The Teens Who Hacked Microsoft’s Xbox Empire – And Went Too Far

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This article tells the story of a young man named David Pokora, a student at the University of Toronto who had a fascination for the inner workings of videogames, and mostly for the Xbox. Throughout his elementary school years, Pokora mastered the world of gaming and started to learn coding, which enabled him to do high level hacking at a very young age and pulling him into online hacking communities that were redefining what game consoles could do. He even managed to buy a development motherboard from a Wells Fargo tech manager in California, which allowed him to continue hacking Xbox systems as developers got rid of security flaws present in previous generations of consoles.

As Pokora and his circle of friends in Canada grew stronger in their hacking skills, they started stealing beta versions of unreleased software, angering the pros behind game development from who they started receiving messages of both anger and praise. Pokora’s actions, in his own perspective, were all in good will and just for fun. They involved tweaking codes here and there in order to modify small things one can do inside a game, like making characters jump into the clouds, fire different projectiles, and turn blue skies into rain. When he started selling hacks to gamers on Xbox live around 2009, he forgot about his commitment to fairness and started making thousands of dollars by providing gamers with hacks that could, for example, make Call of Duty soldiers fly, walk through walls, and sprint at abnormal speeds. With around $8,000 flowing in from paying customers on a busy night of gaming, Pokora had to hire employees to administer the madness of selling hacks.

Things started to get a more intense as Pokora partnered with another Australian gamer who lured him into invading the most private data of Epic, a North Carolina game development company. While reading Epic’s emails, they found out about an FBI investigation that was being launched on how their security had been breached and game software stolen. The investigation, however, quickly died down and the hackers thought they had gotten away with their first encounter with the law.

After other situations involving crimes such as breaking into the Microsoft headquarters and counterfeiting an Xbox prototype, Pokora and his friends ended up waist deep in secret investigations involving their names, which they did not know about until officials arrested them.

Pokora, after spending the entire winter of 2014 on his usual routine of hacking Xbox games, decided to take a trip down to Delaware to pick up a bumper he’d ordered online for his car. He brought his father to take turns behind the wheel as they did not plan to pay for any lodging in the U.S. and wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible. “There is a chance I might get arrested,” Pokora jokingly told his father as they left Toronto. As they crossed the border, he was detained and held in a private prison in Ohio until his court date, and was later sentenced to 18 months in prison for wire fraud, identity theft, and conspiracy to steal trade secrets. The people who worked with him over the span of five years also got their share legal predicaments. Nathan Leroux, the high school kid from Indiana who helped Pokora build the counterfeit prototype, faced 23 months in prison and escaped his house-arrest in the United States while awaiting trial, paying a friend to smuggle him into Canada. When officials surrounded him while trying to run across the bridge into Canadian soil, he pulled out a knife and stabbed himself multiple times.

All the people involved in these hacking cases have now left prison and returned to normal life at various levels of success. Pokora re enrolled at the University of Toronto upon his return to Canada. “Pokora still struggles to understand how his love for programming warped into an obsession that knocked his moral compass so far askew. “As much as I consciously made the decisions I did, I never meant for it to get as bad as it did,” he says. “I mean, I wanted access to companies to read some source code, I wanted to learn, I wanted to see how far it could go—that was it. It was really just intellectual curiosity. I didn’t want money—if I wanted money, I would’ve taken all the money that was there. But, I mean, I get it—what it turned into, it’s regrettable.””


NASA Is Getting Serious About an Interstellar Mission

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Thanks to NASA and some heavy research going on at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, we are getting closer and closer to launching a mission to interstellar space, meaning going outside our solar system and exploring deeper into the galaxy. The challenge surrounding the current research is to find a balance between the shielding necessary to get close and around the sun and keeping the aircraft light so it can travel at speeds of 100,000 miles an hour.

“To put this in perspective, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, the only spacecraft to make it to interstellar space, are currently around 13 billion miles away from Earth. It took those spacecraft nearly four decades to cover this distance, but NASA’s new interstellar probe could make it there in less than 15 years.”

