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Updated: 46 min 25 sec ago

Tech sector tells Obama encryption backdoors “undermine human rights”

5/19/2015 12:48pm

Technology giants like Apple, Google, and Microsoft urged President Barack Obama on Tuesday to refrain from supporting any US policy that would require the tech sector to install backdoors into their products so the authorities can access encrypted data.

In a letter (PDF) to Obama, dozens of tech companies, cryptologists, and rights groups said mandatory backdoors—which many authorities in the US government and abroad have been calling for—would weaken cybersecurity as well as "undermine human rights."

More than undermining every American’s cybersecurity and the nation’s economic security, introducing new vulnerabilities to weaken encrypted products in the US would also undermine human rights and information security around the globe. If American companies maintain the ability to unlock their customers’ data and devices on request, governments other than the United States will demand the same access, and will also be emboldened to demand the same capability from their native companies. The US government, having made the same demands, will have little room to object. The result will be an information environment riddled with vulnerabilities that could be exploited by even the most repressive or dangerous regimes. That’s not a future that the American people or the people of the world deserve.

Tuesday's letter comes as the White House is in the process of coming up with a position on the issue and in response to a chorus of government officials at home and abroad—including British Prime Minister David Cameron, FBI Director James Comey, and former Attorney General Eric Holder—all calling for backdoors.

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AMD confirms 4GB limit for first HBM graphics card

5/19/2015 12:04pm

AMD's just taken the wraps off its shiny new high bandwidth memory (HBM) technology, and as rumoured, the company is limited to a total of 4GB for its first-generation HBM product. While AMD has yet to reveal specifics of what that product might be, it did tell us that it'll be a GPU, it'll be priced towards the higher end of the spectrum, and that you'll be able to walk into a store and buy one within "the next couple of months." The rumour mill strongly suggests that this first HBM part will be the R9 390X.

The reason for the 4GB restriction for the company's upcoming GPU is due to the first-generation HBM design. HBM uses stacked memory chips along with a silicon interposer and through-silicon-vias (an interconnect that runs through the chip from top to bottom) in order to move the DRAM closer to the GPU. This shortens the traces, allowing for increased bandwidth and lower power consumption. Currently, those chips can only be stacked four dies high. With each die limited to 2Gbit, each stack is one gigabyte. AMD's current design only allows for four stacks around the GPU, limiting the system to four gigabytes.

It's not entirely clear why the company has been limited to four stacks of memory for its first-generation product. If AMD is sticking with its GCN 1.1 architecture for the launch of HBM, the physical die size of the GPU may have had something to do with it. It could also simply be down to cost. HBM, while cheaper than rival stacked memory technology Hybrid Memory Cube (HMC), is still likely to be pricier than the equivalent DRAM, making eight stacks impractical. Regardless, a leaked set of slides from HBM manufacturer Hynix alleges that second-generation HBM will double capacity to 2GB per stack, allowing for graphics cards with 8GB of RAM in the future.

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This is what happens after you die

5/19/2015 11:00am

“It might take a little bit of force to break this up,” says mortician Holly Williams, lifting John’s arm and gently bending it at the fingers, elbow, and wrist. “Usually, the fresher a body is, the easier it is for me to work on.”

Williams speaks softly and has a happy-go-lucky demeanor that belies the nature of her work. Raised and now employed at a family-run funeral home in north Texas, she has seen and handled dead bodies on an almost daily basis since childhood. Now 28 years old, she estimates that she has worked on something like 1,000 bodies.

Her work involves collecting recently deceased bodies from the Dallas–Fort Worth area and preparing them for their funeral.

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Airbus investigates engine software as cause of troop transport crash

5/19/2015 10:48am

In the wake of the unexplained crash of an A400M troop and cargo transport plane in Spain on May 9, Airbus has ordered a review of the software that controls the turboprop engines of that aircraft model. The crash killed a Spanish flight test crew and has led to the grounding of British, German, and Turkish A400Ms already in service. The French military has also restricted the use of its six Airbus transports.

Airbus has asked its military customers to conduct checks of the software in the electronic control unit (ECU) of the engines. "To avoid potential risks in any future flights, Airbus Defence and Space has informed the operators about necessary actions to take," Airbus executives announced in an official statement.

