Now Everyone Wants to Sell You a Magical Anonymity Router. Choose Wisely

Now Everyone Wants to Sell You a Magical Anonymity Router. Choose Wisely
Oct 24 2014

Maintaining your privacy online, like investing in stocks or looking good naked, has become one of those nagging desires that leaves Americans with a surplus of stress and a deficit of facts. So it’s no surprise that a cottage industry of privacy marketers now wants to sell them the solution in a $50 piece of hardware promising internet “anonymity” or “invisibility.” And as with any panacea in a box, the quicker the fix, the more doubt it deserves.

Last week saw the fast forward rise and fall of Anonabox, a tiny $45 router that promised to anonymize all of a user’s traffic by routing it over the anonymity network Tor. That promise of plug-and-play privacy spurred Anonabox to raise $615,000 on the fundraising platform Kickstarter in four days, 82 times its modest $7,500 goal. Then on Thursday, Kickstarter froze those pledges, citing the project’s misleading claims about its hardware sources. Other critics pointed to flaws in Anonabox’s software’s security, too.

But the Anonabox fiasco hasn’t deterred other projects hoping to sell an anonymity router of their own. In fact, many of them see Anonabox’s 9,000 disappointed backers as proof of the demand for their own privacy-in-a-box product. At least five new or soon-to-launch crowdfunding projects now claim to offer a consumer-focused anonymity router with names like Invizbox, Cloak, TorFi, and PORTAL, each with its own promises—and caveats.

Security Claims and Snake Oil

Some of those projects are already repeating Anonabox’s mistakes, or making significant new ones. A project called TorFi, which offered a version of Tor installed on an off-the-shelf Wi-Fi router, has already had its Kickstarter campaign yanked, seemingly under the same prohibition that killed Anonabox (selling someone else’s product). Another router initiative called Project Sierradoesn’t use Tor’s well-tested anonymity system that routes traffic through three random hops among thousands of computers; Instead, its creator Kerry Cox says it pushes data through VPN servers rented from a Texas hosting company, an option that likely means faster connections but not much real anonymity. Anything you do can be seen by that Texas company or any third party that can get access to its data, including law enforcement. 

A third option called Wemagin has filled its Kickstarter page with brash claims of a “military grade” USB drive that offers untraceability (without using Tor) and a “private browser…so simple your Grandmother can use it.” It doesn’t offer details about how any of those features actually work. “I’m surprised these guys aren’t telling you it’ll also help you lose weight and is powered by antioxidants,” says Steve Lord, a British penetration tester and one of the critics who poked holes in Anonabox’s security claims.

A humbler project called Invizbox, which launched last week on Indiegogo, is more straightforward about its protections and imperfections. Invizbox uses the same hardware as Anonabox, and similarly integrates Tor with the open source wireless software OpenWRT. It promises, however, to fix its predecessor’s configuration flaws—Anonabox was criticized for shipping with no password protection for its Wi-fi network by default, and hardcoded root and SSH passwords that could let a hacker compromise the device. But Invizbox still uses stock hardware that its creators admit may have vulnerabilities it can’t control, and the project has yet to release its software for outside scrutiny.

More promising, perhaps, are projects like Cloak and PORTAL. Cloak is a $56, open-source Tor router set to launch with a Kickstarter campaign early next week. Cloak’s creators, a group of developers spread across Britain, Malaysia, and China, are developing their device’s hardware from scratch. One member of the team, a founder of the Shenzhen, China-based hardware maker Dragino, is leading the creation of Cloak’s board and injection molded case, which isn’t yet finished. And Cloak’s open-source code has already been published for public appraisal. “This is the right attitude,” says Lord. “They’re doing it the way that Anonabox should have done it.”

PORTAL, by contrast, focuses more on software than hardware: The project, whose name is an acronym for “Personal Onion Router To Assure Liberty” uses a “hardened” version of OpenWRT combined with Tor that’s designed to be installed on any stock router. Marc Rogers, a security consultant and one of PORTAL’s creators, says they’ve carefully pruned features out of OpenWRT to minimize attack points for any hacker trying to compromise the router. And unlike other projects, he says PORTAL’s developers have taken pains to integrate Tor so that it’s guaranteed to “fail closed”—Even if the router somehow can’t connect to Tor, no data will ever be sent over the unprotected Internet. “If Tor isn’t working, it’s a brick,” Rogers says.


