Senators grill tech companies about Russian interference, but don’t get very far

A bipartisan group of Senators grilled tech companies today about how Russians used their platforms to interfere in the 2016 election, calling on them to better monitor abuse in the future. A subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary committee challenged top lawyers from Facebook, Google, and Twitter on the potential use of shell companies to hide advertiser identities, the malicious use of bot networks, and the limited capabilities of existing ad review policies. But despite the bipartisan appeal of criticizing the tech companies in public, it’s not clear what, if anything, will come of the critiques.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter sent top legal officials to Washington this week for a series of hearings about Russian interference in 2016 election. In prepared statements, which leaked yesterday, executives pledged their commitment to fighting foreign interference while disclosing that the problem was bigger than they had previously admitted.

Senators asked the lawyers a wide range of questions, largely focused on Facebook. In perhaps the most pressing exchange of the day, Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana asked Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch how the company could possibly keep track of all five million advertisers on its platform. “You don’t have the ability to know who every one of those advertisers is, do you, today?” Kennedy said. “Right now? Not your commitment — I’m asking about your ability.”

In one of the more heated exchanges of the day, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) pressed Stretch on why the company had allowed the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency to buy political ads using Russian currency. “How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them in the personal connections with its user, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads, paid for in rubles, were coming from Russia?”

Franken called on Facebook to reject the use of foreign currencies to buy political ads. But Stretch demurred. “It’s relatively easy for bad actors to switch currencies,” Stretch said. “So it’s a signal, but not enough.”

In its prepared testimony, Facebook disclosed that 126 million people had been served content from Russia-linked pages between January 2015 and August 2017. Of that, 29 million people saw it because they had liked one of the Russia-linked pages that Facebook has subsequently removed. The rest saw the posts after they spread organically thanks to likes, comments, and shares that propelled them forward virally. Facebook also deleted 170 Instagram accounts, which posted about 120,000 pieces of content.

Google disclosed that a Kremlin-linked account spent $4,700 on advertising on YouTube, posting 1,108 English-language videos to 18 YouTube channels. The videos generated 309,000 views during the election cycle.

But despite senators’ raised voices, they got little out of tech company executives beyond their prepared statements, other than a commitment to continue working with senators. Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat, asked: “In an election where a total of about 115,000 votes would have changed the outcome, can you say that the false and misleading propaganda people saw on your Facebook didn’t have an impact on the election?” Stretch responded: “We’re not well positioned to know why any one person or an entire electorate voted the way that it did.”

Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill, known as the Honest Ads Act, that would require new disclosures for online political advertising modeled on requirements for print and broadcast media. During today’s hearing, one of the authors, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, asked tech executives whether they would commit to supporting her bill. None would.

In an effort to get ahead of federal regulation, tech companies have announced plans to regulate themselves. Mark Zuckerberg laid out a nine-point plan for limiting foreign actors’ ability to influence elections, including new requirements that political ads be labeled and available for public inspection. Twitter announced it would build a “transparency center” where political ads bought on its platform can be publicly viewed.

Today’s hearing was the first of three this week for the tech companies. Tomorrow, the executives will appear before the Select Intelligence Committees of the House and Senate, where they are expected to face similar questions.

The Cary42 is a gorgeous wooden arcade box for the extremely wealthy

We’ve covered Swedish designer Love Hultén’s magnificent retro gaming machines plenty of times before on The Verge, and his latest effort — the Cary42 two-player arcade console / attaché case — continues his work of merging handmade wooden hardware with retro gaming.

The Cary42 is best described as a larger, upgraded version of Hultén’s original R-Kaid-R console, that doubles the controls to allow two players to enjoy classic games together. It features a 12-inch LCD display, stereo speakers, a 12V DC Power supply, and 16GB of storage preinstalled with 100 games (but its expandable over USB, so you can add as many emulated games as you can fit.)

The default version of the Cary42 is made out of solid American walnut, and features black and white arcade buttons. But Hultén says that he’s happy to discuss further customizations, including custom mother-of-pearl inlay, should you be into that sort of thing.

Sadly though, it’s probably not likely that you’ll have to make that kind of decision, since Hultén is only making 50 Cary42s. Oh, and each one costs €2,599 (roughly $3026.24), not including shipping or VAT, which means that it’ll probably be restricted to the truly wealthy.

