Chelsea Manning is back in jail after refusing to cooperate with WikiLeaks investigation

Following a week-long release from an Alexandria, Virginia detention center, Chelsea Manning is back in jail. Manning was jailed in March for her refusal to cooperate with a grand jury investigation into WikiLeaks.

Manning has made her position on the grand jury well known and refuses to cooperate with its proceedings on principle. Her release last week came as the grand jury that issued her a subpoena in January expired, though the grand jury that issued Manning her latest subpoena won’t expire for another 18 months.

“We are of course disappointed with the outcome of today’s hearing, but I anticipate it will be exactly as coercive as the previous sanction — which is to say not at all,” Manning’s attorney Moira Meltzer-Cohen said of the day’s events.

A former intelligence analyst for the U.S. Army, Manning leaked more than 250,000 diplomatic cables, a large body of military field reports and harrowing footage of U.S. airstrikes to the secret-sharing organization WikiLeaks in 2010. Manning was convicted of most of the more than 20 charges against, but President Obama commuted her sentence before leaving office.

After her release last week, Manning shared a YouTube video in providing a bit of insight about why she objects to grand juries on moral grounds.

She doesn’t appear likely to back down. Aware of that, Judge Anthony Trenga made the unusual choice to fine Manning $500 for each day she remains uncooperative and in custody, starting after 30 days. After 60 days, that amount will increase to $1000 per day. Prior to her brief period of freedom in the last week, Manning spent two months jailed, a portion of which was served in solitary confinement like conditions, according to her legal team.

“Grand Juries and prosecutions like this one broadcast an expanding threat to the press and function to undermine the integrity of the system according to the government’s own laws,” Meltzer-Cohen said.

During her brief interlude walking free, Manning streamed Apex Legends and Red Dead Redemption 2 on Twitch.

San Francisco passes city government ban on facial recognition tech

On Tuesday, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted to approve a ban on the use of facial recognition tech by city agencies. The measure,  known as the Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance, will be the first ban of its kind for a major American city and the seventh major surveillance oversight effort for a municipality in California.

“I want to be clear — this is not an anti-technology policy,” Peskin said during Tuesday’s board meeting. Peskin deemphasized the ban aspect of the ordinance, instead framing it as a form of oversight and an outgrowth of the sweeping data privacy reforms signed into law by California Governor Jerry Brown last year.

Peskin clarified that the ordinance is an accountability measure “to ensure the safe and responsible use” of surveillance tech and to allow the public to be involved in decisions like how long data is stored and who can see it.

The ordinance passed by a vote of eight to one, with San Francisco District 2 Supervisor Catherine Stefani dissenting. Nonetheless, Stefani called the ordinance “a very well intentioned piece of legislation” and lauded the board’s ability to handle respectful disagreement.

Importantly, the ordinance also includes a provision that would require city departments to seek specific approval before acquiring any new surveillance equipment. The proposal bans local government uses of facial recognition technology, including applications by police. The ban would not impact facial recognition tech deployed by private companies, though it would affect any companies selling tech to the city government.

In 2016, Santa Clara county passed its own predecessor to San Francisco’s surveillance oversight policy, but that ordinance did not include a ban. Last week, the board’s Rules Committee elected to move forward with a vote on the proposal.

Other cities and states are looking into bans on facial recognition tech, though San Francisco’s own efforts were the most mature. For example, a bill in Washington state would require facial recognition software to open itself to third party testing. In that case, major tech companies are weighing the cost to their future business against public sentiment that facial recognition and other surveillance techniques are an invasive way for tech companies to leverage their power.

Across the bridge from San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley are both mulling their own regulations on facial recognition tech, known as the Surveillance and Community Safety Ordinance and Surveillance Technology Use and Community Safety Ordinance, respectively. The East Bay might not be far behind San Francisco’s own vote.

Among the many more divisive aspects of the facial recognition tech is its impact on people of color. Recent research suggests that non-white individuals are not recognized as accurately as their white peers, a discrepancy that bakes racial profiling right into the tech itself.

The split over the ban is energizing both anti-surveillance groups and proponents of high tech policing. The ban’s supporters include the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and local groups like Oakland Privacy.

“Critics are worried that the U.S. government will use facial recognition for mass surveillance, as the Chinese government is doing,” ITIF Vice President Daniel Castro said of the decision. “… In reality, San Francisco is more at risk of becoming Cuba than China—a ban on facial recognition will make it frozen in time with outdated technology.”

