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The Art of Technology
Updated: 1 hour 10 min ago

Prosecutors accuse Boston Uber driver of abducting, raping passenger

12/18/2014 1:04pm

A Boston Uber driver has been formally charged by Massachusetts prosecutors with rape, assault to rape, kidnapping, assault, and two counts of battery.

"We allege that this defendant picked up a young woman, presenting himself as the driver for a ride-sharing service, and then drove her to a secluded location where he beat and sexually assaulted her," Marian Ryan, the Middlesex County district attorney, said in a Wednesday statement. "This alleged predator took advantage of a young woman who trusted that he was who he portrayed himself to be and exploited her vulnerability once he had her in his car."

The company did not immediately respond to Ars' request for comment.

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NASA’s Kepler back in the planet-hunting game

12/18/2014 12:23pm

The Kepler planet-hunting probe is one of NASA's great successes, with over 4,000 planet candidates in the pipeline and another thousand confirmed sightings. It's not an exaggeration to say that it has changed the way we view the Universe, giving us a much better grip on what's out there. But the telescope was let down by some of the probe's on-board hardware. After two failures in the devices that help keep the telescope pointing in the right direction, it was no longer possible to continue its original observations.

But the clever folks at NASA were able to figure out a way to use its solar panels as a pointing device, allowing the device to observe four different areas of the sky for three months apiece. A brief test run confirmed that the approach would work, and observations have started.

Today, NASA announced that the test run was sufficient for Kepler to have spotted yet another planet. A graduate student, Andrew Vanderburg, has been working on correcting the data obtained in this new observation mode prior to analysis. In an recent document that describes this work, Vanderburg notes that the new pointing isn't as precise, which leads to a four-fold degradation in quality. Using data from the test run, he has managed to cut that loss of quality in half, and he then released all the data taken during this period.

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Verizon to FCC: You can’t stop Netflix-like interconnection payments

12/18/2014 12:09pm

Verizon told the Federal Communications Commission yesterday that it has no right to regulate paid interconnection deals like the ones Netflix struck with Verizon and other Internet providers.

Even reclassifying broadband service as a utility or common carrier service will not give the FCC that power, Verizon VP and Associate General Counsel William H. Johnson wrote in a filing in the FCC's net neutrality proceeding.

"The Commission cannot under any circumstances lawfully impose Title II common-carriage requirements on interconnection, as some regulatory proponents propose. Such requirements apply only to 'common carriers,' that is, to telecommunications service providers already 'engaged as a common carrier for hire," Johnson wrote, citing US communications law and court precedents. "As the DC Circuit has explained, when a provider is not operating as a common carrier, the Commission cannot 'relegate' that provider 'to common carrier status' by imposing common-carriage regulation. The Commission does not have 'unfettered discretion... to confer or not confer common-carrier status on a given entity depending upon the regulatory goals it seeks to achieve.'"

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Record of past warming event shows carbon was emitted fast—and twice

12/18/2014 11:30am

Periods of rapid change are among the most interesting things in the geologic record, but that rapidity also makes them hard to study. While 10,000 years sounds like an eternity to us, it’s just a blip in the humbling expanse of Earth’s history. The stories that rocks can tell usually cover too much time to reveal all the details of a blip that short, which challenges geologists’ detective skills.

The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM to its friends) occurred about 10 million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs and 56 million years before the present. It involved the addition of enough carbon to Earth’s atmosphere to cause 5-8°C of global warming, which lasted almost 200,000 years. That caused a considerable amount of change in the biosphere, including a mass extinction among a group of bottom-dwelling marine organisms. Given that we’re also messing with the climate system today, we have good reason to be curious about the warming of the PETM.

This is too far in the past for ice cores to help us out, so our evidence comes in the form of carbon isotopes in rocks, which preserve the isotopic signature of carbon in atmospheric CO2 back then. That isotopic signature suddenly made a large jump at the start of the PETM and stayed there for the duration. Because the jump is so radical, many researchers think that sources of methane (which have isotopic signatures much different from most atmospheric CO2 carbon) are likely to be the culprits. But how rapid was the jump? Many records can’t tell us much about that—it happened so quickly that it just looks like a step change. Some estimates put it at 20,000 years, while others indicate that it could have been much shorter.

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Mojang teams up with Telltale for MineCraft: Story Mode

12/18/2014 10:48am

The studio that brought us story-driven, pathos-filled episodic adventures like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us is going in a surprising direction with its newest announced title. Telltale Games is teaming up with Mojang to create Minecraft: Story Mode.

