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Research Shows Internet Shutdowns and State Violence Go Hand in Hand in Syria

EFF's Deeplinks -

EFF has noted and protested when authorities deliberately cut off Internet access in times of unrest.  As a restraint on the freedom of expression of those affected, communication blackouts during protests are unconscionable.  But recent research by Anita Gohdes, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Mannheim, suggests that Internet shutdowns are becoming part of a toolkit for more violent repression.

By analyzing the daily documented killings by the government in the Syrian civil war in conjunction with available data on country-wide Internet outages between March 2011 and September 2013, Gohdes found that state violence spiked just before and during periods where connectivity was shut down. She argues that the regime has used the shutdowns as a tactical advantage in the midst of conflict with opposition groups, breaking down opposition communications networks to weaken their ability to respond effectively to attacks.

While these findings draw only from the Syrian conflict, they indicate that Internet outages have a human rights impact that exceeds the deprivation of speech: they can be used to aid state violence.

I spoke with Gohdes about the implications of her findings:

What do these results suggest about the strategic use of Internet blackouts?

The results suggest that the Syrian government has incorporated the strategic use of Internet shutdowns into its larger repressive campaign aimed at crushing the various opposition groups operating the country. In this paper I only look at the most prominent shutdowns—the ones that occur at the national level so that access is cut across the entire country—and find that immediately prior to and during the shutdown itself the government kills many more people than on other days. This doesn't mean that the government shuts down the Internet every time it launches a big military offensive. But it does indicate that every time a blackout occurs, it's part of a larger repressive campaign.

How do you differentiate between correlation and causation? Is it possible that other factors might be leading to the increase in violence?

I wouldn't argue that the increase in violence is directly caused by a shutdown of the Internet—obviously it's not the Internet that is doing the "dirty work." Instead it looks like these shutdowns are used by the government to obtain tactical advantages over armed opposition groups that have taken to incorporating Internet-based services into their armed resistance. Many groups make use of the Internet to coordinate offensives, inform each other of regime activities, and make use of GPS tools to accurately locate military targets. Groups also use YouTube to announce their defection from the regime and proclaim the formation of new battalions.

In my paper I use a series of placebo tests as way to determine whether the results I find might be a coincidence. If we assume that an individual Internet blackout is a "treatment," I analyze whether a shift of each treatment for up to 30 days before or 30 days after the blackout produces comparable results. If this were the case, then something else that happened at the same time could be driving the results. But I find no effect for these placebo treatments. Importantly, these results also show that there is no increase in violence following the blackouts—so it's not as if the government is responding to increased civilian protests that might have been triggered by the outages and is therefore killing more people.

Edward Snowden suggested that one of the outagesin November 2012—was due to a failed attempt by the NSA to infiltrate Syrian networks. How does that influence your findings? What does that suggest about the consequences of such attempts at network penetration? 

The Edward Snowden story is super interesting, and—if true—obviously rather scary! The Wired story was thankfully published before I submitted the paper, so I was able to check if it made a difference if we remove the outage in late 2012, but that particular case doesn’t seem to be the one driving the results.

What does this suggest about repression in the digital age? Do you see evidence of other regimes deploying similar strategies?

The statistical work I have done has concentrated on the Syrian case where I find strong support that the limitation of Internet accessibility is part of the government’s repressive strategy. In a different study I look at regional accessibility in Syria, and find that where the regime is providing Internet access, a higher proportion of people are being arrested, tortured, or targeted in other ways before they are killed. Part of the explanation could be that a) the regime is 'rewarding’ supporters with Internet access, but b) also that Internet access allows them to spy on those using it—and thus providing intelligence that helps them target the opposition more effectively. In other regions, Assad limits accessibility and at the same time uses much more heavy weaponry, such as bombing and shelling to kill people.

Anecdotal evidence from other countries points in this direction: The Ethiopian government regularly shuts down mobile phone and Internet access during demonstrations, the Egyptian government shut down Internet access in January 2011 during major protests on Tahir Square in Cairo, the Chinese government has taken entire provinces offline in the wake of unrests, the Sudanese government did the same in September 2013 over growing unrest related to fuel prices, and in the Central African Republic the Internet was cut in December 2013 amidst ongoing violence clashes. These are all rather extreme cases where full access was denied—many countries opt for less obstructive strategies where only certain sites are blocked. But they all indicate that governments are still very aware of their position of power when it comes to granting their citizens access to the Internet.


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Ask Slashdot: Getting My Wife Back Into Programming After Long Maternity Leave?

