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The Art of Technology
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Hacking Team apparently violated EU rules in sale of spyware to Russian agency

7/17/2015 2:10pm

Newly released e-mails from Hacking Team, the now-embattled Italian spyware firm that sold what it claims is lawful intercept software to companies and governments, definitively show that it sold its Remote Control System surveillance software to the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), the successor agency to the KGB.

Officially, Hacking Team sold its wares to a company called "Advanced Monitoring," whose corporate parent has a license to work with the FSB, as recently as August 28, 2014. That would put the Italian firm in violation of the July 31, 2014 European Union regulation that forbids selling such technology, whether directly or indirectly, to the Russian military.

It also seems odd that Hacking Team would sell on one side of the Atlantic to Western agencies like the US Army while also selling to the FSB. In its most recent human rights report, the United States Department of State refers to Russia as a "highly centralized, increasingly authoritarian political system."

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iPod Touch performance preview: 500% better CPU, 900% faster graphics

7/17/2015 1:46pm
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Smartphones and tablets have stopped changing all that much from year to year, which makes it easy to take for granted just how far they've come in such a relatively short time. One year of updates doesn't do much to impress anymore, but take three or four years of updates all at once and you'll have something to be impressed by.

Such is the case with the sixth-generation iPod Touch, which brings three years' and four generations' worth of processor improvements all at the same time. Jumping from an Apple A5 to an A8 results in an almost comically large performance improvement, though as we'll see, you're not quite getting iPhone 6 performance in an iPod-sized body.


The iPod's A8 is running at around 1.1GHz, roughly 27 percent slower than the 1.4GHz A8 in the iPhone 6. When those phones were announced, Apple said the A8 was about 25 percent faster than the Apple A7 in the iPhone 5S—as you can probably guess, slowing the thing down by 300MHz makes it perform a whole lot like an A7.

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Vandals keep snipping fiber optic cables in California with impunity

7/17/2015 1:33pm

Vandals snipped another fiber optic cable line in the San Francisco Bay area this week, the 12th incident of its kind in the region over the past year.

The latest attack occurred in the San Joaquin Valley town of Stockton, disrupting Internet, mobile phone, and 911 service for tens of thousands of AT&T and Verizon customers in three counties east of San Francisco. Service was restored about a day after the Tuesday incident.

The FBI, which is investigating the attacks, has not stated a motive, but it said the attacks usually occur in remote areas where there are no surveillance cameras. The initial attacks on California telecommunications lines began in July 2014. Whoever is responsible appears, for the moment, to be operating with impunity.

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Car hits Google self-driving vehicle, drivers checked for “minor whiplash”

7/17/2015 1:12pm

Google announced in a blog post Thursday that a recent fender-bender with one of its self-driving car resulted in “a bit of minor whiplash, and a few scrapes on our bumper.”

The July 1 incident marks the company’s 14th accident since 2009, and the first involving an injury of any kind.

“I'll point out that the ‘injuries’ aren't as big a deal as some media outlets might have you believe,” Courtney Hohne, a Google spokeswoman, told Ars. “We took our drivers to visit a local hospital purely as a precautionary measure because they were experiencing minor whiplash; they were checked out briefly and sent home. (They were never admitted to the hospital.)”

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Federal judge gives FilmOn the copyright win Aereo couldn’t get

7/17/2015 12:21pm

A federal judge has ruled that video-streaming service FilmOn should be treated like a cable company and is entitled to the same compulsory copyright license that cable systems get.

It's a huge and unexpected win, coming not long after Aereo failed when it tried to make the same argument in court. If upheld, the decision would open a route to legal TV-over-Internet businesses—not just for FilmOn but for future competitors.

In his 15-page order, US District Judge George Wu acknowledged that his preliminary decision is in direct conflict with the 2nd Circuit, and he said he'll allow an immediate appeal to the 9th Circuit. The TV broadcasters who sued FilmOn for copyright infringement, which include all four major TV networks, will surely pursue that option.

