Author Archives: srendano

Are Self-Driving Cars Safe?

Self-driving cars promise to revolutionize driving by removing human error from the equation altogether. No more drunk or tired driving, great reductions in traffic, and even the possibility of being productive on the commute to work. But what are the consequences of relying on algorithms and hardware to accomplish this vision? Software can be hacked or tricked, electrical components can be damaged. Can we really argue that it is safer to relinquish control to a computer than to operate a motor vehicle ourselves? Ultimately, this question cannot be answered with confidence until we conduct far more testing. Data analysis is key to understanding how these vehicles will perform and specifically how they will anticipate and react to the kind of human error which they exist to eliminate. But “the verdict isn’t out yet” is hardly a satisfying answer, and for this reason I would argue that despite concerns about ‘fooling’ self-driving cars, this technology is safer than human drivers.

The article “Slight Street Sign Modifications Can Completely Fool Machine Learning Algorithms” details how researchers have tricked computer vision algorithm to misinterpret street signs. Researchers were able to achieve these results by training their classifier program with public road sign data, and then adding new entries of a modified street sign with their own classifiers. Essentially, the computer is “taught” how to analyze a specific image and, after numerous trial runs, will eventually be able to recognize recurring elements in specific street signs and match them with a specific designation / classifier. The article mainly serves to explore how these machines could be manipulated, but only briefly touches upon a key safety feature which would prevent real-world trickery. Notably, redundancy is key in any self-driving car. Using GPS locations of signs and data from past users could ensure that signs are not incorrectly classified by the computer vision algorithm.

The article “The Long, Winding Road for Driverless Cars” focuses less on the safety ramifications of self-driving vehicles, and instead on how practical it is that we will see fully autonomous cars in the near future. The author touches upon the idea that selling current vehicles (such as Tesla) with self-driving abilities as “autopilot” might be misleading, as these current solutions still require a human to be attentive behind the wheel. She presents the hurdle that in order to replace human drivers, self-driving vehicles cannot just be “better” than human drivers but near perfect. While these are all valid concerns, they will only result in benefits for consumers. Mistrust in new tech means that companies and regulatory authorities will go through rigorous trials to ensure that these vehicles are ready for the road and maintain consumer confidence. We have already accepted many aspects of car automation (stopping when an object is detected, hands-free parallel parking, and lane-detection) to make our lives easier, and perhaps some time in the near future self-driving cars will be fully tested and ready for mass deployment.

Use Windows 10 Taskbar for Google Search

Search is a versatile feature in Windows 10. This tool allows you to browse files or programs on your computer, answer basic questions using Cortana, Microsoft’s personal assistant tool, and browse the web. The latter feature is what we will be focusing in this blog. By publishing this article, I do not intend to make a statement about which search engine or browser is better. It is simply a way for users to customize their PC so that it aligns with their search preferences.

Browsing the web is one of the most important features in a modern PC user, but Microsoft restricts web searches in the taskbar to use it’s own search engine, Bing, and will use the Microsoft Edge browser by default for any web links. Many Windows users install Google Chrome or another alternative to Microsoft’s default browser, and the best way for them to search the web with Windows 10 would be if it was using their preferred browser and search engine combo.

This How-To will mainly focus on using the search feature with Google search on Google Chrome. Again, I do not mean this article as an endorsement of one browser / search combo over another, and will specifically reference Google Chrome, because it is the most widely-used browser in the United States, and can re-direct searches using specific extensions not available on other browsers.

Step 1: Change Default Browser

First make sure you have Google Chrome browser installed on your Windows 10 machine.

Next, go to the bottom left and click the windows icon. From here, you can access the Windows search. Type “default” and you should be provided with an icon for “default app settings.” Alternatively, you can open the settings app and navigate to System, then Default Apps.

From here, scroll down to the “Web browser” section, and make sure that Google Chrome is selected.

At this point, any web search through the Windows search feature will open in Google Chrome (or your browser of choice). However, these links will still be performed using Bing, while the majority of people use Google as their default. Redirecting Bing searches to Google will be handled via a Google Chrome extension in the next step.

 

Step 2: Download an extension to redirect Bing queries to Google

To re-route searches from Bing to Google in the Windows search bar, you can use a third-party extensions, Chrometana. Chrometana will automatically redirect bing searches to your prefered search engine when you type in a query and are presented with an option that says “see search results.”

