Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

July 25 2016 2:52 PM

Was Russia Behind the DNC Leaks? It Sure Seems Like It.

On Friday, 19,252 emails sent by Democratic National Committee officials leaked on the controversial publishing platform WikiLeaks. The contents of the emails rocked the DNC, led to chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation, and created a potentially damaging climate for Hillary Clinton’s presidential run. It’s a lot, but, incredibly, there’s much more to all of this.

The DNC announced in June that it had been hacked and was working with the well-known security firm CrowdStrike to investigate the breach. CrowdStrike said from the beginning that it had discovered two hacking groups lurking on the DNC’s networks—one that had been there for more than a year and one that had cropped up recently. Though it is difficult to definitively determine the source of sophisticated cyberattacks, the firm said it had strong forensic evidence that both hacking groups were tied to the Russian government, and it published its findings in a June report. CrowdStrike concluded that one network intruder was linked to Russia’s Federal Security Service and the other to the GRU military intelligence group.

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But then an entity came forward on June 15, claiming to have hacked the DNC alone. “Guccifer 2.0” started publishing blog posts and posting stolen DNC documents. Soon after, WikiLeaks tweeted about a potential data dump, posting an encrypted 88 gigabyte “insurance” file for people to torrent. The idea was that WikiLeaks could publish a decryption key if it ever wanted people to access the trove (which is probably the stolen DNC files). In July, the Hill also published some DNC documents, writing, “Guccifer 2.0, the hacker who breached the Democratic National Committee, has released a cache of purported DNC documents to The Hill in an effort to refocus attention on the hack.”

But CrowdStrike was always skeptical of Guccifer 2.0. As it wrote in reaction to the original Guccifer 2.0 blog post:

CrowdStrike stands fully by its analysis and findings identifying two separate Russian intelligence-affiliated adversaries present in the DNC network in May 2016. ... Whether or not this [Guccifer 2.0 WordPress] posting is part of a Russian Intelligence disinformation campaign, we are exploring the documents’ authenticity and origin. Regardless, these claims do nothing to lessen our findings relating to the Russian government’s involvement, portions of which we have documented for the public and the greater security community.

Multiple prominent CrowdStrike competitors, including Mandiant and Fidelis Cybersecurity, independently confirmed CrowdStrike’s findings. One firm, ThreatConnect, laid out the evidence on both sides and put extensive energy into attempting to prove that Guccifer 2.0 is a real hacker. The firm concluded, though, that the the evidence is sketchy:

There appears to be strong, yet still circumstantial, evidence supporting the assertions that Guccifer 2.0 is part of a [denial and deception] campaign, and not an independent actor. The most compelling arguments for this conclusion are the previously identified Russian D&D campaigns, coupled with remaining questions related to Guccifer 2.0’s persona and backstory.

Similarly, Michael Buratowski, a senior vice president at Fidelis, wrote in June, “Based on our comparative analysis we agree with CrowdStrike. ... The malware samples contain data and programing elements that are similar to malware that we have encountered in past incident response investigations and are linked to similar threat actors.” He added, “We believe this settles the question of ‘who was responsible for the DNC attack.’ ”

In the wake of last week’s data leaks, Democrats are rallying behind this idea and the FBI has announced that it is investigating the hack. The Clinton campaign, which itself was also allegedly breached by Russian hackers, has said that it believes Russia was behind the hacks, and Nancy Pelosi is on board, too. An additional narrative has emerged, exploring potential ties and sympathies between Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is troubling to consider that Russia may be using hacking to impact a high-profile democratic election. As security researcher Thomas Rid wrote on Motherboard, “American inaction now risks establishing a de facto norm that all election campaigns in the future, everywhere, are fair game for sabotage—sabotage that could potentially affect the outcome and tarnish the winner’s legitimacy.”

Putin’s spokesman is refusing to comment and the Trump campaign is firmly denying any involvement or collaboration with the Russian government. Edward Snowden pointed out on Monday that the National Security Agency probably has bulk surveillance of Web traffic surrounding the hack and could likely produce independent metadata pointing to the real culprit or culprits. Snowden added, though, that the office of the Director of National Intelligence generally doesn’t weigh in or offer assistance on these types of investigations.