“If unleashed, face surveillance would suppress civic engagement, compound discriminatory policing, and fundamentally change how we exist in public spaces,” the ACLU of Northern California’s Matt Cagle and Brian Hofer, Chair of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission, wrote in an op-ed arguing in favor the ordinance last week.

The Pentagon and CIA have a secret missile that shreds targets with giant flying knives

A report by The Wall Street Journal last week revealed a secretive U.S. military weapon designed explicitly to reduce civilian casualties in targeted strikes. Unlike a traditional hellfire missile dispatched from an aerial drone, the missile variant packs no payload, no explosive. The catch? It drops 100 pounds of metal on a target, shredding them to pieces with six giant knives.

As the WSJ reports, the weapon, developed under the Obama administration, is only deployed in special circumstances. Known as the R9X, it is specifically designed for precision operations in which a normal explosive hellfire missile would result in civilian deaths.

The paper was able to confirm two operations that employed the R9X, one this January by the Department of Defense that killed Jamal al-Badawi. The second took place in Syria two years ago, resulting in the death of Al Qaeda leader Ahmad Hasan Abu Khayr al-Masri.

The weapon, nicknamed the “ninja bomb,” woudn’t be the first time the U.S. military has relied on the remarkably deadly combination of metal and gravity. In both Korea and Vietnam, the U.S. military deployed so-called “Lazy Dog” bombs — two-inch metal projectiles that rained down from the sky by the hundreds, picking up speed before making deadly impact.

While the effect was often grisly, the bombs left no unexploded material behind — a perk (if you can call it that) not unlike the grim benefit of minimizing civilian casualties by dropping 100 pounds of sharp metal onto the heads of your enemies.

Chelsea Manning released from jail as grand jury expires

Chelsea Manning walked free today for the first time after spending two months in Virginia’s Alexandria Detention Center for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury probing her relationship with WikiLeaks. Gizmodo first reported news that Manning left the facility today.

Manning was found to be in contempt of court, remaining in custody until the Eastern District of Virginia grand jury expired. Before her release, Manning was issued another subpoena for a second grand jury for Thursday May 16.

“Chelsea will continue to refuse to answer questions, and will use every available legal defense to prove to District Judge Trenga that she has just cause for her refusal to give testimony,” her legal team shared in a blog post.

Manning has consistently signaled her ongoing unwillingness to cooperate with the federal grand jury. That makes it entirely possible that she could be returned to custody at the detention center next week when she appears for her latest subpoena.

“I don’t have anything to contribute to this, or any other grand jury,” Manning said last month. “While I miss home, they can continue to hold me in jail, with all the harmful consequences that brings. I will not give up.”

Facebook bans a fresh batch of mostly far-right figures

Facebook just announced a new mini-purge of controversial accounts that violate the platform’s rules. In this instance, Facebook cited its policy against “dangerous individuals and organizations” to bring the ban hammer down on Milo Yiannopoulos, Paul Joseph Watson, Laura Loomer, Paul Nehlen, Louis Farrakhan. The company also doubled down on its position toward Alex Jones and his popular conspiracy website Infowars.

While most figures in that cluster of names are far right media figures, Farrakhan is best known for leading the Nation of Islam and has faced ongoing criticism for anti-semitism. Nehlen ran against Paul Ryan in 2018, openly espousing white supremacist views.

“We’ve always banned individuals or organizations that promote or engage in violence and hate, regardless of ideology,” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch via email. “The process for evaluating potential violators is extensive and it is what led us to our decision to remove these accounts today.”

At the time of writing, some of the accounts banned today appeared to still be online and accessible.

Facebook previously announced a ban for Jones in 2018 and again did a sweep for accounts linked to Jones in February. In spite of the Facebook ban, Jones was allowed to maintain his presence on Instagram due to the fact that less than 30% of his content violated the platform’s rules.

SpaceX confirms its Dragon crew capsule exploded in testing

For the first time after a video of an exploding Dragon capsule leaked in late April, SpaceX confirmed the spacecraft’s destruction during testing. In statements made today, SpaceX’s vice president of mission assurance Hans Koenigsmann provided a little insight on the mysterious ground test gone wrong.

As CNBC reports, Koenigsmann said during a press event that it is “too early” to determine the cause but noted that the capsule exploded as its SuperDraco thruster system was being fired up:

“At the test stand we powered up Dragon and it powered up as expected. We completed tests with the Draco thrusters – the Draco thrusters are the smaller thrusters that are also on Dragon 1, the Cargo Dragon. We fired them in two sets, each for five seconds, and that went very well. And just prior before we wanted to fire the SuperDraco there was an anomaly and the vehicle was destroyed.”

