Start up: Zuckerberg the politician, unethical coding, the grudge botnet, whose robot army?, and more

Yeah, that’s surely a criminal face. The numbers tell us. Photo by bheathr on Flickr.

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A selection of 13 links for you. Ta-daa! I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Programmers confess unethical, illegal tasks asked of them • Business Insider

Julie Bort:


[Robert Martin’s] point is that in today’s world, everything we do like buying things, making a phone call, driving cars, flying in planes, involves software. And dozens of people have already been killed by faulty software in cars, while hundreds of people have been killed from faulty software during air travel. 

“We are killing people,” Martin says. “We did not get into this business to kill people. And this is only getting worse.”

He pointed out that “there are hints” that developers will increasingly face some real heat in the years to come. He cited Volkswagen America’s CEO, Michael Horn, who at first blamed software engineers for the company’s emissions cheating scandal during a Congressional hearing, claimed the coders had acted on their own “for whatever reason.” Horn later resigned after US prosecutors accused the company of making this decision at the highest levels and then trying to cover it up.

But Martin pointed out, “The weird thing is, it was software developers who wrote that code. It was us. Some programmers wrote cheating code. Do you think they knew? I think they probably knew.”

Martin finished with a fire-and-brimstone call to action in which he warned that one day, some software developer will do something that will cause a disaster that kills tens of thousands of people.


That’s slightly different from the question of unethical or illegal tasks. Unless you think that people died from excess diesel emissions in the US and elsewhere, which is possible.

Related, and linked in the piece: “Code I’m still ashamed of“, by Bill Sourour, who was asked to write a “quiz” for a drugs company where no matter how you answered, you’d be pointed to one particular drug – which had some potentially deadly side effects.

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October internet attack targeted PlayStation Network, researchers say • WSJ

Drew Fitzgerald and Robert Mcmillan:


Level 3 Communications Inc. Chief Security Officer Dale Drew detailed some of the research in testimony prepared for a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on the attack scheduled for Wednesday. Level 3 runs one of the world’s biggest internet backbones and said it has identified several networks of infected cameras, digital video recorders and other machines—known as botnets—available for hire.

“We believe that in the case of Dyn, the relatively unsophisticated attacker sought to take offline a gaming site with which it had a personal grudge,” Mr. Drew said in remarks prepared for the hearing.  The attacker rented time on the botnet to carry out the attack, he said.

Dyn disputed the findings. The attack traffic that appeared to target Sony was part of several waves of data from at least three separate botnets, said Chris Baker, Dyn’s manager of monitoring and analytics.

“It’s a very convenient explanation,” Mr. Baker said, but “it’s based on an incomplete view of the data.”


Related to this, Simon Moores, a security researcher, commented recently that we now have a network which was designed to withstand a nuclear attack that can be brought down by CCTV cameras. Also related: Another security researcher, Rob Graham, put a brand-new Chinese CCTV camera online; it was hacked by the Mirai botnet within minutes.
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Quit social media. Your career may depend on it • The New York Times

Cal Newport:


interesting opportunities and useful connections are not as scarce as social media proponents claim. In my own professional life, for example, as I improved my standing as an academic and a writer, I began receiving more interesting opportunities than I could handle. I currently have filters on my website aimed at reducing, not increasing, the number of offers and introductions I receive.

My research on successful professionals underscores that this experience is common: As you become more valuable to the marketplace, good things will find you. To be clear, I’m not arguing that new opportunities and connections are unimportant. I’m instead arguing that you don’t need social media’s help to attract them.

My second objection concerns the idea that social media is harmless. Consider that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy. Social media weakens this skill because it’s engineered to be addictive. The more you use social media in the way it’s designed to be used — persistently throughout your waking hours — the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom.

Once this Pavlovian connection is solidified, it becomes hard to give difficult tasks the unbroken concentration they require, and your brain simply won’t tolerate such a long period without a fix.


TL;DR: delete your account.
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‘A petri dish of bullshit’: confessions of ex-Facebook news curators • Digiday

Tanya Dua:


Adam Schrader could have seen this coming.

The 26-year-old former Facebook employee was anything but shocked when the social network entered meltdown mode over being infested with fake news during the presidential election. Schrader had been under the hood. A former member of its now-defunct trending-news team, he monitored a feed of stories gaining traction on Facebook, vetted them for accuracy (or at least truth) and wrote  a headline for Facebook’s public trending-news feed.

But a funny thing happened in August: Facebook fired its human trending-news curators and replaced them with an algorithm. Almost instantly, the social network was awash in false news stories that many users were treating as credible and sharing on their timelines. The 2016 election, polarizing as it was, fed the fake-news beast.

“Facebook has a fake-news problem, and I don’t believe that they recognize it,” said Schrader. “I think they’re in denial of the fact, but it’s a pervasive problem and they need to address it.”

…Both said that while it is understandable that Facebook may want to be careful about not appearing partisan, its sheer size and influence necessitates that it take the problem seriously.

“There’s this Silicon Valley ‘free market’ mindset, where they don’t want to be nannies to their users,” said the anonymous source. “But they have 1.8 billion users, and a lot of those people use their site to get their news — and it can be extremely harmful to the way some people think if it is full of such content.”

Both felt that the journalists who made up part of the company’s former trending-news team served a very important function and that the problem has gotten worse since the team was disbanded.


Schrader worked there until August 2016. There’s a scent of hubris around Facebook’s insistence that it doesn’t really affect anything, that it’s a neutral platform. I’d bet you that stories telling you Facebook was controlling your mind and turning you into a zombie and here’s five ways to prove it would get zapped pretty fast. Equally, a story showing how to permanently block ads might go for that long ride into the mountains.
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Facebook fake news row: Mark Zuckerberg is a politician now • BBC Tech News blog

Dave Lee:


There’s an urgent accountability gap between what technology companies do and what the public is allowed to know.

This isn’t about giving up trade secrets. You can inspect KFC’s kitchen without knowing the Colonel’s secret recipe.

It’s about being able to examine the reach and influence of technology companies, where supremely powerful men, and a few women, are able to control without any genuine scrutiny other than what appears every three months on a company earnings sheet (and even that’s unnecessarily cryptic).

Revealing moments like the one [Zuckerberg’s interviewer] Kirkpatrick summoned from the usually robotic Zuckerberg are few and far between. The depressing accepted reality in technology journalism is that if you give a company a hard time, they’ll shut you out.

And that’s because many major technology companies guard their work with barbed wire, and wrap their executives in cotton wool.

Interactions between big tech and the outside world are orchestrated and engineered to the nth degree. On those rare occasions, even the mildest scrutiny about anything other than the new product being flogged that day is swiftly shot down with tech’s unofficial motto.

“Sorry… but that’s not what today is about.”


Spot on.
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Who will command the robot armies? • Idle Words

Maciej Ceglowski, from a talk he gave in Australia:


What both these places [Dubai and Singapore] have in common is that they had some kind of plan. As Walter Sobchak put it, say what you will about social control, at least it’s an ethos.

The founders of these cities pursued clear goals and made conscious trade-offs. They used modern technology to work towards those goals, not just out of a love of novelty.

We [in the US], on the other hand, didn’t plan a thing.

We just built ourselves a powerful apparatus for social control with no sense of purpose or consensus about shared values.

Do we want to be safe? Do we want to be free? Do we want to hear valuable news and offers?

The tech industry slaps this stuff together in the expectation that the social implications will take care of themselves. We move fast and break things.

Today, having built the greatest apparatus for surveillance in history, we’re slow to acknowledge that it might present some kind of threat.


He’s never less than thought-provoking, and some of the passing jokes are excellent.
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Click 😅

This site monitors what you’re doing on it, and the sound (do turn it on) gives a sort of running commentary on what you’re doing, and have done – and how that would allow you to be tracked by your behaviour.
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Automated inference on criminality using face images • Arxiv

Xiaolin Wu, Xi Zhang:


We study, for the first time, automated inference on criminality based solely on still face images. Via supervised machine learning, we build four classifiers (logistic regression, KNN, SVM, CNN) using facial images of 1856 real persons controlled for race, gender, age and facial expressions, nearly half of whom were convicted criminals, for discriminating between criminals and non-criminals. All four classifiers perform consistently well and produce evidence for the validity of automated face-induced inference on criminality, despite the historical controversy surrounding the topic. Also, we find some discriminating structural features for predicting criminality, such as lip curvature, eye inner corner distance, and the so-called nose-mouth angle.


What?! As Maciej Ceglowski pointed out, this is like Phrenology 2.0. Or perhaps Phrenology AI. It’s nuts.
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People are quitting gig jobs in the sharing economy • Quartz

Alison Griswold:


Participation in the “sharing” or “gig” economy was once touted as the future of work in America. But the new data from the JPMorgan Chase Institute suggests that isn’t the case. Instead, wages for workers have gotten worse as many of these companies—Uber and Lyft, to pick two examples—have cut pay rates to make prices more attractive to consumers. And the jobs themselves appear to have served as stop-gap measures for people who were unemployed or had fallen on hard times during and after the recession.

As the US economy has improved—with six years of unbroken job growth and even an uptick in wages—a greater share of those gig participants are finding better jobs. So they’ve stopped or cut down on their Uber and related gig work.

“It doesn’t look like [gig work] is becoming more lucrative for people,” says Fiona Greig, co-author on the JPMorgan Chase Institute report. “As the labor force strengthens in general, more and more people have better options.”