The A400M was developed as European replacement for the C-130 military transport. The aircraft, assembled in Spain, was a joint program of seven NATO countries; Airbus' contract for the program had a price tag of over $22 billion. Delays in delivery of the A400M led to cost overruns and a reshuffling of Airbus's management.

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Apple gives Retina 5K iMacs a $200 price cut, intros low-end $1,999 model

5/19/2015 9:33am

Apple just updated the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, but some of its desktops are getting love as well. The Retina 5K iMac, formerly available for $2,499, has gotten a $200 price cut. For $2,299, you get a 3.5GHz (3.9GHz Turbo) quad-core Core i5 CPU, 8GB of DDR3 RAM, a 1TB Fusion Drive, and an AMD Radeon R9 M290X GPU. Faster CPUs and GPUs and larger non-Fusion SSDs are all still available as upgrade options; the only difference from the model that was introduced last fall is the price drop.

Joining the $2,299 Retina iMac is a new $1,999 model with lower specs. It includes a non-upgradeable 3.3GHz (3.7GHz Turbo) quad-core Core i5 CPU, a non-upgradeable AMD R9 M290 GPU (not the M290X), 8GB of DDR3 RAM, and a 1TB hard drive. Though it's nice to be able to get the Retina iMac's fantastic screen at a lower price, it's unfortunate that this model doesn't include a Fusion Drive by default—it's a $200 upgrade option, which would make it just $100 cheaper than the high-end model. It's 2015, and SSDs make such a difference to general system performance that it's hard to recommend a $2,000 computer without one.

Apple tells us that neither of the new Mac launches today include Intel's quad-core Broadwell processors, which are slated to launch mid-year. These iMacs don't use Intel's integrated Iris Pro GPUs and Broadwell doesn't provide a big CPU performance boost over Haswell, so it's arguably not as big a loss here as it is in the MacBook Pros.

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Engineered virus protects bacteria while eliminating antibiotic resistance

5/19/2015 9:16am

Editing the sequence of bases in a DNA molecule is pretty straightforward in a test tube. Until recently, editing the DNA of a living organism had been a very large challenge, one that was more often avoided than taken up. But a system bacteria use to defeat viruses has been repurposed to make a versatile DNA editing system.

The system, called CRISPR-Cas9, takes short pieces of RNA as input. Any places it spots the same sequence in a DNA molecule, it makes a cut. Those cuts will then generally be repaired using any DNA sequence that roughly matches it. If researchers provide an edited version of the sequence, then the edits get incorporated into the cut DNA.

The system made news recently when it was used to edit the DNA of fertilized human embryos. But it's seen plenty of other uses, from targeting HIV infections to creating a mutagenic chain reaction that can spread through populations of pests. Now, some researchers have turned it against another threat: antibiotic resistance.

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Apple announces new 15-inch MacBook Pro with Force Touch and other upgrades [Updated]

5/19/2015 9:01am

Some good news for power users ahead of Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference next month: the company has just updated its 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, completing the 2015 MacBook refresh it began with the new MacBook Air, 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, and the MacBook.

The 15-inch Pros include some upgrades that other MacBooks have gotten this year—faster PCI Express storage enabled by increasing the number of PCIe lanes used from two to four and the Force Touch trackpad are chief among them. The discrete graphics option on the high-end $2,499 version of the laptop has also been upgraded, from an Nvidia GeForce GT 750M to an AMD Radeon R9 M370X with 2GB of DDR5 RAM. The entry-level $1,999 version still comes with Intel's Iris integrated graphics.

Visually, the MacBook Pro looks much like the 2012 and 2013 models. The one noticeable physical difference is its Force Touch trackpad, also included in the 13-inch Pro and the new MacBook. These pressure-sensitive trackpads use haptic feedback to simulate the feel of a standard clicky trackpad, but they don't need as much physical space to move. The trackpad's inclusion in the MacBook is obviously necessary because of how thin the device is, but its presence in the new Pros is probably intended to encourage developers to adopt Force Touch APIs in their software.

