Category Archives: Technology

Government Asks Tech Companies to Forbid Advocating Crime

This whole censorship thing gets a bit slippery, eh?

As protests against police brutality and racism stretch into their fourth week across the US, the Trump administration is pressuring tech companies to take action against posts that encourage the toppling of statues, describing them as “criminal activity.”

Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf sent letters to companies including Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Snapchat Friday. They claim that social media sites have enabled “burglary, arson, aggravated assault, rioting, looting, and defacing public property,” according to copies of the letters obtained by Business Insider.

Evers’ record(ings)

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News on Tuesday. Since I wrote this, there have been some very serious developments and it looks more and more like Evers might be covering up for a felon. I wonder… the Dane County DA and AG won’t investigate, but couldn’t the Jefferson or Racine County DAs (or wherever Vos and Fitzgerald were when they took the call)?

After the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Governor Tony Evers’ unconstitutional lockdown order, our state government leaders needed to figure out what, if anything, the state should do in its continuing effort to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Dutifully, Governor Evers and the two leaders of the Legislature, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, got on a phone call to discuss the path forward. What the legislative leaders did not know what that Governor Evers’ staff secretly recorded the conversation for dubious reasons and then released the recording to the media. Such a breach of trust, and his reaction to it, tells us a lot about our governor.

The rough details of the transgression are known. There were five participants in the call: Governor Evers, Speaker Vos, Majority Leader Fitzgerald, Evers’ Chief of Staff Maggie Gau, and Evers’ attorney Ryan Nilsestuen. The call was recorded and given to the media. Vos and Fitzgerald were shocked to learn that it was recorded. Evers claimed that he did not know it was being recorded, but wouldn’t say who did it. Gau and Nilsestuen have not admitted to anything.

Wisconsin law allows a call to be legally recorded if one participant of the call knows. The law does not require that all participants be notified that the call is being recorded, but it is considered both impolite and unethical to not make such a disclosure. However, if one of Evers’ other non-participant staffers recorded the call, it would be a crime. Since Evers will not disclose who recorded the call, he is either covering up for a staffer’s unethical behavior, crime, or both. What does all of this tell us about Governor Evers? Quite a bit. If we believe that Evers is telling the truth that he was ignorant of the recording, then he does not have any control over his staff. Whether a CEO, general, governor, or any other person of great responsibility, it would be unthinkable for a staff member to record the boss’ phone call with other leaders without the boss’ knowledge and consent. If Evers truly did not know, then he is not managing his staff. They are managing him.

Further, Evers’ refusal to disclose or discipline the perpetrator tells us more about him. It tells us that he is either afraid to hold his staff accountable for bad behavior, or he condones it. Recall that we do not yet know if the perpetrator committed a crime or merely violated ethical boundaries. Either way, Evers is allowing staff members to run rogue with no consequences.

Whether Evers knew or just condoned his staff’s recording of the call, it also shows that his administration is willing to use slimy tactics for political gain – even on an official call that was supposed to be about working together to respond to a pandemic. They recorded the call and released it to the media in an effort to embarrass political opponents. Despite the Evers administration’s claims of innocent motives, the results speak for themselves. Look at what they do — not what they say.

Finally, since the disclosure of the recording, Governor Evers has not seen fit to apologize to Vos and Fitzgerald for recording their conversation. He may have not known that the call was being recorded at the time, but he knows it now. His stubborn refusal to even do the simple mannerly thing and apologize for the breach of trust shows his inability, or unwillingness, to build relationships with people with whom he disagrees politically. His lifetime as a bureaucrat has not equipped him with the skills and he lacks the natural acumen to develop personal relationships outside his rigid ideological sphere.

After almost a year-and-a-half in office, Governor Evers has not made any progress in learning how to govern in a divided government. He has lurched from insults to partisan attacks to cursing to violating trusts. Is it any wonder why he resorts to unconstitutional dictatorial actions instead of working with the Legislature on behalf of the people of Wisconsin?

Major Breakthrough in Coronavirus Treatment

Outstanding.

A cheap and widely available drug called dexamethasone can help save the lives of patients who are seriously ill with coronavirus.

UK experts say the low-dose steroid treatment is a major breakthrough in the fight against the deadly virus.

It cut the risk of death by a third for patients on ventilators. For those on oxygen, it cut deaths by a fifth.

The drug is part of the world’s biggest trial testing existing treatments to see if they also work for coronavirus.

Researchers estimate that if the drug had been used to treat patients in the UK from the start of the coronavirus pandemic up to 5,000 lives could have been saved. Because it is cheap, it could also be of huge benefit in poorer countries struggling with high numbers of Covid-19 patients.

Astronaut Dives to 7 Miles

Cool stuff.

NASA astronaut Kathy Sullivan made history this weekend by becoming not only the first woman to reach the deepest point in the world’s oceans, but also the first human to have been in space and at full ocean depth of about 7 miles. Sullivan marked the occasion by making a phone call from the submersible’s mothership, DSSV Pressure Drop, to speak with the NASA astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS).

“As a hybrid oceanographer and astronaut, this was an extraordinary day–a once-in-a-lifetime day–seeing the moonscape of the Challenger Deep and then making the call between the ISS and DSSV Pressure Drop,” said Sullivan.

Zuckerberg Breaks with Dorsey

Interesting 

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has criticized competitor Twitter for its decision to fact-check tweets from President Donald Trump.

In an interview with Fox News due to be broadcast on Thursday, Zuckerberg claims that it is not the place of private companies to interfere in what people say online.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey immediately fired back saying that the site would continue to call out ‘incorrect or disputed information’ about elections shared by users.

The spat between Zuckerberg and Dorsey came after Trump said he will sign some sort of ‘social media’-focused executive order on Thursday amid the rift with Twitter over the fact-checks on his tweets.

Trump To Issue Executive Order to Clarify Rules Around Liability for Internet Platforms

I’m very wary of things like this.

The order would push the Federal Communications Commission to write rules on when and how platforms can remove content from their platform and still maintain liability protection granted them under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The law as it stands largely exempts those publications from being held liable for much of the content on their websites.

The working order, which cites Twitter by name, would encourage the Federal Trade Commission to take action against companies that engage in “deceptive” acts of communication.

Outside of the current kerfuffle between Trump and Twitter, this debate has a deep history with huge implications. The debate revolves around the legal responsibility of people and companies who provide information platforms, carry/transport information, and perhaps operate a monopoly. Let’s take this blog, for example. Am I legally liable for what a commentator writes? In general, no. Part of what bolsters that relative protection is the fact that we don’t censor comments here. With rare exception – direct threat, spam, etc. – commentators can write whatever they want. If we got in the business of curating or filtering comments, then that liability potential increases. If I am curating the content, do I then own it? Someone might argue “yes.”

The discussion has roots back to medieval common carriage laws and norms. Here’s a great paper on some of the history and modern implications. It was written as part of the net neutrality debate, but has application here. Here’s a part:

Looking at the matter from a fresh perspective, it seems important to look at the entire regime of common carriage, not simply interconnection and non-discrimination—or even rate regulation and liability. And what emerges is a bargain that gives special legal liability in return for the carrier refraining from using some market power to further some public good. On one hand, the carrier gives away the right to discriminate on the basis of sender or content and in return receives immunity for liability for the content therein. On the other hand, the carrier agrees to moderate monopoly power against competitors, perhaps provides access to competitors in return for immunity from antitrust suit. Similarly, the increased standard of care reflects the market power of dominant communication and transportation firms enjoy vis à vis individual customers—and can be seen as a return for the privileges common carriers enjoy such as right of access etc.

In this regard, common carriage is a deal. The regulated industry has something the government wants—a universal communications platform that provides a valuable public good, notably free speech to further democratic deliberation. But, in return, the regulated industry receives preferential treatment from the government.

