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Ars Technica
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Serving the Technologist for more than a decade. IT news, reviews, and analysis.
Updated: 54 min 48 sec ago

Cambridge Analytica breach results in lawsuits filed by angry Facebook users

13 hours 13 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Sergei Konkov / TASS / Getty Images)

In the wake of the ongoing Cambridge Analytica debacle, Facebook has now been sued in federal court in San Francisco and San Jose. These new cases claim violations of federal securities laws, unfair competition, and negligence, among other allegations.

The pair of cases stem from recent revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a British data firm that contracted with the Donald Trump presidential campaign, retained private data from 50 million Facebook users despite claiming to have deleted it. New reporting on Cambridge Analytica has spurred massive public outcry from users and politicians with CEO Mark Zuckerberg calling it a "breach of trust."

These two cases, which were filed on March 20, could be just the first among what could be a coming wave of similar lawsuits.

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Video suggests huge problems with Uber’s driverless car program

March 22, 2018 - 9:36pm

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Everything Is In Stock)

There's something very wrong with Uber's driverless car program.

On Wednesday night, police released footage of Sunday night's deadly car crash in Tempe, Arizona, where an Uber self-driving car crashed into 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg. The details it reveals are damning for Uber.

"The idea that she 'just stepped out' or 'came out in a flash' into the car path is clearly false," said Tara Goddard, an urban planning professor at Texas A&M University, after seeing the video. "It seems like the system should have responded."

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Five new ancient genomes tell us about Neanderthal tribes

March 22, 2018 - 9:14pm

Enlarge / Inside of the Vindija Cave, Croatia. (credit: M. Hajdinjak)

Mezmaiskaya Cave offered shelter to Neanderthals for tens of thousands of years. The cave, located near Russia's border with Georgia, preserved Neanderthal remains so well that researchers have now been able to extract genetic information from two different individuals who lived approximately 20,000 years apart. And it's just one of the sites that's featured in a new collection of Neanderthal genomes: two from caves in Belgium, one from France, one from Croatia, and one from Mezmaiskaya.

As scientists publish more Neanderthal genomes, they’re able to start sketching more details of the long-ago drama and danger these people experienced. The new genomes are all from 39,000 to 47,000 years ago—late in the history of the population. The new data helps us piece together new details on Neanderthal population groups, their movements across Europe, and when they’re most likely to have bred with humans.


The researchers, led by Mateja Hajdinjak at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, extracted tiny amounts of bone or tooth powder—sometimes as little as 9mg—and used a chemical process to remove modern genetic contamination. They also checked for the telltale signs of degradation found in ancient DNA.

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Atlanta city government systems down due to ransomware attack [Updated]

March 22, 2018 - 8:57pm

Enlarge / The message posted to social media by the city of Atlanta in the wake of an apparent ransomware attack. (credit: City of Atlanta)

The city of Atlanta government has apparently become the victim of a ransomware attack. The city's official Twitter account announced that the city government "is currently experiencing outages on various customer facing applications, including some that customers may use to pay bills or access court-related information."

According to a report from Atlanta NBC affiliate WXIA, a city employee sent the station a screen shot of a ransomware message demanding a payment of $6,800 to unlock each computer or $51,000 to provide all the keys for affected systems. Employees received emails from the city's information technology department instructing them to unplug their computers if they noticed anything suspicious. An internal email shared with WXIA said that the internal systems affected include the city's payroll application.

In a statement sent to Ars, a city spokesperson said, "At this time, our Atlanta Information Management team is working diligently with support from Microsoft to resolve the issue. We are confident that our team of technology professionals will be able to restore applications soon." The city's primary website remains online, and the city government will continue to post updates there, the spokesperson added.

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New lithium-air battery survives hundreds of cycles

March 22, 2018 - 7:23pm

Enlarge (credit: TSA)

Batteries supply electrons by undergoing reversible chemical reactions. That has meant that all the reactants have to be inside the battery, which adds to its weight and volume. Lithium-air batteries could potentially change that situation. At one electrode, they have pure lithium metal rather than a lithium-containing chemical. At the other, the lithium reacts with oxygen in the air. When the battery is charged, this reaction is reversed, and the oxygen is returned to our atmosphere.