Unexpected, I think: the undercurrent of expectation around these companies was that the unemployment they were leveraging was structural and long-term, so that the pool to draw on was effectively infinite. Pushing down workers’ earnings looks to have been a bad move.
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Is this how democracy ends? • London Review of Books

David Runciman is head of the politics department at Cambridge University:


The Trump bubble is likely to be the biggest of all.

His immediate agenda is to get a massive infrastructure bill through Congress, along with big tax cuts. There are few barriers in his way. He can rely on Republicans to deliver the tax cuts and Democrats to support the infrastructure projects. The short-term boost this stimulus gives the economy can then be used to buy him time while he fails to get to grips with his other campaign pledges, on immigration, on manufacturing jobs, on taking the fight to the terrorists, and on sharing the love at home. He may even be able to claim for a while that by offering something to each side of the partisan divide he is starting to bridge it. But all he will be doing is papering over the gaping cracks. Tax cuts coupled with unfunded government spending will fuel inflation and create the conditions for a future crash. It will also lead to a head-on collision with the Federal Reserve and Trump won’t find it so easy to get his way there. If he tries to replace Janet Yellen or stuff the board with his own nominees, partisanship will reassert itself with a vengeance. Reality will bite back at Trump eventually. When it does, he will be inclined to lash out. But by then it may be too late. He will be trapped.

Meanwhile, the real long-term threats faced by American society will continue unaddressed. By fixing on the risks of direct political violence, we set a low bar that Trump will be able to clear with relative ease. The truly destructive violence of American society takes place under the surface and often passes unnoticed by all except its victims.


Those victims aren’t who you might expect. (You can subscribe to the LRB, which doesn’t just review books, as you’ll have noticed.)
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Trump’s CIA director pick thinks using encryption ‘may itself be a red flag’ • Motherboard

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai:


Donald Trump announced on Friday that he’s chosen Congressman Mike Pompeo to run the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the premiere spy agency of the United States. .

Pompeo, a Republican lawmaker from Kansas and a former Army officer, has little-to-no experience in the world of intelligence (other than being part of the House Intelligence Committee), but he’s distinguished himself for being a strong supporter of mass surveillance and for thinking that using encryption, by itself, might be a sign that you’re a terrorist.

“Forcing terrorists into encrypted channels, however, impedes their operational effectiveness by constraining the amount of data they can send and complicating transmission protocols, a phenomenon known in military parlance as virtual attrition,” Pompeo wrote in an op-ed published in January by The Wall Street Journal. “Moreover, the use of strong encryption in personal communications may itself be a red flag.”…

…To his credit, Pompeo decried any attempts to weaken encryption by pushing companies to have a backdoor that the government can use to access encrypted data, saying such a mandate “would do little good, since terrorists would simply switch to foreign or home-built encryption.”

That’s why he argued for more human intelligence and a renewed focus on increasing funding and personnel for the FBI, given that “encryption is bringing the golden age of technology-driven surveillance to a close.”

Pompeo is also a great fan of mass surveillance. In another op-ed, published in the conservative news outlet National Review, Pompeo criticized the Obama administration for being less willing to “collect intelligence on jihadis.”


It’s going to get quite repetitive to keep quoting from 1984, so I’ll hold off for now. But you’re all under suspicion.
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We’re worried about the Baltics: what does Trump’s election portend for these tiny U.S. allies? • Lawfare

Ashley Deeks, Benjamin Wittes:


an April 2016 RAND study called into question NATO’s military capacity to defend its members against attacks by Russia. The study concluded that “NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members” and noted that the number of forces that NATO is rotating through the Baltics would not be sufficient to defend those states against a “plausible Russian attack.” So Putin might well conclude that NATO not only lacks the will, but also the means to repel a Russian attack, and that NATO is therefore unlikely to try.

Finally, Putin might well be tempted to test a newly minted President Trump, who will lack experience serving as Commander in Chief or managing any pressing national security crises and who has hardly seemed sure-footed in his navigation of foreign affairs more broadly.

Given the whole picture, it’s reasonable to ask: why not go after one of the Baltic states if you’re Putin?

If Russia does choose to attack or invade a Baltic state, it won’t just be testing Trump. It will obviously be testing NATO’s collective self-defense commitment under article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty too.


I’m thinking happy thoughts. Are you thinking happy thoughts? Let’s gather round the fire and think happy thoughts.
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Bad karma! Ransomware piggybacks on free software downloads • Graham Cluley


A ransomware sample is piggybacking off of free software downloaded from the internet to encrypt the files of unsuspecting users.

A researcher by the name of slipstream/RoL discovered the ransomware, which goes by the name “Karma.”

Other ransomware samples have masqueraded as Pokémon Go apps or IT security software solutions in the past. They’ve done so to disguise themselves so that they trick users into thinking they’re benign programs.

Karma is no different, which is why it’s donned the mask of a Windows optimization program known as Windows-TuneUp.


Not quite the tuneup you were perhaps looking for.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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