to and whether the data being sent is encrypted, they may be secure or vulnerable to eavesdropping on the line. Teleprinters may offer some security simply because they are obsolete, but their use in law enforcement seems to come from tradition. A Baltimore County Police Liaison told Slate that the department uses teleprinters because they're "very reliable."

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Dec. 19 2014 7:20 PM

Google and MPAA Clash Over Movie Piracy. Google Swiftly Files Suit.

It's been a long week. A lot of stuff has been hacked, and we're all pretty sick of it. If only there were a juicy feud to revive our spirits before the weekend. Enter Google and the Motion Picture Association of America, which have really thrown down in the last 24 hours over anti-privacy measures.

Documents in one of the Sony Pictures data dumps revealed that some media companies, backed by the MPAA, had been working on anti-piracy tactics codenamed "Project Goliath." Noting similarities between the initiative and the SOPA bill, which was defeated in 2012, Google angrily took to its public policy blog on Thursday.

We are deeply concerned about recent reports that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) led a secret, coordinated campaign to revive the failed SOPA legislation through other means, and helped manufacture legal arguments in connection with an investigation by Mississippi State Attorney General Jim Hood. ... [O]ne disappointing part of this story is what this all means for the MPAA itself, an organization founded in part “to promote and defend the First Amendment and artists' right to free expression.” Why, then, is it trying to secretly censor the Internet? 

Oooooh, burn. The MPAA was obviously not going to take that. The Verge reports that a spokesperson shot back:

Google's effort to position itself as a defender of free speech is shameful. ... Freedom of speech should never be used as a shield for unlawful activities and the internet is not a license to steal. Google's blog post today is a transparent attempt to deflect focus from its own conduct and to shift attention from legitimate and important ongoing investigations by state attorneys general into the role of Google Search in enabling and facilitating illegal conduct—including illicit drug purchases, human trafficking and fraudulent documents as well as theft of intellectual property.

Wait, human trafficking and drug purchases? What? Basically, what's going on is that Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, along with other state attorneys general, has been working with a number of advocates for months to pressure Google to be more diligent about policing ads for/links to websites that sell illegal drugs, facilitate human trafficking, or promote media piracy. Hood had subpoenaed Google for information on how it polices ads that promote illegal activities. And now, presumably because it's ticked off at the MPAA, Google has filed a lawsuit to block Hood's subpoena.

Hood is not amused. The Washington Post reports that he said in a statement:

My Consumer Protection Division issued an administrative subpoena asking for documents. Google sent more than 99,000 jumbled, unsearchable documents in a data dump. I agreed to give Google additional time to comply with our request and hoped we could reach an agreement. Instead, after the Sony hack, Google’s General Counsel Kent Walker began blogging and feeding the media a salacious Hollywood tale. Now, feeling emboldened with its billions of dollars, media prowess and political power, some of its more excitable people have sued trying to stop the State of Mississippi for daring to ask some questions.

Dem's fightin' words, Jim. Google said that it goes above and beyond what the law requires in policing content on its sites, and that Hood's subpoena violates the First Amendment in attempting to compel a private company to censor itself. But Google added, "To be clear, Google agrees that much of the third-party content about which the attorney general complains is objectionable."

Dec. 19 2014 7:09 PM

Google Wants to Turn Your Car Into a Computer. Who’s Going to Stop It?

Google is building an Android operating system for cars, Reuters reported this week, citing anonymous sources. According to the report, the company plans to introduce the car-compatible software as part of its next Android release, expected late next year or early in 2016.

If that’s true, it would be a major milestone in the race to turn your car into yet another mobile computing platform.


Google and Apple, among others, are already competing on products that allow you to control your smartphone via the screens built into the dashboards of many new cars. These systems, known as Android Auto and CarPlay, respectively, require you to connect your phone to the dashboard via a charging cable. Your dashboard screen then lights up with options to make a call, send a text message, get maps and directions, or play music, all of which is accomplished via your phone.

The rumored Google project would essentially cut out the middleman. You’d just turn your car on and the screen in your dashboard would automatically load a version of the Android operating system. You’d control it via the touchscreen or voice commands.

