Science and Technology

The Internet's Patriot Act


“I believe that it is very possible,” former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a rapt audience at Georgetown University earlier this month, “the next Pearl Harbor could be a cyber attack that would have one hell of an impact on the United States of America.” That’s a belief Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano shares—in January, she urged Congress not to “wait until there is a 9/11 in the cyber world” to act on cyber-security legislation. Subtle warnings, these are not.

Over the past 12 months, hackers have broken into the networks of major news organizations, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal in a string of audacious security breaches. The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that cyber-security incidents reported by federal agencies have risen 800 percent since 2006. Chinese hackers infiltrated the networks of nearly 800 U.S. companies and research institutions between 2000 and 2010, siphoning trillions of dollars in trade secrets and industrial IP. “They are stealing everything that isn’t bolted down,” warned House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers, the lead sponsor of CISPA—the bill designed to counter these cyber threats. “And it’s getting exponentially worse.”

Augmented Reality Is Here, and It's Right on Your Face

You must be at least this cool to buy Google Glass.

There are some technological developments that come as a complete surprise, and some that are logical extrapolations of what we've had for a while, so obvious that we know we'll eventually get them, it's just a matter of the development of the necessary components. A wearable augmented reality device falls into the latter category. For years, we've been seeing sci-fi movies in which a character looks out at the world, or at a person, and sees a whole bunch of information pop up in front of his eyes (the best-known example is probably The Terminator, which came out in all the way back in 1984).

But as of now, you can actually get one. Well, maybe not you specifically, but somebody. Google Glass, which is essentially a smartphone in the shape of a pair of glasses that are, depending on your perspective, totally cool-looking or remarkably dorky, is going on sale. You won't be able to go down to Target and buy a pair, though; for this first run, you have to actually apply to Google, and if they decide you're cool enough to own one, they'll allow you to pay them $1,500 and you can start living your augmented life. Here's the ad they've released:

Pasting the Web

A recent flare-up over Twitter's URL shortener demonstrates one of the little ways we're letting the Internet get away from us. 

Flickr/The Next Web

Short-linking—that act of repackaging ungainly, often ugly strings of letters, numbers, ampersands, and question marks into elegantly tiny URLs—has been around for more than a decade, but only gained mainstream traction with the 2006 launch of Twitter and its capping of tweet-length at 140 characters. While the mechanics are complicated, the short story about the recent techie flare-up is that Twitter has moved away from third-party shorteners to its own, the use of which is now mandatory for all links shared on the service. For the uninitiated, here's an example:

I Can Haz Internet Freedom?

Michael Gottschalk/dapd

“Two weeks ago today, a line was crossed. Two weeks ago today, Aaron Swartz was killed. Killed because he faced an impossible choice. Killed because he was forced into playing a game he could not win—a twisted and distorted perversion of justice—a game where the only winning move was not to play.”

That message greeted visitors to the United States Sentencing Commission website the evening of January 25.. The words were part of a ten-minute video manifesto embedded on the homepage of the commission, responsible for writing the sentencing policies and guidelines for Federal courts. The death of the Internet savant and information activist Aaron Swartz, who took his own life due at least in part to the outsized charges he was facing at the hands of the U.S. justice system, was still an open wound for most tech-literate net dwellers. No group took the news of Swartz’s passing more personally than “Anonymous.” The hactivist collective swore vengeance, citing the "highly disproportionate sentencing" of Swartz and others like him, and commenced the darkly named “Operation Last Resort,” hijacking numerous Department of Justice websites and sending “nuclear warheads” packed with stolen DOJ records hurtling across the Internet.

Free "Super-Wifi" Everywhere? Don't Hold Your Breath.


We spend a lot of time arguing about whether government should be big or small, which is almost always the wrong question. Among the right questions are how government should go about doing what it has to do, and on whose behalf it ought to operate. I bring this up because of a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission, discussed in this article in today's Washington Post, to open up a big chunk of spectrum to spread wifi hither and yon, potentially creating a nirvana of free internet and cell phone access. Sound too good to be true? Yeah, it is. But here's how the Post described it:

Aaron Swartz’s Final Code

The death of an Internet freedom activist points to the future of popular resistance.

