This is how you invent a person online – Quartz

On April 8, 2013, I received an envelope in the mail from a nonexistent return address in Toledo, Ohio. Inside was a blank thank-you note and an Ohio state driver’s license. The ID belonged to a 28-year-old man called Aaron Brown—6 feet tall and 160 pounds with a round face, scruffy brown hair, a thin beard, and green eyes. His most defining feature, however, was that he didn’t exist.

I know that because I created him.

Fake drivers license

(Curtis Wallen/The Atlantic)

As an artist, I’ve long been interested in identity and the ways it is represented. My first serious body of work, Springfield, used the concept of a Midwestern nowhere to explore representations of middle-American sprawl. A few years later, I became interested in the hundreds of different entities that track and analyze our behavior online—piecing together where we’re from, who we’re friends with, how much money we make, what we like and dislike. Social networks and data brokers use algorithms and probabilities to reconstruct our identities, and then try to influence the way we think and feel and make decisions.

It’s not an exaggeration to say everything you do online is being followed. And the more precisely a company can tailor your online experience, the more money it can make from advertisers. As a result, the Internet you see is different from the Internet anyone else might see. It’s seamlessly assembled each millisecond, designed specifically to influence you. I began to wonder what it would be like to evade this constant digital surveillance—to disappear online.

From that question, Aaron Brown was born.

* * *

My project started at a small coffee shop in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. With the help of Tor—a software program that uses layers of encryption to anonymize online activity—I searched Craigslist and tracked down a handful of affordable laptop computers for sale in New York City. I registered a new email address with the (now-defunct) Tormail anonymous email provider and arranged to buy a used Chromebook. (1/27/13 – 11:23):

I’m punctual, I will be there on time at 1. Theres an atrium at citi center, will let you know when I’m there. (1/27/13 – 11:25):

Perfect. See you there. (1/27/13 – 12:59):

Im here in the atrium at 53rd and lex… Gray jacket, blonde hair. Sitting at a table

The meeting was quick. I wore a hat. I kept my head down. The man at the table in a gray jacket was a real person—in a busy public place full of cameras—who could later potentially connect me to the computer. These face-to-face moments left me the most vulnerable. If I was going to evade online surveillance, I had to avoid any ties between my digital footprint and the physical world.

When I got home I immediately reformatted the computer’s hard drive and installed a Linux partition. This meant I could encrypt and cosmetically “hide” the part of my computer that was using Linux. My new laptop would boot up Chrome OS like any other Chromebook, unless I gave it the command to boot up Linux instead. I never connected to anything using  Chrome OS. And on the Linux side, I never accessed the Internet without Tor, and I never logged into anything that had any connection to Curtis Wallen.

For a couple months I poked around on the darknet—a hidden network that relies on nonstandard connections. At first, my goal was simply to exist as an anonymous user. However, I realized that this meant fundamentally changing my relationship to the Internet. I couldn’t log in to Facebook, I couldn’t send emails as Curtis, I couldn’t use the Internet the way most of us normally do. I simply couldn’t be me if I wanted to stay hidden. So my original idea began to shift. Rather than simply evade digital tracking, I began to play with the idea of generating a new digital person, complete with the markers of a physical identity. I gathered my roommates and took a series of portraits that fit the requirements for passport photos. I then carefully isolated various features from each one in Photoshop and composited a completely new face: Aaron Brown.

Faces used to create Aaron Brown

(Curtis Wallen/The Atlantic)

Up to that point, I had been largely operating on instinct and common sense. Now that my project was expanding, I figured it’d probably be a good time to reach out to someone who actually knew what she or he was doing.

I created a new Tormail account, the first evidence of my new person—––and sent an encrypted email to the enigmatic researcher Gwern Branwen, asking what advice he’d give to someone “new to this whole anonymity thing.” Branwen replied with a simple but crucial piece of advice:

“Don’t get too attached to any one identity. Once a pseudonym has been linked to others or to your real identity, it’s always linked.”

Taking Branwen’s advice to heart, I put a sticky note next to my keyboard.

Post it note

(Curtis Wallen/The Atlantic)

When most people think of Internet surveillance, they imagine government bureaucrats monitoring their emails and Google searches. In a March 2014 study, MIT professor Catherine Tucker and privacy advocate Alex Marthews analyzed data from Google Trends across 282 search terms rated for their “privacy-sensitivity.” The terms included “Islam”, “national security”, “Occupy”, “police brutality”, “protest”, and “revolution.” After Edward Snowden’s leaks about NSA surveillance, Tucker and Marthews found, the frequency of these sensitive search terms declined—suggesting that Internet users have become less likely to explore “search terms that they [believe] might get them in trouble with the US government.” The study also found that people have become less likely to search “embarrassing” topics such as “AIDS”, “alcoholics anonymous,” “coming out,” “depression,” “feminism,” “gender reassignment,” “herpes,” and “suicide”—while concerns over these more personal terms could have as much to do with startling Google ads, the notable decrease observed in the study suggests the increased awareness of surveillance led to a degree of self-censorship.

In other words, people are doing their best to blend in with the crowd.

The challenge of achieving true anonymity, though, is that evading surveillance makes your behavior anomalous—and anomalies stick out. As the Japanese proverb says, “A nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Glenn Greenwald explained recently that simply using encryption can make you a target. For me, this was all the more motivation to disappear.

Aaron had a face, but lacked “pocket litter”—an espionage term that refers to physical items that add authenticity to a spy’s cover. In order to produce this pocket litter, I needed money—the kind of currency that the counterfeit professionals of the darkweb would accept as payment. I needed bitcoin, a virtual currency that allows users to exchange goods and services without involving banks. At that time, one of the few services that exchanged cash for bitcoin was a company called Bitinstant. I made my way to a small computer shop in the Chinatown neighborhood of Manhattan to make the transfer.

At a small, teller-like window, I filled out the paperwork using fake information. Unwisely, I wrote down my name as Aaron Brown—thus creating one of the links to my real identity I should have been avoiding. As a result, my receipt had “Aarow Brown” printed on it. It seemed fitting that the first physical evidence of Aaron’s existence was a misspelled name on a receipt from a computer shop.

Moneygram image

(Curtis Wallen/The Atlantic)

When I got home, 10 bitcoin were there waiting for me in my virtual wallet, stored on an encrypted flash drive. I made the necessary contacts and ordered a counterfeit driver’s license, a student ID, a boating license, car insurance, an American Indian tribal citizenship card, a social security card scan (real social security cards were a bit out of my budget), and a cable bill for proof of residency. The final bill came out to just over 7 bitcoin, roughly $400 at the time.

As I waited for my pile of documents, I began crafting Aaron’s online presence. While exploring message boards on the darknet, I came across the contact information for a self-proclaimed hacker called v1ct0r who was accepting applications to host hidden services on a server he managed. I messaged him with a request to host Aaron’s website. He was happy to offer a little space, under two conditions: “no child porn nor racism; Respects the rules or i could block/delete your account.”

I also set up a simple web proxy so that anyone could contribute to Aaron’s online presence. The proxy serves as a middleman for browsing the Internet, meaning any website you visit is first routed through the proxy server. Anyone who browses using the proxy is funneling traffic through that one node—which means those web pages look like they’re being visited by Aaron Brown.

Aaron’s Twitter account worked much the same way. There was a pre-authenticated form on the project website, allowing anyone to post a tweet to Aaron’s feed. As Aaron’s creator, it was fascinating to see what happened once strangers started interacting with it regularly. People would tweet at their friends, and then Aaron would received confused replies. Under the guise of Aaron, people tweeted out, jokes, love messages, political messages, and meta-commentaries on existence. I even saw a few advertisements. Ultimately, the account was suspended after Spanish political activists used it to spam news outlets and politicians.

