Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

March 23 2017 4:14 PM

Netizen Report: Why Did YouTube Censor Your Videos? You May Never Know.

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, Mahsa Alimardani, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Weiping Li, Leila Nachawati, Diego Casaes, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

In mid-March, Indian documentarian Rakesh Sharma, who is known for his films on public unrest and violence in the state of Gujarat, found his YouTube channel blocked. He received a message from the company that read: "This account has been terminated due to multiple or severe violations of YouTube’s policy against spam, deceptive practices, and misleading content or other Terms of Service violations."

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The channel had been live since 2014 and mainly features clips from his documentaries, which have garnered considerable attention in India, Europe and the United States. Two days later, without explanation, the channel was back on. Sharma is known for his critical views on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which are evident in his films, but there’s no evidence to prove this had anything to do with the block.

Indeed, there’s no information—beyond YouTube’s boilerplate takedown text—explaining what motivated the sudden blocking and equally sudden reappearance of the channel.

Sharma isn’t alone. Amid an apparent shift in YouTube’s approach to monitoring for rules violations (with a particular focus on extremist content) and staying in the good graces of advertisers, a wave of YouTube users have found their work either blocked or relegated to “restricted” mode in recent months.

YouTube video bloggers whose work includes themes of same-sex relationships and LGBT acceptance and rights are among those who have found their videos suddenly unavailable in “restricted” mode, an opt-in version of YouTube intended for children and school computer labs. Users are the #YouTubeIsOverParty hashtag on Twitter to voice concern and post examples of the blocks.

The blocks raise critical questions about the partly technical, partly human-driven process that YouTube uses to spot videos that violate its terms or qualify as inappropriate for younger viewers. While some types of content—such as videos clearly intended to be pornographic—are easy to identify and remove, others are not. And in many cases, the process begins with YouTube users themselves, who are free to report content if they think it’s breaking the rules. This mechanism plays a powerful role in how the company sets priorities for content removal—and it sometimes results in abuse by users intent on silencing people they disagree with.

These examples illustrate the importance of corporate transparency surrounding content removal decisions, both on the individual and platform-wide level. The issue is emphasized in the Ranking Digital Rights Index for 2017, released this week, which measures against a comprehensive set of international human rights standards as they exist in the digital realm.

Iranians see new threats to speech as elections approach
Iranians are seeing a crackdown on press freedom and digital expression leading up to the May 2017 presidential elections. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, a hardline wing of the armed forces that answers to the office of the Supreme Leader, arrested 12 administrators of channels on the messaging app Telegram that support Iran’s reformist political faction, as well as those behind the moderate President Hassan Rouhani.

Telegram developed a significant Iranian user base approaching the 2016 parliamentary elections, and many believe it helped facilitate gains for reformist and moderate members of parliament. Iranian authorities have been trying to curb the free flow of information through Telegram both with arrests and with new rules that require media organizations and journalists to obtain an official license in order to distribute news through Telegram.

On top of this, authorities recently arrested two journalists, Ehsan Mazandarani and Hengameh Shahidi, both of whom are known for their independent and critical reporting.

Jamaican women’s rights activist arrested for social media campaign tactics
Jamaican activist Latoya Nugent was arrested last week and charged under Jamaica’s Cybercrimes Act for “use of a computer for malicious communication” after she publicly identified alleged perpetrators of sexual violence via social media. Nugent is the co-founder of Tambourine Army, a new movement led by women and survivors of sexual violence who are talking openly about their experiences, both online and in public. In an editorial for the Jamaica Gleaner, legal scholar Tenesha Myrie called this section of the Cybercrimes Act “an attempt to criminalise defamation through the back door,” noting that offline, defamation is treated as a matter of civil—not criminal—law in Jamaica.

Guatemalan news site attacked after posting interviews with fire survivors
A house fire that killed 40 young women at a shelter on the outskirts of Guatemala City on March 8 drew significant media attention in the region and beyond, but coverage of the story by local outlets did not go unpunished. Guatemalan independent news site NomadaGT, which published recorded testimonies from two young women who survived the fire, suffered what appeared to be a distributed denial of service attack, leaving the site offline for several hours.

