Thursday, 19 January 2017

Drivers Use Tesla Autopilot at Their Own Risk, Investigators Conclude

After a six month long inquest, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) today closed its investigation into a fatal accident involving a Tesla vehicle in autopilot mode with the conclusion that no design error occurred, precluding the need for a product recall and clearing Tesla of fault in the incident.

The fatal collision occurred on May 7th, 2016, when 40-year-old Joshua Brown’s Tesla Model S hit an 18-wheel truck and trailer that was turning left at an intersection. A statement from Tesla at the time said that an exceptional set of circumstances - an unusually tall white trailer against a bright sky - meant that the vehicle’s computer vision system did not detect the crossing truck, and the car passed under the trailer at full speed, tearing the roof off.

According to the report, the examination:

“[D]id not identify any defects in the design or performance of the AEB or Autopilot systems of the subject vehicles… The Autopilot system is an Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) that requires the continual and full attention of the driver to monitor the traffic environment and be prepared to take action to avoid crashes.”

The truck driver’s testimony from the crash suggested that Brown may have been watching a DVD at the time, ignoring Tesla’s instructions that drivers should remain attentive and keep hands on the wheel when autopilot mode is engaged. (Tesla’s own press kit describes the autopilot function as “a hands-on experience to give drivers more confidence behind the wheel.”)

Joshua Brown had an active YouTube page showing off Tesla's Autopilot feature.

According to Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington specializing in robotics law, the NHTSA’s decision reflects the principle of ‘assumption of risk’: that the affected party knowingly accepted the dangers of the activity concerned, meaning that the manufacturer was not at fault.

“I think the really difficult case is going to be a case in which some third party is hurt,” said Calo. “If someone has a Tesla on autopilot, is not paying attention and runs into a third party, Tesla is not going to be able to argue assumption of risk in that instance … so that will pose a very difficult legal problem for Tesla in my opinion.”

In the case of such an incident, Calo suggested, courts would not be bound by any precedent from today’s findings.

In a tweet, Elon Musk described the report’s finding as “very positive”, later quoting figures from the report that showed a significant reduction in crash rate of Tesla vehicles after the Autosteer feature was released.

Report highlight: “The data show that the Tesla vehicles crash rate dropped by almost 40 percent after Autosteer installation.”
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 19, 2017

Tragic accidents notwithstanding, polls suggest that overall the American public is slowly becoming more accepting of self-driving vehicles: a recent survey found that 23 percent of adults said they would ride in an autonomous vehicle now, with 42 percent saying they would consider doing so in future.



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Facebook Banned This Canadian Surveillance Company From Accessing Its Data

A small Canadian company selling social media monitoring tools to police, Media Sonar, was banned from accessing Facebook's data, Motherboard has learned.

The company, headquartered in London, Ontario, sells software that allows clients to monitor social media posts for keywords. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that Media Sonar has been selling its wares to police in California and encouraging them to track protesters using hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #DontShoot. In October, Twitter revoked Media Sonar’s access to its data.

According to a Facebook spokesperson Motherboard spoke to over the phone, Media Sonar was also banned from accessing Facebook’s API last year because it violated the platform policies for developers. An Instagram spokesperson also confirmed over email that Media Sonar was banned from that platform for violating the its terms of service. Instagram is owned by Facebook.

Read More: The Canadian Government Has Funded a Notorious Censorship Company for a Decade

Serious questions remain about which police agencies have gotten their hands on Media Sonar’s digital surveillance technology, and where. Motherboard has confirmed that police in Canada have used Media Sonar, and there are indications that Media Sonar’s technology is in use in countries outside of North America.

The York Regional Police expressed interest in the technology in 2013, the year the company was founded. A 2014 tender for a social media monitoring solution for the Halifax police shows that Media Sonar was a bidder, although they didn’t win the contract. A July 2015 report from the Guelph police notes that “Media Sonar is actively being used by members of the Intelligence Unit” for investigations into “extremism, firearms and drugs.” A 2015 article from TVO also reported that the Toronto police use Media Sonar.

Toronto Police Service spokesperson Mark Pugash declined to comment on the veracity of the TVO report, and declined to comment on whether the Toronto police still use Media Sonar, saying that the police do not comment on investigative techniques. The Guelph police board has not responded to Motherboard’s request for comment.

Canadian law enforcement has a history of tracking protesters. A 2015 document, unearthed in 2016 via an access to information request, describes a program in which the Royal Canadian Mounted Police monitored and tracked aboriginal protesters using social media. That report recommended that these practices continue.

There are also indications that the company has been selling its surveillance tools outside Canada and the US. In 2016, Media Sonar won the Ontario Chamber of Commerce’s “going global” award for small businesses. This award is given to companies that implement a successful export strategy, and the award page states that the company “has been assisting organizations around the globe” to “[solve] crimes.”

Media Sonar has not responded to Motherboard’s request for comment.

According to a spokesperson from the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, the award is given to companies that achieve an annual growth in export sales of 35 percent, and make under $5 million per year.

A post on the company’s LinkedIn page notes that while the company started “first in North America,” the company has been bringing its offerings “into new geographies over the past year.” It’s unclear if these “new geographies” include repressive regimes known to buy Western surveillance technology.

If so, then Media Sonar would be in league with another small Canadian company called Netsweeper, based in Waterloo. Over the past several years, Canadian surveillance research hub Citizen Lab has exposed Netsweeper’s internet filtering business in places like Yemen and Bahrain.

