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Other Technology News

  • Mon, 28 Sep 2020 01:02:39 +0000

    TikTok Gets Reprieve in U.S. as Judge Temporarily Blocks Trump’s App Store Ban

    President Donald Trump’s ban on TikTok was temporarily blocked by a federal judge, dealing a blow to the government in its showdown with the popular Chinese-owned app it says threatens national security.

    U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols granted a preliminary injunction against the ban on the widely used video-sharing network after an unusual Sunday morning hearing. The judge refused to grant an injunction against a November deadline for a sale. TikTok’s owner, ByteDance Ltd., had requested the hold after the president ordered TikTok out of American app stores unless the company sold a stake in its U.S. operations to a domestic buyer.

    The ban, scheduled to go into effect at 11:59 p.m. in New York, would have removed TikTok from the app stores run by Apple and Google’s Android, the most widely used marketplaces for downloadable apps. People who don’t yet have the app wouldn’t be able to get it, and those who already have it wouldn’t have access to updates needed to ensure its safe and smooth operation. TikTok is used regularly by 19 million Americans.

    ByteDance is fighting the Trump administration in court even as it pursues its approval for the sale of a stake in the U.S. business to Oracle Corp. and Walmart Inc. Trump has called for bans on both TikTok and WeChat, owned by China’s Tencent Holdings Ltd., arguing that the apps could give China’s government access to millions of Americans’ personal data. The bans are part of an increasingly hard line he has taken on Beijing as the election approaches.

    Even as the sale of TikTok is still awaiting final U.S. approvals, two of China’s most prominent state-backed media mouthpieces last week denounced the deal.

    “What the United States has done to TikTok is almost the same as a gangster forcing an unreasonable and unfair business deal on a legitimate company,” the state-run China Daily wrote in a Wednesday opinion piece. Hu Xijin, the influential editor-in-chief of the Party-run Global Times, tweeted that Beijing likely wouldn’t approve the current agreement as it endangered China’s national security.

    A lawyer for TikTok told the judge at Sunday’s virtual hearing that the ban was irrational given that ByteDance is in talks to strike a deal the president himself has demanded.

    “How does it make sense to impose this app-store ban tonight when there are negotiations underway that might make it unnecessary?” attorney John Hall asked.

    Hall said banning TikTok from U.S. app stores would undermine security by preventing existing users from receiving weekly security updates. He argued that the government has less burdensome alternatives, such as the stake sale, to achieve its national-security aims. ByteDance says Trump is exceeding his authority with the ban.

    “The consequences immediately are grave,” Hall told the judge. “It would be no different than the government locking the doors to a public forum, roping off that town square.”

    His language echoed the ruling of a judge in California who put a hold on Trump’s WeChat ban last week, citing its effect on free speech and the irreparable harm that the ban would cause to the business.

    Daniel Schwei, a lawyer for the Justice Department, countered that “the concern here is about data security risk and leaving data vulnerable to the Chinese government. It is a threat today, it is a risk today, and therefore it deserves to be addressed today.” The U.S. government decided last week to extend its deadline to allow for more sale discussions.

    In a filing on Friday, the U.S. cited FBI Director Christopher Wray’s assessment that China poses the “greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property.”

    TikTok is “challenging a national security determination by the president as well as the judgment of the secretary of commerce about what’s necessary to mitigate those national security harms,” Schwei told the judge. “And I think the court owes significant deference to that.”

    In a separate case, a federal judge in Pennsylvania on Saturday rejected a request by TikTok users to halt the ban, saying the consequences of the ban wouldn’t be severe enough for the users to justify an injunction temporarily blocking the order while the litigation continues.

    The case is TikTok Inc. v. Trump, 20-cv-2658, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

  • Sun, 27 Sep 2020 19:54:47 +0000

    TikTok’s Fate Uncertain as D.C. Judge Weighs Impending App Ban

    (NEW YORK) — Lawyers for TikTok pleaded with a U.S. federal judge on Sunday to delay the Trump Administration’s ban of the popular video sharing program from app stores set to take effect at the end of the day, arguing the move would infringe on First Amendment rights and do irreparable harm to the business.

    The 90-minute hearing came after President Donald Trump declared this summer that TikTok was a threat to national security and that it either sold its U.S. operations to U.S. companies or the app would be barred from the country.

    TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, is scrambling to firm up a deal tentatively struck a week ago in which it would partner with tech company Oracle and retailer Walmart and that would get the blessing of the Chinese and American governments. In the meantime, it is fighting to keep the app available in the U.S.

    The ban on new downloads of TikTok, which has about 100 million users in the U.S, was delayed once by the government. A more comprehensive ban is scheduled for November, about a week after the presidential election. Judge Carl Nichols of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said he would make a decision by late Sunday, leaving TikTok’s fate hanging.

    In arguments to Judge Nichols, TikTok lawyer John Hall said that TikTok is more than an app but rather is a “modern day version of a town square.”

    “If that prohibition goes into effect at midnight, the consequences immediately are grave,'” Hall said. “It would be no different than the government locking the doors to a public forum, roping off that town square” at a time when a free exchange of ideas is necessary heading into a polarized election.

    TikTok lawyers also argued that a ban on the app would stop tens of thousands of potential viewers and content creators every month and would also hurt its ability to hire new talent. In addition, Hall argued that a ban would prevent existing users from automatically receiving security updates, eroding national security.

    Justice Department lawyer Daniel Schwei sought to undercut TikTok lawyers’ argument, saying that Chinese companies are not purely private and are subject to intrusive laws compelling their cooperation with intelligence agencies. The Justice Department has also argued that economic regulations of this nature generally are not subject to First Amendment scrutiny. Plaintiffs can’t claim a First Amendment right in hosting TikTok itself as a platform for others’ speech because merely hosting a platform is not an exercise of the First Amendment, the Justice Department contends.

    “This is the most immediate national security threat,” argued Schwei. “It is a threat today. It is a risk today and therefore it deserves to be addressed today even while other things are ongoing and playing out.”

    Schwei also argued that TikTok lawyers failed to prove it would suffer irreparable business harm.

    The Justice Department laid out its objections to TikTok’s motion for a temporary injunction in a brief under seal, but it was unsealed in redacted form to protect confidential business information.

    Trump set the process in motion with executive orders in August that declared TikTok and another Chinese app, WeChat, as threats to national security. The White House says the video service is a security risk because the personal information of its millions of U.S. users could be handed over to Chinese authorities.

    Trump has said he would approve a proposed deal in which Oracle and Walmart could initially own a combined 20% of a new U.S. entity, TikTok Global. Trump also said he could retract his approval if Oracle doesn’t have “total control.”

    The two sides of the TikTok deal have also appeared at odds over the corporate structure of TikTok Global. ByteDance said last week that it will still own 80% of the U.S. entity after a financing round. Oracle, meanwhile, put out a statement saying that Americans “will be the majority and ByteDance will have no ownership in TikTok Global.”

    Chinese media have criticized the deal as bullying and extortion, suggesting that the Chinese government is not happy with the arrangement. ByteDance said Thursday it has applied for a Chinese technology export license after Beijing tightened control over exports last month in an effort to gain leverage over Washington’s attempt to force an outright sale of TikTok to U.S. owners.

    China’s foreign ministry has said the government will “take necessary measures” to safeguard its companies but gave no indication what steps it can take to affect TikTok’s fate in the United States.

    TikTok is suing the U.S. government over Trump’s Aug. 6 executive order, saying it is unlawful. So are resulting Commerce Department prohibitions that aim to kick TikTok out of U.S. app stores and, in November, essentially shut it down in the U.S., it claimed.

    The Chinese firm said the president doesn’t have the authority to take these actions under the national-security law he cited; that the ban violates TikTok’s First Amendment speech rights and Fifth Amendment due-process rights; and that there’s no authority for the restrictions because they are not based on a national emergency.

  • Fri, 25 Sep 2020 15:01:14 +0000

    The Inside Story of How Signal Became the Private Messaging App for an Age of Fear and Distrust

    Ama Russell and Evamelo Oleita had never been to a protest before June. But as demonstrations against systemic racism and police brutality began to spread across the U.S. earlier this year, the two 17 year-olds from Michigan, both of whom are Black, were inspired to organize one of their own.

    Seeking practical help, Oleita reached out to Michigan Liberation, a local civil rights group. The activist who replied told her to download the messaging app Signal. “They were saying that to be safe, they were using Signal now,” Oleita tells TIME. It turned out to be useful advice. “I think Signal became the most important tool for protesting for us,” she says.

    Within a month, Oleita and Russell had arranged a nonviolent overnight occupation at a detention center on the outskirts of Detroit, in protest against a case where a judge had put a 15 year-old Black schoolgirl in juvenile detention for failing to complete her schoolwork while on probation. The pair used Signal to discuss tactics, and to communicate with their teams marshalling protestors and liaising with the police.

    “I don’t think anything we say is incriminating, but we definitely don’t trust the authorities,” says Russell. “We don’t want them to know where we are, so they can’t stop us at any point. On Signal, being able to communicate efficiently, and knowing that nothing is being tracked, definitely makes me feel very secure.”

    Signal is an end-to-end encrypted messaging service, similar to WhatsApp or iMessage, but owned and operated by a non-profit foundation rather than a corporation, and with more wide-ranging security protections. One of the first things you see when you visit its website is a 2015 quote from the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: “I use Signal every day.” Now, it’s clear that increasing numbers of ordinary people are using it too.

    “Any time there is some form of unrest or a contentious election, there seems to be an opportunity for us to build our audience,” says Brian Acton, the Signal Foundation’s co-founder and executive chairman, in an interview with TIME. “It’s a little bit bittersweet, because a lot of times our spikes come from bad events. It’s like, woohoo, we’re doing great — but the world’s on fire.”

    Indeed, just as protests against systemic racism and police brutality intensified this year, downloads of Signal surged across the country. Downloads rose by 50% in the U.S. between March and August compared to the prior six months, according to data shared with TIME by the analysis firm App Annie, which tracks information from the Apple and Google app stores. In Hong Kong they rose by 1,000% over the same period, coinciding with Beijing’s imposition of a controversial national security law. (The Signal Foundation, the non-profit that runs the app, doesn’t share official download numbers for what it says are privacy reasons.)

    “We’re seeing a lot more people attending their first actions or protests this year—and one of the first things I tell them to do is download Signal,” says Jacky Brooks, a Chicago-based activist who leads security and safety for Kairos, a group that trains people of color to use digital tools to organize for social change. “Signal and other end-to-end encryption technology have become vital tools in protecting organizers and activists.”

    Read more: Young Activists Drive Peaceful Protests Across the U.S.

    In June, Signal took its most explicitly activist stance yet, rolling out a new feature allowing users to blur people’s faces in photos of crowds. Days later, in a blog post titled “Encrypt your face,” the Signal Foundation announced it would begin distributing face masks to protesters, “to help support everyone self-organizing for change in the streets.” Asked if the chaos of 2020 has pushed Signal to become a more outwardly activist organization, Acton pauses. “I don’t know if I would say more,” he says. “I would say that right now it’s just congruent. It’s a continuation of our ongoing mission to protect privacy.”

    Brian Acton Signal WhatsApp Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for WIREDBrian Acton speaks at the WIRED25 Summit November 08, 2019 in San Francisco, California.

    What makes Signal different

    Signal’s user base — somewhere in the tens of millions, according to app store data — is still a fraction of its main competitor WhatsApp’s, which has some 2 billion users and is owned by Facebook. But it is increasingly clear that among protesters, dissidents and investigative journalists, Signal is the new gold standard because of how little data it keeps about its users. At their core, both apps use cryptography to make sure that the messages, images and videos they carry can only be seen by the sender and the recipient — not governments, spies, nor even the designers of the app itself. But on Signal, unlike on WhatsApp, your messages’ metadata are encrypted, meaning that even authorities with a warrant cannot obtain your address book, nor see who you’re talking to and when, nor see your messages.

    “Historically, when an investigative journalist’s source is prosecuted in retaliation for something they have printed, prosecutors will go after metadata logs and call logs about who’s been calling whom,” says Harlo Holmes, the director of newsroom digital security at the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

    WhatsApp states on its website that it does not store logs of who is messaging who, “in the ordinary course of providing our service”. Yet it does have the technical capacity to do so. In some cases including when they believe it’s necessary to keep users safe or comply with legal processes, they state, “we may collect, use, preserve, and share user information” including “information about how some users interact with others on our service.”

    Signal, by contrast, cannot comply with law enforcement even if it wanted to. (It’s not clear that it does: in early June, Signal’s founder and CEO Moxie Marlinspike tweeted “ACAB” — All Cops Are Bastards — in response to allegations that police had stockpiled personal protective equipment amid the pandemic.) In 2016, a Virginia grand jury subpoenaed Signal for data about a user, but because it encrypts virtually all its metadata, the only information Signal was able to provide in response was the date and time the user downloaded the app, and when they had last used it. “Signal works very, very hard in order to protect their users by limiting the amount of metadata that is available in the event of a subpoena,” Holmes says.

    The approach has not won Signal fans in the Justice Department, which is supporting a new bill that would require purveyors of encrypted software to insert “backdoors” to make it possible for authorities to access people’s messages. Opponents say the bill would undermine both democracy and the very principles that make the app so secure in the first place. Ironically, Signal is commonly used by senior Trump Administration officials and those in the intelligence services, who consider it one of the most secure options available, according to reporters in TIME’s Washington bureau.

    Signal’s value system aligns neatly with the belief, popular in Silicon Valley’s early days, that encryption is the sole key to individual liberty in a world where authorities will use technology to further their inevitably authoritarian goals. Known as crypto-anarchism, this philosophy emerged in the late 1980s among libertarian computer scientists and influenced the thinking of many programmers, including Marlinspike. “Crypto-anarchists thought that the one thing you can rely on to guarantee freedom is basically physics, which in the mid 1990s finally allowed you to build systems that governments couldn’t monitor and couldn’t control,” says Jamie Bartlett, the author of The People vs Tech, referring to the mathematical rules that make good encryption so secure. “They were looking at the Internet that they loved but they could see where it was going. Governments would be using it to monitor people, businesses would be using it to collect data about people. And unless they made powerful encryption available to ordinary people, this would turn into a dystopian nightmare.”

    Signal CEO Moxie Marlinspike Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunchSignal’s founder Moxie Marlinspike during a TechCrunch event on September 18, 2017 in San Francisco, California.

    As a young adult in the 1990s, Marlinspike — who declined to be interviewed for this story — spent his life on the fringes of society, teaching himself computer science, messing with friends’ machines, and illegally hitching rides on freight trains across the United States. A tall white man with dreadlocks, he always had a distrust for authority, but Snowden’s leaks appeared to crystallize his views. In a post published on his blog in June 2013, which is no longer accessible online, Marlinspike wrote about the danger these new surveillance capabilities posed when exercised by a state that you could not trust. “Police already abuse the immense power they have, but if everyone’s every action were being monitored … then punishment becomes purely selective,” he wrote. “Those in power will essentially have what they need to punish anyone they’d like, whenever they choose, as if there were no rules at all.” But, Marlinspike argued, this problem was not unsolvable. “It is possible to develop user-friendly technical solutions that would stymie this type of surveillance,” he wrote.

    By the time he’d written that blog post, Marlinspike had already made an effort to build such a “user-friendly technical solution.” Called the Textsecure Protocol (later the Signal Protocol), it was a sort of recipe for strong end-to-end encryption that could ensure only the sender and recipient of a message were able to read its contents, and not authorities or bad actors wishing to pry. In 2010 Marlinspike launched two apps—one for text messaging and another for phone calls—based on the protocol. In 2014 he merged them, and Signal was born.

    The app was kept afloat thanks to nearly $3 million in funding from the Open Technology Fund, a Congress-funded nonprofit that finances projects aimed at countering censorship and surveillance. In keeping with security best practices, the Signal Protocol is open source, meaning that it’s publicly available for analysts around the world to audit and suggest improvements. (Signal’s other main competitor, Telegram, is not end-to-end encrypted by default, and security researchers have raised concerns about its encryption protocol, which unlike Signal’s is not open source.) But although by all accounts secure, Signal back in 2014 was hardly user-friendly. It had a relatively small user base, mostly made up of digital security geeks. It wasn’t the kind of influence Marlinspike wanted.

    Read more: How the Trump Administration is Undermining the Open Technology Fund

    So Marlinspike sought out Acton, who had co-founded WhatsApp in 2009 along with Jan Koum. The pair had since grown it into the largest messaging app in the world, and in 2014 Facebook snapped it up for a record-setting $19 billion. Marlinspike’s views on privacy aligned with theirs (Koum had grown up under the ever-present surveillance of Soviet Ukraine) and in 2016, with Facebook’s blessing, they worked to integrate the Signal Protocol into WhatsApp, encrypting billions of conversations globally. It was a huge step toward Marlinspike’s dream of an Internet that rejected, rather than enabled, surveillance. “The big win is when a billion people are using WhatsApp and don’t even know it’s encrypted,” he told Wired magazine in 2016. “I think we’ve already won the future.”

    But Acton, who was by now a billionaire thanks to the buyout, would soon get into an acrimonious dispute with Facebook’s executives. When he and Koum agreed to the sale in 2014, Acton scrawled a note to Koum stipulating the ways WhatsApp would remain separate from its new parent company: “No ads! No games! No gimmicks!” Even so, while Acton was still at the company in 2016, WhatsApp introduced new terms of service that forced users, if they wanted to keep using the app, to agree that their WhatsApp data could be accessed by Facebook. It was Facebook’s first step toward monetizing the app, which at the time was barely profitable.

    Acton was growing alarmed at what he saw as Facebook’s plans to add advertisements and track even more user data. In Sept. 2017, he walked away from the company, leaving behind $850 million in Facebook stock that would have vested in the coming months had he stayed. (As of September 2020, Facebook still hasn’t inserted ads into the app.) “I’m at peace with that,” Acton says of his decision to leave. “I’m happier doing what I’m doing in this environment, and with the people that I’m working with,” he says.

    Building a Foundation

    Soon after quitting, Acton teamed up with Marlinspike once again. Each of them knew that while encrypting all messages sent via WhatsApp had been a great achievement, it wasn’t the end. They wanted to create an app that encrypted everything. So Acton poured $50 million of his Facebook fortune into setting up the Signal Foundation, a non-profit that could support the development of Signal as a direct rival to WhatsApp.

    Acton’s millions allowed Signal to more than treble its staff, many of whom now focus on making the app more user-friendly. They recently added the ability to react to messages with emojis, for example, just in time to entice a new generation of protesters like Oleita and Russell. And unlike others who had approached Signal offering funding, Acton’s money came with no requirements to monetize the app by adding trackers that might compromise user privacy. “Signal the app is like the purest form of what Moxie and his team envisioned for the Signal Protocol,” Holmes says. “WhatsApp is the example of how that protocol can be placed into other like environments where the developers around that client have other goals in mind.”

    Although it was meant to be an alternative business model to the one normally followed in Silicon Valley, Signal’s approach bears a striking similarity to the unprofitable startups that rely on billions of venture capital dollars to build themselves up into a position where they’re able to bring in revenue. “It hasn’t been forefront in our minds to focus on donations right now, primarily because we have a lot of money in the bank,” Acton says. “And secondarily, because we’ve also gotten additional large-ish donations from external donors. So that’s given us a pretty long runway where we can just focus on growth, and our ambition is to get a much larger population before doing more to solicit and engender donations.” (Signal declined to share any information about the identities of its major donors, other than Acton, with TIME.)

    Still, one important difference is that this business model doesn’t rely on what the author Shoshana Zuboff calls Surveillance Capitalism: the blueprint by which tech companies offer free services in return for swaths of your personal data, which allow those companies to target personalized ads at you, lucratively. In 2018, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal was revealing new information about Facebook’s questionable history of sharing user data, Acton tweeted: “It is time. #deletefacebook.” He says he still doesn’t have a Facebook or Instagram account, mainly because of the way they target ads. “To me, the more standard monetization strategies of tracking users and tracking user activity, and targeting ads, that all generally feels like an exploitation of the user,” Acton says. “Marketing is a form of mind control. You’re affecting people’s decision-making capabilities and you’re affecting their choices. And that can have negative consequences.”

    Signal Grafitti Elijah Nouvelage/Getty ImagesGrafitti urging people to use Signal is spray-painted on a wall during a protest on February 1, 2017 at UC Berkeley, California.

    An even more sinister side effect of Surveillance Capitalism is the data trail it leaves behind–and the ways authorities can utilize it for their own type of surveillance. Marlinspike wrote in 2013 that instead of tapping into phone conversations, changes in the nature of the Internet meant that “[now,] the government more often just goes to the places where information has been accumulating on its own, such as email providers, search engines, social networks.”

    It was a surveillance technique Marlinspike and Acton knew WhatsApp was still vulnerable to because of its unencrypted metadata, and one they both wanted to disrupt. It’s impossible to know how much user data WhatsApp alone provides to authorities, because Facebook only makes such data available for all its services combined — bundling WhatsApp together with Instagram and the Facebook platform itself. (WhatsApp’s director of communications, Carl Woog, declined to provide TIME with data relating to how often WhatsApp alone provides user data to authorities.) Still, those aggregate data show that in the second half of 2019, Facebook received more than 51,000 requests from U.S. authorities for data concerning more than 82,000 users, and produced “some data” in response to 88% of those requests. By contrast, Signal tells TIME it has received no requests from law enforcement for user data since the one from the Virginia grand jury in 2016. “I think most governments and lawyers know that we really don’t know anything,” a Signal spokesperson tells TIME. “So why bother?”

    Another reason, of course, is that Signal has far, far fewer users than WhatsApp. But Acton also puts it down to Signal’s broader application of encryption. “They can do that type of stuff on WhatsApp because they have access to the sender, the receiver, the timestamp, you know of these messages,” Acton says. “We don’t have access to that on Signal. We don’t want to know who you are, what you’re doing on our system. And so we either don’t collect the information, don’t store the information, or if we have to, we encrypt it. And when we encrypt it, we encrypt it in a way that we’re unable to reverse it.”

    Despite those inbuilt protections, Signal has still come under criticism from security researchers for what some have called a privacy flaw: the fact that when you download Signal for the first time, your contacts who also have the app installed get a notification. It’s an example of one tradeoff between growth and privacy where — despite its privacy-focused image — Signal has come down on the side of growth. After all, you’re more likely to use the app, and keep using it, if you know which of your friends are on there too. But the approach has been questioned by domestic violence support groups, who say it presents a possible privacy violation. “Tools such as Signal can be incredibly helpful when used strategically, but when the design creates an immediate sharing of information without the informed consent of the user, that can raise potentially harmful risks,” says Erica Olsen of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “Survivors may be in a position where they are looking for a secure communication tool, but don’t want to share that fact with other people in their lives.” Signal says that it’s possible to block users to solve problems like this. It’s also working on a more long-term fix: allowing a user to connect with others without sharing their number–though they’ll still need a phone number to sign up to the app.