Importantly, though, some still have doubts about the evidence that Russia was actually behind the hacks and leaks. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine that an embarrassed Democratic Party is simply seizing on the Russian explanation as a way to distract and deflect from the deeply problematic DNC behavior exposed by the leaks. One outspoken skeptic is Jeffrey Carr, author of Inside Cyber Warfare. Before WikiLeaks published the DNC files, he wrote on Medium, “It’s important to know that the process of attributing an attack by a cybersecurity company has nothing to do with the scientific method. ... Neither are claims of attribution admissible in any criminal case, so those who make the claim don’t have to abide by any rules of evidence (i.e., hearsay, relevance, admissibility).” And even if the Russian government did hack the DNC, some, like journalist and activist Glenn Greenwald, caution against concluding too quickly that Russia invented Guccifer 2.0. They could still be separate entities.

Whoever is behind the hacks clearly wanted to see what was going down at the DNC. And the leaker seemingly wanted to inject a little chaos into the Democratic National Convention, given the timing of the WikiLeaks post. The people or groups involved in this whole debacle are certainly succeeding at stirring things up.

July 22 2016 5:36 PM

WikiLeaks’ DNC Email Trove Includes Social Security Numbers, Credit Card Info

On Friday, the publishing platform WikiLeaks posted 19,252 searchable emails, including 8,034 attachments, from inside the Democratic National Committee. WikiLeaks says that the emails are from the accounts of seven top DNC officials from the period between January 2015 and May 2016. They are part of WikiLeaks’ “Hillary Leaks” initiative.

The emails contain interesting and potentially important political information, but they also include data that is sensitive in a different way. As Gizmodo points out, the data trove is easily searchable for personal information like credit card numbers, birthdays, and even Social Security numbers.

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As a group that advocates for radical transparency, WikiLeaks’ releases are often at odds with personal privacy. The organization is frequently accused of doing more damage than good with its leaks, as in the2010 diplomatic cable release and the Afghan war documents leak. In both cases, politicians and government agencies said that WikiLeaks had put people’s lives at risk, including military personnel, human rights activists, informants, and journalists.

It’s unclear whether this assertion was true and it’s difficult to assess definitively. The situation is controversial because it’s easy to say from an ideological standpoint that holding powerful entities accountable is worth exposing a few people to credit card fraud or identity theft. Of course, you might not see things that way if your social security number were available online right now.

July 22 2016 10:52 AM

Canada’s Carbon Policies Try to Provide Something for Everyone

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State UniversityNew America, and Slate. On Tuesday, July 26, Future Tense and the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute will host an event in Washington, D.C., on what it will take for North America to fulfill its energy potential. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

In the last two years, we’ve seen big commitments in the fight against climate change, including global initiatives such as the Paris Accords and national efforts like the U.S. Clean Power Plan. However, in the United States, momentum at a national level is incredibly difficult to sustain, in large part because of partisan politics and regional differences. The Clean Power Plan is languishing, after a February ruling by the Supreme Court, and the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill met its end in the Senate in 2009, derailing what had been a steady bipartisan march toward a federal climate policy. California, meanwhile, remains the standard-bearer for sub-federal carbon reduction measures.

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While federal efforts to arrest climate change have slowed in the United States, a majority of Canadians will soon live under some type of carbon pricing regime. These policies are designed at the provincial level and not coordinated by the federal government. This has led to uneven policies that have far ranging economic consequences for producers and consumers throughout Canada. The progress in Canada is better than the stagnation in the United States, but it’s still inefficient, and the lack of coordination at a federal level is limiting the country’s ability to slow carbon pollution.