Slashdot -

An anonymous reader writes: My wife has been on a maternity leave for three years, now. She is starting to think about refreshing her coding skills and looking for a job. Before, she worked as a Java developer for around two years doing mostly Java Enterprise stuff. However, she is not very eager to go back to coding. I think she has the right mental skills to be a developer, but she is just not very passionate about coding or IT in general. On the other hand, it's relatively easier to find a job in IT than starting a new career. We live in Spain, and with the current economic situation, the market for software developers is not great — but it's definitely better than other jobs. I there anything else she might do, ideally Java (but could be anything IT related) that would be easier and more fun than the typical Java Enterprise stuff, while also giving her a good change to find a decent job? (I'm a Java developer myself with many years of experience but mostly doing boring Java Enterprise stuff.)

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Same Old FISA Court? Thoughts on the Opinion Extending Mass Surveillance for Six More Months

EFF's Deeplinks -

The first line of the opinion issued earlier this week by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court) reauthorizing the NSA’s mass surveillance of telephone records is telling: “‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,’ well, at least for 180 days.” The court’s observation that “the more things change, the more they stay the same” refers to the fact that its opinion allows the bulk collection of phone records one last time, through the end of November. But the court could have also been describing its disappointing business-as-usual approach to deciding how the recently passed USA Freedom Act affected this program. Bigger changes are on the horizon, but in the meantime the court reached the unsurprising conclusion that the phone records program can continue because of language in USA Freedom allowing for a six-month transition period before the Act’s stronger limitations on bulk surveillance take full effect.

Here are a few of the noteworthy things from the opinion.

  • The court accepted an amicus brief. One of the most important reforms in USA Freedom is the section that directs the FISA Court to appoint an amicus curiae to argue in any case involving novel or significant interpretations of the law. However, the court hasn’t had time to select the pool of amici yet, and USA Freedom also allows the court to choose to accept briefs from individuals and organizations who submit motions. So the court decided to get the ball rolling by accepting two here, from FreedomWorks and its attorney Kenneth Cuccinelli, as well as an earlier brief from the Center for National Security Studies. Unfortunately, the court largely dismissed the arguments these groups made, giving its approach to the amici a superficial feel.

  • The court says USA Freedom allows bulk collection for six months. In order to restart the bulk phone records program, the court had to confront some inconsistencies created by Congress’ failure to pass USA Freedom before the sunset of Section 215 of the Patriot Act on June 1. Because Section 215 expired, the authority the government had been using to conduct its bulk phone records surveillance ceased to exist. Meanwhile, USA Freedom provides for the six-month transition period from the pre-June 1 Section 215. Looking at Congress’ intent rather than the letter of the law, the FISA Court decided that Congress meant to pass USA Freedom before the 215 sunset and that it wanted an “orderly” transition from the government’s bulk surveillance program. Although this was not a surprising result, Judge Michael Mosman did acknowledge that courts are usually very reticent to decide Congress’ intent by looking at legislative history: “To some degree, finding legislative history for a proposition is a little like stumbling on a multi-family garage sale: if you rummage around long enough, you will find something for everybody, and none of it is worth much.” 

  • The court thumbs its nose at the Second Circuit’s view that bulk telephone metadata surveillance is illegal. In a landmark decision in May, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found in ACLU v Clapper that mass surveillance of telephone records was never authorized by the Patriot Act. Although appellate court decisions are usually given significant weight by district courts, the FISA Court pointed out it isn’t obligated to follow the Second Circuit’s decisions and criticized reasoning in ACLU v. Clapper. Most troublingly, the court largely doubled down on the wildly expansive interpretation of the word “relevance” in Section 215 from previous FISA Court opinions. Although nothing required it to reach the same conclusion as the Second Circuit, the FISA Court’s unnecessary dismissiveness is reminiscent of some of its one-sided opinions of old. In light of the FISA Court’s opinion, the ACLU said it will ask the Second Circuit for an injunction stopping the program from going back into effect.

  • Third party doctrine trumps constitutional concerns. The FISA Court also dismissed all constitutional concerns with the program as it has in the past by repeatedly citing the same outdated Supreme Court case, Smith v Maryland, that has been the bane of digital rights advocates for decades. This is a case from the 1970s that found that people who use the telephone don’t have an expectation of privacy because they are sharing the fact that they are making a phone call with the telephone company itself, and thus the government has a right to access data about what phone calls are made and to whom without a judge-issued search warrant. Because the Second Circuit found that the program wasn’t authorized by the Patriot Act, it did not reach the constitutional issue, but it indicated there were significant constitutional concerns. Even so, we’re hopeful that in one of the pending lawsuits challenging the program, including EFF’s case Smith v. Obama, ACLU v. Clapper, or Klayman v. Obama, a circuit court will disagree with the FISA Court and issue a ruling soon holding that the program is in fact unconstitutional.

Although the FISA Court reauthorized mass surveillance of phone records, it acknowledged that an end is in sight. So mark your calendars: on November 29, 2015, the court’s order will expire and mass surveillance of telephone records of all Americans should finally be over. And, pending possible decisions by another circuit court, the program could come to an end even sooner. 

Read the FISA Court’s full opinion.

Files:  270093109-fisa-court-order-reviving-bulk-metadata-collection.pdfRelated Issues: PrivacyNSA Spying
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Now you can run Android apps on a Mac (with BlueStacks)

Liliputing -

BlueStacks has been offering Windows users a tool that lets them install and run Android apps on a PC for years. Now BlueStacks is also available for Mac. It’s available as a free download from BlueStacks.com. BlueStacks is basically an emulator that lets you run Android apps on a non-Android device. You can use you […]

Now you can run Android apps on a Mac (with BlueStacks) is a post from: Liliputing

NASA To Waste $150 Million On SLS Engine That Will Be Used Once

Slashdot -

schwit1 writes: NASA's safety panel has noticed that NASA's SLS program either plans to spend $150 million human-rating a rocket engine it will only use once, or will fly a manned mission without human-rating that engine. "The Block 1 SLS is the 'basic model,' sporting a Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS), renamed the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion System (ICPS) for SLS. The current plan calls for this [interim] stage to be used on [the unmanned] Exploration Mission -1 (EM-1) and [manned] Exploration Mission -2 (EM-2), prior to moving to the [Exploration Upper Stage] — also to be built by Boeing — that will become the workhorse for SLS. However, using the [interim upper stage] on a crewed mission will require it to be human rated. It is likely NASA will also need to fly the [Exploration Upper Stage] on an unmanned mission to validate the new stage ahead of human missions. This has been presenting NASA with a headache for some time, although it took the recent ASAP meeting to finally confirm those concerns to the public." NASA doesn't have the funds to human-rate it, and even if they get those funds, human-rating it will likely cause SLS's schedule to slip even more, something NASA fears because they expect the commercial manned ships to be flying sooner and with increasing capability. The contrast — a delayed and unflown and very expensive SLS vs a flying and inexpensive commercial effort — will not do SLS good politically. However, if they are going to insist (properly I think) that SpaceX and Boeing human-rate their capsules and rockets, then NASA is going to have to hold the SLS to the same standard.

Read more of this story at Slashdot.

Where Facebook Stores 900 Million New Photos Per Day

Slashdot -

1sockchuck writes: Facebook faces unique storage challenges. Its users upload 900 million new images daily, most of which are only viewed for a couple of days. The social network has built specialized cold storage facilities to manage these rarely-accessed photos. Data Center Frontier goes inside this facility, providing a closer look at Facebook's newest strategy: Using thousands of Blu-Ray disks to store images, complete with a robotic retrieval system (see video demo). Others are interested as well. Sony recently acquired a Blu-Ray storage startup founded by Open Compute chairman Frank Frankovsky, which hopes to drive enterprise adoption of optical data storage.

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Sony launches its own crowdfunding platform (for internal projects)

Liliputing -

The world probably needs another crowdfunding website about as much as it needs an meteor in the head. But that’s not stopping Sony from launching one. There’s one key difference between Sony’s First Flight program and other crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and GoFundMe though: First Flight is designed to showcase ideas from Sony employees. You […]

Sony launches its own crowdfunding platform (for internal projects) is a post from: Liliputing

Scientist Union's Talks Stall Over Pay

Slashdot -

HughPickens.com writes: The Sacramento Bee reports that the labor contract between California's state government and the 2,800 employees represented by the California Association of Professional Scientists expired this week, spotlighting yet again the long-running feud over whether the tiny union's members should earn as much as their peers in federal and local governments and private industry. "It's a challenge to keep people motivated," says Rita Hypnarowski. "We talk about retaining the best and the brightest, but I can see that's not going to happen." A recent survey by the Brown administration found that the total compensation for half of state-employed chemists is less than $8,985 per month ($5,715 in salary, plus $3,270 in benefit costs). That's 33 percent less than the median total compensation for federal chemists, nearly 13 percent less than the midpoint for local-government chemists and almost 6 percent below the private sector. Members of the union perform a wide variety of tasks, everything from fighting food-borne illnesses to mopping up the Refugio State Beach oil spill. For example, Cassandra McQuaid left a job last year at the Department of Public Health's state-of-the-art Richmond laboratories where she tracked foodborne illnesses. It's the kind of vital, behind-the-scenes work that goes unnoticed until an E. coli outbreak makes headlines and local health officials need a crack team of scientists to unravel how it happened. "It really came down to money," says McQuaid. "I just couldn't live in the Bay Area on a state salary."