Despite the name, Story Mode isn't an additional campaign in the core Minecraft game, but a separate, "narrative-driven" episodic series in the standard Telltale model. That means a story that's "driven by player choice," which integrates "new characters with familiar themes, in an entirely original Minecraft experience, inspired by the Minecraft community and the game that continues to inspire a generation," according to Telltale's announcement.

This isn't the first time Telltale has worked with an outside developer to flesh out a story started in another game series: The recent Tales from the Borderlands expands on the light story in Gearbox's series, while Tales of Monkey Island revived the fan-favorite LucasArts franchise back in 2009.

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Sloppy security hygiene made Sony Pictures ripe for hacking

12/18/2014 10:12am

Sony Pictures Entertainment's (SPE) computer hygiene in the years leading up to last month's hack was breathtakingly sloppy, with the movie studio's CEO regularly being reminded of e-mail, banking, and travel passwords in plaintext e-mails, according to an Associated Press report published Thursday.

Headlined "Sony emails show a studio ripe for hacking," the article is based on a review of more than 32,000 stolen corporate e-mails released on the Internet by people connected to last month's hack of SPE. The e-mails show CEO Michael Lynton repeatedly receiving plaintext passwords in unencrypted e-mails for his and his family's e-mail, banking, travel, and shopping accounts. The unencrypted e-mails were frequently sent by executive assistant David Diamond. Other e-mails included images of passports, driver licenses, and banking statements.

While the catastrophic hack that hit SPE is generating intense scrutiny of the company's security practices, it's widely believed that many if not most corporations and smaller businesses are no better at securing their data. Executives assume that e-mails they send can't be read by anyone other than the intended recipient. Employees have little awareness how easy it is for the computers and smartphones they use to be compromised and for those hacks to then spread to corporate networks. The AP quoted security expert Kevin Mitnick as saying, "It's pretty ordinary for CEOs and executive assistants to share confidential information by e-mail. They feel their e-mail is secure and they have nothing to worry about."

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Activist group sues San Diego Police Department over “stingray” records

12/18/2014 7:00am

A legal advocacy group has sued the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) and the city of San Diego in an attempt to force the release of public records relating to stingrays, also known as cell-site simulators.

Stingrays are often used covertly by local and federal law enforcement to locate target cellphones and their respective owners. However, stingrays also sweep up cell data of innocent people nearby who have no idea that such collection is taking place. Stingrays can be used to intercept voice calls and text messages as well.

Earlier this week, a local judge in Arizona ruled that a local reporter could not receive similar stingray documents from the Tucson Police Department because disclosure "would give criminals a road map for how to defeat the device, which is used not only by Tucson but other local and national police agencies."

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State-sponsored or not, Sony Pictures malware “bomb” used slapdash code

12/17/2014 10:04pm

According to multiple reports, unnamed government officials have said that the cyber attack on Sony Pictures was linked to the North Korean governmentThe Wall Street Journal reports that investigators suspect the attack was carried out by Unit 121 of North Korea’s General Bureau of Reconnaissance, the country’s most elite hacking unit.

But if the elite cyber-warriors of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea were behind the malware that erased data from hard drives at Sony Pictures Entertainment, they must have been in a real hurry to ship it.

Analysis by researchers at Cisco of a malware sample matching the MD5 hash signature of the “Destover” malware that was used in the attack on Sony Pictures revealed that the code was full of bugs and anything but sophisticated. It was the software equivalent of a crude pipe bomb.

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Making the Internet a utility—what’s the worst that could happen?

12/17/2014 9:00pm

There seems to be nothing the broadband industry fears more than Title II of the Communications Act.

Title II gives the Federal Communications Commission power to regulate telecommunications providers as utilities or "common carriers." Like landline phone providers, common carriers must offer service to the public on reasonable terms. To regulate Internet service providers (ISPs) as utilities, the FCC must reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service, a move that consumer advocacy groups and even President Obama have pushed the FCC to take.

Under Obama's proposal, the reclassification would only be used to impose net neutrality rules that prevent ISPs from blocking or throttling applications and websites or from charging applications and websites for prioritized access to consumers. The FCC would be expected to avoid imposing more stringent utility rules in a legal process known as "forbearance."

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NYC lawmaker wants to ban drones except for cops with warrants

12/17/2014 8:00pm

On Wednesday Councilman Dan Garodnick introduced a bill to the New York City council seeking to ban all use of drones except those operated by police officers who obtain warrants. A second parallel bill introduced by Councilman Paul Vallone would place more stringent restrictions on drone use but stop short of banning drones for hobbyists and companies altogether. Both bills have been passed to the city's committee on public safety.

An all-out ban on drones within the metropolis would be a quite wide-reaching step, especially as the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) seems poised to adopt more permissive rules with respect to commercial interests in particular. Earlier this year, the FAA formally granted six Hollywood companies exemptions to drone ban rules. A couple of months later, the FAA granted similar exemptions for construction site monitoring and oil rig flare stack inspections.