From the driver’s perspective, it makes a lot of sense for your car’s operating system to mirror that of your phone and tablet. It sounds great to the tech companies, too. Building user-friendly mobile operating systems is something they’re already quite good at.

There is, however, one group of stakeholders that might well balk at handing over the dashboard to Silicon Valley. That’s the car companies.

For decades they’ve succeeded in controlling just about every aspect of your driving experience. They build the drivetrain, the body, the interior furniture, and the dashboard controls, and they even maintain the car for you after you’ve bought it. Sure, they contract with other companies to build components, but with few exceptions, they retain control over the specifications and branding.

CarPlay dashboard
Apple's CarPlay system.

Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

In the future, however, mobile computing is likely to become essential to the driving experience. Self-driving features will rely on navigation software; you’ll stream music from the Internet; you’ll reply to emails on your commute via voice controls. Companies like Google would love to provide the software that handles all of that, because in turn they’ll be gathering all sorts of valuable data on you.

If that happens, however, the car companies risk losing control over an important and potentially lucrative aspect of their products. They’ll still build the hardware, but the software will be out of their hands.

On the other hand, the car companies don’t necessarily have the resources or expertise to build software that can compete with that of Apple and Google. So if Hyundai is offering full iOS and Android integration in its new models—and, by the way, it appears to be on that path—then the likes of Mitsubishi and Kia are going to have a hard time holding out.

Previously in Slate:

Dec. 19 2014 3:25 PM

The Global Cell Network Is Wildly Insecure. Anyone Could Be Listening To Your Calls.

If you're feeling like the only way to keep your personal details private at this point is to curl up in a hole with a flip phone, you're not going to like this. The Washington Post is reporting that German researchers have discovered major security flaws in SS7, the global cellular network designed in the 1980s that routes phone calls and texts.

The findings will be presented at a conference in Hamburg later this month by Tobias Engel, the founder of Sternraute, and Karsten Nohl, the chief scientist for Security Research Labs. The two each found the vulnerabilities during seperate research. The flaws are the latest and most damning assessment of SS7's security status. The Post explains that weak points mainly exist in nonessential but important features like those that allow a moving phone to switch from one cell tower to another without losing a call. Spies and hackers alike could be exploting the vulnerabilities to listen in on or record billions of calls and text messages.


Even though carriers have spent a lot to upgrade their data infrastructures to 3G and 4G and make everything more secure, they still have to use SS7 to enable inter-carrier data exchange. If I have AT&T and you have Verizon and we call each other, we're exposed. The Post also points out that hackers could use any SS7-enabled carrier (basically all of them) anywhere in the world to hack other networks. “It’s like you secure the front door of the house, but the back door is wide open,” Engel said. “I doubt we are the first ones in the world who realize how open the SS7 network is.”

Government intelligence agencies around the world likely know about and even use the SS7 vulnerabilities, though the research didn't find specific evidence of this. And it's not clear how widely the flaws have been exploited, if at all, by other criminals and malicious hackers.

Engel and Nohl say there are two approaches to exploiting the vulnerabilities. Hackers can either forward calls to themselves before sending them on to the intended recipient, or locally they could pick up all the texts and calls going through the airwaves using a radio antenna and then use SS7 to request temporary encryption keys from carriers to unlock the data. The latter technique would allow hackers to get around even strong encryption on 3G networks.

Between the Sony Pictures hack and the ICANN intrusion (not to mention revelations about NSA surveillance last year), it's starting to seem like we need completely new approaches to large-scale digital security. But perhaps it has more to do with a change in mindset. "Spend[ing] in cyber security is expanding rapidly, as is the realization that relying on a single solution to protect ... networks and information isn't enough," said Jay Kaplan, the CEO of enterprise cybersecurity firm Synack. "Security is a puzzle with many intricate pieces—there isn't a silver bullet."

Dec. 19 2014 10:00 AM

A Web App That Visualizes Wikipedia as a Starry Galaxy of Articles

Reprinted from

This article originally appeared in Wired.

Useful as it may be, Wikipedia is an eyesore. Like Craigslist, its design is a relic of the early Web days. And because its millions of pages are global and open-source, its founders would likely find it impossible to redesign the jumble of blue links and subheaders into something more beautiful.


Owen Cornec has no such strings attached, so as a side project the French computer science student built Wikigalaxy, a Chrome experiment that turns the vast world of Wikipedia pages into a cosmic, starry nebula. “When I was a kid, I loved to go on Wikipedia and browse on articles. I would click on links and it would go to another page and I’d do it again and again and I would end reading about people and events that I never heard about,” says Cornec, who’s getting his masters at ECE in Paris. “I don’t picture [Wikipedia] like a long sterile list of pages; it’s a network of ideas.”

Cornec went through Wikipedia’s API to compile the list of Wikipedia pages that would eventually become the connected nebula. Wikipedia currently has more than 4,668,000 articles; for this project, Cornec fetched a random sampling of 100,000. (He tried to source the 100,000 most viewed articles, but couldn’t find that rubric.) He then dumped all that data into graph-positioning software, where each page got a coordinate on a starry map according to its relationship to the other pages. In Wikigalaxy, that’s determined by how many backlinks connect the disparate pages.

It’s best to take a freewheeling approach to exploring Wikigalaxy. The arbitrary sampling of 100,000 articles means many searches won’t turn up (I tried to search “Barack Obama” and no results were found). Instead, Wikigalaxy emphasizes discovery. Click on any random star, and orange beams will shoot out, connecting to other stars. So the star for Amphissus, the son of Apollo and Dryope, will naturally connect to Apollo, which connects to all the other main players in Greek mythology, as well as Virgil, and then the Trojan Horse, and so on.

The clusters of articles can get pretty dense, so Cornec plans to add new dimensions to Wikigalaxy, like color-coding the stars according to subjects like science or people. But to really expand the galaxy, he’d like to program a version of the software for virtual reality, and travel through the Wikigalaxy via an Oculus Rift.

More from Wired:

Dec. 18 2014 5:30 PM

Meet Hector, the Stick Bug Robot

Stability is a big problem for robots, especially on uneven terrain, so researchers have taken a number of different approaches to try and make them light on their feet. In Germany, roboticist Axel Schneider is drawing inspiration from an unusual source: stick bugs.

The insect robot he is working on, known as Hector, has six legs, each of which can move independently. This allows the robot to adapt to uneven terrain, like a rocky surface, and stay steady on its feet. New Scientist reports that Schneider and his team created a shell for Hector that has 18 interconnected elastic joints that work as muscles. That way the legs can move freely until they find the ground for each step.


Hector is currently equipped with near-range sensors and cameras that help it determine how best to approach obstacles and how to position its body. In the future Hector will be equipped with other types of sensors so it can execute more insect-like behaviors. The goal is to use Hector for things like animal locomotion study in the field, though the robot seems to be a study in animal locomotion itself.

Dec. 18 2014 4:21 PM

How Obama’s Policy Shift Will and Won’t Affect Tech in Cuba

A version of this article first appeared on Global Voices Advocacy.

Wednesday’s bombshell announcement that the U.S. and Cuban governments have decided to re-establish diplomatic ties after 56 years of estrangement brought tears, joy, awe, and disbelief to Cubans across the globe. (And some anger from Cuban-Americans, too.) While President Obama’s speech was watchable in real time—televised and streamed live on the White House website—those outside of Cuba had to wait patiently for the text of Raul Castro’s speech to be transcribed and uploaded to Cuban state media sites. The brief address delivered by Cuba’s commander-in-chief was not streamed live because Cuba’s rickety Internet infrastructure cannot support it. At least not yet.


Among thousands of other questions flying around the Internet and the streets of Miami, Havana, and Washington today is the question of technology. What will these changes mean for Internet access and mobile telephony in Cuba? For now, little is certain. But there are a few things we can glean from what both leaders have said—and haven’t said—so far.