AP Photo/ThoughtWorks, Pernille Ironside


Faulty Hypothesis

Flickr/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

A scientist argues that members of his field should support more Republicans, but ignores why his colleagues fled the party.

We've Traced the Call. It's Coming From ... Inside Your Pocket!

Let's take a momentary break from the fiscal insanity that has possessed Washington of late, and talk about something else you can be afraid of. Question: do you have anti-virus software on your smartphone? Probably not, because while it will take about 10 seconds for an unprotected computer connected to the internet to be infected with all manner of malware, hackers haven't devoted much energy to targeting people's phones. Yet. But Popular Science predicts that phone hacking will be one of the big tech developments of 2013:

Still No Strong Links Between Video Games and Violence

Yesterday, on Fox News Sunday, outgoing senator Joe Lieberman floated the recurring—and wrong—idea that violent video games play a part in mass shootings.

This Goes Out to All the Ladies

(Gabriel Arana)

This past election, President Barack Obama made blatant appeals to female voters to great success. Fifty-five percent of women and a jaw-dropping 68 percent of single women voted for the president this round. Feminist and reproductive-rights groups especially campaigned hard, not just to reward him for some significant wins for women in office but because they widely believed that he could do even more in a second term, especially with 18 congressional seats swapping from anti- or mixed-choice to pro-choice.

They'll Be Back

Robots, as yet unarmed, created for the military by Boston Dynamics.

Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report raising alarms about the specter of "killer robots." The report urged that we develop an international treaty to prohibit the development of fully autonomous robotic weapons systems that can make their own decisions about when to use deadly force. So is that day coming any time soon? The Pentagon wants everyone to know it has no plans to allow robots to make decisions on when to fire weapons; Spencer Ackerman at Wired points us to this memo from Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter released two days after the HRW report, making clear that the DoD's policy is that robots don't get to pull the trigger without a human being making the decision (or in bureacratic-speak, "Autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems shall be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force"). It seems obvious that we don't want a bunch of Terminators walking through our streets deciding whom they're going to shoot. Or is it?

Weird Science

This totally happened, probably.

Twenty years or so ago, a few politicians got caught when somebody asked them the price of a gallon of milk and they didn't know the answer. As a consequence, campaign managers and political consultants started making sure their candidates knew the price of milk and a few similar items like a loaf of bread, should they ever be called upon to assure voters that they do in fact visit the supermarket and are thus in touch with how regular folk live their lives. In a similar but somewhat more complex game of gotcha, Marco Rubio is the latest Republican politician to express discomfort about the question of the earth's age. Unfortunately, unlike the price of milk, that's not a question upon which people of every ideology agree. But if you're a politician wondering what you should answer if you get asked the question, here's a guide to the possibilities, and what each one says about you. There are 4 possible answers:

Will Massachusetts Voters Legalize Assisted Suicide?

This is the ninth in the Prospect's series on the 174 measures on state ballots this year.

Six years ago, Mesfin Nega was attacked outside a nightclub. He suffered a broken neck and a damaged spinal cord that transformed the previously healthy 32-year-old into a quadriplegic. As The Washington Post later reported, Nega had made a pact with his friend Shimelis Yegazu: If one were ever to suffer an injury that required him to be connected to life-sustaining equipment, the other would take it upon himself to disconnect the equipment. Nega and Yegazu made the news last week when Yegazu followed through with this pact, administering a lethal dose of phenobarbital to Nega, and then taking a fatal dose himself.

The Superbabies Are Coming


OK, so my headline isn't exactly accurate, unless "coming" means "coming eventually, but not any time soon." Nevertheless, scientists have succeeded in modifying the genetic code of embryos. For the moment it's about replacing a defective gene that causes an illness, but that's an important step toward our superbaby future, as this NPR story reports: