The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Dec. 18 2014 5:30 PM

Meet Hector, the Stick Bug Robot

Stability is a big problem for robots, especially on uneven terrain, so researchers have taken a number of different approaches to try and make them light on their feet. In Germany, roboticist Axel Schneider is drawing inspiration from an unusual source: stick bugs.

The insect robot he is working on, known as Hector, has six legs, each of which can move independently. This allows the robot to adapt to uneven terrain, like a rocky surface, and stay steady on its feet. New Scientist reports that Schneider and his team created a shell for Hector that has 18 interconnected elastic joints that work as muscles. That way the legs can move freely until they find the ground for each step.

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Hector is currently equipped with near-range sensors and cameras that help it determine how best to approach obstacles and how to position its body. In the future Hector will be equipped with other types of sensors so it can execute more insect-like behaviors. The goal is to use Hector for things like animal locomotion study in the field, though the robot seems to be a study in animal locomotion itself.

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Dec. 18 2014 4:21 PM

How Obama’s Policy Shift Will and Won’t Affect Tech in Cuba

A version of this article first appeared on Global Voices Advocacy.

Wednesday’s bombshell announcement that the U.S. and Cuban governments have decided to re-establish diplomatic ties after 56 years of estrangement brought tears, joy, awe, and disbelief to Cubans across the globe. (And some anger from Cuban-Americans, too.) While President Obama’s speech was watchable in real time—televised and streamed live on the White House website—those outside of Cuba had to wait patiently for the text of Raul Castro’s speech to be transcribed and uploaded to Cuban state media sites. The brief address delivered by Cuba’s commander-in-chief was not streamed live because Cuba’s rickety Internet infrastructure cannot support it. At least not yet.

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Among thousands of other questions flying around the Internet and the streets of Miami, Havana, and Washington today is the question of technology. What will these changes mean for Internet access and mobile telephony in Cuba? For now, little is certain. But there are a few things we can glean from what both leaders have said—and haven’t said—so far.

While Western advocates may rush to focus on how this will affect government policy and practice around the Internet, like surveillance and censorship, the impact of yesterday’s economic reforms on the tech environment in Cuba may be the most critical change to watch at the moment. With more money, more Cubans will be buy mobile phones and service. This does not mean that they will have Internet access—3G is scarce at best on the island. But it will accelerate the changes that are already taking in place in Cuba due to peoples’ increasing ability to connect with one another through mobile telephony. More than ever, news and information that once traveled only by word of mouth will now circulate more quickly and in greater volume. And Cubans’ ability to communicate with friends and family abroad will likely increase, too.

We can also anticipate an influx of tech objects and hardware on the island—computers, mobile phones, hard drives, pen drives are all in high demand in Cuba and they are not easy to come across. The changes will without question make it easier for Cubans to obtain tech objects that will in turn enable greater communication and information sharing on the island.

And greater access to capital will also enable more Cubans to get online at hotel business centers and Internet cafes, where rates (ranging from USD $4.50 to $12.00 per hour) are out of reach for most of the population. This will increase not only the number of Cubans who use the Internet themselves, but also the quantity and diversity of digital media in circulation on the island. Videos, music, news, and literature regularly circulate secondhand via pen drive, mobile phone apps and other lightweight mechanisms for data storage—a person with Internet access downloads a video, puts it on a pen drive, and circulates it hand-to-hand among friends who watch the video, copy it, and distribute it to more friends. The importance of these second-hand networks, what Cuban blogger Orlando Luis Pardo once termed Cuba’s “Internet offline,” must not be overlooked.

It is hard to glean much from what the two leaders said about telecommunications policy specifically. After acknowledging that U.S. sanctions on the country have for years “denied Cubans access to technology that has empowered individuals around the globe,” Obama stated:

I’ve authorized increased telecommunications connections between the United States and Cuba. Businesses will be able to sell goods that enable Cubans to communicate with the United States and other countries.

This promising but vague assertion raises a lot of questions—what kinds of businesses is he talking about? What kinds of goods? In recent years, telecommunications companies like Verizon and AT&T have pushed to loosen restrictions on their industries in an effort to enter negotiations with the Cuban government. And they have made progress since Obama came into office. But this is only one of two hurdles. The second is the Cuban government, which like, every country, imposes requirements and restrictions on foreign businesses that wish to establish themselves on their soil.

