Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Feb. 5 2016 5:21 PM

Apple Is Killing Some iPhones Repaired by Third Parties. But There’s Sort of a Good Reason.

Our devices are an important part of daily life, so a shattered smartphone screen or a broken headphone jack needs to be fixed—the quicker and cheaper the better. But if you have an iPhone and don't go through Apple, you could be left with a hopeless brick.

On Friday, the Guardian published a troubling report about an iPhone problem called "Error 53." Numerous anecdotes, discovered in forums online and gathered by the Guardian itself, describe the same issue: a bricked iPhone that will only display an "Error 53" message and can't be restored. IPhones producing Error 53 run iOS 9 and contain a replaced part that is affecting either the device's Touch ID sensor or motherboard.


Apparently Apple has iPhone motherboards and Touch IDs tied to special codes. Beginning with iOS 9, if a component gets replaced but doesn't have the correct matching code, the phone will become a hopeless brick. This happens most commonly when a third-party does a home-button repair, but can also come from changing the motherboard during a cracked-screen replacement.

Reports of problems with Error 53 are becoming more frequent as iOS 9 adoption increases. A user who replaced her home button months or even years ago through a third party won't notice a problem until she upgrades to iOS 9. The only way to fix the problem is to reunite the original parts. But Error 53 can even be triggered without any type of third-party repair. If a home button is broken, or the ribbon cable that connects it is loose, the phone may become a brick in error.

Apple says that this measure is meant to protect Touch IDs against tampering. A representative told the Guardian:

We protect fingerprint data using a secure enclave, which is uniquely paired to the touch ID sensor. When iPhone is serviced by an authorised Apple service provider or Apple retail store for changes that affect the touch ID sensor, the pairing is re-validated. ... Without this unique pairing, a malicious touch ID sensor could be substituted, thereby gaining access to the secure enclave. When iOS detects that the pairing fails, touch ID, including Apple Pay, is disabled so the device remains secure.

It's a pretty solid defense of the practice. You can easily imagine a crooked repair shop installing malware-ridden Touch IDs that steal fingerprints and other data. But there are some problems with Apple's approach.

Apple products are increasingly available around the world, but there aren't Apple Stores or official Apple repair sites in every region. Nonetheless, the company has always been adamant about discouraging third-party repairs. For years Apple Care warranties have warned that they could be voided by the presence of third-party parts in a device. This is Apple's attempt to control all phases (money-making opportunities) of product life. It allows the company to charge what it wants for repairs by discouraging customers from seeking cheaper alternatives. And you can see how the Touch ID situation is a perfect opportunity to take this one step further. Apple offers major disincentives for criminals to tamper with Touch ID and Apple Pay while also scaring consumers into sticking to official company repairs.

Similar conflicts have arisen in the vehicle repair industry. Companies like John Deere and General Motors have argued that they should be the only ones who are allowed to tinker with the software in their vehicles, claiming that individuals or third-parties who accessed and altered the software by themselves would be violating copyright protections. This seems to be both an attempt to keep proprietary software a secret and a move to undermine third-party mechanics. As Kyle Wiens, the co-founder of the "right-to-repair" site iFixit, wrote on Slate last month, "I’m not a lawyer. I’m a repairman by trade and a software engineer by education. ... When a farmer friend of mine wanted to know if there was a way to tweak the copyrighted software of his broken tractor, I knew it was going to be rough."

Apple doesn't have to leave Touch ID security this way. It could detect hardware changes and require extensive user reauthentication. It could offer third parties some type of parts-vetting process. It could give customers more leeway to choose what risks they want to take. Instead, Error 53 is excessively paternalistic. It's good to help protect consumers by building in precautions and encouraging the use of high-quality parts, but Apple isn't a parent. It shouldn't literally take customer's phones away if they do something it doesn't like.