In the case of Twitter and Facebook, Trump is arguing, in his clumsy way, that those companies have surrendered their liability for content when they got into the business of regulating speech. If Twitter, for example, is going to curate, edit, and regulate content, do they also get to continue to enjoy liability protections for that content? If that’s the case, then shouldn’t such liability protections be extended to anyone to generates content?

Twitter, Facebook, and the like are going to have to make a choice. Either they can be agnostic platforms that carry content created by other people, in which case they enjoy certain legal liability protections for that content, or they can be content creators that create, modify, and curate content for consumption based on achieving their political or business objectives, in which case they are liable for the content. They can’t have it both ways.

U.S. Restarts Manned Space Program

This is good to see.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX company hopes to make history on Wednesday by launching the first astronauts into space from US soil in nine years, as the billionaire takes the next step in his dream to commercialise space travel.

Donald Trump will be among the spectators at Kennedy space centre in Florida to witness the launch, which has been given the green light despite the coronavirus lockdown.

At 4.33pm (2033 GMT) on Wednesday, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is due to take off from launchpad 39A – the same one the Apollo astronauts used to get to the moon – with the Crew Dragon space capsule on top of it. It is a demonstration of the new “taxi” service Nasa has agreed to buy from Musk’s firm.

States Are Combining Test Results

It is certainly concerning when we make broad, sweeping policy decisions based on suspect data. At the very least, this makes comparisons between states difficult.

(CNN)At least four states combined data from two different test results, potentially providing a misleading picture of when and where coronavirus spread as the nation eases restrictions.

More than 1.5 million people in the United States have tested positive for coronavirus and over 93,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Virginia, Texas, Georgia, and Vermont have said they’ve been adding two numbers to their totals: viral test results and antibody test results.
Viral tests are taken by nose swab or saliva sample, and look for direct evidence someone currently has Covid-19. By contrast, antibody tests use blood samples to look for biological signals that a person has been exposed to the virus in the past.

Potential COVID Treatment Found in Remdesivir

Excellent news!

Scientists on Wednesday announced the first effective treatment against the coronavirus — an experimental drug that can speed the recovery of COVID-19 patients — in a major medical advance that came as the economic gloom caused by the scourge deepened in the U.S. and Europe.

The U.S. government said it is working to make the antiviral medication remdesivir available to patients as quickly as possible. Stocks surged around the world on the news, with the Dow Jones Industrial average climbing more than 550 points, or over 2%, in the afternoon.

“What it has proven is that a drug can block this virus,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious-disease expert. “This will be the standard of care.”

It looks like it would take some ingenuity to ramp up production if this proves to be effective on a wide scale.

And when it comes to remdesivir, experts say Gilead might not have been inclined, or even had the time, to make the process as efficient as it could be. Gilead developed the compound during the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa and sped it along with the goal of testing it before the outbreak waned. The process likely reflects the anticipated demand for an Ebola treatment: the 2014 Ebola outbreak saw 29,000 cases over 2.5 years; the current coronavirus pandemic is approaching 2.5 million cases in under 5 months.

As the scope of the pandemic widens, Gilead has been open about the challenges of manufacturing the drug. The firm says it typically takes 9 to 12 months to make an antiviral like remdesivir, but that since January it has shrunk the timeline to 6 to 8 months. “We continue to work on optimizing the chemical synthesis processes,” the company states.

In a public communication in early April, CEO Daniel O’Day outlined a series of measures Gilead was taking to increase access to remdesivir. At the time, the company said it had on hand enough active ingredient to create about 1.5 million doses, enough for roughly 140,000 treatment courses, based on a 10-day regimen. The company has been working to increase both internal capacity and external partnerships to generate an additional 500,000 courses by October, 1 million courses by the end of the year, and, if needed, several million courses in 2021.

Milwaukee Election Commission Abruptly Closes Virtual Meeting

These are the people you trust with ballot security and election integrity?

A city Election Commission meeting using the videoconferencing software Zoom was abruptly halted on Sunday afternoon shortly after it was hacked in a practice called Zoombombing.

Neil Albrecht, executive director of the commission, shut down the videoconference after radical Muslim and crude pornographic images and racial slurs began appearing on the computer screens of all those participating in the meeting.

It took Albrecht and the three commissioners a couple of minutes to realize that the meeting had been hijacked by anonymous outsiders. He then engaged in a brief conversation with an individual claiming to be a Zoom tech.

Assistant City Attorney Patrick McClain eventually ordered Albrecht to halt the videoconference. There were a couple of dozen people participating in or watching the meeting.

“It was an outrageous hack,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who is running for re-election, said just minutes after the meeting was Zoombombed.

[…]

Participants in the election commission meeting on Sunday did not have to enter a password to participate . 

This was not some sort of sophisticated hack by technical geniuses. THEY DIDN’T SET A PASSWORD! smh

WalMart Sees Sales Surge for Tops, but Not Bottoms

There are a lot of teleworkers sitting in their underwear.

(CNN)With more and more people working from home, Walmart has picked up on an interesting trend: Tops have seen an increase in sales, while bottoms haven’t.

The reason? Teleworking.
That’s what Walmart’s executive vice president of corporate affairs Dan Bartlett told Yahoo Finance on Thursday. Later, a spokesman for the company told CNN the same thing.
As officials try to control the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of white collar workers — normally bound by dress codes and expectations in the office — are trading business trousers for sweat pants, and stiff blazers for that hoodie they would only ever allow their family, roommates or dog to see.

A View of Virtual Learning

The Washington County Insider has asked students from local schools to describe their virtual learning experiences. Here’s a fascinating and detailed “day in the life” view from a student at Kettle Moraine Lutheran High School in Jackson.

Our day starts at 7:40 a.m. with a live stream of our chapel service. This is the same time our normal day began. There is a Google form we must submit before 8 a.m. to show our attendance. Our normal eight period, 43-minute class schedule has been switched to a block schedule, where we have four periods each day, lasting 86 minutes.

For my classes, each teacher has posted what we will be doing that day in Google Classroom. This post also includes a link to Zoom, which is a video-conferencing App that allows us to meet. The teacher can interact with all the students and we can interact with each other by talking or using the chat feature. In some classes, the teacher has taught the entire lesson while on Zoom, and in other classes, the teacher uses Zoom just to see our faces and see if we have any questions before we complete the assignment posted on Google Classroom.

Teachers are able to share their screen with us, so we can still go through PowerPoint presentations. Student presentations are still possible through the same process. Zoom has a feature allowing the teacher to mute or unmute everyone, and each individual can control their video and audio as well. This feature has been effective for class discussions.

At times the video and audio quality are not the clearest, and some people have frozen on the screen for a small amount of time. Finding a place to have a Zoom meeting is also a challenge for some. For me personally, I have an eighth-grade brother who is doing online school, and my mother is working from home as well. Her job involves many phone meetings so it is difficult for us to work on the same floor. To alleviate the problem, I have decided to make my room my main working area. I cleared off my desk and that is where I do the majority of my work.

Intelligence Agencies Used Front Company for Technical Surveillance

Huh

The Swiss government has ordered an inquiry into a global encryption company based in Zug following revelations it was owned and controlled for decades by US and German intelligence.

Encryption weaknesses added to products sold by Crypto AG allowed the CIA and its German counterpart, the BND, to eavesdrop on adversaries and allies alike while earning million of dollars from the sales, according the Washington Post and the German public broadcaster ZDF, based on the agencies’ internal histories of the intelligence operation.

“It was the intelligence coup of the century,” the CIA report concluded. “Foreign governments were paying good money to the US and West Germany for the privilege of having their most secret communications read by at least two (and possibly as many as five or six) foreign countries.”

[…]

The operation, codenamed Thesaurus and then renamed Rubicon in 1980s, demonstrated the overwhelming intelligence value of being able to insert flaws into widely sold communications equipment. The CIA’s success over many years is likely to reinforce current US suspicions of equipment made by the Chinese company Huawei.

Neither China or the Soviet Union bought Crypto encryption devices, suspicious of the company’s origins, but it was sold to more than 100 other countries.

Chinese Military Accused of Hacking Equifax

Cyber-warfare is real.

Four members of the Chinese military have been charged with breaking into the networks of the Equifax credit reporting agency and stealing the personal information of tens of millions of Americans.

The 2017 breach affected roughly 145 million people, with the hackers successfully stealing names, Social Security numbers and other personal information stored in the company’s databases.

The Justice Department on Monday blamed China for one of the largest hacks in history.

The four – Wu Zhiyong, Wang Qian, Xu Ke and Liu Lei – are members of the People’s Liberation Army, which is an arm of the Chinese military.

Netflix Allows Users to Disable Autoplay

Thank goodness. This is probably the most life-impacting news of the day.

Netflix is to finally give viewers the option of turning off its autoplay function for previews for its show.

The streaming provider became a source of irritation for many users after viewers would be scrolling through an endless list of titles only to have the shows previews start playing in the background on its homepage.

Netflix introduced the option of being able to disable the autoplay of the next episode in a series since 2014 but this new option will allow watchers to browse through the index of offerings in peace.

Access to Electronic Medical Records

Here’s an interesting debate:

Epic Systems, one of the largest medical records companies, emailed the chief executives of some of the largest hospitals in the U.S. on Wednesday, urging them to oppose proposed regulation designed to make it easier to share medical information.

The email, which was written by Epic CEO Judy Faulkner and addressed to CEOs and presidents of hospital systems, urges recipients to sign a letter alongside Epic that voices disapproval for rules the Department of Health and Human Services proposed in 2019. These rules aim to make it easy for patients to access their health information at no cost, and make it more challenging for companies to block access to that information.

The proposed rules have pit patient advocates against some doctor groups and companies, like Epic. Critics say they don’t have enough provisions to protect patients’ privacy. Epic’s Faulkner has been vocal in her criticism of the rule, which she believes will result in app makers having access to patient data without consent.

On the other side, patient advocates have spoken out in favor of the rules, which aim to make medical records accessible through application programming interfaces (APIs). The rules are also designed to make it easier for hospitals to share patient records with other medical offices or hospitals. That’s been a big challenge for years, and studies have shown that it has a negative impact on patient’s health.

Patient groups have criticized medical record vendors, like Epic and its chief rival Cerner, for failing to do enough to support health data interoperability. Both companies have stressed that they’re doing more to fix the problem, although progress has been slow.

As always… follow the money. Epic and some other EMR companies are notoriously closed systems. The reason is simple. If Epic controls access to the data and the integrations, they can charge for it. This is a revenue stream for them. Of course they do not want to be required to provide APIs unless it is on their terms.

That being said, their concerns about data privacy are valid. The more you expose the underlying data through APIs, the more potential data breaches are possible. This has been a concern with EMR in general. While electronic medical records are convenient and helpful to share complete patient data across multiple medical specialties, they are also subject to hacking and manipulation. But that ship has sailed. We have culturally decided that the rewards outweigh the risks.

Everything depends on the implementation of a law like this. It could be beneficial by offering patients greater visibility and control of their records. It could also be a security nightmare with millions of people’s medical records being leaked for the purposes of extortion, predatory violence, discrimination, and, worst of all, targeted robocalls.

Trolley in Memphis

I was in Memphis for a couple of days this week and noticed a couple of things. I stayed downtown near the convention center on main street. My hotel was about a mile from Beale Street and the entertainment district. I enjoy getting out of the hotel to explore, so I headed down the Beale Street a couple nights for dinner.

Memphis has a trolley that runs down a good length of Main Street from the transit center north of the convention center to a block north of Beale Street. It’s one of those trolleys on rails that is powered by overhead wires. The trolley is just a dollar to ride, but I chose to walk from my hotel to Beale Street twice because I enjoy walking. It also gave me the chance to observe the trolley in action and make a few observations.

