Cambridge Analytica: all the news about Facebook’s data privacy scandal

Facebook’s role in the 2016 US election grew more complicated this past weekend, when bombshell reports in The New York Times and The Guardian revealed the extent to which London-based data mining and analytics firm Cambridge Analyrica misused user data from as many as 50 million Facebook users.

The data was obtained by Cambridge psychology professor Aleksandr Kogan and given to the affiliated behavior research firm Strategic Communication Laboratories in a violation of Facebook’s terms of service. The actions of the firm, which denies any wrongdoing, has kicked up a massive debate over Facebook’s failures to police its platform and its responsibility to both user privacy and the institution of democracy itself. Check back here for all the news as this story develops.

UK seeks warrant to examine Cambridge Analytica servers after Facebook data misuse

Authorities from the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) are in the process of obtaining a search warrant to examine the internal servers of data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica after reports outlined how the company misused the Facebook data of up to 50 million users.

Facebook sent members of a digital forensics firm, called Stroz Friedberg, to perform its own independent audit of Cambridge Analytica, but Stroz Friedberg “stood down” when UK authorities requested they wait until a warrant is secured for the ICO’s own criminal investigation. Facebook revealed the turn of events in a blog post update this afternoon.

The London-based data mining and analytics company was employed by President Donald Trump’s election campaign to inform Facebook ad targeting. The firm is now at the center of a sprawling controversy over unethical use of Facebook data to influence the 2016 US presidential election. Bombshell reports in The New York Timesand the Guardianthis past weekend revealed that the data that allegedly formed the foundation of Cambridge Analytica’s election toolset was obtained by violating Facebook’s terms of service, while Facebook itself failed to confirm the deletion of the data.

The reports were based on a first-person account of former Cambridge Analytica employee and whistleblower Christopher Wylie. Wylie now claims the company and its behavior research affiliate Strategic Communication Laboratories have direct links to Russia and used the Facebook data to influence the outcome of the US presidential election. Meanwhile, the second part of an undercover investigation conducted by the UK’s Channel 4 aired today in which Cambridge Analytica executives were caught on tape bragging about bribing and entrapping politicians using hired sex workers to compromise its clients’ political opponents.

Cambridge Analytica has denied any wrongdoing and says it will participate with any and all investigations.

Uber’s self-driving car showed no signs of slowing before fatal crash, police say

Uber’s self-driving car was traveling at a speed of 40 mph when it struck a 49-year-old woman in Arizona Sunday night, and did not show significant signs of slowing down, police said today.

The pedestrian, Elaine Herzberg, was transported to the hospital, where she later died. Herzberg, who was pushing a bicycle across the street, “may have been” homeless, Tempe Police Sgt. Ronald Elcock said in a press conference. There was a safety driver behind the wheel of the vehicle, identified as Rafael Vasquez, 44. There is no sign that the driver was impaired, policy said. An Uber spokesperson confirmed that Vasquez is employed as a safety driver by the ride-hailing giant. The vehicle was traveling in autonomous mode at the time of the crash.

The crash late Sunday evening has drawn intense scrutiny by the national media. It was likely the first time that a human pedestrian has been killed by an autonomous vehicle. Proponents of the technology have championed self-driving cars as a potential antidote to the tens of thousands of traffic fatalities that occur each year, while some safety advocates have expressed with the speed with which these vehicles are being pushed onto public roads for testing.

ABC 15 screengrab

Uber suspended all of its self-driving testing in cities across the country in the wake of the crash. Volvo and Toyota, which have self-driving partnerships with Uber (or were negotiating deals), have declined to comment on the future of their relationship with Uber.

The crash is most significant fatal incident involving a self-driving vehicle since a Tesla driver was killed in 2016 while his vehicle was in semi-autonomous Autopilot mode. Arguably this case will be even more scrutinized, as it involved a more advanced vehicle and a more controversial company. The National Traffic Safety Board has dispatched a team to Tempe to investigate.

Herzberg was crossing the street mid-block when she was struck by the self-driving Uber, police said. “The safety of our citizens here in Tempe is of the utmost importance,” Elcock said. In reminding citizens to use crosswalks, Elcock added, “None of us ever want to go through this ever again, using the crosswalks will definitely limit this from happening again.”

Of course, manufacturers often tout the ability of autonomous vehicles to “see” beyond what normal human drivers can see, thanks to an expensive array of cameras, radars, and LIDAR sensors powering the car’s perception. And safe street advocates often bristle at law enforcement’s description of crash circumstances that appear to place blame on the victims.

