Thanks to genetic genealogy, anonymity will soon become a thing of the past

The New York Times reports:

The genetic genealogy industry is booming. In recent years, more than 15 million people have offered up their DNA — a cheek swab, some saliva in a test-tube — to services such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com in pursuit of answers about their heritage. In exchange for a genetic fingerprint, individuals may find a birth parent, long-lost cousins, perhaps even a link to Oprah or Alexander the Great.

But as these registries of genetic identity grow, it’s becoming harder for individuals to retain any anonymity. Already, 60 percent of Americans of Northern European descent — the primary group using these sites — can be identified through such databases whether or not they’ve joined one themselves, according to a study published today in the journal Science.

Within two or three years, 90 percent of Americans of European descent will be identifiable from their DNA, researchers found. The science-fiction future, in which everyone is known whether or not they want to be, is nigh.

“It’s not the distant future, it’s the near future,” said Yaniv Erlich, the lead author of the study. Dr. Erlich, formerly a genetic-privacy researcher at Columbia University, is the chief science officer of MyHeritage, a genetic ancestry website. [Continue reading…]

How China used a hardware hack to infiltrate Amazon, Apple and dozens of other U.S. companies

Bloomberg Businessweek reports:

In 2015, Amazon.com Inc. began quietly evaluating a startup called Elemental Technologies, a potential acquisition to help with a major expansion of its streaming video service, known today as Amazon Prime Video. Based in Portland, Ore., Elemental made software for compressing massive video files and formatting them for different devices. Its technology had helped stream the Olympic Games online, communicate with the International Space Station, and funnel drone footage to the Central Intelligence Agency. Elemental’s national security contracts weren’t the main reason for the proposed acquisition, but they fit nicely with Amazon’s government businesses, such as the highly secure cloud that Amazon Web Services (AWS) was building for the CIA.

To help with due diligence, AWS, which was overseeing the prospective acquisition, hired a third-party company to scrutinize Elemental’s security, according to one person familiar with the process. The first pass uncovered troubling issues, prompting AWS to take a closer look at Elemental’s main product: the expensive servers that customers installed in their networks to handle the video compression. These servers were assembled for Elemental by Super Micro Computer Inc., a San Jose-based company (commonly known as Supermicro) that’s also one of the world’s biggest suppliers of server motherboards, the fiberglass-mounted clusters of chips and capacitors that act as the neurons of data centers large and small. In late spring of 2015, Elemental’s staff boxed up several servers and sent them to Ontario, Canada, for the third-party security company to test, the person says.

Nested on the servers’ motherboards, the testers found a tiny microchip, not much bigger than a grain of rice, that wasn’t part of the boards’ original design. Amazon reported the discovery to U.S. authorities, sending a shudder through the intelligence community. Elemental’s servers could be found in Department of Defense data centers, the CIA’s drone operations, and the onboard networks of Navy warships. And Elemental was just one of hundreds of Supermicro customers.

During the ensuing top-secret probe, which remains open more than three years later, investigators determined that the chips allowed the attackers to create a stealth doorway into any network that included the altered machines. Multiple people familiar with the matter say investigators found that the chips had been inserted at factories run by manufacturing subcontractors in China.

This attack was something graver than the software-based incidents the world has grown accustomed to seeing. Hardware hacks are more difficult to pull off and potentially more devastating, promising the kind of long-term, stealth access that spy agencies are willing to invest millions of dollars and many years to get. [Continue reading…]

Solar energy largely unscathed by Hurricane Florence’s wind and rain

Inside Climate News reports:

Faced with Hurricane Florence’s powerful winds and record rainfall, North Carolina’s solar farms held up with only minimal damage while other parts of the electricity system failed, an outcome that solar advocates hope will help to steer the broader energy debate.

North Carolina has more solar power than any state other than California, much of it built in the two years since Hurricane Matthew hit the region. Before last week, the state hadn’t seen how its growing solar developments—providing about 4.6 percent of the state’s electricity—would fare in the face of a hurricane.

Florence provided a test of how the systems stand up to severe weather as renewable energy use increases, particularly solar, which is growing faster in the Southeast than any other other region. [Continue reading…]

Utility companies are at odds with public demand for 100% renewable energy

Vox reports:

Renewable energy is hot. It has incredible momentum, not only in terms of deployment and costs but in terms of public opinion and cultural cachet. To put it simply: Everyone loves renewable energy. It’s cleaner, it’s high-tech, it’s new jobs, it’s the future.

And so more and more big energy customers are demanding the full meal deal: 100 percent renewable energy.

The Sierra Club notes that so far in the US, more than 80 cities, five counties, and two states have committed to 100 percent renewables. Six cities have already hit the target.

The group RE100 tracks 144 private companies across the globe that have committed to 100 percent renewables, including Google, Ikea, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Nike, GM, and, uh, Lego.

The timing of all these targets (and thus their stringency) varies, everywhere from 2020 to 2050, but cumulatively, they are beginning to add up. Even if policymakers never force power utilities to produce renewable energy through mandates, if all the biggest customers demand it, utilities will be mandated to produce it in all but name.

The rapid spread and evident popularity of the 100 percent target has created an alarming situation for power utilities. Suffice to say, while there are some visionary utilities in the country, as an industry, they tend to be extremely small-c conservative.

They do not like the idea of being forced to transition entirely to renewable energy, certainly not in the next 10 to 15 years. For one thing, most of them don’t believe the technology exists to make 100 percent work reliably; they believe that even with lots of storage, variable renewables will need to be balanced out by “dispatchable” power plants like natural gas. For another thing, getting to 100 percent quickly would mean lots of “stranded assets,” i.e., shutting down profitable fossil fuel power plants.

In short, their customers are stampeding in a direction that terrifies them. [Continue reading…]

Amazon’s antitrust antagonist has a breakthrough idea

David Streitfeld reports:

The dead books are on the top floor of Southern Methodist University’s law library.

“Antitrust Dilemma.” “The Antitrust Impulse.” “Antitrust in an Expanding Economy.” Shelf after shelf of volumes ignored for decades. There are a dozen fat tomes with transcripts of the congressional hearings on monopoly power in 1949, when the world was in ruins and the Soviets on the march. Lawmakers believed economic concentration would make America more vulnerable.

At the end of the antitrust stacks is a table near the window. “This is my command post,” said Lina Khan.

It’s nothing, really. A few books are piled up haphazardly next to a bottle with water and another with tea. Ms. Khan was in Dallas quite a bit over the last year, refining an argument about monopoly power that takes aim at one of the most admired, secretive and feared companies of our era: Amazon.

The retailer overwhelmingly dominates online commerce, employs more than half a million people and powers much of the internet itself through its cloud computing division. On Tuesday, it briefly became the second company to be worth a trillion dollars.

If competitors tremble at Amazon’s ambitions, consumers are mostly delighted by its speedy delivery and low prices. They stream its Oscar-winning movies and clamor for the company to build a second headquarters in their hometowns. Few of Amazon’s customers, it is safe to say, spend much time thinking they need to be protected from it.

But then, until recently, no one worried about Facebook, Google or Twitter either. Now politicians, the media, academics and regulators are kicking around ideas that would, metaphorically or literally, cut them down to size. [Continue reading…]

Microwave weapons are prime suspect in attacks on U.S. embassy staff in Cuba

The New York Times reports:

During the Cold War, Washington feared that Moscow was seeking to turn microwave radiation into covert weapons of mind control.

More recently, the American military itself sought to develop microwave arms that could invisibly beam painfully loud booms and even spoken words into people’s heads. The aims were to disable attackers and wage psychological warfare.

Now, doctors and scientists say such unconventional weapons may have caused the baffling symptoms and ailments that, starting in late 2016, hit more than three dozen American diplomats and family members in Cuba and China. The Cuban incidents resulted in a diplomatic rupture between Havana and Washington.

In 2016, diplomats at the United States Embassy in Havana were mysteriously stricken. Was it an attack? There is no official explanation, but the episode has played a big role in America’s current political disengagement with Cuba.Published OnApril 18, 2018
The medical team that examined 21 affected diplomats from Cuba made no mention of microwaves in its detailed report published in JAMA in March. But Douglas H. Smith, the study’s lead author and director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a recent interview that microwaves were now considered a main suspect and that the team was increasingly sure the diplomats had suffered brain injury. [Continue reading…]

As technology makes billions of people economically irrelevant, their political power is likely to shrink

Yuval Noah Harari writes:

There is nothing inevitable about democracy. For all the success that democracies have had over the past century or more, they are blips in history. Monarchies, oligarchies, and other forms of authoritarian rule have been far more common modes of human governance.

The emergence of liberal democracies is associated with ideals of liberty and equality that may seem self-evident and irreversible. But these ideals are far more fragile than we believe. Their success in the 20th century depended on unique technological conditions that may prove ephemeral.

In the second decade of the 21st century, liberalism has begun to lose credibility. Questions about the ability of liberal democracy to provide for the middle class have grown louder; politics have grown more tribal; and in more and more countries, leaders are showing a penchant for demagoguery and autocracy. The causes of this political shift are complex, but they appear to be intertwined with current technological developments. The technology that favored democracy is changing, and as artificial intelligence develops, it might change further.

Information technology is continuing to leap forward; biotechnology is beginning to provide a window into our inner lives—our emotions, thoughts, and choices. Together, infotech and biotech will create unprecedented upheavals in human society, eroding human agency and, possibly, subverting human desires. Under such conditions, liberal democracy and free-market economics might become obsolete.

Ordinary people may not understand artificial intelligence and biotechnology in any detail, but they can sense that the future is passing them by. In 1938 the common man’s condition in the Soviet Union, Germany, or the United States may have been grim, but he was constantly told that he was the most important thing in the world, and that he was the future (provided, of course, that he was an “ordinary man,” rather than, say, a Jew or a woman). He looked at the propaganda posters—which typically depicted coal miners and steelworkers in heroic poses—and saw himself there: “I am in that poster! I am the hero of the future!”