That’s it! From now on, any web search in the Windows search bar will open up a new Google search in Google Chrome. Hopefully you find this feature useful to you and allows you to browse the web the way that works best for you.

Content Providers and Net Neutrality: A Double-Edged Sword

Source: http://www.thetelecomblog.com/2016/06/15/fccs-net-neutrality-upheld-in-appeals-court-decision/

Source: http://www.thetelecomblog.com/2016/06/15/fccs-net-neutrality-upheld-in-appeals-court-decision/

Net neutrality is the principle that data should be treated equally by internet service providers (ISPs) and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites. Those in favor of net neutrality argue that ISPs should not be able to block access to a website run by their competitor or offer “fast lanes” to deliver data more efficiently for a hefty fee. Imagine if Verizon could stop customers from researching about switching to Comcast, or block access to negative press about their business practices. For ISPs, network inequality is a pretty sweet deal. Broadband providers can charge premiums for customers to access existing network-structures, and control the content viewed by subscribers.

Essentially, a lack of network neutrality actively promotes discrimination against competitors and encourages ISPs to deliberately limit high-speed data access. This form of throttling speeds when there are negligible costs of production after initial development is known as “artificial scarcity.” Supply is intentionally restricted which makes the item, internet access, more valuable.

Without net neutrality, internet providers have free-reign over deciding which content reaches their subscribers. In 2014, this issue came to a head when Comcast and other broadband suppliers intentionally restricted the data transmission for Netflix services. To appease customers with a paid subscription who could no longer watch the streaming service, Netflix agreed to pay the broadband companies tens of millions of dollars a year. Evidently, a lack of net neutrality creates a conflict of interest between wireless service providers and content firms like Google, Facebook, and Netflix. These content providers want consumers to have unfettered access to their services. Tolls for network access create barriers for internet-based services which rely on  ad-revenue and network traffic.

Despite the threat network neutrality poses to content-centric services many tech companies have been hesitant to vehemently oppose restricting data access. Facebook is investing in creating their own ecosystem. With Facebook as a central hub where you can connect with friends, view businesses, listen to music and play games, the company has little incentive to petition for the free and universal flow of information and Web traffic. From a corporate perspective, every web-interaction would ideally be done through Facebook. In a similar vein, Google has been moving closer and closer to becoming an internet provider themselves. Company initiatives like Google Fiber, Project Fi and Project Loon are the stepping-stone to Google dominating both the web-traffic and web-access businesses. This creates a double-edged sword where unrestricted internet access both helps and harms content-providers. While tech companies do not want restricted access to their sites, they would love to restrict consumer-access to that of their rivals. The burden of protecting a free internet and the unrestricted flow of information therefore lies on consumers.

Private Data in the Digital Age

Former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden is wanted by the United States for leaking details of U.S. government intelligence programs

Former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden is wanted by the United States for leaking details of U.S. government intelligence programs

In a scenario where someone has a file of information stored on a private server with the intent to keep it private, is it ever justified for someone else to expose a security flaw and post the information anonymously on the internet? There exists a fine line where “It depends” on the scenario. But this classification simply does not do the case justice as there are extraneous circumstances where this kind of theft and distribution is justifiable.

One such case is whistle-blowing. Edward Snowden is still a man of much controversy. Exiled for leaking sensitive government documents, some label him a hero, others a traitor. Snowden was former Special Forces and later joined the CIA as a technology specialist. He stole top-secret documents pertaining to the National Security Agency and FBI tapping directly into the central servers of leading U.S Internet companies to extract personal data. Snowden leaked these documents to the Washington Post, exposing the PRISM code, which collected private data from personal servers of American citizens. This program was born out of a failed warrantless domestic surveillance act and kept under lock and key to circumvent the public eye. Americans were unaware and alarmed by the breadth of unwarranted government surveillance programs to collect, store, and search their private data.

Although Snowden illegally distributed classified information, the government was, in effect, doing the same but with personal data of its constituents. I would argue that Snowden is a hero. He educated the American people about the NSA overstepping their bounds and infringing upon American rights. Governments exist to ensure the safety of the populace, but privacy concerns will always be in conflict with government surveillance and threat-prevention. The government should not operate in the shadows; is beholden to its people, and they are entitled to know what is going on.