Aaron Brown Twitter feed

(Curtis Wallen/The Atlantic)

In a sense, I was doing the opposite of astroturfing, a practice that uses fake social media profiles to spread the illusion of grassroots support or dissent. In 2011, the Daily Kos reported on a leaked document from defense contractor HBGary which explained how one person could pretend to be many different people:

Using the assigned social media accounts we can automate the posting of content that is relevant to the persona. … In fact using hashtags and gaming some location based check-in services we can make it appear as if a persona was actually at a conference and introduce himself/herself to key individuals as part of the exercise … There are a variety of social media tricks we can use to add a level of realness to all fictitious personas.

Aaron Brown turned that concept inside out. With a multitude of voices and interests filtering through one point, any endeavor to monitor his behavior or serve him targeted ads became a wash. None of the information was representative of any discrete interests. The surveillance had no value. I’d created a false human being, but instead of a carefully coordinated deception, the result was simply babble.


“The Internet is what we make it,” wrote security researcher Bruce Schneier in January 2013, “and is constantly being recreated by organizations, companies, and countries with specific interests and agendas. Either we fight for a seat at the table, or the future of the Internet becomes something that is done to us.”

For those of us who feel confident that we have nothing to hide, the future of Internet security might not seem like a major concern. But we underestimate the many ways in which our online identities can be manipulated. A recent study used Facebook as a testing ground to determine if the company could influence a user’s emotional disposition by altering the content of her or his News Feed. For a week in January 2012, reseachers subjected 689,003 unknowing users to this psychological experiment, showing happier-than-usual messages to some people and sadder-than-usual messages to others. They concluded that they had “experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks” because users responded by publishing more positive or negative posts of their own, depending on what they saw in their own feeds.

The US Department of Defense has also figured out how influential Facebook and Twitter can be. In 2011, it announced a new “Social Media in Strategic Communication” (SMISC) program to detect and counter information the US government deemed dangerous. “Since everyone is potentially an influencer on social media and is capable of spreading information,” one researcher involved in a SMISC study told The Guardian, “our work aims to identify and engage the right people at the right time on social media to help propagate information when needed.”

Private companies are also using personal information in hidden ways. They don’t simply learn our tastes and habits, offering us more of what want and less of what we don’t. As Michael Fertik wrote in a 2013 Scientific American article titled “The Rich See a Different Internet Than the Poor,” credit lenders have the ability to hide their offers from people who may need loans the most. And Google now has a patent to change its prices based on who’s buying.

Is it even possible to hide from corporate and government feelers online? While my attempt to do so was an intensely interesting challenge, it ultimately left me a bit disappointed. It is essentially impossible to achieve anonymity online. It requires a complete operational posture that extends from the digital to the physical. Downloading a secure messaging app and using Tor won’t all of a sudden make you “NSA-proof.” And doing it right is really, really hard.

Weighing these trade-offs in my day-to-day life led to a few behavioral changes, but I have a mostly normal relationship with the Internet—I deleted my Facebook account, I encrypt my emails whenever I can, and I use a handful of privacy minded browser extensions. But even those are steps many people are unwilling, or unable, to take. And therein lies the major disappointment for me: privacy shouldn’t require elaborate precautions.

No one likes being subliminally influenced, discriminated against, or taken advantage of, yet these are all legitimate concerns that come with surveillance. These concerns are heightened as we increasingly live online. Digital surveillance is pervasive and relatively cheap. It is fundamentally different than anything we’ve faced before, and we’re still figuring out what what the boundaries should be.

For now, Aaron’s IDs and documents are still sitting inside my desk. Aaron himself actually went missing a little while ago. I used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk marketplace to solicit descriptions from strangers, and then hired a forensic artist to draw a sketch. He resurfaced on Twitter. (You can go here to try tweeting as Aaron Brown.) But other than that, no word. I have a feeling he’ll probably pop up in Cleveland at some point.

Everyone always seems to get sucked back home.

This post originally appeared at The Atlantic. More from our sister site: 

Why the NSA keeps tracking people even after they’re dead

What is Hezbollah doing in Europe?

Anti-surveillance camouflage for your face

Where the sidewalk ends – Real Change News

In a memoir of her parents’ decline, cartoonist Roz Chast explores the anxiety of aging in America

In her new graphic memoir, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” (Bloomsbury), acclaimed New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast shares the poignant and often darkly humorous story of the final years of her elderly parents and her own complicated feelings as she took on their care and navigated the bewildering worlds of elder law, geriatric medicine, assisted living, dementia, incontinence and hospice care.

With her trademark nervous drawings as well as photographs and documents, Chast’s book vividly recounts her parents’ tumultuous journey on what she calls “The Moving Sidewalk of Life (Caution: Drop-Off Ahead).” She dedicated the book to her father George, a talented foreign language teacher, who died in 2007 at age 95, and her mother Elizabeth, a no-nonsense assistant school principal, who died in 2009 at 97 — a close couple who grew up together and forged a remarkable bond.

Chast spoke recently at a standing-room-only gathering at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Bookstore. With humor and compassion, she told stories of her own worries as her parents confronted the realities of failing health. She described her sensitive, anxious father and his struggle with dementia, and her brilliant but domineering mother who suffered physical injuries and eventual delusions. As they aged and their conditions worsened, care became ever more expensive, stressful and complex.

The Seattle audience members responded enthusiastically to Chast’s account of the agonizing and absurd aspects of the plight of George and Elizabeth. Chast has drawn cartoons since her childhood in Brooklyn. She attended Rhode Island School of Design and majored in painting but, soon after graduating — according to her website — she “reverted to type and began drawing cartoons once again.” In addition to The New Yorker, her cartoons have appeared in a wide range of publications from Scientific American and the Harvard Business Review, to National Lampoon, Redbook and Mother Jones. She has written several other books including, “Theories of Everything; What I Hate From A to Z” “Mondo Boxo;” and “Unscientific Americans,” as well as children’s books such as “Too Busy Marco.”

Chast interrupted her book tour to talk by telephone about her work and her new book.

At your jammed event in Seattle so many people commented on how your humor and candor about your parents was helpful. Was helping others one of the reasons your wrote the book?

I’m really happy and enormously moved and grateful if it helped somebody out, but I found it hard to understand so many aspects of how to deal with the situation and I wouldn’t want to presume that it would be helpful to anybody. I’m really happy if it is, but it wasn’t really my intention.

You must be hearing similar stories on your book tour.

It’s been astonishing. I’m also getting a lot of letters from people. I didn’t know so many people were just starting the process of dealing with elderly parents who are no longer able to care for themselves and the difficulties of it.

In recalling your childhood, you showed a cartoon self-portrait at age nine, and your head is in “The Big Book of Horrible Diseases” and other books around on illness and even a Merck Manual of medical diagnoses are scattered around. Where did your fascination with morbid subjects come from?

I think I absorbed it from my parents. We always had the Merck Manual around. Definitely who had what illness and who was suffering from what was part of what I heard. And I thought I could wake up and be bleeding from every pore in my body. 

And lockjaw was a concern in Brooklyn because of all the metal playground equipment?

Yeah. It’s funny. Kids don’t talk about lockjaw anymore. When I was growing up in my little cosmos, lockjaw was something people knew about and thought about. 

What drew you to art?

I drew from the time I was a little kid, like most little kids. In high school, I went to the Art Students League in New York City. It was wonderful. I did a lot of life drawing. I’m not by any stretch of the imagination an anatomy-based figure drawer, but I spent many, many hours drawing from life and I loved that. And I had a great teacher.

When I went to art school, it was much different and, in the seventies, it was very serious. It seemed to me that the art that got attention from the teachers was theoretical [and] the artist would have a complicated theory about it, about the biomorphic, architectonic validity of it. I was just a kid from Brooklyn and had never been exposed to any of that talk.

And I stopped drawing cartoons in art school. I majored in painting and wanted to be a painter, but I was just a terrible painter. My senior year, I was doing painting, but I was secretly drawing cartoons in my journal. After I got out of art school, I went back to drawing what I really wanted to.

Did your parents encourage your art?