Because of the provinces’ constitutional authority over most types of carbon-reduction policies, they must take the lead on these issues. Alberta and British Columbia have or are implementing a carbon tax. Quebec has linked its carbon market to California’s and implemented a variety of carbon reduction measures. Ontario recently joined the pack with a June 2016 Climate Action Plan that introduced a host of new instruments and incentives to drive down carbon emissions. The Ontario plan follows the now-familiar policy formula of either a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, plus carbon-reduction incentives that are intended to blunt the realization that the inevitable result of either tax or cap-and-trade is higher consumer prices. Increased fuel prices are the obvious effect, but inevitably, it will cost more to emit carbon in the production of any good or service, and this expense is passed on to consumers. Yes, either the tax or the cap creates an incentive to invest in greener technologies that could eventually lower prices and taxes, but these results are mostly speculation with little testing in the real world.

In Ontario, we see a number of the other policy “innovations” designed to generate public support and show the public how cap-and-trade funds are being reinvested. These new measures include electric vehicle incentives, cash for clunkers, and funds to reduce the carbon footprint of cities, business, and homes. Of note, Ontario is offering some of the most generous electric vehicle subsidies in the world. Soon, buyers of electric vehicles in Ontario will receive between C$3,000 and C$14,000 in credits, and new funds will be allocated to private and public charging stations. The province is even changing the building code to ensure that all new home construction includes a 50-amp 240-volt garage plug for car charging.

By offering a wide array of positive incentives for Ontarians, the government hopes it can more aggressively ratchet down its carbon emissions and avoid the morning-after effect that British Columbia is now experiencing. BC enacted the continent’s first carbon tax in 2008. Since then, the province has raised the tax from C$10 to C$30 per ton of CO2. However, additional increases have been put on hold until at least 2018 to ensure that, as BC’s environment minister explains, businesses remain competitive and consumers can afford the increase.

Even supporters of carbon pricing criticize incentive programs as reheated, inefficient, and unfair. They are also an attempt to divert public attention away from the risks of implementing a number of relatively untested policies, especially in a Canadian economy hit hard by low commodity prices and a weak dollar, and a manufacturing sector that never recovered from the 2008–2009 recession.

There is no doubt that the cost of climate change to future generations is worth the most serious investment that we can offer today, but the uncertainties of many of the policy “innovations” threaten to generate unnecessarily negative effects in the name of doing good. Some of the most troubling effects include a lack of coordination between jurisdictions causing business and investment to move from more expensive to cheaper areas. In that same vein, there has been little research on the indirect effects of carbon pricing on emissions-intensive, trade-exposed industries. At what point will the carbon price become too high to grow and ship a bushel of wheat from Saskatchewan to New York City? And, at the core of these sub-federal initiatives, there are questions about whether and how carbon taxes will be reinvested or redistributed. Even more uncertain are the mechanisms for pricing, trading, and regulating carbon credits for cap-and-trade systems not to mention verification and compliance costs.

Carbon reduction policies are necessary—the sooner the better—but planning and coordination will be critical so that the effects are as minimally disruptive as possible. With the tidal wave of new of sub-federal policies, the need for coordination is acute. Esoteric mechanisms designed to buy public support or mask a lack of thorough planning are not innovation—they just make it harder to focus on policies and practices that actually work.

July 21 2016 6:33 PM

Ted Cruz Keeps Trying to Protect Internet Freedom in Weirdly Wrong Ways

At the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night, Ted Cruz delivered a controversial speech. Most of it was about freedom and party differences, but did you know that Cruz also has strong views about the technical bodies that oversee the internet? Welp, he does.

Nestled in a list of superficial policy points, Cruz said, “The internet? Keep it free from taxes, free from regulation. And don’t give it away to Russia and China.” Seems weird, but here’s what he’s really referencing.

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The U.S. government currently oversees the nonprofit group Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. This organization assigns and manages domain names and basically maintains fundamental order online. The Obama administration has been working on an initiative for a few years that would allow an international coalition of stakeholders to replace the U.S. as the steward of some of ICANN’s key functions under the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA. The idea is that this would more closely align with the fundamental principles of internet openness, instead of relying on one nation state as some type of moral arbiter.