With far fewer chemicals permanently inside the battery, it's possible to achieve a much higher energy density—there have been demonstrations of lithium-air batteries with an energy density five times that of current lithium-ion tech. The only drawback? They have a lifespan of about a month, in part because both oxygen and metallic lithium are pretty reactive and in part because air offers a lot of things other than oxygen that can react.

Now, a team of researchers has figured out a way to protect against many of these reactions and showed that the resulting battery can survive hundreds of charge/discharge cycles in an air-like atmosphere. Which probably means the researchers are ready to figure out what goes wrong when this material meets actual air. The hope is that will be an easier issue to solve.

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Dealmaster: Grab a new Logitech MX Master wireless mouse for $58

March 22, 2018 - 6:30pm

Greetings, Arsians! Courtesy of our friends at TechBargains, we have another round of deals to share. Every now and then, Amazon runs a collection of deals on Logitech accessories—today is one of those days. This haul isn't as far-reaching as some incarnations but still includes discounts on a few popular peripherals, including the Logitech MX Master, which is down to $58. That's about $15 off its usual going rate, and it's close to the lowest it has been on Amazon to date.

The MX Master is technically a generation behind the newer MX Master 2S, but it comes with a similarly sturdy, contoured, and wireless design and still works on most surfaces. The newer model does get you longer battery life (about 70 days instead of 40 days) and the ability to copy and paste between multiple computers, but it also costs $92 as of this writing.

If you want nothing to do with Logitech, though, we've also got discounts on Dell laptops, Amazon's entire line of Fire tablets, the Amazon Echo Spot, the Essential Phone, Nintendo's Switch Pro controller, and more. Take a look for yourself below.

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Thousands of servers found leaking 750MB worth of passwords and keys

March 22, 2018 - 6:17pm

Enlarge (credit: Mike Pratt)

Thousands of servers operated by businesses and other organizations are openly sharing credentials that may allow anyone on the Internet to log in and read or modify potentially sensitive data stored online.

In a blog post published late last week, researcher Giovanni Collazo said a quick query on the Shodan search engine returned almost 2,300 Internet-exposed servers running etcd, a type of database that computing clusters and other types of networks use to store and distribute passwords and configuration settings needed by various servers and applications. etcd comes with a programming interface that responds to simple queries that by default return administrative login credentials without first requiring authentication. The passwords, encryption keys, and other forms of credentials are used to access MySQL and PostgreSQL databases, content management systems, and other types of production servers.

Collazo said he wrote a simple script that ran through the 2,284 etcd servers found in his Shodan search. Using the query GET http://:2379/v2/keys/?recursive=true, the script was designed to return all credentials stored on the servers in a format that would be easy for hackers to use. Collazo stopped the script after it collected about 750 megabytes of data from almost 1,500 of the servers. The haul included:

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Bollinger’s electric truck is nothing like a Tesla, and that’s OK

March 22, 2018 - 6:03pm

Bollinger Motors

It has become a trope to compare every new electric vehicle (EV) startup to Tesla. I know I'm guilty of doing so, but it's hard not to; for all its troubles with Model 3 mass production, you can't deny Tesla's achievements. Bollinger Motors is almost entirely unlike Tesla. There's no masterplan to ramp up to half-a-million units a year. No one is working on self-driving software or sensors. Its vehicle, a refreshingly utilitarian-looking thing called the B1, doesn't even have a touchscreen. But it may be the coolest EV in development, particularly if you're someone who prefers function over form.

The company is the brainchild of Robert Bollinger, who ended up in the fortunate position of being able to indulge his childhood passion—in this case building a car. Given a childhood drawing sports cars, it's therefore a little surprising that the B1 intends to remake the truck.

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Game developers push for unionization amid insecure positions, excessive OT

March 22, 2018 - 5:42pm

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty)

SAN FRANCISCO—Going into the Game Developers Conference this week, you could foresee some of the hot topics that would be consuming the world’s largest gathering of game makers: stuff like real-time raytraced graphics, fantastical blockchain-based business schemes, and how to design games for augmented reality. But another surprising issue has overtaken many of the discussions in the Moscone Center hallways this week: that of unionization.

