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Judge orders Stormy Daniels to reimburse Trump's legal fees

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The porn actress was ordered to pay nearly $300,000 after a judge threw out her defamation case.
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21 hours ago
Free speech should not allow blatant bullying and hate
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What Sundar Pichai Couldn’t Explain to Congress

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The parade of Silicon Valley figures to Capitol Hill continued today when Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, the core of the Alphabet holding company, went before the House Judiciary Committee.

Like every other tech company hearing, it was more hackneyed than illuminating, more painful than inspiring. Pichai is a polished executive who rose through Google’s ranks. He is not a boy king like Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey. You knew he’d do the hard work of preparing. It seemed likely he’d sail through the hearing.

Yet, as the hearing got under way, Pichai struggled to make sense of the questions that lawmakers put to him. Even friendly Democratic queries asking him to explain how search-engine rankings worked were met with hesitation and stilted rhetoric. If a rep said a keyword he was prepared for, he gave a scripted response, even if it was only sort of responsive.

Part of the problem seemed to be that the Republican questioning came from so far outside the technocratic norms fostered at Google, a place where data rules. On the Hill, Republicans threw anecdotes about their searches at Pichai and asked him to explain what they had already determined was Google’s bias. “There are a lot of people who think what I’m saying is happening,” said Representative Steve Chabot, “and I think it’s happening.” Chabot may have been certain, but to a Googler, that is not evidence.

Pichai never punched back when conservatives came at him. In the fieriest episode, Representative Jim Jordan forcefully questioned Pichai about multicultural marketing manager Eliana Murillo’s post-election memo concerning the company’s efforts to turn out Latino voters. In it, Murillo states “we kept our Google efforts non-partisan and followed our company’s protocols for the elections strategy,” and goes on to explain, “We also supported partners like Voto Latino to pay for rides to the polls in key states (silent donation).” Jordan focused on Murillo’s use of the phrase “key states”—which he took to mean battleground states. In the face of the attack, Pichai faltered. He didn’t offer an alternative explanation of what the “key states” might be, such as states with large Latino populations. Instead, he referred to his employee’s own words as “allegations,” and did not directly refute Jordan’s exasperated suggestion that Murillo lied in the memo.

Google’s admittedly liberal employees, Republicans said, must, somehow, be tinkering with search rankings. “You’re so surrounded by liberality that hates conservatism, hates people who really love our constitution and the freedoms it has afforded to people like you,” Texas Representative Louie Gohmert told Pichai. “You don’t even recognize it. You’re like a blind man who doesn’t even know what light looks like.”

Gohmert ran out of time before Pichai could answer. But he did get to respond to Representative Steve King’s questioning about the effect of Google employees’ generally liberal political leanings on search rankings.

“Congressman, it’s an important question,” Pichai said, “but the way we rank our results is essentially on user feedback and that’s what drives the iterative loop.”

This is, more or less, true. It’s not the whole story, because Google uses a variety of factors, especially with news stories. But what people click on in search results—as well as their subsequent behavior—drives what the search engine shows to that user as well as others. Or, as my colleague Ian Bogost put it, “for Google, everything is a popularity contest.”

King ignored the answer and went on to push for Google engineers’ social media to be examined and Google’s algorithms to be published, before threatening much more substantial regulation up to the “Teddy Roosevelt” anti-trust option, then asking Pichai why a mean message about King showed up on his granddaughter’s iPhone, which is made by Apple.

“Congressman, iPhone is made by a different company, and so, you know, I mean,—” Pichai began.

“It could have been an Android,” King replied, holding up a phone. “It was a hand-me-down of some kind.”

“Uh, you know, I’m happy to follow up with you to understand the specifics,” Pichai said. “There may have been an app being used which had a notification, but I’m happy to understand it better and clarify it for you.”

It was the kind of borderline surreal, mostly useless exchange that typified the hearing. Serious issues with Google’s practices around the world got very short shrift. Democrats and Republicans alike tried to ask questions about  Google’s prospective plans to build a censored version of its search engine that could be deployed in China. But none of them made use of the reported details about what’s known as Project Dragonfly, and Pichai answered their general queries simply: “We have no plans to launch in China,” he said.

In response to privacy queries, he noted that Google valued privacy and had a variety of settings. Every abstract criticism could find no purchase on the executive or the company.

And it’s not as if there are not real issues with Google’s role in the public sphere. Republicans concerns might have presented in an anecdotal, scattershot way, rife with grievance politics, but our now-cybernetic political system has real problems.

Power has been concentrated in systems that few understand, and even fewer can explain. Opaque machines, built by a tiny number of humans, generate the informational landscape for everyone else. The fallback position for technology companies is that, as Pichar said over and over, they build “neutral” systems designed to deliver “relevant” results that are “useful” to users.

