Anonymous vs. the Zetas

Posted November 1st, 2011 at 3:30 pm (UTC-4)

And Taking the OWS Protests Online

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Periodically we like to share a few of the stories and posts from across the web that caught our eye. There are no editorial threads implied connecting these items together, other than being interesting.

#1: Anonymous vs. the Zetas.  Over the last year, the hacker collective Anonymous has gone after a wide range of targets – the Sony Corporation, the CIA (the U.S. intelligence agency), and Barney the Dinosaur to name a few. But now, they’re facing a very different adversary: Mexico’s vicious Zetas drug cartel.

In several videos posted online, presumed members of Anonymous threaten the Zeta cartel with revealing the names and addresses of their top supporters, including journalists and police members, unless the Zetas release a member of the hacker group allegedly kidnapped.  “You have made a great mistake taking one of us.  Free him,” warns one masked messenger.

There are no confirmed details of the kidnapping, or little else about this story; which is no surprise, considering it pits a lawless “hacktivist” community against a powerful drug mob. One Anonymous spokesperson says the kidnapping happened in October in the Mexican city of Veracruz. In fact, that region is the power base of the illegal drug ring known as “Los Zetas.” The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency labels the Zetas as the most violent drug cartel and paramilitary operating in Mexico, and in the past the Zetas have kidnapped, tortured and killed several journalists and online activists working to expose the cartel’s activities. On the other side, it’s presumed parts of the Anonymous collective are working in Mexico and may have information on the cartel’s supporters, but because of the hidden and highly decentralized nature of the group, it’s hard to know for sure.

A screen capture from one of Anonymous' videos threatening the Zeta drug cartel

It’s also not unusual for online activists to do battle with the drug cartels.  “El Blog Del Narco” was one of the first, and still among the most popular, documenting the comings and goings of members and supporters of the Sinaloa drug cartel, a rival smuggling operation to the Zetas. And the cartels have violently struck back, recently hanging and mutilating several online activists from a bridge with signs warning that “this is going to happen to all of those posting funny things on the Internet.” The drug lords do not fool around.

But neither does Anonymous, which is why the threat is being taken seriously. If the group carries out its threat to post on November 4th, both members of the media and the drug cartels will work to confirm the information – the media to document it, and rival cartels to target their opponents. And spreading the risk around, any hackers the cartels have worked with in the past will also come under a shadow of suspicion. In the words of the masked Anonymous spokesperson, “Wait and see.”

#2: Taking the “Occupy” Protests Online. There are currently dozens of real-life protests in the real world streets of many major cities: New York, London, Toronto, Tokyo, and many others. Beginning in New York a few months back, “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) protesters cite inspiration in part from the massive rallies of the Arab Spring earlier this year. While no governments have yet toppled, the protest encampments  quickly grew and spread, generating lots of media coverage but little else so far.

And now, again like the rallies in Cairo and Bahrain, protest supporters are working to document the movement online. The head of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, Ethan Zuckerman, writes of a new joint project between the People’s Production House, or PPH, and to bring civic journalism to the protest tent cities.

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

People’s Production House is a nonprofit journalism training operation working to bring digital tools to the street and help individuals tell and share their own stories. PPH creative director Marisa Jahn, a self-described citizen activist, has joined with NewsMotion’s Julian Rubenstein, a former Washington Post reporter and longtime journalist and documentarian. Together they tell Zuckerman they’re launching a project tentatively titled Basta!, a web platform specifically designed to cover OWS from the protesters point of view.  Says Zuckerman:

“The platform seeks to combine original content and curated aggregation, to identify the best, most relevant and accurate sources, whether they’re official, unofficial or citizen sources. One of the key challenges of the system is finding a way to both tell the broad story – seeing the various points on a map where people are participating in the movement – and the deep story. The group is commissioning and serializing portraits of individuals to show off the complexities of these issues, with the goal of being able to tell subtle, multifaceted stories related to the issues.”

Many of the protests, including OWS, already have their own websites, and there are thousands of videos posted online by individuals taping events; perhaps most memorably when protester and Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen was seriously injured in a confrontation with police in Oakland, California. Basta! is not yet online, but you can view some of the coverage PPH has been assembling at their website.

Courtesy Aram Bartholl/Creative Commons

#3: “Open Intern@t” For years, the German artist Aram Bartholl has made the web – and our interaction with it – a major theme of his work. In “Dead Drops,” he embedded real, working flashdrives in buildings and public spaces, allowing daring passersby to upload or download documents. For “WoW,” he constructed enormous signs bearing the names of volunteers, who agreed to walk through major cities with someone else holding the sign above them, much as players do in the online game World of Warcraft (or WoW). Now in “Open Intern@t,” he’s carrying around those ubiquitous LED “OPEN” and “INTERN@T” signs seen hanging in shops around the world. And his signs don’t lie: he also carries a mobile 3G hotspot around with him, allowing people on the street near him to log onto the Internet for free. However, this is art…or a “public intervention,” in his words.  So part of the deal is that Bartholl keeps moving, forcing people either to follow around close to him or get pushed off the web.

As art goes, we’re not so sure. But we’re considering buying his “work” and taking it on trips with us.

OPEN INTERNET from aram bartholl on Vimeo.

PopTech: Wired in the Woods

Posted October 21st, 2011 at 1:19 am (UTC-4)

Thoughts on a Webby World

Doug Bernard | Camden, Maine

When in doubt, just stare at the clouds and keep your mouth shut.

