Tag Archives: Funny

On the NSA: How Well-Meaning Bureaucrats Build a Surveillance State

On Thursday, the Guardian published a secret government order that forces an arm of Verizon to turn over the phone calling records of its mobile customers every day, for three months, to the U.S. government.

In one sense, the story was a massive scoop showing how the government’s secret surveillance programs work and what the government thinks the limits of the Constitution are.

In another sense, it just confirms the details of what’s been known in the bones and reported for years — the nation’s telecoms function as an extension of the U.S. government’s intelligence apparatus.

The latter interpretation was given weight by the nation’s top senators on Tuesday, who defended the order, saying this kind of collection has been going on for seven years and, perhaps, best of all, that no citizen has complained.

So don’t be too particularly pissed at Verizon, however pliant the telecom has been in the past. The order is likely routine and something every telecom gets. It’s very likely that similar orders are dropped on the nation’s credit card companies and ISPs.

What does the revelation mean?

Very simply, it means that the government is likely running a secret, massive data-mining operation. At the very least, the feds are collecting and storing huge amounts of data so that they can tell which numbers are calling which numbers. Think of it as how the Internet is built of links. There’s a lot of knowledge just in those links.

Then, say, the feds get a tip about a potential spy — they can then figure out that person’s phone number, query their giant database and see all the numbers that number was in contact with, and what numbers those numbers were in contact with — and then use other tools to force phone providers to disclose the names associated with those accounts.

Or, one could, following the dreams of John Poindexter, run pattern matching software on the metadata, looking for patterns of communication that resemble those of a terrorist cell. There you’re seeking to find the “bad guys” before they strike, albeit with the very real probability that the feds will put under suspicion political movements, knitting circles, book groups, etc.

That would mean the the government is likely still running, at least in part, the Total Information Awareness program that was ostensibly shut down 10 years ago, and the Verizon order is, in all likelihood, just a sliver of the government’s secret data collection about American citizens.

The collection of the metadata is legally predicated on a maximalist interpretation of an obscure catch-all provision of the PATRIOT Act known as the business records provision.

It was meant to augment the powers to wiretap and physically search targets in a terrorism investigation. Sec. 215 was there to give terrorism investigators a way to get other kinds of records, say from a rental car agency suspected of being used by a known suspect.

But instead of being targeted, it’s being used as a dragnet.

The government tells a secret court that phone records are relevant to counter-terrorism or intelligence, and the court gives them a three-month order — every three months.

Sec. 215 wasn’t intended to let the feds collect all the things all the time, but it seems some clever lawyer in the Obama administration came up, sometime around 2009, with a secret, broad interpretation that passed muster with a secret court.

But there’s something very intriguing of note in the order. The government asked for all the data on which numbers called which numbers and when and where — but explicitly ordered Verizon not to provide the names and billing information on those accounts.

It’s an odd way to narrow the request, because there’s nothing in Sec. 215 that prevents the collection of names. There are rules that force the NSA to anonymize (“minimize”) the names of Americans caught on its wiretaps, but that wouldn’t apply here — this is meta-data, not content.

So why would the feds explicitly say they don’t want the names?

My guess is that it’s a policy choice driven by the desire to be able to say technically accurate, though highly misleading, things, like, “The NSA is not creating dossiers on Americans.” But that’s only narrowly true because the data doesn’t have names attached — even though attaching names is a very simple matter.

But that leaves us with a few cold truths:

1) The NSA, thanks to the original warrantless wiretapping program started in 2001 and this program continued after, no longer believes that it should not be spying on Americans. That used to be the NSA’s honor code after the abuses of the 60s and 70s. It no longer exists.

2) The Obama administration’s interpretation of Sec. 215 to allow the collection of databases full of information on American citizens’ lawful activity on an ongoing daily basis is extremely dangerous.

The Administration will say that it’s not really so bad because they don’t know names. But they only don’t know names because of a policy decision that could fall at any time in this administration or the next.

The interpretation also makes it possible for the government to order any company to turn over, on a regular daily basis, all of the records to be stored indefinitely. Those could include health records, purchase records, veterinary records, you name it.

The Obama adminstration’s interpretation of Sec. 215 allows the feds to demand any database — and nothing in the law prevents this uber-database from being used for criminal investigations.

The only thing that stops all the databases from being siphoned is a politically driven policy decision inside the administration in power.

And if Obama has taught us anything about the presidency and institutions, it’s that new administrations do not relinquish the power carved out by the one that preceded it, no matter what promises get made on the campaign trail.

3) There is no winding down of the surveillance state, despite Obama’s pledge to deescalate the so-called “Global War on Terror.”