Feb. 5 2016 9:54 AM

Here’s How to Stream the Super Bowl Even if You Don’t Have a Cable Login

It's pretty easy to be a cord-cutter these days, relying on streaming services and set-top boxes instead of paying for cable. But for certain big shows and events, you likely still find yourself scrambling to borrow someone’s cable credentials. Luckily, you won't have to prostrate yourself before your ex-boyfriend's dog walker's cousin to gain access to a Super Bowl stream on Sunday. There are a bunch of ways to view it for free.

The first place to check is CBS, the network broadcasting the game this year. There will be an open stream on the CBS Sports website and through the app, which you can download for platforms like Android, iOS, AndroidTV, Roku, Xbox One, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire products. Only Verizon Wireless customers will be able to stream the game on their smartphones because of an exclusivity deal with the NFL.


GeekWire notes that international viewers can watch through NFL Game Pass, but a subscription to the service costs $100 per year. Not exactly free. And the New York Times lists popular digital antennas, if you want to watch over the air the old-fashioned way. I have a cheap indoor HDTV antenna from Amazon Basics that works fine, but depending on how far you are from signal transmitters, you may need a better-quality model.

Television networks have been streaming the Super Bowl live and for free since 2012, which is a good reminder of how far cord-cutting culture has come in a few short years. It's already the fifth anniversary of free access the game. And the networks seem to be evolving with the trend, however slowly. This year for the first time, the CBS livestream will show all the ads that run on the regular broadcast. No point missing out on online viewers when there are more and more of them every year.

Feb. 4 2016 5:38 PM

The FAA Plan to Prevent A Modern-Day “Fan Man” from Crashing the Super Bowl

Two months ago Slate asked me to watch every Super Bowl game ever played. I did so—watching roughly 160 hours worth of football—and then I wrote about it. I wrote about the meaning of the Super Bowl throughout the years; I wrote about the best and worst Super Bowl commercials of all time; I ranked every Super Bowl from top to bottom. I know a lot about the Super Bowl, is what I’m trying to say. So you should trust me when I say that the Super Bowl is no place for drones.

If you don’t trust me, then at least trust the Federal Aviation Administration, which really, really, really wants you to know that drones and the Super Bowl do not mix. The agency has issued a temporary flight restriction for all drone traffic within a 32-mile radius of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, between 2 p.m. and 11:59 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday. The Super Bowl drone ban should come as no surprise. The FAA already prohibits gametime drone traffic over major outdoor sporting events; and last year’s Super Bowl was subject to similar restrictions.


Decades ago, well-meaning intruders like James “Fan Man” Miller won fame for paragliding into boxing matches and buzzing NFL playoff games. But the sporting establishment frowned on Fan Man even back then, and there’s even less tolerance for airborne interruptions now, when everyone and their brother has a drone, and you don’t need a gigantic fan-powered parachute to stoke panic at big games. Over the past year or so, enough sporting events have been interrupted by errant drones for it to count as a minor epidemic. The FAA is basically saying “enough is enough.”

Anyway, violate this ban, and you risk being shamed and sanctioned; the Los Angeles Times reports that individual violators risk a potential $1,000 fine, while commercial violators risk a potential $27,500 fine. You also risk having your drone downed and destroyed by government personnel on the lookout for tiny flying security threats. Maybe your drone will be shot down; maybe an eagle will swoop up and grab it. Either way, if you violate the drone-free perimeter, it’s unlikely that you’ll see your device again.

“With so many drones being sold for recreational use, we want to do everything we can to get the word out that the game is a No Drone Zone,” FAA administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. The agency even produced a slick little video to help bring the message home, helpfully listing three things that you should bring to the game—your lucky jersey, your face paint, your team spirit—in lieu of your drone: 

This article is part of a Future Tense series on the future of drones and is part of a larger project, supported by a grant from Omidyar Network and Humanity United, that includes a drone primer from New America.

Feb. 4 2016 2:12 PM

A University Hack Exposed 63,000 Social Security Numbers. Face, Meet Palm.

University of Central Florida president John Hitt announced Thursday that the school has been, well, hacked. Discovered at the beginning of January, the breach exposed the social security numbers and other identifying personal information of 63,000 students, former students, and faculty/staff.