An interstellar probe will answer a lot of questions scientists have regarding the shape of the heliosphere, which is the habitable little bubble that surround our solar system, and will be able to provide data on the transition from solar system to interstellar space. A dedicated mission outside the solar system would develop our understanding on the formation of our galaxy and our place in it, but there are actually no guarantees this mission will ever launch despite strong interest from scientists around the world. By the end of 2021, Johns Hopkins researches will submit their finished project to a national survey on heliophysics, which determines sun-related mission priorities for the next 10 years. A similar mission, set to have launched in the early 2000s, was suspended on the basis that the technology necessary was not ready, but scientists are now confident that they have a vision they can execute, and aim to have the technology created by 2030. Today, there is also the differential that private space companies are also investing in building rockets, which speeds up the process in tech development since scientists have more options on who will take their ideas into space. This might very well turn into a competition between NASA and other private space entities around the world.

How Pinterest Built One of Silicon Valley’s Most Successful Algorithms

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This Medium article talks about a modification Pinterest’s algorithm for its feed. It is interesting to see how tech companies are molding themselves based on true human reactions that come from their users, with the popular and necessary purpose of generating more tailored content. Pinterest has been facing some problems regarding bias and how they channel content towards their users based on two simple questions at the time they create their profiles: their age and gender. Pinterest, like other tech giants such as Facebook and Twitter, want interactions to be more humane and substantial.

The company’s main goal in its first year as a public company is to diversify its algorithm enough and grow beyond its user base of white suburban women. The most complex part of this process is to achieve this goal without alienating their loyal crowd and, at the same time, not stereotyping newcomers. The way Pinterest has been filtering content towards users in the past seems to not be satisfying users who see themselves as exceptions to the norm. “Internal data might tell you that welcoming male users with a bunch of macho images boosts activation rates. What it might not tell you is that some subset of male users is turned off, or even offended, by the implicit assumption that they’re into “man caves” or pictures of “beautiful celebrities” who are all women.”

What Pinterest is finally trying to do is placing users into finer subgroups using an algorithm that lets you modify its understanding of your browser data. A woman who just broke off her engagement might, for example, never come back to Pinterest after joining it for the first time and seeing an overflow of wedding dresses. The new algorithm, then, allows users to manually increase personalization by “turning off” subjects they are not interested in despite it being part of their online behavior. 

This update, however, goes against the general tech rule of not giving people too much power to personalize their own feeds, as that might actually decrease engagement. The idea is to provide users with a news feed that knows better than the users themselves what they want to see. Pinterest, on the other hand, admits that tech’s assumptions and bias might not always put out the best content for their users, and hopes that this new algorithm will reduce complaints and make the app work better for everyone. It is important to point out that this new feature is completely optional, but it will definitely filter out trash content for specific tribes.

Most Deepfakes Are Porn, and They’re Multiplying Fast

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Deeptrace is a startup that has been doing some analysis on deepfakes, a term used to define video content that has been manipulated or fabricated with artificial intelligence. The tool came to life in 2017 on Reddit, when the account posted pornographic clips with the faces of Hollywood actresses over those of the real performers. Since then, it’s been more and more possible to insert someone’s face onto the body of another person, making it look extremely high quality. Such practices have been a source of entertainment on YouTube, but have been concerning many lawmakers that are fearful of political disinformation. With the 2020 elections right around the corner, politicians have been inquiring how deepfakes would be able to affect results with fake news.

Deeptrance has found that 96% of deepfakes that are around have pornographic content in them. In fact, most people on Reddit, where the subgroup Deepfake sees a lot of activity every day, use the feature as a tool for personal harassment rather than with the goal of destabilizing elections. According to a researcher at Deeptrance, there are forums in which people ask for pornographic deepfakes of women they know, showing a clear example of invasion of sexual privacy and, in many instances, cases of revenge porn. Politicians are still, however, worried about the future of their positions.

