Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Sept. 1 2015 7:12 PM

Wikipedia Bans 381 Accounts Because They Were “Editing for Profit”

After an inquiry that started at the beginning of July, Wikipedia has banned 381 editors who were getting paid to post and maintain promotional content to the online encyclopedia.

Wikipedia announced the “Orangemoody” investigation, named for the first paid editor it discovered, on Tuesday. The site’s CheckUser group found evidence of the “sock puppet” editors—people who appear unaffiliated with a group they are actually paid to promote—acting between April and August, though they suspect that the initiative started even longer ago.

Advertisement

The play worked like this: Sock puppet accounts would seek out editors whose proposed changes had been declined by Wikipedia and offer to make the edits for them for a price. The Wikipedia admin board noted, “The use of declined drafts (and in some cases deleted articles) to identify and approach potential clients is a new wrinkle in the way paid editing is being conducted.”

The socks would make their accounts look legitimate, using a number of tactics including getting small changes approved to achieve “autoconfirmed” status. Once they identified amenable targets and got paid to make an edit, they would ask for more money every month to maintain and defend it.

In a blog post about the situation, the Wikimedia Foundation wrote:

Although it does not happen often, undisclosed paid advocacy editing may represent a serious conflict of interest and could compromise the quality of content on Wikipedia. ... Most of these articles, which were related to businesses, business people, or artists, were generally promotional in nature, and often included biased or skewed information, unattributed material, and potential copyright violations. The edits made by the sockpuppets are similar enough that the community believes they were perpetrated by one coordinated group.

It seems like a scam that would barely be worth the effort (Wikipedia was able to confirm that in at least one case, socks asked for 30 dollars per month to maintain their edits), but they are clearly getting enough out of it to keep going. The Wikimedia Foundation has worked steadily to discourage paid editing, but there are always new approaches popping up.

Video Advertisement

Sept. 1 2015 6:52 PM

Despite His Climate Change Promises, Obama Is Basically Running a Petrostate

After seven years of failing to match his action to his rhetoric, Obama seems to have finally hit his stride in Alaska. Monday night’s speech in Anchorage will send chills down your spine, even as you fret about the melting Arctic:

The New York Times said Obama’s words “bordered on the apocalyptic,” and that the main takeaway is that “we’re not acting fast enough.” He repeated that point four times in 24 minutes. It’s quite clear that Obama deeply cares about climate change—likely more so than any other U.S. president before him. (Though that’s setting quite a low bar.)

Advertisement

But his words—as powerful and compelling as they are—fall flat, given his record of expanding domestic production of fossil fuels. Lost in the debate over Arctic drilling is the fact that the administration has quietly set in motion a vast expansion of coal mining in Wyoming that could erase the cumulative impact of all his climate policies—three times over.

The United States, now planet Earth’s second biggest producer of fossil fuels behind only China, increasingly functions as a petrostate. Some have argued that this is a good thing—better to bring all that coal, oil, and gas out of the ground in a democracy that can apply environmental oversight. But it sends dangerous mixed messages to other countries that are considering whether to increase the ambition of their own climate policies.

Since the U.S. has long held a ban on oil exports, the crude we used to buy on the global market is now up for sale elsewhere, and prices have plummeted in response—counterintuitively strengthening the American oil industry. Lawmakers in Alaska, which derives about three-quarters of its tax revenue from oil and gas, are practically begging Obama to keep the tap flowing.

Obama mentioned none of this in his speech on Monday. Climate Obama is perfectly happy making grand speeches while Oil Baron Obama gleefully counts the money flowing in from industry. Behind the scenes, senior administration officials have acknowledged that they are trying to have it both ways.

The public is smarter than this. Americans—even Republicans—now overwhelmingly support action on climate. The president has little to lose, except the goodwill of the oil industry, by taking a harder stand.