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Alcatel OneTouch Hero 2+ with CyanogenOS canceled before launch

Liliputing -

A few months after announcing plans to release a 6 inch smartphone with CyanogenOS software, Alcatel OneTouch and Cyanogen have revealed that they won’t be launching the OneTouch Hero 2+ smartphone after all. The original idea had been to offer an affordable phone with high-quality hardware and software. The smartphone was set to sell for […]

Alcatel OneTouch Hero 2+ with CyanogenOS canceled before launch is a post from: Liliputing

Struggling University of Phoenix Lays Off 900

Slashdot -

An anonymous reader writes: The struggles facing for-profit colleges continue. The University of Phoenix announced poor quarterly earnings yesterday, and the institution has laid off 900 workers since September. Enrollment is down 14% since last year, and the CEO of its parent company, Apollo Education Group, says enrollment is likely to drop from 206,000 to about 150,000 next year. Apollo's stock has lost more than half its value since the beginning of the year. "Tighter regulations on for-profits and the Obama administration's push to make community college free top the list of headwinds. And non-profit universities have entered the online education space, where for-profit schools once held center stage."

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People Are Obtaining Windows 7 Licenses For the Free Windows 10 Upgrade

Slashdot -

jones_supa writes: Windows 7 has quickly started increasing its market share of desktop operating systems, nearing 61%. If you're wondering why this is happening when Windows 10 is almost here, the reason is this: Windows 10 will be available as a free upgrade for those running Windows 7 and 8, and the new OS will have the exact same hardware requirements as its predecessor, so the majority of PCs should be able to run it just as well. Because Windows 7 was launched in 2009, a license is more affordable than for Windows 8, so many users are switching to this version to take advantage of the Windows 10 free upgrade offer.

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Amazon's New SSL/TLS Implementation In 6,000 Lines of Code

Slashdot -

bmearns writes: Amazon has announced a new library called "s2n," an open source implementation of SSL/TLS, the cryptographic security protocols behind HTTPS, SSH, SFTP, secure SMTP, and many others. Weighing in at about 6k lines of code, it's just a little more than 1% the size of OpenSSL, which is really good news in terms of security auditing and testing. OpenSSL isn't going away, and Amazon has made clear that they will continue to support it. Notably, s2n does not provide all the additional cryptographic functions that OpenSSL provides in libcrypto, it only provides the SSL/TLS functions. Further more, it implements a relatively small subset of SSL/TLS features compared to OpenSSL.

Read more of this story at Slashdot.

How Verizon Is Hindering NYC's Internet Service

Slashdot -

Cuillere writes: Verizon promised to make FiOS available to all New York City residents. The deadline passed a year ago, and many residents still don't have FiOS as an option, but Verizon claims to have done its part. "The agreement required Verizon to 'pass' homes with fiber (not actually connect them), but no one wrote down in the agreement what they thought 'pass' meant. (Verizon’s interpretation, predictably, is that it doesn’t have to get very close.)" The situation is a mess, and the city isn't having much luck fighting it in the courts. Susan Crawford offers a solution: set up wholesale fiber access for third party ISPs and absolve Verizon of customer service responsibility.

Read more of this story at Slashdot.

CTL H4 Chromebook is a $199 laptop with 4GB of RAM

Liliputing -

Looking for a portable laptop that costs less than $200? There are plenty of options including models that run Windows or Google’s Chrome OS software. Want one that has 4GB of RAM instead of 2GB? That usually drives up the price… but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find a laptop with 4GB of RAM […]

CTL H4 Chromebook is a $199 laptop with 4GB of RAM is a post from: Liliputing

MIT's Bitcoin-Inspired 'Enigma' Lets Computers Mine Encrypted Data

Slashdot -

Guy Zyskind, Oz Nathan, and the MIT Media Lab have developed a system to encrypt data in a way that it can still be shared and used without being decrypted. "To keep track of who owns what data—and where any given data’s pieces have been distributed—Enigma stores that metadata in the bitcoin blockchain, the unforgeable record of messages copied to thousands of computers to prevent counterfeit and fraud in the bitcoin economy." Enigma needs a fairly large base of users to operate securely, so its creators have proposed requiring a fee for anyone who wants data processed in this way. That fee would then be split among the users doing the processing. Those with encrypted datasets on the Enigma network could also sell access to datamining operations without letting the miners see the unencrypted data.