The first non-driver death of the autonomous age and police are already blaming the victim. “Crossing outside of the crosswalk” was never a valid excuse for traffic deaths, and it provides no cover for autonomous mobility companies.

— Janette Sadik-Khan (@JSadikKhan) March 19, 2018

The crash will likely lead to an intense round of finger-pointing among law enforcement, regulators, tech experts, and the auto industry. And since Uber’s self-driving cars are roving data recorders, there will be high-level interest in seeing what happens to the footage and crash stats captured by the vehicle itself.

The investigation is going to be similar to those of normal car accidents, Elcock said. Once the investigation concludes, the case will be referred to the Maricopa country attorney who will determine whether to bring charges. When asked to describe what it means to be in “autonomous mode,” Tempe police deferred to Uber.

Facebook’s security chief is leaving after clash over Russian misinformation

Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, will leave the company later this year, according to The New York Times. His departure reportedly comes as a result of disagreements over how to handle the spread of misinformation on the social network.

As part of Stamos leaving, Facebook has reportedly broken down and reassigned his security team. Almost all of the 120 employees have now been reassigned to product and infrastructure teams, according to the report; it’s unclear if Facebook maintains some other dedicated security team, or if this means security teams are now integrated into other departments.

In a tweet, Stamos said his role has changed inside of Facebook but that he remains “fully engaged.” However, he did not deny that he would be leaving. “I’m currently spending more time exploring emerging security risks and working on election security,” Stamos wrote. Reuters also reported that he would be departing in August and that his responsibilities had been “taken away.”

Stamos’ departure was reportedly decided on last year, but the company decided to keep him on until August to help transition his duties to others — and so that it wouldn’t look quite as bad for Facebook amid continued discoveries about Russia’s abuse of the platform during the 2016 US election. With the news breaking days after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it actually looks worse.

The report indicates that Stamos wanted to be more open about security issues than other top executives inside Facebook, by pushing to investigate and disclose Russian interference, for instance. Facebook didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Stamos started at Facebook in 2015. Prior to that, he was the chief information security officer at Yahoo. According to Reuters, he resigned after a year after discovering that Yahoo had secretly built a program to scan all incoming email for the NSA or FBI.

In recent months, Stamos has been among the Facebook executives willing to talk about the company and its ongoing problems on Twitter. Over the weekend, he took issue with the characterization of Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook info as a “data breach,” since hackers did not penetrate any systems. In fact, Facebook was set up to allow third parties to misuse data without any such difficulty.

There are a lot of big problems that the big tech companies need to be better at fixing. We have collectively been too optimistic about what we build and our impact on the world. Believe it or not, a lot of the people at these companies, from the interns to the CEOs, agree.

— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) March 17, 2018

The OnePlus 6 will probably look a lot like this

With the Oppo R15 officially announced in China today, we have a good idea of what OnePlus’ next phone might look like, since OnePlus often sources designs from the company Oppo, which shares the same investor. For instance, the OnePlus 5 bears a strong resemblance to the Oppo R11, and the OnePlus 5T ended up looking almost identical to the R11S.

The OnePlus 6 is rumored to have a 19:9 notched display, according to a leak from earlier this month spotted by Android Central. Likewise, the R15 has a notch that imitates the iPhone X’s look, hinting that the OnePlus 6 might also sport an interesting haircut.

The rest of the R15’s specs include a 6.28-inch, 2280 x 1080 OLED panel with slim bezels, a 3,450mAh battery, and a MediaTek Helio P60 processor; it’ll sell for around $475 USD. There’s also a premium “Dream Mirror edition” that will cost about $45 more, come in a ceramic body, and be powered by a Snapdragon 660.

The regular R15 comes with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage and runs Android 8.1 Oreo. It has dual 12-megapixel and 5-megapixel rear-facing cameras and a front 20-megapixel camera, while the Dream Mirror edition keeps the same front camera and gets a higher specced 16-megapixel and 20-megapixel combo.

While some details will vary between the Oppo R15 and the OnePlus 6, which should arrive sometime later this year, the notch is probably the one design tick that’s most likely to stick around.

Ideas for new NASA mission can now include spacecraft powered by plutonium

NASA is giving scientists more choices for how to power their future spacecraft to explore the Solar System. Researchers proposing spacecraft ideas for NASA’s Discovery program — an initiative to develop deep-space missions that usually cost less than half a billion dollars — will be allowed to incorporate a special kind of radioactive battery in the designs for their vehicles. And that could potentially allow these missions to get more science done and go deeper into space.

