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Silicon Valley is finally lashing out against white supremacists

The President won’t, but it’s about time Silicon Valley spoke out against Nazis and white supremacists in the US. And it’s good to see some of the biggest names in the industry voicing their opinions against bigotry right now, given the state of affairs following the racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the past weekend.

In a letter to employees, Apple CEO Tim Cook slammed President Trump’s statements about the incident:

I disagree with the president and others who believe that there is a moral equivalence between white supremacists and Nazis, and those who oppose them by standing up for human rights. Equating the two runs counter to our ideals as Americans.

He also said that the company will contribute $1 million each to two human rights groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.

In addition, it’s killing off Apple Pay support on sites that sell white supremacy clothing and accessories; PayPal is doing the same.

Writing to Microsoft employees earlier this week, CEO Satya Nadella didn’t hesitate to use the term ‘white nationalists’ to describe the perpetrators of violence in Charlottesville – something President Trump seems to have no interest in doing:

There is no place in our society for the bias, bigotry and senseless violence we witnessed this weekend in Virginia provoked by white nationalists.

Cloudflare, a cloud security and performance service for websites, announced that it’s now terminated the account of neo-Nazi outlet The Daily Stormer, which published a hate-filled piece about one of the victims of the Charlottesville violence.

The company has, until now, remained content neutral, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was that the site claimed Cloudflare supported its ideology. Even if it’s only a measure to avoid bad press, by booting TDS from its service, the company has effectively taken a stand against the spread of hate online.

Others have also made small moves in this regard: Facbook has removed white supremacist Christopher Cantwell’s accounts on the social network as well on Instagram, along with a Page connected to his podcast. It also took down eight other Pages connected to the white nationalist movement that the company said violated its terms of service. And for its part, Twitter has suspended The Daily Stormer’s account.

Web host Squarespace also took down a bunch of racist sites; it didn’t specify which ones, but it does happen to offer its service to the National Policy Institute, which is fronted by alt-right poster-child Richard Spencer.

That’s not bad for a start. But more companies and voices need to come out in unison against this movement spreading across the US, and condemn it for the misguided, hate-filled phenomenon that it is.

The image above is a screengrab from VICE News’ documentary, ‘Charlottesville: Race and Terror’, which gives you an inside look at the events from the past weekend. Watch it on YouTube.

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The Pentagon wants YOU to develop ‘drone swarms’ for the military

The US Department of Defense (DOD) earlier this month announced its “drone sprints” project, aimed at advancing “drone swarm” technology. It’s calling on developers nationwide to come up with usable solutions to the challenge of deploying and controlling hundreds of unmanned air and ground vehicles in an urban combat environment.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — the government think-tank responsible for the program — released this YouTube video, which comes off as very “Dharma Initiative.” In it, Dr. Timothy Chung, a DARPA program director, details the government’s plans to take drone warfare to the next level.

The Pentagon intends to shore-up its drone capabilities by expanding on five key strategic areas in order to implement drone swarms at scale:

  1. Swarm Tactics
  2.  Swarm Autonomy
  3. Human-swarm Teaming
  4. Physical Experimentation
  5. Virtual Environment

DARPA will hold “swarm sprints” every six-months in order to promote accelerated advancement in tactical drone deployment. According to Dr. Chung, this will help the DOD stay up to date as technology continues to develop at a rapid pace:

By having swarm sprints at regular intervals, we’re able to ensure that we’re keeping up with the latest technologies – and are in fact helping inform and advance those technologies – to better suit the needs of the OFFSET program. Given the wide range of capabilities that we’re interested in, we’re looking for wherever those innovative solutions are going to come from, whether they be small businesses, academic institutions, or large corporations.

The big idea, for DARPA and US warriors, is the capability for individual service-members to launch and control 250 or more drones at a time. This includes both aerial and ground-based robots, with a focus on combat in urban environments –like cities or villages.

Working in conjunction with “play books” on laptops or tablets — likely resembling a digital database of strategies similar to the one you might find when calling plays in a video game like EA Sports title Madden — and real-time management software, soldiers will be able to isolate objectives in urban environments without risking friendly casualties.

The US government’s previous efforts at drone swarms included the Perdix automated drone system, which ties 103 surveillance drones together as a single autonomous unit. This system was developed for high-altitude deployment and doesn’t address the unique challenges faced in urban environments.

The future of warfare is starting to look a lot like a real-time strategy game, which might be a good thing – it’s about time our species started keeping score with something other than human lives.

If you want to help Uncle Sam teach drones how to flock together for the cause, you can get more information here.

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My time at the White House convinced me of the urgency of reforming surveillance

Around the time Edward Snowden began working for as a computer specialist for the intelligence community in 2006, I decided to leave my job as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union to go inside America’s growing surveillance state. Congress had created a new office: an office of privacy and civil liberties to advise the head of the intelligence community on how to improve oversight of intelligence programs.

Much to my surprise, senior intelligence officials took a chance on hiring me — an ACLU lawyer — to become the office’s first deputy. While I am proud of the work we did, it is fair to say our success was limited. The main reason was that the law was woefully out of date. The law was focused mainly on preventing abusive domestic wiretaps, and did little to restrain the kind of global surveillance the NSA was conducting in the digital age.

When Barack Obama took office in 2009, I moved to the White House. Obama had promised a fresh approach to the “war on terror,” including a review of NSA surveillance programs, so I was hoping for deeper reforms. Yet when Obama learned of mistakes in the way the NSA was running programs, he left it to the lawyers to sort things out. Little changed… until Snowden came along.