How the XPrize Foundation Is Building Our Next-Gen Health Sensors

How the XPrize Foundation Is Building Our Next-Gen Health Sensors
Oct 24 2014

Apple and Google aren’t the only ones pushing for a new generation of wearables and gadgets that can monitor your health from minute to minute.

As the two tech giants invite a world of developers to create health apps and devices that dovetail with Apple iOS and Android gear, the XPrize Foundation—that not-for-profit champion of incentivized innovation—is running the Nokia Sensing XChallenge, using cash prizes to spark the development of new sensor technologies that address healthcare problems and help people generally monitor their well-being. This week, the organization selected eleven projects to vie for the grand prize, including a smartphone-based tool that aims to provide early diagnosis for diabetic retinopathy, a leading cause of blindness in adults; a sensor that can help monitor patients with chronic heart failure; and a sensor that detects sleep apnea. 

The winners are set to be determined this November at the Exponential Medicine conference in San Diego, California. The grand prize is $525,000, and five runners up will receive $120,000. It’s part of a much larger movement that seeks to redefine healthcare through sensing technology. Some of these efforts are rather questionable, but XPrize is among those hoping to bring some legitimacy to the movement—and ultimately win FDA approval for these new types of devices. 

Round Number Two

This is the contest’s second go round. The Nokia Sensing XChallenge was first announced in 2012, with the idea that it would be held twice over the next two years, and that it would feed into a bigger, $10 million challenge: the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE. True to its name, this prize aims to a create a universal, Star Trek-inspired medical diagnostic tool that detects up to 16 separate health conditions.

The original Sensing XChallenge, says Grant Campany, senior director of the competition, was set up as a starting point for the identification and collection of promising technologies for the Tricorder XPRIZE. But after the competition got underway, most teams decided that they wanted to refine their technologies instead of pivoting them for the future Tricorder challenge, and for Campany, that ended up creating stronger individual technologies.

“The Nokia Sensing XChallenge provides an objective means by which these technologies can be evaluated, and is also an opportunity to increase awareness of these technologies around the world,” Campany says. “It engages the general public on what’s just around the corner.”

This year, only one of the teams—Cambridge, Massachusetts-based DMI, which designed a sensor that assesses hundreds of clinical lab tests using a single drop of blood—is also a Tricorder finalist. Campany says that the finalists of the competition have a mix of motivations. Some teams formed because members had an idea for a product that was ripe for commercialization, and others were university academics and students who simply wanted to delve deeper into sensor technology research.


Animals Can Experience the Uncanny Valley

Animals Can Experience the Uncanny Valley
Oct 24 2014

In 2009, researchers at Princeton University showed macaque monkeys three images of their species: a real photograph, an unrealistic computer rendering and a detailed digital caricature.

The monkeys, which normally coo and smack their lips when they interact in real life, looked inquisitively at the photographs and renderings for extended periods of time. But when they saw the last type of image — lifelike but not quite realistic enough — they quickly averted their eyes, frightened.

The study was the first to find that an animal other than a human could experience the phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley.” Japanese robotics engineer Masahiro Mori coined the phrase more than 30 years ago, describing the revulsion we feel when something looks nearly human, but not enough to be convincing.

The fact that monkeys experience the phenomenon may not be totally surprising, considering they’re primates like us and share many anatomical similarities. But what about other animals, like birds and dogs?

Some experts think yes — in a way. Animals have instincts, largely based in survival, to know when something isn’t quite right. But just how is difficult to demonstrate, and likely differs from the way humans experience it.

“People forget the obvious — that your average dog doesn’t really know what he looks like,” says Marc Bekoff, former professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and cofounder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

He says the basis of whether animals can experience the uncanny valley has roots in classical studies of animal behavior, but it’s not so much about them knowing what they look like themselves — it’s knowing what another member of their species looks like.

“They have some kind of template in their brains, and there’s an expected match or a ‘non-expected’ match, if you will. And when it deviates by a certain amount, that would be probably aversive,” Bekoff tells Mashable.

Ethologists apply the term “neophobic” to certain wild animals — they’re afraid of strange things, or the unknown. Bekoff gives a simple example of his dogs encountering his bike in a different place than usual: They’ve lived at the same house for years, seen that very bike countless times before, but the fact that it’s in an odd place causes them to stop in fear. Sometimes novelty itself is a deterrent.

Essentially, that’s what the uncanny valley is. We notice flaws, no matter how subtle, in lifelike androids or CGI animations, and they trigger a negative response. There’s one theory that the phenomenon elicits an innate fear of death, which hearkens back to an animal’s survival instinct; another studyattributes it to a mismatch between appearance and motion.


Assange: Google Is Not What It Seems

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Isenberg.  DLH]

Assange: Google Is Not What It Seems
By Julian Assange
Oct 23 2014

In June 2011, Julian Assange received an unusual visitor: the chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, arrived from America at Ellingham Hall, the country house in Norfolk, England where Assange was living under house arrest.

For several hours the besieged leader of the world’s most famous insurgent publishing organization and the billionaire head of the world’s largest information empire locked horns. The two men debated the political problems faced by society, and the technological solutions engendered by the global network—from the Arab Spring to Bitcoin. 

They outlined radically opposing perspectives: for Assange, the liberating power of the Internet is based on its freedom and statelessness. For Schmidt, emancipation is at one with U.S. foreign policy objectives and is driven by connecting non-Western countries to Western companies and markets. These differences embodied a tug-of-war over the Internet’s future that has only gathered force subsequently.

In this extract from When Google Met WikiLeaks Assange describes his encounter with Schmidt and how he came to conclude that it was far from an innocent exchange of views.

Eric Schmidt is an influential figure, even among the parade of powerful characters with whom I have had to cross paths since I founded WikiLeaks. In mid-May 2011 I was under house arrest in rural Norfolk, England, about three hours’ drive northeast of London. The crackdown against our work was in full swing and every wasted moment seemed like an eternity. It was hard to get my attention. 

But when my colleague Joseph Farrell told me the executive chairman of Google wanted to make an appointment with me, I was listening.

In some ways the higher echelons of Google seemed more distant and obscure to me than the halls of Washington. We had been locking horns with senior U.S. officials for years by that point. The mystique had worn off. But the power centers growing up in Silicon Valley were still opaque and I was suddenly conscious of an opportunity to understand and influence what was becoming the most influential company on earth. Schmidt had taken over as CEO of Google in 2001 and built it into an empire.

I was intrigued that the mountain would come to Muhammad. But it was not until well after Schmidt and his companions had been and gone that I came to understand who had really visited me.

The stated reason for the visit was a book. Schmidt was penning a treatise with Jared Cohen, the director of Google Ideas, an outfit that describes itself as Google’s in-house “think/do tank.” 

I knew little else about Cohen at the time. In fact, Cohen had moved to Google from the U.S. State Department in 2010. He had been a fast-talking “Generation Y” ideas man at State under two U.S. administrations, a courtier from the world of policy think tanks and institutes, poached in his early twenties. 

He became a senior advisor for Secretaries of State Rice and Clinton. At State, on the Policy Planning Staff, Cohen was soon christened “Condi’s party-starter,” channeling buzzwords from Silicon Valley into U.S. policy circles and producing delightful rhetorical concoctions such as “Public Diplomacy 2.0.” On his Council on Foreign Relations adjunct staff page he listed his expertise as “terrorism; radicalization; impact of connection technologies on 21st century statecraft; Iran.”

It was Cohen who, while he was still at the Department of State, was said to have emailed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to delay scheduled maintenance in order to assist the aborted 2009 uprising in Iran. His documented love affair with Google began the same year when he befriended Eric Schmidt as they together surveyed the post-occupation wreckage of Baghdad. Just months later, Schmidt re-created Cohen’s natural habitat within Google itself by engineering a “think/do tank” based in New York and appointing Cohen as its head. Google Ideas was born.