Instagram just got a needed language update

Languages written from right to left are having an Instagram moment. 

The photo-and-video social app now supports languages read from right to left, including Hebrew, Farsi, and Arabic. The new languages will first be available on Android devices.

Instagram already has more than two dozen language options including Chinese, Greek, Turkish, and Swedish, but those are are all read left to right, like English. Now the app will be compatible with  languages written and read in the other direction.

Posts have already had Arabic and other right-to-left languages in the captions and on hashtags, but now the language settings will include that option within the framework of the app, so phrases like “Stories” and “Likes” will be in those languages.

 Welcome to Instagram, Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew.

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Schlage adds Android compatibility to its Sense Touchscreen Deadbolt

Why it matters to you

Keeping your home safe should be as seamless a process as possible, which is why the new Schlage Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt comes with an Alexa integration.

Keeping your home safe shouldn’t be a struggle, and luckily, Schlage agrees. The Allegion brand has nearly a century of experience in creating locks and other door hardware, and now, it’s combining that heritage with Amazon Alexa’s technology, making it easier than ever to protect your home — with your voice. In February, Schlage announced the new provision of voice activation accessibility to its Schlage Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt via Amazon Alexa, which means you can use your Amazon Echo (or other Alexa-enabled device) to lock or check the status of your door. And now, just in time for Halloween, the company has integrated the Schlage Sense Smart Deadbolt with Amazon Alexa as well.

This latest update comes a few months after Schlage unveiled its new Android compatibility for its Schlage Sense smart lock. Thanks to the free Android app (available to users through the Google Play store and Apple users through the App Store), owners of this deadbolt can create and delete up to 30 unique access codes from their phones, schedule access codes so guests can enter only at specified times, update their lock’s settings, and check on battery life. Additionally, if you buy the Schlage Sense Wi-Fi Adapter, and add it to your Wi-Fi network, you’ll be able to control your Schlage Sense lock from anywhere in the world via your smartphone.

“Smart home technology is all about incrementalism, whether it’s consumer adoption or brands integrating with mega-technology platforms,” said Rob Martens, futurist and vice president of strategy and partnerships at Allegion. “Schlage is committed to providing the ultimate security and convenience.”

Thanks to the new Amazon Alexa skill (which now applies to both the Schlage Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt as well as the Schlage Sense Smart Deadbolt), you can easily lock and check the status of your door by way of Alexa-enabled devices or the Alexa app. You can also create a multi-step routine, connecting your smart lock to other smart devices throughout your home. With a single command, you’ll be able to lock the door, turn out the lights, and turn up the heater.

With either Schlage lock, you won’t have to worry about carrying around a key (which also means you won’t have to worry about it getting lost or stolen). Simply enter your preset access code numbers in order to unlock your door. When you’re ready to leave or have decided on staying in for the night, Schlage offers one-touch locking functionality.

The Connect Deadbolt also features an anti-pick shield that promises to protect the lock against tampering, and offers the ability to contain multiple unique codes that users can tailor to specific days and times, making it easy to track movement in and out of the home. And if someone unauthorized does try to make an entrance, the Schlage connected lock offers three unique alarm modes that are designed to sense vibrations at the door, and will immediately alert customers with an alarm.

You can get a Schlage Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt on Amazon.com, and connect it to the company’s smart assistant for a well-protected smart home.

The Schlage Sense Smart Deadbolt is now available for $229 in select Apple, Lowe’s and Home Depot stores and online, whereas the Schlage Sense Wi-Fi Adapter can be found on the THD, Lowes, Amazon, and Build.com websites for $70.

Update: Schlage adds Alexa compatibility to its Sense Smart Deadbolt. 

Editor’s Recommendations

NASA engineers create a parachuting pumpkin for their annual Halloween contest

It’s that time of year again when NASA scientists compete to make the most creative, the most technologically challenging, and the most impressive pumpkin display of them all. This year, pumpkins spun, floated, and sailed like ships in the seventh annual (unofficial) pumpkin carving contest at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The rules of the pumpkin carving contest are simple, says Pete Waydo, deputy section manager of spacecraft mechanical engineering at JPL and a judge of the contest. Contestants can pick up their pumpkins a week before the competition and start assembling their displays, but only on the day of the contest can they actually work on their pumpkins — in just one hour. Other than that, Waydo says, “There are no rules.”

