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Bay Area: Join us tonight, 2/15, to discuss law and technology on the US border

2/15/2017 2:13pm

Enlarge / Image of "Running Fence," a 24.5 mile-long fabric wall that artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude built in California. (credit: Christo and Jeanne-Claude)

How are new technologies going to affect people who want to cross national borders? Join Ars staffers Annalee Newitz and Cyrus Farivar for episode 10 of Ars Technica Live tonight, 2/15, in conversation with Ahmed Ghappour, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings. He's an expert in legal issues surrounding high-tech borders and national security.

Ghappour’s research bridges computer science and the law to address the contemporary challenges wrought by new technologies to the institutional design and administration of criminal justice and national security, with a focus on the emerging field of cybersecurity. Before coming to UC Hastings, Ghappour was at the University of Texas School of Law, where he co-taught the National Security Clinic and the the Civil Rights Clinic. Prior to that, he was a staff attorney at Reprieve UK, where he represented Guantanamo detainees in their habeas corpus proceedings. Formerly, Ghappour was a computer engineer focused on design automation, diagnostics, distributed systems architecture, and high performance computing.

Recorded before a live audience in Oakland tiki bar Longitude, each episode of Ars Technica Live is a speculative, informal conversation between Ars Technica hosts and an invited guest. The audience also has plenty of time to ask questions.

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Utilities vote to close largest coal plant in Western US

2/15/2017 2:05pm

Enlarge (credit: Gordon Ednie)

At 2.25 gigawatts, Arizona’s Navajo Generating Station is the biggest coal-burning power plant in the Western US. The plant, and the nearby Kayenta coal mine that feeds it, are located on the Navajo Indian Reservation, and the Navajo and Hopi peoples have had a conflicted relationship with coal since the plant opened in the 1970s. Almost all the 900-plus jobs at the mine and plant are held by Native Americans, and the tribes receive royalties to account for large portions of their budget.

Negotiations were underway to improve the tribes’ lease terms, which expire in 2019. But on Monday, the four utilities that own most of the plant voted to close it at the end of 2019. They decided that the plant’s coal-powered electricity just can’t compete with plants burning natural gas. A press release from Salt River Project, which runs the plant, explained, “The decision by the utility owners of [Navajo Generating Station] is based on the rapidly changing economics of the energy industry, which has seen natural gas prices sink to record lows and become a viable long-term and economical alternative to coal power.”

The US Bureau of Reclamation owns a portion of the plant—using the power to run the Central Arizona Project that carries water from the Colorado River all the way to Phoenix and Tucson—and it’s at least possible that the tribes could work out a deal to keep the plant running under a different ownership arrangement. Salt River Project's press release included a statement from a Bureau of Reclamation official that “Department of the Interior’s preferred path is to explore ways in which the plant could operate economically post-2019.”

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Now or never: Sony slashes device support for its game-streaming service

2/15/2017 1:51pm

One more arrow into the Vita's heart. (credit: Kyle Orland)

PlayStation Now, Sony's online game-streaming service, will stop working on almost every compatible device starting on August 15. The announcement on Wednesday gives paying customers exactly six months to continue playing on compatible devices before the paid service is downgraded to two types of devices: PlayStation 4 consoles and Windows PCs.

Owners of 2016 Bravia TVs have even less time to adjust, with their smart-TV support ceasing as soon as April 1. The other affected devices—PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, PlayStation TV (the Vita-powered TV box), and compatible Blu-ray players and smart TVs from Sony and Samsung—will no longer be able to access the service, which costs $20 per month or $45 for a recurring every-three-months charge.

Worse, since the service isn't being entirely discontinued but rather narrowed in availability, Sony is putting the onus on subscribers to cancel their PS Now accounts before the device pool shrinks.

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House members: EPA officials may be using Signal to “spread their goals covertly”

2/15/2017 1:23pm

Enlarge / Chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee Lamar Smith, R-Texas, seen here in 2013. (credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Two Republican members of Congress sent a formal letter Tuesday to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of the Inspector General, expressing concern that “approximately a dozen career EPA officials” are using the encrypted messaging app Signal to covertly plan strategy and may be running afoul of the Freedom of Information Act.

The open source app has gained renewed interest in the wake of the election of President Donald Trump.

As Ars has reported previously, all Signal messages and voice calls are end-to-end encrypted using the Signal Protocol, which has since been adopted by WhatsApp and other companies. However, unlike other messaging apps, Signal’s maker, Open Whisper Systems, makes a point of not keeping any data, encrypted or otherwise, about its users. (WhatsApp also does not retain chat history but allows for backups using third-party services, like iCloud, which allows for message history to be restored when users set up a new device. Signal does not allow messages to be stored with a third party.)