With a few exceptions, foreign companies can enter contracts with the Cuban government only if they are willing to transfer 51 percent ownership of their holdings on the island to the Cuban government itself. In effect, this means that all foreign businesses are still majority owned by the Cuban government. It is hard to imagine that the Cuban state policy on this has changed altogether. Obama’s words suggest that this may have been part of their negotiations, but Raul Castro’s only mention of the issue suggested that the ball was still in Obama’s court. The Cuban president didn’t discuss changing Cuban tech policy or infrastructure. He said only that he “called upon the government of the United States to remove obstacles hindering … telecommunications.”

So plenty remains uncertain. Obama cannot unilaterally dismantle all U.S. government policies limiting contact and commerce with Cuba—as both leaders noted, the embargo is codified in legislation that only Congress can change. And although Obama advocated for leaders on both sides to move forward and leave behind their respective legacies of “colonialism and communism” it is not clear how this will play out in practice. Old habits die hard—and trust is no easier to build in the digital era than it was in 1961.

Dec. 18 2014 3:24 PM

Future Tense Event: How Will Human Ingenuity Handle a Warming Planet?

Humans are altering the Earth system at every scale, up to and including the global climate. Going forward, how will human ingenuity handle a warming world? We’re all familiar with the doomsday predictions of more droughts, fires, floods and economic disaster, but what are the possibilities for thriving in a changed climate? Our species is innovative and adaptive—rarely more so than when responding to stress and conflict. Join Future Tense to consider the question before us in these Anthropocene days: What opportunities does global climate change present for making our societies more equitable, prosperous, and resilient in the long run?

On Thursday, Jan. 15, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—will discuss these issues at the New America offices in Washington, D.C. You can find the agenda below. To RSVP, click here.

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On the evening of Jan. 14, Future Tense will host a screening of the documentary Merchants of Doubt in Washington. Merchants of Doubt looks at the shadowy world of well-paid pseudo-experts who undermine established science at the behest of the tobacco, pharmaceutical, and fossil fuel industries. For more information on the screening, click here.

Agenda for How Will Human Ingenuity Handle a Warming Planet?

12:15 p.m.: Futures of Climate Change

Brad Allenby
President’s professor of sustainable engineering, Lincoln professor of engineering and ethics, Arizona State University

12:35 p.m.: The Climate Business Boom
Mckenzie Funk
Author, Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming

12:50 p.m.: The Energy Question

Alex Trembath
Senior analyst, the Breakthrough Institute

Moderator:
Kartikeya Singh
CIERP doctoral research fellow, Tufts University

1:35 p.m.: Navigating New Frontiers

Rear Admiral Jonathan White
Director, space and maritime domain awareness, & oceanographer, navigator, U.S. Navy

Sharon E. Burke
Senior adviser, New America
Former assistant secretary of defense for operational energy plans and programs, Department of Defense

2:05 p.m.: Tomorrow’s Thriving Cities

Elizabeth Yee
Vice president, strategic partnerships and solutions, 100 Resilient Cities

Nikhil da Victoria Lobo
Head, global partnerships, Americas, Swiss Re Financial Services Corp.

Moderator:
Mckenzie Funk
Author, Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming

2:50 p.m.: Building More Equitable and Prosperous Societies

Nikki Silvestri
Food systems & climate solutions advocate
Former executive director, Green for All

Rimjhim Aggarwal
Senior sustainability scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Arizona State University

Todd Moss
Chief operating officer & senior fellow, Center for Global Development

Moderator:
Dan Sarewitz
Co-founder & co-director, Consortium for Science, Policy, & Outcomes, Arizona State University

Dec. 18 2014 3:24 PM

Come to a Free Screening of Merchants of Doubt in Washington, D.C.

A group of professional skeptics-for-hire have been at the center of campaigns to cast doubt and sow confusion about pressing public threats, from tobacco to climate change. Inspired by the acclaimed book of the same name by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, the documentary, Merchants of Doubt digs down into the shadowy world of well-paid pseudo-experts who undermine established science at the behest of the tobacco, pharmaceutical, and fossil fuel industries.

On Wednesday, Jan. 14, at 6:30 p.m., Future Tense will hold a screening of Merchants of Doubt at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C. After the movie, director Robert Kenner, whose work includes Food, Inc., and Geoffrey Brumfiel, science correspondent for NPR will discuss how science has been hijacked.To RSVP, click here.

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The following day, Jan. 15, Future Tense will host an event in Washington titled "How Will Human Ingenuity Handle a Warming Planet?" More information on that event is available on the New America website.

Dec. 18 2014 2:41 PM

ICANN Got Hacked

As 2014 comes to a close, hackers aren’t showing any signs of slowing down. On Tuesday the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers , or ICANN, which organizes the Internet's domain name system, announced that some of its sensitive data had been compromised in late November as part of spear-phishing scam that tricked ICANN employees.

The breach gave hackers access to multiple email accounts, the content management systems of certain ICANN blogs, ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee wiki (including members-only sections), and ICANN’s centralized zone data system, or CZDS, which contains ... basically everything related to the management of domains.

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ICANN is consistently targeted by hackers looking for information about the structure of the domain system or seeking the trove of personal information in the CZDS. ICANN updated the security systems on its networks earlier this year, and says that it thinks these improvements helped limit damage from this hack. It also says that it has added new security features over the past few weeks.

The attacker obtained administrative access to all files in the CZDS. This included copies of the zone files in the system, as well as information entered by users such as name, postal address, email address, fax and telephone numbers, username, and password. Although the passwords were stored as salted cryptographic hashes, we have deactivated all CZDS passwords as a precaution.

ICANN says that it thinks the attackers used a spear-phishing attack to make emails to employees seem official and tempt them to click on links that lead to malware installation. Depending on who those employees were, the hackers could have gotten extensive amounts of sensitive information.

ICANN says that passwords exposed in the CZDS aren’t actually at risk because they were encrypted, but the organization is resetting all passwords nonetheless and encouraging everyone listed in the CZDS to monitor their data and take protective precautions.

The fact that legit-looking emails are all it took to let hackers in is a reminder (that we’ve all heard a million times at this point) that hackers don’t need to be super-sophisticated to trick people.

Dec. 18 2014 2:00 PM

How Fast Are the TIE Fighters in Star Wars VII?

Reprinted from

This article originally appeared in Wired.

Will there be TIE Fighters in Star Wars VIIAccording to the trailer, yes. Now for the real questions: How fast are these TIE Fighters, and how fast are their blaster bolts? Time for some video analysis using Tracker Video Analysis.

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Before we get started, I should point out that this video isn’t that easy to analyze. The best videos (the easiest) to analyze have the following features:

  • A stationary camera view (non-panning, non-zooming).
  • Objects in the frame of a known size.
  • Objects moving perpendicular to the direction the camera is facing.
  • Objects far enough away from the camera that perspective isn’t a problem.

Based on these features, this is a terrible video. TERRIBLE. On top of that, there are only a few frames for me to look at with the objects moving. Of course, these limitations have never stopped me in the past and they won’t stop me now.

Let me start with just a few assumptions.

Also, there is one physics thing we need to look at. Since the objects are mostly moving towards the “camera,” we can get distance based on the angular size. Basically, the farther away something is the smaller it looks. If you know the actual size and the angular size, you can find the distance to the object. This is the diagram I like to use to describe angular size.

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The circle on the left would be a camera. If you know any of the two (angular size, distance, object size) you can find the unknown with the following:

141217_StarWars3

I can measure the apparent size of an object in the video, but that will only give me the angular size if I know the field of view for the camera—which I don’t. I’m going to have to make some guesses in order to use this video. What I would like is to find the distance from the TIE Fighter to the Millennium Falcon. With the distance and time for the blaster bolt, I can get the speed.

Here is what I will do. I will just guess. Let’s say that the Millennium Falcon is 25 meters in front of the “camera.” In this case, I can find the actual angular size and then use this to find the distance to the two TIE Fighters. Here is a plot of the TIE Fighter distances as they fly past the Falcon.

