Government

What a Government Shutdown Will Mean For NASA and SpaceX (theverge.com) 135

Ars Technica reports of how the government shutdown affects federal agencies like NASA, as well as commercial companies like SpaceX: So far, NASA has been keeping quiet about this particular shutdown and has been directing all questions to the White House Office of Management and Budget, which did not respond to a request for comment. But NASA's acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, told employees in an email obtained by The Verge to be on alert for directions over the next couple of days. "If there is a lapse in funding for the federal government Friday night, report to work the same way you normally would until further notice, and you will receive guidance on how best to closeout your activities on Monday," he wrote in the email. The most recent guidance from NASA, released in 2017, indicates that all nonessential employees should stay home during a shutdown, while a small contingent of staff continue to work on "excepted" projects. The heads of each NASA center decide which employees need to stay, but they're typically the people who operate important or hazardous programs, including employees working on upcoming launches or those who operate satellites and the International Space Station.

NASA's next big mission is the launch of its exoplanet-hunting satellite, TESS, which is going up on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Florida in March. So it shouldn't be affected by a shutdown (unless it takes a while to find a resolution). However, it's possible that preparations on another big spacecraft, the James Webb Space Telescope, may come to a halt, according to Nature. The space telescope is currently at NASA's Johnson Space Center for testing, but NASA's guidelines say that only spacecraft preparations that are "necessary to prevent harm to life or property" should continue during a shutdown. More immediately, an Atlas V rocket from the United Launch Alliance is launching a missile-detecting satellite tonight out of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, while SpaceX is slated to launch a communications satellite on January 30th. The timing of both launches may mean they avoid the shutdown. But if they did occur during the shutdown, it's unclear if they would suffer delays.

The Internet

Ajit Pai's FCC Can't Admit Broadband Competition Is a Problem (dslreports.com) 81

An anonymous reader quotes a report from DSLReports: While the FCC is fortunately backing away from a plan that would have weakened the standard definition of broadband, the agency under Ajit Pai still can't seem to acknowledge the lack of competition in the broadband sector. Or the impact this limited competition has in encouraging higher prices, net neutrality violations, privacy violations, or what's widely agreed to be some of the worst customer service of any industry in America. The Trump FCC had been widely criticized for a plan to weaken the standard definition of broadband from 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up, to include any wireless connection capable of 10 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up. Consumer advocates argued the move was a ham-fisted attempt to try and tilt the data to downplay the industry's obvious competitive and coverage shortcomings. They also argued that the plan made no coherent sense, given that wireless broadband is frequently capped, often not available (with carrier maps the FCC relies on falsely over-stating coverage), and significantly more expensive than traditional fixed-line service.

In a statement (pdf), FCC boss Ajit Pai stated the agency would fortunately be backing away from the measure, while acknowledging that frequently capped and expensive wireless isn't a comparable replacement for fixed-line broadband. "The draft report maintains the same benchmark speed for fixed broadband service previously adopted by the Commission: 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload," stated Pai. "The draft report also concludes that mobile broadband service is not a full substitute for fixed service. Instead, it notes there are differences between the two technologies, including clear variations in consumer preferences and demands." That's the good news. The bad news: the FCC under Pai's leadership continues to downplay and ignore the lack of competition in the sector, and the high prices and various bad behaviors most people are painfully familiar with.

Privacy

Trump Signs Surveillance Extension Into Law (thehill.com) 83

President Trump took to Twitter this afternoon to announce that he has signed a six-year renewal of a powerful government surveillance tool. "Just signed 702 Bill to authorize foreign intelligence collection," Trump tweeted. "This is NOT the same FISA law that was so wrongly abused during the election. I will always do the right thing for our country and put the safety of the American people first!" The Hill reports: Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which the Senate voted to renew with a few small tweaks this week, allows the U.S. to spy on foreigners overseas. The intelligence community says the program is a critical tool in identifying and disrupting terror plots. But the broader surveillance law, which governs U.S. spying on foreigners, has become politically entangled with the controversy over the federal investigation into Trump's campaign and Russia. Some Republicans have claimed that the FBI inappropriately obtained a politically motivated FISA warrant to spy on Trump during the transition and on Friday, Capitol Hill was consumed with speculation about a four-page memo produced by House Intelligence Committee Republicans that some GOP lawmakers hinted contained evidence of such wrongdoing.
Businesses