While Western advocates may rush to focus on how this will affect government policy and practice around the Internet, like surveillance and censorship, the impact of yesterday’s economic reforms on the tech environment in Cuba may be the most critical change to watch at the moment. With more money, more Cubans will be buy mobile phones and service. This does not mean that they will have Internet access—3G is scarce at best on the island. But it will accelerate the changes that are already taking in place in Cuba due to peoples’ increasing ability to connect with one another through mobile telephony. More than ever, news and information that once traveled only by word of mouth will now circulate more quickly and in greater volume. And Cubans’ ability to communicate with friends and family abroad will likely increase, too.

We can also anticipate an influx of tech objects and hardware on the island—computers, mobile phones, hard drives, pen drives are all in high demand in Cuba and they are not easy to come across. The changes will without question make it easier for Cubans to obtain tech objects that will in turn enable greater communication and information sharing on the island.

And greater access to capital will also enable more Cubans to get online at hotel business centers and Internet cafes, where rates (ranging from USD $4.50 to $12.00 per hour) are out of reach for most of the population. This will increase not only the number of Cubans who use the Internet themselves, but also the quantity and diversity of digital media in circulation on the island. Videos, music, news, and literature regularly circulate secondhand via pen drive, mobile phone apps and other lightweight mechanisms for data storage—a person with Internet access downloads a video, puts it on a pen drive, and circulates it hand-to-hand among friends who watch the video, copy it, and distribute it to more friends. The importance of these second-hand networks, what Cuban blogger Orlando Luis Pardo once termed Cuba’s “Internet offline,” must not be overlooked.

It is hard to glean much from what the two leaders said about telecommunications policy specifically. After acknowledging that U.S. sanctions on the country have for years “denied Cubans access to technology that has empowered individuals around the globe,” Obama stated:

I’ve authorized increased telecommunications connections between the United States and Cuba. Businesses will be able to sell goods that enable Cubans to communicate with the United States and other countries.

This promising but vague assertion raises a lot of questions—what kinds of businesses is he talking about? What kinds of goods? In recent years, telecommunications companies like Verizon and AT&T have pushed to loosen restrictions on their industries in an effort to enter negotiations with the Cuban government. And they have made progress since Obama came into office. But this is only one of two hurdles. The second is the Cuban government, which like, every country, imposes requirements and restrictions on foreign businesses that wish to establish themselves on their soil.

With a few exceptions, foreign companies can enter contracts with the Cuban government only if they are willing to transfer 51 percent ownership of their holdings on the island to the Cuban government itself. In effect, this means that all foreign businesses are still majority owned by the Cuban government. It is hard to imagine that the Cuban state policy on this has changed altogether. Obama’s words suggest that this may have been part of their negotiations, but Raul Castro’s only mention of the issue suggested that the ball was still in Obama’s court. The Cuban president didn’t discuss changing Cuban tech policy or infrastructure. He said only that he “called upon the government of the United States to remove obstacles hindering … telecommunications.”

So plenty remains uncertain. Obama cannot unilaterally dismantle all U.S. government policies limiting contact and commerce with Cuba—as both leaders noted, the embargo is codified in legislation that only Congress can change. And although Obama advocated for leaders on both sides to move forward and leave behind their respective legacies of “colonialism and communism” it is not clear how this will play out in practice. Old habits die hard—and trust is no easier to build in the digital era than it was in 1961.

Dec. 18 2014 3:24 PM

Future Tense Event: How Will Human Ingenuity Handle a Warming Planet?

Humans are altering the Earth system at every scale, up to and including the global climate. Going forward, how will human ingenuity handle a warming world? We’re all familiar with the doomsday predictions of more droughts, fires, floods and economic disaster, but what are the possibilities for thriving in a changed climate? Our species is innovative and adaptive—rarely more so than when responding to stress and conflict. Join Future Tense to consider the question before us in these Anthropocene days: What opportunities does global climate change present for making our societies more equitable, prosperous, and resilient in the long run?

On Thursday, Jan. 15, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—will discuss these issues at the New America offices in Washington, D.C. You can find the agenda below. To RSVP, click here.


On the evening of Jan. 14, Future Tense will host a screening of the documentary Merchants of Doubt in Washington. Merchants of Doubt looks at the shadowy world of well-paid pseudo-experts who undermine established science at the behest of the tobacco, pharmaceutical, and fossil fuel industries. For more information on the screening, click here.