They knew that that’s what I was, but I think that they very sensibly hoped that I would become a teacher, maybe even an art teacher. My mother thought that I’d go into the family business which, of course, was education.  But I really didn’t want to do that.

I think they were proud of my work. They were definitely happy and they subscribed to the New Yorker. It was scary to them also that I did not get a regular salary, which was also scary to me, but oh well.

And you started drawing for Christopher Street and The Village Voice?

Yes. Christopher Street paid ten dollars a cartoon, which was terrible even back in 1978, and The Village Voice paid fifty. And I did some cartoons for the National Lampoon and, in April 1978, I started with The New Yorker.

In your new book, you write that you hadn’t visited your parents’ apartment in Brooklyn for several years. Then, in September 2001, when they were both nearing 90, you decided to stop by and you were stunned by their situation.

I hadn’t visited their apartment for a long time, but when I started visiting them, it was clear that they were getting older and gradually less able to keep up with day-to-day things in life like the mail, cleaning out the refrigerator, dealing with groceries. So I realized I had to get more actively involved in if not actually caring for them, then in monitoring it and keeping an eye on them and making sure I was more aware of what was going on than I had been before.

You soon contacted an elder lawyer. Do you remember what prompted you to contact that lawyer?

Yes. I had a conversation with a friend. Her mother was older than my mother, and she had recently gone through this, and she knew this elder lawyer. I didn’t even know there was such thing — a person who specialized in things like wills and health care proxies and knowing what questions to ask, and that was very helpful. I was so grateful to this friend who recommended him. Also, he was in Brooklyn, so he could come to my parent’s apartment and I was there when he was there. I didn’t even know what a health care proxy was. I was totally in the dark about all of this.

You have helpful hints in your book for caregivers. For example, you kept a notebook and documented everything that happened.

Yes. The two pieces of very practical information I’d give would be to get an elder lawyer to help you and to keep all of the information in one place. If you’re the person that is now paying your parents’ taxes, dealing with pensions, and paying bills — I didn’t know anything about any of this. I had one place for all of this information — important phone numbers, the conversations I’d have with a caretaker or agency or a bank, or a person with the Board of Education Pension Bureau. I noted the date I talked and who I spoke to and the telephone number. It sounds like minutiae, but it helped to have it organized in this one notebook.

A talk about aging and death is difficult for any family.

It’s a horrible talk. I totally understand why you want to avoid it as long as possible. The title, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” comes from my father. He would say that. My parents and I all wanted to talk about something more pleasant. I haven’t had that talk with my kids yet. It’s a very hard thing to talk about.

You were worried constantly about your parents. How did this stress affect your work and your family life?

I blanked some of it out. The worst was when they were still living in Brooklyn. The year after my mother got out of the hospital in 2006 — the last year they were in the apartment — was really scary. She kept falling and my father’s dementia was getting worse. I felt so far away from them and didn’t know what to do. I would visit them and sometimes bring them food or have Meals on Wheels come. But I couldn’t stay there forever because I had my own family.

Like everybody else, you just go through it, and put one foot in front of the other and say, “A catastrophe didn’t happen today.” Hopefully, I won’t get that dreaded phone call that anybody who’s responsible for an elderly parent fears.

And your parents resisted your help?

I think it’s partly generational and part of their not wanting to ask for help. Especially to my mother, any expression of being other than strong or not being on top of everything was just bellyaching, just weakness. She would give it “a blast from Chast.” She was very determined not to show weakness. I think that’s a generational trait and how she grew up. That’s what helped her survive and that’s who she was.

The story of your cleaning their apartment with your photos of their rooms was exceptionally poignant. What was the process of going through a half century of accumulation?

I didn’t go through all of it. I could not hack it. I went back several times, armed with Hefty bags. I thought I’ll just go through one area and try to sort through stuff. Once I started, it looked even worse. It was so much stuff packed into closets and drawers filled with newspapers from a million years ago. I’d open a drawer and the bottom had rotted out and it would fall to pieces. You saw the photos. I’d find Band-Aid boxes. A drawer of jar lids. They just never threw anything away.

I took a few things. The photo albums of course. And a few things off the wall. And, as I said in the book, I paid the super to take the rest. I told him he could take what he wanted, sell what he wanted. I didn’t want any of it. It was stuff. 

You look at things differently once you’ve been through something like that. The change was that I used to like browsing in second-hand shops a lot, but now it just looks like dead people stuff and it’s depressing.

But you also found a treasure trove of hundreds of letters that your parents exchanged during your dad’s service in World War II.

Yes. I haven’t even gone through a tenth of them, there were so many. At some point, maybe I’ll hire somebody to transcribe them. They probably put that box of letters on top of the closet in 1959, and I had no idea it was there. That was really a find.

Your book is very thoughtful in dealing with your parents’ eccentricities and their failing health. Was writing the book healing for you?

In a certain way it helped me to not forget them and I’m really glad of that. Writing in some ways is a way of holding onto things that otherwise would [be lost to] memory. When I read a page, I can remember their voices or the moment better. I have a dread of forgetting who they were and what they sounded like and what they looked like. I’m really glad when I look at this book because it brings them back to me.

It cost about $14,000 a month to keep your parents at an assisted living facility. How did you deal with the incredible expenses?

There’s not a lot a person can do. All of their savings went to end-of-life care. When my mother died, there was money for about two months’ worth of care left in the bank. I am getting the impression that this is pretty much the way it is for most middle-class people.

You combine your skills as an artist, humorist, researcher and an accomplished writer in this book. Were you inspired by other artists?

Everybody who’s done a graphic memoir. There’s Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman, Harvey Pekar. These are amazing people who tell stories in a way that resonates for me and that’s one of the wonderful things about the cartoon medium.

Is there anything you’d like to add about your book?

Well, we’re all on the moving sidewalk and our kids are probably going to be writing books like this about us. “I can’t believe all the crap I found in my parents’ apartment.”

Orlando entrepreneur’s ‘iCloak’ gadget aims to boost Internet privacy – Orlando Sentinel

Eric Delisle, entrepreneur and CEO of DigiThinkIT, shows off… (George Skene, Orlando Sentinel )

July 11, 2014|By Kate Santich, Orlando Sentinel

In an age when online privacy is elusive at best, an Orlando tech entrepreneur has launched a project to protect your cyber self from the prying eyes of government, criminal hackers and data marketers.

Eric Delisle and his startup company have created the iCloak Stik — a pinky-sized USB drive that offers online anonymity for the layperson — and they're doing it with support from the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter. A little more than halfway into the four-week funding effort, it has drawn more than 1,300 backers from 30 countries and $70,000 of its $75,000 goal.

That ranks iCloak in the top 20 among more than 150,000 Kickstarter campaigns.

"It has been insane — in a good way," said Delisle, CEO of DigiThinkIT Inc., a custom-software developer. "I totally underestimated the response."

Delisle, 43, said he began stewing about the need for such a tool in recent years as government "intrusion" in civilian life and well-financed corporate influence seemed to grow. The leaks by former National Security Agency subcontractor Edward Snowden revealing an extensive NSA surveillance program targeting American citizens were the final impetus.

"With Snowden, it clicked in my head: Everybody is being watched all the time," said Delisle, wearing a T-shirt sporting his "You Are Being Watched" iCloak logo. "And I saw a hole in the marketplace. There's no trusted, go-to brand that people can count on to protect their privacy or anonymity."

Those with technical savvy, Delisle and other experts said, already know how to access identity-cloaking tools online. The beauty of iCloak — if it works — would be its simplicity.

"It's so easy even a blind monkey could do it," Delisle said.

A Lake County resident, Delisle considers himself a serial entrepreneur. He has been a sales manager for Westgate Resorts, a market researcher for MTV Networks, CEO of a martial-arts event production company and a consultant to the National Science Foundation.

But his iCloak invention, he said, may prove to be his biggest venture yet.

The $50 basic model works by bypassing your hard drive and software to use a security-hardened operating system, secure Web browser and encrypted password management. According to the Kickstarter campaign page, "you can plug it into any machine — even the most unsafe and virus-filled — reboot the machine and start browsing as if you were using the safest, most secure and untraceable computer on the planet." Your location and identity are masked.

Lisa Macon, dean of the division of engineering, computer programming and technology at Valencia College, agreed that the device could make privacy more accessible. "I think what [he's] doing is a really cool idea," she said. "It certainly would be easier to pop in a USB device than to be thinking, 'OK, I need to cover the Web cam and go in through the proxy server…' "

The product is in the hands of 50 testers across the country, and results so far are successful, Delisle said. The money from the Kickstarter campaign would be used for independent testing. If all goes well, the iCloak could be produced and shipped as soon as this fall.

Macon said it could be appealing. Even those unbothered by government surveillance, she said, may be concerned by data brokers who snoop on shopping habits and personal information to compile online dossiers.

Such snooping is a lucrative and growing industry, said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. And it presents problems.

"We know some retailers engage in discriminatory pricing based on the information they collect," Stephens said. "There's a lot of information that can be crammed into those cookies they place on your computer. They might look at what type of operating system you use, for instance, and adjust their pricing accordingly. Apple users are deemed to be less price-sensitive than those who use Windows."

But the iCloak taps into the extensive Tor network, a sort of underground railroad that routes your online interactions through random global relay points to make tracing the sender extremely difficult. The network is used for both legal and illicit purposes — just as the iCloak could be.

"It's another tool," Delisle said. "And, frankly, the bad guys have been using these tools for years. But the average John and Mary Smith haven't."

Yet Macon, for one, has concerns. "As soon as they have a solution to this, I think the nefarious parties as well as the government will figure a way around it," she said. "The real question is: How long would it last?"

And Seth Schoen, senior staff technologist at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, cautions: "It's very easy to go wrong in this area." The Kickstarter claim of rendering your computer untraceable, he added, "seems massively overconfident."

Delisle acknowledges that what appears rock-solid today can be compromised tomorrow. And he vows to work with the "open source community," which freely shares computer coding to collectively solve problems.

"We mitigate this by staying abreast of all that's happening in the online anonymity, security and privacy space and evolving iCloak to keep up with these changes," he writes. "But the bottom line is that we want to enable people to make their own choices about privacy." or 407-420-5503

How many security researchers does it take to hack a light bulb? – E&T magazine

How many cyber-security researchers does it take to hack a light bulb? About six, according to one firm, which has demonstrated that the manufacturers of the growing number of connected devices in our homes appear to have a security blind spot.

PCs are no longer the only devices with computing power inside our homes – wireless routers, smart TVs and connected printers are now commonplace and often have substantial data storage and processing capabilities. “A lot of these devices are running computers as powerful as the things people had on their desks ten years ago,” says Alex Chapman, senior security researchers at cyber-security specialists Context.

Those more in the know than the average computer owner will have heard about the growing number of attacks on wireless routers by malicious actors in an attempt to compromise home networks, with EE rushing out a patch a vulnerability on its Brightbox routers earlier this year.

Routers are an obvious target for hackers as they are intrinsically linked to the Internet making it possible for hackers to compromise them from a distance, but less attention has been given to some of the other network-enabled devices cropping up in people’s homes. Once a hacker has access to a person’s home network they have access to any device connected to it, and with an increasingly diverse suite of devices coming online the potential to break down the barrier between the cyber and the physical worlds is getting ever greater.

To demonstrate the concept, Context’s senior managers bought a case of beer and five network-enabled consumer devices from a mixture of start-ups and established vendors, configured them with the recommended security settings, set up a secure wi-fi network and set their best and brightest cyber-security researchers to the task of hacking this mock smart home.

The break-in

While compromising the wi-fi router would be a perfectly sensible approach to getting on the network, the researchers decided to take a more challenging path. The team focused on a set of LIFX lightbulbs, recently in the news for their team-up with Google-owned smart home specialists Nest, which connect to a wi-fi network so they can be controlled with a smartphone application. One bulb is always connected to the network and receives commands from the smart phone application before broadcasting them to the other bulbs over a wireless mesh network based on 6LoWPAN technology.

Using an ATMEL AVR Raven – a £30 USB network interface device that allowed the team to monitor and communicate over the mesh network – combined with network protocol analysing software Wireshark, the researchers were able to observe the largely unencrypted network protocol and simply re-engineer it so that they could craft messages to control the bulbs.

More importantly, they were able to identify the specific packets in which the wi-fi network credentials were transferred when the ‘master’ status switched from one bulb to another. By deciphering the protocol the team was able to request the encrypted credentials, which they were given without any authentication requirements.

To decrypt the credential the researchers had to get their hands on the device’s firmware. As LIFX is a fairly new start-up they had not released a firmware download to the public, so the team had to break open one of the LIFX bulbs to extract the data held on its chip before doing some basic binary reverse engineering to decode the encryption key. More detailed information on the process is available on the Context blog.

“We had to take it apart and attach probes to it and dump the actual firmware into the computer then interpret it,” explains Chapman. “We’re talking a reasonable amount of proficiency. An enthusiastic amateur could do this, but it took a reasonable amount of effort from people who do this day in day out.”

LIFX have been very quick to patch the bug, with a firmware update available now to download from their site that encrypts the mesh network traffic and adds additional security to the process for adding new bulbs. Head of marketing Simon Walker is keen to stress that this was in the face of a fairly complicated attack that delivered a relatively minor exploit – highlighting how seriously the firm took the issue.

Entering the cyber-physical realm

Complicated or not, once the team had the key they were on the network and compromising the rest of the devices became markedly easier. By far the easiest though was the Motorola Blink 1 wi-fi baby monitoring camera, which features a microphone and a camera that can be remote controlled from a smartphone app. The vulnerability the team exploited had been previously documented online, but the company has yet to fix it and failed to respond to a request for comment from E&T at time of publication.

A quick scan of the network allowed the researchers to identify the camera’s IP address, which they then used to try and open the camera’s web interface using a forced browsing attack – simply typing the URL of a restricted page into the web browser. The team tried the generic web interface marker index.html to no avail. They then tried index2.html and gained full access to devices web interface, which has the same functionality as the smartphone app.

“This one was relatively simple, what we actually found when doing our assessment operation pretty much just popped out at us,” says Chapman. “I don’t know if the device makes any claims on security, but you’d expect that sort of device to have security settings enabled as default.”

A D-Link ShareCenter DNS 320L – a network attached storage device designed to allow users to share files across their network and on the Internet – required a more technical approach. The team noticed the device was taking various parameters from web requests from web pages that didn’t require authentication and using them to create system commands. The team were able to use a command injection attack to insert malicious code into the parameters, which were then interpreted by the device and used as system commands, giving them remote root access to the devices' Linux operating system.

In finding the exploit, the team used a lot of the same technology that would be used in normal web app penetration testing, but Chapman concedes the step from finding the vulnerability to actually being able to exploit it was time consuming. As with all the vulnerabilities uncovered Context informed the vendor and D-Link confirmed that they have identified the bug and will shortly be releasing a firmware update that fixes the problem.

By far the most challenging of the devices to crack was a Canon PIXMA MG6450 printer, a task Context’s research director Michael Jordon took on as his own private project. He discovered the printer’s web interface, which requires no authentication to access, lets you trigger a firmware update, but also lets you edit the web proxy settings and the DNS server, allowing a malicious third party to redirect the printer to download doctored firmware that gives them control over the printer’s operating system.

The weak encryption on the firmware meant it was an easy task to reverse engineer it and encrypt a modified copy of the firmware. What was more of a challenge was the fact that the printer runs a proprietary operating system that required some complex firmware reengineering to be able to access the printer’s functionality.

“In the case of the D-Link NAS it runs Linux so once you’re there you’re home and dry as it’s all open source code. In the case of the printer it’s just one big binary program that’s custom to Canon,” explains Jordon. Despite this, the team has managed to gain full control of the little screen on the front of the printer where they have managed to run animations at about 20fps. Jordon has yet to give up his goal of getting classic 90s computer game Doom running on the printer, despite the fact that control over the input buttons continues to elude him.

A statement from Canon thanked Context for bringing the flaw to their attention, saying: “We intend to provide a fix as quickly as is feasible.  All PIXMA products launching from now onwards will have a username/password added to the PIXMA web interface, and models launched from the second half of 2013 onwards will also receive this update, models launched prior to this time are unaffected. This action will resolve the issue uncovered by Context.”

The final device the team focussed on was the Karotz ‘smart rabbit’ – a puzzling piece of kit featuring a microphone, camera, speaker, flashing lights and moving ears, as well as a host of downloadable applications that link it up with social networks, email accounts, weather and news feeds and even online radio.

A pair of vulnerabilities were revealed by cyber-security firm Trustwave's SpiderLabs team at the beginning of 2013 that have yet to be fixed, including the ability to run malicious code from a USB stick plugged into the device and the ability to eavesdrop on traffic between the device and apps. Context’s Chapman found three more vulnerabilities, including an authorisation bypass issue that allowed access to most of the Linux-based device’s functionality, but the has failed to return emails from Context or respond to a request for comment from E&T at time of publication.


So, what does this all mean? In terms of the potential abuses of these devices, compromising the D-Link could give a hacker access to private documents and photos as could control over the printer. The camera could be used to spy on a victim as could the Karotz, not to mention the unnerving possibilities of a flashing, talking rabbit under malicious control.

But considering the lengths the Context team went to, unless you are the sort of person whose main vices are Martinis, high stakes poker games and foiling evil geniuses it’s unlikely those with the ability and the inclination would waste their time on you. As Chapman says, “It is really just an effort versus reward consideration.”

But there are caveats to this.

The majority of the exploits the team revealed are model wide, and as Jordon points out, quite possibly product range wide. In recent research Context looked at the number of vulnerable Canon printers directly connected to the Internet. A scan of the web revealed 32,000 directly connected printers, of which Context sampled 9,000. They found that 6 per cent had firmware with known vulnerabilities, suggesting up to 2,000 vulnerable Canon printers are accessible over the Internet. Similar scans revealed 200 of the Motorola cameras directly connected to the Internet and a massive 14,000 of the D-Link NAS.

For cyber-criminals, the pay-off for hacking someone’s home devices is not obvious when they can better spend their time skimming card details or locking someone’s computer down with ransomware. But the hacker community is anything but predictable and there are plenty of people out there for whom money is not the principle object.

“As more hacks get into the standard tool kits, people who have got the motivation but not the skills will be able to do attacks,” argues Jordon. “If there are a million printers on the Internet, all of the same model, then it’s worth the effort. You could use them to create a botnet for spamming, DDOS attacks or simply to hide your traffic.”

There are clear analogies for these devices in the corporate world too. Many building management systems are based on a mesh network similar to the LIFX set-up using the ZigBee specification, which is very similar to 6LoWPAN. While they are more likely to require user authentication, corporate printers often run on the same firmware as their domestic cousins and are frequently found on an organisation's main network, according to Chapman. He also says the Karotz device is not unlike conferencing equipment such as Polycom’s HDX systems, which exhibitors at last year’s hackers’ conference Black Hat Europe managed to compromise.

Obviously corporate networks are normally protected by enterprise-level security, but Chapman says he often sees devices such as printers with out of the box credentials making them fairly easy to compromise. And he says organisations’ patching of devices like printers, conferencing kit, smart TVs or anything that’s not a standard computer is patchy at best, despite the fact they are vulnerable and valuable targets.

“It could actually be quite a good place to stay hidden from network security,” he adds. “These devices usually don’t have antivirus or anything like that running on them. If any malicious code did live on them it would be quite hard to find it.”

Security blind spot

The main lesson from this episode is the lack of consideration connected device manufacturers are giving to security in their consumer products, evidenced by the basic oversights and the failure to carry out simple, cheap and obvious solutions. As connected devices become more commonplace the trade-off for malicious actors in exploiting vulnerabilities becomes ever more lucrative.

“I think it’s really a symptom of the consumer devices market,” explains Chapman. “From what I’ve seen it looks like manufacturers are only looking to make things work rather than making things work securely. I know that’s a very sweeping statement, but obviously there’s a cost-to-market and a time-to-market that manufacturers need to consider and I don’t think security gets considered in either of those calculations.”

LIFX’s Walker agrees that companies in this market, many of which are cash strapped start-ups, often see the cost of good security as a luxury that can be dispensed with in the name of getting their product to market.

“Not investing time and money in appropriate security measures in the short term will definitely save you money, but in the long term, especially if it’s baked into the hardware of the chips you are using  or firmware that’s not easy to update, it's maybe not such a good idea,” he argues. “I can completely see both sides of the argument, but do you really want to make your device with shortcomings that may come back to bite you, with potential damage to the brand or potential recalls down the line when you realise it’s down to early security features embedded in the design?”

The problem is not one just for individual companies though. As Walker points out, the connected devices market is still in its infancy and consumers are yet to take to the idea of the Internet of Things wholeheartedly. Major security blunders like the one effecting Belkin’s WeMo home automation devices, which prompted the US Computer Emergency Readiness Team to issue a warning that the security flaws could affect more than half a million users, seriously damage consumer trust in the technology.

“If we’re all being hacked, and we’ve all got massive security problems, why is the general user going to have any confidence using these kinds of connected devices?” Walker concludes. “IoT security needs to take the approach, particularly as we become more reliant on this kind of technology, that we make these products just as secure as they were before they became smart.”

Social Climber – South China Morning Post

What social platform do you use? What you use, and where you use it, says a lot about you - and especially about where you live.

Facebook is the leading social network, and by quite some distance, according to the latest research by GlobalWebIndex. It reveals that a whopping 83 per cent of internet users around the world aged 16 to 64 now have a Facebook account, a figure that's still growing. Lining up behind Facebook are Google+, YouTube and Twitter, although those figures hide some massive regional differences.

Twitter is the biggest social media platform in Japan, as of this year, while Google+ is growing fast in the developing world. Meanwhile, WhatsApp is used by over half of the online populations of Hong Kong, South Africa, Malaysia and Singapore - and it's the most used app in Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa. However, the GWI data reveals that Instagram is the fastest rising social platform overall, with a 25 per cent increase in active user numbers in the last six months.

Facebook already has the lion’s share of all social logins … 53 per cent globally


No wonder, then, that Facebook now owns both WhatsApp and Instagram. It's part of Facebook's aggressive intention to dominate the mobile web sphere, which is destined to become the de facto online experience for most of us - if it isn't already.

"Facebook already has the lion's share of all social logins, accounting for 53 per cent globally," says Patrick Salyer, CEO of US-based social data company Gigya.

"Mobile logins are even higher, accounting for 62 per cent globally, showing a clear dominance in the mobile space."

Although Google is second to Facebook, it lags behind with just a 26 per cent share, while 87 per cent of mobile internet users visit it each month. Facebook gets 10 per cent fewer views.

The social media platform's increasing domination of the mobile web has got analysts wondering whether it could soon overtake Google as the main arbiter of the online experience.

China, of course, is the exception to all of this. With Facebook banned by the government, social networking is dominated by WeChat, Qzone, Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, with Youku, Qzone and Tudou on the rise. However, Facebook does have a role.

"Each month, 16 per cent of China's adult internet population say they use Facebook, with millions turning to virtual private networks and proxy servers in order to bypass the government's restrictions," says GlobalWebIndex's head of trends, Jason Mander.

Besides, the "great firewall" is being circumvented. Step forward Facebook's key recent acquisitions, Instagram and WhatsApp, which Mark Holden, head of futures at Arena Media UK, thinks might act as Trojan horses to help develop a bigger footprint in China, and Asia as a whole. "The potential to build a user base in China, even if a minority one, may be one of the most strategically valuable parts of the WhatsApp and Instagram acquisitions," he says.

The purchase of those apps is significant because it shows Facebook's hand. Neither service has been rolled into the Facebook platform, but kept distinct. "Facebook has only really begun to grasp the importance of mobile recently," says Dave Wallace, CEO of Heath Wallace.

He thinks that the rise of mobile demonstrates that small devices are perfect for sharing and consuming content as well as browsing, and that mobile will become the dominant access device for Facebook.

"For many Gen Y users, mobile and tablets will be the only way they choose to access it," he says. "Building and buying a suite of functions around mobile is where the company seems to be heading - as with its acquisition of WhatsApp and the atomisation of its functionality into individual apps."

Ben Austin, CEO at UK-based Absolute Digital Media, says: "The acquisition of WhatsApp is being seen by some as a step towards Facebook becoming a hub for different apps rather than a unique platform in its own right."

Austin thinks that when Facebook sees something successful, it either tries to buy it, or makes its own version. "We've seen this with Instagram, WhatsApp - and Snapchat, which turned down an offer of US$20 billion (HK$155 billion) from Facebook." Facebook retaliated by creating its own version called Slingshot. "If it carries on like this, it's hard to picture how it won't continue this dominance."

Being all things to all people is impossible, and the acquisition of messaging app WhatsApp - which is largely about restoring young people's interest in the network - could be misguided. Teens have been leaving the site in their droves, but can the addition of WhatsApp reverse that trend? "The motive behind it screams desperation," says Austin. "What Facebook is forgetting is that teenagers are fickle. It doesn't matter if you fix the problem because once they've moved on they'll be unlikely to return." However, messaging services like WhatsApp could soon eclipse SMS, and could eventually even replace voice communications; it's a big prize.

While Facebook's success and ambition makes it tempting to call it "the new Google", we're not there yet. Holden thinks that Facebook's dominance in mobile needs to be put into perspective. "It doesn't own the operating system layer of our smartphone experiences - Google, Apple and Microsoft play a far bigger role there," he says, citing the failure of Facebook Home, a user interface layer for Android devices that was roundly ignored.

"Google is far more dominant on mobile than Facebook," he says. "Android users can embed Google services right at the very heart of how they use their mobiles - through search, Google Now, the app marketplace, native applications, mapping and the need to link every Android device to a Google user ID."

It's hard to ignore Google Search, YouTube, Gmail and Maps. A Comscore report showed that Google apps reach a third more monthly unique mobile users than Facebook. "Facebook needs to work hard to retain its dominant position in the mobile experience," says Holden.

Others agree. "Facebook and Google are being driven from two entirely different places at the moment," says Will McInnes, chief marketing officer at social media analytics company Brandwatch. "Google is primarily driven by data, by providing useful services to consumers that help the company follow them around the web, and then derive insight and value from those digital contrails," he says. "Google is more like an incredibly intelligent piece of string that both guides and follows you throughout your day."

Facebook, on the other hand, is primarily driven by engagement. "Its places are much more defined - its website, its mobile app, Instagram. Facebook is more like a family of islands that connect, and that we carry around with us, continually visiting and then dipping away again."

Facebook's position is vital and fascinating, thinks McInnes, who likens it to a universal currency. "Like any currency, it can hold its value if others continue to value it, or it can slowly be eclipsed."

It could all boil down to what happens in - and comes out of - China. "China will be a key market to watch - services like Tencent's WeChat already have huge followings in China and are now looking to expand elsewhere," says Mander. "As more and more Chinese websites come to international prominence and consider initial public offerings, Facebook's presence in this market will become crucial to it maintaining a global dominance."

Should the industry be worried about digital disenfranchisement? – The Drum

Beyond programming

Gross believes that the government is making a mistake by focusing education reform on programming skills.

She says: “This is a great thing, but it’s not the only thing. Cognitive skills, communication skills,understanding media and having an international edge to the curriculum are all contributory to equipping young people with the requisite skills for success.This will require a significant rethink of the way the curriculum is designed to support these seemingly‘softer’ elements.”

Thompson, too, feels more needs to be done in education – in particular there is a need for an overarching policy on how technology should be taught, implemented and used to facilitate learning. She says the government’s abolition of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency in 2010 meant the UK lost its lead in the promotion and integration of ICT in education.

She adds: “The education system now is at sixes and sevens as to where it stands in relation to technology. Some schools allow teachers to opt out of the digital world.“There’s absolutely no policy now on the use of technology in schools; you have 25,000 schools,25,000 heads and 25,000 different strategies. Progress is slowing and it’s not giving school leavers the digital backing they need.”

Milner also points to the way that the internet has developed commercially, and how the simplification of information does little to foster the inquiry and questioning skills that are vital to getting on.

“Commercial organisations have made everything simple, but we have to be cautious against fostering a generation of passive consumers. We want active inquirers. Education is about inquiry – asking questions and working out what it is you want to do,”says Milner.

Digital strategist and consultant Tiffany St James terms this “learning to learn”. “Part of the movement to get kids coding should be getting them more active so they don’t just sit back and take what they’re given,” she says.

Equipping young people with the skills needed for the future is also about investing in careers education. This means understanding the digital industry as part of the continuum with the creative sectors, adds St James. “Not everyone is going to be a programmer,”she says.

Facilitating creativity

Gross also argues for a need to overhaul the way careers advice is delivered to young people. “It came to my attention recently that there is very limited careers advice provided to state schools,” she says.

“Privately funded schools are investing far more in careers advice to their pupils.

“Lack of access to such services will feed digital disenfranchisement as the divide between private education and sustained personal careers advice will contrast sharply with the opportunities afforded to young people in state schools.

“This is ironic, as the internet has presented the opportunities for people to succeed from all walks of life, but the education system is failing to equip people from all walks of life to take advantage.”

Digital inclusion champions emphasise that digital can only create real, lasting social change when young people are equipped not only with the access and facilities, but also with the confidence, motivation,curiosity and education needed to avail of digital’s full potential.Understanding that technology is the facilitator of creativity and learning, and not the end goal in itself, is key.

For Berners-Lee, success will be measured by how well children’s creativity is fostered; whether future scientists have the tools to cure diseases; whether people can distinguish reliable information from propaganda or commercial chaff; and whether the next generation will build systems that support democracy and promote accountable debate.

This feature was first published in The Drum’s 25 June issue, guest-edited by Nigel Vaz. The magazine is available for purchase in The Drum store, or for subscribers to download here.

Illustrations by Ben O'Brien

Patient-friendly: Bristol Hospital launches new electronic medical record software – Bristol Press

Wednesday, June 25, 2014 12:43 PM EDT

BRISTOL — Bristol Hospital will soon be launching a new “portal” allowing patients to access their electronic medical record from the comfort of their own home.

The new software, which will officially become available June 30, gives patients information about their scheduled visits, prescribed medications and much more.

“It’s something we’re a little behind in offering because we really wanted to make sure we crossed all the t’s and dotted the i’s,” said David Rackliffe, assistant VP for information services at Bristol Hospital.

Security was a big concern, Rackliffe said, but the hospital took all the necessary precautions before releasing the service.

“It’s as secure as the technology allows,” he said. “We don’t anticipate security being an issue.”

Currently, patients must present a photo I.D. before receiving login information. From there, they can simply go to the website and sign in. Once logged in, patients can see everything in their medical record from visits dating as far back as July of 2011.

“Whether you got blood work, radiology work, a mammogram or anything else done, you can access the report from the results,” Rackliffe said.

Patients always had access to their EMR, but previously had to physically go to the hospital and view it. Now, with this new portal, it can be accessed from a computer, tablet, cell phone or any electronic device with internet browsing capabilities. Patients can even access their billing using the site, and make payments right online. All the information is on the web server that Bristol Hospital manages.

Also available for patients is a tutorial video that helps them understand how to use the health portal. To use the service, a user must have an email address, but if they do not, they can use a proxy who does have one. Having this new service available to patients will soon be a requirement under the Affordable Care Act.

For the last two weeks, hospital employees have been using the portal and giving feedback. On Tuesday, Marie O’Brien, chairwoman of the hospital’s board of directors, tried it out for the first time, and afterward said it was very “user-friendly.”

“So many people now are using the Internet to get information, so to be able to have access to your hospital record is just great,” she said. “You don’t have to remember details like prescriptions or dosage levels anymore. All that can now be accessed at a patient’s convenience.”

Justin Muszynski can be reached at (860) 584-0501, ext. 7250, or

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The Morning Ledger: Junk-Rated Firms Get More Covenant-Free Cash – Wall Street Journal (blog)

The Morning Ledger from CFO Journal cues up the most important news in corporate finance every weekday morning. Send us tips, suggestions and complaints: Get The Morning Ledger emailed to you each weekday morning by clicking here. Follow us on Twitter @CFOJournal.

Good morning. Weaker companies are getting easier access to loans that come with no strings attached, as the Federal Reserve keeps money flowing at ultralow rates, leaving investors to hunt for yield beyond top-rated firms, the WSJ’s Katy Burne reports. The shift recalls a boom era for loan deals leading up to the financial crisis, and some investors are worried.

For now, even with weaker loan contracts, corporate defaults have been held down and troubled companies have been able to refinance their debts at much lower rates. Easy lending terms are once again showing up as part of an expansion of credit to risky borrowers, including companies often being bought out or financed by private-equity firms. Beneficiaries of the trend include fashion house Kate Spade & Co. and Diamond Foods Inc.

The lack of covenants allows borrowers the flexibility to take on more debt or to pay dividends to owners such as private-equity firms. Kate Spade, for instance, borrowed to refinance debt in April, and its $400 million term loan required the company to maintain no regular financial targets. Diamond Foods CFO Ray Silcock said the company’s February $425 million covenant-lite loan “allowed us to have a larger proportion of debt than we might otherwise have had.”


The Producer Price Index for May releases at 8:30 a.m., and economists polled by The Wall Street Journal see producer-price growth having moderated to just 0.2% month over month, Ahead of the Tape’s Spencer Jakab reports. That would bring the year-over-year pace to 2.4%, the highest in over two years. Two measures of consumer prices have been rising as well, and together that could lend at least some ammunition to those fearful of more rapid price gains.

Then at 9:55 a.m. we’ll see the consumer sentiment index for June, and market watchers forecast a reading of 83, up from 81.9 in May.


Equity awards propel director-compensation increase. Corporate directors got a pay bump last year as the equity portion of their compensation grew, according to a study, CFOJ’s John Kester reports. Equity awards accounted for more than half of director compensation last year; the median among the large early proxy filers was $120,000.


House passes small-firm tax break. The House voted to make permanent a tax break allowing small businesses to write off up to $500,000 in new-equipment purchases, the WSJ’s John D. McKinnon reports. The move adds to momentum for congressional efforts to extend a range of now-temporary tax breaks, but sharpens a conflict between the House and Senate over whether to extend them permanently or temporarily. The list of temporary tax breaks, many of which expired at the end of 2013, has grown over the years and now includes over 50 separate provisions affecting businesses as well as individuals.

Hedge funds get stung by slow markets. Some of the biggest investors on Wall Street are losing money with wrong-way bets in markets around the globe, a surprising black eye amid a rise in stock and bond prices, the WSJ reports. Hedge-fund managers including Paul Tudor Jones, Louis Bacon and Alan Howard are among those who have misread broad economic and financial trends. An unusual period of calm has exacerbated problems for many trading strategies dependent on volatile markets.

Iraq turmoil rattles across markets. The escalation of sectarian fighting sent oil prices higher, pushed U.S. stocks lower and ignited the latest rally in haven bonds, the WSJ reports. While U.S. oil production has boomed, some of those gains have been offset by falling exports from other major suppliers, including Libya and Iran.

Taxing time ahead as offshore rules face greater scrutiny. The sun may be setting on a “golden age” of tax planning, as the OECD has called it, as politicians and investors increasingly question the merits of tax regimes that allow multinational companies to push ever more of their profits offshore and their effective tax rates down, the Financial Times reports. Earlier this month, Luca Palini, chief strategist for Pictet Asset Management, warned investors against complacency by pointing out that a quarter of international companies’ improvement in net margins had been achieved only by reducing their tax bills.

Alibaba to detail Internet business in new IPO document. Alibaba Group Holdings Ltd., responding to concerns from investors that it has been too tight-lipped, plans to give out more details about its Internet empire as it readies its potential $20 billion initial public offering, the WSJ’s Telis Demos reports. The new regulatory filing, which could arrive as soon as Friday, will give metrics on some of its individual businesses. The company also plans to disclose the names of the 28 partners with the power to nominate the company’s board.

Commodity-backed loans add to surge in China’s borrowing. The commodity-backed loans at the center of a probe into an alleged financial scam at a Chinese port are part of a ramp-up in offshore borrowing by Chinese companies that Beijing is looking to tamp down, the WSJ reports. As Chinese authorities tightened credit in the past year, local firms looked abroad for financing, and that has complicated Chinese policy makers’ attempts to slow rapid credit growth in the nation’s so-called shadow-banking sector.

Univision held sale talks with CBS, Time Warner. The owners of Univision Communications Inc., in their search for an exit, have held preliminary discussions in recent weeks with several media companies, including CBS Corp. and Time Warner Inc., the WSJ reports. The owners are seeking north of $20 billion for the company. There is no sign any of the preliminary discussions have led anywhere, and the price was one of the issues.

Washington comes to Goldman. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and CEO Lloyd Blankfein are moving to seize the public stage in policy debates, the WSJ’s Justin Baer reports. This week, the bank hosted high-ranking government officials from the U.S., Canada and Mexico to debate the best ways for the nations to balance the economic potential of their natural resources with environmental concerns. That’s a stark contrast from the bank’s image after the crisis, when Mr. Blankfein’s most-memorable public appearance was an uncomfortable afternoon before the Senate after the SEC sued Goldman over allegations it misled investors in the sale of a complex mortgage-linked deal that had imploded as credit markets unraveled.

Facebook to expand data used in ad targeting. Facebook Inc. plans to expand the information it draws upon to target advertisements to users by including data about their Web-browsing habits, the WSJ’s Reed Albergotti reports. That reverses the company’s previous position on users’ browsing data and renewed critics’ concerns about the company’s commitment to user privacy.

Ford cuts mileage ratings after retest. Ford Motor Co. said it is cutting the fuel-economy ratings on 200,000 vehicles sold or leased in the U.S. and Canada and plans to make goodwill payments to owners to cover the difference between the old and new ratings, the WSJ’s Mike Ramsey reports. It was the second time within a year that the auto maker has admitted to overstating the mileage ratings on its vehicles.

GoDaddy releases customized financial metrics that boost its bottom line. U.S. Web-services company GoDaddy, which filed for an initial public offering this week, added back a number of costs, including fees paid to the private-equity firms that are among its biggest investors, to the earnings measure it wants to be judged on, the Financial Times reports. The adjustments let GoDaddy show a profit of $199 million under its preferred measure of “adjusted Ebitda” for 2013, compared with only $27 million under the standard measure. It also reported a net loss of $200 million.

Twitter’s No. 2 executive resigns after dispute with CEO. Twitter Inc.’s COO Ali Rowghani stepped down on Thursday after disagreeing with Chief Executive Dick Costolo’s plan to strip him of key responsibilities. Among his many tasks, Mr. Rowghani, who became operating chief in 2012, was in charge of the product team tasked with boosting user-growth rates. The WSJ’s Yoree Koh reports that Mr. Rowghani resisted Mr. Costolo’s desire to take over the product team as pressure mounted from investors over Twitter’s growth. Analysts say that Mr. Rowghani’s exit is a sign that the company still hasn’t figured out how to get more users on board.

Add COOs to endangered species list. The departure of Twitter Inc.’s operating chief highlights waning demand for the role at S&P500 companies in the wake of the recession, the WSJ’s Rachel Feintzeig reports. The share of large companies with COOs has declined almost every year since 2001.

And so another big U.S. technology has fallen foul of the European Union. The EU’s second-highest court on Thursday upheld a $1.43 billion fine against Intel Corp. for abusing its dominant position in the microprocessor market, the WSJ’s Tom Fairless reports. The EU case centered on rebates that Intel granted to Dell Inc.Hewlett Packard Co.NEC Corp. and Lenovo Group for using its chips between 2002 and 2007. In 2009 the commission found that Intel had used the rebates to cut rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc. out of the market. On Wednesday, EU commission authorities said they would investigate Apple Inc.‘s tax practices.

But Intel also experiences some good news. Intel Thursday cited stronger-than-expected demand for business PCs, increasing revenue guidance for the year. ”The change in outlook is driven mostly by strong demand for business PCs,” Intel said in a news release. For the second quarter, the company expects revenue between $13.4 billion and $14 billion, compared with its previous guidance of $12.5 billion to $13.5 billion. The Journal’s Josh Beckerman notes that companies that make computers or computer parts have benefited from businesses needing to update aging PCs because of the end of Microsoft’s support for Windows XP operating system.

Samsung makes bigger push in tablets. Samsung Electronics Co. rolled out a pair of high-end, Android-based tablets that have a more sophisticated look and feel, with a brighter, thinner and lighter screen than previous models, the WSJ reports. It is branding the tablets as an extension of its premium Galaxy S smartphones, by adding an “S” to the end of the Galaxy Tab name as well. Samsung’s global tablet market share is already growing at the expense of Apple’s climbing to 22.3% in the first quarter from 17.5% earlier.


SEC divided on money-market fund rules. Six years after money-market mutual funds became a source of vulnerability in the financial crisis, U.S. securities regulators are still hashing out how to limit the risks they pose to the financial system, the WSJ’s Andrew Ackerman reports. The five members of the Securities and Exchange Commission have all indicated they agree money-fund risks need to be addressed, but they have been unable to reach agreement on how to finish long-awaited rules to curb structural features of money funds that make them prone to investor stampedes during times of market stress.

Fed proposes stress-test changes. The Federal Reserve wants to keep banks from buying back shares and raising dividends if they don’t fulfill their stated goals to shore up financing, the WSJ’s Alan Zibel reports. The Fed said some banks, as part of its annual stress tests, “included issuances of capital instruments in their capital plans, but didn’t execute these planned issuances,” and that such behavior has the “potential to undermine” its ability to evaluate the financial health of banks.


Economists optimistic stage is set for wage growth. Economists are increasingly looking for wage growth to pick up in coming months, a long-awaited development that would put more money in the pockets of consumers and could spur accelerated growth in the broader economy, the WSJ’s Kathleen Madigan reports. According to The Wall Street Journal’s monthly survey of 48 economists, real GDP is growing at an annual rate of 3.5% this quarter after contracting at least 1% in the weather-hobbled first quarter.

U.K. sounds alarm on real-estate boom. The U.K.’s two chief financial policy makers warned in strident tones that the British fervor for real estate had swelled into a threat to the wider economy, and the government moved to enact new powers to curb mortgage lending, the WSJ reports. Britain’s response will be a seminal experiment: The U.K. is trying to control housing prices through so-called macroprudential tools, without resorting bluntly to raising interest rates.

Sluggish retail sales cloud hopes for breakout growth. Spending at U.S. retailers was sluggish in May outside of a jump in auto sales, a potentially worrisome sign for the economy as it struggles to emerge from a rough stretch that began over the winter, the WSJ’s Ben Leubsdorf reports. GDP is on track to bounce back this quarter, but it isn’t clear if the rebound will lead to sustained growth.


Lululemon Athletica Inc., an athletic-apparel designer and retailer based in Vancouver, British Columbia, said its chief financial officer, John Currie, will retire by the fiscal year’s end. The move comes roughly six months after the company publically named Laurent Potdevin as its chief executive officer. The company will employ an external company to find Mr. Currie’s successor. Mr. Currie received compensation valued at $1.4 million in 2013, according to a proxy filing.

RSA Insurance Group PLC, a London-based insurance company, named Patrick Bergander as CEO of its Scandinavian division, effective June 16. Mr. Bergander was CFO of that division before he was made interim CEO in March.


Every weekend we select a handful of in-depth articles we think are worth a bit of your valuable time, either because they peel back the layers on a compelling business story, or somehow make us look at business in a different light.

Rise of the small, shady tax haven. Seychelles is a small island nation with a population smaller than Davenport, Iowa’s. And yet the rise of its offshore industry offers a case study in the rise of tiny, out-of-the-way tax havens, write Matthew Shaer, Michael Hudson and Margot Williams for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The island, which remained largely uninhabited by humans until the late 18th century, is a magnet for money launderers and tax dodgers, and it offers a case study in how the offshore secrecy system has grown. Offshore patrons are able to create elaborate webs of corporate structure that use multiple jurisdictions, front men and layers of ownership that are almost impossible to unravel, and yet such remote, sparsely populated financial refuges have survived decades of promises by rich nations to shut them down. “Offshore financial centers are often touted as economic engines that help small, resource-starved places improve themselves. But it is often a few well-connected locals—along with expatriate lawyers and accountants from the U.S., the U.K., Australia and other rich nations—who enjoy most of the profits.”

Automation’s reluctant father. Norbert Wiener is hardly a household name, but a conference in Boston later this month intends to reclaim his reputation as one of the first theorists to identify information “as the lingua franca of organisms as well as machines, a shared language capable of crossing the boundaries between them,” writes Doug Hill for the Atlantic. Mr. Wiener is known as the inventor of cybernetics, a pairing of mathematics and engineering that allowed for modern automation and inspired many other areas of research. Engineers grounded in cybernetic theory say that technology is only now catching up to Mr. Wiener’s ideas from more than half a century ago. And yet he was no utopian, with visions of a gleaming future of unrelenting progress. “The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence,” Wiener wrote in 1964, “not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.”

Picking winning supply-chain technologies. Following the hype around the latest supply-chain technology can be an expensive undertaking, says McKinsey & Co.’s Alex Niemeyer, who has seen clients destroy business value after sinking hundreds of millions into integrating supply-chain planning systems. Yet some hype is better than others, notably that surrounding 3-D printing technology, “an absolutely disruptive force to manufacturing.” Mr. Niemeyer sees 3-D printing having an immediate effect on those spare-part supply chains defined by a “very high complexity—think aircraft spare parts.” Combined with better forecasts, 3-D printing may cut down on inventory or shorten lead times. Advanced analytics, too, will play a larger role, helping companies avoid risk in an age of “big volatility all the time” and offering new opportunities for agile companies that can take advantage of a competitor’s struggles or the event of new markets opens up.

Microsoft Wants One-Week Battery Life From Smartphones – DailyTech

Thursday Poll: Tiered or Unlimited Data? – Droid Life

4G LTE logo Advertise Here

Back in April of 2012, almost a year after we started to see tiered data plans takeover the wireless market, we asked our readers to vote in a poll, letting us know if they were still on unlimited data or part of a tier. Since then, the industry has continued to change, with the introduction of shared data pools and unlimited plans that offer up a limit on fast data before throttling you.

We know that many of you are doing whatever you can to hang onto those old, grandfathered unlimited data plans while others have had to jump ship, whether it be to upgrade or because they found what they considered to be a good enough deal. So some have let tiers take over, others have at least gone the unlimited-plus-throttling route. What we want to know today, is where you fall? Are you still hanging on to full unlimited or have you had to switch it up?

Feel free to let us know what your current plan looks like in the comments.

Tiered or Unlimited Data?

Tiered/shared data plan. Unlimited data plan, no throttling. Unlimited data plan, with throttling.

View Results

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