Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Nov. 21 2017 6:13 PM

Uber Paid Hackers $100,000 to Cover Up a Breach Exposing Data on 57 Million People

Two hackers accessed the personal info of 50 million Uber riders and 7 million Uber drivers in an October 2016 hack of the company, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday.

 

Nov. 21 2017 4:06 PM

U.S. Unseals Indictment Against Alleged HBO Hacker, Inadvertently Threatens to Destroy the World

In late July, HBO learned that it had been the victim of a massive cyberattack, one that left hackers in possession of approximately 1.5 terabytes of data. The perpetrators, who demanded millions in ransom, ultimately leaked much of the information they had stolen, including plot details from Game of Thrones and other internal documents. (The cache also included a full episode of Ballers, which you probably don’t watch, though we’re sure someone was disappointed.) As Slate’s April Glaser wrote in August, the event was “similar to Sony’s hack in 2014, when hackers believed to be linked to North Korea breached the media giant’s computer network.”

According to an indictment unsealed Tuesday by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, the connection to state actors may have been even more apt than it first seemed, though that’s not exactly what happened here.

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The indictment charges Behzad Mesri, who had, according to a press release from the U.S. attorney, “previously worked on behalf of the Iranian military” with the act. As the Washington Post notes, the indictment “does not allege he attacked HBO on behalf of the Iranian government” and seems to indicate that he was instead inspired by avarice. Nevertheless, the Post suggests that this news may have geopolitical ramifications: “The push to announce Iran-related cases has caused internal alarm, according to people familiar with the discussions, with some law enforcement officials fearing that senior Justice Department officials want to reveal the cases because the Trump administration wants Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran.”

Whatever the Justice Department’s rationale for unsealing this indictment, the U.S. Attorney’s Office may want to reconsider how it describes its role in the matter. The office’s press release indicates that “Mesri now stands charged with federal crimes,” including wire fraud, computer hacking, “interstate transmission of an extortionate communication,” and aggravated identity theft. Mesri has not been arrested at this time, but acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim suggests “he will forever have to look over his shoulder until he is made to face justice.”

That’s all well and good, so long as we don’t neglect the kicker to Kim’s statement: “For hackers who test our resolve in protecting our intellectual property—even those hiding behind keyboards in countries far away—eventually, winter will come.” (My emphasis.) Let’s consider, for a moment, what’s at stake in this appropriation of the phrase “winter will come.” In the parlance of Game of Thrones, winter isn’t an ordinary season: Instead, it’s a brutally protracted, near apocalyptic event, a harbinger of collective suffering, not of dawning justice. What’s more, it’s one that—in the current chronology of the series—might well bring the arrival of the fearsome White Walkers, horrifying monsters followed by a massive army of the risen dead. If we follow this metaphor out, then, Kim seems to be claiming that the U.S. Attorney’s Office threatens to wipe out all civilization in the pursuit of an international criminal.

Mesri seems like a bad guy, and he allegedly did a lot of bad things. But, and I’m just thinking here, ending the world might be a little extreme, given the scope of the crimes in question.

Nov. 21 2017 1:54 PM

Bye-Bye, Internet We Knew and Loved?

Get ready to say goodbye to the open internet. Today, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission shared a draft of the rules that will undo the agency’s network neutrality policy that was passed in 2015. And in a few weeks, at the next December public meeting, the FCC will almost certainly vote to put the final nail in the coffin of the hard-won regulations that prevent internet providers, like Comcast and AT&T, from charging websites a fee to reach users at faster speeds.

The new proposal doesn’t just undo the old rules. It also shifts more enforcement responsibility to the Federal Trade Commission, an agency that’s equipped to sue companies that don’t keep promises made to consumers. But if internet providers don’t promise to not throttle speeds to different websites for a fee, they’ll likely be free to do so.

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Since FCC Chairman Ajit Pai first released his proposal in May to undo the net neutrality rules, an unprecedented 22 million comments from the public have poured into the FCC, but the process has been mired by rather serious irregularities. Comments posted by dead people and bots were found, and the online submission system even suffered a suspicious cyberattack, which is currently being investigated by the Government Accountability Office.

But none of that appears to be enough to deter Pai, who wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Tuesday that his inspiration for gutting the rules comes from the desire to spur more investment in broadband infrastructure. He cites research that claims capital expenditure from internet providers has decreased 5.6 percent since 2014. But there are all kinds of reasons a business may decide to reduce spending or shift priorities, such as the contentious federal election season, pending mergers, and extreme weather.

And besides, Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T have all said on investor calls that, since the recent net neutrality rules were issued, they’ve been investing more in network infrastructure. Pai may be hearing that there’s been a downward trend in investment following the network neutrality rules, but internet service provider investors may be getting a different story.