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WSJ: Apple dropped plans for a TV set “more than a year ago”

5/19/2015 12:45am

There have been predictions about an Apple television set so often and for so long that it has become a sort of running gag among Apple watchers, but a new report from The Wall Street Journal has poured yet more cold water on those forecasts. The typical "people familiar with the matter" tell the WSJ that Apple had "a small team" working on a TV set for a few years, but that the team had been disbanded and its members reassigned to other projects "more than a year ago."

The main problem, according to the report, was a lack of innovative features that would distinguish an Apple TV set from its competitors. The team experimented with "ultra-high-definition" displays, TVs that looked like clear panes of glass when turned off, and FaceTime cameras that could reposition themselves to focus on whoever was currently speaking. None of these were deemed good enough to sell the idea of a television set.

Of course, Apple still has plans for your TV, even if it won't sell you the screen itself. In March, Apple dropped the price of the existing three-year-old Apple TV box from $99 to $69. At the same event, Apple and HBO announced the standalone HBO Now service and app, a semi-exclusive deal that demonstrated Apple's ability to work with content providers.

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Duke Nukem lawsuit ends with settlement, possible license transfer

5/18/2015 10:18pm

A year-long lawsuit between the major players in the Duke Nukem game franchise appears to have reached its conclusion last week, as evidenced by a court document leak pointing to a settlement.

Duke Nukem Forever publisher Gearbox Software filed an initial lawsuit in February 2014 against 3D Realms, the DN series' original handlers, and parent company Interceptor Entertainment. The suit alleged that Interceptor had breached the Duke Nukem IP handover contract—the one created when Duke Nukem Forever finally inched its way toward its disastrous launch—when Interceptor later announced a game called Duke Nukem: Mass Destruction.

That contract, conveniently enough, leaked last week on document site Scribd, as did Gearbox's lawsuit allegations. Gearbox's lawyers alleged that 3D Realms heads George Broussard and Scott Miller didn't just infringe on the DNF handover contract, but that they'd "directly confirmed" that 3D Realms had infringed upon "Gearbox's rights to the Duke IP." Though none of 3D Realms' direct statements leaked, the terms of the original contract indicated that the original Duke IP owners still had the rights to work on re-releases of prior games, along with a tentatively titled Duke Nukem: Survivor game.

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Alleged plane hacker said he pierced Boeing jet’s firewall in 2012

5/18/2015 8:00pm

More than two years before coming under FBI questioning about possibly hacking into the in-flight entertainment system of a commercial plane while it was in mid air, a security researcher told peers he accessed the computer controls of other highly sensitive aviation and aeronautics systems, including the International Space Station.

Chris Roberts of One World Labs told an audience in 2012 that he bypassed the on-board firewall of a Boeing 737 plane he was traveling on and made contact with the Apache Tomcat webserver the firewall was protecting. He told the same audience he accessed communications systems NASA uses to control the International Space Station and changed the temperature. It was impossible to confirm the veracity of those claims, which went largely unnoticed until Friday, when an FBI search warrant application came to light alleging Roberts told agents he took control of a jet plane and briefly caused it to climb and fly sideways.

The 2012 talk—titled By Land, By Sea, By Air—has already touched off howls of protest from some researchers who say even the passive accessing of restricted parts of a plane while it's in flight is grossly reckless. Critics also argue the behavior would likely be a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which makes it a felony to gain unauthorized access to protected computer systems.

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AT&T CEO confident Title II will be overturned by courts or Congress

5/18/2015 5:32pm

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson last November claimed he would pause the company's fiber investments because of the impending broadband reclassification and imposition of net neutrality rules.

"We can't go out and invest that kind of money deploying fiber to 100 cities not knowing under what rules those investments will be governed," Stephenson said at the time.

But now that the Federal Communications Commission has reclassified broadband providers as common carriers and used its Title II authority to impose net neutrality rules, Stephenson says AT&T is confident that it can keep investing. It's not because AT&T agrees with the rules, as the company has sued to overturn them. Instead, Stephenson said he is confident that either the courts or Congress will overturn or heavily alter the FCC's decision.

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Ulbricht’s lawyer: Silk Road was “the most responsible” drug market in history

5/18/2015 5:20pm

Silk Road—wasn't that the massive, online drug bazaar?

If you read the latest documents filed in the case, you might think it was a methadone clinic or "harm reduction center."

