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Graduate Students Analyze, Crack, and Remove Under-Desk Surveillance Devices

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"Graduate students at Northeastern University were able to organize and beat back an attempt at introducing invasive surveillance devices that were quietly placed under desks at their school," reports Motherboard: Early in October, Senior Vice Provost David Luzzi installed motion sensors under all the desks at the school's Interdisciplinary Science & Engineering Complex (ISEC), a facility used by graduate students and home to the "Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute" which studies surveillance. These sensors were installed at night — without student knowledge or consent — and when pressed for an explanation, students were told this was part of a study on "desk usage," according to a blog post by Max von Hippel, a Privacy Institute PhD candidate who wrote about the situation for the Tech Workers Coalition's newsletter.... Students began to raise concerns about the sensors, and an email was sent out by Luzzi attempting to address issues raised by students.... Luzzi wrote, the university had deployed "a Spaceti occupancy monitoring system" that would use heat sensors at groin level to "aggregate data by subzones to generate when a desk is occupied or not." Luzzi added that the data would be anonymized, aggregated to look at "themes" and not individual time at assigned desks, not be used in evaluations, and not shared with any supervisors of the students. Following that email, an impromptu listening session was held in the ISEC. At this first listening session, Luzzi asked that grad student attendees "trust the university since you trust them to give you a degree...." After that, the students at the Privacy Institute, which specialize in studying surveillance and reversing its harm, started removing the sensors, hacking into them, and working on an open source guide so other students could do the same. Luzzi had claimed the devices were secure and the data encrypted, but Privacy Institute students learned they were relatively insecure and unencrypted.... After hacking the devices, students wrote an open letter to Luzzi and university president Joseph E. Aoun asking for the sensors to be removed because they were intimidating, part of a poorly conceived study, and deployed without IRB approval even though human subjects were at the center of the so-called study. von Hippel notes that many members of the computer science department were also in a union, and thus networked together for a quick mass response. Motherboard writes that the controversy ultimately culminated with another listening session in which Luzzi "struggles to quell concerns that the study is invasive, poorly planned, costly, and likely unethical." "Afterwards, von Hippel took to Twitter and shares what becomes a semi-viral thread documenting the entire timeline of events from the secret installation of the sensors to the listening session occurring that day. Hours later, the sensors are removed..."

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What Congress’s same-sex marriage bill actually does

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Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), a chief sponsor of a bill protecting marriage equality, walks through the Capitol. | Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images

It doesn’t go as far as Obergefell, but it still offers important protections.

Congress could soon pass historic protections for same-sex marriage, offering a critical safeguard if the Supreme Court were to overturn its 2015 decision that established the right.

The Senate has already passed this legislation, known as the Respect for Marriage Act, and it now heads to the House, which is likely to approve it next week.

The bill doesn’t go as far as Supreme Court precedent does, though it provides an important contingency in case that ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, is ever struck down. Notably, the legislation requires states and the federal government to continue to recognize same-sex marriages regardless of what the Supreme Court chooses to do.

That guarantee, ultimately, means Americans in same-sex marriages are shielded from states invalidating their unions and the federal government discriminating against them if past precedent were to fall.

With the act’s passage nearing, here are the answers to four key questions about what the legislation does — and doesn’t — do.

What will be the status of same-sex marriages after the Respect for Marriage Act has passed?

Currently, the right to same-sex marriage is firmly established across all 50 states by the Obergefell decision issued by the Supreme Court in 2015.

However, following the Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade in their June Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, some lawmakers worried same-sex marriage protections could be revoked next. A concurring opinion from Justice Clarence Thomas in the Dobbs case only raised concerns that the court could revisit this case, prompting Congress to quickly advance the Respect for Marriage Act.

The act reaffirms some of Obergefell’s protections by mandating that states and the federal government always recognize same-sex marriages as legally valid.

Prior to that Supreme Court decision, a provision in the Defense of Marriage Act allowed individual states to decide if they would recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. This bill explicitly targets that loophole. If a couple was married in a blue state that protected same-sex marriage, but moved to a red state that barred it, the red state would still have to recognize their marriage as legally valid.

What the bill does not do, however, is require states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, something that Obergefell guarantees. Because of that, states, more than 30 of which still have same-sex marriage bans on the books, would be able to refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses, forcing couples to travel elsewhere to obtain them.

“It’s an important first step,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) told Vox, of the bill. “We could go one step further and ensure that every state provides an opportunity for equal marriage, but that will have to wait for another day.”

The legislation also officially repeals the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman and prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

While DOMA’s provisions were struck down in the 2013 Windsor v. United States decision and the 2015 Obergefell decision, this bill makes it clear that they can’t be reinstated. In doing so, it codifies federal recognition of same-sex marriages, which is vital for access to more than 1,100 government benefits related to social programs, taxes, and immigration services.

Could Obergefell actually be overturned? What would happen then?

Since Obergefell is a precedent established by the Supreme Court, the justices could decide to overturn it. This bill does not prevent them from being able to do so, but it offers protections for people in case that were to happen.

Civil rights activists have been worried about this possibility given Thomas’s opinion. Other justices, including Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh, however, have stated that the Dobbs decision is not an indication that the court intends to consider other precedents that rest on similar reasoning, as Obergefell does.

Could this bill get challenged in court?

Although many legal experts note that the arguments for challenging the Respect for Marriage Act aren’t necessarily the strongest, it could still face legal action.

According to Katherine Franke, a law professor at Columbia University, states that want to bar same-sex marriage and do not want to recognize marriages that took place in other states could try to claim that Congress does not have the authority to require them to. It would be a longshot for a case like that to be successful, however, she says.

“It would be a radical step for a court to find the Respect for Marriage Act unconstitutional as an illegal exercise of congressional power,” Franke told Vox. “It’s just that with the radicals on the Supreme Court and in lower federal courts, it can’t be ruled out.” For those interested in undermining the bill, these challenges could be levied even if Obergefell remains intact, says Franke.

Does all of this apply to interracial marriage as well?

The legislation states that the same protections it provides for same-sex marriage apply to interracial marriage as well.

The right to interracial marriage was established by the Loving v. Virginia case in 1967, which overrode state-level bans on interracial marriage, and is another precedent that some civil rights advocates worry could be threatened by the Supreme Court following the Dobbs decision.

Were this precedent rolled back, the Respect for Marriage Act would require states and the federal government to recognize interracial marriages, and give those in such unions the same rights and benefits as those in same-sex marriages. As with same-sex marriages, the law would not require states to issue licenses for interracial marriages if they decide to restrict it.

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Why Almost No One’s Being Let Out of Prison in Alabama

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MONTGOMERY, Ala.—Alonzo Goines was 19 when he says he “tried to fit in with the wrong crowd” and was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in an Alabama prison for a string of three robberies. He’s now 34 and says he’s a changed man, desperate for his freedom.

“At the end of the day, there ain't nothing I can do about it but pray. If they do give me the chance to do right, they ain't never gotta worry about me coming back,” Goines told VICE News the night before his second parole hearing in September. The Alabama parole board denied him once before because he hadn’t served enough time. 

Because of Alabama’s strict mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, the only shot of getting out of prison for many of the state’s more than 25,000 incarcerated people is parole. Four years ago, Goines would have had a 54 percent chance. But the state’s parole rate has dropped to unprecedented levels. So far this year, its parole board has denied 90 percent of eligible candidates, bringing the rate to a new low of just 10 percent. Those odds are even lower if, like Goines, you’re Black, with a mere 7 percent chance. 

“It doesn't give you very much faith in the system. When you have somebody that's been in there 15 years and done everything you've asked them to do and they still can't get out,” Goines’ father told VICE News. “It makes no sense.”

“It doesn't give you very much faith in the system.”

The shift away from granting parole began in 2018, when a white man named Jimmy Spencer murdered three people, including a 7-year-old and his grandmother, eight months after being paroled. Although he was convicted and sentenced to death in October, the effects of his case are still rippling through the state’s tough-on-crime justice system. 

Because Alabama has now all but stopped paroling incarcerated people, the state’s prisons are operating at over 160 percent capacity, leading to violence and inhumane conditions, and eventually a work-strike earlier this year. Meanwhile, the state continues to use inmate labor and build more facilities, leading to questions about its motivations for keeping so many people behind bars. 

On the day of Goines’ hearing, not a single person was granted parole. He’s now being housed at Red Eagle Honor Farm, a minimum security work prison where he and his fellow incarcerated people make $2 a day to perform labor outside the prison gates under minimum supervision. Red Eagle’s mission statement, in part, is to “assist male inmates to reintegrate into society.” Parole at Alabama’s 11 minimum-security work centers like Red Eagle have dropped over 80 percent since 2019. 

“They get cheap labor out of us, but they did that to the slaves back in the day. It's kind of like modern day slavery,” Goines said. He works most days cutting grass on what’s known as the Civil Rights Trail, a public route created in 2018 that crosses 15 states, including Alabama, where pivotal civil rights battles occurred. 

Alabama’s parole guidelines include a nationally-recognized tool that’s supposed to determine whether an incarcerated person is likely to reoffend; it’s called an Ohio Risk Assessment. Back in 2018, Spencer was determined to pose “low to moderate risk for reoffending.” That apparatus has since come under fire, and in a private meeting in Oct. 2018, Alabama’s Republican governor Kay Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall said to “stop letting anybody out,” according to Lyn Head, chair of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles when Spencer was released.

“There is no one capable of predicting with any accuracy what a human being is going to do. So you have to rely on those tools,” said Head, who still stands by the Ohio Risk Assessment. “Just because of that incident doesn’t mean that those guidelines were wrong. It's a horrible tragedy, just like it would have been if he had committed it and had not been incarcerated beforehand.” 

Head later resigned from the parole board. When asked about her alleged comments, Gov. Ivy’s office couldn’t confirm them. A spokesperson did say, however, that Gov. Ivey “does not have a vote on individual parole cases” but that “she is confident that the parole board shares her overriding concern for public safety.”

According to the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles’ own report, in the month of October, the board conformed to the guidelines just 26% of the time. They granted parole 8 percent of the time, despite the guidelines recommending it for 82 percent of the incarcerated people that appeared before the board. 

VICE News obtained Goines’ board action sheet which showed the board denied him parole, in part, due to “the severity of his offence.” 

“They're denying almost everybody,” Head said. “And that is whether the individual has a low risk assessment score or a high risk assessment score. They’re putting paramount importance on the details of the crime for which they committed and ignoring anything the individual has done since that time. And they’re not following their own guidelines.” 

“They're denying almost everybody.”

When asked what she thought the state of Alabama stood to gain by denying so many incarcerated people parole, Head answered: “They get to build new ones [prisons].” 

Alabama’s prisons are already under investigation by the Department of Justice for their inhumane conditions and extremely high levels of violence. In response, the state Legislature has allocated $400 million in COVID relief funds to build two new mega prisons to house their overflowing prison population. 

“In Alabama, building prisons is considered economic development. For those areas of the state that we don't want to put any real investment into their infrastructure, roads, bridges or hospitals to be economic drivers for those communities, we build a prison instead,” said Chris England, a Democrat in Alabama’s Legislature fighting for more transparency and accountability for the parole board. 

In February, Rep. England introduced legislation that would ensure the board follows their own guidelines, or at least explain why it’s refusing to do so. But the bill died. England believes that, by not following its own objective guidelines, the parole board has allowed its own unconscious bias to infect the decision-making process. 

“It's almost like if you're a Black male, you're going to be denied. It doesn't matter what you did in prison. It doesn't matter if you become a better person. ‘Twenty-five years ago, you did this. Oh, and by the way, I'm not gonna say this out loud, but you're Black.’ The board does whatever they want.”

In September, thousands of incarcerated workers at all 13 of Alabama’s prisons went on strike and refused to work their prison-labor jobs. Their reasons for striking included unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, neglect, abuse, and rampant violence. But at the top of the list is the sense of desperation and hopelessness a broken parole system creates. Strikers allegedly faced severe retaliation by the Alabama Department of Corrections, including “bird feeding” striking workers, or cutting down their meals to just breakfast and dinner.

Goines didn’t participate in the strike. He was worried he’d have to go back to a higher security prison if he did. Now, he just has to get on with his life; he was hoping to get out in time to spend some precious final years with his mother, who’s in the fourth stage of kidney failure. He also wanted to start a family of his own, but those dreams are slowly dwindling. 

“I’ve cried so many tears over the past 15 years. I don't have any tears left to cry,” Goines said.

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The Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny trailer plays the hits with a de-aged Harrison Ford

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At the ripe age of 80, the eternally grumpy Harrison Ford, upon premiering the trailer for the fifth Indiana Jones movie in September, that his time wearing fedoras and digging for treasure is over. “I will not fall down for you again,” he said. ” Fair enough. Ford’s physical state was a concern on the set of every…

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U.S. Army Planned to Pay Streamers Millions to Reach Gen-Z Through Call of Duty

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The U.S. Army allocated millions of dollars to sponsor a wide range of esports tournaments, individual high profile Call of Duty streamers, and Twitch events in the last year to specifically grow its audience with Gen-Z viewers, and especially women and Black and Hispanic people, according to internal Army documents obtained by Motherboard.

In many cases the sponsorships ultimately did not happen—the Army ordered a stop of all spending with Call of Duty’s publisher Activision after the company faced a wave of sexual harrassment complaints. But the documents provide much greater insight into the Army’s goals and intentions behind its planned integrations with Call of Duty and other massive entertainment franchises.

“Audience: Gen-Z Prospects (A18-24),” one section of the documents read. “Focus on the growth of females, Black & Hispanics.” Motherboard obtained the documents through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Do you know anything else about U.S. Army sponsorships of streamers? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, or email joseph.cox@vice.com.

A table included in the documents lists the funds the Army planned to spend on various platforms, events, and streamers. At the top, is Twitch and its HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] Showdown. Previous seasons of this esports league had players compete in Madden and NBA games. The Army planned to spend $1 million on sponsoring the event.

The documents show that the U.S. military considered gaming and, in particular, Call of Duty, as a potentially useful branding and recruiting tool. For example, the Army proposed using Twitch influencers to "create original content videos showcasing the wide range of skillsets offered by the Army," and to use influencers to "familiarize [their] fans on Army values and opportunities." The Army also wanted to throw tournaments that featured "soldiers & top names in gaming." Another goal of the campaigns was to increase the Army's "favorability" in viewer surveys.

army-slide.jpg
A section of one of the documents obtained by Motherboard. Image: Motherboard.

According to the table, the Army intended to spend $750,000 on a mix of the official Call of Duty League Esports tournament, streaming service Paramount+, and the HALO TV show, which aired on Paramount+. The Army also planned to spend $200,000 on sponsoring the mobile version of Call of Duty, including with “reward-based inventory.” The documents suggest the campaign would provide in-game currency to players who viewed Army video ads.

The Army allocated $150,000 to be spent on Stonemountain64, a popular streamer who often plays Call of Duty: Warzone to his audience of 2.32 million subscribers on YouTube. Stonemountain64 often uploads gameplay footage of himself roleplaying as a tongue-in-cheek commanding officer during matches of Warzone.

The documents also mention high profile streamers Swagg, who has 2.66 million subscribers on YouTube, and Alex Zedra. Zedra previously provided the likeness for the character Mara in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019) and is a self-described “All American, 2A [second amendment] Gun Slinger.” Swagg and Zedra are listed next to an asterix under the table, which says the Army will reallocate funds based on conversations with the streamers. None of the streamers or their representatives responded to a request for comment.

army-slide-2.jpg
A section of one of the documents obtained by Motherboard. Image: Motherboard.

The table adds the Army allocated $300,000 for OpTic Chicago. OpTic is an esports team which has worked with the Army before, including taking members of the team to fire sniper rifles. The “audience alignment” for Optic Chicago is also Gen-Z, according to the documents. One motivation behind the partnership was to “continue to familiarize OpTic fans on Army values and opportunities,” according to the documents.

The Army also planned to spend $675,000 on a WWE sponsorship and $600,000 with gaming media outlet IGN, according to the documents. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

army-slide-3.jpg
A section of one of the documents obtained by Motherboard. Image: Motherboard.

An August 2021 email included in the documents says “At this time, we intend to ‘pause all activities’ immediately with Activision due to serious allegations of sexual harassment at their workplace, and also recommended tha the Marketing Engagement Brigade not send their eSports team to the tournament.” The email came around two weeks before a planned Army sponsorship of an upcoming tournament. “I bring this to your attention because of the brand reputation issue,” the email adds.

Activision acknowledged a request for comment but ultimately did not provide a statement. Twitch told Motherboard that Twitch Ads, the company’s advertisement service, did not receive sponsorship from the U.S. Army for specific streams or for the HBCU Esports League in 2022. Paramount acknowledged a request for comment but did not provide a statement.

The U.S. Army did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The U.S. military broadly and the Army specifically have been struggling to recruit Gen Z. Covid restrictions hurt recruitment efforts, but so have shifting perceptions of the military and high standards around physical health, tattoos, and past drug use. The Pentagon needs young recruits to keep going and it's struggling to reach them. The Navy specifically used Twitch in an attempt to recruit new Sailors.

The U.S. Army has its own esports team, which has repeatedly run into controversy over the past few years. Both the Army and equivalent Navy esports teams banned Twitch users who asked about war crimes during streams’ chats. After a month-long hiatus, the Army team returned to Twitch.

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R.I.P. Christine McVie, Fleetwood Mac singer, keyboardist, and songwriter

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Christine McVie, the Fleetwood Mac vocalist, keyboardist, and songwriter behind such hits as “Everywhere,” “The Chain,” “Don’t Stop,” and many more, has died. As confirmed by her family and the band on social media, McVie died early on November 30th, following a short illness. She was 79.

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