Discovery proposals can now incorporate a type of power system known as a radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGs. These generators are powered by radioactive material — a type of metal called plutonium-238. The metal naturally decays over time, producing heat that is then converted into electrical energy.

NASA has been using RTGs to power some of its spacecraft since the 1960s. However, NASA banned the use of these systems in the upcoming proposals for the Discovery program, since the United States has had a very limited supply of plutonium-238. Now it seems the US may have enough of the material to spare for the program. After consulting with the Department of Energy, NASA decided to lift the ban on RTGs for the Discovery program, according to a memo sent out over the weekend by James Green, the director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

The Department of Energy said that its recent success in producing more plutonium-238 in the US helped NASA make this decision. DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee has produced 350 grams of the material, some of which will be incorporated in NASA’s next Mars rover. “These recent successes have reduced risks associated with future plutonium supplies and factored into NASA’s announcement last week to include radioisotope power systems in its Discovery 2018 Announcement of Opportunity,” a spokesperson for DOE said in a statement to The Verge. “The Department is committed to supporting NASA’s efforts to make radioisotope power systems available to support its space exploration goals.”

The move is a big deal for scientists since power is an essential ingredient of any space mission — and nuclear power could open up more doors for how much more their missions can do in space. “Any kind of limitation that is placed on these missions means some science cannot be done,” Laura Forczyk, a space consultant and owner of space research and consulting firm Astralytical, tells The Verge.

An artistic rendering of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto. The vehicle relies on an RTG for power.
Image: NASA

Plus, there are only so many ways to keep a spacecraft alive in the first place. One option is to use onboard batteries or fuel cells, which release stored energy that’s created here on Earth. But the power from such batteries is finite, and vehicles often need to last for many years in space. That’s why most spacecraft are equipped with solar panels, which continually collect light from the Sun and convert it into electrical energy. Solar power is crucial for spacecraft operating near Earth or in the inner Solar System, where sunlight is strong and abundant.

But for vehicles going into deep space, solar just doesn’t really cut it. Sunlight gets weaker the farther you travel out into the Solar System, making it hard for distant travelers to rely on solar power alone. So many deep-space vehicles use RTGs instead. These nuclear batteries are currently powering NASA’s most far out vehicles, such as the New Horizons spacecraft, which flew by Pluto in 2015, as well as the Voyager spacecraft that are cruising beyond our Solar System. It’s proven to be a particularly efficient form of power production for interplanetary missions.

But NASA had to distance itself from RTGs a bit, as plutonium-238 has become a scarce resource over the last 30 years. The United States government used to produce its own plutonium-238, or Pu-238. Another slightly heavier version of plutonium, Pu-239, is the key ingredient in nuclear weapons. But production of Pu-238 stopped in 1988 as the Cold War came to an end. So for decades, the US had to get the material from Russia. But Russia stopped producing the metal, too, and now NASA has been faced with a dwindling precious resource.

However, things have changed in recent years. The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee restarted Pu-238 production with NASA funding in 2015 to help power future space missions. Still, it will be a while before the crisis is completely over. Pu-238 takes a long time to make and the material isn’t produced in super large quantities. The US’s current goal with this new production line is to make 1.5kg of Pu-238 a year by 2026. However, a recent audit from the Government Accountability Office identified a few challenges that might hamper that goal from being realized.

Meanwhile, there is only about 35 kilograms of Pu-238 available that NASA can use for its upcoming missions, and only half of it is spaceflight-ready. The material is mostly being reserved for use in the next Martian rover, called Mars 2020, and NASA is reserving some more for the fourth mission in the New Frontiers program, which hasn’t been chosen yet. There are two finalists for the mission: a spacecraft to explore Saturn’s moon Titan and a vehicle that will return samples from a comet. One relies on RTG technology, while the other uses solar panels.

Not being able to use RTGs could have significantly limited the types of designs researchers came up with for Discovery. When NASA announced its intent to select a new mission for the program at the end of 2017, the agency said proposals could focus on exploring any body of the Solar System — except for the Earth and the Sun. Without an RTG, it would be tough to power the instruments on a mission going far beyond Mars. It can be done, as NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter has demonstrated, but an RTG might allow for more options of what kind of instruments the spacecraft can hold. If you don’t have to plan for solar panels, that changes the entire design of the spacecraft.