It’s earlier this afternoon; I’m sitting in the BWI airport, killing a few hours before boarding a flight to Portland, Maine, and the 16th annual PopTech conference. PopTech is a yearly gathering of techno-savants and Internet evangelists who meet in the seaside village of Camden – a town on the lip of the ocean and the forest.  As suits its Warhol-esque name, PopTech (technically “Pop!Tech”, but we’re not so exclamatory) is hipper than hip.  “It’s like a TED mash-up” one attendee told me over airport pizza, referencing both the mega-popular “Technology, Entertainment, Design” – or TED – gatherings and the social media ‘mash’ phenomena in just five words.  I’m not sure what she means, but I nod.

Like a lot of similar events, PopTech draws a hyper-wired crowd ready to share, crowd-source, buzz, optimize and just about any other techno-lingo verb you can toss in.  “Hyper” doesn’t even convey it; you almost feel like everyone is walking around with a web address slung over their neck, rather than a name-tag. “Hi!  My name is http://…

And that’s not far from the mark.  Every year PopTech attracts a wealth of talented thinkers, each one of them pushing for some new new NEW idea of how technology will transform human societies.  And everyone – everyone – is doing so on several platforms at once.  They talk and they tweet, they TwitPic and Ustream and Tumbler, they Storify and Ushahidi and who knows what else; all simultaneously. Everyone here is a giant, glowing Internet hot-spot.

Which makes it all the odder, as all of this techno-clatter is happening at what feels like the edge of the woods and the fringe of the Internet.

Let me back up.  Although I cover the web and culture for a living – and enjoy it immensely – I’m a bit of a skeptic.  I hear pronouncements of how the Internet will fundamentally transform human culture, but also see how it exposes our frailties.  I talk with people who see an electro-future ahead, but listen to our own correspondents reporting from places far removed even from regular electricity.  Daily I see people punching furiously at their smart phones…and intentionally I won”t buy one, because I don’t want to stop seeing the people right in front of me.

Which brings the story back to the airport. Pizza gone, I have no option but to wait to board, and talk up some of the other attendees.  My computer is packed away, my dumb phone isn’t getting good signal, and I’m – for the moment – cut off from the Web.

I can’t read the latest headlines of Gadhafi’s death.  I can’t check my email to read frantic notes from my colleagues.  I can’t tweet, I can’t watch, I can’t distract myself; I can’t do anything but finish the crossword in the local paper.  All this while chatting up another PopTech visitor.  I am, I think, a fraud.

Perhaps not.  The pleasant young woman I’m speaking with is eager to share her ideas about the future, and how the Internet will shape it.  She asks me a question or two about the latest news; I shrug and, failing a clever answer, stare out the window at the clouds.

She waits a beat or two, and then begins thinking aloud of how the web might shape the next revolution somewhere else in the world.  Interesting stuff.

And I might never have heard her thoughts if I had a smart phone handy, ready to regurgitate what was already floating around on the web before hearing her thoughts.

So, here in Camden, people are gathering to talk about the Internet.  In a place so remote that Internet access is a valuable thing.

And I can’t help but think about what would happen tomorrow if, suddenly, everyone at PopTech lost access to the web.

What would we say?  And how long before we just looked out the window, stared at the clouds, and listened to each other?

PopTech: You Tell Us

Posted October 17th, 2011 at 2:02 pm (UTC-4)
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Adding Your Voice to PopTech’s “World Rebalancing” Conference

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Camden, Maine, might best be described as one of those places that’s nowhere in particular.  A long way from just about everywhere, it’s situated at the lip of Sherman Cove, at the edge of West Penobscot Bay, which hangs over Maine’s Atlantic coast.  The sort of place that just begs a rocky New Englander to caution in dialect, “yeh cahn’t get theyar from heyar” –  you can’t get there from here.

Still, this coming week, thousands will somehow find their way to Camden for the 15th annual “PopTech” conference; this year titled “The World Rebalancing.”  (I’ll be there, and I could use your help when I go.  More on that in a moment.)

An image from PopTech illustrating one presentation

Yet unlike much of the news coming from Washington D.C. or London or Rome (or you name it) lately, “rebalancing” is meant to refer to something much more positive.  Namely, the myriad ways emerging technologies are being employed to actually make the world a better place.

Now, admittedly, there are dozens – or more – of these sorts of events every year.  Many are much better funded (the Davos World Economic Forum), more highly attended (the Aspen Ideas Festival) or earn lots more public notice (the many TED events, for example).

What PopTech lacks in those things, it more than makes up in enthusiasm.  Unlike its other tech-idea-conference brethren, PopTech is less formal speechifying and more college bull session; less shiny new toys, and more making more of what you have, technologically speaking.

Consider, as an example, Palestinian students Asil Abulil, Nour Al-Arda, and Asil Shaar and their teacher Jameela Khaled.  Occupants of a refugee camp in the West Bank, these three young women wanted to help a blind friend navigate the small streets and paths of Nablus on her own, without fear.  With next to no tools or resources, Khaled’s students – using old mobile phones, used electronics and anything else they could scrounge, constructed a cane that alerts its user about oncoming hazards through a series of beeps, buzzes and vibrations.   Better yet, the cane proved particularly effective in detecting holes, stairs and other pathway problems common in the developing West Bank.  For next to nothing, they created a tool that allows the blind to find their way in any direction without fear of injury.

It’s examples of technological transformation like this that PopTech features during its four-day conference.   In fact, conference organizers prefer to call the event “a laboratory,” meaning that unlikely people coming together in new ways can yield surprising results.  Musicians, neural biology researchers, pathologists, writers, even a pirate or two are among the participants this year.  And whether one has a speaking slot or not, PopTech organizers suggest that everyone attending come ready to contribute – not just to listen, but to add to the conversation.

This year myself and a colleague from Radio Free Asia, Katherine Zhang, will be lucky enough to attend, leaving us both with the question: what would you have us contribute?  PopTech is very much a crowd sourced event, so in that spirit, we want to hear from you about what you think is important, and what kinds of technological innovation would help your community.

You can leave your ideas here as a response, or send them directly to  Either way, we look forward to hearing from you and taking your ideas to tiny Camden, Maine.


This and That

Posted October 13th, 2011 at 5:57 pm (UTC-4)
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Digital Frontiers editor Doug Bernard is away from his screen this week.  In his absence, we invite you to follow some of the following DF-related items.

Malware is certainly making its way to portable devices, and in particular, the Android platform is under attack.  A  fake application is sneaking onto Android devices, with what is purported to be an app from the U.S.-based home movie delivery company, Netflix.  The phony Netflix app looks very much like the real Netflix program, but instead of delivering movies, it takes what it can  — stealing account information from the unfortunate Android users who fall for it.

The Netflix Trojan, however, is capable only of pilfering the Netflix user’s log-in and password information, not credit card information, so industry observers say it appears the phony app may have simply been a test run for some other future scam.

Norton anti-virus software maker Symantec says that they have long warned that an explosion of mobile malware is just around the corner. Beginning in earnest this year, says Symantec in one of its blogs on the topic, they have indeed observed a marked increase in threats targeting mobile devices,but they are unsure if such an expected explosion has in fact yet occurred.  Cyber-criminals may still be in the exploratory phase of figuring out how to exploit the world’s many mobile devices.  In either case, as always, be wary.

DataWind's supercheap 'Aakash' Tablet computers during its launch in New Delhi, India.

India is a technology and information technology leader. But despite a 15-fold rise in the number of Internet users over the last decade, access to the web is limited to a fraction of the Indian population, and is the lowest among emerging markets.  Now, a cheaper solution for would-be tablet owners.

It’s the launch of what is being called “the world’s cheapest tablet computer,” one that could help tens of thousands of low-income Indian students and others connect to cyberspace.  Only three percent of Indians own a computer, but the new $45 device, with its a seven-inch color touchscreen, Wi-Fi connectivity, and two USB ports provides at least some basic hardware.  It’s called “Aakash,” Hindi for “sky,” a product of the Indian government’s putting out an offer for it to be developed.

The tablet and other techno-gadgets are reviewed on the Indian website BGR, and we invite you to check out Anjana Pasricha’s report on our technology page.

As Apple’s new iPhone 4S hits the market to mixed reviews, it’s obvious smartphones are here to stay.  Of course they are much more than phones, and the iPhone’s high definition video (and iPod) will surely eat into your hard drive space.

But even if you are in the habit of backing up your iPhone or other device’s data on a CD-ROM or hard drive, the files should be considered only temporary, according to William LeFurgy, Digital Initiatives Project Manager at the U.S. Library of Congress.  He says digitally stored material may last for as few as five years.

“There is no such thing as a permanent or archival computer storage media,” LeFurgy says. “I don’t know if these devices are designed to fail, but they certainly are not designed to last.”

By some estimates, the world now produces more than 30 million times more information per year than the information contained in all of the books ever published. And digital storage can put it all at risk.  The Library of Congress in Washington regularly moves previously recorded digital material onto new media, continually “re-dubbing” it. The library calls it “active management.” LeFurgy suggests consumers do the same at home.
And while you’re backing up your previously backed-up data from your smartphone, be careful about that allegedly great new application you might be thinking of installing.  Read our full article for more.


Who’s Censoring Whom?

Posted October 7th, 2011 at 9:54 pm (UTC-4)
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And Why Digital Storage May Not Be Forever

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Periodically we like to share a few of the stories and posts from across the web that caught our eye.  There are no editorial threads implied connecting these items together, other than being interesting.

#1: Who’s Censoring Whom? The Brookings Institute think tank has just issued a report probing which governments around the world were interfering with their citizens’ Internet activities, and how they were doing it.  While the results paint a mixed picture, study authors clearly suggest that web manipulation is not just a tactic used by totalitarian regimes.

The report, titled “The Dictator’s Dilemma,” documents 606 examples where governmental agencies somehow manipulated national Internet traffic.  These ranged from limiting access to specific sites or services, to deploying large-scale firewalls, to tactics that have become more popular since the Arab Spring uprisings: launching denial-of-service attacks on opposition groups, spying on people’s traffic, or pulling the plug on the Internet completely.  Of those cases, 45% were initiated by governments considered established or emerging democracies, while 52% were launched by authoritarian regimes.  Worse, while totalitarian governments interfered more often, a larger number of democratic nations did so.   Write the authors:  “We find that overall more democracies participate in network interventions than authoritarian regimes.  However, authoritarian regimes conduct shutdowns with greater frequency.”

It’s a thick report, meaning the results don’t always lend themselves to quick summary or easy characterization.  But as a reality on who’s doing what out there, it’s a good read.


#2: Got A Second?  Take a Poll!: With the spread of small, wireless devices, it’s becoming more common for people to be using two, three or more gadgets at the same time.  Annoyingly common, if you ask some.  Manners aside, it’s less surprising to see someone watching a sporting event on TV, blogging about the game on their laptop and tweeting score updates to friends on their smart phone, now more than ever.

It’s exactly for this sort of multi-tasker that the new application “Wayin” was made.  Now available for iPhone and Android platforms, Wayin allows users to make their own polls about any topic they choose; for example, the latest baseball playoff game.