So Pai’s rationale is easy to poke holes in. It’s true that without net neutrality regulations, internet companies stand to make a lot more money, some of which very well could go into network improvement. But even if internet providers make more money and invest it in stronger networks, it’s the public that stands to lose the most. That’s because without network neutrality, ISPs won’t be legally prevented from creating a tiered internet where some sites will load faster than others. Comcast, for example, will be able to operate a two-way toll, collecting fees from both subscribers and websites trying to reach subscribers at faster speeds. And let’s face it: When one website loads slower than another, the immediate reaction is to navigate away to the faster loading page. The companies that are already successful and can afford the fast-lane prices will likely get to set the fee, giving them an even bigger advantage against a small startup or struggling local news operation.

The majority of the FCC is expected to vote to proceed with Chairman Pai’s proposal while two commissioners are expected to vote against it. In an interview with Slate last week, one of those commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel, called on the FCC to conduct public hearings across the country, since the public comment process has had numerous serious snafus since Pai’s proposal released, she says.

Pai says he plans to release the full text of the new net neutrality proposal Wednesday. While it may seem like a dead-end road at this point, there are still a few alarms to sound to try to get the FCC to pull the brakes. For one, Americans can contact their elected representatives and urge them to write to the FCC or take action to protect network neutrality with strong legislation. Another would be to continue to comment to the FCC—even though the draft of the rule is out, the commission does continue to accept public comments.

Still, unless something seriously unforeseen happens to stall the process, by this time next year, the internet could be a very different place.

Nov. 21 2017 1:13 PM

Report: iPhone X Assembled With Illegal Student Labor

Foxconn, Apple’s primary supplier in Asia, has allegedly hired 3,000 high school students in Zhengzhou, China, to assemble the iPhone X for up to 11 hours a day, according to a report by the Financial Times.  These hours violate China’s overtime law, which only allows students to work 40 hours per week.

 

Nov. 21 2017 9:51 AM

Send Us Your Most Intense Postmortem Social Media Moments

Death was never easy, but the internet has made it even harder to comprehend. These days, when a loved one dies, her social media accounts and web presence can just keep on living. Memorable examples include:

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While these stories made it big because they involved one prominent figure or another, we think it’s likely everyone has their own story to share on this topic. So—ahead of a Dec. 6 Future Tense event happy hour event in Washington about planning for your digital afterlife—we’re creating a roundup of Slate readers’ most intense postmortem social media moments. Whether it’s funny or sad, totally insane or sharply bittersweet, if it involves death and a digital format, we want you to share it with us!

Anecdotes from the afterlife can be sent to slatedigitalafterlife@gmail.com until midnight Nov. 27. In your note, please include your name, age, and city.

Nov. 20 2017 4:23 PM

Planning Your Digital Afterlife: A Future Tense Event

We live online both in life and in death. Even after our lives come to an end, our digital footprint remains in the form of pictures, friendships, videos, emails, tweets, and likes. While personal correspondence and cat videos make up much of our digital remains, we also have to think about confidential financial information, valuable e-book libraries, subscriptions, and files upon files of important documents in the cloud—all of which would traditionally have been passed on to surviving family members

Now there is an emerging industry offering people the opportunity to extend their digital agency beyond biological death. Some of these services are as simple as making sure key documents and passwords are available for executors and the bereaved, while others send out posthumous messages at a time of the deceased’s choosing.

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Join Future Tense on Dec. 6 in Washington for a happy hour conversation to explore these new ways of living and dying online and to learn practical advice on how to set your own digital affairs in order. Registration and happy hour will begin at 6 p.m., followed by the conversation at 6:30 p.m.

For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Speakers:

Naomi R. Cahn
Harold H. Greene professor of law, the George Washington University Law School
Reporter, Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act

Alexander Halavais
Associate professor of social technologies, Arizona State University

Adam Ostrow
Chief digital officer, TEGNA

Moderator:
Katherine Mangu-Ward
Editor in chief, Reason
Future Tense fellow, New America

Nov. 20 2017 2:07 PM

Instacart Workers Strike Over Compensation

Instacart, a same-day grocery delivery service, faces a labor dispute from a portion of its hundreds of thousands of part-time and contract workers over wages that allegedly can fall as low as $1 per hour.

Nov. 18 2017 8:30 AM

Duolingo Has Mandarin Now. Can It Really Teach You the Language?

Duolingo, the immensely popular app for people looking to begin learning a new language, released a Mandarin module this week. The app has been around since 2011 and offers courses in dozens of languages, but is only now getting to Chinese. With everyone from Mark Zuckerberg to Amy Adams trying to learn Mandarin, the delay isn’t due to a shortage of demand.

 

Nov. 17 2017 7:18 PM

What a Gymnastics Coach Thinks About Boston Dynamics’ New Flipping Robot

Here’s another thing robots can do better than you: backflips. Boston Dynamics, the MIT offshoot company now owned by Japanese tech giant SoftBank, showed off the latest iteration of their bipedal Atlas robot in a video released Thursday. At first viewing, the mobility of a 4 foot 9 inch, approximately 165-pound hydraulic machine is mind-boggling. But are robots going to steal Simone Biles’ job, too?

Atlas has made cheer-worthy progress since 2013, when Boston Dynamics debuted it at a robotics challenge sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and 2015, when it competed in the finals of the competition. Essentially, the federal government hosted a contest where humanoid robots had to complete a series of simple tasks useful in the case of a nuclear power plant disaster, like traveling up a one- to two-degree incline with scattered obstacles, shutting off a valve, opening a door to enter a building. It was a fail-fest. Making a basic bipedal robot is no small feat, but they were like high-tech toddlers. The competition’s finals spawned video reels of off-kilter robots crashing to the ground. By comparison, this version of Atlas is pretty impressive (and significantly less creepy than Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini, a spindly yellow robotic dog).

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But we wanted to know how impressive, so Slate asked a gymnastics coach to rate Atlas’ parkour skills. According to gymnastics coach Aryan Mazloum, Atlas’ backflip—a back salto, if you want the technical term—is not bad. “It’s pretty fantastic to be able see a robot have the center of gravity and be able to not only just move, but literally flip and catch itself,” said Mazloum, a junior Olympic coach at Northern Virginia’s Capital Gymnastics National Training Center. (He’s also working toward a Ph.D. in informatics at George Mason University.)

The back salto, Mazloum explains, is “an intermediate skill” that coaches introduce in the fifth level of USA Gymnastics, when students tend to be 9 to 11 years old. For a robot, it takes incredible spatial awareness. In a back salto, says Mazloum, “you want to be able to go as high as you can, and you want to be able to land as close to where you take off as possible.” To do that, the gymnast has to squat, throw her arms up by her ears so her body is a straight line (in gymnast-speak, opening the shoulder angle and the hip), then contract into a “closed” position again. By these standards, Atlas’ trick is “not the cleanest flip,” explains Mazloum.

Here’s Mazloum’s critique: Atlas didn’t quite get to that open position, “so it didn’t really get the full vertical that we look for. That’s why it went backwards a little bit.” But, he adds, it’s “still astonishing that it did that, though.” (By the way, at the end of the video, where Atlas falls? That’s again probably because it didn’t get enough height, which means it didn’t have the time to rotate, and then since the robot lacks toes, it couldn’t push into the ground to counterbalance.)

Still, Mazloum gives the robot kudos: “It was a good landing, I’ll say that.” In gymnastics, you don’t score individual components, only full routines. But Mazloum made an exception for Atlas: 3.5/5 for its back salto.

Nov. 17 2017 6:41 PM

Twitter’s Best Weirdo Got Identified and It Doesn't Matter

The Twitter account known as Dril has long been one of the internet’s most unlikely treasures. A comically unhinged, but somehow coherent character, Dril is, as the AV Club’s Clayton Purdom puts it, “a rare rallying point and muse for everyone, regardless of affiliation or creed.” Indeed, the account’s best tweets show us our own digital lives as in a fun house mirror.

Retweeting a Dril tweet feels like a small gift to those who follow you on Twitter: To do so is to insert a bit of antic eccentricity into the stream of bad news (or as we call it in 2017, “news”) that generally blankets the platform. There are other accounts that meet a similar need (I’m partial to Birdsrightsactivist), but few quite manage to hit the tone that Dril has perfected, an unlikely combination of self-contempt and self-confidence.

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For years, one of the defining features of Dril was his anonymity. The account reportedly had origins on the Something Awful forums, and its author was supposedly acquainted with Jacob Bakkila, creator of the famously strange account Horse_ebooks. Beyond that, though, details were scarce, which most agreed was for the best. “The most important part of dril lore is that no one knows who dril is,” Alexander Mcdonough wrote on Medium. Purdom likewise suggests that the account’s anonymity contributes to the feeling that Dril is just the internet itself—in all its hilarious stupidity—personified.

Some people, though, just can’t let a good thing be. On Friday afternoon, K. Thor Jensen mournfully tweeted that Dril’s LinkedIn page had been identified.

Though Jensen pointed back to a recent Tumblr post on the topic, much of the real investigative work seems to have been done by Reddit users back in September. The name has, in other words, been out there for months, but it’s only finding its way to the surface now. And there’s a reason for that, presumably: No one really wants to know who Dril is. Both the Daily Dot and Mashable rounded up numerous Tweets from mourners, many of them irritated that anyone had bothered to identify Dril in the first place.

Some of the bereaved go further, suggesting that the mere act of identifying Dril should be a punishable crime.

I can respect this position: There’s something to be said for keeping the mystery alive. But if I haven’t named the individual behind Dril, it’s mostly because it doesn’t matter. I made my way through the Tumblr post. I’ve trawled the Reddit thread. I’ve seen the name. And I don’t care. It changes nothing. I’ll forget it by tomorrow.

None of Dril’s fans really believed the character was anything but a character. But knowing that there was a performer behind the mask didn’t make the mask any less wonderful. That’s as true today as it was before. If the revelation still upsets, it may be because, as Purdom suggests, Dril seemed to be all of us, a composite of our foolishness and our foibles. Identifying the author doesn’t, however, make that feeling go away; it simply reminds us of something we should have recognized all along: Even as we were reading Dril, Dril was reading us.

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