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A guide to being an ethical online investigator

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A guide to being an ethical online investigator


But this activity raises some complex ethical and practical issues. How can you, an average person, be an ethical digital activist? What counts as going too far? How can you keep yourself safe? How can you participate in a way that doesn’t put anyone in danger? Below are some guidelines that might help.

Remember, you are not a hacker: There’s a big difference between accessing publicly available information, like a photo from a Facebook profile page that documents illegal activity, and hacking into a person’s otherwise private account to find that photo. That’s crossing the line.In the US, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) limits the amount of access a person has to another’s information “without authorization,” which is undefined; this lack of clarity has frustrated lawyers who represent activists. “Those who do [violate CFAA] are breaking the law, and they’re criminals,” says Max Aliapoulios, a PhD student and cybersecurity researcher at New York University. It’s worth keeping in mind regional laws as well. In the European Union, “publicly identifying an individual necessarily means processing personally identifiable information; therefore individuals performing such activities need a legal basis to do so [under Article 6 of the GDPR],” says Ulf Buermeyer, the founder and legal director of Freiheitsrechte, a German-based civil rights organization.

Ethical issues abound: It’s not just legal issues that would-be amateur online investigators need to be aware of. Much of the online activity carried out in the wake of the Capitol riots raises ethical questions, too. Should a person who didn’t storm the Capitol but attended the rallies leading up to the riots be identified and risk punishment at work? Do those who were in and around the Capitol on January 6 automatically lose the right to privacy even if they weren’t involved in riots? It’s worth thinking through how you feel about some of these questions before you continue. Few are clear cut.

So, where does the information come from? “Our bread and butter is open source,” Fiorella says. “Open-source media” refers to information that is publicly available for use. Data archivists, or those who collect and preserve information online for historical purposes, accessed such open-source data to save posts before they disappeared as social media companies pushed President Donald Trump and many of his supporters off their platforms. “If you were at the Capitol storming and recorded video and took selfies that anyone can access, and it’s openly available on the internet, it’s fair game,” says Fiorella.

It’s your First Amendment right to access open-sourced information. Hacktivists and digital activists trawling social media alike will agree on this: they say it’s the most important aspect of their work. “Utilizing open-source intelligence isn’t a crime,” says Daly Barnett, an activist and staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group. “Archiving isn’t a crime. Freedom of information is good.”

Misidentification is a real danger. “Anyone with an internet connection and free time and willingness to do these things can be part of crowdsourcing efforts to clarify what happened,” Fiorella says. But crowdsourced efforts can be problematic, because people may zero in on the wrong individual. “There’s a fundamental tension here,” says Emmi Bevensee, a researcher and founder of the Social Media Analysis Toolkit, an open-source tool that tracks trends across mainstream and fringe social media platforms. “The more people you have working on a problem, the more likely you are to find the needle in the haystack. There’s a risk doing things like this, though. Not everyone has the same research skills or methodological accountability”—and mistakes can be devastating for the person misidentified. Misidentification carries potential legal risks, too.

You can join up with more established investigators instead of going it alone. There is, obviously, the FBI, which has collected images and is seeking the public’s help in identifying domestic terrorists. Bellingcat, one of the most respected, thorough investigatory sites devoted to this purpose, has created a Google spreadsheet for images of suspects that need identifying. Organizations also often have ethical standards put in place to guide new sleuths, like this one Bellingcat created in light of the Black Lives Matters protests.

Don’t doxx. Doxxing—or digging up personal information and sharing it publicly—is illegal. “The majority of doxxing has occurred from open-source intelligence,” Barnett says, and data hygiene is still something many people online struggle with. If you come across passwords, addresses, phone numbers, or any other similar identifier, do not share it—it’s a crime to do so. r/Datahoarder, a Reddit archiving group, notes that its members “do NOT support witch hunting.” 