Nearly every seemingly insurmountable fight in American history—slavery, civil rights, gay marriage—required an engaged and activist public to galvanize bold change. The fight to stop climate change is no different. It demands personal sacrifice, which I think Americans are willing to provide, within reason, if they see their leaders taking a tough stand.

Climate change is a deeply important human rights issue, as Pope Francis so eloquently described earlier this year. It’s no longer possible with a straight face for a leader to advocate both for increased fossil fuel extraction and for tighter regulations on its use. As Obama said Monday night, “It’s not enough just to talk the talk. We’ve got to walk the walk.”

Sept. 1 2015 6:10 PM

Google’s New Logo Isn’t Just About Looks. It’s About the Web’s Future.

Google unveiled a new logo on Tuesday morning, and it’s already been the subject of a slew of aesthetic critiques, including a positive review by Slate Web designer Derreck Johnson. When it comes to corporate logos, details like font and color matter, as do stylistic flourishes like an upward-tilted “e.”

But Google’s new logo isn’t just about looks. It’s about scalability and action, and it tells us a lot about the future of branding in a world of smartphones, smartwatches, GIFs, and mobile video.

Advertisement

As Fast Company’s Mark Wilson explains, sans serif fonts like Google’s new “product sans” are more legible than serif fonts when shrunk to fit on tiny screens, like those on Google Glass or Android Wear devices. Phablets and the HoloLens notwithstanding, the screens on which we do our computing are not likely to be getting much bigger anytime soon.

It isn’t just Google that needs to adapt its marketing to the mobile age. As other brands follow suit, serifs may be headed the way of calligraphy.

It’s also worth noting that Google’s new logo isn’t just one logo. There’s a new version of the iconic four-color, six-letter “Google” logo that appears when you visit Google.com, yes. But there’s also a new, four-color “G” that will stand in for the full word in more compact settings, like the Google app icon. (It replaces the plain blue lower-case “g” in these contexts.)

Most interestingly, as you can see in the GIF at the top of this story, Google’s logos no longer just sit there on the page. Rather, they’re built to respond to certain actions with animations that convey the type of computing that’s going on. For instance, Fast Company’s Wilson notes, when you begin a voice search:

The Google logo will morph from “Google” into the dots, which undulate like water in anticipation of your query. As you talk, the dots will become an equalizer, reacting to the sound of your vocalizations. Then when you’re done talking, the waveform become dots again, which spin as Google looks up your results. Then once the results are presented, the dots return to good old “Google” again.

The animation is a clever touch, and one that makes particular sense for a brand like Google whose products are fundamentally interactive. Yahoo started down this path a couple of years ago with a new logo whose exclamation point dances. Dropbox has an animated box logo that opens and closes while you wait for something to happen. Among the first to animate its logo on the Web was Netscape, whose animated “N” became a symbol of the frustration involved in waiting for a bloated browser to load.

Google’s logo change is emblematic of the Web’s broader move from static, skeuomorphic, “page”-based design to something more fluid and adaptable. For better or worse, dancing logos could become as much a fabric of the mobile Internet as responsive design and autoplay videos. (Of course, Internet companies didn’t invent the animated logo—think of Pixar’s lamp, or even MGM’s roaring lion.)

In Google’s case, the animation is meant as a visual cue that something is happening: speakers listening, cloud servers processing. But I doubt other brands will feel constrained to limit their logo-motion to such apt use cases. For advertisers, animated logos may become just another way to grab an instant of your attention in a mobile landscape where it’s more precious than ever.

Sept. 1 2015 12:29 PM

Flash Might Really Be Dead This Time

Adobe Flash Player has been plagued by security issues and instability, and finally the tide is turning against it. In July Mozilla blocked Flash on Firefox, and now Google is doing the same for Chrome, which will have an even bigger impact, since Chrome is a much more popular browser.

Spotted by TechCrunch, Google posted on the AdWords Google+ last week that Chrome will will strongly favor HTML5 ads and begin pausing most Flash ads by default starting Tuesday. That's today!