Amazon Picks 20 Finalists For 'HQ2' Second Headquarters Location (nbcnews.com) 199

bigpat writes: Amazon took in hundreds of proposals and narrowed it down to twenty places for its "second" headquarters, with up to 50,000 new jobs promised in the next 15 years and millions of square feet of office and research space. The cities include: Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Miami, Montgomery County, Maryland, Nashville, Newark, NJ, New York City, Northern Virginia, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Raleigh, Toronto and Washington D.C. Amazon said that it will now work with the candidate locations to examine their proposals more closely and request additional information to "evaluate the feasibility of a future partnership that can accommodate our hiring plans as well as benefit our employees and the local community." The company said it would make its decision later in 2018.
Security

Senate Passes Bill Renewing NSA's Internet Surveillance Program (reuters.com) 94

From a report: The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed a bill to renew the National Security Agency's warrantless internet surveillance program for six years and with minimal changes, overcoming objections from civil liberties advocates that it did too little to safeguard the privacy of Americans. From a report on CNET: The programs, known as Prism and Upstream, allow the NSA to collect online communications of foreigners outside the US. Prism collects these communications from internet services, and Upstream taps into the internet's infrastructure to capture information in transit. Some communications from Americans and others in the US are collected in the process. The vote Thursday renews the programs for six years. The House approved a bill renewing the programs last week. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden first revealed the programs by leaking information about them to journalists in 2013. After the news coverage, the administration of President Barack Obama declassified much information about the programs.
United States

US Doctors Plan To Treat Cancer Patients Using CRISPR (technologyreview.com) 51

An anonymous reader shares a report: The first human test in the U.S. involving the gene-editing tool CRISPR could begin at any time and will employ the DNA cutting technique in a bid to battle deadly cancers. Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania say they will use CRISPR to modify human immune cells so that they become expert cancer killers, according to plans posted this week to a directory of ongoing clinical trials. The study will enroll up to 18 patients fighting three different types of cancer -- multiple myeloma, sarcoma, and melanoma -- in what could become the first medical use of CRISPR outside China, where similar studies have been under way. An advisory group to the National Institutes of Health initially gave a green light to the Penn researchers in June 2016, but until now it was not known whether the trial would proceed.
Crime

Software 'No More Accurate Than Untrained Humans' At Predicting Recidivism (theguardian.com) 162

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: The credibility of a computer program used for bail and sentencing decisions has been called into question after it was found to be no more accurate at predicting the risk of reoffending than people with no criminal justice experience provided with only the defendant's age, sex and criminal history. The algorithm, called Compas (Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions), is used throughout the U.S. to weigh up whether defendants awaiting trial or sentencing are at too much risk of reoffending to be released on bail. Since being developed in 1998, the tool is reported to have been used to assess more than one million defendants. But a new paper has cast doubt on whether the software's predictions are sufficiently accurate to justify its use in potentially life-changing decisions.

The academics used a database of more than 7,000 pretrial defendants from Broward County, Florida, which included individual demographic information, age, sex, criminal history and arrest record in the two year period following the Compas scoring. The online workers were given short descriptions that included a defendant's sex, age, and previous criminal history and asked whether they thought they would reoffend. Using far less information than Compas (seven variables versus 137), when the results were pooled the humans were accurate in 67% of cases, compared to the 65% accuracy of Compas. In a second analysis, the paper found that Compas's accuracy at predicting recidivism could also be matched using a simple calculation involving only an offender's age and the number of prior convictions.

Transportation

LAPD Is Not Using the Electric BMWs It Announced In 2016 (cbslocal.com) 134

mi shares a report from CBS Los Angeles: "In a 2016 well-choreographed press conference, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck got out of an electric BMW driven by Mayor Garcetti to tout the city's ambitious project [to provide electric cars for the department]," reports CBS Los Angeles. "The cost: $10.2 million, which includes charging stations." However, the cars have seen very little use. With the monthly lease payment of a little more than $418, one vehicle ends up costing taxpayers over $15 a mile to use. Some of the use they do get is improper too, alleges CBS Los Angeles, citing footage captured from several hidden cameras. "We followed someone after leaving the downtown police garage; they went to the drive-through at Yoshinoya," reports CBS. "On another day, someone drove from downtown LA to Loyola Marymount University in West LA, picked up someone who appeared to be a student, and went to lunch." The deputy chief is looking into what CBS found and says the cars are to be used for business only.
Businesses