The tools have been built and the political imperative not to have a terrorist attack will keep them in place, regardless of whether they are effective or invasive.

These databases will be abused, just like FBI agents did when Verizon and AT&T were paid millions to station employees inside the FBI to make it faster to search phone records.

The political will to firewall off these databases only for intelligence and anti-terrorism will fade and at some point, all the databases will be opened to investigations of all kinds (the so-called legal Wall between intelligence and law enforcement was knocked down post-9/11).

The administration and the previous one are and were full of well-intentioned men and women seeking to prevent another attack on the country.

But we’ve allowed them, to build, out of fear, a surveillance apparatus on a scale only imagined previously by science fiction writers and dictators.

It’s time to bring that apparatus into the sunlight, think about what could be done with it in the hands of people with good intentions run wild, and then, if we do not outright smash it, we should start to unbuild it.

Further Reading

MyNSA: Google for the Private Web

 — With a citizen-facing pivot, NSA’s PRISM could take on Evernote, Intuit, Bing, and more

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PhotoSpace: A Private Instagram for Personal Cloud

And why we built a photo app where users control their data

Link to the app

Like the millions of other millennials out there who document their infatuation with food, puppies and babies, I love Instagram. But sometimes I’d like to filter my photo to death without the world seeing and keep that photo in a safe place where I can access it later. We envision a different paradigm of photo editing apps, one that’s more private and built on top of personal cloud.

Why on Top of Personal Cloud?

  1. Control of where your data goes: Users of the app are able to choose which personal cloud- Google, Dropbox or Box- they save pictures to. Once they snap photos within the app, they can view them from anywhere they can access their personal cloud. This means that not only can I see where my data is, but I can also easily delete it or share it if I so choose.
  2. Private vs. Public: Public photo storage is great- Facebook and Instagram do a great job of it. However, I want to share only a portion of my pictures, not every single one. Personal cloud fits my requirement well since private is the default setting.
  3. Storage and access: My iCloud, while great for default photo storage, is annoying for exporting and sharing photos. Personal clouds already do this extremely well and in a user-friendly way. Storing my photos across various personal cloud also gives me a lot more storage (Drive gives 15GB for free, Dropbox gives 5 GB, Box gives 50GB!) .

The actual app

First you login with your provider of choice and then snap a photo.

Next, you can add different filters and sticker effects or meme-ify your photo (powered by Aviary), and add a file name to store.

Now you can see the picture both inside the PhotoSpace app (first image) and your personal cloud (Google Drive mobile app in the second image)!

Apps on top of personal cloud can work for anything

There are many other apps in the same vein as PhotoSpace where ownership of data is valuable to, perhaps even a requirement for, the user. Private messaging apps like Tinder or Whatsapp, apps with sensitive healthcare information, apps that contain personal finance information and password savers are all examples of apps where storing the data in my Google Drive or Dropbox, where I can easily delete it and it’s harder for hackers to access, is highly preferred over the app’s external server.

Hosting app data on personal cloud is the wave of the future. I cofounded NimbusBase to help create an SDK where any developer can effortlessly store their app data on their user’s personal cloud. This vastly simplifies the backend process for developers and gives users the privacy they want. Check out our site, www.nimbusbase.com, and drop me a note at alex@nimbusbase.com if you want to be part of the revolution.

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In Defense of Upworthy

Every good debate requires empathy and a valid argument from both sides. You might not think that one of the guys behind Headlines Against Humanity would be someone arguing FOR Upworthy, but anyone who pokes fun must also be willing to poke holes in their own position.

With that said, let’s look at why the Upworthy critics are being unfair:

