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New America Chair Says Google Didn’t Prompt Critic’s Ouster

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The co-chair of the New America Foundation told staffers Wednesday that neither Google nor its executive chairman Eric Schmidt—both donors to the think tank—played a role in the recent ouster from the foundation of an antitrust scholar who had been critical of Google.

“Neither Google nor Eric Schmidt attempted to interfere” with criticism of Google by the researcher, co-chair Jonathan Soros wrote in a letter to New America staff and fellows. “They did not threaten funding, and they did not call for any changes” to research into monopoly power.

The researcher, Barry Lynn, was director of Open Markets, which had been affiliated with New America. Lynn was told that Open Markets would be pushed out of the think tank, shortly after Lynn issued a statement praising a European antitrust ruling against Google and urging US regulators to take action against the search giant.

Soros distributed his letter hours before New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter met with the foundation’s staff. In that meeting, Slaughter said that there was a pattern of behavioral issues with Lynn, but said she could not discuss personnel issues. In the meeting, Slaughter promised to set up a committee to review and establish standards for interaction between donors and New America leadership. In a statement, a New America spokesperson says, “New America separated from Barry Lynn because he repeatedly demonstrated that he couldn’t work with his colleagues in a respectful, honest, and cooperative way.”

The meeting, and Soros’s letter, follow a story in the The New York Times last week about Lynn’s departure from the foundation. In the letter, Soros, the son of philanthropist George Soros, says the Times article was the result of “a targeted communications campaign,” by Lynn and Zephyr Teachout, a New America fellow who published a related op-ed the same day that the story broke in the Times.

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With their comments, Soros says the two researchers had “casually and cavalierly damaged the integrity of an institution.” But he also acknowledges that New America had hurt its own cause with a “flat-footed and sometimes counterproductive” response to the charges and the article. New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter handled the think tank’s immediate response to the Times, initially calling the article “false,” before later retracting that claim. She also published emails that she had sent to Lynn, but not his responses, on New America’s website “in the interest of transparency.”

In one email, Slaughter tells Lynn that his actions are “imperiling funding” for his colleagues because Google was not given advance notice of an antitrust conference hosted by New America. That email is “the most damning,” says a New America fellow. “That’s not a reference to being a jerk or yelling at somebody or being an unpleasant colleague. What imperils the organization is pissing off a major donor who will stop funding you.” A different New America employee said that giving advance notice was “not a standard of policy that applied to everyone. It seemed to apply to Barry and to Google.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, which included some tough questions for Slaughter, Alan Davidson, a New America fellow and former top lobbyist for Google, criticized Lynn and praised Slaughter’s handling of the situation.

In his email, Soros emphasizes that he does not believe that the communications campaign was undertaken to hurt New America, but rather to raise funds for Lynn’s new group, which purchased the URL citizensagainstmonopoly.com before the article in the Times.

How Your Home Music System Opens the Door for Ghosts (and Hackers)

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To say that Aaron Gotwalt is afraid of the future wouldn’t be fair. The San Francisco–based entrepreneur and programmer, like most of his kind, loves technology. But work has a way of turning even the most enthusiastic developer into a bit of a skeptic, which is perhaps why, behind his piercing gray eyes, he possesses a subtle look of skepticism.

Gotwalt is a born tinkerer, particularly when it comes to his in-home music system. “I remember a long time ago I hacked my friend’s music device so the only thing it played was ‘The Final Countdown,’” says Gotwalt. “But now, when I play music in my house, I can’t hear the doorbell, so I wanted to figure out how to pause the music when the doorbell rang.” That led to a deeper dive into the system’s APIs. “Eventually I said, let’s see if we can make this do something more interesting.”

That something came in the form of a massive prank on Gotwalt’s friends: Ghosty, a decidedly “unofficial” app whose sole reason for existence is to play creepy sounds–think shambling footsteps and children weeping–in the dead of night, all piped through your victim’s own in-home, wireless music system. After all, what good is technology if you can’t use it to keep your best buds up at night?

