Apple, the FBI, and Cyber Security

Enough bytes have been downloaded from screen to encrypted screen about the legal battle between Apple and the FBI. It was the lead story in This Week in Web #7, and it is still the top tech news dominating the week. Op-eds will continue to rightfully point out that it’s not a dichotomy of privacy vs. security, while the FBI and CIA will be quick to point fingers, with the director of the latter pointing specifically at the media for misleading the public on the audacity of reporting on newsworthy stories about our rights while cheering for the terrorists to win. Does that make me an accessory to this crime? Do I consider myself journalistic enough to have a dog in this fight? Maybe give it some time, but I doubt I’m swaying any readers into opinions that they wouldn’t hold as rational citizens.

Apple is going on the offensive, both challenging the directives in court, and working on improving the security around their devices, beefing it up to the point that the types of hacks being requested would no longer be possible, making it so that even they couldn’t access data with bruteforcing.

Of course, it’s pointless to debate, when the government could just let John McAfee and his team decrypt the phone, free of charge. Don’t believe he could do it? John thinks that you should Google “cybersecurity legend” then make up your mind.

Taro the Shiba Inu loves Pizza and Tumblr. courtesy Taro via Flickr
Taro the Shiba Inu loves Pizza and Tumblr. courtesy Taro via Flickr

The Secret Lives of Tumblr Teens

Elspeth Reeve, New Republic

This is a long article, but it is an interesting read. It opens with the story of Pizza, a famous Tumblr user who had over 100,000 followers by the time she turned 15. The article then discusses several other viral sensations on Tumblr, and allowed me to use the phrase “viral sensation” in an article without being too ironic.

The article pokes into the lives of these Tumblr power-users, and how the site can – and often can’t – provide for them in terms of ad revenue. Some groups have been found to collude in click-fraud to earn money off of advertising on their accounts, and the backstabbing and pedantry that can come with that type of income. Finally, it discusses AdSense, DoubleClick, diet pills, illuminati, and a vast web of shady characters and conspiracy theories that keep the subculture as interesting as it can be vacuous.

Also, do yourself a favor and read it on the New Republic website on your desktop computer. The article is set up well and is a wonderful example of how the medium can enhance the message, more than be a burden on users who want to read enthralling stories and good journalism without having to trip over ads and clickbait.

Florida Senate endorses making computer coding a foreign language

Kristen M. Clark, Miami Herald

Earlier this week the Florida house senate voted 35-5 to approve a proposal (to put it on the path to becoming state law) to allow high-school students to count computer coding languages for foreign language requirements. While the push would ostensibly get more kids involved in coding, the drawbacks could exacerbate existing problems of wealth and education disparity for those sought after skills. True, certain students can perform better learning a rigidly structured language and interfacing with computers over the nuance of human speech, but the technical and financial requirements still exist to be able to support the equipment required for learning.

The gap between haves and have-nots exists when it comes to technology and the quality of education received in the state. While the debate over computer language mastery counting as being bi-lingual apparently being settled, the debate over how to use this new power still needs to play out. The bill promises to do nothing to expenses for school districts, where some expenses would be sorely needed in the poorest of schools to allow students to trade worn textbooks for computers fast enough to be competitive with peers in more wealthy neighborhoods.

Google Amp Screenshots courtesy Automattic
Google Amp Screenshots courtesy Automattic

WordPress goes all-in with Google’s speedy pages project, enabling it for everyone

Owen Williams, The Next Web

This week brings the launch of AMP, Google’s system of Accelerated Mobile Pages. While the service may be open and available for all to use wherever they please, unlike Facebook Instant Articles or Apple News, it’s not specifically a dig at those companies.

Instead, AMP is designed to make the web more friendly to the consumer, which in turn makes the consumer want to use the web even more, with Google being one of the lead providers of content. The inclusion of AMP by default for all users by Automattic is a big win, as the content will be delivered more efficiently to viewers, with no need to set anything up. Even self-hosted WordPresses can take advantage of the tool with a plugin that Automattic released this week.

Apple Logo on Macbook, courtesy Emily Bean
Apple Logo on Macbook, courtesy Emily Bean

Apple Fires a Warning Shot in the Latest Battle of the Crypto War

The past few years have been vicious in the debate between private companies and the US government when it comes to encryption. There has always been a heated relationship, but mounting public pressure (both by a public more informed of tactics of surveillance and how widespread they really are) has made the issue more of a battle for marketshare. Apple has drawn a line in the sand this week, refusing an FBI demand to create a special access method for them to hack into the cellphone of one of the San Bernadino shooters.

