Soon after news broke that Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones’s website had been hacked and replaced with stolen nude photos and racist memes, I got an urgent email from Whitney Phillips, one of the world’s foremost experts on online trolling and harassment (Phillips quite literally has a doctorate in 4chan). Phillips wanted to know if Motherboard was going to cover the hack, and how we were going to do it.
“I have some thoughts on the ethics of amplification—how, we can't not comment on stories like this, but commenting perpetuates the disgusting narrative and associated imagery. The question being, what's the ethical way not just for journalists and academics to respond, but for individuals, as well?” she said.
“Is more harm than good done when the association of Jones with Harambe is given longer life? I'm honestly not sure,” she added. “BUT I WANT TO HAVE THAT CONVERSATION.”
In her book This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, Phillips explores how early trolls from 4chan’s /b/ board manipulated the media into spreading their message. Though “trolling” is now an outdated, imprecise term, the Twitter harassment and illegal hacking of Jones’s website are amplified the more journalists write about it, the more people retweet it, the more we allow it to stay in our collective consciousness.
Phillips emailed me as I was also considering whether there’s an ethical way to cover abhorrent behavior on the internet—decisions about how and whether to write about racially, sexually, or xenophobically motivated hacks and harassment is a question the Motherboard staff considers all the time, but it’s rarely a conversation that ever makes it to the public.
And so I decided to have that conversation with Phillips and the roles we all play in amplifying questionable or grotesque online behavior.
As our lives become ever more digitized, the security of our data will become ever more important to protect.
So far, judging by the daily routine of data breaches and large scale hacks, it seems like we're failing to secure our most precious digital belongings. As some in the world of information security say, everything will get hacked. But is that really true?
As part of The Hacks We Can't See, Motherboard's theme week exploring the future of hacking, we asked real hackers what they think the future holds. We also spoke to Morgan Marquis-Boire, a well-known security researcher who's spent the last few years hunting malware and helping human rights activists and journalists protect themselves.
What's the craziest thing that'll get hacked in the future? And what can you do to protect yourself? Listen to this week's episode of Radio Motherboard to find out.
Hello, friend. If you’ve been a Radio Motherboard listener, you know that we’re big fans of Mr. Robot, USA’s moody, disorienting hacker drama. In fact, Motherboard and Mr. Robot’s respective moods align so closely that Amy Teitel, a former Motherboard freelancer, is now a staff writer for the show’s second season.
We talk to Amy about how she made the shift from security journalism to tv writing, why she thinks Mr. Robot hasn’t gotten hacked, and her brand new play debuting soon off Broadway.
This is the first episode of a brand new podcast series being launched by Radio Motherboard. On #fsociety, staff writers Jason Koebler and Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai will discuss the parallels between the hacks on each episode of this season of Mr. Robot and the ones we see in real life. Apologies for the delay on this first episode—we’ll try to catch up to the series by next week, and will continue to post episodes each week. Search #fsociety on iTunes or your favorite podcast app to subscribe.
Radio Motherboard's Jason Koebler and Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai are going to talk about the real-life hacks that we see in Mr. Robot season two. This is #fsociety, coming your way all summer.
This podcast contains spoilers for Independence Day and Independence Day 2: Resurgence.
We had 20 years to prepare.
That's the tagline for Independence Day 2. It refers to Earth, and how long we had to get ready for a second alien invasion. But it also applies to Roland Emmerich and the team behind the sequel.
In this podcast, Radio Motherboard interviews Emmerich, goes to see ID4-2, and talks about what made the first film such a hit and the second one, not so much.
David Farrier is used to uncovering bizarre information. But his latest project investigating the online world of competitive tickling was a lesson in the strange side of life, even for him. We talked to the journalist and filmmaker about his new movie, Tickled, and what it reveals about online harassment, internet tribes, and hacking.
For two weeks, Motherboard writer Kate Lunau skipped her soap and deodorant—spritzing herself with a “live bacteria spray” instead. Her goal was to colonize her skin with ammonia-eating bacteria, which are supposed to neutralize the smell of sweat. There are a growing number of believers out there: Chemist David Whitlock, who came up with this, hasn’t showered in 13 years. But are live bacteria products really the future of skincare? And, maybe more importantly, how bad did Kate smell by the end of it?