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Dealmaster: “Back to School” deals on the PS4, laptops, and more!

7/17/2015 12:03pm

Greetings, Arsians! Courtesy of our partners at TechBargains, the Dealmaster is back! This week we've got a ton of Back to School deals on everything you need to get you through the semester—like a PlayStation 4! Today we have the PS4 Last of Us bundle for $399.99 with a $100 Dell gift card.

If you want something that will help you with your school work instead of distracting you from it, how about $300 off a Dell Inspiron 3000 laptop?

Featured Back to School Deals

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Judge says Gaye family can’t get infringing song “Blurred Lines” banned

7/17/2015 11:53am

This week, a US District judge reduced the $7.4 million award (PDF) that a jury granted to Marvin Gaye's family in March to $5.3 million. The Gaye family had accused pop stars Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, as well as rapper T.I., of copyright infringement with their 2013 song “Blurred Lines,” which the Gaye family said sounded too much like Marvin Gaye's 1977 hit “Got to Give it Up.”

The jury's March verdict awarded $4 million to the Gaye family in damages as well as a calculation of the profits that Williams and Thicke made from the song—the jury decided that this amounted to $1,610,455.31 from Williams and $1,768,191.88 from Thicke.

This week, Judge Kronstadt ruled that Williams' share of the damages was unfair, however, because Williams' share of the producer royalties from “Blurred Lines” was only $860,333 (though Williams cleared upward of $4.2 million in publishing revenue from the song). “This award was excessive,” the judge wrote. “It reflects a profits-to-damages ratio of 187 percent, which is approximately 4.7 times greater than the 40 percent ratio that was used in the calculation of damages as to Thicke’s profits.”

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Self-driving cars are coming, but most drivers don’t want them—yet

7/17/2015 11:45am

Self-driving cars are coming. Tech companies like Google and Nvidia, tier-one auto parts suppliers like Delphi, and OEMs like Audi, Tesla, and Volvo are all hard at work turning our automobiles into robots. The possibilities for reducing congestion and air pollution while increasing safety on the roads are tantalizing, but do people actually want their cars to drive themselves? That's the question that Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan wanted answered. As it turns out, a plurality of drivers is happy being in control of their vehicles, and only 15 percent want to be chauffeured around like Arnold in Total Recall.

The self-driving car isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. There are already cars on the road that are capable of semi-autonomous driving on the freeway (adaptive cruise control systems combined with lane-centering), and it will be many years before a car is able to handle a busy downtown interchange in Mumbai or Manhattan. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) actually lays out five levels of autonomous automobile.

It starts with level zero, where the driver is in complete control, with no aids. Cars with automated safety functions like dynamic brake assist or lane-centering steering are deemed level one if those systems work independently of each other. Combining at least two safety systems gives us level two (so adaptive cruise control and lane-centering, for example). Level three automation combines all these safety features, allowing a driver to cede complete control to the car, with what NHTSA describes as "a sufficiently comfortable transition time" allowed before returning to manual control. Finally, level four is fully autonomous, i.e. the car drives itself throughout the entire journey, with the occupants as just passengers.

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iFixit: New iPod Touch battery is kind-of-sort-of easier to replace

7/17/2015 11:27am

iFixit has just completed the sixth-generation iPod Touch's new gadget introduction cycle by tearing it apart to see what's inside.

By and large, the new iPod is pretty similar to the old one. Apple has changed essentially nothing about the outside of the device, so the way the components all fit together is mostly the same. The one notable change is related to the way the battery is secured in the case: "peel-out adhesive tabs" replace the more persistent adhesive from the fifth-generation model. You still need to heat up the adhesive securing the screen to the back of the case to get inside the Touch in the first place, but this change was enough to bump the new iPod's "repairability score" from a three to a four on iFixit's 10-point scale.