To be clear, this is a fairly specific request being made that does not jeopardize the encryption of the device itself or create a backdoor. The request is to disable a feature that wipes the phone memory after 10 incorrect password guesses, and to make it easier to enter passcode guesses via a separate device rather than having to do so manually via the lock-screen. This, and removal of a five-second time limit between guesses make it clear that the request is more to make it easier to brute force the password, and not to put a true backdoor in which would weaken security overall. Still, this would be a slippery slope, and Apple is right to not give an inch where a mile is so easily taken..

Google was a bit behind, but chimed in yesterday, and the expectation is that a few other major players including Facebook and Microsoft, will not be far behind with official statements in defense of physical security for their customers. It’s a great move, and will probably serve them well financially too. While it’s a controversial case, it makes sense that attention is given to what could be viewed as a more benign and even helpful case of finding information from a clear bad-guy that can help determine reasoning. This makes it easier to make the case in the future that more morally ambiguous cases should definitely not be considered for potential hacking collusion.

The FCC has moved closer to letting Americans dump their crappy cable boxes

Adam Epstein, Quartz

Just this week I was complaining about the inanities of companies claiming ownership over hardware that you pay for, treating you as a renter and not an owner. If my phone or other device (PlayStation 4 in this particular iteration of my rant) comes preinstalled with an app, it should be within my rights to remove that app without having to unduly expend effort like jailbreaking or rooting. Thankfully, it looks like the FCC generally agrees, by several times declaring it legal to jailbreak cellphones, and now ruling 3-2 that consumers should be allowed to purchase third party cable boxes, as opposed to being forced to rent them from their cable providers. The hope here is that added competition will drive down prices and drive up reliability and features. I’m all for a better piece of hardware via a more open market.

The President’s NSA Advisory Board Finally Gets a Tech Expert

Kim Zetter, Wired

Columbia University computer scientist Steve Bellovin made it clear years ago that the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board should have a technologist on board – someone who understand the capabilities of technology being debated upon for recommendations to the NSA. The board has listened, and though it’s temporary for now, with his involvement being re-evaluated later this year, Bellovin has been added to a board made up mainly of lawyers to provided a much needed technical analyst on a board that is supposed to make recommendations on the very same types of technology that he routinely discusses. Seems like it should be a no-brainer, but better late then never, I guess.

Reading stories can make robots more sympathetic to humanity, and less likely to kill us

Ashley Rodriguez, Quartz

You use stories to teach morals to your children, why not do the same for robots? That’s the idea behind a recent paper from Mark O. Riedl and Brent Harrison at the School of Interactive Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology. The idea is to give AI a set of guidelines and templates for reasoning, allowing them to make decisions that aren’t necessarily pre-programmed about how to respond in situations that may require advanced moral reasoning. Let’s just hope they figure out who the protagonists are and emulate them, as opposed to the evil witches, stepmothers, ghouls, and ghosts that make up the antagonists of many children’s stories.

The Malware Museum

Jason Scott, The Internet Archive

The Internet Archive has much more going for it than the Wayback Machine which allows users to view snapshots of millions of websites throughout time. The Archive is also host to specific collections of computer history, and one of the newest collections is emulations of old computer viruses that have been neutered of their destructive powers. Maybe they’d be less annoying today if they were as whimsical as some of these from the late 80’s and early 90’s pre-internet were.

Oscar Nominated Short 'We Can't Live Without Cosmos' by Konstantin Bronzit
Oscar Nominated Short ‘We Can’t Live Without Cosmos’ by Konstantin Bronzit. Courtesy

In Awe of Space

I’m taking a bit of a departure from the world of just the internet, but I’m betting you have an interest in space too. Who doesn’t have a personal connection with the night sky, and all of the wonder and mystery that it possesses? The awe of the scope of existence, which is constantly being pushed with discoveries, is the backdrop for endless curiosity.

First up is the Oscar Nominated short ‘We Can’t Live Without Cosmos’, by Konstantin Bronzit and Melnitsa Animation Studio. It’s part of a solid lineup of shorts up for an Academy Award this year, but it’s the most human of them that I’ve seen.

