Category: Technology

Last-Minute Budget Bill Allows New Privacy-Invading Surveillance in the Name of Cybersecurity

The Intercept, By Jenna McLaughlin, December 18

In the wake of a series of humiliating cyberattacks, the imperative in Congress and the White House to do something — anything — in the name of improving cybersecurity was powerful.

But only the most cynical observers thought the results would be this bad.

The legislation the House passed on Friday morning is a thinly disguised surveillance bill that would give companies pathways they don’t need to share user data related to cyberthreats with the government — while allowing the government to use that information for any purpose, with almost no privacy protections.

Because Speaker of the House Paul Ryan slipped the provision into the massive government omnibus spending bill that had to pass — or else the entire government would have shut down — it was doomed to become law. (This post has been updated to reflect the vote, which was 316 to 113.)
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‘Mind-Blowing Abuse of Power’: Walmart Spied on Workers With FBI, Lockheed Martin’s Help

Common Dreams, By Nadia Prupis, November 25

Retail giant Walmart enlisted the help of a private military contractor and the FBI to spy on workers pushing for a $15 hourly wage and organizing Black Friday protests in 2012 and 2013, newly released documents (pdf) reveal.

“We are fighting for all workers to be paid a fair wage and enough hours to put food on the table and provide for our families,” said Mary Pat Tifft, a Wisconsin Walmart employee of 27 years. “To think that Walmart found us such a threat that they would hire a defense contractor and engage the FBI is a mind-blowing abuse of power.”

A document made public Tuesday by worker organization OUR Walmart reveals company testimony to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in January stating that Walmart had enlisted the help of arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin and the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force to monitor workers who were organizing for higher wages and the right to unionize. OUR Walmart workers said they were illegally fired and disciplined for taking part in the “Ride for Respect” strike during Walmart’s shareholder meeting in June of 2013.

But the surveillance had long been in progress. Walmart executives mobilized the so-called “Delta” emergency response team in 2012 when they first got wind of plans for a nationwide Black Friday worker strike. As Bloomberg explained in an investigative piece published Tuesday, “the stakes were enormous.” In addition to the NLRB testimony, the new reporting states, “The details of Walmart’s efforts during the first year it confronted OUR Walmart are described in more than 1,000 pages of e-mails, reports, playbooks, charts, and graphs.”

Twitter Has Censored Gory Images of the Paris Attacks

French authorities reportedly asked the company to block certain content.

Mother Jones, By Josh Harkinson, November 17

Over the past three days, Twitter has been preventing its users in France from viewing certain images and keywords related to the Paris attacks. The censorship, first reported today by the French newspaper Le Monde, applies to a keyword used by supporters of the Islamic State, tweets advocating terrorism, and, more controversially, graphic photographs taken inside the Bataclan after the terrorist attacks there left dozens dead.

On Sunday, France’s National Police used its Twitter account to ask social media users not to contribute to “the spread of photos of crime scenes,” out of “respect for victims and their families.” It encouraged Twitter users to send links to photos from the Bataclan massacre to PHAROS, a government website that compiles reports of illegal online activity.

On the same day, French law enforcement officials sent a request directly to Twitter, demanding the removal of certain tweets, according to Lumen, a Harvard University database of government takedown requests. The reasons the authorities gave for the request were a “serious attack on human dignity (images of cadavers)” and “secrecy of the investigation.”

[…]

“France has become nothing short of a nightmare when it comes to free speech,” says Jonathan Turley, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University. “The French government has aggressively rolled back free speech protections for years. I never thought I would see the day when France would become the leader in censorship and the criminalization of speech, however, it has become precisely that.”

It’s OK to hack your own car, US copyright authorities rule

Reuters, October 27

Car owners and security experts can tinker with automobile software without incurring US copyright liability, according to newly issued guidelines that were opposed by the auto industry.

The Library of Congress, which oversees the US Copyright Office, agreed with fair use advocates who argued that vehicle owners are entitled to modify their cars, which often involves altering software.
What it was like to have Tesla’s autopilot robot drive me hundreds of miles
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Automakers including General Motors and other vehicle manufacturers such as Deere & Co opposed the rules. They said vehicle owners could visit authorized repair shops for changes they may need to undertake.

However US copyright officials decided that altering computer programs for vehicle repair or modification may not infringe a manufacturer’s software copyright.

Senate passes controversial cybersecurity bill Cisa 74 to 21

Senate votes in favor of bill critics including Edward Snowden say will allow the government to collect sensitive personal data unchecked

The Guardian, By Sam Thielman, October 27

The US Senate overwhelmingly passed a controversial cybersecurity bill critics say will allow the government to collect sensitive personal data unchecked, over the objections of civil liberties groups and many of the biggest names in the tech sector.