  1. Upworthy has proven copywriting can be a huge business driver. While most content companies prioritize UX, distribution partnerships, and fresh content, Upworthy clearly places copywriting at the top. By optimizing headlines through formulas and human testing, they’ve mastered the art of the “curiosity gap.” Whether or not the copy is “good” is a separate debate. There’s no question that it’s effective. David Ogilvy would be proud…
  2. They celebrate the old web. Unlike in the 1950s, news does not get read and then thrown away. It sits on the internet forever. While most news sites ignore old content and try to produce something fresh each day (or repackage an old story to look new) Upworthy dives into the vast stockpile of content that exists and unearths gems that are interesting to many people.
  3. They are a social impact business. Unlike their clones (Distractify, Viralnova, etc) OR most other news organizations, Upworthy does not earn revenue from advertising. Their income comes from generating leads for non-profit organizations. In other words, you watch a video about Cause X, and likely a non-profit that supports that cause is recruiting new potential donors via Upworthy. This isn’t blatantly stated anywhere, but it’s what is happening. They’re a for-profit business with non-profit customers. This fact alone should probably diminish some of the negative attention that the established news community is giving them. Unless generating ad revenue is somehow a more righteous business model.
  4. They were first (to go big). As mentioned above, a lot of clones have shown up and taken the viral publishing tactics made popular by Upworthy, and used them for far more “evil” purposes. To some degree, Upworthy is taking the blame for creating a super effective weapon. They arguably used it for good, but others aren’t. It’s really not fair to lump them all together because as mentioned in point 3, they have different business goals.
  5. Guns don’t kill people. When I see a post from a friend in my Facebook feed from Viralnova, etc., I don’t get mad at the publisher, I get mad at my friend. Sure Upworthy content is engineered to compel, but much like McDonald’s or Marlboro, consumers have a choice. Upworthy is fulfilling demand, not creating it. Sounds like they’re doing what any good business person would. If you don’t like the news you’re seeing on Facebook and Twitter maybe the issue is your own network?
  6. Vetting Data. Although Upworthy isn’t a news source, they spend time fact-checking the videos they share by looking at research papers, government sites, and major media sources. It would be so easy just to post highly emotional content and not worry about facts (which is basically what every aggregator does) but Upworthy acts like a true curator and filters content before it goes viral. That’s being mindful of consumers and the non-profit customers they support.

Is Upworthy a product I’m personally interested in today? Not really. Frankly, I’ve gotten burned-out from it despite being a huge fan initially. That said, I don’t believe they deserve the massive criticism (i’m guilty of fueling that fire) they’ve receiving.

Much like the art world spurned Banksy for a very long time, the established media has been quick to dismiss Upworthy’s approach to the content business. At the same time, you see hundred-year-old newspapers starting to copy their tactics (and benefit greatly).

Upworthy pissed off the world of journalism because it crisply pointed out how relatively ineffective old business models have become. We’ve all had the opportunity to discredit and poke fun, but I hope that now the smart news organizations stop to analyze themselves and take the risks required to find their own success (or stay alive).

To get m0re of my thoughts or argue with me over electronic mail, sign up for my small batch newsletter. You can also tweet me @LenKendall or even better, join CentUp, a microdonation platform for content creators.

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Apple granted patent for fitness tracking headphones

7 hours ago


Original Article URL: http://gigaom.com/2014/02/18/apple-granted-patent-for-fitness-tracking-headphones/

Apple health tracking headphones

photo: USPTO
Summary:The patent describes a headphone-based monitoring system that can detect metrics such as heart rate, perspiration and temperature.

Rumors of a fitness-focused iWatch from Apple have only recently reached a fever pitch, but a patent published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Tuesday shows the company has been interested in a way to track health and fitness since at least 2007. Spotted by AppleInsider, the patent describes a head-mounted monitoring system that can detect data such as heart rate, perspiration and temperature, and can be controlled via head movements.

In the patent, Apple details ways to incorporate this monitoring system into earbuds, headphones or headsets. Because any of those devices are worn close to your ear, an embedded activity sensor can measure fitness metrics such as heart rate. This data is then synced back to your iOS device via the headphone cord or wirelessly over Bluetooth.

Apple EarPods

Additional sensors — such as an accelerometer, gyroscope and/or motion sensor — might also be integrated, allowing the headset to recognize movement-based controls. This means you could skip songs or control volume with a simple tilt of your head, though I could also see a feature like that making for a lot of unintended musical choices.

Apple originally filed for the patent back in 2008 (after a provisional application in 2007), but it actually seems more relevant than ever today. The headset it describes reminds me a lot of the heart rate monitoring headphones that LG introduced at CES earlier this year, though it looks as if Apple’s version could detect a lot more than just heart rate.

Considering Apple first filed for the patent over five years ago, this idea likely predated the rumored iWatch and fitness focus for iOS 8. And while Apple’s trademark white earbuds may not be as ubiquitous as they once were, I could see them making a comeback if they could be used to do more than listen to music. I just hope they’ll sound better too.

7 hours ago
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Follow @alexandergcolon or @gigaom for more stories like this.


6 Interactive Things You Can Do With Google Maps

When most people use Google Maps, they use it to get from their house to some destination they have never been to before. But Google Maps is actually a powerful educational tool that can teach you a lot about the world around you. Spend some time exploring Google Maps and see what kinds of unique features you can find.

Display Locations in 3-D

If you press the “3″ or “t” keys while in Google Maps, it will take on the familiar blue and red hue of a 3-D image. There are special glasses you can get from Google which will allow you to see all of the images in 3-D. The depth of the images may not change whether or not you can find your destination, but it looks very cool.

You Are Here

If you look at the bottom of the Google Maps page on your browser, you will see a feature that not many people know about. It is an identifier button that will put a “you are here” marker on your screen. By using GPS and IP functions, Google Maps can get a very close approximation of your location.