The capacity of the battery changes very little, from 1030 mAh to 1043 mAh. The camera, while a big improvement over the fifth-generation Touch, doesn't look quite as good as the ones in current iPhones. Its lens has an f/2.4 aperture rather than the f/2.2 aperture of the iPhone 5S or 6-series (that's the same as the iPhone 5 and 5C). iFixit also notes that the lens isn't made out of the sapphire crystal used in the iPhones, which means it won't be quite as scratch resistant.

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Doomception: How modders got Doom to run inside of Doom

7/17/2015 11:17am
Video of the GZDoom mod that plays Doom in an in-game cabinet.

Since the original Doom was released as open source code in the late '90s, hackers and modders have taken great joy in porting it to everything from Android Wear watches to printers. Now, those efforts have reached what may well be their zenith, with the release of a new mod that allows you to run a copy of Doom inside Doom itself.

OK, if we're being technically accurate, this is actually Doom running inside GZDoom, a heavily modified Doom source port that was first released in 2005 to bring a slew of modern gaming features to the 1993 original. The author also warns that the in-game versions of Doom and Wolfenstein 3D available in the mod are only "semi-complete." Still, the sheer amount of near-pointless effort and dedication needed to get GZDoom to run what is essentially a version of itself within itself is impressive (and kind of frightening).

Porting Doom to GZDoom was made possible through some elegant work on Action Code Script (ACS), a tool first introduced to the Doom engine in 1995's Hexen. ACS was designed to allow modders to create more interactive environments through simple bytecodes that did things like open doors, play sounds, or move items and characters around in response to player actions. The basic bytecode-based language in that game was later extended in the ZDoom source port to allow for high-level programming features like named scripts, functions, arrays, and entire libraries. Those additions made their way into the later GZDoom as well.

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FCC won’t allow Dish to save $3.3 billion at taxpayer expense

7/17/2015 10:24am

The Federal Communications Commission reportedly plans to reject $3.3 billion worth of discounts Dish Network was set to receive after placing spectrum auction bids through subsidiaries to qualify for "small business" price cuts.

Dish's strategy allowed it to make winning bids on $13.3 billion worth of wireless spectrum while only committing to spend $10 billion. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai quickly cried foul after the auction, which ended in January, saying that "two companies in which Dish Network has an 85 percent ownership stake claimed over $3 billion in taxpayer-funded discounts. Those discounts came through the FCC’s designed entity (DE) program, which is intended to make it easier for small businesses to purchase spectrum and compete with large corporations. Dish, however, has annual revenues of almost $14 billion, a market capitalization of over $32 billion, and over 14 million customers."

It turns out that Pai and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who are often on opposite sides of contentious issues, agree that Dish shouldn't be able to get these discounts. The Wall Street Journal reported last night that FCC staff has "concluded that the $13.3 billion in winning bids by two companies backed by Dish didn’t qualify for the small-business discounts because their bidding conduct violated the broad spirit of the auction’s rules" and that Wheeler has circulated a draft order to his fellow commissioners to rule on the matter.

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“Thank you for calling tech support, now please die”

7/17/2015 10:00am

I felt unmoored and directionless after my high school job at Babbage’s dissolved at the end of 1997. I’d met my wonderful wife there—we’d go on to get married in 2003—but Babbage’s had been the only job I’d known. When the doors finally shut, I wasn’t sure what to do. I skipped the typical teenager process of wandering around the mall filling out dozens of applications for various stores—I’d gotten the job at Babbage’s merely by asking for it. Now I had no idea how to get another with nearly the same level of awesome.

For a while I slummed it at Electronics Boutique, since my Babbage’s experience was enough to get me hired with only a quick interview. It just wasn’t the same. This was long before both EB and Babbage’s were swallowed by the Gamestop monster, and although the merchandise was similar, the atmosphere was totally different. EB wasn’t anywhere near as fun as Babbage’s (probably because I was more used to slacking with friends than working), so I kept up the search for the perfect replacement job.