Labor organizing isn’t a new idea in the game industry—the first time I personally wrote about the issue was in Electronic Gaming Monthly more than a decade ago. There seems to be more momentum for the idea among the grassroots developers on hand at the conference this year, though, thanks in large part to an organized movement called Game Workers Unite. The organization, which isn’t a union itself, formed over private Facebook groups and Discord chats in recent weeks and has practically blanketed the Moscone Center with brochures and zines encouraging developers to band together against exploitative working conditions, uncertain project-based job security, and excessive, life-consuming crunch time.

“We are currently forming an anonymous and horizontal organization of people dedicated to advocating for workers' rights and the crafting of a unionized games industry,” GWU writes on its website. “We represent all workers in game development and we seek to increase the visibility of our cause through community building, sharing resources, and direct action. We seek to bring hope to and empower those suffering in this industry.”

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Best Buy walks away from Huawei, leaving it with zero US retail partners

March 22, 2018 - 5:15pm

Enlarge / Huawei Mate 10 Pro, one of the phones that won't be sold by US carriers. (credit: Valentina Palladino)

Here's another nail in the coffin for Huawei's US expansion plans: Best Buy will reportedly stop selling Huawei products over "the next few weeks," according to a new report from CNet. Best Buy is the latest major retail partner to dump Huawei's products after the US Senate and House Intelligence committees targeted Huawei smartphones over spying concerns earlier this year.

Huawei was poised to make a big break into the US market this year via deals it had lined up with AT&T and Verizon. Once the Intelligence Committee caught wind of Huawei's plans, it started contacting Huawei's partners and pressuring them to cut ties with the company. Despite the ubiquity of Chinese products in the US marketplace, the committee feels Huawei is a little too connected to the Chinese government, which it says raises "concerns regarding Huawei and Chinese espionage." Huawei's potential for spying has long been a concern of the US government, but those concerns mostly revolved around the company's networking gear.

Best Buy is the latest distributer to walk away from Huawei, and, with all the carriers jumping ship, it was also the last major brick-and-mortar location where consumers could actually see a Huawei phone in person. The only places to buy Huawei phones in the US now are Internet retailers like Amazon and Newegg.

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Formula 1 starts this weekend, so where’s that new streaming service?

March 22, 2018 - 4:33pm

Enlarge (credit: Ferrari)

In 2016, US-based Liberty Media bought the commercial rights to that most spendy of motor sports, Formula 1. In doing so, it promised to bring the 21st century to a racing series that, when it came to fan engagement, might as well have been trapped in 1995.

One of those changes has been a desire to offer a streaming service for fans, but, with the season-opening race taking place March 25—this Sunday—the service is conspicuous by its absence. The launch of F1 TV Pro, which would have cost around $8 to $12 for a race weekend, is now on hold.

Until this year, the lack of a streaming service was mostly down to a combination of apathy and contracts. Bernie Ecclestone, who ran the sport for decades, got there by buying up the broadcast rights to each race, eventually packaging them all together in a move that made him extremely wealthy and changed the sport into the polished, glossy, elitist thing it is today. And there was a time when Ecclestone even embraced progress. In the late 1990s, he launched a pay-per-view channel called F1 Digital+, which didn't take ad breaks and offered multiple video and audio feeds.

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SpaceX launch last year punched huge, temporary hole in the ionosphere

March 22, 2018 - 3:42pm

Enlarge / The Formosat-5 mission launches in August, 2017, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. (credit: SpaceX)

Contrary to popular belief, most of the time when a rocket launches, it does not go straight up into outer space. Rather, shortly after launch, most rockets will begin to pitch over into the downrange direction, limiting gravity drag and stress on the vehicle. Often, by 80 or 100km, a rocket is traveling nearly parallel to the Earth's surface before releasing its payload into orbit.

However, in August of last year, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from California did not make such a pitch over maneuver. Rather, the Formosat-5 mission launched vertically and stayed that way for most of its ascent into space. The rocket could do this because the Taiwanese payload was light for the Falcon 9 rocket, weighing only 475kg and bound for an orbit 720km above the Earth's surface.