The competition is a way for scientists to let off steam — by doing more science, Waydo says. “If you look at the entries over the years, you’ll see a lot of creative use of the kind of technologies that we use in research for spaceflight — applied to the pumpkins,” he says. And over the past few years, the competition has only gotten steeper. “It has also forced people to really up their games, so we get some really intense, crazy, off-the-hook creations,” he says.

The winner this year is a pirate pumpkin ship floating on a sea of dry ice meant to represent Europa, Jupiter’s icy ocean moon. The ship represents a 19th century trading vessel called a clipper ship, a play on the name for NASA’s mission to investigate whether Europa is capable of sustaining life: Europa Clipper.

Another pumpkin in the contest spoke to the fears of many at JPL’s Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group. That’s the team of people tasked with ensuring that Earth’s microbes don’t travel to other worlds and that alien microbes don’t find their way here. Their pumpkin display is meant to resemble the NASA InSight lander, which is scheduled to launch next year. But here, it’s covered in terrifying, gourd-like spores from Earth.

This flower-shaped pumpkin is an homage to NASA’s starshade, a space-based device intended to make taking photos of exoplanets easier. It’s just a concept right now, but it’s designed to work with space telescopes to shut out distracting starlight and let the dim light of an exoplanet shine through.

If Martians were to collect the wreckage left behind by human explorations of Mars, it would look something like this pumpkin: sticking out is the wheel from the 1997 Sojourner Rover, gadgets from previous missions like the Mars Phoenix lander, “and a bunch of other odds and ends,” Waydo says. There are also models of sample tubes planned for the upcoming Mars2020 mission, to investigate whether microbes ever lived on Mars.

One of Waydo’s favorite pumpkins was created by a team of scientists specializing in entry, descent, and landing of spacecraft. These are the experts on entering Mars’ atmosphere, and landing safely on its surface, Waydo says. The team attached a parachute to their pumpkin, and hovered it over a blower. “It was like one of those indoor skydiving places,” Waydo says. “You could hang the pumpkin there on the parachute and it would free-fly indefinitely there.”

Video courtesy of Peter Waydo, NASA/JPL-Caltech

Of course, these are professional scientists and engineers, so don’t be discouraged by your own orange, snaggle-toothed creation. But, if you want to start prepping for a more impressive pumpkin next year, NASA has some tips.

Here’s how much better Snapchat lenses are on the iPhone X

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You’d totally do it for the Snap if all your lenses looked like this.

Look, I’m impressed with what app developers and third-party partners have created for Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat using the middling front-facing cameras of most phones — but it’s about to get way more interesting.

Apple’s iPhone X and its TrueDepth camera is about to transform these lenses (or filters) we know and love into something even more powerful and, potentially, enriching.

The Apple iPhone X TrueDepth Camera is powering some pretty impressive Snapchat lenses.

The Apple iPhone X TrueDepth Camera is powering some pretty impressive Snapchat lenses.

Image: LANCE ULANOFF/MASHABLE

Apple’s TrueDepth Camera is a bit of a misnomer since the technology, which sits in the notched-out space on the iPhone X’s spectacular OLED screen, is not just a camera, it’s a collection of technologies. 

Included in that quarter-inch by 1.5-inch iPhone X dark space is a 7 MP front-facing camera, a dot projector, infrared camera, and flood illuminator, all of which work together to give the iPhone X the ability to see your face in three dimensions. 

The camera marries that information with a live picture of you and then uses augmented reality algorithms and the iPhone X A11 Bionic CPU to create a symphony of real-time facial special effects.

I will never wear this in public. Only on Snapchat.

I will never wear this in public. Only on Snapchat.

Image: LANCE ULANOFF/MASHABLE

No, I did not really paint my face, it just looks that way.

No, I did not really paint my face, it just looks that way.

Image: LANCE ULANOFF/MASHABLE

In these early days and as I tested the iPhone X for my monster review, the utility of the TrueDepth camera was limited to a few crucial and fun features. There’s Face ID, which is the iPhone X’s ability to identify my face out of all others and let me use it to unlock the phone with nothing more than a glance, the ability to take Portrait Mode selfies, and the wildly entertaining animojis, iMessage character animations driven entirely, and in perfect sync, by your face. 