In 2018 the common person feels increasingly irrelevant. Lots of mysterious terms are bandied about excitedly in ted Talks, at government think tanks, and at high-tech conferences—globalization, blockchain, genetic engineering, AI, machine learning—and common people, both men and women, may well suspect that none of these terms is about them.

In the 20th century, the masses revolted against exploitation and sought to translate their vital role in the economy into political power. Now the masses fear irrelevance, and they are frantic to use their remaining political power before it is too late. Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump may therefore demonstrate a trajectory opposite to that of traditional socialist revolutions. The Russian, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions were made by people who were vital to the economy but lacked political power; in 2016, Trump and Brexit were supported by many people who still enjoyed political power but feared they were losing their economic worth. Perhaps in the 21st century, populist revolts will be staged not against an economic elite that exploits people but against an economic elite that does not need them anymore. This may well be a losing battle. It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation. [Continue reading…]

The digital corruption of the human brain

Maryanne Wolf writes:

Look around on your next plane trip. The iPad is the new pacifier for babies and toddlers. Younger school-aged children read stories on smartphones; older boys don’t read at all, but hunch over video games. Parents and other passengers read on Kindles or skim a flotilla of email and news feeds. Unbeknownst to most of us, an invisible, game-changing transformation links everyone in this picture: the neuronal circuit that underlies the brain’s ability to read is subtly, rapidly changing – a change with implications for everyone from the pre-reading toddler to the expert adult.

As work in neurosciences indicates, the acquisition of literacy necessitated a new circuit in our species’ brain more than 6,000 years ago. That circuit evolved from a very simple mechanism for decoding basic information, like the number of goats in one’s herd, to the present, highly elaborated reading brain. My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.

This is not a simple, binary issue of print vs digital reading and technological innovation. As MIT scholar Sherry Turkle has written, we do not err as a society when we innovate, but when we ignore what we disrupt or diminish while innovating. In this hinge moment between print and digital cultures, society needs to confront what is diminishing in the expert reading circuit, what our children and older students are not developing, and what we can do about it. [Continue reading…]

California advances an ambitious climate policy that should be a model for the world

MIT Technology Review reports:

California is accelerating its rollout of clean energy, even as the White House is racing to unravel climate regulations.

On Tuesday evening, the California Assembly passed a bill requiring 100 percent of the state’s electricity to come from carbon-free sources by the end of 2045, putting one of the world’s most aggressive clean-energy policies on track for the governor’s desk.

Given the size of California’s economy and the bill’s ambitions, it “would be the most important climate law in US history,” says Danny Cullenward, an energy economist and lawyer at the Carnegie Institution for Science.

The actual impact of the measure on global emissions and climate risks will be negligible, unless the rest of the world responds in similar ways. But California is effectively acting as a test bed for what’s technically achievable, providing a massive market for the rollout of clean-energy technologies and building a body of knowledge that other states and nations can leverage, says Severin Borenstein, an energy economist at the University of California, Berkeley.

“We are showing that you can operate a grid with high levels of intermittent renewables,” he says. “That’s something that can be exported to the rest of the world.” [Continue reading…]

The hidden injuries of the age of exposure

Rochelle Gurstein writes:

What do we lose when we lose our privacy? This question has become increasingly difficult to answer, living as we do in a society that offers boundless opportunities for men and women to expose themselves (in all dimensions of that word) as never before, to commit what are essentially self-invasions of privacy. Although this is a new phenomenon, it has become as ubiquitous as it is quotidian, and for that reason, it is perhaps one of the most telling signs of our time. To get a sense of the sheer range of unconscious exhibitionism, we need only think of the popularity of reality TV shows, addiction-recovery memoirs, and cancer diaries. Then there are the banal but even more conspicuous varieties, like soaring, all-glass luxury apartment buildings and hotels in which inhabitants display themselves in all phases of their private lives to the casual glance of thousands of city walkers below. Or the incessant sound of people talking loudly—sometimes gossiping, sometimes crying—on their cell phones, broadcasting to total strangers the intimate details of their lives.

And, of course, there are now unprecedented opportunities for violating one’s own privacy, furnished by the technology of the internet. The results are everywhere, from selfies and Instagrammed trivia to the almost automatic, everyday activity of Facebook users registering their personal “likes” and preferences. (As we recently learned, this online pastime is nowhere near as private as we had been led to believe; more than fifty million users’ idly generated “data” was “harvested” by Cambridge Analytica to make “personality profiles” that were then used to target voters with advertisements from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.)

Beyond these branded and aggressively marketed forums for self-invasions of privacy there are all the giddy, salacious forms that circulate in graphic images and words online—the sort that led not so long ago to the downfall of Anthony Weiner. The mania for attention of any kind is so pervasive—and the invasion of privacy so nonchalant—that many of us no longer notice, let alone mind, what in the past would have been experienced as insolent violations of privacy.

Given our widespread obliviousness to the current situation, we might be better served by asking: What did people used to believe they lost when they lost their privacy? Surprisingly, it turns out that a large number of people began to speak of privacy in a self-conscious way only toward the end of the nineteenth century. As is often the case, the first defenders of privacy became aware of its value at the moment they were on the verge of losing it. [Continue reading…]