As a result of this launch profile, the rocket maintained a nearly vertical trajectory all the way through much of the Earth's ionosphere, which ranges from about 60km above the planet to 1,000km up. In doing so, the Falcon 9 booster and its second stage created unique, circular shockwaves. The rocket launch also punched a temporary, 900-km-wide hole into the plasma of the ionosphere.

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YouTube expands firearms restrictions, more gun videos to be banned

March 22, 2018 - 2:15pm

(credit: Flickr: Rego Korosi )

YouTube is placing more restrictions on weapons-related videos, focusing on guns with new, forthcoming policy changes. According to a Bloomberg report, YouTube intends to ban videos that "promote or link to websites selling firearms and accessories," including bump stocks, beginning this April. The new policy will also prohibit instructional videos that detail how to build firearms.

These restrictions come over a month after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida and just a few days before the March for Our Lives rally organized by the student survivors of the Parkland shooting. YouTube took similar action after the Las Vegas shooting last year by banning gun-modification tutorials.

"We routinely make updates and adjustments to our enforcement guidelines across all of our policies," a YouTube representative said in a statement to Bloomberg. "While we’ve long prohibited the sale of firearms, we recently notified creators of updates we will be making around content promoting the sale or manufacture of firearms and their accessories."

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Oculus Go world premiere: Acceptable compromises, amazing quality for $199

March 22, 2018 - 2:06pm

Enlarge / The Oculus Go was finally available to play at a press event. How'd it turn out? (credit: Sam Machkovech)

SAN FRANCISCO—After testing the upcoming Oculus Go headset for 30 minutes, I had to gather my bearings and ask the company's hardware PM Sean Liu to clarify something important. How much is this thing going to retail for, again?

$199, he reminded me.

I needed to double check, because that price sounds very different on the other side of trying Oculus Go at its world-premiere hands-on event at the 2018 Game Developers Conference. Throw out your expectations for what $199 will buy you in terms of standalone, no-wires VR. It used to be that you'd expect to pay half that amount ($99) for a dumb, no-screen, no-memory shell meant to turn your $700+ smartphone into a virtual reality facsimile.

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How the creator of SimCity helped save Psychonauts

March 22, 2018 - 1:45pm

Enlarge / Tim Schafer (second from right) and Will Wright (third from right) share more than a love of nice formalware. (credit: WikiCommons)

SAN FRANCISCO—Since 2004, games from Tim Schafer's Double Fine Productions have included a "special thanks" to Will Wright, the founder of Maxis and creator of SimCity and The Sims. Schafer disclosed the reason for all those thank yous in a heartfelt and teary-eyed acceptance speech while receiving a LifeTime Achievement Award at the Game Developers Choice Awards here Wednesday night.

The reason, which Schafer said he was finally revealing under the influence of four shots of tequila, is that without Will Wright, Double Fine games ranging from Psychonauts on through Brutal Legend, Broken Age, and more would probably not exist.

Flashback to early 2004, when the four-year-old Double Fine Productions was struggling. Microsoft had just canceled a publishing deal for Schafer's ambitious 3D platform game idea, Psychonauts, and it would be months before Majesco would become the only other publisher interested in scooping up the title. During those months, as Schafer recalled Wednesday night, "there was a long period where we didn't have any money, we ran out of money."

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Non-Lethal Weapon: DOD seeks to use lasers to create shouting will-o-the-wisp

March 22, 2018 - 12:15pm

Enlarge (credit: US Department of Defense)

The Department of Defense's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Development Program (JNLWD) is closing in on a directed energy weapon that can literally tell people to go away—creating sound waves with laser pulses that can annoy, frighten, or otherwise send the message to people approaching a military unit that getting closer is not a good idea.

The Non-Lethal Laser-Induced Plasma Effect (NL-LIPE) system can be used to manipulate air molecules, creating a ball of plasma that oscillates to create sound waves with a stream of femtosecond-long laser bursts. A first laser creates the plasma ball, and a second then oscillates the plasma ball to create the sound. As Defense One's Patrick Tucker reports, the current Laser-Induced Plasma Effect implementation can only manage an indistinguishable mumble—though it can create a wide variety of very distinguishable sounds, as demonstrated in the video below.

A video of the Laser-Induced Plasma Effect in action.