Most intriguing, though, for a Snapchat fan like myself was the special preview I got of a Snapchat update that takes full advantage of the TrueDepth Camera’s ability to see every curve, line, and movement of your face.

Snap Inc. is excited about the new technology. A company spokesperson told me that the lenses I’ve tested are more realistic thanks to faster and more accurate tracking.

In this very limited Snapchat Beta app, I got exactly four lenses: Luchador face paint, what looks like a porcelain mask, feathers with a jewel tiara, and a flower wreath.

Each lens hugs my face, expressions and head movements to an extraordinary degree. For example, I can still see the lines on my face through the green luchador lens, giving it the appearance of real face paint.

I can wink and the lens winks with me.

I can wink and the lens winks with me.

Image: lance ulanoff/mashable

The flowers look real, the guy below them? Meh.

The flowers look real, the guy below them? Meh.

Image: LANCE ULANOFF/MASHABLE

The Snapchat app beta lenses also read the room light to give these filters an almost unprecedented reality. 

Snap told me that realism comes courtesy of facial depth data provided by the TrueDepth camera, which personalizes each lens to the contours of my face.

What Snapchat still can’t do is tell the difference between my face and someone else’s. It’s combining object recognition with depth information to draw the lenses on each face, but it will do the same thing for any face-shaped object. At one point I had it put one of the new lenses on an Einstein robot toy. 

Einstein likes the new Snapchat lenses, too.

Einstein likes the new Snapchat lenses, too.

Image: Lance ulanoff/mashable

These depth-information-powered Snapchat lenses are not perfect. The TrueDepth Camera doesn’t work if your head is too close. I also noticed almost as much judder (the lens shifting in my face as I moved) on these lenses as I did on ones I’ve used in Instagram and the full version of Snapchat.

Even so, as more Apple developers get their hands-on Apple’s face-tracking configuration in its ARKit API and start to test it with the Apple iPhone X and its TrueDepth Camera, we’ll see more, never-before imagined ways of bringing our own faces into third-party applications. It’s going to open entirely new vistas of application interaction.

As Apple’s global VP of marketing told me recently, when it comes to AR, “pretty much every new developer is thinking about incredible ways to do things that they could never do before.”

Stay tuned for the full Snapchat update, but remember, your lens experience might not be as good without the iPhone X and its TrueDepth camera.

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Ford’s Drift Stick offers some manual control in an electronic world

Modern cars are packed with so many electronics that even parking brakes have been affected, to the disappointment of driving enthusiasts who need that a traditional hydraulic brake to drift a car on a track like they’re in a video game.

But Ford says it has a solution with its Drift Stick, a lever connected to the electronic brake on the Focus RS that enables drivers to drift the car – provided they know how to drift a car. It’s meant to simulate what an old fashioned hydraulic handbrake would do: lock the rear wheels and allow you to control a slide. To show that, Ford filmed a video where rally driver Ken Block (from the Gymkhana series) takes a car out for a drive with the Stick on a closed track.

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Block was consulted on the Drift Stick, which was developed by Ford’s Performance division, and the modification integrates with the existing electronic brake, anti-lock system, and the drive modes (including a Drift Mode that is programmed to direct power to all four wheels as necessary) that are already built into the Focus RS.

Ford says it cleanly integrates onto the car’s console and plugs into the diagnostics port, and also requires far less effort to use than a conventional hydraulic brake. For track enthusiasts who are interested in evaluating their driving skills, performance data can be downloaded via a USB port on the stick, maybe in hopes that one day they’ll be able to drive more like Block.

The company maintains the Drift Stick should only be used on the track, likely rather than your local abandoned department store’s parking lot. The Drift Stick will be available to order, according to Ford, on December 1 for $999 through authorized Ford Performance dealers.

Opinion: iPhone X? Nah. Here’s why I’m recommending the iPhone 6S

iPhone X? Pshaw. You don’t need it. Heck, most people don’t need it. In fact, when a friend asked me recently what he should buy, I pointed him toward a different phone. Not the iPhone 8, nor even the iPhone 7, which are both damn good options.

I pointed him toward the iPhone 6S. I’m not crazy, and I’m not alone. Digital Trends’ Senior Editor Caleb Denison bought a new iPhone last month: An iPhone 6S, knowing full well not one but two new iPhones were imminent. Here’s why.