As computer scientist and internet standards pioneer Jon Postel said in testimony to the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Technology in 1998, “There was one issue on which there seemed to be almost unanimity [among internet stakeholders]: the Internet should not be managed by any government, national or multinational.”

As you might have guessed, Cruz opposes this plan. He fears that it will allow authoritarian governments like oh, you know, Russia and China, to censor the internet internationally like they do within their own countries. In August 2015, Cruz told Wall Street Journal opinion writer L. Gordon Crovitz, “It’s a key issue that the U.S. not give away control of the Internet to a body under the influence and possible control of foreign governments.”

This is not what the transition plan proposes, though. The multistakeholder organization overseeing ICANN would incorporate not only a diverse set of government representatives but also private sector groups. One statement of support for the transition, signed by organizations like Human Rights Watch and the Center for Democracy and Technology, referenced a letter from Sens. Cruz, Lankford, and Lee to the Department of Commerce (which holds the United States’ current contract with ICANN). “While we share the Senators’ stated desire to protect Internet freedom, we note that their proposed solution of delaying the IANA transition will unintentionally have exactly the effect they hope to avoid: Delay would incur risk of increasing the role for foreign governments over the Internet and undermine free speech.” The statement added that it found the senators’ concerns “puzzling” because they are so contrary to the stated mission of the transition plan.

Cruz has a strange track record when it comes to internet openness. Though he’s fighting so hard to, by his estimation, protect the internet from influence and censure, he opposed the Federal Communications Commission’s recent efforts to uphold net neutrality principles by reclassifying broadband as a utility. In a 2014 Washington Post opinion piece, Cruz wrote, “Net neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet. It would put the government in charge of determining Internet pricing, terms of service and what types of products and services can be delivered, leading to fewer choices, fewer opportunities and higher prices.” To borrow the word used above, this stance was puzzling for its sheer inaccuracy. Net neutrality itself aims to achieve everything Cruz is concerned about protecting.

A weird stance on internet freedom is just the beginning when it comes to unpacking the fallout from Cruz’s RNC speech. You have to give the guy credit for being passionate about the issue, though. He even made a (very misleading) video for crying out loud.

July 21 2016 6:27 PM

Netizen Report: Some Iranian Hardliners Want the Government to Stop Blocking Twitter

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 AdvocacyMahsa Alimardani, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Weiping Li, Laura Vidal, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

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Reports of web censorship—including blocking specific websites and entire social media platforms, as well as overall internet blackouts—have been so widespread over the last two weeks that we’ve decided to dedicate this Netizen Report to the trend.

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Iranian leaders are not so sure about Pokémon Go but might stop blocking Twitter
A group of Iranian hardliners have demanded the government stop blocking Twitter in an unexpected change of tune from a group that typically stands at the forefront of policies curtailing freedom of expression. The group wants to use Twitter to counter Saudi Arabian propaganda, which it argues is part of a “psychological operation” against Iran. Propaganda concerns have increased since the recent attacks in Nice, France.

Iranian officials also have responded to Pokémon Gopledging to censor the game if the developers do not agree to cooperate with Iran’s National Foundation for Computer Games, which has censored multiple games in the past. They say they will seek to keep the game’s data servers inside of Iran, along with cooperation with the government to prohibit the game from targeting locations that could be of national security concerns. The request to keep servers inside the country might be seen as an extension of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace’s demand in May that all foreign messaging companies move the data they hold on Iranians onto servers inside the country within a year or face censorship.

In other news, Iran has put Apple on notice, stating the company has just a “few days” to register or “all iPhones will be collected from the market,” according to a report by Tasnim News. Due to sanctions against Iran, Apple had previously not officially entered the Iranian market. Smugglers, however, have brought iPhones to the country. A 2015 report suggested that there were about 6 million iPhones in circulation in Iran at that time. This new ban would not affect existing iPhone owners, but would ban further sales of the phone on the market.