David Law, JNLWD's Technology Division chief, believes that, within the next three years, the system will be able to create intelligible speech from a glowing ball of plasma hovering in the air at a distance. "We're this close to getting it to speak to us," Law told Tucker. "I need three or four more kilohertz."

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Best bad idea ever? Why Putin’s nuclear-powered missile is possible… and awful

March 22, 2018 - 12:00pm

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

In a March 1, 2018 speech before Russia's Federal Assembly, Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed new strategic weapons being developed to counter United States ballistic missile defenses. Two of these weapons are allegedly nuclear powered: a previously revealed intercontinental-range nuclear torpedo and a cruise missile. As Putin described them:

Russia’s advanced arms are based on the cutting-edge, unique achievements of our scientists, designers, and engineers. One of them is a small-scale, heavy-duty nuclear energy unit that can be installed in a missile like our latest X-101 air-launched missile or the American Tomahawk missile—a similar type but with a range dozens of times longer, dozens—basically an unlimited range. It is a low-flying stealth missile carrying a nuclear warhead, with almost an unlimited range, unpredictable trajectory and ability to bypass interception boundaries. It is invincible against all existing and prospective missile defense and counter-air defense systems.

Defense and nuclear disarmament experts did a double take. "I'm still kind of in shock," Edward Geist, a Rand Corporation researcher specializing in Russia, told NPR. "My guess is they're not bluffing, that they've flight-tested this thing. But that's incredible."

This is not the first time a government has worked on a nuclear-powered strategic weapon. Decades ago, the US developed engines first for a proposed nuclear-powered bomber and then for a hypersonic nuclear cruise missile. The US has also examined nuclear-powered rockets for space flight (that crazy Project Orion thing is a story for another time). These programs were all dropped, not because they didn't work but because they were deemed impractical.

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Video: Uber driver looks down for seconds before fatal crash

March 22, 2018 - 3:41am

Video footage released by Tempe Police.

Police in Tempe, Arizona, have released dash cam footage showing the final seconds before an Uber self-driving vehicle crashed into 49-year-old pedestrian Elaine Herzberg. She died at the hospital shortly afterward.

The accident occurred after dark on Sunday evening. Herzberg was walking with a bicycle across a poorly lit roadway. About 1.4 seconds elapse between the time when Herzberg starts to become visible (initially, only her feet are faintly illuminated) and the video's final frame.

While Herzberg is visible for less than two seconds in the camera footage, she might have become visible earlier to a human driver, since human eyes are better at picking out details in low-light situations. Also, the Uber vehicle was presumably equipped with lidar and radar—sensors that work just as well in the dark as they do in broad daylight.

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Congress OKs sex-trafficking bill that critics say will “censor the Internet”

March 21, 2018 - 11:54pm

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | baona )

The US Senate today passed a bill that weakens legal protections given to websites that host third-party content, saying the measure will help stop promotion of prostitution and sex trafficking on the Internet. But the legislation won't actually help victims of sex trafficking and will erode online free speech, critics say.

The Senate passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) in a 97-2 vote. Only Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) voted against the bill, which is also known as the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). It already passed the House of Representatives and is expected to be signed by President Donald Trump.

The bill changes Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which provides website operators with broad immunity for hosting third-party content. The bill declares that Section 230 "was never intended to provide legal protection to websites that unlawfully promote and facilitate prostitution and websites that facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex-trafficking victims."

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Zuckerberg: Cambridge Analytica leak a “breach of trust” with users

March 21, 2018 - 10:24pm

Enlarge / CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Facebook's 2016 "F8" conference. (credit: Facebook)

After days of silence, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has responded to the controversy over the 2014 leak of private Facebook user data to a firm that went on to do political consulting work for the Donald Trump campaign in 2016.

Cambridge Analytica got the data by paying a psychology professor, Aleksandr Kogan, to create a Facebook personality quiz that harvested data not only about its own users but also about users' friends. Kogan amassed data from around 50 million users and turned it over to Cambridge.

Zuckerberg says that when Facebook learned about this transfer in 2015, it got Kogan and Cambridge to certify that they had deleted the data. But media reports this weekend suggested that Cambridge had lied and retained the data throughout the 2016 presidential campaign.

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