But if my scare quotes don’t make it obvious: These are not uncontested concepts, nor do they mean the same things to everyone. Google’s system is not “neutral,” and the system’s structure—relying on hundreds of types of data—does not map onto the House Republicans’ perceived victimization.

For example, House Republicans seemed to argue that if the outcomes of Google search results for political topics did not include an equal amount of links to “right wing” and “left wing” publications, then that was unfair, and possibly open to governmental redress.

Google, on the other hand, has said there are rules to rankings, and then different publications, sites, and stories are given attention according to their merits on that scale. Should a 14-source New York Times story published an hour ago be ranked lower than a Breitbart aggregation about the same topic published yesterday? Or, in reverse, should a Huffington Post writethrough of a Wall Street Journal investigation get preferential treatment?

As I’ve put it before: “[Google search results] might not be a ‘free’ marketplace of ideas, but it is a marketplace with fairly well-known and nonpartisan rules. If right-wing sites aren’t winning there, maybe Google isn’t the problem.”

Here’s what Pichai cannot say: The “mainstream media” is far better resourced and its ideals of informational quality are much closer to the ones that Google’s machine rankings prefer. Mainstream media organizations have tens of thousands of skilled journalists. The organizations that Republicans compare the New York Times to are a fraction of the size, have far less training in the field, and oftentimes don’t even aspire to journalistic norms. The right wing media ecosystem has grown tremendously, but—with important exceptions—not through the kind of fact-based reporting that mainstream media has long valued.

Without the ability to simply lay that out, for obvious political reasons, Pichai could not realistically respond to the Republican attacks.

While Republicans looked for a simple and dumb conspiracy of Googlers plotting against them, Google’s actual unrivaled corporate power—and halting attempts at creating principles to wield it—went nearly undiscussed. Serious policy changes barely got a breath of mention, in part because what would small government, free market ideology say the Federal government should do to Google, anyway?

So, another day, another hearing, another lost opportunity to truly reckon with the power of the tech companies in everyday life, in the US and abroad.

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21 hours ago
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That PayPal Trojan story is stupid and a waste of everyone's time

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Another mostly pointless Android security scare that probably doesn't apply to you or anyone you know.

Some of us woke up to what seemed like a serious security scare for a lot of Android users this morning.

First detected by ESET in November 2018, the malware combines the capabilities of a remotely controlled banking Trojan with a novel misuse of Android Accessibility services, to target users of the official PayPal app.

This story was accompanied by a scary video, which demonstrated this rogue app "watching" you log in to PayPal and then copying your process to log in. What makes this particularly scary looking is the way it appears to bypass 2-Factor Authentication and then sending money on your behalf. Without the user ever knowing, this app was logging in for you and sending your money away. Terrifying stuff, right? Well, there's a catch. Actually, there are several.

The first, as pointed out by the original team reporting this trojan (emphasis mine):

the malware is masquerading as a battery optimization tool, and is distributed via third-party app stores.

Ok, so this rogue battery optimization tool isn't available through Google Play at all. Check. Now, when the app is installed how does it do its thing? Does this app really operate in the background with the user none the wiser? Well, not exactly. Again, from the original team reporting on this (emphasis mine):

this request is presented to the user as being from the innocuous-sounding "Enable statistics" service.

That's right, you get a permission request when this rogue app is first run. And that "innocuous-sounding"' permission includes the words Observe your actions in the description in great big bold letters. Not exactly a red flashing warning, but like any permission you have to choose to enable it. If you don't, the app can't do anything.

So once this rogue battery app is installed from a third-party source and you blindly give it access to your phone by not reading your permissions, does it just lurk in the background waiting to strike? No. Once again, from the original team reporting on this (emphasis mine):

If the official PayPal app is installed on the compromised device, the malware displays a notification alert prompting the user to launch it.

You get a notification telling you to log in to PayPal from something that isn't PayPal, and you just do it? Really? That's not how any of this works.

So to recap, this Super Serious Android Trojan:

  • Was not in the Google Play Store, so you have to download from a random store and enable Unknown Sources to even install it.
  • Asks for a fairly unusual permission as soon as you open it.
  • Immediately gives you a notification asking you to log in to PayPal.

Individually, these are warning flags. Together, this is basically someone sending you a letter in the mail asking you to let them know when you won't be home so they can rob you.

This isn't a real security threat. At all. Though what is a real security threat is PayPal still relying on nothing but a text message delivery for Two-Factor Authentication. It's 2018, folks. Get a real token system.

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21 hours ago
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Nasa's IceSat space laser makes height maps of Earth

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One of the most powerful Earth observation tools ever put in orbit is now gathering data about the planet.
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21 hours ago
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Chuck and Nancy Take It to Trump


It was Chuck Schumer’s smirk that said it all.

The Senate minority leader had just lobbed an honest-to-goodness zinger at President Trump. Inside the Oval Office. With the television cameras running.