Apple Says It Will 'Contribute' $350 Billion in the US Economy Over the Next 5 Years (cnbc.com) 162

Apple said on Wednesday it will invest $350 billion in the U.S. economy over the next five years, touting the creation of 20,000 new jobs and a new campus thanks, in part, to the prospect of tax reform. From a report: The company said it expects tax repatriation payments of about $38 billion, indicating that it will bring a portion of its $250 billion overseas cash back to the U.S. As of November, the company had $268.9 billion in cash, both domestically and overseas. The job creation will focus on direct employment, but also suppliers and its app business, which it had already planned to grow substantially. "We have a deep sense of responsibility to give back to our country and the people who help make our success possible," chief executive Tim Cook said in a statement.
The Military

America's Fastest Spy Plane May Be Back -- And Hypersonic (bloomberg.com) 299

A Lockheed Skunk Works executive implied last week at an aerospace conference that the successor to one of the fastest aircraft the world has seen, the SR-71 Blackbird, might already exist. Previously, Lockheed officials have said the successor, the SR-72, could fly by 2030. Bloomberg reports: Referring to detailed specifics of company design and manufacturing, Jack O'Banion, a Lockheed vice president, said a "digital transformation" arising from recent computing capabilities and design tools had made hypersonic development possible. Then -- assuming O'Banion chose his verb tense purposely -- came the surprise. "Without the digital transformation, the aircraft you see there could not have been made," O'Banion said, standing by an artist's rendering of the hypersonic aircraft. "In fact, five years ago, it could not have been made." Hypersonic applies to speeds above Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound. The SR-71 cruised at Mach 3.2, more than 2,000 mph, around 85,000 feet.

"We couldn't have made the engine itself -- it would have melted down into slag if we had tried to produce it five years ago," O'Banion said. "But now we can digitally print that engine with an incredibly sophisticated cooling system integral into the material of the engine itself and have that engine survive for multiple firings for routine operation." The aircraft is also agile at hypersonic speeds, with reliable engine starts, he said. A half-decade before, he added, developers "could not have even built it even if we conceived of it."

The Internet

Lawsuit Filed By 22 State Attorneys General Seeks To Block Net Neutrality Repeal (techcrunch.com) 353

An anonymous reader quotes a report from TechCrunch: A lawsuit filed today by the attorneys general of 22 states seeks to block the Federal Communications Commission's recent controversial vote to repeal Obama era Net Neutrality regulations. The filing is led by New York State Attorney General Schneiderman, who called rollback a potential "disaster for New York consumers and businesses, and for everyone who cares about a free and open internet." The letter, which was filed in the United States District Court of Appeals in Washington, is cosigned by AGs from California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Washington DC.

"An open internet -- and the free exchange of ideas it allows -- is critical to our democratic process," Schneiderman added in an accompanying statement. "The repeal of net neutrality would turn internet service providers into gatekeepers -- allowing them to put profits over consumers while controlling what we see, what we do, and what we say online."

Democrats

Democrats Are Just One Vote Shy of Restoring Net Neutrality (engadget.com) 330

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Engadget: Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer now says Democrats in the Senate are a single vote away from restoring net neutrality. According to the senator from New York, they now have a total of 50 votes for a Senate resolution of disapproval that would restore the Open Internet Order of 2015 and deliver a stiff rebuke to Ajit Pai and other Republican members of the FCC. It would also prevent the agency from passing a similar measure in the future, all but guaranteeing Net Neutrality is permanently preserved. Right now the resolution has the support of all 49 Democrats in the Senate and one Republican, Susan Collins of Maine. But Schumer and the rest of the caucus will have to win over one more Republican vote to prevent Vice President Mike Pence from breaking tie and allowing the repeal to stand. Under the Congressional Review Act, the Senate has 60 days to challenge a decision by an independent agency like the FCC. Democrats have less than 30 days to convince a "moderate" like John McCain or Lindsey Graham to buck their party. Further reading: The Washington Post (paywalled)
Software