UAE activist arrested for “publishing false information”
On March 20, authorities in the United Arab Emirates detained Ahmed Mansoor, a respected human rights defender who was the 2015 laureate of the Martin Ennals Foundation, which supports human rights defenders at risk. Mansoor stands accused of using social media “to publish false information and rumors as well as promoting a sectarian and hate-incited agenda.”

On March 15, an Abu Dhabi court convicted Jordanian journalist Tayseer al-Najjar of “insulting symbols of the state” on social media, which is a crime under the 2012 UAE Cybercrime Law. The case against al-Najjar focused primarily on a Facebook post that he published in 2014, while still living in Jordan, where he criticized the Emirati position in the 2014 war in Gaza.

Brazilian blogger forced to disclose sources to federal judge
A leftist Brazilian blogger named Eduardo Guimarães had laptop and two phones confiscated after he released key information about a confidential anti-corruption investigation in Brazil. A supporter of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and a leading figure among left-wing activists and politicians, Guimarães released information that was allegedly leaked from the investigation of the Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) corruption scandal. The blogger says he also was asked to disclose his sources, triggering a wave of online protests in the country’s blogosphere (including from right-wing bloggers) and reports in major media outlets concerning the protection of sources. Reporters Without Borders noted on the BBC that this is a “serious attack” on media freedom in Brazil.

Court rules U.S. citizen can’t sue Ethiopian government for putting spyware on his computer
A U.S. court of appeals ruled that an American citizen, who goes by the pseudonym Kidane, cannot sue the Ethiopian government for hacking into his computer using the targeted spy software FinSpy. The decision hinges on the court’s interpretation of where the hacking occurred: It ruled that though Kidane, who is Ethiopian-born, opened the infected email attachment in the United States, the placement of the virus began outside the United States.

Kidane’s lawyer, Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Nate Cardozo, said the court is simply wrong in this interpretation and called the ruling “extremely dangerous for cybersecurity.” The EFF said they are evaluating their options on appealing the ruling.

Internet freedom activists targeted by Ben Ali regime speak at Tunisian Commission
Tunisian blogger Zouhair Yahyaoui, who founded the satirical TUNeZINE online forum, was jailed and tortured for publishing “false news.” Now his story has been brought light as part of a series of public hearings on human rights violations under the dictatorship of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who governed Tunisia for 23 years until his January 2011 ousting.

Bloggers, activists, and relatives of those who were targeted by the Ben Ali regime testified before Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, which dedicated a special session to the issue of online rights violations. It remains unclear whether and how Tunisia’s transitional justice process will impact future Internet policies, but for a country once described as an “Internet enemy,” acknowledging its abusive past is an imperative first step toward reform.

New Research

Corporate Accountability Index 2017“—Ranking Digital Rights

The State of Internet Censorship in Thailand“—Open Observatory for Network Interference

March 23 2017 3:56 PM

The Government Probably Did Spy on Trump, Because It Surveils Almost All Americans

President Trump caused more trouble than he probably bargained for when he accused former President Obama of wiretapping him during the 2016 presidential campaign. The fallout has ensnared House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., in an impossible clash between his president, intelligence agencies, and his own political past.

It’s important to start by breaking down President Trump’s initial claim: that Obama wiretapped him for political purposes. Nonsense. There is no evidence that Obama was directly involved, ordered a wiretap, or acted for political reasons. There isn’t even any evidence that a wiretap exists. (Trump is hiding behind his use of quotation marks in the tweet, but wiretap has a very technical, legal meaning). Getting to this point has taken up most of the air since the tweet. Let’s be done with that debate. On its face, absent other, increasingly unlikely evidence to the contrary, Trump’s initial tweet is balderdash.

But let’s be generous and assume that he meant that the government spied on him while he was a candidate. That almost certainly is true. Why? Because the government has surveilled virtually all Americans. We know it did because of the Snowden leaks, and because it has argued in court that no volume of surveillance violates a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to metadata. While one program — the telephone metadata dragnet — was technically ended (and in some ways codified) by the USA Freedom Act in 2015, another law is still on the books with virtually no limits.