“When the president brags that he won North Dakota and Indiana, he’s in real trouble,” Schumer cracked to the press in the middle of a White House meeting on government funding between the president and Democratic congressional leaders that had quickly devolved in a verbal brawl in full view of reporters. His quip pulled off, the New York Democrat then peered around the room with a look of supreme self-satisfaction and a smile that would stay on his face until the end of the extraordinary, if wholly unproductive, summit.

The substance of the retort—a silly diversion about the details of last month’s elections—was less important than its context: Here was Schumer, along with House Democratic leader and Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi, confronting Trump to his face in a fight for all to see. The president was pressing Democrats to fund his prized Southern border wall, threatening to shut down the government if a year-end spending bill did not contain the $5 billion downpayment he was demanding. Pelosi and Schumer could have stuck to the diplomatic pleasantries typical for these pre-negotiation photo-ops, issuing vague promises of collegiality through tight-lipped grimaces. But they took it to Trump instead.

The public bickering that ensued was reminiscent of another bipartisan meeting at the White House nearly a year ago, when Trump convened a remarkable and unplanned negotiation with members of Congress over immigration policy. But this confrontation between the president, Pelosi and Schumer carried more weight, offering a preview of the next two years when Democrats will have the House majority and a dominant seat at the negotiating table.

It also illustrated the differences in style between the two veteran Democrats who have forged a close and productive relationship as they’ve worked to keep their party unified in Trump’s Washington. It was Pelosi who engaged Trump first, baiting the president with a reference to “the Trump shutdown” that could result from a stalemate over wall funding. “A what?” the president replied, as if he couldn’t hear her. “Did you say Trump?”

Pelosi has led House Democrats for 16 years. Her strength, however, is not in public messaging but in backroom negotiating. From George W. Bush to Barack Obama and now to Trump, Pelosi has confronted presidents of both parties in the Oval Office over every issue imaginable, and some of those meetings are now the stuff of legend. But those historic moments are always talked about, recalled, often leaked—never actually seen.

Sparring with Trump in public, Pelosi more than held her own. She told him directly, “You will not win” and repeatedly shot down his cocksure pronouncements that a bill with wall funding could pass the House. Yet after a few minutes going back and forth with the president, she tried to shift the talks back to her comfort zone, where she thought they’d be all along: in private. “I don’t think we should have a debate in front of the press on this,” Pelosi told Trump. “Let us have our conversation and we can meet with the press again.”

Schumer, on the other hand, is a different animal entirely; he’s a man about whom it is famously said, “The most dangerous place in Washington is between Chuck Schumer and a TV camera.” And the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with a Republican president at the White House is one he seized with gusto.

As Pelosi and Trump went at it, Schumer waited impatiently for his chance to speak. When it was his turn, he promptly reminded the president that the Washington Post had given him “a whole lot of Pinocchios” for constantly misstating the cost of the border wall. “We do not want to shut down the government,” Schumer told Trump. “You have called 20 times to shut down the government.”

Both Pelosi and Schumer left the White House without an agreement, but with their political standing improved. For Pelosi, the confrontation and her unwillingness to bend on the wall should help her solidify support among Democrats for a return to the speakership next month. She told reporters she had held her tongue in the meeting, and then word slipped out later in the afternoon, to Politico, that she belittled Trump’s “manhood” when she met with fellow Democrats upon returning to the Capitol.

Schumer got his chance to prove his mettle to progressives who see him as too hungry to strike a deal and too willing to shield the more centrist members of his caucus from a political fight.

And if Pelosi baited Trump into starting the fight, it was Schumer who baited the president into uttering the words Democrats most wanted to hear him say. “You wanna know something?” Trump said toward the end of the meeting. “I’ll take it. You know what I will say? Yes. If we don't get what we want one way or the other whether it’s through you or through military or anyone you want to call, I will shut down the government.”

“Ok. Fair enough,” Schumer replied. “We disagree.”

Trump went on: “I’ll tell you what. I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck. The people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country. I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I'm not going to blame you.”

As the president bestowed Democrats with a political gift, Schumer sat with his hands clasped and his head nodding. The cameras were running, and the smile never left his face.

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22 hours ago
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Trump Keeps Invoking Terrorism to Get His Border Wall

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Troops on the ground. Drones in the sky. Aggressive terror-related investigations in the United States. Donald Trump and Barack Obama differ significantly on style, but not much separates them when it comes to counterterrorism policy. Except, however, on at least one issue: immigration.

The “migrant caravan” of Trump’s dark pre-midterm warnings has stopped short of the United States. Much of it now occupies a sprawling encampment of asylum-seekers just over the border in Tijuana. Ahead of November’s congressional elections, the president repeatedly characterized the group as a national-security threat, at one point asserting the presence of “unknown Middle Easterners” that journalists on the ground could not corroborate.