The vote on Tuesday was 74 to 21 in support of the legislation. Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders voted against the bill. None of the Republican presidential candidates (except Lindsey Graham, who voted in favor) were present to cast a vote, including Rand Paul, who has made privacy from surveillance a major plank of his campaign platform.

Ahead of the vote a group of university professors specializing in tech law, many from the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy, sent an open letter to the Senate, urging them not to pass the bill. The bill, they wrote, would fatally undermine the Freedom of Information Act (Foia).
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Europe passes controversial net neutrality legislation that could create Internet fast-lanes

VentureBeat, By Paul Sawers, October 27

The European Parliament has passed controversial net neutrality legislation that could lead to a two-tier Internet.

The new legislation was originally designed to ensure an open and level-playing field to “protect the right of every European to access Internet content, without discrimination.” In effect, the new rules should have prevented Internet companies from blocking or “throttling” content, services, or apps, and charging companies or people more to restore parity. However, there is plenty of wiggle room in the legislation to cause concern.

There are loopholes that separate out “specialized” or “innovative” services, including Internet TV (e.g. video streaming), high-definition (HD) video conferencing, and some health care services. These loopholes are — in theory — designed to support bandwidth-intensive services such as remote telesurgery, but the language contained within the legislation is vague and open to the creation of fast-lanes whereby some companies can pay for faster Internet.

EPA accuses Volkswagen of cheating Clean Air Act, orders recall

MSNBC, By Tony Dokoupil, September 18

Volkswagen has been cheating federal emission standards since 2008 spewing as much as 40 times more pollution than allowed by equipping its cars with a “defeat device” that fools the official test, the Obama administration said on Friday.

The violations carry potential fines of more than $35,000 per vehicle, which means the German automaker is on the hook for as much as $18 billion, plus the cost of retrofitting nearly 500,000 recalled vehicles. The Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice of violation to the company, citing two breaches of the Clean Air Act, and ordered the recall.

“These violations are very serious,” Cynthia Giles, an assistant administrator in the EPA’s enforcement office, told reporters on Friday. “Using a defeat device in cars to evade clean air standards is illegal and a threat to public health.”

The violations pertain to four-cylinder diesel engine Jettas, Beetles, Audi A3 and Golf models built between 2009 and 2015, and Passat models made between 2014 and 2015. “Volkswagen admitted that the cars have defeat devices,” the EPA said. In a statement to CNBC, Volkswagen said they are cooperating with investigation and are unable to comment further.

So awesome!

Researchers Apply For Permission To Alter DNA Of Human Embryos

Some say gene editing shouldn’t be performed on human embryos until its effects are better understood.

The Huffington Post, By Sam Levine, September 18

The first British researchers have applied for permission to alter the DNA of human embryos to better understand the reason women have miscarriages, amid a broader debate over whether the testing is appropriate.

Earlier this year, Chinese scientists became the first in the world to modify human embryos. Researchers from the Francis Crick Institute are the first to seek permission to use the technique in Great Britain, where it is currently illegal except for research purposes.

The researchers hope to better understand the key genes involved in the first stages of fertilization and ultimately to determine the reason some women miscarry, according to The Guardian. The embryos, which are donated by couples who have a surplus after IVF treatment, would be destroyed after the research is completed. They cannot legally be studied for longer than two weeks.

New Boss on Construction Sites Is a Drone

Drones are being used to capture video footage that shows construction progress at the Sacramento Kings’ new stadium in California.

Technology Review, By Will Knight, August 26

For some construction workers, any thoughts of slacking off could soon seem rather quaint. The drones will almost certainly notice.

The site of a lavish new downtown stadium for the Sacramento Kings in California are being monitored by drones and software that can automatically flag slow progress.

Once per day, several drones automatically patrol the Sacramento work site, collecting video footage. That footage is then converted into a three-dimensional picture of the site, which is fed into software that compares it to computerized architectural plans as well as a the construction work plan showing when each element should be finished. The software can show managers how the project is progressing, and can automatically highlight parts that may be falling behind schedule.

First almost fully-formed human brain grown in lab, researchers claim

The Guardian, By Helen Thomson, August 18

Research team say tiny brain could be used to test drugs and study diseases, but scientific peers urge caution as data on breakthrough kept under wraps.

An almost fully-formed human brain has been grown in a lab for the first time, claim scientists from Ohio State University. The team behind the feat hope the brain could transform our understanding of neurological disease.

Though not conscious the miniature brain, which resembles that of a five-week-old foetus, could potentially be useful for scientists who want to study the progression of developmental diseases. It could also be used to test drugs for conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, since the regions they affect are in place during an early stage of brain development.