These polls can be immediately shared with groups small or large, from just your friends to anyone watching the game on TV, and give people a social way to connect and share their opinions – briefly – in real time.  It only takes a few moments, and that’s by design.

Wayin is still a small start-up company based in Colorado, but it’s getting some impressive help.  Scott NcNealy, co-founder of the now acquired giant Sun Microsystems, is on board as a consultant.  That alone makes Wayin worth a second look, especially by those businesses wanting to harness social media for their own uses.  Writes Ina Fried over at AllThingsD, the Wall Street Journal‘s free tech blog:

“Wayin plans to make money by inserting sponsored polls into a user’s stream. For advertisers, it’s a way to get instant feedback on their products and ideas. Polls could even be tied into the very commercials running in the sporting or other live event being commented on.  ‘It’s explicit market research,’ McNealy said. ‘There is no inference required.'”

Well, that’s comforting.


Image courtesy

#3: When Forever Doesn’t Last:  There’s a sort of magic about digital archiving.  Rather than hectares of books on shelves, or rows of film cans and dusty records, once content is digitized, it can be stored almost anywhere in a fraction of the space.  Even better, access can be almost instantaneous: with a few mouse clicks, you might be able to watch your old home movies, listen to a song from your music library, or read PDF versions of old letters sent by your forebears.   And, assuming your hard drive doesn’t crash, they should last forever, right?

Wrong.  Beyond the wildly optimistic assumption of never having a drive crash – as they saying goes, ‘There’s only two types of hard drives: those that have failed and those that will‘ – digitized media isn’t meant to be permanent.  VOA’s Dave Deforest recently took a look into how long all those old VHS tapes you laboriously upgraded to DVDs can be expected to last, and learned some surprising answers.  Short answer: if you’re not re-recording your content onto new storage platforms at least once every five years, you run the risk of losing precious documents.

But all is not lost – or won’t be, if you read through some of the other helpful suggestions he and the Library of Congress offer to help keep your content current.  Best advice: don’t put it off.  If you want to keep something, back it up in at least two locations.

Goodbye to Steve Jobs

Posted October 6th, 2011 at 1:14 pm (UTC-4)

The World Reacts to the Passing of an Innovator

Doug Bernard | Washington DC


He was “the leading light” of the digital age.  At least, that’s according to one of his fiercest rivals, Sony CEO Howard Stringer.  He didn’t just raise the bar, said Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, he created “an entirely new standard of measurement.”  His first business partner and long time friend, Steve Wozniak, said simply “He brought a lot of life to the world.”

The passing of Steve Jobs has prompted a global outpouring of condolence and sadness, not just from his fellow tech titans, but among artists, world leaders and, perhaps most profoundly, the millions around the world who have come to think of Apple’s products as something special.  “The world has lost a visionary,” said President Obama in a statement shortly after Jobs’ death was announced.  “And there may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented.”

Jobs was certainly an inventor – 317 U.S. patents hold his name.  But his larger gift was in seeing how the inventions of others could become genuinely useful in people’s lives.  For example, Jobs didn’t invent the computer mouse, but he immediately understood how to make it smaller, better and natural to use.  The Graphic User Interface – those ‘drop-and-drag’ icons we manipulate on our computer screens?  Xerox PARC researchers developed it – but Jobs made it the backbone of Apple products, and an everyday part of our lives.  Smart phones?  Portable music players?  Wireless computing?  Jobs true inventiveness wasn’t in being the first to create these things, but in knowing how to integrate them into people’s work and homes seamlessly…all the while, never losing the cool quotient.

“Jobs was not a great human being, but he was a great, transformative, and historical figure,” writes the New Yorker‘s media correspondent Ken Auletta this morning.  “Many books were dashed off describing what a tyrannical person Jobs could be—how he took the parking spaces of the handicapped, how he reduced employees to tears. Those tales will fade like yesterday’s newspapers. What will stand erect like an indestructible monument are the things Steve Jobs created that changed our lives.”

No one better knew this day was coming better than Jobs himself.  Late this summer he stepped down as Apple CEO, handing the keys over to Tim Cook.  For years Jobs had been dogged by rumors of medical issues: he took long periods away from work, his voice grew thin and his body increasingly frail-looking.  At his rare public appearances he seemed to be hinting at a fast-approaching future; most notably in his oft-discussed 2005 commencement address at Stanford University. It’s short, just under 15 minutes, and fairly simple: Jobs, who never graduated from college, shares just three stories from his life.  But it’s also thick with lessons of perseverance, hope, struggle, and death.  Years later, when the world learned of his battle with pancreatic cancer, this line from his commencement took on new gravity: “Remember that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”


There is no doubt that today’s Apple Corporation is an almost singular expression of Steve Jobs. Always charismatic, he led the company twice: first, at its beginning when the “Apple” and “Apple II” computers were revolutionizing home computing, and later when its many “i-Life” products changed the world again.   And while there are plenty of successful CEOs who can mould a unique corporate culture (IBM’s Thomas Watson, NBC’s David Sarnoff, Ford Motor Company’s Henry Ford), few if any had as big a fan base.

A screen grab of just some of the Jobs memorial sites on Facebook (click to expand)

Within hours of Job’s passing, at Apple stores in London, Tokyo, New York, San Francisco and elsewhere, people began leaving flowers, lighting candles, or just displaying photos of Jobs on their iPhones or iPads.  Apple’s main website – usually filled with pitches for its many products – had just one image, a photo of Steve Jobs with the years of his birth and death.  Someone at Apple had labeled the image file simply “hero.”

Across the Internet, fans of Apple products and its mercurial CEO have been sharing their memories, and their loss.  On Facebook there are at least a dozen “Goodbye Steve Jobs” pages, and likely more coming each hour.  People have begun leaving heartfelt goodbye’s to Jobs on YouTube.  On Twitter, the #Jobs’s” tag counts literally millions of tweets (just a few of them collected here by VOA’s Jessica Stahl on Storify) from people offering condolences, remembering their first Apple products, or musing on what happens now for one of the wealthiest and most successful corporations in our time.

Of course, that question – what’s next for Apple? – is one that’s occupying a lot of industry analysts this morning. The recent introduction of their latest product – the iPhone 4s – did not go as smoothly as previous releases, and has been greeted with mixed reviews, including some yawns even from the Apple faithful.

But that discussion is for another day.  Today, for those who admired Job’s personal journey, seek to emulate his audacious aesthetic, or who just like Apple’s latest cool device, we remember.

Steve Jobs died Wednesday from a rare form of pancreatic cancer.  He was 56 years old.


Posted October 3rd, 2011 at 2:04 pm (UTC-4)

Can A Computer Do Your Job – And Does It Want To?

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

In 1949, writer Kurt Vonnegut saw something that amazed him.  Working at a General Electric plant, he noticed a large machine that cut the rotor blades for jet engines.  “This was a very expensive thing for a machinist to do, to cut what is essentially one of those Brancusi forms,” Vonnegut recalled years later in an interview with Playboy Magazine.  “So they had a computer-operated milling machine built to cut the blades, and I was fascinated by that.  This was in 1949 and the guys who were working on it were foreseeing all sorts of machines being run by little boxes and punched cards.”

The experience inspired Vonnegut’s first published novel, “Player Piano” – a bleak story set in a future where machines have replaced the working class, leaving them adrift and lost.

63 years later, while punch cards are as common as buggy whips, machines run by little boxes are in factories around the world.  These days, industrial robots are increasingly more nimble, accurate and reliable than even the most highly trained workers.  And the computers that control them – those little boxes – are moving beyond simple rote tasks and starting to demonstrate an ability to solve problems, thinking almost as a human might.

Still, many people probably feel as I do:  ‘But a robot could never do my job.’  Factory work is one thing (and I’ve worked in factories, operating machines like injection molding presses), but I’m a journalist – a writer.  I tell other people’s stories, hopefully with a little flair and lots of compassion.  How could a machine possibly do that?’

News flash: they can…and increasingly, they are.

Ned Ludd, Meet Watson

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, there have been people who feared machines; specifically, that they would take their jobs.  “Ned Ludd” probably wasn’t the first to take hammer to machine – but he inspired many since to do likewise, even giving rise to the now-pejorative descriptor, “Luddite.”  Whether it’s John Henry of American folklore, the “steel-drivin’ man” who dueled a steam-powered hammer, or an auto worker’s union, fighting to keep more humans than machines on the production line, the battles are still with us.   As songwriter Maurice John Vaughn laments in his bluesy “Computer Took My Job“:

“I was at work that morning, when the big trucks came, with the big machines inside.  Computers.
My boss had us all gather round, he said ‘the computers gonna make your work easier, don’t you worry ’bout a thing.'”

You can see where that’s headed.  Which may explain, in part, why it’s so difficult for many to think about where technology is taking us.  Journalist Frank Tobe documents just that in his brilliant “Robot Report” – a daily collection of stories that track what robots are doing, and where they’re doing it.  Last week, Tobe took a deep look at the announcement that Asian tech giant Foxconn plans to deploy one million robots in its plants in just the next three years.

Foxconn says many will be doing traditional robot work: repetitive tasks like welding or spraying.  But many doesn’t mean all.  As Thomas Ricker notes over at Engadget, Foxconn will also deploy an untold number of FRIDA robots – small, agile devices that, purely coincidentally, can fit into work spaces currently occupied by humans.  “There can be only one logical conclusion to this endeavor,” writes Ricker: “FRIDA and its ilk will one day replace the millions of young Chinese workers assembling our gadgets.”

This may or may not be, but workers’ worries can’t be soothed by FRIDA’s YouTube videos, where the manufacturer gives ‘her’ a gender and says things like “FRIDA applies for a manufacturing position in your company.  She is a real team player.”  (None of this is helped by the fact that, in the video clips, FRIDA appears to be pleased to show off for her new employers.)

It’s stuff like this that may be fueling what appears to be a resurgent robo-fear. The American network G4TV features a periodic segment called Robot News Online, which promises “…all the news that will allow you to prepare for our eventual colonization and control by robots.”  The best-selling novel “Robopocalypse” is already in film pre-production, with no lesser than Steven Spielberg, a master of techno-angst, in the director’s chair.  And how could he not be, with tag-lines such as this:

“They are in your house. They are in your car. They are in the skies…Now, they’re coming for you.”


Scary for some, but cooler minds return to the question: can computer brains and their robotic bodies do what humans do?  Everything humans do?  Sure, IBM’s Artificial Intelligence named “Watson” can help a doctor diagnose an illness, but can it comfort a troubled patient?  Do robots smile and help people find what they’re looking for and say ‘Please‘ and ‘Thank you‘?   Can a machine write news, or poetry, or make art?

Good Robots

You’re Not As Special As You Think

These are some of the questions Slate journalist Farhad Manjoo has been asking in his ongoing series of stories “Will Robots Steal Your Job?”  And his answers aren’t very comforting. “You are in peril,” he says at the outset, warning:

“At this moment, there’s someone training for your job. He may not be as smart as you are—in fact, he could be quite stupid—but what he lacks in intelligence he makes up for in drive, reliability, consistency, and price. He’s willing to work for longer hours, and he’s capable of doing better work, at a much lower wage. He doesn’t ask for health or retirement benefits, he doesn’t take sick days, and he doesn’t goof off when he’s on the clock.”