The letter was written by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.), who are the chair of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and the chair of the subcommittee on Oversight, respectively.

The congressmen note that the EPA has previously examined employee use of text messages to conduct government business and found that only a minuscule fraction of those messages was retained under FOIA.

“Not only does this demonstrate the vast issues presented with using text messages to conduct official business, but raises additional concerns about using messaging applications to conduct official business, which make it virtually impossible for the EPA to preserve and retain the records created in this manner to abide by federal record-keeping requirements,” they concluded.

The two republicans gave the agency until February 28 to respond.

The EPA OIG did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.

UPDATE 5:49pm ET: Jennifer Kaplan, Deputy Assistant Inspector General for Congressional and Public Affairs, e-mailed: "In response to your inquiry below, the EPA OIG takes all congressional requests seriously. This request is under review by the Inspector General and his senior leadership team."

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California’s drought causing the bottom to drop out of its aqueducts

2/15/2017 12:55pm

Enlarge (credit: Darin Marshall)

While the Oroville Dam in northern California has been flirting with disaster due to excessive rainfall, the water story in the Golden State has been much more about lack than excess in recent years. In an unfortunate double consequence, the recent drought not only took a toll on California's water supplies—it damaged the water infrastructure as well. Ground water depletion gave the Earth a sinking feeling that accelerated damage to the California Aqueduct, which carries water to 25 million people and a million acres of farmland.

California’s San Joaquin Valley is (unhappily) famous for a history of groundwater depletion that has actually caused the land surface to sink in elevation. This subsidence is due to the fact that the water in the sediment beneath our feet actually bears some of the weight of everything above it. Removing that water from the tiny spaces between grains of material allows the sediment to compact down more tightly, causing subsidence up at the surface. The effect is not subtle in California—some places have sunk more than 30 feet (9 meters) over the years.

In recent years, incredibly precise satellite measurements have been used to map out the subsidence in detail, highlighting fast-dropping hotspots as well as changes along the length of the California Aqueduct.

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Up close and personal: Russian spy ship skims edge of US waters near sub base

2/15/2017 12:39pm


A Russian Navy intelligence collection ship, the Viktor Leonov, is reportedly "loitering" off the US coast near Montauk Point, Long Island. That just happens to be 30 miles from Naval Submarine Base New London, the home port of the US Navy's attack submarine force near Groton, Connecticut. This is the closest, and the farthest north, that the Russian intelligence ship has ever traveled along the United States' eastern seaboard, according to a statement by a US Navy spokesperson to Fox News.

The Leonov, built in 1988, carries both signals-collection and sonar sensors—including hull-mounted arrays and a "dipping" sonar to get below thermal layers in ocean waters. So its proximity to Groton is likely an effort to collect data on the comings and goings of submarines home-ported there and also to intercept communications to submarines as they enter and leave port to better identify them electronically. The ship's large dome shields a satellite communications antenna for transmitting signals intelligence back to Russia.

The close proximity of the Leonov to Groton (still outside the 12-mile limit of US territorial waters) comes on the heels of Russia's deployment of ground-based cruise missiles within Russia—a violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed in 1987. And last Friday, four Russian military aircraft (three Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft and an Ilyushin Il-38 surveillance aircraft) flew within 200 yards of USS Porter (DDG-78) while the ship was in international waters in the Black Sea. The aircraft did not respond to radio warnings from the Porter; a spokesperson for the US European Command called the flybys "unsafe and unprofessional." The Porter was in the Black Sea after completing a joint international exercise led by the Romanian Navy, USNI News reported.

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ISPs ask lawmakers to kill privacy rules, and they’re happily obliging

2/15/2017 12:27pm

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Thomas Jackson)

Republican senators are reportedly preparing a legislative move to overturn privacy rules that require ISPs to protect their customers' online data.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) confirmed "that he plans to introduce a resolution that would roll back the FCC’s broadband privacy rules via the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which allows Congress to eliminate agency rules with a simple majority vote," Politico reported today. Flake had a dozen co-sponsors on board as of last week, but he hasn't said when exactly he'll submit the resolution. In the House, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), chair of the Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, "said last week she was speaking with colleagues in the Senate 'daily' about how to best utilize the CRA to undo broadband privacy," the report also said. (Blackburn is a major recipient of donations from the broadband industry.)