Later that year two co-wrote a policy piece for the Council on Foreign Relations’ journal Foreign Affairs, praising the reformative potential of Silicon Valley technologies as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. Describing what they called “coalitions of the connected,” Schmidt and Cohen claimed that:

Democratic states that have built coalitions of their militaries have the capacity to do the same with their connection technologies.…

They offer a new way to exercise the duty to protect citizens around the world [emphasis added].

Schmidt and Cohen said they wanted to interview me. I agreed. A date was set for June.


The Stream Finally Cracks the Dam of Cable TV

The Stream Finally Cracks the Dam of Cable TV
By David Carr
Oct 19 2014

The last time I wrote about the traditional cable bundle — which has been so lucrative to networks like CBS and HBO — I warned that change comes very slowly, but then happens all at once.

This is the all-at-once part. Last week was pretty big for television, one in which not just a cable channel, but a broadcast one as well, jumped onto the streaming bandwagon with both feet. We all knew it was coming, but not this fast. The future, as it always does, sets its own schedule.

And Netflix is the necessary figure in what will come to be seen as the year that television staged a jailbreak. Yes, Netflix, which was supposed to lay waste to traditional media companies, may have saved them instead.

True, Netflix’s earnings took a beating last week, partly because it missed estimates and partly because, well, it now has company. But its bet on streaming has never looked smarter.

Netflix pointed a way forward by not only establishing that programming could be reliably delivered over the web, but showing that consumers were more than ready to make the leap. The reaction of the incumbents has been fascinating to behold.

As a reporter, I watched as newspapers, books and music all got hammered after refusing to acknowledge new competition and new consumption habits. They fortified their defenses, doubled down on legacy approaches and covered their eyes, hoping the barbarians would recede. That didn’t end up being a good idea.

Television, partly because its files are so much larger and tougher to download, was insulated for a time, and had the benefit of having seen what happens when you sit still — you get run over.

Instead, traditional television is morphing in nontraditional ways. Last week, Richard Plepler of HBO and Leslie Moonves of CBS both announced streaming services that would bypass established distribution systems. Suddenly, two fairly traditional media executives, sitting on top of lucrative companies, were adopting the tools of the insurgency and augmenting their current business models with ones that leave the bundle behind.

For any legacy business under threat of disruption, the challenge is to get from one room — the one with the tried and true profitable approach — to another, where consumers are headed and innovators are setting up shop. To get there, you have to enter a long, dark hallway, a scary place.

I had always thought that HBO would hold hands in the hallway with existing cable providers and offer an over-the-web product that they would jointly sell on broadband. There will be some of that, but HBO’s programming will also show up on Xboxes and as a part of stand-alone offerings. HBO’s move is motivated partly by global considerations. Right now, HBO has licensing deals all over the world and a complicated set of arrangements with an array of cable systems. An Internet product will be lower priced while also letting HBO develop a direct relationship with consumers. And in sidestepping cable in some instances, HBO — likewise CBS — will have its hands on precious viewer data, an asset Netflix has used to lucrative ends.

The strategy has its risks. In 2012, HBO announced that it would offer a streaming-only service in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, partly to complicate Netflix’s entry into the market. But the product was delayed, then disappointed customers when it started. And here in the United States, those of us who piled online to watch the finale of “True Detective” on HBO Go received a “fatal error” message instead. Delivering high-definition video online is complicated — a different skill set than making must-see programming.


Net neutrality and the disruption of television distribution

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Isenberg.  DLH]

Net neutrality and the disruption of television distribution
By David Post
Oct 21 2014

David Carr at had a very interesting piece yesterday about the disruption occasioned by recent announcements by CBS and HBO that they will distribute more of their programming directly to consumers over the Internet (now that an early disruptor – Netflix – has established proof of concept – it can be done, and it can be done profitably).  The moves may (finally) occasion an avalanche of change about to hit the TV and cable industries – big bang disruption, as Larry Downes and Paul Nunes might call it.  The economics of all this is going to be very challenging for all players.