As part of an upcoming sentencing hearing, the government has laid out plans to show evidence of six drug overdose deaths it believes are directly connected to the website, which allowed users to buy pretty much any illegal drug.

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Microsoft celebrates 25 years of wasting time at work with Solitaire tournament

5/18/2015 4:18pm

The worst thing about Windows 8 and 8.1 by far was the fact that neither operating system included any built-in games. Sure, you could download them from the Windows Store, but you had to go out and actively look for them. Given that the built-in games are there for slacking off at work, being forced to hunt down new games to play was a huge step in the wrong direction. The built-in Windows games are a cultural phenomenon, and while the lineup has varied over the years, one game above all has come to define workplace boredom and Windows' ability to be there for you when you have nothing better to do: Solitaire.

sol.exe was first included with Windows in 1990's release of Windows 3.0. Since its introduction, its distinctive green baize has been the hallmark of the bored white-collar employee. Gaze across a sea of cubicles, and the presence of Solitaire, immediately visible even at a distance, will instantly reveal workspace slacking. The distracting time waster has probably single-handedly offset all the productivity gains that computers have enabled.

May 22 will be Windows 3.0's 25th birthday, and to celebrate Microsoft is running a Solitaire tournament. It's not immediately clear to me how you run a tournament for a single-player, non-competitive, randomized game where only around 80 percent of games are even theoretically winnable, but why not. Currently Redmond is running an internal competition, and on June 5 it'll be made public. The company promises that its best Solitaire experts will go "head-to-head" with the public.

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Appeals court says anti-Muslim YouTube video doesn’t have to come down

5/18/2015 4:00pm

A federal appeals court changed course Monday and said copyright law does not require Google to take down the inflammatory YouTube video, "The Innocence of Muslims."

A Los Angeles actress had demanded the video's removal after claiming she was fired from her job and received death threats over her brief stint in the video. Cindy Garcia said she thought she would be in an adventure show but was tricked into performing in a "hateful anti-Islamic production" that sparked worldwide protests.

A three-judge panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the woman last year in a 2-1 vote and ordered Google to remove the video. The court ruled that she controlled the copyright of her five-second stint, in which her dubbed voice asks: "Is your Muhammad a child molester?"

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Navy Research Lab develops cheap “swarm” glider mini-drones

5/18/2015 3:28pm

At the Department of Defense's "Lab Day" last week at the Pentagon, scientists from the Naval Research Laboratory unveiled the world's smallest spy drone yet: a tiny, intelligent glider called the "Cicada." More formally known as the Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft, the Cicada is intended (like its namesake) to be deployed in large swarms—and to expire when its mission is complete.

It looks more like a maker project than a weapons system, but that's sort of the point. Designed to provide a low-cost way to drop dozens or hundreds of precision-placed sensors for monitoring everything from weather systems to enemy troop movements, the Cicada is essentially a flying smartphone that could be released in swarms from an aircraft or weather balloon, gracefully guiding itself to a predetermined target location in the air or on the ground.

Daniel Edwards, an aerospace engineer at NRL, described the Cicada drones as "robotic carrier pigeons." He told Agence France-Presse, "You tell them where to go, and they will go there." And upon their arrival, depending on the mission, the Cicada would broadcast sensor data back until its batteries expire—such as seismic to track traffic on roads behind enemy lines or adversary's movements and conversations picked up through microphones. There is also interest in non-defense roles for the Cicada, including collecting meteorological data from within storm systems.

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Rhetoric flies as deadline looms to renew bulk phone metadata surveillance

5/18/2015 2:40pm

"This has been a very important part of our effort to defend the homeland since 9/11. We know that the terrorists overseas are trying to recruit people in our country to commit atrocities in our country."

Those were the words of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The GOP leader was rallying behind his legislation that would prevent the June 1 expiration of the phone metadata spying program Edward Snowden exposed two years ago.

McConnell's statement Sunday on ABC's This Week comes days after the House passed a measure known as the USA Freedom Act. Supported by the President Barack Obama administration, the measure would dramatically revise the surveillance program—the first time following the 9/11 terror attacks that lawmakers have voted to reduce the surveillance state.