Anyone surprised that “he” is a robot may now leave the room.

In his series, Manjoo explores whether artificially intelligent machines (AIs) can do work like his father does (a pharmacist) or his wife (a pathologist).  Not surprisingly, it turns out there are still many things a computer cannot do.  For example, their huge databases mean they can diagnose an obscure disease a country doctor might miss.  But they can’t deliver that diagnosis with any empathy.  Computers aren’t funny.  Robots don’t gossip at the water cooler.  It’s these qualities, which AI innovator Ray Kurzweil calls “the subtleties and suppleness of human emotions and intelligence,” that make us special…at least for now.

However, both Kurzweil and Manjoo note that AIs are getting much better very fast…in fields as expert as medicine, and as human as nursing.  Still, for Manjoo, this isn’t enough.  And so, ever the writer – complete with the writer’s ego – he recently turned the tables on himself, asking if a machine can be a journalist:

“As a writer, I like to think of myself as having uniquely human skills. I write columns about stuff that human readers care about, and in doing so I try to elicit human emotions—joy, fascination, fury. Machines can’t yet mimic this sort of creativity. But as I surveyed efforts to automate journalism…I found that my job may not be beyond the capacities of a robot.”

Indeed, computers aren’t yet be up to the task of cracking open a scandal like Watergate, or conducting a daring interview, or writing that dazzling feature that people talk about for years.  But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of news – basic news like what, who, when, where and how – they’re surprisingly (or disturbingly) good.

Take, for instance, MotownBall – a baseball-crazy website with complete coverage of all the baseball games played by the Detroit Tigers.  “Tigers Top Yankees 5-3, Tie ALCS 1-1,” reads the headline of the top story, a summary of the most recent playoff game between the Tigers and the New York Yankees.  The first graphs read with zip and flair, as does the rest of the story:

“With the game scoreless in the top of the first, the Tigers broke it open when Cabrera rocked starter Freddy Garcia for a two-run shot, scoring Magglio Ordonez. Scherzer gets his first win of the postseason with a solid performance in which he surrendered no runs on two hits with five strikeouts and four walks.  Cabrera was terrific at the plate for the Tigers, going 3 for 4 with three RBIs and one run. Ordonez also had great output, going 3 for 3 with one run.”

Now consider that MotownBall is run entirely by computers.  At no point in the editorial chain – from story selection to headlines and text to web layout – does a living, breathing journalist contribute.  Its “journalists” are entirely digital.

Granted, the computers and their software were set up by real people; in this case, a company called Automated Insights, which runs one of these robo-web sites for every MLB baseball team.  Automated Insights engineers create the AIs – in their words, to “…transform raw data into compelling narrative content…” – but once they’re flipped on, the computers completely take over.  And they seem to deliver.  Sports journalism may be stat-heavy (a computer natural), but it also has a long tradition of zesty writing, which MotownBall has in abundance.  You could be forgiven for thinking someone with a soft spot for the Tigers wrote its stories.

Bad robot

The Man Machine

So if computers can write (MotownBall) and edit (see Google News), can one take my job today?  Not yet…thankfully.  Good reporting isn’t just compiling facts and deploying pungent verbs.  It’s talking to people – hearing what they’re saying and not saying in the stories they tell.  It’s using a bit of intuition to smell out a lie, or trying something unconventional to get at a truth.  There’s still a lot of human in a job where you try to understand other humans.

Which, in the end, may be the last genuine area where humans hold the edge over robots and AIs.  Despite any number of efforts, there still isn’t a computer that exists that can write poetry that’s worthwhile.   Or conduct therapy with someone experiencing clinical depression.  Or make a movie that anyone would actually pay to see…although sites like XtraNormal or Animoto demonstrate an unnerving skill in assembling punchy music videos with minimal input from us.  Robots don’t have emotions.  They never may (although they may learn how to mimic them very well), and without them, they’ll never understand the humans that created them.

So for the time being, my job is safe…at least, from robots.  And despite Farhad Manjoo’s concerns, so, too, are many of the other things humans do with their lives.  For all the dystopian worries, it’s unlikely Vonnegut’s vision of a world populated by working robots and unemployable humans will come to pass.

But it’s a certainty that as robots and AIs improve, we will have more of them around our workplace, and our homes.  Machines of super-human precision and endurance that will become better thinkers, problem solvers, and help-mates.  We will have to adapt to them, even as they learn how to interact with us.

As FRIDA’s manufacturers say of their dexterous new creation, “she is looking forward to cooperating with you.”

Let’s all hope it just stays at cooperation.


The “Twitter Proletariat”

Posted September 20th, 2011 at 5:33 pm (UTC-4)
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Some Thoughts on What Social Media Can – and Can’t – Accomplish

There aren’t many things one can rely on these days.  One of the few is finding something thoughtful, or provocative, or just plain interesting in Foreign Policy magazine.

Now, before you discount this as little more than a plug from one journalist to another, consider for example that in just the last week or so, FP asked whether supercomputers will ever be able to predict revolutions (yes, but not yet), assembled a slide show of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin doing…well, just about everything (he drives race cars! and shoots bears!), and delivered a sharp-elbowed look at Abkhazia’s pursuit of independent statehood.