Sometime in the last few weeks, or months, or years, you may have heard about this idea called “universal basic income.” It’s the idea that maybe governments should give a monthly stipend—no questions asked—to everyone who lives there.
It’s an idea we’ve covered quite a bit over the years, and it’s one that’s increasingly gaining steam among people on both sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives and libertarians say that it can simplify the bureaucracy associated with things like welfare and food stamps, and liberals like it because it would strengthen the social safety net.
Why do we need a basic income now? Well maybe you’ve noticed, but automation is slowly but surely replacing a lot of jobs that humans used to do with ones that robots, drones, software, and artificial intelligence can do. We’re looking at a future where it’s possible that there simply won’t be enough jobs for everyone. Maybe that’s a good thing—in a post scarcity society, do humans really need to do menial jobs?
And so basic income has been floated as both a cure to automation and potentially a better way to redistribute wealth. The movement is gaining steam around the world: Switzerland voted this last weekend on whether the country should “guarantee the introduction of an unconditional basic income.” The measure failed, but the fact that it was even on the ballot speaks to its increasing relevancy. In the United States, the startup incubator Y Combinator is doing an experiment that will give 100 people in Oakland between $1,000 and $2,000 per month to see how the “mechanics” of a basic income would work and to see what people do with the money.
That project is controversial for reasons we get into the podcast. I called up Matt Krisiloff, who is head of the basic income project at Y Combinator, and Elizabeth Rhodes, the research lead of the project, to talk about how it’ll work and why a Silicon Valley startup accelerator is interested in this idea. Then, we talk to Natalie Foster, who is a cofounder of the Universal Income Project, about why she finds the idea so compelling. Finally, we look at the history of basic income around the world and deconstruct the policy itself. Could it ever work?
Remember when Uber came to your city? It was probably exciting—you could hail a car without talking to anyone or standing on a cold, rainy corner. It’s so easy, maybe you thought. Maybe the taxi commission or some local politicians expressed worry about this new interloper from San Francisco. But Uber has this game down. It comes to town, becomes incredibly popular, worries about regulations later and usually wins because the general public likes the service.
Soon, you forget about there ever being a time before Uber existed. When did it come to town, anyway? There were just suddenly hundreds, maybe thousands of regular people happy to drive you and your friends around town. Maybe your coworker drives an Uber in his or her free time. Remember when you used to have to beg your friend for a ride to the airport? Me either.
As fast as Uber came to your city, it can leave. It might leave. With no physical infrastructure and no real employees, it’s trivial for Uber to expand to a new city, and just as easy for it to depart. Those thousands of contract drivers? Some of them lease or buy cars specifically to drive for Uber. Some of them drive Uber to support their new baby. When Uber leaves, overnight, hopefully those drivers have a backup plan. Uber is an app, after all. It’s a platform. It’s a business. It can leave. It just left Austin.
“There’s something unique about Uber because unlike a telecom company or other businesses that operate in a city—what the company requires as far as infrastructure is very minimal,” Rick Claypool, author of a new report about how Uber does politics, told me. “They can credibly threaten, ‘it’s my way or the highway and we’re going to go.’ It’s an app versus something that has brick and mortar buildings. They have no employees, they have no cars, so really what their investment is in the actual place is minimal. They have an extraordinary amount of leverage in that sense.”
Uber (and Lyft, for that matter) followed its basic gameplan in Austin, Texas. It came to town in early 2014. Local lawmakers and the taxi lobby wondered whether ridesharing companies were following commercial driver regulations about driver insurance, licensing, and driver background checks. By the time they got around to enforcing any sort of regulations, the services were too popular, and Uber and Lyft were given temporary permission to operate in the city.
But Austin still wanted regulations. The city council proposed that Uber and Lyft require its drivers to get a fingerprint background check administered by the city. Uber and Lyft said that would discourage people from driving and would impose an undue burden on their companies and their drivers. Uber and Lyft got signatures from community members to put a ballot initiative at the poll called “Proposition 1.” A vote for Prop 1 would preserve the status quo, allowing Uber and Lyft to operate as it does in most of the country. A vote against would be a vote for regulation.
Uber and Lyft started a political action committee called Rideshare Works for Austin to lobby for Prop 1. Rideshare Works for Austin hired former Austin mayor Lee Leffingwell to support Prop 1. It plastered Austin with billboards, radio ads, flyers and leaflets, and television ads. It advertised on Hulu. Rideshare Works for Austin spent $9.1 million trying to pass Prop 1, which was roughly six times more than had ever been spent on any local election in Austin for any reason.