    The encryption dilemma

    Since the 1990s, encryption has faced threats from government agencies seeking to maintain (or strengthen) their surveillance powers in the face of increasingly secure code. But though it appeared these so-called “crypto wars” were won when strong encryption became widely accessible, Signal is now under threat from a new salvo in that battle. The Justice Department wants to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which currently allows tech companies to avoid legal liability for the things users say on their platform. The proposed change is in part a retaliation by President Trump against what he sees as social media platforms unfairly censoring conservatives, but could threaten encrypted services too. The amendment would mean companies would have to “earn” Section 230’s protections by following a set of best practices that Signal says are “extraordinarily unlikely to allow end-to-end encryption.”

    Read more: Facebook Cannot Fix Itself. But Trump’s Effort to Reform Section 230 Is Wrong

    Even if that amendment doesn’t pass, the Justice Department is supporting a different bill that would force outfits like Signal to build “backdoors” into their software, to allow authorities with a warrant their own special key to decrypt suspects’ messages. “While strong encryption provides enormous benefits to society and is undoubtedly necessary for the security and privacy of Americans, end-to-end encryption technology is being abused by child predators, terrorists, drug traffickers, and even hackers to perpetrate their crimes and avoid detection,” said Attorney General William Barr on June 23. “Warrant-proof encryption allows these criminals to operate with impunity. This is dangerous and unacceptable.”

    There’s no denying that encrypted apps are used for evil as well as good, says Jeff Wilbur, the senior director for online trust at the Internet Society, a nonprofit that campaigns for an open Internet. But, he says, the quirk of mathematics that guarantees security for end-to-end encryption’s everyday users—including vulnerable groups like marginalized minorities, protesters and victims of domestic abuse—is only so powerful because it works the same for all users. “The concept of only seeing one suspected criminal’s data, with a warrant, sounds great,” Wilbur says. “But the technical mechanism you’d have to build into the service to see one person’s data can potentially let you see any person’s data. It’s like having a master key. And what if a criminal or a nation state got a hold of that same master key? That’s the danger.”

    Even in a world with perfect corporations and unimpeachable law enforcement, it would be a difficult tradeoff between privacy and the rule of law. Add distrust of authorities and Surveillance Capitalism into the mix, and you arrive at an even trickier calculation about where to draw the line. “The problem is, ordinary people rely on rules and laws to protect them,” says Bartlett, the author of The People vs Tech. “The amount of times people get convicted on the basis of the government being able to legally acquire communications that prove guilt — it’s absolutely crucial.”

    But at the same time, governments have regularly proved themselves willing and able to abuse those powers. “I do blame the government for bringing it on themselves,” Bartlett says. “The revelations about what governments have been doing have obviously helped stimulate a new generation of encrypted messaging systems that people, rightly, would want. And it ends up causing the government a massive headache. And it’s their fault because they shouldn’t have been doing what they were doing.”

    Still, despite the existential risk that a law undermining encryption would pose for Signal, Acton says he sees the possibility as just a “low medium” threat. “I’d be really surprised if the American public were to pass a law like this that stood the test of time,” he says. If that were to happen, he adds, Signal would try to find ways around the law — possibly including leaving the U.S. “We would continue to seek to own and operate our service. That might mean having to reincorporate somewhere.”

    In the meantime, Signal is more focused on attracting new users. In August, the nonprofit rolled out a test version of its desktop app that would allow encrypted video calling — an attempt to move into the lucrative space opened up by the rise in home working due to the pandemic. I try to use it to conduct my interview with Acton, but the call fails to connect. When I get through on Google Hangouts instead, I see him scribbling notes at his desk. “Just this interaction alone gave me a couple ideas for improvements,” he says excitedly.

    The episode reveals something about how Acton sees Signal’s priorities. “Our responsibility is first to maintain the highest level of privacy, and then the highest quality product experience,” he says. “Our attempt to connect on Signal desktop was — to me, that’s a fail. So it’s like, okay, we’ll go figure it out.”

    Correction: Sept. 28

    The original version of this story misstated Marlinspike’s 1990s-era computer activity. He did not hack into insecure servers, he messed with friends’ computers as a prank. It also misstated an upcoming Signal feature. Signal is working on a way for users to contact others without providing their phone number, but users will still need to provide a phone number to sign up for the app.

  • Wed, 23 Sep 2020 18:26:36 +0000

    ‘We Have to Stay Vigilant.’ Sundar Pichai on Alphabet’s Role in Fighting Misinformation and Safeguarding Elections

    With less than six weeks to go until the U.S. Presidential election, Alphabet CEO and 2020 TIME100 honoree Sundar Pichai has reiterated his company’s commitment to fighting online misinformation on its platforms, particularly YouTube.

    “We’ve made a lot of progress,” Pichai told TIME Editor-at-Large and former Editor-in-Chief Nancy Gibbs in a wide-ranging TIME100 Talks interview that aired Sept. 23. “Misinformation can be dangerous. Online platforms can play a role in amplifying it. So the work we have done to understand what is either misinformation or low-quality content and make sure that doesn’t get recommended and shared has been the thrust of our efforts there.”

    Following the 2016 election, both Alphabet (parent company to both YouTube and Google) and competitor Facebook came under fire for allowing a tide of fake news and misinformation related to the election to propagate on their platforms. Four years later, some are worried that a similar dynamic, exacerbated by continuing disinformation campaigns from outside the U.S., could impact the outcome of the upcoming election.

    “There’s a lot more awareness, I think, so the scale of our efforts are significantly larger,” Pichai said, explaining that the company has more than 30 teams working on the issue, and that the internet giant has been in consultation with the U.S. government and its intelligence agencies. “We are all putting in a lot of effort, but we have to stay vigilant because the stakes are high in a democracy through an election cycle.”

    “It’s where most of our effort is going into, particularly on YouTube,” Pichai said. “In fact, that’s been the single-highest focus for the team for the past three years now.”

    Pichai noted that there is a certain amount of complexity surrounding the issue of misinformation from the perspective of an internet platform.

    “The difficulty comes when there are areas which are nuanced and people don’t agree on the balance between free speech and what is the wrong kind of speech to propagate,” Pichai said. “That’s been hard at scale. That’s not an excuse. The amount we invest in these areas have significantly scaled up. I think we are making a lot of progress.”

    However, the CEO stressed that his company understands the gravity of its role in maintaining the integrity of an election under high-stakes and historic conditions.

    “Holding free and safe elections is as foundational to the functioning of a democracy as it gets,” Pichai said. “As an information company we view it as one of the most important responsibilities we have.”

  • Sun, 20 Sep 2020 14:22:57 +0000

    Trump Blesses Oracle’s TikTok Deal, Delaying Potential U.S. Ban

    Donald Trump gave his blessing to Oracle Corp.’s bid for the American operations of TikTok, putting the popular video-sharing app on course to escape a U.S. ban imposed as part of his pressure campaign against China.

    “I approved the deal in concept,” Trump told reporters Saturday as he left the White House for a campaign rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina. “If they get it done, that’s great. If they don’t, that’s OK too.”

    The new company, which will be called TikTok Global, has agreed to funnel $5 billion in new tax dollars to the U.S. and set up a new education fund, which Trump said would satisfy his demand that the government receive a payment from the deal. “They’re going to be setting up a very large fund,” he said. “That’s their contribution that I’ve been asking for.”

    Oracle plans to take a 12.5% stake in the new TikTok Global, while Walmart Inc. said it has tentatively agreed to buy 7.5% of the entity. Walmart’s Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon will serve on TikTok Global’s board of directors, the retailer said in a statement. Four of the five board seats will be filled by Americans, according to the statement.

    TikTok’s Chinese owner ByteDance Ltd. is seeking a valuation of $60 billion for the app, according to a person familiar with the matter. Oracle and Walmart would pay a combined $12 billion for their stakes if they agree to that asking price. The final valuation had not been set as the parties worked out the equity structure and measures for data security, the person said. Terms are still in flux and the proposed valuation could still change.

    The TikTok deal was forced by a pair of bans Trump issued in August over concerns that ByteDance posed a national security risk, thrusting the video-sharing app into the center of the president’s confrontation with Beijing.

    Shortly after Trump signaled his approval, the Commerce Department on Saturday delayed by a week a ban that would have forced Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google to pull the TikTok video app from their U.S. app stores on Sunday.

    Trump is ramping up pressure on Chinese-owned apps in the weeks before the Nov. 3 presidential elections, citing national security concerns about the data U.S. citizens provide to them and the potential for Beijing to use them for spying. The president is trailing his opponent Joe Biden in polls and has sought to portray himself as tougher on Beijing than the Democrat.

    TikTok said in a statement that it was “pleased that the proposal by TikTok, Oracle, and Walmart will resolve the security concerns of the U.S. administration and settle questions around TikTok’s future in the U.S.”

    The company confirmed Oracle will host all its U.S. data and secure its computer systems. Oracle’s Generation 2 Cloud fully isolates running applications and responds to security threats autonomously, according to the statement, which eliminates the risk of foreign governments spying on American users or trying to influence them with disinformation.

    “Oracle will quickly deploy, rapidly scale, and operate TikTok systems in the Oracle Cloud,” said Oracle CEO Safra Catz in a statement. “We are a 100% confident in our ability to deliver a highly secure environment to TikTok and ensure data privacy to TikTok’s American users.”

    Oracle will get full access to review TikTok’s source code and updates to make sure there are no back doors used by the company’s Chinese parent to gather data or to spy on the video-sharing app’s 100 million American users, according to people familiar with the matter.

    TikTok Global, together with Oracle, SIG, General Atlantic, Sequoia, Walmart and Coatue will create an educational initiative to develop and deliver an online video curriculum driven by artificial intelligence, according to the statement.

    TikTok said it’s working with Walmart on a commercial partnership and said that it will take part in a TikTok Global financing round along with Oracle before an initial public offering in which the investors can take as much as a 20% cumulative stake in the company.

    TikTok Global will likely be headquartered in Texas and will hire “at least” 25,000 people, Trump said. TikTok will need to hire thousands of content moderators, engineers, and marketing staff that were previously located in China and around the world. The company will also pay more than $5 billion in new tax dollars to the Treasury, according to the statement.

    To sweeten the deal for Trump, TikTok promised to hire an additional 15,000 jobs, more than the 10,000 positions the company already pledged to fill earlier this year. It’s unclear if there’s a timeline to achieve that target, or guarantees that it will follow through. Facebook Inc., the largest U.S. social media company, employed about 45,000 people in 2019, while Twitter Inc. employed only 4,900, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

    Proponents of the deal told the Trump administration that the new company would be controlled by American investors by counting the passive stakes of existing shareholders in TikTok’s Chinese parent, people familiar with the matter said. Although ByteDance will have an 80% stake in the new company, existing U.S. investors hold a 40% stake in ByteDance. That tallies up to 53% ownership by U.S. companies and investors — although that doesn’t entail majority control or voter rights, the people said.

    TikTok Global, which will be an independent company, will hold an initial public offering in less than 12 months and the stock will be listed on a U.S. exchange, according to the statement. After going public, U.S. ownership of TikTok Global will increase and continue to grow over time, it added.

    While the Chinese government must now sign off on the transaction for it to go forward, as of earlier this week, ByteDance was growing increasingly confident that the proposal would pass muster with Chinese regulators, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg.

    Early reaction from Chinese state media appeared positive. “This scheme is still unfair, but it avoids the worst result, that TikTok is shut down or sold to a U.S. company completely,” wrote Hu Xijin, the influential editor in chief of China’s state-owned Global Times.

    Under the terms of the agreement reached early in the week, ByteDance would retain a majority of TikTok’s assets and control over the algorithm, with Oracle and other U.S. investors taking minority stakes.

    Larry Ellison, co-founder and executive chairman of Oracle Corp., speaks during the Oracle OpenWorld 2018 conference in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Monday, Oct. 22, 2018. Ellison announced a series of updates injecting more automation and intelligence into Oracle’s data cloud applications.

    Trump seemed to contradict that on Saturday. “It will have nothing to do with China, it’ll be totally secure, that’ll be part of the deal,” he said. “All of the control is Walmart and Oracle, two great American companies.”

    Trump spoke with Oracle Chairman Larry Ellison and Walmart’s McMillon on Friday, telling them he still expected the U.S. government to receive a cash payment as part of the transaction, according to people familiar with the matter. They agreed to the educational donation as a way to satisfy Trump’s demand, one of the people said. ByteDance first heard about the $5 billion education fund from news reports, a company spokeswoman said.

    The deal came together last weekend, the result of high-level negotiations between ByteDance, Oracle and top Trump administration officials after ByteDance rejected a bid from Microsoft Corp. and Walmart to buy the U.S. TikTok service outright.

    Beijing has signaled it would greenlight a deal as long as ByteDance doesn’t have to transfer the artificial intelligence algorithms that drive TikTok’s service, Bloomberg has reported.

    The Treasury Department said the deal is subject to a security agreement that requires approval by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., or Cfius. The term sheet that’s been negotiated between Cfius and the companies will now have to be formalized in a document that details the mechanics for implementing the terms of the deal.

    That document would likely include requirements related to the establishment of the new company, arrangements governing its relationship with ByteDance, whether an IPO is part of the deal, whether ByteDance will have to divest its entire stake in the IPO and what would happen if for some reason the IPO doesn’t occur, said Aimen Mir, a lawyer at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP and a former deputy assistant secretary for investment security at Treasury.

    In a video posted on TikTok with the caption #WeAreTikTok and we are here to stay, interim head of TikTok Vanessa Pappas thanked users for “sticking by us,” she said. “We’re here for the long run.” In the comments below, users said they were happy that the ongoing drama around the ban would subside. “This on and off situation is working on my nerves,” said @iamdavante, who has 4.1 million followers on the video app.

    —With assistance from David McLaughlin, Nick Wadhams and Saleha Mohsin.

  • Thu, 17 Sep 2020 20:44:00 +0000

    Can Celebrity Activism Campaigns on Social Media Actually Make a Difference? Here’s What an Expert Thinks

    The world of social media was a little quieter than usual on Wednesday: Celebrities ranging from Kim Kardashian West to Mark Ruffalo “froze” their Instagram accounts for 24 hours, to protest hate speech and misinformation being spread on Facebook, Instagram’s parent company.

    “I can’t sit by and stay silent while these platforms continue to allow the spreading of hate, propaganda and misinformation,” wrote Kardashian West, who has 188 million Instagram followers, in a tweet on Tuesday, before encouraging her fans to join her.

    The day-long freeze, during which the celebrities ceased to share photos or posts on either platform, was organized by Stop Hate for Profit, a coalition of nine civil rights groups that are asking Facebook to make policy changes to address online harassment and conspiracy theories that spread place on the platform. By Wednesday night, according to Stop Hate for Profit, the Instagram freeze was seen by over 1 billion people. (A Facebook spokesperson told the New York Times on Tuesday that it had no comment about the situation.)

    But while the boycott temporarily reshaped the Instagram feeds of the celebrities’ collective millions of followers, it was also met with criticism. The critiques paralleled similar concerns about two other major social-media activism campaigns in recent months: #BlackoutTuesday, for which Instagram users posted black squares to show support for Black Lives Matter, and #ChallengeAccepted, a campaign that involved users posting black-and-white selfies in a declaration of women’s empowerment.

    For all three, a central question dogged the hashtags: what could short-term social-media action actually do to create long-term change?

    In fact, argues Tia C.M. Tyree, professor and interim Associate Dean of Howard University’s Cathy Hughes School of Communications, social media-activism can have a “major impact”—if it’s done right.

    “Whether it’s Black Lives Matter or the #MeToo movement, people are taking to social media to voice their opinions and really call attention to some of the issues that have been problematic in U.S. society in past years and now,” Tyree says. “They’re able to get exposure in a different light because social media is so prevalent and pervasive in today’s world.”

    According to Tyree, however, that power can only be realized if the campaign also exists offline. Despite the criticism, she thinks Stop Hate for Profit has the potential to be a good example of how an online campaign can go beyond a symbolic gesture. The Instagram freeze is part of a week of action organized by the coalition, which includes clear objectives like educating people about election disinformation and asking people to register to vote.

    “These campaigns give everyday people a chance to do something larger than themselves, but there has to be online and offline goals and objectives,” Tyree says. “To offer up the idea that we’re not going to utilize a platform for a day is not a goal—it’s a tactic that should be used as an overall part of a bigger campaign to evoke larger change.”

    The backing of an campaign like Stop Hate for Profit is not in fact necessary to make an impact, Tyree says, but it helps to have an established set of goals and ideas to back up the posts. She points to the way the hashtag #MeToo went viral when used in a tweet by Alyssa Milano. While Milano’s tweet brought the phrase to the mainstream, the movement gained momentum because the phrase’s creator Tarana Burke had long been doing the work of empowering sexual abuse and harassment survivors.

    Ultimately, however, while social media can raise money and awareness, it’s only one part of a larger puzzle—one that won’t be solved by any single campaign. Tyree stresses that while the 24-hour Instagram freeze was created to draw awareness to the hate speech and misinformation on Facebook, the bigger issue that needs to be addressed is the existence of the hate itself and the realities of the world that produced it.

    “Social media is a reflection of society,” she says. “We also have to put the mirror to ourselves and understand that this is really a reflection of who we are as a society.”

  • Tue, 15 Sep 2020 20:46:44 +0000

    The 6 Most Interesting Things Apple Just Announced

    Apple on Tuesday unveiled two new Apple Watches, a fitness subscription service, updates to its iPad lineup and more. It was the second pandemic-era virtual event for the company, and executives made multiple references to the outbreak and the need to stay healthy in “these difficult times,” as CEO Tim Cook put it.

    Here’s a look at the six most interesting things Apple announced.

    The Apple Watch Series 6

    Apple Inc.

    The $399 Apple Watch Series 6 improves on what’s already the best smartwatch around, including a feature that can potentially help people detect illnesses like influenza (or COVID-19) earlier.

    That capability is powered by the Series 6’s new blood oxygen sensor, which uses a series of photodiodes and infrared LEDs to measure your oxygen saturation—the amount of oxygen in your blood cells—as you breathe. Apple is also teaming up with two research organizations to study how blood oxygen levels can be used to predict or help manage certain heart conditions.

    Other external changes for the Series 6 include new blue and red offerings, an always-on altimeter that detects changes in altitude and barometric pressure, and an improved display that’s more than twice as bright as that of the Series 5.

    The Apple Watch Series 6 also features a new S6 processor and the company’s U1 ultra wideband chip. Together, they make the Series 6 faster and enable new upcoming features, including an option to use the Apple Watch to unlock certain models of cars.

    Still, with no change in the company’s claimed “18-hour battery life,” using the Series 6 for more than a day without charging remains an elusive desire.

    Buy now: The Apple Watch Series 6

    The Apple Watch SE

    While the Apple Watch Series 6 is the company’s new flagship wearable, Apple also introduced a cheaper Apple Watch SE. The $279 SE lacks the blood oxygen sensor in the Series 6, and uses the last generation’s S5 processor, but features the same sensors—like the always-on altimeter—and the same improved display as the Series 6.

    Apple is also continuing to sell the Apple Watch Series 3 for $199, giving consumers a pretty healthy lineup of price points for jumping into wearables.

    Buy now: The Apple Watch SE

    Fitness+, a workout streaming service

    A more surprising announcement: Apple Fitness+, a workout streaming service designed to be used with the Apple Watch.

    Fitness+ will feature high-quality workout videos like those you might find from companies like Peloton. Fitness metrics will be displayed and highlighted on screen during workouts when a trainer calls them out, and you’ll see a summary of your session at the end. There are 10 workout options to choose from, including yoga, cycling, strength, and rowing. It’s machine-agnostic, meaning you don’t need any particular equipment—aside from the Apple Watch.

    Apple plans to add a new set of videos each week, all varying in terms of intensity, time, and exercise type. Each session includes a workout playlist you can import into Apple Music. Fitness+ starts at $9.99 per month or $79.99 per year. It will also be included in Apple’s new Apple One plan.

    Apple One

    When you count them up, Apple already offers five services to paying subscribers, not including the newest Apple Fitness+ service debuting later this year. Apple One is the company’s attempt at unifying them into one plan—a less confusing ordeal for anyone trying to manage all their subscriptions. (Apple One doesn’t include AppleCare, the company’s technical support service. It also excludes the $25-per-year iTunes Match service, which lets users upload their own songs into their iCloud music library, allowing them to listen to those songs on up to 10 devices.)

    Apple One’s bundled services are available in three different packages. The Individual plan includes Apple Music, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, and 50GB of iCloud storage for $14.95 per month. The Family plan, which supports up to six family members, includes Apple Music, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, and 200GB of iCloud storage for $19.95 per month. The Premier plan, which also supports up to six family members, includes all of Apple’s services—Apple Music, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, Apple News+, and Apple Fitness+ (when it launches)—along with 2TB of iCloud storage, and is available for $29.95 per month.

    Compared to subscribing to each service individually, the Individual plan will save users $6 per month, while the Family and Premier plans will save subscribers $8 and $25 per month, respectively. While the trio of options is definitely great for those already using Apple services and looking to save a little cash, the inability to customize any of the plans is disappointing.

    A faster entry-level iPad

    The updated eighth-generation iPad doesn’t do much to change course from its predecessor. It retains the same looks, Lightning port, and lack of support for the newer Apple Pencil, but gains a faster A12 Bionic processor that makes it twice as quick in the graphics department. Available Friday, the iPad will retail for $329, but schools can buy them for $299.

    Buy now: New Apple iPad (8th Generation)

    Finally, a modern iPad Air

    Apple showed off an updated iPad Air—with pretty familiar looks. Its design, nearly identical to the previous iPad Pro, ditches both the curved edges and Lightning port in favor of the much-desired USB-C port, along with support for the newest version of the Apple Pencil, as well as a smart connector on the back that works with the trackpad-equipped Magic Keyboard originally made for the iPad Pro. It’s available in five colors, including pastel-shaded pink, blue, and green.

    Despite the lack of support for FaceID, there’s also an integrated TouchID sensor in the iPad Air’s power button, giving users a security measure while ditching the familiar home button.

    The iPad Air also features Apple’s latest A14 Bionic processor. It brings improved performance that makes it 40% faster than the previous model. Despite its resemblance in both features and design to the iPad Pro, the new iPad Air will start at a comparatively reasonable $599, and launch next month.

  • Fri, 11 Sep 2020 18:33:27 +0000

    Sid Meier Is Here to Remind You That Life Is Full of Interesting Decisions

    It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an easy time to have fun in the United States right now. COVID-19 has killed nearly 200,000 Americans, and will likely claim many more before the outbreak finally wanes. Wildfires in California and elsewhere in the west are burning out of control, destroying entire towns and leaving cities like San Francisco enshrouded in a terrifying deep orange fog, a preview of what life may be like as our climate deteriorates. Law enforcement continues to shoot and beat Black Americans, despite a greater national awareness of police brutality.

    But, for those of us with the luxury to find the time to enjoy ourselves right now, it may be wise to try. Play brings well-documented psychological benefits, and any mental boost could help us better deal with all the trauma of this moment. But how? Many Americans have turned to video games as a safe means of pandemic-era escapism; gaming is up nearly 50% over the last few months, per Nielsen.

    “A great way to find fun and escape is to play games,” says longtime games creator Sid Meier. “In fact, there are games about politics, firefighters, and even pandemics. Play the game and you may gain a better understanding of the situation. Stress often comes from fear of the unknown or incomplete knowledge. When life gives you lemons, play the lemonade stand game!”

    He’s an authority on the subject, having created or helped to create some of gaming’s most iconic titles, from the much-beloved Civilization series (“Civ” for short) to Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon. Meier, who’s been making games since the early 1980s, is seen as a father of the industry, a beloved figure among many gamers but especially among people who make games.

    Meier’s new book, Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games, takes readers through his career game-by-game, from his early days creating military flight simulators for platforms like the Atari through his more recent work on efforts like creating a version of Civ for mobile devices. The end result is a story that reminds readers that success is rarely a straight line but instead a squiggly course with plenty of blind turns and potholes along the way—a game in and of itself, as he sees it. “We are surrounded by decisions, and therefore games, in everything we do,” he writes.

    Meier’s book is a delightful read for gamers of a certain age, as his career is a walk down memory lane for those of us who grew up loading games via MS-DOS command prompt. But it will be particularly enlightening for game creators, who will find plenty of wise counsel here—like stripping out whatever isn’t bringing players joy, a kind of Marie Kondo-ing for game design.

    Another motif: the idea of creative restraint. After all, Meier and his teams were cramming games onto computers with all the space and processing power of today’s microwave ovens—in fact, your microwave probably has more RAM. Today’s PlayStation 4s and Xbox Ones are supercomputers in relative terms, creating an ever-present temptation for game designers to focus on graphics and performance rather than gameplay and fun. But in Meier’s view, the horsepower of modern consoles, gaming PCs and even smartphones has made gaming more accessible to a wider audience.

    MicroProseA screenshot from the original Civilization, released in 1991.

    “When we were making games like Civilization or Pirates, we were asking a lot of the player in terms of their imagination and being willing to suspend their disbelief and spend this time with the game,” he says. “It asks a lot of the player to believe that this square thing on the screen is a tank unit, or you’re sailing across the Caribbean, because we couldn’t represent those graphically very well. Now as the technology has evolved, we can add more of those pieces, so it becomes easier to believe, it becomes easier to suspend your disbelief, it becomes more realistic, your imagination doesn’t have to work quite as hard, and you can get engaged in the game more easily. That’s broadened the audience, the accessibility for games. It used to be only geeks and nerds playing games, now the whole word is playing games.”

    I read Meier’s book and spoke with him after (finally!) finishing Red Dead Redemption II, a game that utterly blew me away in terms of storytelling, acting and sheer beauty, but which ends with a punch to the gut that I’m still emotionally recovering from even weeks later. The Last of Us II has likewise caught flack for being grim beyond the point of enjoyability. So I asked Meier, a guy who’s obsessed with fun: why do some of today’s games want to make me so sad?

    “It’s part of the expansion of our audience, of our industry, of the kind of things that we can now do,” he says. “Back in the day, you went to games to get a certain kind of experience, and if you wanted a different experience, you would go to a movie or something like that. Now, people are spending more time playing games, so they’re looking for this variety of experience.”

    Firaxis Games. A screenshot from Civilization VI, released in 2016.

    Our conversation also came as the games industry is going through a come-to-Jesus moment on its darker elements, from developer overwork (“crunch time,” in the biz) to sexual harassment. What’s Meier, who has the longest possible view on the modern gaming industry, make of this reckoning?

    “I can only speak for our company (Firaxis Games, owned by Take-Two Interactive) … but we’ve always tried to provide what we think is a family-oriented environment and care about our people beyond more than just the time they invest working at the office. But it is a passion-driven industry. We’re aware of the issues with crunch time, et cetera, and diversity, I think we’re all growing and learning in those regards as we become more aware.

    “In terms of crunch time, it becomes a management issue. We’re sensitive to that, currently we’re giving our folks recovery days in terms of the pandemic and the issues that are going along with that, there are a lot of things we’re trying to do specifically for this time. I’d like to think specifically in terms of our company we’re sensitive to that, but I think you’re right in that it is an issue. I’m not sure it’s a new issue, in fact I think awareness has really grown about those issues, but perhaps the solutions haven’t kept up with that.”

    Finally, now that I’m done with Red Dead, I’m looking for something new to play. Who better to ask for a game recommendation than Sid Meier?

    Overland, that’s one that I’ve spent a lot of time with,” he says. “And the other one…you’re going down this river, it’s a kind of survival game, really atmospheric…Flame in the Flood.

  • Thu, 10 Sep 2020 19:07:07 +0000

    Microsoft’s Double-Screened Surface Duo Smartphone Is Exciting, But I’m Waiting for Next Year’s Model

    Are two screens better than one? Microsoft seems to think so, as evidenced by its long-anticipated Surface Duo, a double-screened Android smartphone that closes and unfolds like a spiral notebook. The concept’s intriguing, but the Duo makes compromises compared to the latest high-end folding smartphones, like the recently launched Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2. So is it worth the relatively steep $1,300 price tag?

    Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been craving the Surface Duo—or something like it—since Microsoft teased the concept over a decade prior with its two-screened Courier tablet. The idea, while revolutionary, was pretty straightforward: instead of a tablet with a single screen, just attach two identical touch screens together, letting you take notes on one side while browsing the web on the other, for example. This idea, conceived before the advent of foldable devices (of mixed quality) like the rebooted Motorola Razr, still has a certain appeal, and the Surface Duo brings that concept back with a vengeance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do a great job at much else.

    The device itself is downright futuristic. The grey smartphone, covered in identical panes of glass on each side, feels like it belongs in a science-fiction movie. Its flat on all sides, save for its hinged “spine,” where the displays end with rounded edges. On its side are volume and power buttons, along with a thin fingerprint sensor embedded in one of the screen’s borders. Your thumb rests there naturally when you try to open the Duo, making it a seamless transition from off to on. Upon opening, you’re greeted with two huge 5.6-inch AMOLED screens with a pretty impressive 1800 x 1350 resolution (that’s better than 1080p). The AMOLED technology makes colors pop, while keeping the device as thin as a single-screened smartphone.

    That hinge is cool, sturdy, and folds all the way around so you can use the Duo as a phone with a single screen. But if you’re looking for a single, seamless screen on which you can enjoy videos and games, look elsewhere. While the two screens are plenty fun to look at, turning them into a single display to watch some Netflix is an ultimately disappointing experience due to the thin yet ever-present gap between them. Apps and text isn’t split between the screens; both are treated as a single display, the gap a vertical sliver obscuring whatever lies beneath.

    Size can be an issue here, too—don’t even think about squeezing it in your pants pocket. While shorter than a flagship phone like the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G, it’s much wider, making it a cumbersome addition to unaccommodating jeans. For days I kept it in my back pocket, only to freak out when I began sitting down, only to realize this expensive piece of tech was moments from getting crushed. Now it lives in my backpack—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    In fact, the form factor of the Surface Duo has a good chance at changing the way I interact with smartphones in the first place. The phone’s book-like design makes me less likely to tap on the screen or hit a button to wake it up and idly browse. You’ve gotta actually open it up to waste time. I’m more intentional when I open it, choosing to read a book more often than read some tweets.


    That being said, the Surface Duo isn’t for everyone. It’s pretty fickle. Some last-minute software updates alleviated a number of issues and slowdowns, but it remained a pretty buggy experience overall. Taps sometimes failed to register, while flipping the Duo to use it in single-display mode often means double-tapping on the correct screen to reorient the device, as it occasionally moves the app in use to the unused display.

    Photographers won’t find much to love here. The Duo’s 11-megapixel camera is abysmal, frankly, but can shoot portrait mode shots to varying degrees of effectiveness. There’s also support for recording 4K video at 60 frames per second, though with an unappealing desaturated, blueish tint.

    Microsoft’s own first-party apps, like Office, work as expected. While using OneNote on both screens, one serves as a sketchpad while the other acts as a menu for accessing notebooks and recently viewed pages. To-Do allows you to see your list of tasks on one screen, while the other displays details for each that you can easily edit.

    In fact, productivity is the Duo’s strong suit. The ability to have two different apps on each screen, create app pairs that launch in tandem, drag and drop text or images from one app to another, all result in a perfect device for getting stuff done.

    Some other apps also take advantage of the Duo’s unique design. Amazon Kindle’s app, for instance, treats each display like the page of a book. That got me reading on a smartphone way more often; I usually go for an e-reader instead. But even in the Kindle app I ran into bugs that would force me to drag the app into full screen mode every time I opened the Duo, or ruin the two-page interface by spreading a single page across both screens, the hinge obscuring line after line. Few apps promise support for such a rare form factor, and there’s no guarantee developers will flock to dual-screened devices.

    The Surface Duo runs a pretty modified version of Android 10, while Microsoft has promised to support upgrades up to Android 12. If you’re deep in Apple’s iOS ecosystem, relying on apps like FaceTime and Messages or services like iCloud, switching to a new platform could seem daunting. But if the majority of your services are available on both iOS and Android, you might find the Duo compelling enough to consider.

    Should you get the Surface Duo? Probably not—at least not yet. Its buggy software, dearth of double-screen app support and underwhelming camera will only frustrate people trying to do anything besides write emails and take notes. Video lovers can find other smartphones that provide better viewing experiences for the same cost. Gamers will find its lack of graphical acumen disappointing. There’s no wireless charging, NFC support for mobile payments, or any form of dust or water resistance. It doesn’t even have a headphone jack.

    But Microsoft’s Surface Duo is still one of the most exciting gadgets I’ve used in a while. It makes me wish for a future where devices like this—gadgets that push the envelope in terms of design and possibilities—become the norm. Like the iPad when it debuted, the Duo suggests a wealth of potential. How will developers use the extra real estate to try out new ideas and experiment with that flexibility? What new games might be possible on a dual-screen device? Yes, the Duo is half-baked, a trend when it comes to Microsoft’s more experimental endeavors—like the gorgeous but underwhelming Surface Pro X. But it’s one of the few gadgets I’ve used lately that’s left me genuinely excited for next year’s model.

  • Tue, 08 Sep 2020 14:44:07 +0000

    Miss the Movie Theater? 7 Easy Ways to Upgrade Your Home Theater Setup

    While some new big-budget films, like Disney’s Mulan, are premiering on streaming services, others, like Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, are attempting to lure consumers back to theaters despite the risk of indoor transmission of COVID-19.

    Movie fans who don’t want to take chances with their health might be feeling a bit frustrated they can’t enjoy a flick in the theaters, complete with extra-buttery popcorn and shuffling past other people’s kneecaps to get to your seat.

    But fret not! The latest and greatest in home theater tech can help you get pretty close to replicating the movie theater experience at home—and without sitting through 30 minutes of previews or dealing with a bunch of people talking or texting through the movie. Here’s how to give your living room a movie-watching upgrade:

    Turn off motion smoothing for your own sanity

    Motion interpolation—or motion smoothing—essentially creates extra frames between each frame of a movie in an attempt to simulate more frames per second, and thus a smoother image. That “smoother image” has the unintended effect of giving whatever you’re watching the look of a soap opera (which is why it’s often called the “soap opera effect”).

    If you talk to anyone familiar with film or TVs, you’ve probably heard them decry the seemingly ubiquitous inclusion of motion smoothing as the default setting on new TVs. Listen to their advice: If you love film, or at the very least want to watch movies like you’re in a theater, turn off motion smoothing, for everyone’s sake.

    Calibrate your TV screen

    You might not think there’s anything wrong with your TV when enjoying your favorite sitcom, news broadcast, or animated flick. But you might not be seeing everything you should be, especially with darker shows or movies—remember the dimly lit scenes in Game of Thrones? If you want to get the most out of your TV’s ability to handle dark lighting, bright colors, and proper contrast, you’ll need to recalibrate it.

    Calibration involves adjusting various picture settings on your TV and media player to view a film as intended. While it might sound intimidating, it isn’t that complicated, as long as you’ve got yourself the proper tools. In this case, to properly calibrate your setup for films, you’ll need the assistance of a “benchmark” test disc, used to adjust settings for a movie watching experience that takes into account your setup instead of relying on your TV’s default settings.

    The most popular consumer benchmark test disc comes from video decoding experts Spears & Munsil, which makes both HD and Ultra test discs. Another option is Disney’s WOW (World of Wonder) Test Disc, available as a DVD or Blu-Ray disc.

    Get a proper Blu-Ray player

    If you’ve got a console like a PlayStation 4, you can play DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, but that’s where it stops. For 4K content, you’ll need an Ultra HD Blu-Ray player, and Ultra HD Blu-Ray discs (sorry, the Blu-Ray player you got when they were cool five years ago won’t be much use in a 4K future).

    Players range anywhere from $200 to nearly a grand, but you can find a pretty inexpensive and capable contender in Microsoft’s Xbox One X and (cheaper) Xbox One S consoles.

    Embrace your bias (lighting)

    A bias light—or backlight—is a simple but welcome addition to any TV setup, whether you’re watching films, playing games, or just late-night channel surfing. Bias lights go behind your TV, casting a dim light behind the screen.

    Why use a bias light? For one, it puts less strain on your eyes, an obvious plus. It also helps your eyes better notice contrast on the screen, since your eyes are not struggling to compensate for a rectangle of brightness in a pitch-black room.

    Some bias lights are simple LED strips that glow at whatever intensity you dial in. Others, like the higher-end Philips Hue Play, take into account what’s on the screen, adjusting brightness and color accordingly (or based on your picks).

    Direct Internet connections rule

    If you’re not into getting a library of discs or an expensive box to stick under your TV, then you’ll need to properly prepare your internet connection to get high-def movies to your TV as quickly as possible. Wireless streaming is great, but you’ll get a more stable connection and a higher image quality with a direct connection. That’s where the humble Ethernet cable comes in. Connect it to either your streaming media box or TV itself and you won’t have to worry about the limits of wireless data transmission.

    Get a soundbar, any soundbar

    Visual fidelity is important for the best viewing experience, but audio can make or break a film, especially if your home theater setup depends on your TV’s internal speakers. Most TVs have underpowered speakers that simply can’t handle the higher or lower frequency ranges essential to a theater-like experience. Instead of springing for a full-blown surround sound system, you can rectify the issue with a soundbar and subwoofer setup.

    Rather than watching a blockbuster through speakers that make explosions sound like tinny bursts emanating from a turn of the century Victrola, a soundbar with a subwoofer can add a new dimension of audio quality and range that’ll make you feel like you’re actually in a theater (or as close as you can be). You can find soundbars with subwoofers priced anywhere from $200 to a grand, but anything is better than your TV’s built-in audio.

    In addition, some soundbars can double as traditional speakers you can pair to your smartphone using Bluetooth, or control via voice assistant. High-end soundbars, with features like Dolby Atmos, can simulate a surround-sound setup without forcing you to install hardware or run speaker wires through your walls.

    Become an annoying film buff with Letterboxd

    So you’re ready to become a cinema aficionado, prepared to emerge from this quarantine with a cinematic knowledge so obscure you’re sure to be the life of any social distanced event. If you’ve already watched the most popular blockbusters of this decade, why not dip into the more esoteric films? With Letterboxd, a movie database with social networking elements (you can follow friends, make lists of films, and share the ones you’ve seen) you can keep track of all the cinematic masterpieces you’ve watched, all the flicks you want to watch, and all the films you’ve already seen.

    Since most Letterboxd users already have an interest in cinema by virtue of being on the site in the first place, curated lists are often spot-on, reviews are thoughtfully crafted, and trolls are virtually nonexistent.

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