Back then, tech support seemed like a viable career option. Just a few years before, Microsoft had very famously hired armies of phone warriors to assist Windows 95 buyers with installing and working with the new operating system. Now Windows 98 had just launched a few months prior, and I had some relevant experience on the phones. Sometimes folks would call into Babbage’s or EB asking for help installing a program they’d bought, and I genuinely enjoyed helping them. It followed, I thought, that actually doing phone support as a job would be a great way to spend my time. I envisioned sitting back in a cubicle with my feet up on the desk, headset on my ear as I snappily answered question after question, earning the immense personal satisfaction one must feel when finishing up a workday filled from start to finish with the smiles and thanks of people you’d helped.

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Watch out sharing economy, the feds are watching this whole contractor thing

7/17/2015 8:00am

A new policy guidance document was released earlier this week by the Department of Labor over the status of contract workers versus employees.

The 14-page "guidance" doesn't represent new law, but it does suggest that various regulatory agencies, including at the federal level, are looking much more closely at how contract workers are treated.

A number of high-profile tech companies, including Uber, Lyft, Homejoy, and Instacart, have come under scrutiny in recent months as an increasing number of workers have challenged the regime under which they work. Just last month the California Labor Commission issued a ruling in favor (PDF) of a former Uber employee, ordering the company to reimburse her for costs incurred while driving for Uber.

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Best Buy has spammed me more than all of Nigeria’s princes combined

7/17/2015 7:15am

I’m not an expert on many topics, but I have learned a few things from personal experience. And the chief pearl of wisdom that I can pass on to the next generation is this: never give Best Buy your e-mail address.

I get dozens of spam e-mails every day, and I am constantly unsubscribing from lists I never joined. It’s just one of the hazards of being a tech journalist.

But while I’ve accepted that my work inbox is going to be filled with junk, I go to great lengths to keep my private e-mail pristine. I use a personal domain instead of an address, and the spammers haven’t found it. Even my junk folder is empty. It’s glorious.

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Windows 10 updates to be automatic and mandatory for Home users

7/16/2015 11:22pm

Windows Update can't be readily disabled in Windows 10 Home, and the license terms that all users must agree to allow Microsoft to install updates automatically.

The Insider Preview releases of Windows 10 didn't include any way to prevent Windows Update from downloading and installing updates, but it wasn't clear if this was just some quirk of the previews or the long-term plan; Microsoft's previews often have special rules for things like providing automated feedback and hooking up online services, and so this could have been part of that.

Build 10240, released to insiders on Wednesday, changes that. This build is believed to be the release-to-manufacturing build that OEMs will preinstall on hardware, and as such, it contains the finalized settings, license text, and so on.

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Hacking Team’s evil Android app had code to bypass Google Play screening

7/16/2015 8:45pm

Security researchers at Trend Micro's Trend Labs have uncovered a trick in a sample of a fake news application for Android created by the network exploitation tool provider Hacking Team that may have allowed the company's customers to sneak spyware through the Google Play store's code review. While the application in question may have only been downloaded fewer than 50 times from Google Play, the technique may have been used in other Android apps developed for Hacking Team customers—and may now be copied by others trying to get malware onto Android devices.

The sample app, called "BeNews," is designed as a Trojan horse for Hacking Team's RCSAndroid "backdoor" malware. It used the name of a defunct news site to make it seem like a legitimate Android application. Wish Wu of Trend Labs wrote in a blog post that Trend Labs team found the source code for the app within the leaked Hacking Team files, along with documentation "that teaches customers how to use it," he wrote. "Based on these, we believe that the Hacking Team provided the app to customers to be used as a lure to download RCSAndroid malware on a target's Android device."