A protester in Cairo's Tahrir Square

What caught our eye, however, was managing editor Blake Hounshell’s recent reflection on social media and the Arab Spring titled, “The Revolution Will Be Tweeted.”   (Yes, we’ve used that title before, too; but so have many others.)

Hounshell writes he was moved to re-think social networks like Twitter during a recent visit to Egypt.  Following a large and angry crowd to Tahrir Square, Hounshell’s eye fell on several young Egyptians.  “To one side stood a different category of rebel entirely: scruffy guys and gals staring down at their cell phones.  They were tweeting.”

He goes on to describe Twitter less as a social network and more a reporter’s medium – similar to the old ‘wire’ that used to connect newspapers and bureaus around the world.    “Twitter isn’t the maker of political revolutions, but the vanguard of a media one,” he writes.

We caught up with Hounshell and put a few questions to him about Twitter, revolutions, and journalism.  Some excerpts – first on the role of social media in the Arab Spring:

“I think some people are a little too excited about the impact of Twitter and overestimating the impact that this technology and other types of social media have had.  And then I think some people go too far and dismiss it altogether.  Clearly, social media has had some kind of effect.  But I don’t think we really can say, with confidence, whether the Arab Spring would have happened without it.  Going back to the 1800’s, 1700’s, a lot of revolutions happened without social media.  People tend to communicate with whatever is the most expedient and convenient, and I think that’s the case now.”

On what social media has done effectively:

“There’s no question that social media has allowed some space for activists and ordinary people to organize, share their grievances, complain about the government; and it’s also helped I think in that moment of revolutionary upheaval.  What it does is it politicizes people who might have used Facebook to share pictures of their family and their cats.  If there’s one person in their network of friends who’s uploading pictures of people being shot while protesting, they’re gonna see that.  And in a lot of cases it’s going to motivate them to go out on the streets themselves.”

And on the dangers of relying on Twitter:

“It’s certainly true that governments, especially in the Middle East, are going to try to co-opt social media for their own ends.  I think most of them realize they can’t shut things down – for instance in Bahrain, there were hundreds of very mysterious accounts on Twitter that popped up when the violence was in full bloom there.  These were Twitter accounts that seemed to be towing the government line and denouncing the protesters as agents of Iran and so forth.  And once things died down in Bahrain, about 25% of the country’s Twitter users suddenly disappeared.  So it looked very suspiciously like someone was trying to manipulate the story line.  For Western reporters, we tend to filter out that kind of thing.  What can be more dangerous is when you have a polarized like Bahrain or like Syria, people believe what they want to believe. “

You can listen to our complete interview here:

Got “Goggles”?

Posted September 12th, 2011 at 2:28 pm (UTC-4)
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You Don’t Know What You Can’t See

Once again, the morning headlines are bringing new – if slightly ominous – stories of increased hack attacks.   In today’s case, two different stories: the first, a growing series of Internet hacks designed to fool people about the websites they’re actually visiting, and second, a troubling GPS hack that could affect military relations on the Korean peninsula.  Pretty sober stuff.

But it’s not all gloom.  We also stumbled on something we can only describe as a set of virtual crayons to play with online.  First to the attacks.

Illustration: German Ariel Berra

#1: Eroding Security?

For several months we’ve been tracking the activities of an alleged Iranian hacker seeking retribution for the Stuxnet attack, among other perceived slights against the regime in Tehran.  In March, using machines tracked to Iran, a hacker infiltrated Comodo – a U.S.-based firm that issues those all-important security certificates that supposedly let browsers know if a website is ‘secure’ or not.  That little padlock icon you see in your URL address window?  That’s a sign that the website you’re visiting really is who they say they are.

Except when they aren’t.  Using the name ‘Comodohacker,’ the self-identified (but yet unconfirmed) Iranian citizen issued a series of phony SSL certificates for sites such as Google, Skype and Yahoo – in effect tricking anyone who received them into thinking that they were on those “https secure” websites, when in fact they might have been anywhere, sharing personal information with unknown hosts.

For its part, Comodo quickly acknowledged the attack and fixed the problem, noting nine phony certificates had been issued in a hack they traced to Iran.  More recently, in July, ‘Comodohacker’ took aim at the Dutch security certificate firm DigiNotar and launched a similar attack, allegedly as retribution for the anti-Muslim rhetoric of Dutch politician Geert Wilders.  But the size of this hack has only now come to light – and it was significant.  Internet forensic analysts now say that upward of 500 certificates were stolen and falsified – including those of Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft, as well as security agencies MI6, the CIA and the Mossad.  ‘Comodohacker’ is still at large, and just this week, Ars Technica‘s Peter Bright posted this piece claiming that he, too, hacked DigiNotar’s security certificate system.  All of this inflates already existing concerns that the Internet is growing less, rather than more secure, and that industry has yet to take these threats seriously.

#2: Knocked Out of the Sky

File image of the RC-7B reconnaissance plane

From cyber-space to outer space.  There’s a new report that North Korea was able to force a U.S. reconnaissance plane from the sky recently by jamming its Global Positioning System, otherwise known as GPS.

The South Korean daily Chosun-Ilbo reports the U.S. military RC-7B plane took off from South Korea March 4th, but was forced to make an emergency landing just 45 minutes later after the plane’s GPS system was disrupted.  The newspaper quotes military sources as saying the jamming signals were tracked to the North Korean cities of Kaesong and Haeju.  Much of modern aviation depends on GPS signals of orbiting satellites to navigate; without it, airplanes, drones, missiles and even other satellites can be rendered unusable.

It’s been known for some time that Pyongyang has been experimenting with devices that can jam GPS signals from as much as 50 kilometers away.  But if the Chosun report is accurate, that range may have now greatly increased.

“The jamming also suggests that North Korea has upgraded its modest electronic warfare capabilities,” writes ‘Spook86’ on his (or her) blog ‘In From The Cold‘. “If the report is accurate, the DPRK may have acquired a more powerful GPS jammer, capable of affecting navigation systems over a wider area, (potentially) impacting a host of activities, from intelligence collection to precision weapons applications.”

In response, the Pentagon is denying that any plane was “forced” from the air.  In a statement released Saturday (September 10), a U.S. military source speaking on anonymity was quoted by Reuters as saying “We have no indication that any aircraft at the time of, or in the vicinity of, this alleged incident was forced to land on an emergency basis.”  A careful read of that statement clearly doesn’t deny jamming took place, or that a plane opted to return to base, mind you.

It’s worth pointing out that, technically, jamming the GPS of another nation’s aircraft is considered an act of war.

#3: Crayons on the Wall

Give an infant a clean white wall and a bright red crayon, and you can guess the result.  Crayon + wall = fun!

But it isn’t just infants who like scribbling.  So for all those frustrated adults just wanting to share their doodles with the public, there’s now a solution.

Goggles” – not to be confused with “Google Goggles” – is an open-source applet that anyone can add to their browser which will allow them to both read the doodles that others have left behind on public websites as well as add their own.

Created by Synapse Software, “Goggles” is an essentially harmless – and admittedly sophomoric – bit of code that allows people to scribble on the Internet – all without permanently defacing anything.  The ‘doodles’ are only visible to those who have installed the Goggle applet on their browser, and can be erased quickly.  And because everyone has the ability to see and edit what anyone else writes, it’s not exactly a secure means for passing secret messages.

It is, however, a mild distraction that lets the kid with the crayon come out and play a bit.

And now that I have Goggles, I’ll be keeping an eye on the VOA homepage.


“Ethical” Hacking

Posted September 1st, 2011 at 1:42 pm (UTC-4)

When a “Hack” Becomes a Virtual Sit-In Protest

Correction: Sept 5th, 2011

I mistakenly identified Aatif Khan as being a part of the group “Anonymous India.”  He wrote my colleague Kate Woodsome to say that while he follows the activities of the group, “I am not a part of Anonymous India, And Moreover I do not support Anna Hazare.”  The error was entirely mine, based on a misunderstanding – our apologies.


It’s long been a curiosity: why, among all the technologically advanced nations in the world, is there so little computer hacking in India?

Now don’t get us wrong.  Where-ever there’s a computer, there’s probably a hacker nearby.  Internet-savvy cities like Mumbai and Delhi have untold thousands of ‘crackers’ – as hackers are sometimes referred to there.  And of all the sources of fraudulent economic come-ons, India probably trails only Nigeria for the persistence and brashness of its spammers.

But on a global scale, Indian hacking – the malicious breaking of computer security to seize or corrupt data – is small peanuts compared to hacker-havens like China, Russia, pockets of Europe and South America, and of course the U.S.  This issue came to mind again when I heard an interview by my colleague Kate Woodsome with Aatif Khan on something Khan called “ethical hacking.”

Khan is co-founder of a group called “Hack Defense”, and also a member of ‘Anonymous India’ – a not-so-anonymous member, it would seem.  Khan told Woodsome that ‘Anonymous India’ has no connection with the larger Anonymous hacker-hive.  Rather, he said it exists to practice what he calls “ethical hacking.”

Ethical what?, asked Woodsome.

It seems that Khan and others wanted to do something in support of Anna Hazare’s campaign to clean up Indian politics from its current culture of bribes and corruption.   Thus ‘Anonymous India’.

“What these people are doing as a sort of protest (is) they are supporting Anna Hazare,” said Khan.  “So we want to shut down the government sites.  They put the website down for just one hour, just as a protest.  There won’t be any data loss or any harm to the website.  This is only for India, and everything is for a cause.”

Khan went on to explain that, unlike traditional hacks which steal or corrupt private data – or at least deface the target’s websites and crash their servers – his group only wants to seize control of government websites for an hour and then return control with everything unharmed.  Sort of like a virtual sit-in protest.  This, he says, is what makes his hacking ethical:

“Ethical hackers are the people who perform hacking with ethics; ethics in the sense that they have written permission for whatever they’re doing – they’ll have written permission.  And in terms of a regular hacker, or cracker, they will be doing things without permission and he can do anything at any time.  In terms of legality it is wrong to be doing these things.  Indian hackers sitting in India attacking Indian websites – it doesn’t make any sense.  But still they don’t want to do any harm, there is no data loss or anything.  What it will be like for a particular hour is that people won’t be able to access a particular website.  And these are websites that don’t have a lot of controversial data.  I don’t think just to deface some website and putting your own logos (up), that won’t make any sense.  That’s just for publicity or fun.”

All this leaves me with more questions.  First: just who provides the written permission?  Certainly not the government.  Second, why is this group calling itself ‘Anonymous India’ if it doesn’t want any connection to Anonymous – and why are its members being so non-anonymous in their comments?  And third: has anyone ever encountered this sort of ethical hack attack before?

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that ethical hacking – a use of illegal but non-harmful tactics in support of a larger moral issue – appears to have originated in the nation that was born from the non-violent tactics of civil disobedience.

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What’s Digital Frontiers?

The Internet, mobile phones, tablet computers and other digital devices are transforming our lives in fundamental and often unpredictable ways. “Digital Frontiers” investigates how real world concepts like privacy, identity, security and freedom are evolving in the virtual world.

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