Dynamic Route Sharing

Google Maps allows you to create dynamic links of the places you have been and the routes you have taken. These links can be shared with your friends to help the find you when you are meeting out for the night, or determine where you could have gone wrong when you were trying to follow someone’s directions.

Photo Tagging

When you are using your smartphone to take pictures of the places you have been, Google Maps can tag those pictures with the proper location the moment that you take them. This can help you to organize your photos easier and it also helps when uploading pictures to your social media pages. This feature should work even when you automatically upload your images to your T-mobile smartphone’s sim card.

Maps of Underground Tunnels

Google Maps shows you just about every above ground road in the world and it is also starting to collect information on underground tunnels as well. For now, people can see some of the caverns of the Amazon rain forests and the underground Akiyoshi-do Caves of Japan. Google is currently expanding its library of underground images.

Navigating a New City

Google Maps has the intuitive search feature that Google is famous for, which means that Google Maps is able to create walking routes for you to explore whenever you are in a new city. This feature will start with the hotel you are staying at and then develop walking directions to what Google perceives to be your favorite restaurants and tourist spots. You can customize these routes by giving Google actual search criteria to use as opposed to a vague history of past searches.

Google Maps is the app that many people choose to help them get from one place to the next. But, as with most Google products, there is more than meets the eye with Maps. When you take the time to discover all that Google Maps can do for you, it is easy to see why this can be such an invaluable travel companion.

Image via Flickr by heiwa4126

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Mobile Talks!

February 18, 2014


Last week Rakuten announced the $900 million acquisition of global communications service Viber. Of course, we think there are tremendous synergies for us, but this deal also represents a seismic shift in how people are engaging with each other, consuming content, and making purchases. What two threads connect them all? Mobile and Communication!

What makes Viber different is that it represents a new generation of services that were built mobile-first. This gives them a DNA-level edge over other services that were founded on desktop technology. Look no further than the term “desktop” to realize that it is something that does not fit seamlessly with modern life. It is something that you need to go to, whereas mobile is, obviously, something that goes with you.

Second, Viber is a service that highlights new and innovative ways that people are communicating. If you told me a few years ago that people would be communicating with digital stickers, I would hardly have believed you. But they are! People are also using these platforms to share and consume digital content, including photos and videos, and to enhance business collaboration. In times of disaster when traditional communication lines fail, mobile-first communications platforms are where people turn to. Viber saw dramatic increases in use after the earthquake in Japan in 2011 and last year in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines.

Historically, telecoms companies have defined how people communicate. They offered us 3 options: phone, text, and, don’t forget, the beeper. Not exactly cutting edge. Now, dynamic marketplace-style app ecosystems have birthed new services that represent how people actually want to communicate. Oh, and these services are more fun, more reliable, and cheaper. I know where I will be investing.

Disrupting communication. Disrupting consumption. This is the future. This is why we bought Viber. Mobile Talks!

Posted by:Hiroshi Mikitani

Sean Parker on the Negative Consequences of Social Networks

In this session from Techonomy 2011 in Tuscon, Ariz., Sean Parker, Managing Partner at Founders Fund and a co-founder of Napster, highlights some of the potential negative consequences of social networks. Also appearing in this video: Jim Breyer of Accel Partners and Techonomy’s David Kirkpatrick.


Parker: One of the things that worries me—you know, look, in a sense governments have always utilized whatever communication mediums are available to conduct surveillance, either legally or illegally, and a lot of the surveillance has been far more intrusive than, you know, looking at information on social networks. In functioning democracies, this is done under the context of a subpoena, and it is—you know, it’s really no different than—actually, probably in a lot of ways less intrusive than tapping someone’s phone. So, you know, there’s this wealth of data that’s publicly available, and to the extent that you’re going to raise kind of issues in the public sphere, obviously the standard answer that we always come back to, that we’re always giving: you’re choosing to make this information available. It’s completely up to you how you want to represent your life online, factually or erroneously, potentially. You can be extremely smart and extremely clever about how you broadcast and to whom you broadcast what information.

So, that being said, you know, I do think that some additional capability is required when you take into consideration that these networks, or just the emergence of kind of group organizing technology, much of which is going to lead to the individual empowerment that we talked about, will actually lead to fringe groups and cults, and basically isolated whackos who are finally, for the very first time, no longer isolated whackos.

Kirkpatrick: Right.

Parker: That’s incredibly scary to me. When you take all these Unabomber types, who are essentially sitting alone in their bedroom with no ability to reach similarly crazy people, and you give them tools to organize, you know, you’re—it sort of leads to this threat that no one’s really talking about.