"It looked like, it felt like they were buying every piece of airtime that could be bought in the city," Nolan Hicks, a reporter for the Austin Statesman told me. "It was just total saturation, something that no one had ever seen before in municipal politics."
On May 7, Prop 1 failed; the voters of Austin decided that any corporation that spent that much money couldn’t really be trusted. On May 9, Uber and Lyft were gone.
Uber and Lyft are currently working on getting the Texas state legislature to pass a law that would overrule Austin’s local regulations. It’s unclear if they’re ever going to come back. Uber and Lyft aren’t saying. The companies declined to be interviewed for this podcast.
“My friend, she was like, ‘I thought Austin kicked Uber and Lyft out,’” one local told us. “And I said, ‘No, we wanted them to comply with something and, Uber and Lyft basically said no, and, like a toddler, stomped off.’”
What happens when Uber and Lyft leave? Do we even need them? That’s what I wanted to find out with this podcast. I spoke to Austin Statesman reporter Nolan Hicks about the leadup to Prop 1, Claypool about how Uber’s tactics in Austin mirror those it’s used around the country, and Austin native Michael Humphreys about a new underground ridesharing network he’s created. Motherboard contributor Rollin Bishop collected interviews with normal Austinites on the ground for me. Mark Leombruni edited this episode.
Edgar Mitchell, who passed away in February at the age of 85, was exceptional, even among astronauts. Like an archetypal moon man, he was a Boy Scout and a military test pilot with a protestant upbringing and an impressive command of engineering and aeronautics. In February 1971, on Apollo 14, he became the sixth man on the moon. But more so than other astronauts, Mitchell’s brief exploration of outer space led to a deep exploration of inner space and the entire universe of phenomena explained and not. After conducting an ESP experiment in space, he became a connoisseur of parapsychology; later, he sought to show that aliens had visited Earth and that governments around the world had tried to cover up the truth. But he remained grounded on Earth too, and worried that civilization's narrow perspectives were exceedingly dangerous for the future of the planet and humanity.
Even if you’re not a Trekkie, you’ve got to feel for the Klingons of Earth. Their language is under threat of being taken back by the very company that commissioned its creation, raising the very important question: Can a language even be copyrighted?
News that Paramount is suing the creators of a Star Trek fan film for copyright infringement quickly spread across the galaxy last week. More traditional copyright issues such as the likenesses of characters came into play, but the company also said it owned the Klingon language, a claim that could have far-reaching implications.
When I first heard about the lawsuit, I kind of rolled my eyes. I’m not a Trekkie, how could this possibly matter? It quickly became clear that if companies can copyright languages, they can copyright the means of creating culture. Paramount invented the language, but should it own Klingon translations of Hamlet? Should it own a novel completely unrelated to Star Trek that a passionate Klingon writes? Could it require licenses for people to recite their wedding vows in Klingon?
What about other constructed languages like Dothraki from Game of Thrones? And what about software and programming languages?
And so I decided to look at the issue from a few different angles. I called up Sai, founder of the Language Creation Society, to talk about why his organization is defending the Klingons. I called up qurgh lungqIj, a Klingon from the distant planet of Cincinnati, to talk about the rich Klingon culture that has evolved since it was first invented for the Star Trek movies. And then I called up Motherboard contributing editor and copyright expert Sarah Jeong to talk about whether the Klingons stand a chance.
Former Blink 182 guitarist Tom DeLonge has a new project: telling the world the truth about UFOs. DeLonge has always been interested in the supernatural, and he’s been researching and reporting the topic as part of a multimedia project called Sekret Machines that involves books, movies, music, and other moving parts. His first book, co-written by bestselling author AJ Hartley, is a pageturner novel called Chasing Shadows about a skeptical journalist who runs a UFO debunking website, a Holocaust survivor, an heiress whose father mysteriously dies, and a Marine pilot who gets recruited into a secret government technology project at Area 51. Somehow, their stories all intersect.
Motherboard talked to DeLonge about this project and whether he really believes all this stuff about aliens. We also dive into the weird and wonderful world of conspiracy theorists in the longest Radio Motherboard episode to date.