That doesn’t look too bad. The data suggests a constant velocity of the two TIE fighters at about 400 meters per second. Actually, this is the speed relative to the camera. If I assume the Millennium Falcon is moving at about the same speed then the TIE Fighters would be traveling at 200 meters per second (about 450 miles per hour).

But what about the blasters? In the above data, the two TIE Fighters start about 300 meters and 250 meters away from the Falcon (one of the TIE Fighters is farther away). From the video, one of these blaster bolts takes about 0.166 seconds to go from the TIE Fighter to the Falcon. In order to find the distance traveled, I need to subtract the distance the Falcon moved toward the TIE Fighters during this time. If it has a speed of 200 meters per second, that would be just 33 meters. So, let’s say that the blaster moves a distance of 270 meters giving it a speed of 1,626 meters per second.  Warning: This data is just an estimate and only to be used for entertainment purposes.  Do not use these speeds to develop TIE Fighter evasion strategies.

Is that a fast blaster bolt? Well, you might recall that I have looked at blaster speeds before (if you can’t remember, check it out here). From that analysis, the space-based blasters (except for the Death Star shots) had an estimated speed from between 30 meters per second and 36,500 meters per second with an average of 6,713 meters per second. So this speed seems to fit right in with that data.

Why is there such a large range of blaster speeds in the Star Wars movies? It’s because the blaster bolts are drawn in such a way as to have a nearly constant apparent angular speed. Let me look at the motion of one of these bolts in the Star Wars VII trailer.  This is a plot of the apparent angular position of the bolt where the width of the screen is at a distance of 1.

This blaster bolt doesn’t have a constant speed, but it’s average speed is about 4.78 screens/second. This seems quite a bit faster than the 0.5 screens/second from the original Star Wars movies. I don’t know what to say about that.

141217_StarWars4

Concluding Remarks

A few final comments:

  • This is a tough video to analyze. Lots of stuff going on. Clearly, someone wanted to set up a situation in which it was all but impossible for me to get any data. Of course I got some data anyway.
  • The TIE Fighters and the Millennium Falcon are moving at about 200 meters per second. Interestingly, Wookieepedia lists the maximum atmospheric speed of a TIE Fighter at 1,200 kilometers per hour or 333 meters per second.
  • The blaster bolts from the TIE Fighter are moving at about 1,600 meters per second. This is about the speed of a tank round.
  • Overall, I think the appearance of these blaster bolts is much better than the bolts in Star Wars Episodes IV-VI.  I still need to go back and look at Episodes I-III.
  • Blaster bolts still aren’t lasers.

Finally, I would like to add a note to J.J. Abrams.

Dear Sir,

I really enjoyed the trailer for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. However, it is clear that it will be difficult to obscure important facts (like the speed of TIE Fighter blasters) from my physics analysis. Might I recommend that you just stop trying to hide things? Instead, you could offer a role in Star Wars VIII (title to be determined). For a small fee, I would gladly accept your offer to be in your film.

Wait, just one more thing. I originally tried to analyze this scene by recreating the objects in Glowscript. It turned out that I didn’t really need it, but here is what it started to look like.

141217_StarWars5

Here is the code if you want to play with it. Yes, I am representing the Falcon as just a disk.  You could add some more detail if you like.  Actually, it would be fun to animate this so that it does the same thing as the clip from the trailer. That can be your homework if you like.

More from Wired:

Dec. 18 2014 11:05 AM

Netizen Report: Kyrgyz News Site Censored in Central Asia for ISIS Coverage

The Netizen Report originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Ellery Roberts Biddle, Lisa Ferguson, Arzu Geybullayeva, Grady Johnson, Chris Rickleton, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

We begin this week's report in Central Asia, where independent media workers have been gripped by controversy over a video that allegedly depicts children from Kazakhstan at an ISIS training camp in Syria. Kloop.kg, an independent news site based and hosted in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, republished the video as part of an article about Kazakh children purportedly living in ISIS training camps in the Middle East. When Kazakh authorities asked that Kloop remove the video, the site’s owners declined to do so. The Kazakh government promptly blocked the video.

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Though often considered the most open country in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is now mimicking its neighbor. Kloop’s editors once again declined a removal request, this time from the Kyrgyz government. In response, the country’s prosecutor general requested on Dec. 10 that all local ISPs block access to the video. Carrying out that order would be technically complex.

Just five days later, local webhost ProHost said it planned to kick Kloop off of its servers, at the behest of the State Agency for Communications. For now, Kloop is de facto blocked in Kyrgyzstan.

Although authorities claim the video constitutes “extremist propaganda,” local experts suspect that officials wanted to make an example of Kloop—the site refused to remove the article on journalistic principle, causing the government embarrassment.

Muck-raking journalist arrested in Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan does not have much of a record of protecting free expression—President Ilham Aliev was recently afforded the dubious honor of winning a corruption watchdog’s “Person of the Year” award. Last week, the arrest of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayil illustrated just how far the Azeri government will go to shield itself from the unflattering reports of investigative journalists. But this was hardly unexpected—Ismayil has faced legal challenges, sexual harassment, and online intimidation for several years in response to her reports on shady financial deals by members of the Aliev family. While the charges against her are unclear due to gag orders placed on her lawyer and accuser, news of her arrest received international attention human rights groups and intergovernmental organizations alike.

In Japan, whistleblowers beware
A controversial state secrecy act became law in Japan on Dec. 10, increasing criminal penalties for individuals who leak information that has been classified as a state secret. The law provides sentences of up to 10 years for government workers who leak state secrets and up to five years for anyone that solicits information using “grossly inappropriate means.” The new law, which elicited mass protests in several of Japan’s major cities last spring, is widely expected to have a chilling effect on free speech in the country.

Swedes pounce on Pirate Bay
File-sharing site the Pirate Bay was shut down this week following a raid on its servers by Swedish police, who took down the site over alleged copyright violations. While there were no arrests, one of the Pirate Bay’s operators said they were not yet sure whether they would reboot the site.

U.S. Congress members make last-ditch effort to reverse IANA function promise
Republicans in the U.S. Congress added a provision to the recently passed budget bill seeking to prevent the Obama administration from giving up its oversight over the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority function, a key component of the U.S. government’s power over the domain name system for the global Internet. However, the measure is likely to be ineffective due to procedural errors. Among other things, the contract that gives the nation’s Commerce Department oversight over IANA will not run out until fiscal year 2016—the appropriations bill only applies to 2015.

New Research

Dec. 18 2014 10:35 AM

The Navy’s New Robot Looks and Swims Just Like a Shark

Reprinted from

This article originally appeared in Wired.

The American military does a lot of work in the field of biomimicry, stealing designs from nature for use in new technology. After all, if you’re going to design a robot, where better to draw inspiration than from billions of years of evolution? The latest result of these efforts is the GhostSwimmer: The Navy’s underwater drone designed to look and swim like a real fish, and a liability to spook the bejeezus out of any beach goer who’s familiar with Jaws.

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The new gizmo, at five feet long and nearly 100 pounds, is about the size of an albacore tuna but looks more like a shark, at least from a distance. It’s part of an experiment to explore the possibilities of using biomimetic, unmanned, underwater vehicles, and the Navy announced it wrapped up testing of the design last week.

141217_Navy2

The robot uses its tail for propulsion and control, like a real fish. It can operate in water as shallow as 10 inches or dive down to 300 feet. It can be controlled remotely via a 500-foot tether, or swim independently, periodically returning to the surface to communicate. Complete with dorsal and pectoral fins, the robofish is stealthy too: It looks like a fish and moves like a fish, and, like other underwater vehicles, is difficult to spot even if you know to look for it.

141217_Navy3

Down the line, it could be used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, when it’s not assigned to more mundane tasks like inspecting the hulls of friendly ships. Animal lovers will be glad to hear that the GhostSwimmer could take the jobs of the bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions the Navy currently trains to spot underwater mines and recover equipment.

The GhostSwimmer joins the ranks of animal-based awesome/creepy robots like the “Cheetah” that can run at nearly 30 mph, the Stickybot that climbs like a gecko, and the cockroach-inspired iSprawl that can cover 7.5 feet per second. And it may get a baby brother: The Department of Homeland Security has been funding development of a similar, smaller robot called the BIOSwimmer.

True to military form, there’s a whole suite of acronyms to go along with the new toy: The UUV (unmanned underwater vehicle) has been in testing at the JEBLC-FS (Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story), and was developed by the CRIC (Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell) project, called Silent NEMO (actually, this one doesn’t seem to stand for anything). It was developed by the Advanced Systems Group at Boston Engineering, a Navy contractor that specializes in the development of robotics, unmanned systems and something called “special tactical equipment”. The company and Navy haven’t said much about when GhostSwimmer might be deployed or how much it would cost, but next time you’re at the beach and see a fin sticking out of the water, it might be a killer shark—or it might just be a Navy robot.

More from Wired:

Dec. 17 2014 4:46 PM

New York's Fracking Ban Is About Politics, Not Science. And That's Just Fine.

New York will ban fracking, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration announced Wednesday. “I cannot support high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York,” said acting health commissioner Howard Zucker, according to the New York Times.

Cuomo had dithered for years on this decision, leaving in place a de facto moratorium on fracking in the state as he called for further study on the health risks. Wednesday’s announcement sparked an outpouring of glee from a vocal anti-fracking lobby that includes the likes of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo.

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Fracking—a method of extracting natural gas and oil from shale deposits—has driven a natural gas boom in the United States over the past decade. Because natural gas burns cleaner than coal, the boom has helped to cut the United States’ carbon emissions. But fracking comes with risks of its own, including potential health and safety threats, which depend in part on how carefully it is carried out.

So did Cuomo make the right call? He did, but not for the reasons he’d have you believe.

Cuomo has promised all along to base his fracking decisions on scientific evidence. But, as is often the case with controversial new technologies, the scientific evidence points in both directions. We know there are risks, benefits, and uncertainties. We just can’t agree on how to weigh them. That’s why, as Adam Briggle argued convincingly in Future Tense last year, the fracking debate cannot be settled by science alone. It can only be settled by appeals to values, priorities, and interests—which is to say, politics.

To understand Cuomo’s decision, then, you have to understand the political context. For years, he has been haunted at nearly every public appearance by anti-fracking protesters enraged by his waffling on the issue. But the moderate Democrat was reluctant to take an anti-fracking stand before his November re-election, lest Republicans seize on the issue to whittle away at his majority. (He ended up winning with 54 percent of the vote.) With the campaign behind him, Cuomo was finally free to make a decision that would get the anti-fracking crowd off his back.

Obama Keystone
Cuomo isn't the only moderate Democrat who's been putting off a tough environmental decision.

Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A second factor may also have spurred him to action: The recent steep decline in oil prices has stifled demand for drilling and fracking, undercutting Republicans’ efforts to paint fracking as an economic imperative.

Cuomo insisted Wednesday that the fracking ban was the result of a bureaucratic, evidence-based process. “I don’t think I even have a role here,” he said in a news conference. Yeah, right—and Obama doesn’t have a role in the Keystone pipeline decision.

In fact, Obama’s pipeline quandary resembles Cuomo’s fracking dilemma in several respects, including his risk-averse handling of it. Politicians are often criticized for putting off tough decisions. But Cuomo’s fracking decision shows that procrastination can pay off, provided you act once the opportunity arises. Perhaps Obama, whose State Department has been "reviewing" Keystone XL for six years, will be the next to kill a controversial energy project. Why not strike while the oil is cheap?

Previously in Slate:

Dec. 17 2014 4:45 PM

What We Do and Don't Know About the Sony Pictures Hack

We do know that Kanye wants to make a movie and that there's a big pay gap between the genders at Sony. But not much information about the Sony Pictures hack itself is public right now. We don't know who did it or even really how they did it, but here's a rundown of where things stand.

How did it start?
Sony's networks went down on Monday, Nov. 24, after computers displayed a red image of a skeleton and the words "Hacked By #GOP." A Sony Pictures representative, Jean Guerin, told Reuters that there was "a system disruption" and that Sony IT was "working diligently" to fix the problem. She didn't comment on whether the situation was a cyberattack, but rumors started swirling, and Sony quickly confirmed that it had been hacked.