March 22 2017 3:22 PM

Future Tense Newsletter: a New Short Story From Station Eleven Author Emily St. John Mandel

Greetings, Future Tensers,

This past week we were thrilled to publish “Mr. Thursday,” a brand-new short story about time travel from Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven. In response to the story Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist at Arizona State University, explores the paradoxes of time travel through the laws of physics and answers whether it can really be done. The story was commissioned and edited jointly by Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. It is the second installment of Future Tense Fiction, a series of short stories from Future Tense and CSI about how technology and science will change our lives. (ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.)

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We also continued with our March Futurography unit on the new space race. If you need some good cocktail chatter, be sure to read Jacob Brogan on a declassified CIA document titled “Mars Exploration: May 22, 1984.” It describes the time the CIA supposedly traveled through time and space to Mars through astral projection.

More down-to-earth Futurography pieces take stock of Russia’s long-term prospects for space exploration and explore why India is investing more in its space endeavors. Lisa Messeri argues that we need to stop talking about space as a “frontier,” and Kirsten Berg provides a recap of the live Futurography convening we held in Washington, D.C., to ask whether collaboration or competition will propel space exploration. You can watch the full event here.

Other things we read while considering whether our morality problems can really be solved with a pill:

  • Cybersecurity’s gender gap: A new study suggests the gender gap in cybersecurity isn’t improving. Elizabeth Weingarten explains why this is far from just a “women’s issue.”
  • Biosecurity and cybersecurity: Kendall Hoyt describes the similarities and differences between biosecurity and cybersecurity research. It turns out they have more in common than just the word “virus.”
  • More to worry about from Russia: If you’re upset about Russia interfering with elections, Nathalie Maréchal suggests you should also worry about Russia’s domestic surveillance and censorship as well as its internet governance policy.

Events:

  • Technology—from virtual training to real-time biometric data—is poised to transform the sports industry. But will it make sports safer? Join Future Tense on Thursday, March 23, in Washington, D.C. for a happy hour conversation with those working to sideline injuries. RSVP to attend in person or watch online.
  • Algorithms tell us what to read, where to go, and whom to date … but do we really understand them? Join Ed Finn in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, March 28 to discuss his new book What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing. RSVP to attend in person or watch online. You can also read an excerpt from his book, about how Netflix uses algorithms to get you hooked, on Future Tense.
  • Is technology enriching language? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Join Future Tense in New York on Wednesday, March 29, for a conversation on how new and emerging technologies are changing the way we speak, write, and communicate. RSVP to attend in person here.

Robot-suiting up,
Emily Fritcke
For Future Tense

March 21 2017 1:16 PM

Jeff Bezos Takes the Ride of His Life in a Mechanized Robot Suit

Thanks to Jeff Bezos’ company Amazon, those with money to burn have easy access to almost any object they might desire. Some things, however, are still reserved for the lucky few. While attending the Amazon-hosted, invitation-only Machine-Learning, Automation, and Space Exploration conference this week, Bezos took the opportunity to sit in the pilot seat of a 13-foot-tall robot suit. In a picture that he tweeted from the event, the machine’s arms are spread wide, seemingly mimicking the mogul’s own gesture. Bezos grins from the cockpit with the wide smile of a lucky child on Christmas morning.

As technology blogger Anil Dash joked in a response to Bezos’ tweet, the bald billionaire looks disquietingly like Jeff Bridges’ Iron Man villain:

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Is this the future that we are welcoming? One in which billionaires slug it out via enhanced technology? After the end of environmental safety regulations mutate Donald Trump and his Cabinet, forcing them to reveal their true kaijü forms and leading them to rampage through our cities, will Bezos be the only one who can save us?

OK, maybe not. If the robot suit in question looks like something out of a science fiction movie, that’s no accident. Its designer Vitaly Bulgarov is best known for his work on films such as Transformers: Age of Extinction and the 2014 remake of Robocop. In a 2016 interview with New Atlas, Bulgarov claims, “I tried to avoid looking at any sci-fi robots for inspiration, we wanted to start with a clean slate.” Ultimately, however, he says that the iterative design process led to something that happened to look a lot like the mechanized suits from James Cameron’s film Avatar.