“Last week, senators Marco Rubio, the Republican of Florida, and Mark Warner, the Democrat from Virginia, both of whom are members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote to Facebook and 10 other social media sites seeking more details of how they plan to detect and respond to malicious deepfakes. The legislators cautioned that fake clips could have a “corrosive impact on our democracy.”” The lawmakers’ concerns seem plausible when you look at the case of the Malayisian political aide who was arrested after a deepfake showed him having sex with the minister of economic affairs.

There are many other articles on WIRED about deepfakes, their origins and many variations.

Three Years of Misery Inside Google: The Happiest Company in Tech

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WIRED spoke with 47 current and former Google employees and put together a groundbreaking report on the hardships and obstacles the company has been facing since the 2016 election. The article presents us with an amazing amount of information that condemns Google’s internal practices in relation to the privacy of their employees, shining a light on the reality that not everyone working at the Silicon Valley tech giant abides to the integrity rules. Readers will learn about the “period of growing distrust and disillusionment inside Google that echoed the fury roaring outside the company’s walls,” reflecting the rapid growth of conservative right-wing politics we have been witnessing over the past few years. 

Google hosts many meetings with their employees that are specifically designed for them to openly discuss and oftentimes challenge executive decisions. It was in one of those meetings that James Damore heard about the idea of providing more job interviews and a more welcoming environment to female and underrepresented minority candidates that did not form a high percentage in the company’s demographics. For many people, including Damore, this idea went against its said purpose of inclusion and Google’s meritocratic hiring process, therefore ‘lowering the bar’ on hiring and showing discrimination toward men. He proceeded to write what later became a famous 10-page memo elaborating on his anti-diversity reasoning. After much pressure from other employees, executives decided to fire him due to his blatant attack on the company’s core principles.

The firing of Damore caused a huge commotion inside the company among conservatives that did not agree with the decision, and who decided to attack their co-workers by leaking information from Google’s hundreds of discussion forums. On a pro-Trump subreddit, a collage appeared that showed the full names, profile pictures, and Twitter bios of eight Google employees, most of them queer, transgender, or people of color. Each bio featured phrases that would make the employees instant targets for harassment: “polyamorous queer autistic trans lesbian” and “just another gay communist site reliability engineer.” Days after Damore was fired, a former tech editor at Breitbart shared the Reddit collage image with 2 million Facebook followers. “Look at who works for Google, it all makes sense now,” he wrote, as if these eight employees had been the ones who made the decision to fire Damore.

There have been many other instances in which Googlers were being named personally and started being publicly attacked for things they said in private company forums. The situation only got worse when it became clear that leakers were protected from being prosecuted by “protected concerted activity” and would not suffer any consequences even if they were discovered. The article was extremely interesting to read since it provided information about the inner workings of a tech giant and how typical principles of freedom of expression and Google’s famous “obligation to dissent” concept turned against them when they started being attacked from the inside. The company has been fighting a dirty war on the issue of diversity since the 2016 election. As WIRED wrote, “Googlers on both sides of the battle lines had become adept at working the refs—baiting colleagues into saying things that might violate the company’s code of conduct, then going to human resources to report them. But Googlers on the right were going further, broadcasting snippets of the company’s uncensored brawls to the world, and setting up their colleagues for harassment.”

Superfans: A Love Story

From “Star Wars” to “Game of Thrones,” fans have more power than ever to push back. But is fandom becoming as toxic as politics?

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This article talks about the power that fans and fandoms have across social media and develops a story about these groups of people that recognizes both the overly fanatic and the more humanistic side of the pop-culture landscape.

It starts out by telling the story of Wanna Thompson, a freelance music journalist, and how her tweet about Nicki Minaj needing to be more mature in her lyrics created such backlash from her fans that she lost her internship and had her daughter’s face photoshopped onto a gorilla’s body. After even getting a nasty DM from Nicki Minaj’s official twitter account, Thompson was baffled at how one single tweet could bring her so many problems. The author continues by citing other examples of fandom power such as the extreme anger expressed by fans of Game of Thrones at the series finale and Star Wars’ Last Jedi.  