As the border issue flared again in a combative press conference Trump held with Democratic congressional leaders on Tuesday, he threatened to shut down the government if lawmakers wouldn’t fund a border wall, asserting: “People are pouring into our country including terrorists. We caught 10 terrorists over a short period of time.”

“We need a wall,” he added.   

Trump is the first president of the post-9/11 era to so firmly link terrorism to immigration, says Peter Neumann, a professor of security studies at King’s College London who is writing a book about Trump’s counterterrorism policy. “I think this is the single most important difference between Trump and his predecessors—the extent to which he conflates Islam, immigration, and terrorism.”

[Read: Trump’s reality show in the Oval Office]

Trump’s “10 terrorists” claim is drawn from Department of Homeland Security statistics from last year. The figures stated that an average of 10 individuals per day who showed up on terrorist watchlists were prevented from entering the United States by land, sea, or air. The numbers the president invoked to insist again on a wall at the southern border refer to stops at all the borders—and they also show that the post-9/11 screening systems are likely already preventing suspected terrorists from entering the country.  

Trump was drawing the connection between immigration and terrorism well before the migrant caravan became an issue. In the summer of 2016, shortly after Omar Mateen killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando in an attack that the Islamic State claimed responsibility for, Trump delivered a speech on “immigration, terrorism, and national security.”

Mateen was born in New York state after his parents left Afghanistan for the United States. Still, then-candidate Trump said, “The bottom line is that the only reason the killer was in America in the first place was because we allowed his family to come here.” He went on: “We are importing radical Islamic terrorism into the West through a failed immigration system.”

The logic made a kind of intuitive sense. The perpetrators of the worst terrorist attack the United States has ever seen, which killed nearly 3,000 people on September 11, 2001, were all Middle Eastern nationals, most of them on tourist visas. As Trump also noted in his speech, the Boston Marathon bombers had received asylum in the United States.

Is there actually a link between immigration and Islamist terrorism, though? Since 9/11, numerous studies have found the terrorist threat to the U.S. to be largely homegrown. New America, for example, observed in September, “Every jihadist who conducted a lethal attack inside the United States since 9/11 was a citizen or legal resident.” In the think tank’s database of people either charged with committing or killed while committing jihadist crimes in the U.S. from 2001 to 2018, 84 percent were citizens or permanent residents.

[Read: Where America’s terrorists actually come from]

This is largely because terrorism is rare in general. But it is also partly a function of George W. Bush–era immigration and border-security efforts. The authors of The 9/11 Commission Report observed in 2010, “In the decade before September 11, 2001, border security—encompassing travel, entry, and immigration—was not seen as a national security matter,” and “Al-Qaeda had been systematically but detectably exploiting weaknesses in our border security since the early 1990s.” After those attacks, the administration threw billions of dollars at border security, dramatically tightened visa screening, made passports more secure, and instituted systems for gathering information about travelers before they reached the United States.

In the long term, those efforts represented “a real success for the Bush administration,” says Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who wrote the book The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration, and Security Since 9/11. Early measures did involve abuses, including the broad profiling of Muslims and Middle Easterners. But Alden said the administration was embarrassed by those errors. “What the Bush administration tried very hard to develop, and was ultimately quite successful at developing, was much more targeted systems that allowed you to try to identify concerns based on the particular history of the individuals as opposed to broad characteristics like their nationality or religion,” he says.

In other words, border security is an important component of counterterrorism—but in the United States, that part of the problem was already largely solved before Trump’s tenure.

This is notably different from Europe, where terrorists, including foreigners, did indeed exploit lax border security to travel to and from Syria, and around Europe, ahead of the Paris and Brussels attacks in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Systems for processing asylum seekers and refugees really were overwhelmed at European borders at the height of the migration crisis, in 2014 and 2015. And there really have been asylum seekers involved in attacks in Europe—although there, too, the majority of plots have not involved refugees or asylum seekers.

[Read: Trump’s selective responses to terror]

During his campaign, Trump promised a “complete and total shutdown” on Muslims entering the United States; with his original ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, he turned part of his vision into policy (and, as my colleague Uri Friedman noted at the time, singled out countries whose citizens had been responsible for exactly zero terrorism fatalities in the United States since 1975). After more than a year of litigation, the Supreme Court allowed a revised version of that ban to stand this summer.

Otherwise, so far, Trump’s linking of immigration and terrorism lives mostly in the president’s rhetoric. His administration’s counterterrorism strategy references border security, but not immigration specifically.

But Peter Neumann contends that the rhetoric itself can have consequences—especially when an attack happens. In such a case, Neumann said, “it’s almost guaranteed that Donald Trump will use that moment in order to fire up his base, to create a very polarizing situation, which is exactly the opposite of what a president should do.”

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22 hours ago
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