Still, this isn’t—at least not for now—some combat-ready creation, despite a 2016 article from Quartz that suggests models might be “deployed along the North Korean border as a warning to Kim Jong-un’s regime.” As the Verge’s John Vincent notes in an article about Bezos’ adventure, though the suit definitely can move—videos show the arms waving about in response to the pilot’s gestures—there’s no evidence that it’s capable of exerting real force. “From what we’ve seen of the Method-2 so far, it’s basically a very impressive puppet,” Vincent writes.

In other words, if you did try to punch something with it, there are decent odds that it would just fall over. Much as it resembles a Summoner OmniMech, it seems unlikely to survive a bout with anything more monstrous than the mechanical dragon horse that performed at the Beijing Olympics.

What is it for, then? Quartz claims, “The mechanical suit will reportedly assist in cleaning up and restoring Fukushima after the 2011 nuclear energy accident.” At this point, even that seems a little optimistic. All we know for sure is that it’s good at one thing: giving very rich men the rides of their lives.

March 17 2017 8:19 AM

Will Collaboration or Competition Propel Humans to Mars and Beyond? A Future Tense Event Recap.

Very soon, the United States won’t be the only player to have sent humans to the moon. There’s a new space race emerging—one that looks very different from the Cold War competition that gave Americans the triumph of the Apollo program. From SpaceX to Blue Origin, China to India, Luxembourg to Nigeria, the UAE to the EU, new nations and institutions have been getting in on the extraterrestrial game. They might take tourists to the moon. Fly corporations to asteroids. Transport taikonauts or vyomanauts to Mars.

But will they be competing or collaborating to get to these new frontiers? And how will their successes or failures shape our future in space—and alter life back on Earth?

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These are the questions Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—posed to experts at a live event in Washington, D.C., on March 8. The conversation was part of our ongoing Futurography series on the geopolitics of space.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU, launched the conversation by setting up the extraterrestrial stakes.

“We have a lot of questions about our future, and I think that a lot of them are going to be answered in the context of space exploration. Not just in international relations, but resources, technology, social behaviors, the fracturing of the human race,” she said. “How are we going to feel when the first baby is born on Mars? What’s going to happen to us on a species when we confirm there’s life off of the Earth, is it going to be a fracturing event or a combining event?”

Elkins-Tanton thinks we need to continue taking bold steps toward big goals (hers is Mars) and do it under a new cooperative paradigm—one that can make life on our planet better as we work to move beyond it.

Former NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan agreed that the future of space needs to be international (as she wrote about for our Futurography series). Luckily, we’re already starting from a place of collaboration. “Just look at the International Space Station,” she said, referring to the 15 countries that partnered on the manned satellite, “and keep in mind it’s been up there for 16 years.” In addition to bringing nations together, she said, it’s also led to scientific discoveries that will serve more ambitious future missions. Among them, she said: findings about how microgravity alters combustion, gene expression, and manufacturing (one early success: 3-D printing a ratchet wrench on the station).  

But nations aren’t the only ones in the space game. Entrepreneurs are betting big on rockets, satellites, habs, mines, and more, but they’re doing more than just expanding their bottom lines, said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Space Flight Federation, an industry association that represents dozens of these new space corporations. They’re expanding access, he said. Competition lowers the price for a private ticket to low-Earth orbit, for a budget-constrained NASA to launch cargo and crews, or for elementary schooler to build and launch a CubeSat.

But these public-private partnerships won’t necessarily produce the Mars shot kind of outcomes the scientific community wants, said Scott Pace, professor of international affairs at George Washington University and director of its Space Policy Institute. Corporations innovate for return on investment, while countries spend on space for political returns he said. Neither acts solely for the sake of mankind. (See: Cold War-era NASA budgets, post-Soviet cooperation with the Russians, the law stopping NASA from working with the China, domestic economic incentives.)

Though some may dream of a near-term venture to the red planet, lunar missions provide more immediate opportunities for commercial and international partnerships, Pace said—and that’s what will drive the agenda. “Mars is in our hearts,” he said, “but the moon is in our business plans.”

George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic (the flashy “world’s first commercial spaceline” founded by kitesurfing business magnate Richard Branson), said he sees today’s dynamics setting the stage for a rapid expansion of human presence beyond Earth. In a conversation with New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter, Whitesides said that we need to think carefully about the values we send with our pioneers. As Slaughter pointed out, current entrepreneurial endeavors in space are overwhelmingly dominated by males—Branson, Bezos, Musk, and the people they employ—so we need to examine whether the gendered competition might be skewing those values in ways we may not desire.