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Safari address-spoofing bug could be used in phishing, malware attacks

5/18/2015 2:15pm

From the department of things that aren't what they seem, researchers have demonstrated a new address-spoofing exploit that tricks Safari users into thinking they're visiting one site when in fact the Apple-made browser is connected to an entirely different address.

The recently published proof-of-concept exploit causes the Safari address bar to display dailymail.co.uk even though the browser is displaying content from deusen.co.uk. It works on fully patched versions of iOS and OS X. Malicious attackers might use the bug to dupe Safari users into thinking they're connecting to a trusted site instead of one that's phishing their login credentials or attempting to install malware.

The demo code isn't perfect. On the iPad Mini Ars tested, the address bar periodically refreshed the address as the page appeared to reload. The behavior might tip off more savvy users that something is amiss. Still, many users would surely fail to spot the unusual refresh. What's more, the refresh behavior wasn't observed on a MacBook Pro Ars also tested.

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FTC proposes a compromise so RadioShack can sell consumer data

5/18/2015 2:10pm

On Monday the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent a letter to the bankruptcy court presiding over RadioShack's supervised asset sell-off suggesting a compromise that would allow RadioShack to sell its database of information from 117 million customers.

The sale of the data—which includes names, addresses, e-mail addresses, phone numbers, and purchase histories—has caused concern among consumer protection advocates. The states of Tennessee and Texas recently filed objections to RadioShack's plan to find a buyer for its database, saying that the company promised in various privacy policies that it would not resell customer data to third parties. AT&T and Apple also objected to the sale of portions of the database, saying that that information actually belongs to them and not to RadioShack as per RadioShack's business agreements with those companies.

According to FTC Consumer Protection Director Jessica Rich (PDF), RadioShack could find a way to appease consumer advocates by taking a look at a bankruptcy case from 2000 involving retailer Toysmart. In that case, Toysmart had wanted to sell off its database of customer data, but after some pushback from the FTC it agreed to certain limitations on the sale of the database. For example, the buyer could not buy the customer database alone—it had to receive it bundled in with the sale of other assets like trademarks or Web content. In addition, the information had to be sold to a business similar to Toysmart and that buyer had to agree to honor the privacy policy that Toysmart had pledged to its customers.

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Cable companies could escape local rate regulation under FCC proposal

5/18/2015 1:49pm

The latest controversy at the Federal Communications Commission involves cable TV competition and rate regulation, and it could end with cable companies facing fewer price restrictions in cities and towns.

Local franchise authorities may regulate the rates cable TV providers charge for "basic" cable service and equipment, but only if the local cable company does not face what's known as "effective competition." Today, the burden of proof is on cable companies to show that they face effective competition, but the FCC is considering a change that would shift the burden of proof to local authorities by adopting a "rebuttable presumption" that cable operators face effective competition.

While cable companies have cheered the proposal, the FCC's own Intergovernmental Advisory Committee (IAC) last week said that such a move "is contrary to the public interest." Besides limiting rate regulation—which is already rare—the proposal would eliminate other consumer protections, the IAC said.

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Crop-based biofuels will take years to truly help the environment

5/18/2015 1:24pm

The push for renewable energy has led to the generation of biofuels from cellulose-rich biomass, algae, and crops. Currently, crop-based biofuels are limited to those derived from agricultural products: corn, soybean, rapeseed, and surgarcane. An increase in the demand for crop-based biofuels will require either an increase in the amount of agricultural land or an increase in crop production on existing land.

An expansion of agricultural land can only occur if whatever is presently on the land is sacrificed—this can mean abandoned lands, pastures, or natural systems. Natural systems such as grasslands and forests store large amounts of carbon; if turned into agricultural lands, this carbon could be released into the atmosphere. Though crops also store carbon as biomass during their growth, regular harvests do not allow for long-term carbon storage. From a climate perspective, this could be problematic.

Do the carbon and nitrogen emissions that result from the deforestation and land-use intensification offset the environmental benefits of displacing fossil fuels? One way to assess this issue is by calculating carbon payback times, which represent the period over which the total greenhouse gas savings due to the displacement of fossil fuels equals the initial losses in ecosystem carbon stocks caused by land conversion.

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