Agenda for How Will Human Ingenuity Handle a Warming Planet?

12:15 p.m.: Futures of Climate Change

Brad Allenby
President’s professor of sustainable engineering, Lincoln professor of engineering and ethics, Arizona State University

12:35 p.m.: The Climate Business Boom
Mckenzie Funk
Author, Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming

12:50 p.m.: The Energy Question

Alex Trembath
Senior analyst, the Breakthrough Institute

Kartikeya Singh
CIERP doctoral research fellow, Tufts University

1:35 p.m.: Navigating New Frontiers

Rear Admiral Jonathan White
Director, space and maritime domain awareness, & oceanographer, navigator, U.S. Navy

Sharon E. Burke
Senior adviser, New America
Former assistant secretary of defense for operational energy plans and programs, Department of Defense

2:05 p.m.: Tomorrow’s Thriving Cities

Elizabeth Yee
Vice president, strategic partnerships and solutions, 100 Resilient Cities

Nikhil da Victoria Lobo
Head, global partnerships, Americas, Swiss Re Financial Services Corp.

Mckenzie Funk
Author, Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming

2:50 p.m.: Building More Equitable and Prosperous Societies

Nikki Silvestri
Food systems & climate solutions advocate
Former executive director, Green for All

Rimjhim Aggarwal
Senior sustainability scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Arizona State University

Todd Moss
Chief operating officer & senior fellow, Center for Global Development

Dan Sarewitz
Co-founder & co-director, Consortium for Science, Policy, & Outcomes, Arizona State University

Dec. 18 2014 3:24 PM

Come to a Free Screening of Merchants of Doubt in Washington, D.C.

A group of professional skeptics-for-hire have been at the center of campaigns to cast doubt and sow confusion about pressing public threats, from tobacco to climate change. Inspired by the acclaimed book of the same name by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, the documentary, Merchants of Doubt digs down into the shadowy world of well-paid pseudo-experts who undermine established science at the behest of the tobacco, pharmaceutical, and fossil fuel industries.

On Wednesday, Jan. 14, at 6:30 p.m., Future Tense will hold a screening of Merchants of Doubt at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C. After the movie, director Robert Kenner, whose work includes Food, Inc., and Geoffrey Brumfiel, science correspondent for NPR will discuss how science has been hijacked.To RSVP, click here.


The following day, Jan. 15, Future Tense will host an event in Washington titled "How Will Human Ingenuity Handle a Warming Planet?" More information on that event is available on the New America website.

Dec. 18 2014 2:41 PM

ICANN Got Hacked

As 2014 comes to a close, hackers aren’t showing any signs of slowing down. On Tuesday the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers , or ICANN, which organizes the Internet's domain name system, announced that some of its sensitive data had been compromised in late November as part of spear-phishing scam that tricked ICANN employees.

The breach gave hackers access to multiple email accounts, the content management systems of certain ICANN blogs, ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee wiki (including members-only sections), and ICANN’s centralized zone data system, or CZDS, which contains ... basically everything related to the management of domains.


ICANN is consistently targeted by hackers looking for information about the structure of the domain system or seeking the trove of personal information in the CZDS. ICANN updated the security systems on its networks earlier this year, and says that it thinks these improvements helped limit damage from this hack. It also says that it has added new security features over the past few weeks.

The attacker obtained administrative access to all files in the CZDS. This included copies of the zone files in the system, as well as information entered by users such as name, postal address, email address, fax and telephone numbers, username, and password. Although the passwords were stored as salted cryptographic hashes, we have deactivated all CZDS passwords as a precaution.

ICANN says that it thinks the attackers used a spear-phishing attack to make emails to employees seem official and tempt them to click on links that lead to malware installation. Depending on who those employees were, the hackers could have gotten extensive amounts of sensitive information.

ICANN says that passwords exposed in the CZDS aren’t actually at risk because they were encrypted, but the organization is resetting all passwords nonetheless and encouraging everyone listed in the CZDS to monitor their data and take protective precautions.

The fact that legit-looking emails are all it took to let hackers in is a reminder (that we’ve all heard a million times at this point) that hackers don’t need to be super-sophisticated to trick people.