The brain, which is about the size of a pencil eraser, is engineered from adult human skin cells and is the most complete human brain model yet developed, claimed Rene Anand of Ohio State University, Columbus, who presented the work today at the Military Health System Research Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Previous attempts at growing whole brains have at best achieved mini-organs that resemble those of nine-week-old foetuses, although these “cerebral organoids” were not complete and only contained certain aspects of the brain. “We have grown the entire brain from the get-go,” said Anand.

AT&T Helped U.S. Spy on Internet on a Vast Scale

AT&T Helped U.S. Spy on Internet on a Vast Scale

The New York Times, By Julia Angwin, Charlie Savage, Jeff Larson, Henrik Moltke, Laura Poitras & James Risen, August 15

The National Security Agency’s ability to spy on vast quantities of Internet traffic passing through the United States has relied on its extraordinary, decades-long partnership with a single company: the telecom giant AT&T.

While it has been long known that American telecommunications companies worked closely with the spy agency, newly disclosed N.S.A. documents show that the relationship with AT&T has been considered unique and especially productive. One document described it as “highly collaborative,” while another lauded the company’s “extreme willingness to help.”

AT&T’s cooperation has involved a broad range of classified activities, according to the documents, which date from 2003 to 2013. AT&T has given the N.S.A. access, through several methods covered under different legal rules, to billions of emails as they have flowed across its domestic networks. It provided technical assistance in carrying out a secret court order permitting the wiretapping of all Internet communications at the United Nations headquarters, a customer of AT&T.

The N.S.A.’s top-secret budget in 2013 for the AT&T partnership was more than twice that of the next-largest such program, according to the documents. The company installed surveillance equipment in at least 17 of its Internet hubs on American soil, far more than its similarly sized competitor, Verizon. And its engineers were the first to try out new surveillance technologies invented by the eavesdropping agency.

One document reminds N.S.A. officials to be polite when visiting AT&T facilities, noting, “This is a partnership, not a contractual relationship.”

With ProPublica: NSA Spying Relies on AT&T’s ‘Extreme Willingness to Help’
Informed Consent: New Proof: AT&T and NSA’s Long Surveillance Partnership shredded 4th Amendment, By Mark Rumold, EFF
Wired: What We Know About the NSA and AT&T’s Spying Pact

We’ve finally hit the breaking point for the original Internet

Washington Post, By Brian Fung, July 2

It’s finally happened. The North American organization responsible for handing out new IP addresses says its banks have run dry.

That’s right: ARIN, the American Registry for Internet Numbers, has had to turn down a request for the unique numbers that we assign to each and every smartphone, tablet and PC so they can talk to the Internet. For the first time, ARIN didn’t have enough IP addresses left in its stock to satisfy an entire order — and now, it’s activated the end-times protocol that will see the few remaining addresses out into the night.


How big is IPv6?

Who wrote this amazing, mysterious book satirizing tech startup culture?

Fusion, By Alexis Madrigal, June 8

A mysterious little book called Iterating Grace is floating around San Francisco right now. At least a dozen people have received the book in the mail—or in my case, by secret hand-delivery to my house. (Which is a little creepy.)

The artifact itself consists of a 2,001-word story interspersed with hand-drawn recreations of tweets by venture capitalists and startup people like Chris Sacca, Paul Graham, Brad Feld, Sam Altman, and others.

The story’s lead character, Koons Crooks, goes on a spiritual quest by contemplating the social media feeds emanating from the startup world. It leads him to a Bolivian volcano and a chillingly hilarious final act with some cans of cat food, a DIY conference badge, and a pack of vicuñas (which are sort of like llamas).

“For him, the tossed-off musings and business maxims of these men (they were almost all men) shimmered with a certain numinous luster. He contemplated individual tweets for days, sometimes weeks, expounding on them at length in the margins of his books about the sea, meditating on them as though they were koans,” we read. “The answers he’d been searching for had been there, in the Bay Area’s innovation economy, all along—articulated, unwittingly, by an elite class of entrepreneurial high priests.”

Renewable energy from evaporating water (w/ Video)

Phys.Org, June 16

An immensely powerful yet invisible force pulls water from the earth to the top of the tallest redwood and delivers snow to the tops of the Himalayas. Yet despite the power of evaporating water, its potential to propel self-sufficient devices or produce electricity has remained largely untapped—until now.

In the June 16 online issue of Nature Communications, Columbia University scientists report the development of two novel devices that derive power directly from evaporation – a floating, piston-driven engine that generates electricity causing a light to flash, and a rotary engine that drives a miniature car.

When evaporation energy is scaled up, the researchers predict, it could one day produce electricity from giant floating power generators that sit on bays or reservoirs, or from huge rotating machines akin to wind turbines that sit above water, said Ozgur Sahin, Ph.D., an associate professor of biological sciences and physics at Columbia University and the paper’s lead author.

“Evaporation is a fundamental force of nature,” Sahin said. “It’s everywhere, and it’s more powerful than other forces like wind and waves.”