Two best friends have dreamed since childhood of becoming cosmonauts, and together they endure the rigors of training and public scrutiny, and make the sacrifices necessary to achieve their shared goal.

The eight minute film can be watched for free on The New Yorker site The Scene.

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory published even more extraplanetary travel and tourism posters that hearken to mid-century exotic travel ads, while looking beyond our atmosphere. The series is titled “Visions of the Future” and will make you want to pack your bags for that trip to Kepler-B16.

Making the rounds today is news that Einstein’s general theory of relativity had one of the final pieces yet to be confirmed measured by the team behind the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. The LIGO discovery came a century after the warping motion of gravity pushing against space-time was described by Einstein, following a project under development for the past forty years. The New York Times piece linked above has some great background on the scientists who were a part of the discovery, and what it means for astrophysics.

Caltech released a video on Youtube today that describes the find and how it was measured with a simplified visual of the LIGO system.

On a semi-related note, so I can take the moment to lump lots of stuff that I enjoy together: The music for that LIGO demonstration video is by Austin Wintory, an excellent composer who seems to have an infatuation with space as well. While working on the newsletter I was listening to his original “Spirit of the Cosmos” on BandCamp, where you can become a member of his fan club by subscribing to all of his current and future music, including the original works, film scores, and video game soundtracks.

The Trouble With the TPP, Day 29: Cultural Policy Innovation Uncertainty

Michael Geist

If you have any interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was signed after years of deliberation last week, Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law, has been doing a great job of giving in-depth analysis of many of the problems that the agreement has as relates to internet commerce. It’ll take a while to catch up if you intend to read all of it, but the gist is that the among the many ideas that can inhibit innovation (as opposed to the rose-tinted flourishing world of individuals who are only currently being stopped from creating due to the lack of protections on their IP) data transfer blocks can make it harder for the internet to function as it always as: a way to connect people anywhere in the world.

The Trolley Problem

I think that way too much emphasis in the discussion of self-driving cars is put onto The Trolley Problem, and the utilitarian philosophy that will potentially drive algorithms that determine who lives and dies. I think the debate clouds the discussion around the real answer, which is that with reliable self-driving cars taking over automotive duty for everyone, a whole lot more people are going to live.

That said, be transported in time to the heady graphics and gameplay of a Commodore 64, and complete The Trolley Problem yourself in a game by Pippin Barr.

With Quartz’s App, You Don’t Read the News. You Chat With It

Margaret Rhodes, Wired

The web-native reporting and journalism at Quartz is top notch, and I am excited to try out their first mobile app (when it comes to Android, anyway), which allows you to read through news stories as if having a discussion with a friend. I mentioned last week how I thought that chatbots are the future of some interfaces on the web, and this looks to be a good step in that direction, with a tool that is conversational, niche enough to have to be manageable, while broad enough to have impact.

New Bill Aims to Stop State-Level Decryption Before It Starts

Brian Barrett, Wired

Big surprise, California Congressman Ted Lieu – one of four members of Congress with a computer science degree – is in favor of shutting down the grandstanding and egomania driving the state legislators who think that they can stuff the genie of end-to-end encryption back into its bottle. Besides pointing out that there are other holes that are more easily accessed to do things like dump thousands of FBI and DHS employees’ information thanks to social engineering and compromised email,Lieu also noted that any state law would be easily circumvented and nearly impossible to enforce in even the most narrow of cases.

I can’t imagine any state legislator thinking that their bill would cause any actual change, but I can easily imagine those same legislators pandering to voters by showing how tough on crime they are, ignoring that the right to privacy and security is in no way a crime.

That’s it for this week, remember that you can submit links for next week’s newsletter!

Snowden’s Chronicler Reveals Her Own Life Under Surveillance

Andy Greenberg, Wired

I was quite taken with Laura Poitras’ documentary about meeting Edward Snowden, CitizenFour, which was my introduction to her work. It’s not a bad place to start – the film won her an Academy Award for Best Documentary, and the reporting that she did around it helped lead to the joint Pulitzer that the Guardian and Washington Post won in 2014.

What I was not aware of was how much her own life was controlled by surveillance, even before the eponymous CitizenFour first reached out to her. Laura has opened an exhibit at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, titled “Astro Noise”. She aims to show more of herself and give visitors the same feeling that she had as a victim of heavy surveillance.