The final speakers highlighted the ways that we are already setting some of these values today. Many of the new players in the space race are trying to make sure that we don’t simply re-create Earth’s dynamics. For some small countries, space offers an opportunity for reinvention. The United Arab Emirates, for one, is building a space program to diversify the Emirati economy and, perhaps more importantly, to inspire youth across the region, said Talal Al Kaissi, a space affairs representative for the UAE Embassy. Meanwhile, tiny Luxembourg is working to become an international hub for the space mining industry, a grand move for a tiny nation of fewer than 600,000, said Véronique Dockendorf, deputy chief of mission for the Luxembourg Embassy.

Thomas Cremins, NASA’s associate administrator for strategy and plans, says that his agency wants to model the norms—information sharing, multinational cooperation, preventing space from becoming another domain of warfare—it hopes to see among new players, he said.

Whether those ideals hold up against a rising tide of nationalism, however, may determine where we go and how fast we get there. “We can be in Mars orbit in about decade if we chose to,” says Rob Chambers of Lockheed Martin, a company that’s been working with NASA to go to the red planet for more than 40 years. But if we want to do it, Chambers said, we have to work with other countries and the private sector so we stop wasting resources reinventing technology that already exists.

Science fiction authors Deji Olukotun and Karl Schroeder said that we also need a story that gets the public excited about undertaking a manned mission to Mars. Human discoveries have already written some of that narrative, said Schroeder. In his lifetime, he says, the red planet has already been transformed from Edwardian fantasy to desolate lunar wasteland to something to a dynamic environment that’s potentially alive. From something imagined to something that’s speaking to us.

Now, the writers agreed, we just have to write a plot where we can imagine getting there.

March 16 2017 6:11 PM

Future Tense Event: Is Technology Enriching Language? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The oral tradition begat the printing press and the bounded book, which begat our touchscreen civilization, which begat much hand-wringing about the fate of language. It's easy to bemoan the informality and spontaneity of ubiquitous, democratized communication in all its forms—especially if you're willing to dismiss the democratization. But the ability to communicate across cultures and distance has never been greater, and technology increasingly provides translation across media, languages, and cultures in real time.

Join Future Tense in New York on Wednesday, March 29, for a happy hour conversation on how new and emerging technologies are changing the way we speak, write, and communicate. Will language be richer or poorer for it? For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

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Participants

Melissa Broder
Poet and author, Last Sext

John McWhorter
Linguist and associate professor of English and comparative literature, Columbia University

Ben Zimmer
Language columnist, the Wall Street Journal

Katy Waldman
Words correspondent, Slate

March 16 2017 11:38 AM

The Russian Officials Charged in the Yahoo Hack Will Never Be Arrested. Maybe That’s OK.

In 2014, when the Justice Department charged five members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army with illegal cyberespionage, the New York Times called the move “almost certainly symbolic since there is virtually no chance that the Chinese would turn over the five People’s Liberation Army members named in the indictment.” Indeed, nearly three years later, those charges have led to no arrests and, seemingly, has done little more than irritate the Chinese government.

The Justice Department’s decision this week to charge two members of the Russian Federal Security Service with similar cyber espionage crimes—tied, in this case, to the 2014 breach of millions of Yahoo user accounts—appears, at first glance, to be similarly symbolic. The traditional legal toolset for enforcing laws—indictments, trials, juries, imprisonment—are not especially useful when it comes to going after people who are living in other countries and are protected by (indeed, in these cases, employed by) their home governments. The United States can file as many furious indictments as it likes against the members of foreign intelligence services who have infiltrated U.S. computer systems, but the FBI Wanted posters are unlikely to deter those services from doing their jobs.

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Still, this week’s charges against the Russians may be slightly more meaningful and less symbolic than those against the Chinese for two reasons.

First, the newly released charges actually resulted in an arrest—not of either of the two charged FSB officers but of independent hacker Karim Baratov, who allegedly helped the FSB infiltrate Yahoo’s networks and who, inconveniently for him, lived in Canada. The two FSB officers named in the indictment, Dmitry Dokuchaev and Igor Sushchin, and the other independent hacker charged with helping them, Alexsey Belan, all live in Russia and have not been arrested. They probably never will be. But even being able to try one person for complicity in a foreign government’s cyberespionage efforts would be a triumph both because it might actually help deter others from following the same path and, perhaps more likely, the trial could offer even greater insight into the inner workings of Russia's cyber operation.

Second, the the indictment filed against Dokuchaev, Sushchin, Belan, and Baratov gives the rather remarkable impression that arrest and prosecution was not necessarily even the Justice Department’s endgame. Instead, the details of the Yahoo breach laid out in the document seem designed to embarrass the four accused men, perhaps even get them in trouble with their own employer—and to spread distrust of the FSB within Russia and neighboring countries.

The indictment details how the accused allegedly tried to use their compromise of Yahoo’s networks to enrich themselves, not just to provide useful intelligence to the Russian government. For instance, according to the indictment, Belan hijacked Yahoo searches for erectile dysfunction drugs so that people who searched for them would be redirected to the website of an online pharmaceutical company that would, in turn, pay Belan for sending traffic its way. The indictment also accuses Belan of searching compromised Yahoo email accounts for retail gift cards and credit card information. And no surprise he was trying to supplement his income since the FSB’s freelancing fee, per the indictment, is roughly $100 per targeted compromised account.

While much of the indictment covers the compromise of accounts run by U.S. companies, including Google as well as Yahoo, the actual espionage activities it details are largely unrelated to U.S. targets. For instance, their targets apparently included officers of a Russian financial firm, an assistant to the deputy chairman of the Russian Federation, the chairman of a Russian Federation Council committee, a physical training expert employed by the Ministry of Sports of a Russian republic, the CEO of a metals industry holding company in a country bordering Russia, a prominent banker and university trustee in a country bordering Russia, an International Monetary Fund official, employees at a major Russian cybersecurity firm, and an officer of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs working in its “Bureau of Special Technical Projects” (which, coincidentally, investigates “cyber, high technology, and child pornography crimes”).

The indictment doesn’t name any specific victims or compromised email accounts but it does offer some largely redacted examples of targeted accounts (******as@gmail.com, for instance, as well as ********ov@yahoo.com and ************va@gmail.com). I can only imagine these were included in an effort to send into a panic every person in Russia (and its neighboring countries) with a last name ending in –va, –ov, or –as.

Indeed, much of the indictment seems to have been written to incite discord and distrust of the FSB by Russian companies and government officials. On the flip side, it could serve as a warning to the FSB that its freelancers are using their assignments not just to gather the requested information but also to pick up a few stolen gift cards and redirect some unwitting online shoppers just trying to find a reputable place to buy their male enhancement drugs. Hopefully, it will also make Russians a little more wary of emails purporting to be from the Russian Federal Tax Service (a phishing technique employed by Sushchin and Dokuchaev to try to compromise accounts of Russian financial officers).

Whether any of that will matter to the Russian government is anybody’s guess, but it’s an interesting way to try to make what would otherwise be a fairly toothless indictment a bit sharper. Rather than a tool of legal process, this indictment reads more as a reminder that the U.S. government can also reveal embarrassing information about the inner workings of the Russian government, even if it can’t get its hands on the men who stole your Amazon gift card.

March 16 2017 11:29 AM

Netizen Report: Azerbaijani Bloggers Targeted With Legal Threats, Spearphishing

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. Ellery Roberts Biddle, Arzu Geybullayeva, Leila Nachawati Rego, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

Azerbaijani video blogger Mehman Huseynov was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of slander over videos he shared on his Facebook page. His page, where he covers a range of topics including working conditions and the wealth of government officials, has more than 300,000 followers.

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Arresting, silencing, and intimidating journalists, bloggers, and activists is par for the course in Azerbaijan these days, but Huseynov is the first blogger or journalist to be officially sentenced for slander by a court in Azerbaijan. Prior cases of journalists or bloggers being sentenced typically involved charges like narcotics possession (often bogus), hooliganism, abuse of power, and tax evasion.

Targeted surveillance of human rights advocates also appears to be increasingly common. New reports and technical research confirm that multiple advocates in the country have fallen victim to spearphishing surveillance technologies, which create fake accounts or take over real accounts in order to impersonate other human rights defenders in the country.

According to Amnesty International and other researchers, several activists have reported finding someone had impersonated their emails and Facebook accounts in order to identify and compromise others they communicate with. Dissidents in the country have experienced similar attacks in the past, and Azerbaijan is among the countries that sought to acquire targeted surveillance software from the company Hacking Team—but many fear this is a sign the political circumstances for human rights defenders in the country are likely to get worse.

Censorship is rising in France—is anyone watching?
The number of websites blocked and delisted (that is, removed from search engine results) more than doubled in France in 2016 compared with past years. Under a law passed shortly after the 2015 attacks in Paris, 834 websites were blocked and 1,929 were delisted in the last year, an increase likely tied to the counter-terrorism regulation that enables authorities to order the blocking of sites without the approval of a judge. There is no list of which websites have been blocked or delisted, making it difficult to assess how authorities are implementing the rules, and whether or not any sites have been blocked without legitimate cause. The nongovernmental organization coalition European Digital Rights and the website Islamic News, which was blocked shortly after the law was enacted, have both criticized the policy.

China censors scientists who criticize censorship regime
Yet again, Chinese scientists have spoken out against the country’s web filtering system, the Great Firewall, arguing that the system damages research. Luo Fuhe, vice chair of the national advisory body the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, recently submitted a proposal urging the government to improve loading speeds for overseas websites. As in the past, shortly after local media began to pick up coverage of the proposal, reports started to be taken down by national censors.

Pakistani leaders talk again of censoring “blasphemous” content online
In Pakistan’s National Assembly, multiple officials, including Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, have called for bans on social media platforms that allow blasphemy. This is not unprecedented by any means—YouTube has been temporarily blocked multiple times and was banned from late 2012 to early 2016 due in large part to content deemed offensive to religious sentiment. Increasingly, individuals and organized groups use accusations of blasphemy to silence others. Two major TV networks have been embroiled in legal blasphemy cases in the last two years.

Representatives also have linked these arguments with concerns about social media users criticizing government officials online. Local news outlet Dawn said that a statement from the interior minister essentially argued that “no country could allow religious sentiments to be hurt or top state functionaries to be subjected to ridicule under the pretext of freedom of expression.”

Facebook: Developers can no longer use data for surveillance purposes
Facebook announced new prohibitions against the use of its data by developers for the purposes of mass surveillance. Last fall, the ACLU found that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter sold user data to Geofeedia, a company advertising social media surveillance tools to police in the United States to monitor protesters and activists of color. With Facebook’s latest response, all three platforms now have a clearly stated policy that bans the use of their data, which can be obtained through their platform APIs, for surveillance purposes.

South Africans to government: #HandsOffSocialMedia
South African social media users pushed back strongly against reported plans to regulate social media to counter false narratives and the spread of fake news. Rallying around the hashtag #HandsOffSocialMedia, South Africans have accused the government of seeking to control expression and discourse in the country.

The Philippines moves to accredit bloggers—with strings attached
The Philippine government announced plans to give media accreditation to bloggers and social media publishers. Accreditation will grant bloggers easier and faster access to media passes for government events, but would restrict the use of “offensive, inflammatory, or provocative” language. The proposal would also require that they publish press releases and statements from the Presidential Communications Operations Office. Several prominent independent media workers expressed concern about these requirements at a recent town hall meeting, including journalism professor Danilo Arao, who later wrote that the policy would reduce accredited bloggers to “mere mouthpieces” of the Presidential Communications office.

Why did Russia add a secure app to its “information dissemination organizer” list?
Russian media regulator added the messaging app Threema to its Registry of Information Dissemination Organizers, the first time it has included a foreign app to the list. The list was introduced after a federal law was passed requiring all websites to store Russian users’ metadata and make it available to authorities. Threema claims it offers users full anonymity, though it has not released its full code to the public for vetting that this is the case.