When I worked on the Aereo case last spring, I was struck by how anxious the TV networks are to keep consumers hooked to their cable systems.  It didn’t make sense to me, at first – why were the networks so determined to shut Aereo down, when all it was doing was making the networks’ content, which is given away for free over the public airwaves, available to more consumers on more devices?  Why weren’t they happy about that (since it would give them more eyeballs, and more eyeballs should translate into more advertising dollars)?  The answer, I discovered, were the cable retransmission fees – cable systems, through a very complex series of provisions in the Copyright Act, have to pay the broadcasters when they re-transmit local network over-the-air broadcast content to their subscribers (as they are, by a very complex series of provisions in the Communications Act, required to do).  So the networks don’t want to see consumers abandoning their cable subscriptions and obtaining their content elsewhere, because that will threaten their retransmission revenues (which amount to several billion dollars annually).

But CBS has now gone over to the other side.  It’s a risky gamble, though everyone knew it was just a matter of time before one of the networks went rogue like this.  As Carr put it:

For any legacy business under threat of disruption, the challenge is to get from one room — the one with the tried and true profitable approach — to another, where consumers are headed and innovators are setting up shop. To get there, you have to enter a long, dark hallway, a scary place.

But I was struck by a different point that Carr makes at the very end of his article:

If, in a few years, cable and broadcast programmers — many will follow the examples of CBS and HBO — are still thriving in a vastly changed entertainment landscape, they may have to send Netflix a thank-you note. In addition to funneling cash to legacy media providers by paying close to $3 billion for their programming, Netflix has schooled them on the way forward by challenging their business model without tipping it over.

It makes sense; after all, Netflix famously disrupted itself by moving away from DVD rentals and tackling streaming with a vengeance. There’s an upside for Netflix as well. As older media companies invest in streaming, they may begin to see net neutrality and better Internet infrastructure as more than just something Netflix should worry about.

That’s an interesting observation indeed – one that may well alter the already complicated landscape of the net neutrality debates.

Apple Strengthens Pull of Its Orbit With Each Device

Apple Strengthens Pull of Its Orbit With Each Device
By Farhad Manjoo
Oct 22 2014

Late in 2012, when Tim Cook was relatively fresh on the job as Apple’s chief executive, he made a sudden and potentially risky shuffle in the firm’s executive ranks. He fired Scott Forstall, who had been in charge of Apple’s mobile operating system, the most important piece of software Apple produced. Mr. Forstall had long been one of Steve Jobs’s favored lieutenants, but in addition to presiding over a couple of prominent failures — including Apple’s Maps app — he was known for his combativeness within the company.

Mr. Cook had little patience for that attitude. As he later explained in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, the reshuffling was meant to “get us to a whole new level of collaboration.” In public appearances since, Mr. Cook has repeatedly returned to this idea of cohesiveness. Apple, he likes to point out, is alone among tech firms in producing the entire collection of digital technology that people use daily, from the devices we crave to the operating systems that power them to the applications and services that make them useful.

We are now beginning to see the fruits of Mr. Cook’s vision of a tightly integrated Apple. Over the last few months, Apple has introduced a series of devices that work best as part of an integrated lineup. Apple is no longer making lonely individual products. Its phones, tablets, computers and the mobile and desktop operating systems that run them are blending into a single, inseparable whole.

The minute you use one of them, the more sense it makes to begin using several others. And the more of Apple’s stuff you use, the better your experience becomes.

But one note of caution. Apple’s beautiful ecosystem is a bit like the Hotel California: Once you check in, you might never leave. As I explained last February, this can be a mistake. It’s wise to split your computing time and money among the dominant tech platforms; that way, if any one of them dies or acts in ways you don’t like, it won’t be so tough to escape to something else. The best strategy remains: Buy Apple’s hardware, use Google’s services and get media from Amazon. That way you get the best of all worlds — Apple’s hardware is terrific, Google’s services are ubiquitous, and Amazon’s media is cheap and works everywhere — but you’ll never have to fully commit to one.

Over the week, to test Apple’s waters, I ignored my own advice and went all in on its ecosystem. I used its latest iPhone, its newest iPad and the brilliant new desktop it began selling last week, the iMac with a Retina 5K display. I also used the latest versions of the Mac operating system, Yosemite, and iOS 8.1, the mobile operating system found on Apple’s phones and tablets.