We often talk about the gender gap in Silicon Valley—there are far too few female computer engineers and startup founders—but there’s one field where women do dominate Silicon Valley: public relations.
Most research suggests that about 70 percent of all public relations professionals are women, and that number seems to hold up when you look specifically at the breakdown in tech PR. Anecdotally, when I deal with press people at tech companies, they are overwhelmingly women. In the vast majority of cases, these women are pitching startups founded by and dominated by men.
After a spirited discussion with the Motherboard staff, it turns out I’m not the only one who noticed this. I decided to do a little experiment. I went to the SXSW Interactive festival in early March—a Super Bowl for tech startups and for the PR people who represent them. I checked all of the emails I got from PR people for the first 10 days of March, which were the first few days before I got to the festival and the first few days after I left. I got emails from 127 different women PR people, and just 48 men.
I deal with public relations professionals on a daily basis, but I rarely think about what their job actually entails behind the scenes. After I started thinking about it, I wondered if it was weird for women in the so-called “pink collar” PR profession to primarily represent male clients and work in-house at companies that are primarily men. And so, I called some women who are in the profession and talked to them about their jobs.
It’s impossible to generalize the experience of an entire profession, but I quickly learned that, for a lot of women, working in tech PR is a way to get into tech—if you work at a small startup, you’re often wearing lots of different hats and, at companies with smart founders, they’ll be involved in major decisions at the company and will have the opportunity to climb the ladder.
There are, of course, lots of challenges as well, which the women I spoke to can articulate much better than I can. As always, thanks for listening to Radio Motherboard.
En esta edición muy especial de Radio Motherboard, viajamos a la zona fronteriza entre los Estados Unidos y México para evaluar la viabilidad de "control remoto," una nueva táctica de contrabando en que los migrantes guía de contrabando a través de la frontera por teléfono celulares.
In this very special edition of Radio Motherboard we travel to the US-Mexico borderlands to gauge the viability of "remote control," a new smuggling tactic in which smugglers guide migrants across the border by phone.
Ever notice that the piano part from “Dancing Queen” is tucked into the end of MGMT’s song “No Time To Pretend”? Or that The Album Leaf kept the squeaking of an old piano pedal in the final recording of their song “The Outer Banks?”
These are just a taste of the sonic details most listeners would miss before they’re revealed by Song Exploder, a podcast by Hrishikesh Hirway that has musicians like Bjork, Wilco, Ghostface Killah, and Iggy Pop peel back the layers of their songs and talk about how they’re made.
The process is obviously appealing to aspiring musicians or fans of the artists, but that’s not why we’re devoting this week’s episode of Radio Motherboard to talking with Song Exploder's Hirway. What’s really interesting is why the show is compelling if you don’t know anything about music or haven’t even heard of the bands.
By stripping away anything but the isolated sounds, it’s bringing awareness to our sense of hearing, which is often overshadowed by the visual world. It basically opens up your ears, and the end result is you hear music in a richer, more enjoyable way, which is pretty awesome if you think about it.
Twitter is a place where anyone can say anything, to anyone, at any time. But what happens when you don’t want to hear what someone else has to say? What if someone is attacking you personally, or getting all their friends to attack you? On this week’s Radio Motherboard, we talk about when to block, when to mute, and we consult with the master of the Twitter debate, rapper Talib Kweli.
Hollywood, 1992. Mark Snow was already a pro at TV scores—dramas, procedurals, comedies—when a producer recommended him to Chris Carter, a veteran of Disney TV movies who needed music for a new TV pilot, The X Files, an unlikely supernatural procedural inspired partly by Kolchak, The Twilight Zone, and Twin Peaks. As he sat in his garage home studio one day, stumped in his search for the right sound for the show’s theme music, Mark accidentally put his elbow on the keyboard. A delay echo blurted out of the monitors. “That’s kinda cool,” he thought.
Neither he nor Carter could imagine that that creepy, repeating sound would form the basis for one of TV’s most unforgettable bits of music, one that would eventually implant itself like an alien virus across the culture and in the brains of a generation of viewers. (I offer no apologies for my first web page, in 1997, an X Files tribute that auto-played a MIDI version of the theme song, on repeat.) A few minutes after 10pm every Friday, those creepy synths and that whistle—a mix of computer and human sound—beckoned us into the shadows of the neon-bright '90s.