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Where did it come from?
At least one of the command and control servers (which control distributed malware) used in the hack is located in Bolivia. Sources also told Bloomberg that the malware was phoning home to the hackers through an IP address at a university in Thailand, and on a network at the St. Regis Bangkok. Some security experts have also speculated that the attack or some aspects of it originated in Japan, based on forensic IP address evidence.

And that's ... about it in terms of knowledge of the hack itself. It clearly penetrated deep into Sony Pictures' networks since the hackers have been sharing hundreds of gigabytes of data. But Sony, which is working with law enforcement and FireEye Inc.'s Mandiant cybersecurity unit, is keeping details of the hack quiet. Sony Pictures did not respond to a request for comment on the nature of the hack.

Is North Korea behind this or not?
Yeah, unclear. Could the nation state itself pull this off? Are the hackers part of a group like DarkSeoul that is thought to have ties to North Korea? Did the country hire outside hackers to do this? Did North Korean sympathizers launch the attack independently? Is a disgruntled former Sony employee involved? Is it all a viral marketing campaign? No one knows yet.

Update, Dec. 17, 6:15 p.m.: The New York Times reports that U.S. officials believe the North Korean government was indeed connected to the attack. From the Times:

American intelligence officials have concluded that the North Korean government was “centrally involved” in the recent attacks on Sony Pictures’s computers, a determination reached just as Sony on Wednesday canceled its release of the comedy, which is based on a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader.
Senior administration officials, who would not speak on the record about the intelligence findings, said the White House was still debating whether to publicly accuse North Korea of what amounts to a cyberterrorism campaign. Sony’s decision to cancel release of “The Interview” amounted to a capitulation to the threats sent out by hackers this week that they would launch attacks, perhaps on theaters themselves, if the movie was released.

This must be a pretty sophisticated hack if we still don't know who did it, right?
The Sony Pictures hack is definitely a big deal and affects thousands of people. But in terms of how it was executed (as far as anyone knows right now), it doesn't seem to have been particularly ingenious. Jonathan Carter, the technical director of Arxan Technologies, told Security Week on Dec. 5:

So far, the evidence seems to suggest that the Sony hack was accomplished via execution of malicious malware. Hackers typically conduct these attacks by somehow tricking the user into executing something that is malicious in nature from within a system that is sensitive in nature. The recent iOS Masque and WireLurker vulnerabilities clearly illustrate that the delivery and execution of malicious code can take some very clever approaches. In light of these recent revelations, it is reasonable to expect to see a rise in distribution of malware ... via mobile devices owned by employees that have access to sensitive backend systems.

In the case of the Target breach, it took about 10 weeks to discover the identity of the hackers. And it took more than four months to track down the collective that launched the Neiman Marcus cyberattack.

Is this cyberwar?
That is an excellent question! No one knows. The hackers have now started threatening physical attacks on movie theaters that show The Interview. And some, like David Auerbach on Slate, are already calling the hackers terrorists. But we don't know at this point what the hackers really want—aside from generally keeping Sony Pictures from making money off of The Interview—so it's hard to predict what will happen next.

Is it just me, or has Sony been hacked before?
Yes. A bunch of times. (Remember the 2011 PlayStation hack?) Yet clearly the company did not prioritize its cybersecurity protections the way it should have. As Chester Wisniewski, a senior security advisor at Sophos, explained to Gizmodo, "Sony's been raising the ire of hackers for as long as I can remember, so you have to think that they've known they're a serious target. ... I'm not justifying what these people did. But [Sony people] are kind of the perfect people to go after."

This is ridiculous. When are companies going to start taking this stuff seriously?
Perhaps the sheer magnitude of the Sony hack, the cost of containing it, the loss of revenue, and the class action lawsuit Sony Pictures employees are now filing will all combine to motivate companies to prioritize their cybersecurity. Hacks don't have to use novel strategies to be devestating and extremely difficult to trace. As security expert Bruce Schneier said, "That we live in the world where we aren't sure if any given cyberattack is the work of a foreign government or a couple of guys should be scary to us all."

Update, Dec. 17 5p.m.: Sony is cancelling the Christmas Day theatrical release of "The Interview." The company said in a statement

In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film The Interview, we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release. We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.

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