'Very High Level of Confidence' Russia Used Kaspersky Software For Devastating NSA Leaks (yahoo.com) 232

bricko shares a report from Yahoo Finance: Three months after U.S. officials asserted that Russian intelligence used popular antivirus company Kaspersky to steal U.S. classified information, there are indications that the alleged espionage is related to a public campaign of highly damaging NSA leaks by a mysterious group called the Shadow Brokers. In August 2016, the Shadow Brokers began leaking classified NSA exploit code that amounted to hacking manuals. In October 2017, U.S. officials told major U.S. newspapers that Russian intelligence leveraged software sold by Kaspersky to exfiltrate classified documents from certain computers. (Kaspersky software, like all antivirus software, requires access to everything stored on a computer so that it can scan for malicious software.) And last week the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. investigators "now believe that those manuals [leaked by Shadow Brokers] may have been obtained using Kaspersky to scan computers on which they were stored." Members of the computer security industry agree with that suspicion. "I think there's a very high level of confidence that the Shadow Brokers dump was directly related to Kaspersky ... and it's very much attributable," David Kennedy, CEO of TrustedSec, told Yahoo Finance. "Unfortunately, we can only hear that from the intelligence side about how they got that information to see if it's legitimate."
Power

California Will Close Its Last Nuclear Power Plant (sfchronicle.com) 357

An anonymous reader quotes the San Francisco Chronicle: California's last nuclear power plant -- Diablo Canyon, whose contentious birth helped shape the modern environmental movement -- will close in 2025, state utility regulators decided Thursday. The unanimous vote by the California Public Utilities Commission will likely bring an end to nuclear energy's long history in the state. State law forbids building more nuclear plants in California until the federal government creates a long-term solution for dealing with their waste, a goal that remains elusive despite decades of effort.

The decision comes even as California expands its fight against global warming. Owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Diablo Canyon is the state's largest power plant, supplying 9 percent of California's electricity while producing no greenhouse gases. "With this decision, we chart a new energy future by phasing out nuclear power here in California," said commission President Michael Picker. "We've looked hard at all the arguments, and we agree the time has come."

Cellphones

Text Message Scammer Gets Five Years in Prison (reuters.com) 69

36-year-old Fraser Thompson is going to prison, according to Reuters, after receiving a five-year sentence for "defrauding" cellphone customers out of millions of dollars. An anonymous reader quotes Reuters: Prosecutors said Thompson engaged in a scheme to sign up hundreds of thousands of cellphone customers for paid text messaging services without their consent. The customers were subsequently forced to pay more than $100 million for unsolicited text messages that included trivia, horoscopes and celebrity gossip, according to the prosecutors. They said the scheme was headed by Darcy Wedd, Mobile Messenger's former chief executive, who was found guilty by a jury in December but has not yet been sentenced. "They ripped off everyday cellphone users, $10 a month, netting over $100 million in illegal profits, of which Thompson personally received over $1.5 million," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said in a statement.
Thompson was ordered to forfeit $1.5 million in "fraud proceeds," according to the article, and was convicted of conspiracy, wire fraud, identity theft and money laundering.

Seven other people also pleaded guilty to participating in the scam -- and one has already been sentenced to 33 months in prison.
Businesses

Following Other Credit Cards, Visa Will Also Stop Requiring Signatures (siliconbeat.com) 170

An anonymous reader quotes SiliconBeat: Visa, the largest U.S. credit card issuer, became the last of the major credit card companies to announce its plan to make signatures optional... Visa joined American Express, Discover, and Mastercard in the phase-out. Mastercard was the first one to announce the move in October, and American Express and Discover followed suit in December... However, this change does not apply to every credit card in circulation; older credit cards without EMV chips will still require signatures for authentication... Since 2011, Visa has deployed more than 460 million EMV chip cards and EMV chip-enabled readers at more than 2.5 million locations.
"Businesses that accepted EMV cards reported a 66 percent decline in fraud in the first two years of EMV deployment," the article notes -- suggesting a future where fewer shoppers are signing their receipts.

"In Canada, Australia and most of Europe, credit cards have long abandoned the signature for the EMV chip and a PIN to authenticate the transaction, like one does with a debit card."
Government

Chelsea Manning Files to Run for U.S. Senate in Maryland (washingtonpost.com) 313

An anonymous reader quotes the Washington Post: Chelsea E. Manning, the transgender former Army private who was convicted of passing sensitive government documents to WikiLeaks, is seeking to run for the U.S. Senate in Maryland, according to federal election filings. Manning would be challenging Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin, who is in his second term in the Senate and is up for reelection in November. Cardin is Maryland's senior senator and is considered an overwhelming favorite to win a third term... However, a candidate with national name recognition, such as Manning, who comes in from the outside could tap a network of donors interested in elevating a progressive agenda...

Evan Greer, campaign director of the nonprofit organization Fight for the Future and a close supporter of Manning's while she was imprisoned, said the news is exciting. "Chelsea Manning has fought for freedom and sacrificed for it in ways that few others have," Greer wrote in an email. "The world is a better place with her as a free woman, and this latest news makes it clear she is only beginning to make her mark on it."

Cellphones

Fake 'Inbound Missile' Alert Sent To Every Cellphone in Hawaii (chicagotribune.com) 227

"Somebody sent out a false emergency alert to all cell phones in Hawaii saying, 'BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL'," writes Slashdot reader flopwich, adding "Somebody's had better days at work." The Associated Press reports: In a conciliatory news conference later in the day, Hawaii officials apologized for the mistake and vowed to ensure it will never happen again. Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Administrator Vern Miyagi said the error happened when someone hit the wrong button. "We made a mistake," said Miyagi. For nearly 40 minutes, it seemed like the world was about to end in Hawaii, an island paradise already jittery over the threat of nuclear-tipped missiles from North Korea...

On the H-3, a major highway north of Honolulu, vehicles sat empty after drivers left them to run to a nearby tunnel after the alert showed up, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported. Workers at a golf club huddled in a kitchen fearing the worst... The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency tweeted there was no threat about 10 minutes after the initial alert, but that didn't reach people who aren't on the social media platform. A revised alert informing of the "false alarm" didn't reach cellphones until 38 minutes later, according to the time stamp on images people shared on social media.

Government

Many US States Propose Their Own Laws Protecting Net Neutrality (seattletimes.com) 144

An anonymous reader quotes the New York Times: Lawmakers in at least six states, including California and New York, have introduced bills in recent weeks that would forbid internet providers to block or slow down sites or online services. Legislators in several other states, including North Carolina and Illinois, are weighing similar action... By passing their own law, the state lawmakers say, they would ensure that consumers would find the content of the choice, maintain a diversity of voices online and protect businesses from having to pay fees to reach users.

And they might even have an effect beyond their states. California's strict auto-emissions standards, for example, have been followed by a dozen other states, giving California major sway over the auto industry. "There tends to be a follow-on effect, particularly when something happens in a big state like California," said Harold Feld, a senior vice president at a nonprofit consumer group, Public Knowledge, that supports net-neutrality efforts by the states. Bills have also been introduced in Massachusetts, Nebraska, Rhode Island and Washington.

In addition, a representative in Alaska's legislature has also pre-filed legislation requiring the state's ISPs to practice net neutrality, which will be introduced when the state legislature resumes on January 16th.

"The recent FCC decision eliminating net neutrality was a mistake that favors the big internet providers and those who want to restrict the kinds of information a free-thinking Alaskan can access," representative Scott Kawasaki told a local news station. "That is not the Alaskan way, and I am hopeful my colleagues in the House and Senate will agree..."

The Independent also notes that Europe "is still strongly committed" to net neutrality.
Government

Ask Slashdot: How Would You Use Computers To Make Elections Better? 498

shanen writes: Regarding politics, is there anything that Americans agree on? If so, it's probably something negative like "The system is broken," or "The leading candidates are terrible," or even "Your state is a shithole." With all our fancy technology, what's going wrong? Our computers are creating problems, not solutions. For example, gerrymandering relies on fancy computers to rig the maps. Negative campaigning increasingly relies on computers to target the attacks on specific voters. Even international attacks exploit the internet to intrude into elections around the world. Here are three of my suggested solutions, though I can't imagine any of today's politicians would ever support anything along these lines:

(1) Guest voting: If you hate your district, you could vote in a neighboring district. The more they gerrymander, the less predictable the election results.
(2) Results-based weighting: The winning candidates get more voting power in the legislature, reflecting how many people actually voted for them. If you win a boring and uncontested election where few people vote, then part of your vote in the legislature would be transferred to the winners who also had more real votes.
(3) Negative voting: A voter could use an electronic ballot to make it explicit that the vote is negative, not positive. The candidate with the most positive or fewest negative votes still wins, but if the election has too many negative votes, then that "winner" would be penalized, perhaps with a half term rather than a full term.

What wild and crazy ideas do you have for using computers to make elections better, not worse?

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