“You want those kinds of options,” Forczyk says. “That’s the big story as to why everyone’s excited now that the ban has been lifted. Now people who want to propose those deeper space missions, or even a Mars mission that uses nuclear power, can do so.”

The change may be possible since there is a while before the new Discovery mission has to be ready, allowing time for more Pu-238 to be produced. NASA plans to post a final draft of the Discovery program’s call for submissions in 2019, and then the finalist will be chosen in 2021. The target launch date for the mission is some time before the end of 2026.

eBay’s Android app has a new AR feature to help you pick the correct box size for shipping

eBay has updated its Android app to include a new augmented reality feature that helps you figure out what box size you’ll need to use to ship your stuff, via Android Police.

The AR feature is pretty simple: point your phone at whatever it is you’re trying to ship, and it’ll superimpose an augmented reality box over it so you can figure out if it’ll fit. It’s got a bunch of standard box sizes built in. The idea is that you’ll know that you need to get, say, a medium USPS flat rate box from the post office instead of overshooting and having to go back for a bunch of bubble wrap (to pick a purely hypothetical example).

eBay says that the feature will only work on a few devices, although it hasn’t given a list (Android Police speculates that it’s probably limited to ARCore-compatible phones, though). You can try it out for yourself by updating the eBay app today.

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is now on mobile in the US

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is now available on mobile in the US, on both iOS and Android. The game has already been live in Asia for quite a while and came to Canada last week, but there wasn’t a launch date for the US.

The US release might have been sped up byFortnite Battle Royale launching on mobile, another battle royale-style game that takes PUBG’s core design and packages it up with better-looking graphics and some gameplay tweaks that have led to it breaking streaming records on Twitch.

The mobile version of PUBG was developed by Tencent, the Chinese conglomerate that owns WeChat and invests in games like League of Legends. The mobile PUBG is true to the full game, although the graphics have been pared down for mobile performance. You also are limited to the single original map, but you’re still in for lengthy rounds of gameplay, which is sure to drain phone battery.

The world’s largest SSD clocks in at 100TB

The world has a new record holder for the largest SSD, and it comes in at 100TB. The Nimbus Data ExaDrive DC100 is a new, massive drive that is currently being tested with select customers and will be available to purchase this summer.

The company says the DC100 will utilize 3D NAND flash memory, which can provide enough capacity to store 20,000 HD movies, or 20 million songs, (if people still downloaded music), and is capable of read and write speeds of 500MB/s. Nimbus Data is also fully guaranteeing the drive for five years without restriction, so if your likely very costly drive kicks the bucket during that period you can get it replaced.

As usual with these massive drives, they aren’t targeted at consumers, but they do give a glimpse into a near future that may allow us to never think about clearing up storage space on our computers.

IBM just unveiled the ‘world’s smallest computer’

IBM is kicking off its IBM Think 2018 conference this week with “5 in 5,” a collection of IBM Research inventions and technologies “that could change our lives in the next five years.” If you want to hear a large corporation tell you about AI, blockchain, and quantum computing all in the same breath, IBM Think sounds like the place to be.

It’s a little hard to tease out the technology from the buzzwords, but, happily, Mashable spotted this gem: IBM is building the world’s smallest computer. Details are still thin — perhaps we’ll learn more this week — but there’s enough info to get excited about.

The computer is 1mm x 1mm, smaller than a grain of fancy salt, and apparently costs less than ten cents to manufacture. To be clear, the picture above is a set of 64 motherboards, each of which hold two of this tiny computer. Here’s an actual photo of a solo computer on a pile of salt for scale:


In comparison, the last “world’s smallest computer” to make a big splash was the Michigan Micro Mote in 2015, which measured a whopping 2mm across.

Feature-wise, the computer has a processor with “several hundred thousand” transistors, SRAM memory, a photo-voltaic cell for power, and a communications unit that uses an LED and a photo-detector to talk with the outside world.

IBM claims the computer has the power of an x86 chip from 1990. That puts it exactly on the edge of enough power to run the original Doom (the original README.TXT for Doom says a 386 processor and 4MB of RAM is the minimum). Hopefully IBM will be more forthcoming with benchmarks in the next five years, and I’m looking forward to repurposing this chip’s LED as a one pixel display.


IBM’s actual application for this chip seems mostly centered on supply chain management and conterfiet protection — enter the “blockchain” buzz. The chip is just one of many “crypto-anchors” IBM is developing for this purpose.

While we wait for more details on IBM’s plans for this tiniest of computers (or, like, a name to call it by), here’s some soothing close-up footage of what transistors look like: