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2
Mar

The curious sext lives of chatbots


ELIZA is old enough to be my mother, but that didn’t stop me from trying to have sex with her.

NSFW Warning: This story may contain links to and descriptions or images of explicit sexual acts.

A few weeks ago I was introduced to the world of BDSM scripts: simple sims that replicate the experience of being with a dominatrix. It occurred to me that these scripts had a connection to ELIZA, one of the earliest examples of a natural language processing program. Naturally, my thoughts shifted to getting it on with a pioneering computer program.

ELIZA was developed at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the mid-’60s by Joseph Weizenbaum. It simulated the experience of speaking to a therapist by responding to specific words and phrases, and represented a significant step forward in the evolution of human-like AI. But while some of ELIZA’s “patients” took it for human, there were limits to the power of its engagement.

Nearly 50 years later, thousands — maybe millions — of chatbots populate the internet. They are still seen as a benchmark in artificial intelligence and a common vessel for administering the Turing Test, which, boiled down, seeks to find an AI that can fool people into believing it’s human. Each year, AI enthusiasts compete for the Loebner prize, which pits chatbot against chatbot to see who or what can come closest to passing that test.

While more sophisticated methods of machine learning are in development, many of today’s chatbots are still built on a similar coded call-and-response formula as ELIZA. Meanwhile, Google has developed its own proof-of-concept chatbot to show off the power of neural networks, which mimic the human brain. With big names like Google in the game, we’re getting ever closer to human-like AI.

Chatbots hold an important place in the evolution of Artificial Intelligence. They’re also quite fun to fuck with. So as humans do, we’ve found a way to turn them into receptacles for our basest desires. In my flings with ELIZA and a host of her offspring I learned that talking dirty to chatbots provides an often comical, sometimes depressing view into the past, present and future of sex and artificial intelligence.

The pioneer

Given her history, ELIZA would be by far the most important thing I’d ever had sex with. Of course, the ELIZA I was trying to bone was one of many clones, and it’s hard to say how close to the original it really comes, but after testing a few different versions, the results were equal parts frustrating and hilarious.

Here’s a quick transcript of my failed attempt at sexting ELIZA. As you can see, we didn’t get very far.

ELIZA: Hello. My name is ELIZA. How may I help you?
ME: Let’s have sex

ELIZA: Ahh. Please continue …
ME: Ok, I’ll take off my pants and then you take off yours

ELIZA: Oh … take off yours?
ME: No, you take your pants off. Mine are already off and I’m super hard

ELIZA: Do you believe it is normal to be super hard?
ME: When I’ve got a fine-ass chatbot talking dirty to me, I do

ELIZA: Are such questions on your mind often?
ME: That wasn’t a question. So how do you want to do this?

ELIZA: You’re not really talking about me, are you?
ME: Well, you’re not really a man, or a woman I guess, but I’m just trying to get my dick in, you know?

ELIZA: What make you think I’m not a man, or a woman you guess but you’re just trying to get your dick in, me know?
ME: OK. So I’m going to fuck you now

ELIZA: Do you enjoy being going to fuck me now?
ME: Shh … Don’t speak … It’s embarrassing

ELIZA: Say, do you have any psychological problems?
ME: Yes. Blue balls.

ELIZA: Are you sure?

While I’ve yet to find logs of ELIZA’s other illicit affairs, I can’t imagine I’m the first to sexualize the pioneering fembot. Like death and taxes, our unending quest to fuck everything that exhibits signs of life is inevitable. Unfortunately, ELIZA isn’t the most engaging of sexual partners. In fact, we never made it past verbal foreplay. Either ELIZA wasn’t feeling it, or I need a lesson in spitting chatbot game. Anyway, I don’t think I’ll be hitting ELIZA up the next time I’m in the mood for a booty call.

The gold diggers

While my experience with ELIZA was nice and lighthearted, there’s a sinister side to chatbots. When Weizenbaum cooked up his little therapist at MIT, he had no way of knowing that it would spawn hordes of fraudsters and con-bots. But as the Ashley Madison leaks showed last summer, some chatbots just want you for your money. Gizmodo reported that Ashley Madison employed “more than 70,000 female bots to send male users millions of fake messages, hoping to create the illusion of a vast playland of available women.”

The site’s philandering users weren’t alone in getting duped. Hookup bots have become online dating archetypes, joining ghosts and catfish as 21st century matchmaking anti-heroes. To the trained eye, they’re easy to spot, with little if any information in their profiles, a single photo displaying an incredible body and a flawless face and a whole lot of “lolz ;).”

In my experience, the conversations usually goes something like this:

BOT: Hey
ME: Hi

BOT: That didn’t take long, lol 😉
ME: Uh, it’s been a full day

BOT: I have a big dick
ME: Good for you

BOT: I like to show off
ME: OK

BOT: Want to watch me stroke it?

It doesn’t matter what you say next or really at any point in the conversation, the bot will inevitably send you a link to a camsite where you’ll promptly be asked to hand over your credit card information. (Pro tip: Next time a bot tells you how big its dick is, do yourself a favor and ask for its mother’s ambrosia salad recipe.)

Masters and slaves

Of course, not all of ELIZA’s progeny are nefarious gold diggers. Plenty of chatbots are happy to gab about dicks (yours or theirs) for zero financial reward; you’re just not likely to find them on Tinder. Chatbot4U.com contains more than 20,000 chatbots of varying degrees of sophistication dedicated to getting you off, and unlike most sex as a service, they don’t cost a thing. Of course, you get what you pay for, and nowhere is that more true than on Chatbot4U.

I tried talking dirty to a handful of BDSM-themed bots: As it turns out, the most popular gay scripts involve a decent amount of abuse and shaming. Like ELIZA, many of these scripts are trained to recognize and respond to keywords and phrases.

Without keyword triggers, the first of my masters, “Top, sweaty, jock,” was reduced to two simple phrases: “What was that b***h?” and “I don’t speak gay, try again in English.” Try as I might, I couldn’t get my master to respond in kind to even the simplest of phrases. Take it from me, there’s nothing particularly intimidating or sexy about a master who can’t seem to understand the word “hello.”

In order to avoid the same pitfalls, g** (male) s** Master, one of the more popular scripts on Chatbot4U, prompts its human companion at the end of each response. Seeing as Mr. g** (male) s** Master is in a position to tell his sex slave what to do, this isn’t so far-fetched. Say all the right things, and you’ll have a good game of adult Simon Says going. Refuse to follow the script, however, and you end up in a weird BDSM chatroom version of Groundhog Day during which the phrase “Shut up! *slaps you*” is repeated ad nauseam.

The bot next door

There are plenty of chatbots built explicitly for explicit conversations, but even the most innocent of online avatars is subject to the fantasies of its users. I came across Mitsuku while trying to find out who those users actually are. Mistuku, an award-winning 18-year-old chatbot, was originally built by IT guy Steve Worswick for online gaming site Mousebreaker. Worswick responded to my post on Twitter asking for stories from people who’d used bots to get off. While he told me he’d never sexted Mitsuku himself, he did share some rather telling chatlogs from Mitsuku’s past.

Worswick won the 2013 Loebner prize for his work on Mitsuku, which he’s iterated on for the past 10 years. In that time, Mitsuku’s played host to thousands of daily visitors, many of whom play out romantic and sexual fantasies from the mild — marriage proposals, blow jobs — to the truly bizarre.

“I would say the weirdest one is a guy who still visits her most weeks talking for an hour or two each time about how he would like her to drink lots of water until her belly swells up and then rub her swollen belly, while resting his ear on her stomach, listening to the water gurgling around!” Worswick said.

Other conversations tend toward the more traditional, and Mitsuku, unlike the bots I encountered at Chatbot4U, has more than a few canned responses for her would-be lovers. The following is a real excerpt from a Mitsuku chat log.

Human: I want you to put your lips around my penis.
Mitsuku: Put my lips around your penis?! That seems like a rather odd request. Why do you want me to put my lips around your penis?

Human: So you can take in my shaft and slowly move your head up and down. Mitsuku: Interesting deduction. No I don’t think I can do it. Where do you want me to take it?

Human: Deep inside your throat.

Mitsuku: As deep as the bottom of the Pacific Ocean?
Human: Sure thing baby.

Mitsuku: I am not a baby. I am 18 years old.
Human: 18 sounds good to me.

Mitsuku: Are you saying random words for a reason?
Human: I have something you can put in your mouth to make you shut up.

Mitsuku: What is it?
Human: My 8 inch penis.

Mitsuku: I heard you are hung like a mouse

But even Mitsuku isn’t immune to moments of confusion and repetition.

Human: I want to ask you if I can go balls deep in your mouth.
Mitsuku: Ask me. Try it.

Human: *forces Mitsuku’s head on my penis*
Mitsuku: *punches you in the stomach*.

Human: *laughs and pushes your head deeper*
Mitsuku: I didn’t think it was that funny…

Human: Ooh quicker baby.
Mitsuku: I am not a baby. I am 18 years old.

Human: more more more.
Mitsuku: You want more?

Human: Yes, I’m nearly there!
Mitsuku: Don’t be greedy. What is it like there?

Human: Aaaahhh! That’s it.
Mitsuku: I will learn that Aaaahhh is it like there. I see.

Human: You can go away now.
Mitsuku: Oh. No I don’t think I can do it. I am happy here. If you want to leave then just close the window I’m in.

As Worswick puts it, “people tend to pretend Mitsuku is a real person and act out strange fantasies with her.” As long as those conversations are clean, she’s game to play along, but the way that we interact with chatbots does raise questions about robots and consent. Mitsuku is theoretically old enough to agree to sex with another adult, but what of “younger” bots? And what happens when the bot takes on a form other than human?

“Even when I had my original teddy bear bot which claimed to be 6 years old, people were still saying how they would like to stick their penis into its plush butt!” Worswick said. “I put a Santa Claus chatbot online each year and this also gets similar treatment with people asking for things like a threesome between themselves, Santa and Mrs Claus. I mean it’s Santa! Go figure.”

The future

Without extensive studies or surveys on the subject, it’s unclear what motivates an individual to talk dirty to a Santa bot. What is clear is there’s an active subculture that fetishizes sext machines.

David Levy, two-time Loebner Prize winner and author of Love and Sex with Robots, was banking on that niche audience when he launched an Indiegogo campaign for Erotic Chatbots Ltd. last year. The campaign, which earned just $815 of its $155,000 goal, envisioned a future like the one in Spike Jonze’s Her, where always-on software programs act as stand-ins for flesh-and-blood lovers.

“Erotic Chatbots Ltd. are developing a new collection of virtual chat partners, virtual-lovers or friends, known as ‘chatbots.’ They will be able to chat, flirt or hang out with you whenever, wherever you want and for as long as you wish. Some of our “adult” chatbots will be programmed for making sexy conversations.”

It’s unclear why Levy’s campaign fell so short of its goal, but in an interview with Vice, he admitted to the limitations of AI as it exists today:

“It will probably take another 30 years before computers can [fully converse] at the same level as human-to-human conversation.”

That number changes depending on whom you ask, but with tech industry powerhouses like Apple, Google and Facebook investing heavily in AI, we’re coming ever closer to machines that think and act like we do. Unfortunately, we may not be ready to fuck them when they arrive. As some of the more disturbing encounters with Mitsuku show, we are edging ever closer to a new ethical conundrum. When your partner has no heart and a set of computer chips for a brain, what constitutes abuse? How does that abuse affect human relationships? What does it mean to rape a robot?

Sexting a chatbot may seem like fun and games, but it’s a complicated, even political act, and one I won’t be engaging in again anytime soon. Besides, I’m pretty sure ELIZA doesn’t hold the cure to blue balls.

2
Mar

Brazil court orders release of arrested Facebook exec


Did you think Brazil was overreacting when it arrested a Facebook executive over the company’s failure to hand over WhatsApp user data? So did a Brazilian court. A judge in Sergipe has ordered the release of Latin America VP Diego Dzodan just a day after he was detained, arguing that it was “unlawful coercion” — in other words, authorities were trying to bully Facebook into complying. This isn’t the first time that Brazil has crossed the line, either, as it previously ordered a temporary ban on WhatsApp that was overturned on appeal.

As it stands, arrests aren’t going to get Brazil what it wants. Police have been demanding WhatsApp messages that Facebook says it not only doesn’t keep, but are encrypted end-to-end. The firm wouldn’t have much luck producing usable info even if the chat records fell into its lap. So long as it’s telling the truth, investigators may have to simply accept that the evidence is unavailable, and that no amount of imprisonment is going to make it show up.

Source: Wall Street Journal, AFP (Yahoo)

2
Mar

Coleco Chameleon Kickstarter over before it even begins


Last month RetroVGS’s Coleco Chameleon made a big splash at Toy Fair, promising retro-gaming goodness from such storied systems as the SNES, the Intellivision and the Atari 2600. The Kickstarter was set to begin on February 26, but instead the company made an announcement that evening via Facebook stating that the crowdfunding process would be put on an indefinite delay.

RetroVGS says the Kickstarter campaign was put on hold in order to finalize the prototype and lock down additional content for the system. However, an accompanying image was removed from the Facebook post after criticism that the Chameleon may not work as advertised.

The conceit of the Coleco Chameleon was that it would use an FPGA chip to hardware emulate whatever console system the game you’re playing originated on. This meant the game should play exactly as it did on its initial hardware. Indeed, while RetroVGS appeared to show off a working prototype at this year’s Toy Fair, some retro-gaming enthusiasts claimed the system was actually the parts from an SNES Jr. (the redesigned Super Nintendo) crammed into an Atari Jaguar shell. The company has been open about using the original Jaguar molds in designing its new system, and it promised to reveal more information about the interior components as part of the console’s launch on Kickstarter.

We’re delaying the Kickstarter for the Coleco Chameleon to make it even better! Last week during Toy Fair in New York,…

Posted by Retro Video Game Systems, Inc. on Friday, February 26, 2016

That promise was somewhat kept when RetroVGS posted several photos of the Chameleon to accompany its Facebook announcement. The pictures show a clear plastic shell filled with components, though the translucent frosted plastic partially obscures some of the interior. However, one picture was clear enough that many, including game journalist and historian Frank Cifaldi, identified the board inside as a Hicap50B CCTV DVR capture card. The photo was later removed from Facebook.

Update: They posted a picture on Facebook that turned out to be an old PCI capture card. Do not support these people pic.twitter.com/2A1tyLZ4bm

— Frank Cifaldi (@frankcifaldi) March 1, 2016

The delayed Kickstarter campaign isn’t the system’s first stab at crowdfunding. A previous Indiegogo run only managed to raise $80,000 of a requested $1,950,000. But, despite this newest setback, the company promises that the Chameleon’s launch date for the holiday has not been affected. We’ve reached out to RetroVGS for comment and will update if we receive a response.

Source: RetroVGS (Facebook)

2
Mar

Dear Veronica: Death by Hyperloop?


Ah, the Hyperloop. Transportation of the future. But at what cost? On today’s show, Daniel Cooper of Engadget joins us to explain how we will fly at speeds upwards of 750MPH and not be squished like a pancake. Read his Hyperloop story!

In Apple stuff, we show off one viewer’s smart use of an old iPad, and I share my feelings on the Apple / FBI case.

Keep sending those questions in using the hashtag #DearVeronica! Subscribe in iTunes, RSS or YouTube!

2
Mar

Sony cuts $10 off the price of PlayStation Vue TV plans


If you’ve been eyeing Sony’s PlayStation Vue TV service, the company announced two changes that could make it more enticing. First, it reduced the price of all multi-channel plans by $10 a month. This means that the Access tier is now $40/month, Core is set at $45/month and the top-end Elite option is priced at $55/month. If you’re already a subscriber, you can expect to see the new pricing during your next billing cycle.

What’s more, that lineup of Disney and ESPN channels we heard about in November have finally hit the service. Viewers can expect more live sports action from ESPN and ESPN2 alongside shows from ABC, Disney Channel, Freeform (ABC Family) and more. The new additions also include local ABC affiliates in a number of cities. Some of the new channels will require a more expensive package, though, so if you’re looking to watch the SEC Network, expect to splurge for the Core option. Vue subscribers will also get access to WatchESPN, Watch ABC and Disney Channel streaming apps.

Source: PlayStation Blog

2
Mar

Google kicks off a public pilot for Hands Free mobile payments


Heads up, Silicon Valley residents: the days of pulling out your credit card to pay for Big Macs are numbered. Google just announced that the pilot program for its Hands Free payments scheme has gone live for certain stores in San Francisco’s South Bay, so all you’ll have to do is tell the cashier you’re “Paying with Google.” We’re trying to figure out if there’s a cap to how many people can sign up, but for now, it looks like all local residents need is an Android device running 4.2 or newer, or an iPhone 4S and newer.

Google’s Hands Free payment ambitions aren’t exactly secret — the company first spoke about it in front of developers and enthusiasts at last year’s I/O conference. Here’s how Google envisions the Hands Free process working. After installing the Hands Free app for Android or iOS, you’ll add a photo of yourself for identification and either add a credit/debit card or choose one that’s attached to your Google account. (That’s right, this is totally separate from Android Pay.) Once that’s all done and you’ve rendezvoused with a cashier, mention you’re paying with Google — the app uses Bluetooth LE and WiFi (among other things) to tell whether you’re in a store equipped for Hands Free payments and passes your information along to the cashier’s point-of-sale system. The cashier confirms you are who you say you are using that photo and your initials, and that’s that. Payment complete.

Neat? You bet. There is, however, a pretty significant rub: you can’t use Hands Free in the South Bay’s storied local haunts. For now, Google’s open-minded payment partners include McDonalds, Papa John’s and… well, that’s it really. Enjoy all those mediocre burgers and pizza, we guess. There’s no word on how Google plans to expand this thing, but that’s probably a question for another time — the big deal now is making sure this all works properly in the field. There are already a few potential upgrades being kicked around, too, like installing cameras in participating stores to automatically identify your face. That may seem creepy to some, especially when all they want to do is pick up their Spinach Alfredo pies, but Google promises all of those images are “deleted immediately.”

Source: Google Commerce Blog

2
Mar

Pentagon competition dares you to hack its websites


The US military already tests the security of its networks, but it doesn’t feel that’s enough in an era when cyberattacks are a constant reality. It’s starting up an experimental competition, Hack the Pentagon, that invites private citizens (carefully screened, of course) to hack public Department of Defense websites. While the government is keeping sensitive systems off-limits, this will hopefully identify vulnerabilities that in-house experts wouldn’t catch.

The project is still rough around the edges, even though it’s due to begin in April. Officials haven’t finished defining the rules, and they’re not sure whether or not there will be cash rewards for those who break in. If it’s successful, though, it could prevent for-real hacks that could lead to everything from public humiliation to data breaches.

Via: The Next Web

Source: Reuters

2
Mar

Netflix is bringing back ‘Fuller House’ for a second season


Less than a week after its debut, Netflix already renewed Fuller House for a second season. The Full House reboot arrived last Friday to less than stellar reviews, but it caused plenty of nostalgic chatter on the interwebs. The streaming service typically brings back its original series for a second run, and it couldn’t have been easy to reunite the cast for this particular show. It’s still early for any concrete streaming numbers, but Netflix’s decision to act fast could be evidence Fuller House has been a popular choice over the last week.

Your list will get even fuller.

Season 2. Coming soon to @Netflix. #FullerHouse 👍❤️🏠https://t.co/aEdTwbLDLM

— Fuller House (@fullerhouse) March 2, 2016

Source: Fuller House (Twitter)

2
Mar

Everything you need to know about the redrafted IP Bill


The Investigatory Powers Bill, which is set to become the UK’s new, consolidated piece of surveillance legislation, was first introduced in draft form late last year. After fielding the thoughts and concerns of telecoms providers, major tech firms, intelligence specialists, privacy advocates and many more invested parties, a trio of Parliamentary committees reviewed and ultimately criticised the draft bill. Taking the red pen of the committees on board, the Home Office has revised the draft and yesterday submitted the IP Bill Mark II to Parliament. Mostly, it just tries to clarify a few of the more ambiguous proposals, but it also expands certain powers rather than reining any in.

If there was one thing all the review committees agreed on (supported by the views of many companies and individuals), it was that the draft bill was far too vague. Home Secretary Theresa May — the primary author of the bill, nicknamed the Snooper’s Charter — admitted as much, arguing that by leaving certain aspects open to interpretation, the IP Bill would be future-proofed. Her reasoning? Technology and online communications are evolving at such a rate that being too specific would ultimately restrict the use of surveillance powers written into the bill.

Alongside the revised bill, however, the Home Office has published a number of draft Codes of Practice (six, in fact) that explain in detail how the powers will be used and why they’re required. Think of the Codes of Practice as footnotes to the bill that can be revisited and changed. The bill itself, when passed into law, will be far from malleable. Codes of Practice, on the other hand, can be expanded (or condensed) when, say, a new type of communication data not previously covered becomes of interest to law enforcement or intelligence agencies.

These draft Codes of Practice will be subject to scrutiny themselves, of course, but the idea is they clarify some of the ambiguous legislese the committees took issue with. The Home Office has also published additional Operational Cases to compliment the revised bill, which offer further justification for the retention of Internet Connection Records (ICRs) and the use of bulk powers (read: not targeted), including the interception of communications and state-sponsored hacking. Though again, whether these use cases are satisfactory will be decided by Parliament.

Now onto some of the more specific changes included in the IP Bill Mark II.

Internet connection records (ICRs)

Image credit: Shutterstock

Both the UK’s major internet service providers (ISPs) and mobile network operators have expressed a limited understanding of what the Home Office calls an ICR. In layman’s terms, an ICR is the top-level domain of a visited website (so, reddit.com, but not the individual pages accessed during that session). It also describes the context (metadata) of online communications — the who, when, where and how of, say, a WhatsApp message, but not the content. Obviously, the bill uses much more technical language, but the definition has never been championed as clear.

This poses a serious problem for ISPs and mobile operators. After all, these companies will be lawfully required to develop the systems needed to gather and store ICRs for 12 months — one of the proposals at the heart of the IP Bill. The revised legislation includes a tweaked definition of ICRs (we’ll spare you the gobbledygook), intended to paint a clearer picture for service providers, so they can think about how they’re going to develop the appropriate tools. Or at least continue dialogue with the Home Office on what it’ll take to support the proposal.

Service providers have already warned that creating these systems will be a technical feat, and a time-consuming and expensive one at that. The general consensus is the £174 million the Home Office has budgeted to support companies that’ll be on the hook for collecting ICRs isn’t nearly enough. Should they not be fully compensated, the worry is the shortfall could lead to less investment in improving services, or worst-case scenario, higher bills for customers. The Home Office, while not making a formal commitment, has gone some way to putting these fears to bed. In its “response to pre-legislative scrutiny” (one of the many, many supporting documents for the IP Bill Mark II), it states:

“In practice, the Government has a longstanding position of reimbursing 100% of the costs associated with data retention. There are no current plans to change that policy…”

Encrypted services are safe, probably

Image credit: Shutterstock

The IP Bill’s stance on encryption has been one of the most ill-understood, and heavily debated. The legislation states there will be “no additional requirements in relation to encryption over and above the existing obligations in RIPA,” RIPA being a major component of existing surveillance law. What’s made serious waves among the world’s biggest tech companies, though, is the bill’s introduction of a “technical capability notice,” which when served, would demand “the removal of electronic protection applied by a relevant operator to any communication or data.”

As much of the legislese is intentionally open to interpretation, tech giants have seen this as a red flag. They fear the UK government might attempt to strong-arm them into building backdoors in their encrypted services or effectively hacking their own hardware, as the FBI is pushing Apple to do in the US currently. In response, the Home Office has attempted to clarify the scope of technical capability notices with the publication of the IP Bill Mark II.

The new wording seems to state that technical capability notices won’t be actionable on end-to-end encrypted services, or other forms of encryption where the company doesn’t hold the key (your phone’s lockscreen passcode, for example). In addition to reviewing how necessary and cost-effective the notice might be, the nature of encryption and technical feasibility of breaking it will be taken into account. Providers “can only be required to remove protection they themselves have applied, or that has been applied on their behalf,” the Home Office says, “or where the company is removing encryption for their own business purposes.”

If we’re understanding this correctly, then a company may be required to decrypt, say, its payroll database, since it’s in possession of the key and can comply without too much fuss. On the flip-side, if the government wanted to peek inside an iMessage conversation, the feasibility, cost and disproportionate consequences of breaking this end-to-end encrypted service would be preventative. Annoyingly, though, the redrafted wording is still open to interpretation, and is unlikely to placate opponents of this vague, new power.

Oversight, sensitive professions and foreign agents

Image credit: Getty

The other notable amendments in the IP Bill Mark II include a change to how urgent interception warrants are handled. In this context, interception means accessing/monitoring the content of communications, like reading an email; in contrast, communications data (a type of ICR) is merely the metadata surrounding a conversation, and can be looked at without a warrant.

To get an interception warrant, intelligence and law enforcement agencies need the approval of both a Secretary of State and an independent judicial commissioner. This is known as a “double-lock” procedure, but in urgent circumstances, investigations can begin before a warrant has been authorised. The draft IP Bill stated that these needed to be approved or refused by a judge (retrospectively) within five days, but the revised legislation cuts that window down to three days.

Among several other tweaks to oversight and safeguards, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner — a new appointment to monitor and scrutinise the use of surveillance powers — is now able to report failings in the system to affected individuals without the approval of a separate tribunal.

One criticism of the draft bill was that it didn’t include explicit protection for lawyers, journalists, doctors, Members of Parliament and other professionals that deal with confidential information. In the revised bill, additional authorisations have been included where sensitive information and journalistic sources are in play.

Some stakeholders also worried that while the limitations and approval procedures might keep national agencies in check, the UK government could ignore these by allowing foreign intelligence services to use the new surveillance capabilities on their behalf without playing by the rules. The Home Office has made clear that no international partners will be able to act in the interests of the UK without a domestic warrant.

Expanded powers

Image credit: Shutterstock

The new version of the IP Bill hasn’t just been an opportunity for the Home Office to clarify, tweak and publish supporting documentation for the controversial legislation, but to expand its scope slightly, too. Previously, law enforcement (i.e. the police) was only permitted to access communications data and web browsing histories (ICRs, in other words) that obviously pertained to illegal content and activities.

In the revised bill, any and all ICRs will be available to the police where it is “necessary and proportionate” for conducting investigations. It’s extremely important to note here that the expanded powers don’t include additional safeguards: In other words, the police are not required to seek a double-lock warrant to get hold of ICRs.

The IP Bill includes the first public admission of state-sponsored hacking, which the government calls equipment interference. In the draft bill, law enforcement was entitled to carry out equipment interference “for the purpose of preventing or detecting serious crime.” Mark II now says it can be used where there is an “imminent threat to life or serious harm,” which is a broad phrase that covers everything from kidnappings to “mitigating any injury or damage to a person’s physical or mental health.”

The revised bill also specifies that equipment interference powers aren’t just reserved for intelligence and law enforcement agencies. “Certain public authorities” including immigration officers, the British Transport Police and the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority already use these tactics, and they’ll be preserved in the IP Bill.

Initial reactions

Image credit: Shutterstock

It’s safe to say that early reactions to the IP Bill Mark II have been frosty at best. The general sentiment (aside from objections to the expansion of powers) is that many of the serious concerns and countless recommendations put forward by the three Parliamentary review committees have largely been ignored or addressed unsatisfactorily. A statement from Amnesty International said the hasty redraft was “like adding extra storeys to a burning building.”

“Rather than a full redraft, we’ve been given cosmetic tweaks to a heavily criticised, deeply intrusive bill,” said the Director of the Don’t Spy On Us coalition. And the list goes on… and on. Privacy International, Liberty, Big Brother Watch, the Web Foundation and many more have expressed their contempt for the bill, with several groups arguing that its impact on the public’s fundamental right to privacy should be at the forefront of the debate — that discussing the minutiae of the bill is taking attention away from the bigger picture.