  1. It was weeknights without much going on. Downtown was sparsely populated in the evenings, so I don’t think ridership was reflective of a busy time with a convention or something in town. Still, I only saw one family ride it. It was empty the rest of the time.
  2. Each trolley was driven by a driver. Plus, there was a guy who say in a Gator. Every time the trolley passed him, he got out and used a tool to shift the tracks. All told, they were paying at least 5 guys to run the system at any given time.
  3. The trolley did move faster than walking, but with the stops and waiting to board, it was still faster to walk.
  4. As it happens, the convention center was empty because it is currently undergoing a massive renovation (perhaps something to watch to see if it was worth it before Milwaukee spends money redoing theirs). This caused them to close a block of Main Street and block the tracks.

What that means is that to ride the rail trolley to the end of the route, you had to ride the rail trolley to the end of the block, get off, board a wheeled trolley, and then that trolley would take you around the detour to the other side.

In other words, while the railed trolley might be interesting, the infrastructure and personnel to run it are far more expensive than the wheeled version AND the wheeled version (A.K.A. decorated bus) is far more practical because it can adjust to circumstances on the road.

I wonder how much this system is costing the good taxpayers of Memphis per rider. Someone else can try to look that up.

Man’s DNA Changes After Transplant

The implications for criminal forensic work are fascinating.

A Nevada man discovered his DNA had changed after a bone marrow transplant and had been replaced, in part, by that of his German donor.

Chris Long, from Reno, found that not only had his blood swapped, but his semen was also changed, following his treatment for leukemia.

Long, who works at Washoe County Sheriff’s Department, told The New York Times: ‘I thought that it was pretty incredible that I can disappear and someone else can appear.’

Now his police colleagues are looking into how such changes could affect criminal cases and forensic work.

[…]

Long found that all the DNA in his blood had changed three months after his operation. It was four years later he discovered that parts of his lips and cheeks also contained the DNA of his donor.

The change has made him a chimera, which means he has two sets of DNA.

Only his chest and head hair were not affected, according to all the samples taken.

Busted by the Fitbit

Ha!

NFL correspondent Jane Slater revealed she caught her ex-boyfriend cheating through the FitBit app when his physical activity levels spiked at 4am.

[…]

She said: ‘An Ex Boyfriend once got me a Fitbit for Christmas. I loved it. We synched up, motivated each other… didn’t hate it until he was unaccounted for at 4am and his physical activity levels were spiking on the app.’ater: ‘We synched up, motivated each other… didn’t hate it until he was unaccounted for at 4am and his physical activity levels were spiking on the app’

Slater confirmed that he ex-boyfriend was not ‘enrolled in an Orange Theory class’ that early in the morning

In case there was any confusion as to what Slater was implying, she made sure to further clarify that he was, in fact, not working out.

‘Spoiler alert: he was not enrolled in an Orange Theory class at 4am.’

Hackers Disrupt Nursing Homes

Ouch.

Russian hackers are holding hostage data from a Milwaukee-based company that provides technology services to more than 100 nursing homes across the country after the company couldn’t afford a $14 million ransom demand.

The hack against Virtual Care Provider Inc., which provides internet security and data storage services to nursing homes and acute-care facilities, means that some locations cannot access patient records, use the internet, pay employees or order crucial medications.

Virtual Care Provider Inc. said on its website it was working to restore services after the Nov. 17 attack. In an interview with cybersecurity reporter Brian Krebs, who runs the blog KrebsOnSecurity.com, chief executive Karen Christianson said the ransomware attack has affected 80,000 computers.

Some affected facilities could be forced out of business, and patients’ health is at risk if the data is not accessible, Christianson told Krebs.

“We have employees asking when we’re going to make payroll,” Christianson said. “But right now all we’re dealing with is getting electronic medical records back up and life-threatening situations handled first.”