Zimbabwe: #ShutdownZim protests spark WhatsApp shutdown
Protests across Zimbabwe
 over an escalating economic crisis have brought on a new wave of censorship in the country: Zimbabweans have reported not being able to access WhatsApp, which was used to organize and circulate images of the protests, and the telecom regulatory authority issued a public notice warning users they were being closely monitored and could be “easily identified,” according to the Washington Post. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp. and radio station STAR FM also received a warning from the CEO of the Broadcasting Authority not to “broadcast programs that incite, encourage, or glamorize violence or brutality” and to avoid “broadcasting obscene and undesirable comments from participants, callers and audiences.” The government is rumored to be working on licensing an internet gateway for the country, a mechanism that would force all traffic to pass through a single portal that would be operated by the government and allow authorities broad access to internet traffic and user data.

Brazil: WhatsApp is down, again, briefly
WhatsApp was also briefly blocked in Brazil for the third time in less than a year following a court order from a judge after failing to surrender user data to police. The Supreme Court accepted an appeal that brought the service back online four hours later, calling the lower court’s decision “not very reasonable and not very proportional.”

Kashmiris report total suspension of internet and mobile amid unrest
Following the July 8 killing of Kashmiri rebel leader Burhan Wani, internet and mobile services in the region were shut down for at least six days. Thousands of Indian soldiers are patrolling the streets and have used tear gas and pellets on protesters. Several Kashmiris have also reported having their social media accounts suspended in what free expression advocates Baba Umar and Nighat Dad suspect might be a campaign by trolls to flag their accounts.

Turkey’s coup attempt sees a 50 percent drop in internet traffic
Meanwhile, during the attempted coup in Turkey, internet users reported having trouble accessing a range of websites and services including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. CloudFlare reported an approximately 50 percent drop in Turkey’s total internet traffic during the unrest. Yet what at first appeared to be at least a partial blackout typical of past periods of unrest in Turkey soon turned on its head, as President Erdogan turned to Twitter—which he described in 2013 as a “menace to society”—and Apple’s FaceTime to address the country. Websites continue to be blocked as of Thursday afternoon in the aftermath of the attempted coup, with the Turkish site Engelli Web (Disabled Web) reporting that a judge approved the censorship of 20 websites. And following Wikileaks’ release of nearly 300,000 emails sent to and from officials of the AKP, Erdogan’s party, Wikileaks was blocked, too.

Ethiopia: #OromoProtests trigger broad social media censorship
Ethiopian telecommunication company EthioTelecom blocked social media platforms including Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger for at least two months, beginning in December, in Oromia, where students are protesting the government’s plan to expand the capital city, Addis Ababa, into neighboring farm lands in the state. The telco also reportedly plans to enforce a new price scheme to more heavily regulate data plans and what kinds of apps users can operate on their devices. Oh, and it intends to track, identify, and ban any mobile devices not purchased from the Ethiopian market, making it easier for the company to track data sent to and from subscribers on the network. The protests in Oromia, which began in November 2015, have been the largest and bloodiest demonstrations against the Ethiopian government in a decade, with at least 400 people killed, more injured, and thousands jailed.

Nicaragua might get rid of its “internet tax”
The Nicaraguan government is considering a repeal of its internet tax in order to improve national connectivity. Currently the government charges a 20 percent tax on mobile terminals, resulting in high costs for internet users. The announcement followed meetings between government officials and entrepreneurs in the telecommunications sector to explore ways to improve infrastructure.

New Research
•    “Examining internet Freedom in Latin America: Colombia”—Association for Progressive Communications
•    “FAST Africa: The 2016 Action Week and Beyond”—World Wide Web Foundation
•    “The Online Intermediary Liability Research Project”—Center for Advanced Studies and Research on Innovation Policy, University of Washington School of Law

July 21 2016 3:34 PM

The Absurd Excuses Countries Give for Shutting Off Internet Access

In June, officials in Jammu, India, shut down mobile internet in advance of a traditional wrestling tournament. Of course, the half-naked competitors weren’t planning to grapple with their devices in hand, but organizers were fearful of repeating what happened in 2014. That year, riots had broken out because the site of the tournament was staged on what local residents claimed was an old burial ground. The government believed that shutting down the internet would stop people from inciting each other to violence once again. Later that day, the different factions agreed upon a process to determine how to move the tournament to a new site, and officials turned the internet back on.

This bizarre incident highlights the challenge of fighting internet shutdowns. From the brief disruption in Turkey of social media services during the failed coup, to the blocking of WhatsApp earlier this week in Brazil, internet shutdowns are taking more and more complex forms. Frequently, communications services are cut off shortly before gross human rights violations take place. In a separate incident later in June in nearby Kashmir, India, for example, a journalist was unable to get online after officials once again cut off mobile internet in the region. When he came back online he learned eight people had been killed during the blackout. Businesses lose money and emergency services can’t do their jobs. The Software Freedom Law Centre in New Delhi has recorded 30 disruptions in India over the past three years. In 2016 alone, the advocacy group Access Now, where I work, has documented nearly 30 shutdowns worldwide. This week in Ghana an official reiterated his intention to block social media during its election—the most critical moment in a democracy—four months ahead of the vote.

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One of the strangest yet also most pernicious forms of internet shutdowns involves school exams.  Over the past six months, four countries have shut down the internet because of school exams, purportedly because both students and underpaid teachers looking to supplement their income have leaked exam answers online. Iraq blocked the entire internet to keep sixth-graders from cheating—in a country whose very existence is under threat from ISIS, and where information can mean the difference between life and death.

In Gujarat, India, officials blocked mobile internet during a February accounting exam because of its “sensitive nature,” an action with drastic effects because the majority of people in the region use their mobile devices to go online. Algeria, meanwhile, blocked all websites except Wikipedia in June to prevent cheating on the International Baccalaureate exams, according to the civil society group Social Media Exchange, and Ethiopia soon followed suit by blocking social media this month because of university entrance examinations.

At first glance, these measures sound ridiculous (and I will argue that they are.) But last week I spoke in New York with a man who had traveled from Ethiopia to the United Nations to push for human rights, and he was surprisingly sympathetic to his government’s decision to block social media. The cheaters were violating the rights of those students who followed the rules. He had a point: I remember preparing for exams and I would have been devastated to learn that dishonest people had ruined my chances. Of the 31 suspected leakers of exam results in Algeria, several were teachers. And Social Media Exchange notes that students are desperate to get ahead in a region that faces 25 to 30 percent youth unemployment.

These heavy-handed responses to exam cheating point to new challenges facing educators. Administrators may need to prohibit mobile devices in testing centers, resort to old-school calculators, install secure lockers, or develop new forms of proctoring. But trying to stop cheating by shutting down the internet is not the solution. In Geneva, the U.N. Human Rights Council declared unequivocally recently that intentional disruptions of the internet harm human rights. Companies like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have also weighed in, speaking through the Global Network Initiative, with a strong statement that was endorsed by telecommunications companies such as AT&T, Vodafone, and Orange. Even the GSMA—one of the world’s largest technology associations—has developed strict standards for what it calls Service Restriction Orders. We at Access Now are working with nearly 90 organizations from 41 countries on the #KeepitOn campaign to push back on internet shutdowns. And it’s important for officials like the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh, to speak out against shutdowns around examinations.

No one likes cheaters or multiple-choice examinations, and everyone has their own high-stakes-testing horror story. (In my case, it was sitting for the bar exam using an old laptop with the Y2K problem that regularly reset my computer clock.) But when it comes to accessing to the internet, the stakes are even higher than those of the entrance exams.

July 21 2016 1:40 PM

Tesla's Insane, Magnificent New Master Plan

Tesla is losing money. It is the subject of investigations by three federal agencies. Its vaunted "autopilot" technology recently drove a man into a semi truck. Meanwhile, the company is racing its own hyper-aggressive timetable to complete the world's largest electric battery factory and deliver 400,000 of a car that it hasn’t yet begun to produce.

For any other company, this would be the time to bear down, eliminate distractions, and narrow its focus to a few core goals. For Tesla, of course, it’s just the opposite.

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On Wednesday night, Elon Musk announced a new master plan for his company. It is the philosophical successor to his original master plan, published 10 years ago when few had heard of Tesla and fewer cared. If that first plan seemed implausibly audacious, this one borders on schizophrenic—a compendium of goals so futuristic and disparate that it would be a marvel for any company to achieve one of them, let alone all. They include (deep breath):

  • Building at least four all-new models: a "new kind of pickup truck," a compact SUV, a semi truck, and a bus-like mass transport vehicle that delivers its passengers from door to door. They'll all be fully electric, of course.
  • Developing and implementing a fully autonomous driving system that will require no human involvement. The system will have such redundancy that a failure of any part of the driving system will not compromise its ability to navigate safely.
  • Creating a car-sharing platform through which Tesla owners can, at the tap of a button, rent out their self-driving vehicle to a “Tesla shared fleet” when they’re not using it. Others can then summon the car for a ride, generating income for its owner which can help to pay off the price of buying it.
  • Merging Tesla and SolarCity, the country's largest solar power company, and together developing a seamlessly integrated system that can both capture and store solar power on your rooftop, turning your home into its own energy utility. And then “scale that throughout the world.”

Not even cracking the top four objectives in the new plan is Musk’s recently stated intention to essentially reinvent the mass production process, developing a heavily automated factory that can churn out cars five to 10 times more efficiently than before. In other words, Musk writes, Tesla is designing “the machine that makes the machine—turning the factory itself into a product.”

And that’s not to mention all of the company’s previously existing goals, such as ramping up production of the Model X SUV, beginning mass production of the Model 3 sedan, and completing and refining its Nevada “Gigafactory” for electric batteries. (Yes, that’s an altogether different factory from the Fremont facility where it’s rethinking vehicle production.)

A Tesla Motors mass-market Model 3 electric car from Tesla Motors on March 31, 2016.
Tesla has taken nearly 400,000 orders for the Model 3, which it has not yet begun to produce.

Handout/Reuters

The master plan is absolutely worth reading in full. It’s a document that will undoubtedly be revisited often in the years to come, whether it’s to marvel at its foresight or to reflect on its folly.

Therein lies the fascination in following Musk and his companies, Tesla in particular. You could react to a blog post like this as the unhinged ravings of a man whose grand delusions have finally taken him off the deep end. Or you could take it as the gospel of a modern-day techno-prophet whose visions will shape the future of energy and transportation. You’d be relatively equally justified in either view.

If there is a middle ground, it’s to recognize just how much would have to go right in order for Tesla to achieve all of these goals—and how unlikely that seems—while acknowledging that Musk has made a career out of setting, and often achieving, goals that appear almost impossibly ambitious to just about everyone else. That Tesla is on the verge of fulfilling the bulk of Musk’s original master plan—which included building an all-electric sports car, using the money from that to build an all-electric sedan, and using the money from that to build an affordable electric vehicle to conquer the mass market, while also providing new options for zero-emission electric power generation—is incredible. Yet past results can never guarantee future success, and the more Musk promises, the greater the chances that he’ll eventually fall short.

Already analysts are deriding Musk’s latest plan as “overly ambitious” and “short on detail,” among other epithets. But Elon Musk cares about skeptics and critics the way a honey badger cares about King Cobras. They might occasionally sting him—as evidenced by the overly defensive and personal responses he occasionally publishes—but they don’t deter him from his path.

For years Tesla followers have argued over just what kind of company it really is. Is it a car company? A tech company? An energy company? The answer, clearly, is all of the above. But on some level, Tesla’s business is less about the “what” than the “how.” Whatever Tesla produces, and whatever markets it enters, it will rethink the relevant products and processes from “first principles,” in Musk’s words, in pursuit of radical advances that the incumbents had never dared to deem possible. The results can only be spectacular success or spectacular failure—and so far it’s been mostly the former. So far.

July 21 2016 12:13 PM

The Trauma of Digital Warfare, on Hacking ​Mr. Robot​: Week 2

Slate and Future Tense are discussing Mr. Robot and the technological world it portrays throughout the show’s second season. You can follow this conversation on Future Tense, and Slate Plus members can also listen to Hacking Mr. Robot, a members-only podcast series featuring Lily Hay Newman and Fred Kaplan.

The third episode of Mr. Robot (don’t forget that the premiere was two parts) dropped on Wednesday night, bringing hacker protagonist Elliot Alderson deeper into his madness and despair. It’s unclear how long the show will keep Elliot isolated and too confused about reality to actually, you know, do things, but it seems like this episode was the complication before some resolution.

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Knowing the show, that resolution will almost certainly be complicating and strange. But Elliot is a talented hacker—he can’t live a remote, analog life forever. Meanwhile, the fallout from Fsociety’s massive hack of ECorp continues. People close to Fsociety keep getting murdered, an FBI agent is poking around, and ECorp CEO Phillip Price takes an interest in Elliot’s childhood friend Angela Moss, who now works in communications for ECorp.

This week’s episode didn’t have technology driving the plot the way Mr. Robot episodes often do. It was more about exploring the parallels between our digital selves and our interior selves—parts of us that are very real, but don’t have a physical manifestation. Season 2 also seems to be meditating on the impacts of digital warfare. Though there’s no violent combat, Elliot still seems traumatized by the display of Fsociety’s power and his own. Or is it Mr. Robot’s power?

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July 20 2016 3:34 PM

Why It Makes No Sense to Judge Groups of People by Their Histories of Invention

On Monday, Iowa Rep. Steve King, appearing on MSNBC, asked which nonwhite “subgroups” had contributed more than white people to “civilization.” King’s comments came about a week after the hashtag #WhiteInventions appeared on Twitter, spurring some of the most savory types of Twitter users to brag about the things that white people had given the world.

July 20 2016 11:01 AM

Future Tense Newsletter: The Practice of Privacy

Greetings, Future Tensers,

The juncture of technology and privacy is a confusing one, a dense weave of forces and factors that can be difficult to disentangle. That’s the (seemingly accidental) lesson of Privacy, a play starring Daniel Radcliffe that opened this week in New York City. Cybersecurity professor Josephine Wolff writes that it disappointed, partly because it conflates personal privacy with corporate data collection and government surveillance, collapsing a handful of distinct problems into one another. To the extent that Privacy succeeds at all, Wolff suggests, it’s by encouraging the audience to think “about the data stored on their phones.”

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Digital rights activist April Glaser offers a more nuanced look at such issues in an article on information security best practices for political protesters like those at the Republican National Convention this week. There are, however, a host of other ways in which many of us still happily cede information about our digital selves, not least of all through the surveys that frequently pop up on websites, which Rachael Cusick investigated for Future Tense. Want to know how to protect yourself from these invasive questionnaires? The best way’s probably to not take them.

Here are some of the other stories we read while getting excited about the new season of Mr. Robot:

  • Education: The Bedtime Math Foundation’s app aims to help parents incorporate word problems into their children’s nightly routines.
  • Cartography: A map library in Maine is putting its gorgeous collections online—and revealing the complex ambiguities of digitization in the process.
  • Gaming: Niantic built Pokémon Go on a foundation it established with its earlier game Ingress. A veteran of that cult hit offers some tips to players of the newer title.
  • Conservation: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is using drones to deliver vaccine candies to prairie dogs in order to protect ferrets in the great plains. It sounds goofy, but it just might work.

Events:

  • What concerted steps should Canada, Mexico, and the United States take to ensure that North America will become the world’s leading energy power for generations? Future Tense and the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute invite you to join them in Washington, D.C., at noon on Tuesday, July 26, for a conversation on what it will take for North America to fulfill its energy potential. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website, where the event will also be streamed live.

Checking for blue check marks,

Jacob Brogan

for Future Tense

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