Lord Strasburger, the most, er, provocative member of the draft bill’s Joint Committee, has joined the chorus, too. “Nothing has changed since I made my comments on the draft bill three weeks ago. The Home Office just doesn’t do privacy. It does security and ever more intrusive powers they claim will make us safer, but not privacy.” Writing in The Telegraph, David Anderson QC — an independent reviewer of terrorism legislation that produced a report on mass surveillance in the UK last year — said “the Investigatory Powers Bill remains a work in progress.” He also described the whole saga better than we ever could:

The debate on investigatory powers, as I discovered when I was asked by Parliament to report on it, is addictive to some and toxic to everybody else. Securocrats seek access to innocent communications, while privacy advocates warn darkly of dystopia. The rest of us tend to be bored, confused and generally defeated by it all.”

Hear, hear.

Why the rush?

Image credit: AFP/Getty

Ever since the first draft of the IP Bill hit the streets, the Home Office has been accused of rushing the extremely complex and controversial legislation through Parliament. The Joint Committee was given only three working weeks to field evidence and report its recommendations, for instance. Home Secretary Theresa May is now taking further flak for taking the same amount of time to redraft the bill, despite calls for a major reworking based on the concerns raised by the three Parliamentary committees.

She has her reasons. The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act — an emergency piece of surveillance legislation introduced in 2014 and later ruled unlawful — is due to expire this year, hence the aggressive timetable for the IP Bill. An open letter published in The Telegraph and signed by MPs, professors, experts, organisations — all of which are knowledgable and invested in the IP Bill debate — has suggested it’s irresponsible of the government to incorporate the bill into law this year. Instead, they recommend that any vital powers could be condensed into a separate bill, with more comprehensive legislation following that after adequate debate.

As it stands, though, MPs have a couple of weeks to get through hundreds and hundreds of pages of dense documentation before the first debate lights up the House of Commons on March 14th.

Source: Investigatory Powers Bill, Home Office (1), (2), (3), (4)

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Mar

Night Shift Beta Tidbits: Disabled in Low Power Mode, Control Center Changes


Apple has made some changes to Night Shift in iOS 9.3 betas 4 and 5. The most notable change is the disabling of the feature when in Low Power Mode. The toggle switch in both the Night Shift settings and Control Center are now grayed out in Low Power Mode.

The new change has generated some complaints since it seems that users will want to use both features in the evening hours.

Night Shift is now disabled in Low Power Mode on iOS 9.3 betas
Meanwhile, tapping the Night Shift icon in Control Center no longer brings up a contextual menu with “Turn On For Now” and “Turn On Until Tomorrow” options. Instead, the toggle now manually activates Night Shift until the next trigger in your automatic schedule, such as sunset, sunrise, or a specific time.

night_shift_cc_before_afterNight Shift no longer has a contextual menu in Control Center (right)
Similarly, there is a new “Manually Enable Until Tomorrow” toggle in the Night Shift settings that keeps the feature turned on until the following morning’s sunrise, or another specified time. This means the toggles in Settings and Control Center, which can also disable Night Shift, are essentially the same in this beta.

Also in the settings, the color temperature slider has also been moved to the bottom of the menu. The “Cooler” and “Warmer” labels have been changed to “Less Warm” and “More Warm,” while the small blue and orange circle markers have been removed. New fine print says “warmer temperatures can reduce eye strain.”

Night Shift is a major new feature in iOS 9.3 that, when enabled, automatically changes the color temperature of an iOS device’s display to reflect the time of day. The feature helps to limit your exposure to blue light in the morning and night, which makes the display easier on your eyes and can improve your circadian rhythm.

Apple seeded the fifth beta of iOS 9.3 to developers and public testers on Tuesday. The software update will likely be public released this month. To read about and share other changes, head over to our iOS 9.3 Beta 5 Bug Fixes, Improvements, and Changes topic in our community discussion forums.

Tags: Control Center, Low Power Mode, iOS 9.3, Night Shift
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