The flurry of action comes shortly after industry lobby groups asked Congress to use the CRA to undo the privacy rules. The rules passed in October require home and mobile ISPs to get opt-in consent from consumers before sharing Web browsing data and other private information with advertisers and other third parties.

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A bolder, risk-taking NASA? Agency looking at Orion crew launch in 2019

2/15/2017 11:24am

NASA's Orion spacecraft may first carry crew into space in 2019 under a new plan NASA is considering. (credit: NASA)

When presidential transition officials recently reviewed NASA's existing plans for using its Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, they were not particularly impressed with the agency's stretched-out timelines. Under NASA's current plan, an initial crewed launch of the new vehicles was unlikely to occur before 2021, and independent analyses pegged 2023 as a more realistic target. That would put the first crewed flight into deep space beyond the first term of President Trump.

In response to these concerns, top-level NASA managers have been considering the possibility of launching crew on the maiden flight of the Space Launch System, known as Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), instead of making an uncrewed test flight of the rocket as presently planned. Although this would delay the initial launch of the SLS rocket from 2018 to at least 2019 or 2020, it would also add more sizzle by bringing crew to the mix.

With such a mission, astronauts would likely fly around the Moon as happened with the historic Apollo 8 flight in 1968. As one senior NASA manager recently explained to Ars, imagine the message NASA could send if, on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landings in 1969, it was once again sending humans back into deep space with its new rocket and spacecraft. NASA would seem to be fulfilling its promise to America of getting back into the business of exploring deep space with humans.

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The new Mclaren 720S will do the standing quarter-mile in 10.3 seconds

2/15/2017 11:00am

Mclaren Automotive

Things are about to heat up in the supercar wars. At the upcoming Geneva Motor Show in Switzerland, McLaren Automotive will unveil its new 720S, a replacement for the 650S that had us so smitten. The company showed us a glimpse of the new car's carbon fiber tub at the start of the year; called Monocage II, it's stiffer than before and will help the new car weigh less than its (already light-as-a-feather) predecessor. And on Wednesday, the company revealed that performance will also get a significant boost.

Plenty have waxed rhapsodic about the M838T engine that powers the current generation of McLarens, and the M840T builds on that base. It has grown to four liters and gets new faster-spooling, ultra-low inertia, twin-scroll turbochargers. That's going to make the new car blisteringly fast. "The new 4.0-litre M840T is an outstanding engine powering an exceptional supercar capable of covering a standing quarter mile in 10.3 seconds," said McLaren Super Series Vehicle Line Director Haydn Baker. "Power, torque and throttle response are all significantly enhanced compared to the first-generation Super Series, yet with fuel efficiency and emissions also notably improved."

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Intel celebrates Vulkan’s birthday by actually supporting Vulkan on some GPUs

2/15/2017 10:50am

Enlarge / Intel's 7th- and 6th-gen processors now support the Vulkan API.

After months in beta, Intel's latest driver for its integrated GPUs (version adds support for the low-overhead Vulkan API for recent GPUs running in Windows 10. The driver supports HD and Iris 500- and 600-series GPUs, the ones that ship with 6th- and 7th-generation Skylake and Kaby Lake processors.

Vulkan, currently just a day away from its first birthday, is the open source version of Microsoft's DirectX 12 or Apple's Metal, a low-overhead counterpart to OpenGL. It hasn't yet picked up much support in actual games, but adoption is slowly growing as driver and operating system support improves. Modern AMD and Nvidia GPUs have had Vulkan driver support for nearly a year now, and Google announced that Android would use Vulkan as its main low-overhead graphics API (support was added in version 7.0, which most Android users will probably eventually use at some point in the next couple of years).

Intel's support of the API in Windows is just a piece of the puzzle, but given that Intel ships more PC GPUs than anyone else, it's still a noteworthy piece. Unfortunately, it looks like owners of 4th- and 5th-generation Haswell and Broadwell CPUs and GPUs won't be getting Vulkan support in Windows, despite the fact that the GPUs seem to be able to use the API.

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80 new Pokemon are coming to Go, but they may cost you

2/15/2017 10:37am

Enlarge / Gotta catch MORE? Geez, Niantic. I'm still trying to get to 151 here. (credit: Niantic / The Pokemon Company)

The task of catching 'em all in Pokemon Go will soon get a little tougher. The smartphone game's developers at Niantic announced the game's biggest expansion yet, coming "this week," which will add a grand total of "more than 80" creatures introduced in the series' Game Boy Color games Pokemon Gold and Pokemon Silver. When the update goes live, those characters will be seen wandering around your real world, as opposed to requiring a more obtuse method of discovery (i.e., hatching eggs).