Ghosty is part of a new breed of exploits taking advantage of design flaws that have been baked, sometimes intentionally, into the Internet of Things, those web-connected devices like speakers, thermostats, and washing machines that have been rapidly filling the homes of the tech-savvy. The catch with all of these products? “They’re often built with the user’s convenience foremost in mind. And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it does mean that security can often be lackluster,” Gotwalt says. The only defense: extreme diligence, or a device such as Bitdefender’s BOX, which monitors your network for potentially malicious traffic.

Ghosty isn’t the simplest hack to pull off. “You need access to your victim’s home and his Wi-Fi network password, and you have to plug this little Raspberry Pi computer into an electrical outlet in his house,” says Gotwalt. “But once it’s on the network, it covers its tracks. Ghosty then has the full ability to discover, observe, and control the music devices on the network it’s connected to. Once running, it can be left unattended indefinitely while your friend slowly loses his mind.”

His friend’s biggest mistake: giving out his Wi-Fi password. “Once you have access to a home network,” he says, “you have access to whatever’s on that network. You have to be smart.”

Gotwalt’s biggest concern revolves around cheaply made smart devices, like off-brand, Wi-Fi-connected lightbulbs that aren’t being designed with any security in mind. Similarly, he’s anxious about how exploits like his could someday evolve to target more critical systems, such as smart door locks or home security systems. Even an attack against a smart refrigerator, he says, could prove costly to a homeowner if a prankster decided to shut off the freezer while the owner went on vacation.

The good news is that solutions are starting to emerge that can help to secure nontraditional devices like this, which are otherwise left undefended by traditional security tools like anti-virus software running on a PC. For example, Bitdefender’s BOX treats all devices–computers, phones, televisions, and even your baby monitor–the same way, watching for rogue network traffic and malicious activity and blocking out any shenanigans, whether they were intended as a practical joke or something worse.

Pairing good security practices with even better technology can ensure your connected home is also a safe home, and that the only thing coming out of your IoT speakers is the album that you put on.

This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Bitdefender.

Phones Are Changing How People Shoot and Watch Video

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Quick, do an experiment: Whip out your phone and take a short video. Trees outside your window, the other people in line with you, whatever.

Now here’s a question: How did you shoot it? Did you hold the phone sideways, to get a horizontal, or landscape, shot? Or did you hold it vertically? Odds are you held it upright, which means you’re helping to accelerate one of the most underappreciated shifts in the mediascape.

Before 1930, moving picture aspect ratios were all over the place. But mass distribution requires standardization, so influential filmmakers met in Hollywood that year to talk. They settled on the horizontal shot.

Things pretty much stayed that way for decades—until the 2010s, when the mobile phone began to unravel this consensus. The phone is where we shoot our video and, increasingly, view it. In other words, it’s the studio and the movie theater. Yet studies show we hold our phones vertically 94 percent of the time. No wonder: Holding them sideways violates smartphone ergonomics. It feels weird.

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Snapchat has done more than anything else to tilt culture upright. Its users intuited this early and create 3 billion snaps per day, nearly all vertical. Indeed, the platform now requires its big-media partners—from National Geographic to CNN to WIRED—to provide such video for its Discover section. Nor is Snapchat alone; broadcasters worldwide are trying out vertical, because phones are where their audiences, especially in coveted younger demographics, are growing the fastest.

Why John Deere Just Spent $305 Million on a Lettuce-Farming Robot

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Look out weeds. Tractor giant John Deere just spent $305 million to acquire a startup that makes robots capable of identifying unwanted plants, and shooting them with deadly, high-precision squirts of herbicide.

John Deere, established in 1837 to manufacture hand tools, announced it had acquired Blue River Technology, founded in 2011, late Wednesday.

Deere already sells technology that uses GPS to automate the movements of farm vehicles across a field to sub-inch accuracy. John Stone, an executive in the company’s intelligent-solutions group, says Blue River’s computer-vision technology will help Deere’s equipment view and understand the crops it is working with. “Taking care of each individual plant unlocks a lot of economic value for farmers,” Stone says.

The deal highlights the growing appetite for high tech in agriculture. Many companies are using drones to help farmers by collecting data on crops to plan spraying or other operations. Stone says that Blue River’s technology can make a larger impact on productivity because it makes decisions up close, on the ground.

Pesticides and other chemicals are traditionally applied blindly across a whole field or crop. Blue River’s systems are agricultural sharp shooters that direct chemicals only where they are needed.