The capsule shown in a grainy video from April 21 turns out to be the same test spacecraft that visited the International Space Station in early March and returned to the Earth via a splashdown in the Atlantic six days later. Unlike the company’s cargo capsules, that capsule, known as SpaceX Demo-1, is designed to carry crew members in the future.

Even during testing, the loss of any spacecraft — particularly one designed to carry a human crew — is a big deal. The event is likely to push SpaceX’s target launch for a crewed Dragon flight this year into 2020. NASA is currently working with the company to investigate the incident.

“I hope this is a relatively swift investigation at the end of the day,” Koenigsmann said.  “I don’t want to completely preclude the current schedule, but certainly this is not good news for the schedule.”

TurboTax and H&R Block hide their free tax filing tools from Google on purpose

Low income Americans can file their taxes for free, but odds are they ended up paying anyway.

ProPublica found that tax filing giant Intuit is deliberately concealing search results for its free filing service, instead pointing all consumers toward its paid products. While users visiting TurboTax’s homepage will be greeted with what looks like free tax software, the software’s parent company usually finds a way to charge anyone using the product along the way. The manipulative design choice echoes recent conversation around dark pattern design and likely explains why free filing services remain underutilized.

Intuit’s true free filing software is called TurboTax Free File. Compared to the company’s main TurboTax portal, TurboTax Free File is much more difficult to find. That service, designed to make the process free for low income filers individually making less than $34,000 a year, is part of an agreement between tax filing companies and the IRS stipulating that a free option must be provided for lower income filers. In the course of reporting, ProPublica found that Intuit competitor H&R Block uses the same tactic to bury its own free service, H&R Block Free File.

To effectively bury its free filing service, TurboTax included a snippet of code in the page’s robots.txt file instructing search engines not to index it. The code was spotted by a Twitter user Larissa Williams and Redditor ethan1el.

Screenshot via ProPublica

Instead of pointing users toward its free file tool, TurboTax funnels the vast majority of users toward its paid and premium services, whether they qualify for free filing or not. The Senate Finance Committee’s top Democrat Ron Wyden denounced the tactic as “outrageous” in a statement to ProPublica, indicating that he intended to bring the issue up with the IRS.

Jack Dorsey just met with Trump to talk about the health of Twitter’s public discourse

Twitter’s co-founder and CEO historically doesn’t have the most discerning tastes when it comes to who he decides to engage with. Fresh off the podcast circuit, today a thoroughly beardy Jack Dorsey sat down with President Trump for his most high profile tête-à-tête yet.

Unlike his recent amble onto the Joe Rogan show, Dorsey’s 30 minute meeting with Trump happened behind closed doors. Motherboard reported the meeting just before Trump tweeted about it.

Unless either of the men decides to share more about what they discussed we won’t know how things went down exactly, though it’s probably easy enough to guess. According to the Motherboard report, the initial internal Twitter email named “the health of the public conversation on Twitter” as the topic of the day.

Given that, we’d guess that Trump probably took the chance to bring up recent unfounded gripes about conservative censorship on the platform while Dorsey likely offered reassurances, active listening and other assorted gestures of noncommittal mildness.

According to the internal memo, Dorsey preemptively defended his decision to accept an invite from Trump. “Some of you will be very supportive of our meeting [with] the president, and some of you might feel we shouldn’t take this meeting at all,” Dorsey wrote in an email. “In the end, I believe it’s important to meet heads of state in order to listen, share our principles and our ideas.”

Mueller report details the evolution of Russia’s troll farm as it began targeting US politics

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday, Attorney General William Barr released the long-anticipated Mueller report. With it comes a useful overview of how Russia leveraged U.S.-based social media platforms to achieve its political ends.

While we’ve yet to find too much in the heavily redacted text that we didn’t already know, Mueller does recap efforts undertaken by Russia’s mysterious Internet Research Agency or “IRA” to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. The IRA attained infamy prior to the 2016 election after it was profiled in depth by the New York Times in 2015. (That piece is still well worth a read.)

Considering the success the shadowy group managed to achieve in infiltrating U.S. political discourse — and the degree to which those efforts have reshaped how we talk about the world’s biggest tech platforms — the events that led us here are worth revisiting.