If you find something online that could be incriminating, ask, “Am I putting this person in danger?” Fiorella says he asks himself that question consistently, particularly in cases where a person might have few followers and is using social media just to share images with friends.

Show your methodology. Just like in middle school math class, show your work and how you got your results. Data researchers who do this work are famously diligent and exhaustive in how they record their work and triple-check their information. That sort of checking is especially important to ensure that people are properly identified and that others can learn from and retrace your steps for subsequent prosecution. (Methodology may take some technical expertise in some cases, and data researching organizations often run workshops and training sessions to help people learn how to do this.)

Do not share names online. Let’s say you see a picture of a possible suspect online and you recognize who it is. While you might be tempted to tag the person, or screenshot the image and put some commentary on your Instagram to get that addictive stream of likes, don’t. This work needs to be deliberate and slow, says Fiorella: “There’s a risk of misidentifying a person and causing harm.” Even if there’s no doubt that you have figured out who a person is, hold back and, at the most, submit your information to an organization like Bellingcat or the FBI to check your work and make sure it is correct.

You will run into situations where things are not clear. Theo shared the story of the viral video in which a Black Los Angeles woman is physically attacked by Trump supporters calling her the n-word. In the video, a man is seen with his arms around the woman amid the violent, jeering crowd. In initial reports, the man was described as part of the mob and harming the woman. Video footage seemed to show him putting her in the way of pepper spray, for example. Then police said the man was actually trying to protect the woman and that she had confirmed this version of events, though she later suggested to BuzzFeed that perhaps he ended up doing as much harm as good. Theo shared the image of the man in the immediate aftermath of the incident, and then he saw the account suggesting he was a good Samaritan. “I felt horrible,” he says. Theo points out that the man was also recorded using xenophobic and racist language, but “that got me to pause a little bit and think about what I’m doing that could impact people,” he says. “It’s a blurred line.” It doesn’t hurt to repeat it again: Do not share names online.

Your safety may be at risk. Theo says he has received death threats and has not felt safe in the past week, consistently looking over his shoulder if he steps out. Bevensee has received multiple death threats. Many digital activists have burner phones and backup computers, and work away from their families to protect them.

Keep your mental health in mind. This work can involve viewing violent images. Theo says he has been dealing with migraine headaches, sleep problems, paranoia, and the distress that comes with trying to keep up with his day job while handling his Instagram accounts and its sister Twitter account, @OutTerrorists. “I’m only one person, and I have to handle DMs and keep everything up to date,” he says, noting that he also updates posts with verified identifications from the FBI, goes through comments, and forwards information to the FBI himself. Take time to process and realize that it’s okay to feel upset. It’s one thing to use this as motivation to right the wrongs of the world, but nearly every expert and activist told me that having a way to deal with disturbing images is important.

Share your information with law enforcement—if it’s appropriate. Bevensee and Aliapoulios said the digital activism movement was a direct response to the perceived lack of official action. Many activists have a strong distrust of US law enforcement, pointing to the difference between how the Capitol rioters and Black Lives Matter protesters were treated. But in the case of the insurrection, which carries federal charges, experts and activists agree that the right thing to do is to take information to the authorities.



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The best vaccine incentive might be paid time off

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The best vaccine incentive might be paid time off


But state laws are a piecemeal approach, and workers’ protections or benefits largely depend on what employers will give. Ifeoma Ajunwa, an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says employers operate as their own private governments, with free rein over how they run their business. Covid exposed “the limited power that the government can exert over employers,” says Ajunwa. “The pandemic really laid that bare, especially when it came to covid-19 precautions or covid-19 procedures for operation.”

That means it’s largely up to workers to research and understand their rights.

“If you’re part of the 94% of private sector workers who are not in a union, you may not know that a benefit exists,” says Justin Feldman, an epidemiologist at Harvard who has written about covid-19 and the workplace. “And even if you do know that exists, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to exercise it without retaliation.”

In a statement, the New York Department of Labor told me it has received “various complaints” about violation of the covid-19 vaccination leave law and says that it “attempts to collect unpaid wages, or restitution for those who were not paid for the time off as required.” 

But even laws that appear, on paper, to support workers could neglect those in the most precarious jobs. The New York Department of Labor has said any worker denied vaccination leave should file a complaint but declined to say specifically if so-called gig workers are covered. (Ajunwa at Chapel Hill says that because the law uses the word “employee,” it would not cover gig workers, who also don’t get health insurance through work.) 

“A national emergency”

Public health experts stress that there isn’t just one foolproof tactic for getting people vaccinated. The government could create a series of paid days off for workers in different sectors to get shots, but we’d still need to combine that with other public health strategies like going door to door, Feldman says. 

Misconceptions about covid-19 need tackling, too: younger workers may believe they’re not susceptible to severe effects of the disease, Feldman notes, especially if they’ve already worked in person with minimum precautions throughout the pandemic and haven’t gotten sick. It may be particularly hard to change their minds after hearing peers, media, or commentators downplaying the risk.

“We need to treat getting people vaccinated as a national emergency, and that means not treating it like an individual failing,” he says. “We need to do a lot of different things at the same time and see what works.”

“Once folks have the information they need, based on the science, it makes other carrots more like the icing on the cake.”

Rhea Boyd, founder of The Conversation

Rhea Boyd, a pediatrician in the San Francisco Bay Area, says that people need more information before they can be persuaded by incentives. She founded The Conversation, in which Black and Latino health-care workers deliver credible information about covid-19 vaccines to their communities. 

“A major incentive is personal self-interest,” Boyd said in an email. “Once folks have the information they need, based on the science, it makes other ‘carrots’ more like the icing on the cake.”

What would that look like?

“We will only know what is enough once everyone is vaccinated,” she says.

In the meantime, frontline workers’ level of protection on the job continues to rely on shifting public health recommendations, their employers’ own policies, and the whims of customers who can choose to abide by safety measures—or not.

And although public health officials have taken vaccine clinics to public parks, churches, and Juneteenth celebrations in an attempt to change minds, workers are watching what their bosses say and do.

“Workers of every stripe take cues for what they should be doing from their employers,” Ajunwa says. “I think this points to an oversize influence that employers have on employees’ lives in America.”

This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by The Rockefeller Foundation.

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Astronomers have spotted x-rays from behind a supermassive black hole

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Astronomers have spotted x-rays from behind a supermassive black hole


“This is a really exciting result,” says Edward Cackett, an astronomer at Wayne State University who was not involved with the study. “Although we have seen the signature of x-ray echoes before, until now it has not been possible to separate out the echo that comes from behind the black hole and gets bent around into our line of sight. It will allow for better mapping of how things fall into black holes and how black holes bend the space time around them.”

The release of energy by black holes, sometimes in the form of x-rays, is an absurdly extreme process. And because supermassive black holes release so much energy, they are essentially powerhouses that allow galaxies to grow around them. “If you want to understand how galaxies form, you really need to understand these processes outside the black hole that are able to release these enormous amounts of energy and power, these amazingly bright light sources that we’re studying,” says Dan Wilkins, an astrophysicist at Stanford University and the lead author of the study. 

The study focuses on a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy called I Zwicky 1 (I Zw 1 for short), around 100 million light-years from Earth. In supermassive black holes like I Zw 1’s, large amounts of gas fall toward the center (the event horizon, which is basically the point of no return) and tend to flatten out into a disk. Above the black hole, a confluence of supercharged particles and magnetic field activity results in the production of high-energy x-rays.

Some of these x-rays are shining straight at us, and we can observe them normally, using telescopes. But some of them also shine down toward the flat disk of gas and will reflect off it. I Zw 1 black hole’s rotation is slowing down at a higher rate than that seen in most supermassive black holes, which causes surrounding gas and dust to fall in more easily  and feed the black hole from multiple directions. This, in turn, leads to greater x-ray emissions, which is why Wilkins and his team were especially interested.

While Wilkins and his team were observing this black hole, they noticed that the corona appeared to be “flashing.” These flashes, caused by x-ray pulses reflecting off the massive disk of gas, were coming from behind the black hole’s shadow—a place that is normally hidden from view. But because the black hole bends the space around it, the x-ray reflections are also bent around it, which means we can spot them.

The signals were found using two different space-based telescopes optimized to detect x-rays in space: NuSTAR, which is run by NASA, and XMM-Newton, which is run by the European Space Agency.

The biggest implication of the new findings is that they confirm what Albert Einstein predicted in 1963 as part of his theory of general relativity—the way light ought to bend around gargantuan objects like supermassive black holes. 

“It’s the first time we really see the direct signature of the way light bends all the way behind the black hole into our line of sight, because of the way black hole warps space around itself,” says Wilkins. 

“While this observation doesn’t change our general picture of black hole accretion, it is a nice confirmation that general relativity is at play in these systems,” says Erin Kara, an astrophysicist at MIT who was not involved with the study.

Despite the name, supermassive black holes are so far away that they really just look like single points of light, even with state-of-the-art instruments. It’s not going to be possible to take images of all of them the way scientists used the Event Horizon Telescope to capture the shadow of a supermassive black hole in galaxy M87. 

So although it’s early, Wilkins and his team are hopeful that detecting and studying more of these x-ray echoes from behind the bend could help us create partial or even full pictures of distant supermassive black holes. In turn, that could help them unlock some big mysteries around how supermassive black holes grow, sustain entire galaxies, and create environments where the laws of physics are pushed to the limit.  

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The pandemic slashed the West Coast’s emissions. Wildfires already reversed it.

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Kings Canyon National Park after a forest fire


That’s far above normal levels for this part of the year and comes on top of the surge of emissions from the massive fires across the American West in 2020. California fires alone produced more than 100 million tons of carbon dioxide last year, which was already enough to more than cancel out the broader region’s annual emissions declines.

“The steady but slow reductions in [greenhouse gases] pale in comparison to those from wildfire,” says Oriana Chegwidden, a climate scientist at CarbonPlan.

Massive wildfires burning across millions of acres in Siberia are also clogging the skies across eastern Russia and releasing tens of millions of tons of emissions, Copernicus reported earlier this month.

Fires and forest emissions are only expected to increase across many regions of the world as climate change accelerates in the coming decades, creating the hot and often dry conditions that turn trees and plants into tinder.

Fire risk—defined as the chance that an area will experience a moderate- to high-severity fire in any given year—could quadruple across the US by 2090, even under scenarios where emissions decline significantly in the coming decades, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Utah and CarbonPlan. With unchecked emissions, US fire risk could be 14 times higher near the end of the century.

Emissions from fires are “already bad and only going to get worse,” says Chegwidden, one of the study’s lead authors.

“Very ominous”

Over longer periods, the emissions and climate impacts of increasing wildfires will depend on how rapidly forests grow back and draw carbon back down—or whether they do at all. That, in turn, depends on the dominant trees, the severity of the fires, and how much local climate conditions have changed since that forest took root.

While working toward her doctorate in the early 2010s, Camille Stevens-Rumann spent summer and spring months trekking through alpine forests in Idaho’s Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness, studying the aftermath of fires.

She noted where and when conifer forests began to return, where they didn’t, and where opportunistic invasive species like cheatgrass took over the landscape.

In a 2018 study in Ecology Letters, she and her coauthors concluded that trees that burned down across the Rocky Mountains have had far more trouble growing back this century, as the region has grown hotter and drier, than during the end of the last one. Dry conifer forests that had already teetered on the edge of survivable conditions were far more likely to simply convert to grass and shrublands, which generally absorb and store much less carbon.

This can be healthy up to a point, creating fire breaks that reduce the damage of future fires, says Stevens-Rumann, an assistant professor of forest and rangeland stewardship at Colorado State University. It can also help to make up a bit for the US’s history of aggressively putting out fires, which has allowed fuel to build up in many forests, also increasing the odds of major blazes when they do ignite.

But their findings are “very ominous” given the massive fires we’re already seeing and the projections for increasingly hot, dry conditions across the American West, she says.

Other studies have noted that these pressures could begin to fundamentally transform western US forests in the coming decades, damaging or destroying sources of biodiversity, water, wildlife habitat, and carbon storage.

Fires, droughts, insect infestations, and shifting climate conditions will convert major parts of California’s forests into shrublands, according to a modeling study published in AGU Advances last week. Tree losses could be particularly steep in the dense Douglas fir and coastal redwood forests along the Northern California coast and in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range.

Kings Canyon National Park, in California’s Sierra Nevada range, following a recent forest fire.

GETTY

All told, the state will lose around 9% of the carbon stored in trees and plants aboveground by the end of this century under a scenario in which we stabilize emissions this century, and more than 16% in a future world where they continue to rise.

Among other impacts, that will clearly complicate the state’s reliance on its lands to capture and store carbon through its forestry offsets program and other climate efforts, the study notes. California is striving to become carbon neutral by 2045. 

Meanwhile, medium- to high-emissions scenarios create “a real likelihood of Yellowstone’s forests being converted to non-forest vegetation during the mid-21st century,” because increasingly common and large fires would make it more and more difficult for trees to grow back, a 2011 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded.

The global picture

The net effect of climate change on fires, and fires on climate change, is much more complicated globally.

Fires contribute directly to climate change by releasing emissions from trees as well as the rich carbon stored in soils and peatlands. They can also produce black carbon that may eventually settle on glaciers and ice sheets, where it absorbs heat. That accelerates the loss of ice and the rise of ocean levels.

But fires can drive negative climate feedback as well. The smoke from Western wildfires that reached the East Coast in recent days, while terrible for human health, carries aerosols that reflect some level of heat back into space. Similarly, fires in boreal forests in Canada, Alaska, and Russia can open up space for snow that’s far more reflective than the forests they replaced, offsetting the heating effect of the emissions released.

Different parts of the globe are also pushing and pulling in different ways.

Climate change is making wildfires worse in most forested areas of the globe, says James Randerson, a professor of earth system science at the University of California, Irvine, and a coauthor of the AGU paper.

But the total area burned by fires worldwide is actually going down, primarily thanks to decreases across the savannas and grasslands of the tropics. Among other factors, sprawling farms and roads are fragmenting the landscape in developing parts of Africa, Asia, and South America, acting as breaks for these fires. Meanwhile, growing herds of livestock are gobbling up fuels.

Overall, global emissions from fires stand at about a fifth the levels from fossil fuels, though they’re not rising sharply as yet. But total emissions from forests have clearly been climbing when you include fires, deforestation and logging. They’ve grown from less than 5 billion tons in 2001 to more than 10 billion in 2019, according to a Nature Climate Change paper in January.

Less fuel to burn

As warming continues in the decades ahead, climate change itself will affect different areas in different ways. While many regions will become hotter, drier, and more susceptible to wildfires, some cooler parts of the globe will become more hospitable to forest growth, like the high reaches of tall mountains and parts of the Arctic tundra, Randerson says.

Global warming could also reach a point where it actually starts to reduce certain risks as well. If Yellowstone, California’s Sierra Nevada, and other areas lose big portions of their forests, as studies have suggested, fires in those areas could begin to tick back down toward the end of the century. That’s because there’ll simply be less, or less flammable, fuel to burn.

Worldwide fire levels in the future will ultimately depend both on the rate of climate change as well as human activity, which is the main source of ignitions, says Doug Morton, chief of the biospheric sciences laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

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