The paranoia (currently being revealed as justified, thanks to Freedom of Information requests filed on her behalf by the EFF) and lack of privacy after her documentary about the war in Iraq is one of the most terrifying aspects of a surveillance state. The most effective form of silencing anyone is to bully them into self-silencing, and this is a classic example. Knowing that you are being watched can dramatically affect what you say or do, in effect stifling your free speech.

The Search for the Killer Bot

Casey Newton, The Verge

This is a great longform piece about the history and present of chatbots, from therapist ELIZA to SmarterChild for AOL and the Slack tool Lunchbot. I’m excited for the prospect of conversational UI’s, which I believe will be an important tool for marketing and growth in the coming years. There are plenty of places where text simply fits better than voice command, and chatbots are finally hitting their stride to take advantage of that comfort.

The functionality is there, and the major players are working hard to marry existing integrations with the intelligence that deep learning, neural networks, and other forms of AI that have been brewing in their research labs. This includes startups geared toward traditional operator systems that want to move beyond, like Magic, to Facebook’s goal of being able to do anything for you from right inside of their messenger, and Google’s plan to keep up with their rival. There are also bot makers working specifically on consumer and B2B tools, which is where I think huge gains can be made by companies looking to set themselves apart from competitors with great 24/7 customer support.

Google now blocking websites that show fake download buttons

Sebastian Anthony, Ars Technica

Praise be! There are some sites that I want to stay far away from if at all possible, but sometimes find myself stuck with. Sourceforge is one of those sites. When your whole business is around supplying free downloads and pumping SEO garbage out to make your download link rank higher than ones by the actual software author, you need to find ways to make money. One way is to make buttons that look like download buttons but in fact are links to ads, or to other items that contain adware that you didn’t intend on downloading. Needless to say, it’s a pain.

It’s good to see Google take such a strong stance, and it is already making an impact. Sourceforge recently redesigned to become a bit better able to handle this and changes for “social engineering attacks” that the search engine has implemented over the past few months. Cnet appears to have followed suit, and neither popular download destination has an obviously fake “download now!” button in sight.

Sourceforge download page - only one download button!
Sourceforge download page – only one download button!

Link submitted by Jeff de Wit. Suggest stories that you find interesting!

If You Go Near the Super Bowl, You Will Be Surveilled Hard

April Glaser, Wired

I get it, if there were a targeted event to be had, this would be tops. Superbowl 50 is taking place in the heart of the US tech revolution center this Sunday, and over 60 government agencies are working together to keep it secure. That said, I have my own thoughts on what the true driving force behind this level of security is.

When you have over 1 million people descending on your city for an event, it makes a perverse sense to setup a command center to manage all of the uniformed an plainclothes resources, have the FAA release a statement informing you that they will shoot your drone down if you try to fly too close to the venue, and have the more than 3,000 cameras installed throughout the city link directly to this command center.

Three and a half degrees of separation


Yesterday was Friends Day according to Facebook (in celebration of their 12th anniversary), and they took the chance to share some research on connection that the company has performed. In 2011, with approximately 721 million people using the site, they found that the common, gee-whiz factoid of everyone on the planet being connected by no more than six people wasn’t impressive enough, with an average of 3.74 people between each user on the site. Now they’ve done their own research and have found that with a more than double user-base, the distance has shrunk instead of grown, to an average of 3.57 users separating you from anyone else in their 1.59 billion person database.

I’m reasonably well connected at an average of 3.31 degrees of separation, with no active attempt at “networking” or even regular maintenance. Visit the post to see where you sit, and if you happen to be closer than my 3.17 to Mark Zuckerberg, let me know. I’ve been interested in meeting him for the past ten years or so 😛

David's Facebook Degrees of Separation

The internet wants you to lose your job

Matthew Bodie, Quartz

We can only repeat the story of Justine Sacco so many times to make the point that what you say on the internet can affect the rest of your life. Just remember: things that you say on the internet are no less real than things said offline. All I can say is that it’s a good thing for me that I’m currently self-employed, as I can imagine lot of my vitriol being misconstrued as reasons for termination at various jobs.

Someone else who has paid for what he’s said online is journalist Barrett Brown, who this week gave an entertaining review of some of the prisons that he’s been in since his sentence of 63 months in prison and over $890,000 in fines to be paid to Stratfor, a company that he did not hack but linked to hacked material from in his writing.