The app exploits a local privilege escalation vulnerability in Android which has been determined to affect all versions of the mobile operating system from Android 2.2 ("Froyo") to 4.4.4 ("KitKat"). Other versions may be vulnerable as well, according to Wish. The exploit, which also affected other Linux operating systems, was documented last summer.

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Man arrested after filming fatal crash from inside car

7/16/2015 7:33pm
Paul Pelton Lorain Police Department

Whether Paul Pelton is a Good Samaritan is beside the point.

The 41-year-old Ohio man was charged Wednesday in connection to him going inside a vehicle in the immediate aftermath of a car crash to film the two teen victims before one of them died in the grisly mishap. All the while, Good Samaritans were struggling to rescue the boys as the car caught fire.

It's not unlawful to film a crime scene with a mobile phone. And it's not illegal to try to sell the footage of a heinous crime scene, which police suggest was Pelton's motive. But it is illegal to trespass on a crime scene, the Lorain Police Department said.

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reddit rolls out new rules, CEO says hiding racist subreddits is better than banning them

7/16/2015 6:59pm

On Thursday, reddit's new CEO Steve Huffman, a co-founder of the site, held an AMA (shorthand for “ask me anything”), promising that he would answer questions and use the time “to decide together what our values are,” in the wake of a “content policy update.”

Huffman, who goes by the username spez, posted a long note about how reddit would be moving forward, saying that its tagline, “the front page of the Internet,” was meant to be tongue-in-cheek and that while reddit "is a place to have open and authentic discussions,” sometimes those discussions must be moderated. “When our purpose comes into conflict with a policy, we make sure our purpose wins,” Huffman wrote.

The note from Huffman included a list of things that would no longer be allowed on the site and things that would continue to be barred from the site including:

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HTC’s Re Grip fitness device delayed after “extensive user feedback”

7/16/2015 6:31pm

At Mobile World Congress 2015, alongside the announcement of the HTC One M9, HTC showed off a fitness device made in partnership with Under Armour: The HTC Re Grip. It was a $199 step-tracker with a touch sensitive, black-and-white PMOLED display on top. The Grip was supposed to launch this Spring, but that apparently never happened. Now, a report from Engadget says HTC "just confirmed to us that it no longer plans to ship the Grip we've already seen."

An HTC representative told Engadget that after "extensive wear testing and user feedback," (we would imagine poor user feedback), the company "decided to align Grip with the entire product portfolio for health and fitness launching later this year." Apparently that is PR-speak for "We're going back to the drawing board." The Re Grip's extensive promotional page on HTC's website has been removed, too.

At the beginning of the year, HTC announced plans to diversify itself from a smartphone-only shop to a more general consumer electronics company. So far it has announced the Re Camera, Re Grip, and Re Vive—a VR headset made in collaboration with Valve—but only the Re Camera has made it to market.

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Government IT official ran law enforcement data systems for years with faked degrees

7/16/2015 6:15pm

The Department of the Interior's computer systems played a major role in the breach of systems belonging to the Office of Personnel Management, and DOI officials were called before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday to answer questions about the over 3,000 vulnerabilities in agency systems discovered in a penetration test run by Interior's Inspector General office. But there was one unexpected revelation during the hearing: a key Interior technology official who had access to sensitive systems for over five years had lied about his education, submitting falsified college transcripts produced by an online service.

The official, Faisal Ahmed, was assistant director of the Interior's Office of Law Enforcement and Security from 2007 to 2013, heading its Technology division. He claimed to have a bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and a master's degree in technology management from the University of Central Florida—but he never attended either of those schools. He resigned from his position at Interior when the fraudulent claim was exposed by a representative of the University of Central Florida's alumni association, who discovered he had never attended the school after Ahmed accepted and then suddenly deleted a connection with her on LinkedIn.

Faisal did not leave government service, however—he took another government job at the Census Bureau, and is apparently still there, according to a report by the National Journal. While his name had been redacted from the official report, Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming mentioned him by name multiple times during the committee hearing.

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