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EFF Stands With Innovative Developers in the Wake of Oracle v. Google

EFF's Deeplinks -

The Supreme Court’s refusal to review the Federal Circuit’s dangerous decision in Oracle v. Google means that court’s decision will stand for now. EFF, along with leading computer scientists and copyright practitioners, thinks the Federal Circuit got it wrong: the legal precedents that the Federal Circuit refused to follow, as well as the realities of software development, argue against treating application programming interfaces (APIs) as copyrightable. And while the case isn’t over, we’re worried that litigious, well-heeled software companies will begin to threaten innovative developers with lawsuits, or demand license fees, when they create interoperable software by using or re-implementing an API. EFF is interested in hearing from software developers or companies that have received these kinds of threats or demands in the wake of Oracle v. Google.

The Federal Circuit’s decision came as a shock to many in the software community. The free and open use of APIs has been both routine and essential in the computer industry since its beginning, and that use was based on the sensible assumption that APIs and other interfaces could not be copyrighted. Aside from the Oracle decision, the federal courts have uniformly upheld that pro-innovation interpretation of copyright law, ruling that copyright doesn’t cover functional elements of software.1 The European Court of Justice has reached the same conclusions. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which hears appeals from the West Coast states where many software companies are located, ruled that the “functional requirements for compatibility” between computer programs “are not protected by copyright.”2 APIs are, of course, functional requirements for compatibility with existing software.

The Federal Circuit hears appeals in certain cases where the complaint includes a patent claim, as Oracle v. Google did, and on non-patent legal issues it’s supposed to follow the precedents of the circuit court in the geographic region where the case arose—in this case, the Ninth. But the Federal Circuit’s decision in Oracle disregarded the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning, essentially rejecting it outright.

While EFF is worried about software developers, coding projects, and small software companies receiving legal threats based on the Oracle decision, we’re looking into how these innovators can push back, and we could use your input. If you’re a software developer, project leader, or business who’s received a threat or demand based on your use or re-implementation of an API, or if you were pressured to take a license to use an API because of Oracle v. Google, email us at info@eff.org.

  • 1. E.g., Lotus Dev. Corp. v. Borland Int’l, Inc., 49 F.3d 807, 815 (1st Cir. 1995), affirmed by an equally divided Court, 516 U.S. 233 (1996); Computer Associates Intern., Inc. v. Altai, Inc., 982 F. 2d 693 (2d Cir. 1992).
  • 2. Sega Enters., Ltd., v. Accolade, Inc., 977 F.2d 1510, 1522 (9th Cir. 1992); see also Sony Computer Ent’mt, Inc. v. Connectix Corp., F.3d 596, 599–600 (9th Cir. 2000).
Related Issues: Fair Use and Intellectual Property: Defending the BalanceRelated Cases: Oracle v. Google
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Analysis: Iran's Nuclear Program Has Been an Astronomical Waste

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Lasrick writes: Business Insider's Armin Rosen uses a fuel-cost calculator from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to show that Iran's nuclear program has been "astronomically costly" for the country. Rosen uses calculations from this tool to hypothesize that what Iran "interprets as the country's 'rights' under the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty is a diplomatic victory that justifies the outrageous expense of the nuclear program." Great data crunching.

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UK's National Computer Museum Looks For Help Repairing BBC Micros

Slashdot -

tresho writes: 1981-era 8-bit BBC Micro computers and peripherals are displayed in a special interactive exhibit at the UK's National Museum of Computing designed to give modern students a taste of programming a vintage machine. Now, the museum is asking for help maintaining them. "We want to find out whether people have got skills out there that can keep the cluster alive as long as we can," said Chris Monk, learning coordinator at the organization. "Owen Grover, a volunteer at the museum who currently helps maintain the cluster of BBC Micro machines, said they held up well despite being more than 30 years old. The BBC Micro was 'pretty robust,' he said, because it was designed to be used in classrooms. This meant that refurbishing machines for use in the hands-on exhibit was usually fairly straightforward. 'The main problem we need to sort out is the power supply,' he said. 'There are two capacitors that dry out and if we do not replace them they tend to explode and stink the place out. So we change them as a matter of course.'"

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