Despite the FAA's tentative steps toward drone regulation, pilots of planes and helicopters have reported increased sightings of drones in their airspace and several near-collisions. Twelve incidents of dangerous encounters between drones and planes in the New York and Newark areas have been reported in recent months. In addition, in 2011, a man was fined $10,000 by the FAA for flying a remote-controlled plane recklessly through New York City. However, the National Transportation Safety Board struck down that fine.

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US government fingers North Korea as the Sony hackers

12/17/2014 6:55pm

Speaking off the record, senior intelligence officials have told The New York Times, CNN, and other news agencies that North Korea was "centrally involved" in the hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE).

This news comes as SPE cancelled the planned December 25 release of The Interview, a comedy about a plot to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The film was withdrawn in response to threats to carry out attacks on those cinemas showing the film.

This threat, transforming the hacks from an embarrassment to Sony to a potential risk to life and limb, sets the SPE hack apart from past attacks on corporate computer systems, according to officials speaking to NYT.

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Namco to open Pac-Man-themed restaurant in Suburban Chicago

12/17/2014 5:58pm

Music has the Hard Rock Cafe. Film has Planet Hollywood. It's high time the game industry had its own cheesy, tourist-trappy theme restaurant to part visiting rubes from their money. Apparently, Namco agrees with that sentiment, given the company's plans to open Level 257, "a brand new restaurant and entertainment destination inspired by Pac-Man" in a former Sears warehouse at the Woodfield Mall in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Illinois next month.

According to the official Level 257 tumblr page, the 40,000 square foot, 180-seat restaurant will also integrate a larger entertainment complex, featuring "16 boutique retro-styled bowling lanes with smart technology, table tennis, pinball machines and our Lost & Found games parlor with original arcades alongside exciting new titles, plus custom-built game tables and free-to-play board games provide a unique entertainment experience." Fans of Pac-Man will also be able to shop at a "first-of-its-kind" Pac-Man retail shop and browse a "gallery space" devoted to the little yellow dot.

"Level 257 seeks to explore Pac-Man’s impact upon our society and pop culture, reminding us all of the importance of play in our lives, while facilitating our desire to relive those times when beating the next level was the most important thing in our world," the site says. "All while indulging that which we love now—great food and drink with our friends and family."

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Windows Browser Ballot comes to an end as EC obligation expires

12/17/2014 5:25pm

Microsoft will cease showing EU-based Windows users a selection screen offering a choice of different browsers to install, known as the browser ballot.

In December 2009, and after lengthy negotiations, the European Commission and Microsoft finally agreed on the form and nature of the Windows browser ballot. The ballot was offered to all Windows users in the EU, giving them a choice of a dozen or so different browsers to install on their PCs, in response to complaints that Microsoft's bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows harmed competition in the browser market.

The software company and industry regulator agreed that the ballot would be offered for five years. According to a Knowledge Base article that Microsoft published today, that five-year obligation has now ended and new Windows users will no longer be shown the screen.

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After hackers’ terror threats, Sony cancels The Interview’s theatrical release [Updated]

12/17/2014 5:20pm

Variety reports that in light of major US theater chains' decision to stay away from The Interview, Sony will not do a theatrical release for the film at all.

The company released the following statement after 2pm PDT on Wednesday:

In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film The Interview, we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release. We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.

Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our customers, and our business. Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and our morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like. We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.

Sony's action comes after the Hollywood Reporter reported the nation's largest cinema chains (including Regal and Cinemark) decided not to screen The Interview following a terrorist threat on Tuesday from hackers who said moviegoers could face doom while watching the comedy about North Korea.

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Hacking tutorials, identity documents gain popularity on black market

12/17/2014 4:26pm

While the Sony hack hogs media headlines and stolen credit card details are sold nearly everywhere, counterfeit documents and how-to-hack tutorials are some of the fastest growing sellers on online underground marketplaces, according to an annual study of prices published by Dell Secureworks on Monday.

A scan of a Social Security card along with a name and address costs about $250, for example, with supporting documents—such as a credit card statement or utility bill—costing another $100. A fake driver’s license lists between $100 and $150. In total, a would-be identity thief could get all the information they needed to access health services, obtain government assistance, or apply for financial credit for under $500.

Overall, illicit sites are now selling more types of identity documents than last year, when the researchers—Joe Stewart and David Shear of Dell Secureworks—conducted their first study. The increase is, in part, because proof of identity is required by more organizations and financial institutions, Shear said.

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New York state to ban fracking for natural gas

12/17/2014 4:10pm

Today, the health commissioner of the state of New York, Howard Zucker, announced that he has completed a study into the health impacts of hydraulic fracturing for the recovery of natural gas. Although there are few demonstrated health risks, Zucker noted that there are a great many uncertainties about the process, and these make it impossible to design intelligent regulations that minimize potential risks. As a result, the state will ban the practice indefinitely.

Zucker's review describes a large number of possible problems that could affect the health of residents of the state. These include air pollution, both from the equipment and the chemicals used in the fracking, as well as leakage from the wells themselves. Concerns regarding water focus on the chemicals in the fracking fluid, which can both spread underground or contaminate surface waters through spills or incomplete processing. Finally, fracking has clearly resulted in elevated earthquake risks in some areas, although the quakes remained small.

Right now, most of these risks are hypothetical; Zucker's report cites a large number of long-term, fracking-focused health studies that are in progress but aren't expected to yield results for several years. The studies that have been completed "raise substantial questions about whether the risks of HVHF [High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing] activities are sufficiently understood so that they can be adequately managed." In other words, although it might be possible to regulate fracking in a way that limits health risks, we don't know enough about the health risks themselves to design regulations.

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ICANN e-mail accounts, zone database breached in spearphishing attack

12/17/2014 3:47pm

Unknown attackers used a spearphishing campaign to compromise sensitive systems operated by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a coup that allowed them to take control of employee e-mail accounts and access personal information of people doing business with the group.

ICANN, which oversees the Internet's address system, said in a release published Tuesday that the breach also gave attackers administrative access to all files stored in its centralized zone data system, as well as the names, postal addresses, e-mail addresses, fax and phone numbers, user names, and cryptographically hashed passwords of account holders who used the system. Domain registries use the database to help manage the current allocation of hundreds of new generic top level domains (gTLDs) currently underway. Attackers also gained unauthorized access to the content management systems of several ICANN blogs.

"We believe a 'spear phishing' attack was initiated in late November 2014," Tuesday's press release stated. "It involved email messages that were crafted to appear to come from our own domain being sent to members of our staff. The attack resulted in the compromise of the email credentials of several ICANN staff members."

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US telcos can operate in Cuba as part of new reform, White House says

12/17/2014 3:26pm

As part of a surprise move to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba, the White House announced that it would be "initiating new efforts" to help the island nation access the Internet.

In a statement published Wednesday, the Obama administration said that Cuba has a tiny Internet penetration rate—just five percent of the population is online. As such, most digital files are exchanged offline via USB sticks sold on the black market.

The White House also noted:

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AnandTech snapped up by parent company of Tom’s Hardware and LaptopMag

12/17/2014 3:10pm

Purch, Inc. announced on Wednesday that it had purchased, ending the site's 17-year run as an independent publication. Purch also owns a number of other long-running technology sites, including LaptopMag (founded as Laptop Magazine in 1991), Tom's Hardware (founded 1996), and a handful of other offshoot tech publications. Purch says the acquisition will help it "dominate the tech expert and enthusiast market."

Anand Shimpi, founder and original editor-in-chief of the site, left his post for Apple in late August. Shimpi says he is "happy to see [AnandTech] end up with a partner committed to taking good care of the brand and its readers." Current Editor-In-Chief Ryan Smith says the site has "grown by leaps and bounds over the past several years" but that it was "nearing what's possible as an independent company." Smith goes on to say that Purch values AnandTech's exhaustive hardware testing and reviews, and that Purch would enable the site to grow "without compromising the quality that made us who we are today."

Under Smith, AnandTech has continued to run reviews of individual PC components and, less frequently, complete consumer products like laptops, phones, and operating systems. While the site misses Shimpi's voice and expertise (and that of former mobile editor Brian Klug, who also left for Apple this year), its coverage and testing procedures continue to be deep and thorough, and they will hopefully remain that way post-acquisition.

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100Mbps Internet available to 59% of US, while gigabit still at just 3%

12/17/2014 2:47pm

Though some pockets of the US have a competitive market for ultra-fast broadband, a new government report shows that Internet service of at least 100Mbps is limited, and where it exists there is usually just one provider that offers it.

Fifty-nine percent of the US population can buy service of at least 100Mbps download speed, according to the Department of Commerce report released yesterday. But only eight percent can choose from at least two 100Mbps providers, and just one percent can choose from three.

Further, “only 3 percent of the population had 1Gbps or greater available; none had two or more ISPs at that speed,” the report said. It’s not exactly “none”—data in the appendix shows a fraction of one percent of Americans can choose from multiple gigabit providers. This is beginning to change. For example, AT&T and Google are now offering gigabit service in Austin, Texas. The Commerce report is a bit outdated, using data from December 2013.

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