The Snowden leaks

In the summer of 2013, a series of embarrassing stories about United States government surveillance began appearing in major news outlets, based on leaked documents stolen by Edward Snowden. While the Snowden stories were news to the American people and many members of Congress, they were not news to me. They showed how the Bush and Obama administrations had built mass surveillance programs that took advantage of America’s privileged position as the hub of the global internet.  

While my work inside the government had brought about modest improvements in oversights, Snowden’s unauthorized leaks prompted far more significant reforms. The Obama administration launched a transparency drive, declassifying thousands of documents about mass surveillance — more documents, in fact, than Snowden had leaked. Congress ended bulk collection of telephone records, after a federal court had declared it illegal. The federal court that reviews surveillance began to hear arguments from outside lawyers.

The Snowden leaks also enlarged the way the United States government thinks about privacy.  When I was in government, it went without saying that the only privacy that mattered was the privacy of American citizens and residents — “U.S. persons,” in the jargon of the intelligence community.

Obama, under pressure from allies and the US technology industry, required intelligence agencies to adopt new rules for handling the personal information of foreigners. These rules, while modest in practice, were a major shift for intelligence agencies that had never before been required to worry about the privacy rights of the rest of the world’s citizens.

Be on guard

This year, Congress will review the law that allows the NSA to obtain the digital communications of people it believes are outside the United States from a switch or server inside the United States, with a secret court order directed at American communications companies.

More than 100,000 targets were subject to such surveillance last year. While the NSA follows rules to ensure these targets are foreign, the database can also be searched for the names of Americans. Over 30,000 such searches took place in 2016 — all without a warrant.  

The post-Snowden reforms are a good first step, but there is much more to do. Congress should demand warrants for Americans, and strong privacy protections for everyone. It should give the federal court that reviews surveillance the technical experts and staff it needs to do its job. The reforms adopted after 2013 have shown that when NSA does its job with more openness, the results are good not only for civil liberties, but for national security as well.  

Presidents have abused surveillance powers in the past. Despite reform, it remains too easy for a reckless president to do so again. “I want surveillance,” Donald Trump said bluntly on the campaign trail. When Trump took office, he accused his predecessor of ordering his “‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower,” showing his profound ignorance of the limits of presidential power.

Still, Trump and his supporters are right to worry about the “deep state.” Leaked intelligence reports based on the constitutionally-protected communications of Trump officials are a clear civil liberties abuse.

Americans shouldn’t wait for another damaging leak of classified surveillance programs to force the next round of surveillance reform. Reforming surveillance has never been more urgent.


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Facebook, Google, and Twitter to appear before Congress in election tampering investigation

Representatives for Facebook, Google, and Twitter will appear in front of congress on November 1st to provide testimony on Russian election interference.

The congressional hearing is one of many government probes into Russian election interference, this one turns its focus on social media’s involvement.

All three tech companies found evidence of ad tampering over the course of internal investigations this year, and subsequently reported those findings to congress.

Facebook reported hundreds of Pages and advertisers tied to a Russian troll farm, which had purchased over 3000 advertisements totaling over $100,000.

Twitter uncovered at least 200 accounts tied to similar ones flagged by Facebook, and hundreds of bots spamming propaganda.

Google, for its part, found thousands of dollars in ads were purchased by Russian agents, and continues to investigate over $50,000 in questionable ad purchases from accounts that haven’t been confirmed to be bad actors yet.

And, to make matter worse, there’s more to worry about than just ad sales or bots. The same meddlers are using malware to hijack our browsers and use our Facebook accounts to like ads and fake-news stories — with us none the wiser.

McAfee labs recently reported “Faceliker” binaries comprised approximately nine percent of malware it detected. That’s nine percent of 52 million – meaning nearly 4.7 million instances of Faceliker were detected.

Vincent Weafer, VP of McAfee Labs, told TNW:

This is unusual because this one isn’t like most other malware. Faceliker is manipulating likes, which is a very specific kind of browser hijacking.

While some government officials – and members of the media – have called on Facebook, Twitter, and Google to do something about Russian interference, there’s an argument to be made that fighting propaganda is, well, everyone’s job.

We asked Weafer how an average Joe or Jane can protect themselves from unwittingly becoming a pawn in the real-life version of “Game of Thrones” that is Russian politics; his answer was terrifying:

Make sure you’re keeping up with patches. Research any tools or anti-virus you’re considering using. Don’t download the first “free tool” you find in the search engine just because its free.

Basically, the same novice IT security tips we’ve been hearing for the last 20 or so years. The reason that’s scary is because it shows we Americans can be counted on to download enough malware to potentially influence an election.

The real problem here is the Russian propaganda plays both sides of the fence. Meddling agents play issues like Black Lives Matter and The 2nd Amendment to anger both liberals and conservatives — just to stoke the divide. As long as American citizens are pissed off at each other the bad actors are accomplishing their mission.

Former State Representative Raj Goyle, CEO of Bodhala, told TNW that the problem wasn’t an easy fix, saying lawmakers have been “asleep at the switch for 20 years.” Goyle also said:

You’ve got this election overseas and there’s evidence that Russians have interfered in that one as well. Facebook and Google are having to explain why they allowed this to happen, but why the hell is a private company in charge of ensuring the integrity of a national election?

The solution to the problem won’t become apparent until we understand the depth of it. It’s not so infuriating that Facebook, Twitter, and Google allowed this to happen – but we need to speed up the investigation and get the cards on the table.

It’s time for the government to get educated on technology and start working with the companies behind it. The current status quo is a system of lobbyists preaching the future and a squad of politicians litigating from the past — and that’s not helping the problem at all today.


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