To get there, Snow tells me in a new episode of Radio Motherboard, he started by heeding Carter’s advice: keep it simple. “Just make it that cool little thing that the boy scouts in the middle of the night on a camping trip whistle to each other… and then a monster comes and gobbles them up.”
Special thanks to Mark Snow, to our engineer Mark Leombruni, and to Paolo di Nicolantonio of Synthmania.com for the samples of the Emu Proteus/2 synthesizer.
Sometimes, it can be hard to know how to act around artificial intelligence.
In the first half of Radio Motherboard this week, staff writer Jason Koebler explores how people treat Microsoft’s digital assistant Cortana when no one’s listening. (A small spoiler: Apparently, people like to harass it. One new challenge in AI programming is learning how to gently smack down haters.)
In the second half, editorial fellow Louise Matsakis looks at a group that runs a “rationality” workshop that teaches humans that in some cases, it makes more sense to think more like computers.
So scientists are saying an earthquake—a quake that is so big and so powerful you probably can’t even properly comprehend it—is probably going to hit your city, hard. It could be five years out, ten years, fifty years, or it could be tomorrow. But it’s going to come. How do we go about organizing that kind of information in we brains? How do we understand it on a rational, sensible level? Then, what do we do about it?
We can write science fiction stories about it, for one thing. That’s what the archivist, researcher, and writer Adam Rothstein has done. Rothstein spent many months poring over every available emergency document, seismic evaluation, and scientific study carried out on the Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake that he could get his hands on. That quake, scientists say, will be of a magnitude up to 9.3 Mw—perhaps the biggest to hit the continental US in our nation’s history.
Last year, Kathryn Shulz published “The Really Big One” in the New Yorker. The story introduced, for many audiences, the prospect of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, which many geologists say is actually overdue. The article went viral, and left just about everyone in the Pacific Northwest terrified. But the fact that the quake is coming is only a small sliver of the story—what happens when it does is, arguably, the most important, at least from a humanistic point of view.
So this week, Terraform, our future fiction outfit, published Rothstein’s intensely reported 5-part story about what, precisely, may happen after the Big One. When we chatted for the podcast, Rothstein told me that one of his chief aims was to get people thinking about the next steps, after awareness-raising.
“Lots of people I know just figure they’ll be dead,” he told me, despite the fact that your chances of surviving the initial quake in an inland metropolis like Portland are very high. So the point of the story, then, is to render the future less apocalyptic and more productive. Imagining the nitty gritty details of the calamities—not always outright tragedies—that will befall us, will help us prepare to assist our neighbors, and compel us to arrange and maintain earthquake kits.
So far, his story seems to be working.
At least, according to the urbanist and writer Alissa Walker, who writes of the piece, “All I will say is that it worked. Let’s also hope all major cities in seismic areas will undertake a similar scenario-writing exercise and perhaps even work with local sci-fi writers. This series certainly got me far more motivated to get prepared than any other piece about earthquakes that I’ve researched or read myself.”
Clearly, not everyone will have such a positive reaction; but that is, for Rothstein, the desired effect: comprehension of a potentially far-off and difficult future, and preparation for its coming. Listen in for more for our discussion of the story’s genesis, what will happen to Portland in the wake of the quake, and science fiction’s role in charting out our plausible futures
Earlier this week, a federal judge in California ordered Apple to help the FBI brute force hack into the encrypted iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters, setting up a legal showdown that could have far-reaching ramifications for the future of encryption and privacy in the United States. Here's what you need to know.
The hyperloop, Elon Musk’s futuristic, tube-based “fifth mode of transportation” has stoked imaginations unlike any recent transportation technology except for maybe self driving cars.
Lots has been said about it—Musk called it a “cross between a Concord, a railgun, and an air hockey table,” while the media has latched on to the promised speeds of more than 700 mph and travel times between San Francisco and Los Angeles of 35 minutes.
But much of the promise of the hyperloop still remains theoretical. That changed in a small way last weekend, when SpaceX hosted the first part of its “Hyperloop Pod Design Challenge,” a contest that asks 180 university teams to design the capsules that will actually go inside the hyperloop. In June, 22 of the teams will test their pods in a track being built by SpaceX. I traveled to Texas A&M University to meet the teams, meet the companies actually building the hyperloop, and to separate out the hype from what’s actually happening.