Besides the fact that it is quite funny and absurd, I enjoyed reading this article as a reflection of the increased power of audiences and the importance to create content that satisfies them. The story was good in emphasizing that wide, varied audiences are shrinking while more dedicated and demanding fandoms are rising. A media company’s main concern these days should be to write plots that truly fulfill the expectations of fans, since “there are certain things where you should listen to them, because they’re smarter than maybe the super-high-up execs are going to think.” Essentially, if companies want to effectively profit from their creations, they should work on finding ways to gather audience input on the development of their stories.

Aspiring psychotherapist Michael Asuncion contributed to the article by stating that “there are three needs that all people have: they want to be seen, they want to be heard, and they want to be valued.” All these needs have clearly been channeled into their favorite movies, series, books and TV shows.

To Save Our Democracy, We Need To Save Local News

I found this short article really interesting because it relates to last week’s reading on local news platforms across the United States and how they are making efforts to stay alive by merging with each other. The article emphasizes the importance of local news not for the sole survival of American journalistic tradition, but for the significant role it plays in politics. Since American political dialogue focuses heavily on state and local power, it is essential to have efficient and transparent forms of local news, which have the ability to examine, check and challenge the discourse of their hometowns.

         Last week’s reading talked about the merging practices that are being carried out in order to revitalize the world of local news in a hostile environment where many platforms are shutting down due to lack of audience/revenue. However, the results shown by these tactics will probably not achieve the final goal of returning the public’s attention to their local politicians because the news being shown on local channels are mass-produced by parent companies, which appears to be an effort to simply keep newspapers’ names alive rather than their niche content.         This article argues that rebuilding our local news ecosystem will also strengthen the public’s trust in the media, since it is easier to connect with journalists reporting on substantial local matters rather than banal stories created for entertainment. It is important to make local politics more public so that the population can base their support on transparent information

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Silicon Valley Crisis of Conscience: Where Big Tech goes to ask big questions.

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I’ve had my eyes on this New Yorker article since it was published a few days ago. I’ve been reading it in chunks since ‘A Reporter at Large’ is a particularly long and dense type of New Yorker article. As I am finally done with it, I would like to comment on the importance of being aware that the tech world is controlled by humans. We all understand that our lives rely blindly on a small number of tech giants in Silicon Valley and other parts of the world, and that our information is being stored in order to keep the system going the way it is. What most people fail to grasp, however, is that this media empire is run by people that are just like us. It is run by parents, recent graduates, grandmas, widows, etc. 

The author talks about a retreat in Big Sur called Esalen, where top executives from Silicon Valley are known to go spend their weekend in relaxation, reflecting on their impact on the world. The article points to the massive wave of discontent that has washed over tech people over the past couple of years “as people recognize that their conventional success isn’t necessarily making the world a better place.” Given that reality, there has been a lot of fuss about how the human side of tech giants manifests itself as technology becomes a threat to employees’ mindfulness. Through yoga practices, mental exercises, aimless social interaction, and other activities, a portion of the world’s most powerful people are treated almost like misunderstood artists trying to find themselves. 

I find it really interesting to explore the inner workings of tech giants in reference to the human capital they hold, and seeing how their top executives deal with the major consequences of their work, be they good or bad. It intrigues me how easily people in power are able to accept headlines such as New York Magazine’s Trump Won Because of Facebook, and claims that the latter was fuelling the genocide in Myanmar. It is great to see how many employees revolt along with The Great Tech Backlash, and we can also look at another recent article from Wired on the Three years of misery inside Google to understand that better. At a time in which the technology industry is constantly targeted by governments and the rest of society, it is nice to see whether the people controlling it feel like heroes or villains.