But the bigger news may be the other tweaks coming to the game alongside so many 'Mon—and how these all seem designed to open wallets to more of the game's microtransactions.

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Prey: Nothing like the original—and all the better for it

2/15/2017 10:07am

As any good editor knows, the key to a compelling story—whether an article, book, or film—is a compelling opening. Don't get bogged down in extraneous details, or runaway metaphors. Deliver a sucker punch of truths straight to the gut, and keep 'em hooked until they're too far in to turn back. The best of times, the worst of times. Clocks striking thirteen. The beginning of every James Bond movie ever. [Okay, okay, get on with it Mark. -Ed]

Arkane Studios must have very good editors.

Prey—the not-a-sequel-but-a-reboot follow up to the 2006 first-person shooter of the same name—begins with a ringing alarm clock. You climb out of bed, check your e-mails, and don a uniform for your first day on the job. Your apartment is clean and modern, and overlooks San Francisco's Bay Bridge. There are excerpts from books describing the science behind "Neuromods," and a note of congratulations from your new boss on the kitchen counter. Outside the front door, a janitor greets you good morning, and directs you towards a helicopter on the roof.

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Finally, someone has a realistic timeline for Mars colonization—the UAE

2/15/2017 9:52am

Dubai media office

NASA says it intends to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, but the space agency does not have a realistic budget to do so. SpaceX's Elon Musk says he will send the first human colonists to Mars in the 2020s, but his company also lacks the funding to implement its bold plans without a major government partner.

We can now add the United Arab Emirates to the list of those entities who want to see Mars colonized. However, even if it too lacks the space exploration budget or technology to do so at this time, the federation of seven Arab emirates appears to have a much more reasonable timeline for sending humans to the red planet—the year 2117, a century from now.

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Amazon’s Alexa now supports Outlook calendar, lets voice commands create events

2/15/2017 9:42am

(credit: Valentina Palladino)

Outlook users with an Amazon Echo can now make the online retailer's assistant go to work for them. Amazon quietly updated Alexa to support Outlook calendars, letting you ask the virtual assistant to add and review events on your calendar.

Alexa previously supported only Google Calendar integration, but now an Outlook option appears in the Alexa mobile app. You can sync your Outlook account within the Alexa app and then the virtual assistant will be able to tell you events happening that day if you ask "what's on my calendar?" You can also use the command "add an event to my calendar" to create a new scheduled meeting.

Currently, only Google and Outlook calendars are supported; Apple calendar users are still in the dark. You won't have to update any Alexa-enabled devices to use this new feature—just connect your Outlook account with the Alexa app and your information will be available via the virtual assistant.

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What could happen if you refuse to unlock your phone at the US border?

2/15/2017 9:10am

Enlarge (credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In recent days, there have been numerous media reports of a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory employee and American citizen who was forced to unlock his phone while returning to the United States at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

In that case, Sidd Bikkannavar wasn’t sure what his rights were—he seemingly was unaware that there is a very broad exception to the Fourth Amendment at the border that allows officials to conduct warrantless searches.

Now, let’s imagine that you arrive at the United States border, and a customs official asks you to unlock your digital device and inspect it. You, being a privacy-conscious person, decide to refuse to hand over your password, unlike Bikkannavar. What are the ramifications of telling a Customs and Border Protection agent to go pound sand? What would happen to your device? And, how long could CBP hold you for refusing to comply?

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HP Spectre x360 15 review: A large convertible that’s easy to love

2/15/2017 9:00am

Video shot/edited by Jennifer Hahn. (video link)

HP's Spectre x360 13 is one of our favorite laptops. It takes the best parts of a good convertible—a light build and well-designed frame—and combines them with the necessities of a laptop—good battery life, strong performance, and a solid selection of ports. Now HP hopes to build on the success of the 13-inch Spectre x360 by expanding it. Literally.

The new, $1,279 15-inch Spectre x360 banks on consumers embracing a large two-in-one laptop. While the 13-inch size is typical for devices that flip from laptop to tablet to tents and more, 15-inch versions are not so common. Most 15-inch laptops are traditional L-shaped computers that place a keyboard in front of you while sitting on your lap, but they often take advantage of the extra space to improve performance with dedicated GPUs and quad-core processors. HP took as many of the strengths of the 13-inch Spectre x360 as it could and crammed them into the 15-inch model. But even those can't change the fact that a 15-inch convertible is something you'll need to get used to.

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These tiny beetles have evolved to ride ants like horses

2/15/2017 8:50am

When army ants stream into the jungles of Costa Rica, they leave death and destruction in their wake. These nomadic group predators eat everything from millipedes to other ants, and they even raid wasps' nests for eggs and larvae. Any insect that doesn't escape the swarming column of hundreds of thousands of ants is likely to die a terrible death. And yet many insects have evolved to live among army ants, feeding on their scraps and even taking shelter in their nests.

Researchers Christoph von Beeren and Alexey K. Tishechkin just identified a tiny beetle they've named Nymphister kronaueri that keeps up with the army ants' endless march in an unusual way. N. kronaueri clamps onto an army ant's back with its mandibles, as if it were a soldier going into battle on the back of the most magnificent steed in the world. Von Beeren and Tishechkin describe the strange life of N. kronaueri in a paper for BMC Zoology, and they explain how these animals evolved to live among creatures who would normally gorge themselves upon their beetle guts.

Insects and other creatures who live among ants are called myrmecophiles, which literally means ant lovers. Myrmecophiles stand to gain a lot from this strange relationship. Certainly they can feed off the colony's leftovers in the wake of a raid, but there's more to the relationship than that. Ants create a pleasant environment, much like a human city that attracts wild animals. The researchers write:

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Twitter to judge: Let us tell everyone exactly how many secret orders we get

2/15/2017 8:40am

Enlarge (credit: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

OAKLAND, Calif.—Twitter has asked a federal judge to decide what seems like a relatively simple question: is it ok to tell the public that the company received a specific number of national security orders, rather than simply a broad range, during a given period of time?

The case began more than two years ago, when Twitter sued the Department of Justice and argued that the federal law that prohibits the company from being more precise is unconstitutional. The government counters that courts should defer to the executive branch with respect to classification and not allow Twitter's request.

Lawyers representing the social media giant and the Department of Justice squared off on Tuesday during a hearing as to whether the judge should immediately rule in the government’s favor on a motion for summary judgment.

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How do you build a robot army?

2/15/2017 8:32am

Enlarge (credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Depictions of the future in books and film are usually influenced by what’s going on at the time, reflecting social malaise, impending armageddon, or economic anxieties. The robots in classic sci-fi usually resembled humans, as most authors assumed they would eventually assist us in the same tasks humans did.

Instead, however, today we find artificial intelligence doing some of our thinking for us, but it’s more often solving problems that don’t need intervention from self-contained humanoid robots. The promise of autonomous robots that matched our abilities has given way to a more specific focus on tasks that are fulfilled by armies of smaller bots controlled by machine learning and algorithms running in the cloud. Their scope is more complex, but a lot less dramatic than, say, Forbidden Planet’s Robby the Robot, or the replicants from Blade Runner.

Not so long ago Ars Technica looked at the uses of robotics in retail and the range of different approaches, from wheeling shelves around giant Amazon warehouses, to Domino’s forthcoming airborne pizza drones. The response to that story was very positive, so we decided that would follow up with another piece that dives even deeper into the world of automation. The first story focused on what is being done with automation; now we're going to look at how you build an automated system.

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New ASLR-busting JavaScript is about to make drive-by exploits much nastier

2/15/2017 1:52am

(credit: xxdigipxx)

For a decade, every major operating system has relied on a technique known as address space layout randomization to provide a first line of defense against malware attacks. By randomizing the computer memory locations where application code and data are loaded, ASLR makes it hard for attackers to execute malicious payloads when exploiting buffer overflows and similar vulnerabilities. As a result, exploits cause a simple crash rather than a potentially catastrophic system compromise.

Now, researchers have devised an attack that could spell the end of ASLR as the world knows it now. The attack uses simple JavaScript code to identify the memory addresses where system and application components are loaded. When combined with attack code that exploits vulnerabilities in browsers or operating systems, the JavaScript can reliably eliminate virtually all of the protection ASLR provides. The technique, which exploits what's known as a side channel in the memory cache of all widely used modern CPUs, is described in a research paper published on Wednesday. The researchers have dubbed the technique ASLR Cache or AnC for short.

"Fundamentally insecure"

The researchers said the side channel attack is much more damaging than previous ASLR bypasses, because it exploits a micro-architectural property of the CPU's that's independent of any operating system or application running on it. Whereas heap spraying and other forms of ASLR bypass can often be mitigated by software tweaks, there isn't much that can stop or lessen the effects of the JavaScript, which targets a CPU's MMU, or memory management unit. That's because CPU caching behavior and strong address space randomization are mutually exclusive. (Apple, however, recently hardened its Safari browser to partially mitigate such attacks. It's also possible to prevent JavaScript from running in a browser, but such blocking often severely degrades a site's usability.)

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