The announcement, spotted by Gizmodo, notes that credit card numbers, financial records, medical records, and grades were not affected. UCF is a big community—the school enrolled 60,810 students in 2014—but it seems that the breach centered on certain groups (perhaps based on which information was easiest for the hackers to access). UCF's investigation showed that current and former student athletes, students who work for the university, and certain categories of staff are at high risk.


UCF is sending letters to everyone whose information was compromised and will offer a year of free credit and identity monitoring to them. The university is offering a website and hotline that community members can use to get information.

Hitt wrote, "Safeguarding your personal information is of the utmost importance at UCF. To ensure our vigilance, I have called for a thorough review of our online systems, policies and training to determine what improvements we can make in light of this recent incident."

The university has taken solid steps to address the hack and disclosed it fairly quickly. But it wouldn't be a public hack disclosure without a few out-of-touch comments. In answering the question, "What should I do to help protect myself from identity theft?" the University’s Q&A says, "Out of an abundance of caution, we recommend that you carefully check credit reports for accounts or inquiries you do not recognize." But it's not really an "abundance of caution" when your school has been hacked, right?

Feb. 3 2016 5:02 PM

Europe’s Brand-New Data Transfer Agreement With the U.S. Is Already Drawing Criticism

The European Union’s highest court struck down the 15-year-old “Safe Harbor” data-transfer pact in October. But on Tuesday the European Commission announced that it had brokered a new data-flow agreement with the United States. Known as the “Privacy Shield,” the revision is meant to address the court’s problems with the old arrangement. But critics are already beginning to emerge.

The broad goal of this type of agreement is to shuttle data from EU to U.S. data centers in a way that complies with EU privacy laws and protects data from all sorts of government surveillance. The Privacy Shield promises to impose stricter standards on how companies communicate with customers and handle their data and calls for increased enforcement from the U.S. Department of Commerce and Federal Trade Commission. These agencies will also be involved in conflict resolution if Europeans feel that their data is being mishandled.


At this point the Privacy Shield needs to be turned into a full draft proposal so it can be submitted for approval by the 28 nation states in the EU. U.S. agencies and businesses also need to figure out how they will comply with the changes.

The plan is already generating skepticism and criticism, though. On Wednesday a group of European privacy agencies asked for a number of clarifications about the new agreement, fearing that it doesn’t do enough to protect European citizens from surveillance by U.S. government agencies. Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, chief of privacy in France and chair of an EU body of data protection authorities, told the New York Times, “We want to receive the documents to assess whether the E.U.-U.S. Privacy Shield can answer our concerns. ... We have to review the consequences of this arrangement.”

Others worry about whether the new agreement will be viable. Austrian privacy campaigner Max Schrems told Ars Technica, “If this case goes back to the ECJ [European Court of Justice]—which it very likely will do, if there is a new safe harbour that does not meet the test of the court—then it will fail again, and nobody wants that.”

For businesses, especially small businesses, the cost burden of reforming to meet the new agreement could be significant, costing hundreds of millions of dollars across various industries. And the European Commission didn’t attempt to downplay this fact. In its announcement the commission said that U.S. companies would have “robust obligations” if they want to serve EU customers. Allison Grande wrote on Law360 on Tuesday, “The increase in compliance obligations and legal exposure compared with the previous regime should make companies think twice about blindly signing on to the revamped deal.”

When a full Privacy Shield draft emerges in the next few weeks, there will be more for interests groups to pick apart. But privacy regulations are so contentious right now that even without a draft it only took a few hours for the controversy to heat up.

Feb. 3 2016 3:59 PM

The Dutch Have Devised the Best Drone Defense System: Trained Eagles

There are many ways to stop an errant or hostile drone from venturing over forbidden territory—more and more methods every month, it seems. “Shooting it down with a shotgun” is a popular method, but also unimaginative, and generally illegal. In October, I wrote about the DroneDefender, a futuristic rifle-shaped device that uses directed radio waves to force wandering drones to the ground. In January, a professor at Michigan Technological University announced a drone taker-downer that was basically just another drone equipped with a big net. Now, there’s a new method for repelling unwanted drones, and that method is a trained eagle.

Jamie Condliffe at Gizmodo reports that the Netherlands National Police have hit on the honestly brilliant idea of training eagles to identify errant drones and pluck them out of the air as if they were prey. That’s the long and short of it. You should basically just watch the video here to get a sense of how this would work under ideal circumstances:


The apparent ease with which eagles can be trained to swoop up and snatch consumer electronics out of midair is mildly alarming. If I were a mugger, I would acquire one of these eagles and send that sucker out to grab as many iPhones as possible. The point is, there’s a fighting-fire-with-fire mentality that seems to demand that we meet technological problems with technological solutions, but sometimes the simplest solutions can be just as good. (Not that training an eagle to attack a drone is simple, per se, but it’s simpler than building a futuristic radio-rifle or having to constantly stuff and restuff a damn net inside a second drone.)

Obviously there’s a huge difference between training an eagle to successfully grab a drone in controlled circumstances in a giant warehouse and having it do so out in the real world. But regardless of whether the eagle program is effective as a drone repellent, I suspect that it might pay unexpected benefits as a drone deterrent. I, for one, would think twice about operating my own drone recklessly if I knew there was a chance that it might be snatched from the skies by a bird of prey and carried back to some remote aerie, never to be seen again. So maybe the publicity around a campaign like this is just as important—or more so—than the actual efficacy of the program itself. And maybe American officials should be considering similar attention-grabbing methods. We’ve got the eagles!

This article is part of a Future Tense series on the future of drones and is part of a larger project, supported by a grant from Omidyar Network and Humanity United, that includes a drone primer from New America.

Feb. 3 2016 10:46 AM

Future Tense Newsletter: A Hypothetical Climate

Greetings, Future Tensers,

January has come to an end, and with it our first Futurography course. By way of conclusion, we published a second excerpt from Oliver Morton’s The Planet Remade in which Morton imagines how geoengineering projects might begin with a small group of rogue nations trying to make a difference. Hypothetical as such endeavors remain, they seem a little more urgent when you consider that climate change may contribute to the spread of Zika mosquitoes in the decades ahead.


Fortunately, we’re not quite there yet, just as we’re not on the brink of some “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” despite the overeager claims of some at the World Economic Form. Real change may be incremental, as when General Electric announced this week that it would stop producing compact fluorescent light bulbs in favor of more energy-efficient LED options. Still, there’s something to be said for imagining extreme scenarios, like the one in Occupied, a Norwegian political thriller that features Russia invading after Norway cuts off oil and gas production.

Even with our geoengineering course behind us, we’ll continue to report on and discuss such issues. For now, Futurography has moved on to its next topic: the question of whether we’ve given algorithms too much power. As we did last month, we’re starting off with a conversational introduction to the topic and a cheat sheet that will introduce you to key terms, players, debates, and other essential information. We’ll have much more in the days and weeks ahead. And we’re curious to hear what you learned from our previous unit. Consider testing your knowledge with our quiz and letting us know what you think about geoengineering. We’ll be reporting on the results soon.

In the meantime, here are the other stories we read while we were losing to a computer at Go:

  • Virtual reality: Companies are getting serious about VR, partly because consumers are finally getting on board—as is the open source community.
  • Assistive technology: At Carnegie Mellon University, Bluetooth-emitting beacons are changing how the blind move through—and interact with—the world around them.
  • Flat-earthers: Lawrence Krauss argues that the resurgence of ludicrous theories about our planet presents an opportunity to engage in some basic scientific observations.
  • Oregon Trail: A co-creator of one of the best-selling video games of all time showed up on Reddit to dish about its origins. We have the details.


Looking for the bug spray,

Jacob Brogan

for Future Tense

Feb. 3 2016 8:19 AM

This Company Waited More Than a Decade for People to Get Serious About Virtual Reality

Virtual reality feels cutting-edge. It’s been around in some form since the ’90s (and even before, sort of), but the technology has really started to come into its own in the past few years. There are VR films at Sundance, VR news apps, and, of course, VR video games. So for VR company Sensics, patience has been crucial.

“Virtual reality trade shows used to be half a dozen exhibitors. It was like a club,” says CEO Yuval Boger. Founded in the late ’90s, Sensics is based on technology developed at Johns Hopkins for Honda. When developing a new model, the car company wanted to sit in it and get a feel for its design long before investing in physical prototypes. This led to a 6-million-pixel-per-eye head-mounted display. (Currently, the optimal Oculus Rift resolution is 2,160-by-1,200, or 2.6 million pixels per eye, but computers powering the Rift process about 233 million pixels per second.)


In the early 2000s Sensics didn’t have access to cheap components and processing power like it does now, but for a cost it could deliver much of what consumers are experiencing today. Most clients were big corporations, research organizations, or defense agencies. “I remember standing in front of a mirror practicing saying, ‘These goggles cost $200,000’ without bursting into laughter,” Boger says.

For the past year, Sensics has been working with gaming company Razer on an industry standard for VR called Open-Source Virtual Reality. For $300 (compared to Oculus’ $600), consumers can buy an OSVR Hacker Dev Kit—a headset that connects to “a mid-tier gaming PC and upwards” to deliver VR experiences. OSVR is often compared with Android because it is an open-source standard accepted by 300 partners and growing. The idea is to enable manufacturers to provide VR equipment at a variety of price points and qualities while allowing Internet-connected peripherals, like smart clothing or biometric trackers, to integrate into the VR experience.

“There are going to be more and more sensors connected to the VR experience in 2016,” Boger says. “As a result, people are going to run into, ‘Oh my god, there are no standards for how devices are going to talk to each other.’ But we can say that we are the de-facto standard. Today we support hundreds of devices.”

For example, last year Oculus announced that it would stop supporting Mac development. So when Mozilla WebVR (browser-powered virtual reality) approached OSVR about a partnership, it asked about potential Mac compatibility. OSVR couldn't offer it on the spot but said it would put the challenge out to its open-source community. Within three weeks, developers around the world had volunteered their time to add the functionality Mozilla wanted.

Consumer virtual reality has certainly come a long way since products like Nintendo's Virtual Boy debuted in 1995. But the technology behind what we see today isn't just the result of a sudden boom—it’s been evolving steadily for the past two decades. Boger is enjoying it. “One of the fun things about Sensics is that for 10 years people have come in and said, ‘Here's what I want to do with VR.’ And now with a $300 device it's becoming accessible.”

Feb. 2 2016 10:31 AM

Now Streaming on Netflix: A Fantastic Political Thriller on Climate Change

There is a telling moment at the end of the first episode of Occupied, the highly entertaining new Norwegian TV political thriller, now available in the United States on Netflix (with subtitles!). One of the main characters, sitting in a cafe with his family, looks bleakly through the glass at the shoppers in the mall outside, knowing they are oblivious to how fragile their world has just become.

This terrific bit of acting by Eldar Skar, who plays a secret service agent thrust into a role “above his pay grade,” is in some ways the crux of the series. As the show’s creator, best-selling crime writer Jo Nesbo, told the Guardian last year, “the feeling we are secure and things can't really change is an illusion. That is the scary bit, because things can change very fast.”


In Occupied, everything changes for Norway very fast, indeed. As the first episode opens, a new Green Party government announces its plan to live up to its rhetoric on climate change: It will cut off all oil and gas production in Norway. Unfortunately, at the same time, the Middle East is suffused in conflict and no longer exporting energy, plunging Europe into a severe energy crisis and a deep recession. Meanwhile, the United States is self-sufficient in energy and content to stay on the sidelines. With the EU’s support, Russia mounts a silk-wrapped invasion, quietly seizing Norway’s oil platforms and gas plants and resuming production. And that’s all in the first half of the first episode.

Critics of Occupied, notably the Russian government, have challenged the plausibility of the show. While there’s certainly some poetic license involved, the plot is not all that far-fetched. And if you disagree, consider suspending your disbelief: Nesbo, after all, came up with the concept before Russia annexed Crimea.

Could Norway really afford to cease oil and gas production? It’s difficult to see that happening, given how inextricably linked the Norwegian economy is with fossil fuels. On the other hand, most domestic electricity there is from hydropower, and the prime minister’s original plan in the show is to export “clean” energy from a thorium nuclear plant. That would be very costly, but then again, Norway is sitting on the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund and always looking for investments.

It is certainly true that Europe could ill afford to lose access to Norway’s fossil fuels—or Russia’s. And while Europeans do not suborn Putin’s adventurism, they don’t exactly stand up to him, either. Who knows where that will lead if Putin keeps making the choices harder?

It’s tough to imagine the United States declining to come to Norway’s aid in such a crisis, but it’s not completely impossible in a situation short of war, either, particularly with a nuclear-armed state involved (see: Ukraine). Neo-isolationist leanings aside, America has often stood on the side of stability in our foreign policy, including at the expense of our democratic values. In the show, U.S. indifference also has to do with our departure from NATO, and while that’s unlikely to actually happen, the alliance’s long-term health is by no means assured.

A global energy crisis may seem unlikely right now, given that the world is awash in cheap oil, but it remains a possibility. With tensions rising between Iran and Saudi Arabia, including proxy fights around the region, it is not unreasonable to predict a rise in regional conflict. And North American self-sufficiency is not impossible, it cannot replace the 20 percent of global supply that flows through the Strait of Hormuz. Indeed, that self-sufficiency would be challenged in such circumstances, given that U.S. producers would just want to sell at higher prices abroad, raising the price at home, too. The world’s energy crisis would still be America’s energy crisis, no matter how much oil and gas we produce at home.

It is the core dilemma of the series that rings most true, however: There is a strong generational tension when it comes to climate change. Making a transition away from the world’s overwhelming dependence on fossil fuels too quickly would be economically and geopolitically disruptive today, but making it too slowly will be equally devastating for the future. It’s a defining conundrum of the 21st century, and in real life, it will be no easier to resolve than it is in Jo Nesbo’s fictional Norway.

Ultimately, though, the series is not really about geopolitical brinksmanship, energy security, or climate change. It’s about the small moral compromises individuals make, and how that aggregates into collective choices and ultimately, national character. Yes, that means the series is a social critique of Norway, albeit a loving one. But it is also a more general observation of human nature under pressure, and particularly the pressure of terrorism.  In that respect, things could change very fast in the United States, too.

You can watch the first season of Occupied, with subtitles, on Netflix.

Feb. 1 2016 6:54 PM

It’s the Beginning of the End for CFL Bulbs

In 2008, Brendan Koerner wrote on Slate, "I'm constantly being told that the simplest way to improve my green cred is to start using compact fluorescent lights." Back then it was true. CFLs were the first mainstream, energy efficient alternative to incandescent light bulbs, but they were known for giving off harsh, unattractive light.

Today CFLs have peaked and begun to decline because of competition from light-emitting diode alternatives. LED bulbs give off a warmer light, have fallen in price to rival CFLs, and are even more energy efficient. And now the decline of CFLs in the United States is receiving a full-blown nail in the coffin: On Monday, GE announced that it will cease to manufacture CFLs by the end of 2016.


The company noted that in 2015 nationwide LED bulb sales were at 15 percent; the New York Times adds that at the same time in 2014 LEDs made up less than 5 percent of bulb sales. “The time for LED is now,” said GE lighting chief operating officer John Strainic in the statement. “LED is a platform that can replace every other light source that we have developed over 130 years.”

GE also noted that come 2017, it will be more difficult for CFLs to receive Energy Star ratings from the Environmental Protection Agency. Instead of letting the technology die slowly, the company is taking a hard line.

In 2014, Seth Stevenson tested out and reviewed LED bulbs for Slate. At the time he wrote, “Yes, they’re pricier, but LEDs are vastly superior to CFLs in every other way.” Now that GE says a 60-watt-equivalent LED bulb is $3.33 at Sam’s Club, you can see why the company is ready to go all-in.