The United States government charged Snowden with theft, “unauthorized communication of national defense information,” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.” The documents that came to light following Snowden’s leaks only pertained to unlawful practices, and did not compromise national security. Therefore, it appears as though the government is trying to cover up their own mistakes. Perhaps this is most telling in one of Edward Snowden’s recent tweets :

“Break classification rules for the public’s benefit, and you could be exiled.
Do it for personal benefit, and you could be President.” – @Snowden

This commentary on Hillary Clinton shows that in the eyes of the government who is right and wrong changes on a case to case basis. In many ways, Snowden’s case mirrors Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The Pentagon Papers contained evidence that the U.S. Government had mislead the public regarding the Vietnam war, strengthening anti-war sentiment among the American populace. In both cases, whistle-blowing was a positive force, educating the public about abuses happening behind their back. While in general practice, stealing private information and distributing it to the public is malpractice, in these cases, the crime of stealing was to expose a larger evil and provide a wake-up call for the general population.

Alternatively, in the vast majority of cases accessing private files via a security flaw is malicious, and the government should pursue charges. While above I advocated for a limited form of “hacktivism,” it was a special case to expose abuses by the government which fundamentally infringed on rights to privacy. In almost all cultures, religions and societies stealing is recognized as wrongdoing and should rightfully be treated as such. Stealing sensitive information and posting it online should be treated in a similar manner. Publishing incriminating files about someone else online can ruin their life chances. For example, during the infamous iCloud hack, thousands of nude or pornographic pictures of celebrities were released online. This was private information which the leaker took advantage of for personal gain. For many female celebrities it was degrading and humiliating. Therefore, the leaker responsible for the iCloud leaks was not justified in  taking and posting the files. While the definition of leaking sensitive information for the “common good” can be in itself a blurred line, but a situation like the iCloud leak evidently did not fit in this category. Hacking Apple’s servers to access and leak inappropriate photos can only be labeled as a malevolent attack on female celebrities, which could have potentially devastating repercussions for their career.

While the iCloud hack was a notorious use of leaking private data in a hateful way, there are more profound ways which posting private data can destroy someone’s life. Most notably, stealing financial information and identification (such as SSID) can have a huge, detrimental effect on someone’s life. My grandmother was a victim of identity theft, where someone she knew and trusted stole her personal information and used it for personal gain. This same scenario plays out online constantly and can drain someone’s life savings, reduce their access to credit and loans, and leave them with a tarnished reputation. Again, we draw a line between leaking something in the public’s interest and exposing a security flaw for the leaker’s benefit. By gaining access to personal files, hackers could wreck havoc and destroy lives. Obviously this type of data breach is unacceptable, and cannot be justified.

Overall, taking sensitive material and posting it anonymously online can generally be regarded as malpractice, however, their are exceptions such as whistle-blowing where the leaker is doing so for the common good. These cases are far and few between, and the “bad cases” have harming repercussions which can follow someone throughout their life. Ultimately, to recall Snowden’s case, everyone has a right to privacy. This is why someone leveraging a security flaw and posting files online is wrong from the get go, because it supersedes personal secrecy. In an increasingly digital world it is difficult to keep anything private, but everyone has a fundamental right to privacy which should not be disrespected or infringed upon.

Disproving Einstein: the Phenomenon of Quantum Entanglement and Implications of Quantum Computing

Quantum-Entanglement

Albert Einstein famously disparaged quantum entanglement as “spooky action at a distance,” because the idea that two particles separated by light-years could become “entangled” and instantaneously affect one another was counter to classical physics and intuitive reasoning. All fundamental particles have a property called spin, angular momentum and orientation in space. When measuring spin, either the measurement direction is aligned with the spin of a particle -classified as spin up- or the measurement is opposite the spin of the particle -classified as spin down. If the particle spin is vertical but we measure it horizontally the result is a 50/50 chance of being measured spin up or spin down. Likewise, different angles produce different probabilities of obtaining spin up or spin down particles. Total angular momentum of the universe must stay constant, and therefore in terms of entangled particles, they must have opposite spins when measured in the same direction. Einstein’s theory of relativity was centered around the idea that nothing can move faster than the speed of light, but somehow, these particles appeared to be communicating instantaneously to ensure opposite spin. He surmised that all particles were created with a definite spin regardless of the direction they were measured in, but this theory proved to be wrong. Quantum entanglement is not science fiction; it is a real phenomenon which will fundamentally shape the future of teleportation and computing.

Continue reading