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Update: Facebook confirmed to Motherboard that Media Sonar was banned from accessing its data. This article and its headline have been updated to reflect this.



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Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop Shop Has Sold Out of Its Jade Vagina Eggs

Taking inspiration from “Chinese concubines and royalty in antiquity,” Gwyneth Paltrow’s new-age “health” brand Goop recently started hawking $66 egg-shaped lumps of jade designed to be inserted in the vagina. And as of Thursday afternoon, they’re sold out.

Goop claims the eggs, when inserted in the vagina and worn daily, work to “increase chi, orgasms, vaginal muscle tone, hormonal balance, and feminine energy in general.” The idea is similar to doing kegels—exercises that strengthen the pelvic floor muscles—but with the addition of a weight. Plus, like, the power of crystals or something.

The chi/energy/feminine power nonsense is not based in any science, but is there anything wrong with using a weight to add some extra oomph to your kegels? Well, when they’re jade eggs, there is actually, according to Dr. Jennifer Gunter, an OB/GYN. Gunter wrote on her blog that because jade is porous, it could house bacteria, which could lead to infection or even toxic shock syndrome. And overdoing it on kegels can cause pain or damage to your muscle, Gunter wrote.

But apparently enough customers were convinced to buy into Paltrow’s latest health hoax and sell out of the eggs. Hopefully Goop’s next product has antibacterial “properties” to help fight off the bouts of bacterial vaginosis.



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Hackers Hack Hacking Forum As Soon As It's Launched

Possibly one of the most embarrassing things that can happen to a hacking forum is getting hacked.

In 2015, the FBI shuttered malware marketplace Darkode, and then at the end of last year a small group of hackers launched their own eponymous copycat version. Almost immediately, however, other hackers attacked that new site, and stole user account information.

“It's a shit show on what happened,” a Darkode staff member who used the handle Bullets told Motherboard.

Hackers managed to steal a database of Darkode's users, including usernames and hashed passwords. Paid breach notification site LeakBase provided Motherboard with a copy of the data. The database included this reporter's Darkode account, used to briefly visit the site when it launched.

The data also includes users’ email addresses and IP addresses; something that might be particularly worrying if those who signed up were involved in any illegal activity—it probably doesn't help to have an IP address linked to your identity floating around the internet.

“They log user IPs. It's fucked up,” one of the hackers behind the breach, who used the moniker FuckInterpol, told Motherboard.

“Dear fake darkode wannabes, you’re [sic] forum has been owned, and your admins have terrible opsec,” one message posted to the forum read. The hackers also deleted other threads on the site.

Bullets, the staff member, claimed the hackers got in, at least in part, because he reused a password from another previously hacked site.

“The only reason I joined in the first place was just to see what the hell was actually going on. I used a common password I use when I signed up thinking nothing of it seeing I never thought I'd stay on the site & if anyone got access to it, it wouldn't be a big deal,” Bullets said.



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Check Out the Homemade Planetarium Built By A Very Committed Dude in Wisconsin

Frank Kovac built the Noah’s Ark of astronomy geekery: A working planetarium in his backyard.

Kovac has been recognized for his achievement before in various articles, and was recently profiled in a video documentary from Coolest Thing. As he explains in the interview, Kovac used to make his living at a paper mill, and had dreams of becoming a planetarium director. “But I am very weak at math, and you need a lot of math and science in order to get that degree,” he says. Major same.

'Screw the system,' he thought, 'I’ll build my own planetarium and spend over a decade and $180,000 doing it.' It weighs two tons, and needed a custom foundation and housing structure built around it.

The globe is made of plywood sheets and panel board, with five thousand hand-painted glow-in-the-dark stars inside. He gives tours year-round for up to 25 people per show, with up to 4,000 people visiting a year. The show even includes Kovac’s version of the Northern Lights: a penlight shone through a green-tinted water bottle.

This massive labor of love is inspired by, and named after, his father Frank Kovac Sr., who spent nights with his son staring up at the stars. If you’re ever in northern Wisconsin, stop on by for a tour.

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Rick Perry Doesn’t Really Understand the Department of Energy He’s About to Run

The New ‘Power Rangers’ Trailer Makes Me Want to Go Back to 1995

I'm less reflexively hateful of cinematic reboots and reinterpretations of old beloved franchises than I used to be. The endless barrage of Transformers movies, the abominable creature design of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the new action-heavy Star Trek have all worn me down to the point that I just accept the inevitability that the popular entertainment of my childhood—no Masterpiece Theater, mind you—will be forever regurgitated into newer, shinier, more frenetic iterations for the children of today. And that's OK! The cycle of art and commerce continues on.

But I feel the need to speak up about the new trailer for Power Rangers, the movie reboot of the popular 1990s Mighty Morphin' TV and toy franchise about spandex-clad color-coded warriors and their animalistic fighting robots (aka Zords). So the quick word on this new movie is that it's darker and angstier than than previous iterations, and stars Bryan Cranston as Zordon and Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa. I'm down for all that. But what I'm NOT down with are the following:

1. Zordon is freed from his bubble tank and appears as some kind of giant pin-face toy now?

2. The Ranger suits look like weird polished alien skeletons?

3. The Zords look like weirdo organic Michael Bay-era Transformers rather than bulky retro mechs?

Compare to the original trailer for the 1995 movie Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and mourn the loss of our cheesy innocence:

Full disclosure, like my colleagues at VICE, I will probably see this movie at some point and enjoy it.

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