Syrian web developer has been in prison for five years
On March 15, 2012, web developer and human rights activist Bassel Khartabil was imprisoned by the Syrian government in Damascus. Since October 2015, his whereabouts have been unknown. Creative Commons and the FreeBassel campaign are proposing a set of actions that friends and followers can take to express their support for his release.

March 15 2017 1:30 PM

Future Tense Newsletter: What Algorithms Can Learn From a Single Photograph

Greetings, Future Tensers,

Maybe you should think twice before hitting “share” on that photo. As former Amazon chief scientist Andreas Weigend wrote this week, photo-analyzing software has advanced to the point where it can recognize faces, deduce place and time of day, speculate whether you’re in a fancy restaurant or gay bar, guess your emotional sentiments, or even copy your fingerprints. As these algorithms bring us closer to a post-privacy world, he argues, “we need to start thinking about how these images of us might be used to make decisions about us”—and how we might protect against algorithmic discrimination.

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Engineers are also creating algorithms with the potential to predict something else significant about us—when we’ll die. But, says end-of-life care researcher Ravi Parikh, that may not be as unsettling as it seems. In their increasingly accurate prognoses, he explains, these mortality-prophesizing machines may actually give us more humanity.

Here are some other things we read between generating Texas oilmen aliases for our all climate change–related correspondences:

Whack hacking claims: Despite some fearmongering reports, the WikiLeaks documents detailing CIA hacking tools do not show that the spy agency has compromised secure messaging apps like Signal. Instead, it shows they found risky, expensive, hard-to-scale ways to hack the phones they run on, writes Yael Grauer. They didn’t “break Signal any more than looking at your phone over your shoulder breaks Signal,” one expert told Grauer.

Dumped, again: Trey Herr explains that though we don’t know who provided the CIA files to WikiLeaks last week, political rivals have taken notice of the damage that leaking their opponents’ espionage tools can do. Expect a lot more of these sorts of dumps in the future.

5 fast facts about Heavy.com: Will Oremus gives us the lowdown on Heavy.com, the site that’s been dominating your Google news search results, in the signature quintet style the site has come to be known for.

Events:

Could technology—from high-tech helmets to virtual training to real-time biometric data—make sports safer? And how will it change the state of play? Join Future Tense in Washington, D.C., on March 23 for drinks and conversation with those working to sideline injuries. RSVP to attend in person or watch online here.

Algorithms tell us what to read, where to go, and whom to date, but do we really understand them? Join ASU’s Ed Finn, author of the new book What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing, and the New Atlantis Christine Rosen in Washington on March 28 for a conversation about why we need to understand the systems that increasingly steer our lives.* RSVP to attend in person or watch online here.

Bon voyage, Boaty McBoatface,
Kirsten Berg
for Future Tense

*Correction, March 15, 2017: This post originally misstated the location of the Future Tense event about the book What Algorithms Want. It will be held in Washington, not New York.

March 15 2017 11:05 AM

What Algorithms Want: A Future Tense Book Event

It’s easy to think of algorithms as magical beings, delivering purely objective, admirably efficient, and sometimes startlingly insightful solutions to our everyday problems, but in his new book What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing, Ed Finn reveals them to be more like Captain Kirk than Spock. The algorithm shares roots with Alan Turing and ancient Babylonian mathematicians, but also the boundaries of language, cognition and magical thinking.

How are algorithms changing our lives, from the aesthetics of television shows to the structure of the economy? What, really, do algorithms want from us? Do they have an imagination of their own? An agenda?

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CUPERTINO, CA - OCTOBER 27: Emoticons are displayed on the Touch Bar on a new Apple MacBook Pro laptop during a product launch event on October 27, 2016 in Cupertino, California. Apple Inc. unveiled the latest iterations of its MacBook Pro line of laptops and TV app. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)

Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images

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On Tuesday, March 28, Ed Finn—the director of Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination and the academic director of Future Tense—will discuss What Algorithms Want at a happy hour event at the New America office in Washington, D.C. He’ll be joined by Christine Rosen, a Future Tense fellow and senior editor of the New Atlantis, to examine why we need to understand algorithms and how computational intelligence can build (or prevent) an enhanced (human) future.

The reception and registration will open at 5:30 p.m., followed by the conversation at 6 p.m. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

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