IRA activity begins in 2014

In Spring of 2014, the special counsel reports that the IRA started to “consolidate U.S. operations within a single general department” with the internal nickname the “translator.” The report indicates that this is the time the group began to “ramp up” its operations in the U.S. with its sights on the 2016 presidential election.

At this time, the IRA was already running operations across various social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Later it would expand its operations to Instagram and Tumblr as well.

Stated anti-Clinton agenda

As the report details, in the early stages of its U.S.-focused political operations, the IRA mostly impersonated U.S. citizens but into 2015 it shifted its strategy to create larger pages and groups that pretended to represent U.S.-based interests and causes, including “anti-immigration groups, Tea Party activists, Black Lives Matter [activists]” among others.

The IRA offered internal guidance to its specialists to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary [Clinton] and the rest (except Sanders and Trump – we support them” in early 2016.

While much of the IRA activity that we’ve reported on directly sowed political discord on divisive domestic issues, the group also had a clearly stated agenda to aid the Trump campaign. When the mission strayed, one IRA operative was criticized for a “lower number of posts dedicated to criticizing Hillary Clinton” and called the goal of intensify criticism of Clinton “imperative.”

That message continued to ramp up on Facebook into late 2016, even as the group also continued its efforts in issued-based activist groups that, as we’ve learned, sometimes inspired or intersected with real life events. The IRA bought a total of 3,500 ads on Facebook for $100,000 — a little less than $30 per ad. Some of the most successful IRA groups had hundreds of thousands of followers. As we know, Facebook shut down many of these operations in August 2017.

IRA operations on Twitter

The IRA used Twitter as well, though its strategy there produced some notably different results. The group’s biggest wins came when it managed to successfully interact with many members of the Trump campaign, as was the case with @TEN_GOP which posed as the “Unofficial Twitter of Tennessee Republicans.” That account earned mentions from a number of people linked to the Trump campaign, including Donald Trump Jr., Brad Parscale and Kellyanne Conway.

As the report describes, and has been previously reported, that account managed to get the attention of Trump himself:

“On September 19, 2017, President Trump’s personal account @realDonaldTrump responded to a tweet from the IRA-controlled account @ l0_gop (the backup account of @TEN_ GOP, which had already been deactivated by Twitter). The tweet read: “We love you, Mr. President!”

The special counsel also notes that “Separately, the IRA operated a network of automated Twitter accounts (commonly referred to as a bot network) that enabled the IRA to amplify existing content on Twitter.”

Real life events

The IRA leveraged both Twitter and Facebook to organize real life events, including three events in New York in 2016 and a series of pro-Trump rallies across both Florida and Pennsylvania in the months leading up the election. The IRA activity includes one event in Miami that the then-candidate Trump’s campaign promoted on his Facebook page.

While we’ve been following revelations around the IRA’s activity for years now, Mueller’s report offers a useful birds-eye overview of how the group’s operations wrought havoc on social networks, achieving mass influence at very little cost. The entire operation exemplified the greatest weaknesses of our social networks — weaknesses that up until companies like Facebook and Twitter began to reckon with their role in facilitating Russian election interference, were widely regarded as their greatest strengths.

Congress readies for Mueller report to be delivered on CDs

If there weren’t enough obstacles already standing between Congress and the results of the special counsel’s multiyear investigation, lawmakers are expecting to need an optical drive to read the document.

A Justice Department official told the Associated Press that a CD containing the Mueller report would be delivered to Congress tomorrow between 11 and noon Eastern. At some point after the CDs are delivered, the report is expected to be made available to the public on the special counsel’s website.

Any Congressional offices running Macs will likely have to huddle up with colleagues who still have a CD-capable drive. Optical drives disappeared from Apple computers years ago. With people increasingly reliant on cloud storage over physical storage, they’re no longer as popular on Windows machines either.

Tomorrow’s version of the report is expected to come with a fair amount of detail redacted throughout, though a portion of Congress may receive a more complete version at a later date. The report’s release on Thursday will be preceded by a press conference hosted by Attorney General William Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. If you ask us, there’s little reason to tune into that event rather than waiting for substantive reporting on the actual contents of the report once it’s out in the wild. Better yet, hunker down and read some of the 400 pages yourself while you wait for thoughtful analyses to materialize.

Remember: No matter what sound bites start flying tomorrow morning, digesting a dense document like this takes time. Don’t trust anyone who claims to have synthesized the whole thing right off the bat. After all, America has waited this long for the Mueller report to materialize — letting the dust settle won’t do any harm.