Advertisement

Google explained to ad customers:

To ensure your ads continue to show on the Google Display Network, please follow these steps before September 1:
1) Identify any Flash ads in your account that aren’t eligible for automatic conversion: https://goo.gl/I4186A 
2) Convert these ads to HTML5: https://goo.gl/ZBq5DR

That's it. In one fell swoop Google is taking the step we've all been waiting for. And with other companies like Amazon on board, too, this might actually happen. Eliminating all Flash Player components will probably still be a little bit of a whack-a-mole situation for a while, but if we lean on each other and believe, anything is possible.

Aug. 31 2015 3:25 PM

New iOS Malware Compromises 225,000 Apple Accounts

A new family of malware being called KeyRaider has been used to compromise 225,000 Apple accounts, including private keys and purchase histories, along with other personal data and device control. Though it is a huge breach—“We believe this to be the largest known Apple account theft caused by malware,” researchers wrote—the malware is only effective on jailbroken iDevices. So if you haven’t monkeyed with your iOS, you’re probably safe.

Palo Alto Networks published research about the malware on Sunday in collaboration with WeipTech. The malware seems to be coming from third-party distributors in China who specialize in software for jailbroken devices. Researchers estimate that about 20,000 people are taking advantage of the 225,000 compromised Apple accounts, and that there are affected users in 18 countries.

Advertisement

Researcher Claud Xiao wrote:

The purpose of this attack was to make it possible for users of two iOS jailbreak tweaks to download applications from the official App Store and make in-app purchases without actually paying. Jailbreak tweaks are software packages that allow users to perform actions that aren’t typically possible on iOS. ... Some victims have reported that their stolen Apple accounts show abnormal app purchasing history and others state that their phones have been held for ransom.

Jailbreaking your iDevice comes with risks, because the software tweaks aren’t evaluated and protected by Apple. That doesn’t mean, though, that leaving your iPhone (or Apple Watch or whatever) intact is a guarantee that it will never have vulnerabilities. Stay educated about what you download, and keep installing software updates.

Aug. 31 2015 11:55 AM

Future Tense Event: Come Watch District 9 With Francis Fukuyama In Washington, D.C.

The critically acclaimed 2009 film District 9 from South African director Neill Blomkamp takes the classic alien-invasion genre in a radically different direction. Like all of the best science fiction, the film tackles very real, very pressing social questions by imagining a possible future. The New York Times considered the film’s takeaway to be that the “only way to become fully human is to be completely alienated.” 

What will Francis Fukuyama say about it? Fukuyama, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute and the author of The Origins of Political Order and The End of History and the Last Man, is hosting our next Future Tense “My Favorite Movie” night. The District 9 screening will be on Tuesday, Sept. 15, at 6:30 p.m. at Washington, D.C.’s Landmark E Street Cinema at 555 11th St. NW. 

Advertisement

To attend, please RSVP to futuretensedc@gmail.com with your name, email address, and any affiliation you’d like to share. You may RSVP for yourself and up to one guest, and please include your guest’s name in your response. Seating is limited. 

Aug. 31 2015 10:48 AM

Ashley Madison Claims 87,596 Totally Real Women Who Are Definitely Real Just Signed Up

It’s tempting to talk about Ashley Madison, the beleaguered, infidelity-oriented hook up site, in the past tense. How is one supposed to imagine a future for it in the wake of a hack that led to the public shaming of many of the site’s members and the resignation of its parent company’s CEO? Reporting its death is a perfectly reasonable trap, one that I fell into when writing about the site last week, as I described what its users “had” done, operating on the implicit assumption that they wouldn’t be doing it anymore. But if you believe Ashley Madison, I may have been a bit too hasty.

In a press release issued Monday morning, Avid Life Media—which owns and operates Ashley Madison, along with other platforms such as Cougar Life—struck back against critics who claimed that the site’s best days were behind it. “Recent media reports predicting the imminent demise of Ashley Madison are greatly exaggerated,” the statement begins. In particular, it's defensive about the claim that there were hardly any women using the site.

Advertisement

Last week, Gizmodo’s Annalee Newitz analyzed data from the hack, and her initial results indicated that only 1,492 of its supposedly millions of female members had engaged with the site. She later amended this conclusion, having found that there was little to no information about user engagement in the leaked data set. But in her subsequent reporting, Newitz still suggested that the vast majority of the women that men were interacting with on the site were bots.

If those numbers turned you off, never fear: In its recent press release, Ashley Madison claims that 87,596 totally real women who are definitely real have signed up in the “past week alone.” In its specificity, this number is clearly meant to carry the weight of authority and truth. And there’s no reason to doubt that it’s a real figure. Given the amount of publicity the site has received, it’s entirely possible that some new users created accounts, whether out of curiosity, intent to troll, or even real desire.  Of course, if Newitz’ latest findings are true, they may be more likely to be approached by bots than by their fellow humans.

Surely that's why Ashley Madison also pushes back against the idea that the site was a barren wasteland of disappointed desire. Without naming Newitz, it suggests that her analysis was flawed, asserting that she based it on “incorrect assumptions about the meaning of fields contained in the leaked data.” Claiming that women sent “more than 2.8 million messages within our platform” in the last week, the site’s press office goes on to assert that the ratio of active male accounts to active female accounts—accounts which were, presumably, operated by entirely real “people,” though the press release isn’t clear on this point—was 1.2 to 1.

Apparently there were actual women on Ashley Madison, women who really were using the site for its intended purpose. In 2013, GQ spoke to a handful of them, and there may be many more of them out there. A more telling—if accidental—data point, however, may be the company’s claim in its recent press release that the site remains “the number one service for people seeking discrete relationships.” While the company normally describes its services as discreet, which means “on the sly,” discrete refers to something that stands entirely alone. If anything stands alone on Ashley Madison, it must be those relationships, most of which are likely still playing out only in the individual imaginations of its members.

Update, Sept. 1, 10:35 a.m.: This post was updated to include the revisions Annalee Newitz made to her initial analysis about the Ashley Madison hack.

Aug. 28 2015 5:59 PM

Study Shows Software Can Predict Psychosis Better Than Psychiatrists

Mental health issues manifest in a number of ways, and they're not all behavioral. Increasingly, scientists are using speech analysis software to detect subtle changes in voice acoustics and patterns to detect or even predict potentially problematic conditions.

A study published Wednesday in NPG-Schizophrenia by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center, the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and IBM's T. J. Watson Research Center found that digital speech analysis correctly predicted whether 34 youths at risk for mental illness (11 female, 23 male) would develop psychosis within 2.5 years. The system, which evaluated the study participants quarterly, correctly predicted all of their outcomes; five became psychotic.

Advertisement

The algorithm evaluated transcripts for predictive "semantic and syntactic features" like coherence and phrase length. "These speech features predicted later psychosis development with 100% accuracy, outperforming classification from clinical interviews," the researchers wrote.

Clinicians are able to accurately categorize patients as "at risk," but within that subpopulation it is difficult to determine who will actually experience psychosis and potentially develop schizophrenia. If voice recognition software can help identify these individuals, they may be able to receive more effective care. "Computerized analysis of complex human behaviors such as speech may present an opportunity to move psychiatry beyond reliance on self-report and clinical observation toward more objective measures of health and illness in the individual patient," the researchers wrote.

Guillermo Cecchi, one of the investigators from IBM Research, told the Atlantic, "What this means is that over 45 minutes of interviewing, these young people had at least one occasion of a jarring disruption in meaning from one sentence to the next. As an interviewer, if my mind wandered briefly, I might miss it. But a computer would pick it up.”

Aug. 28 2015 3:28 PM

Appeals Court Reverses Injunction on NSA Bulk Phone Record Collection

On Friday, a Washington, D.C., appeals court reversed a lower court's decision that the National Security Agency couldn't conduct bulk phone-record collection. The panel of three judges said that plaintiff Larry Klayman (a conservative activist) hadn't proved that his personal phone calls had been collected by the NSA's wide-cast net and therefore lacked standing. But privacy advocates don't need to panic.

Congress decided to shut down NSA bulk data-collection programs on June 1 but allowed for a transition period during which the NSA can do ongoing surveillance. As the Washington Post points out, the appeals court's decision does not speak to the question of what surveillance is constitutional, or the legality of what the NSA previously did. The only appeals court that has weighed in on that is the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York in a ruling from May. That court said that NSA bulk collection was not in keeping with the Patriot Act and was "unwarranted."

Advertisement

This new ruling from the D.C. appeals court doesn't affect that other decision. The Guardian explains, "The ruling reversed an injunction from a lower court on the phone records surveillance program—but only in a technical sense, as the injunction never actually went into force."

Klayman says he will add other plaintiffs whose data was collected to the complaint so it can move forward again. He told the Guardian, "It’s outrageous this court would allow the constitutional rights of Americans to be trampled upon."

Even beyond these legal battles, privacy advocates are also concerned about how much surveillance the NSA and other government intelligence bodies can still do using the existing troves of data, malware campaigns, and overseas channels they have access to. 

Aug. 27 2015 9:10 PM

Instagram Will No Longer Limit You to Square Photos. Too Bad.

Instagram has decreed an end to the tyranny of the square, a longstanding policy that restricted users to posting photos with sides of even length. The company announced the end of its reign with some wistfulness. “Square always has been and will be part of who we are,” it tweeted. And yet freedom marches on, toward the manifest destiny of portrait and landscape formats.

To what end? The landscape format will be more accommodating to certain Instagram genres, like photos of friends posing arm-in-arm, against the backdrop of some fun locale. But at a time when technology has freed us from almost all boundaries of what content we can record and publish and when, there is something to be said for restrictions. Twitter’s 140-character limit is one example. Vine’s six-second rule is another. Like Haiku or iambic pentameter, these limitations create economies that force authors to consider what each word or image is worth.

Advertisement

If you're making art, restrictions can be helpful. Brian Eno, the British music producer and artist, uses them to fight the chaos of choice. “In modern recording one of the biggest problems is that you're in a world of endless possibilities,” he told the Telegraph in 2009. “So I try to close down possibilities early on. I limit choices. I confine people to a small area of maneuver.” 

The square confines Instagram users to a small area of maneuver. It forces us to consider what details are essential, and which can be cropped out. It spares us from indulgence of the landscape and the false promise of the panorama.

But Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, is in the business of accommodating its users, not challenging them. One of the problems with the square, the company explained in its announcement, is that “you can’t capture the Golden Gate Bridge from end to end.” This example speaks to the needs of a certain kind of Instagram user who enjoys planting his flag on settled territory. Like an iPhone videographer at a Taylor Swift concert, the guy Instagramming the Golden Gate Bridge is not creating a rare or essential document, only proof that he saw it with his own eyes.

And why did he bother doing that, anyway? Clearly, because photographs cannot really capture the scope of the Golden Gate Bridge, or St. Peter’s Basilica, or the view from your car window as you drive up the Pacific Coast Highway. The impulse to capture these moments on camera is shaded by the knowledge that the moment, in all its immediacy, is too large to fit in a frame of any size.

This is not to discount the medium altogether. Instagram photos, like memoirs, give us a good way to preserve and share moments from our lives. They allow us to retouch and stylize those moments to reflect how they felt, or how we want them to feel in retrospect. A couple of new framing options will not fundamentally change that.

Still, photos are not moments, and the square, in its inadequacy, forces us to acknowledge the distinction. It helps remind us that the feeling of standing at a vista with the breeze in your face and salt on your tongue and looking out at orange steel draped over nearly two miles of causeway cannot be boxed and shipped. Broadening the lens only adds dimensions to an illusion.  

READ MORE STORIES