Apple as a company has been on a tear recently, with gargantuan profits fueled by continued demand and increased sales of its flagship product — the iPhone line of smartphones. Like any commodity, the company unveils tiny tweaks to its product every year to juice sales without really changing the overall experience. This year’s Levi’s are a lot like last year’s Levi’s, and a new line of healthier modern options from Campbell’s (like Black Bean with Red Quinoa – yum!) doesn’t affect availability of classics like chicken noodle soup. For the most part, today’s iPhones are a lot like last year’s iPhones.

You’re easily looking at a $1,500 bill – all to impress your friends with your top of the line, cutting edge phone.

I know, the iPhone X changes that paradigm. It’s got a stunning new screen with OLED technology, meaning the blacks are even blacker and the colors are as vibrant as that neon ski jacket you thought was cool back in 1987. It has a new feature that unlocks the phone by scanning your face, which should simplify life (although our review notes it’s not as consistent as we’d like it to be). The iPhone X sounds great. Smartphone savant Julian Chokkattu called it “the breath of fresh air Apple fans were waiting for.”

But do YOU need it?

For one thing, you’ll pay an incredible premium, largely for the fancy OLED screen in the iPhone X. The iPhone starts at $1,000, and the higher storage model sells for $1,150. Toss in the new case you’re going to need, the wireless charger you’re going to want, some taxes, and you’re easily looking at a $1,500 bill – all to impress your friends with your top of the line, cutting edge phone.

“I want this,” a friend asked me a week or two ago. “I do … don’t I?”

iPhone X v iPhone 6S opinion 6s in hand

I told him he wanted new Levi’s (his old ones had a big hole in the crotch). But as an upgrade to his cracked iPhone 5, the iPhone 6S is a fantastic option. Consider for starters the fact that it’s less than half as much as the iPhone X. You can buy a 32GB model from Apple for $450. Given how long this form factor has existed, there’s a vast array of cases to choose from at far more affordable prices.

Cutting edge flagship phones from Apple, Samsung, LG, and Google are aimed at a certain crowd of technosnobs, elite power users that DO take 4K videos and  ONLY pay using NFC communication. For the bulk of Americans, those features and phones are neat to read about, but cheaper mainstream tech is just as useful. The iPhone 6S was itself a flagship phone just two years ago: It boosted battery life over earlier models and added the 3D Touch feature that Apple’s still working to get developers to support. You think these same developers are going to leap to support new features in the X that only a fraction of users will have access to in the next 12 months?

For the most part, today’s iPhones are a lot like last year’s iPhones.

Oh, and about all the new features you’ll be missing in the 7 and 8 and X? Meh, I say. Apple hasn’t really done much to transform its flagship product over the years. Yes, newer models are faster and more powerful, but the 6S was a damn good phone. The 7 looked identical, improved the camera in ways many users will never notice, and annoyed the hell out of most people by removing the headphone jack – an act of “courage” according  to Apple that many viewed as a slap in the face.

The iPhone 8 looks identical to the 6S, improved the camera in marginal ways many users will never notice, and again will annoy you by not having a headphone jack. Yes, it adds wireless charging, which is convenient. But at the end of the day, you’re probably fine plugging your phone into a cable on your nightstand, right?

iPhone X camera

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Besides, a great deal of the improved features and functionality come in software upgrades to iOS 10 and the new iOS 11, including futuristic stuff like the ARKit software everyone’s buzzing about. Certain features will not be supported on earlier models, of course, so you won’t be able to shoot in HEIF and HEVC format, but your photos will still be damn good. The iPhone is the world’s most popular camera for a reason, after all. You won’t be able to send Animojis to your friends, and I can only imagine how disappointed your friends will be about this.

Apple’s iOS 11 runs just great on that iPhone 6S you’re about to buy. It also runs on the 6, and the SE, and even on the iPhone 5S.

But I don’t you think you should buy a 5S. What are you, a luddite or something?

Editor’s Recommendations

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

NYC’s plan to finally kill the MetroCard

New York City is preparing to join London in the transportation future. 

Last week, the city’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announced a $573 million plan to replace its nearly 25-year-old MetroCard swiping system with a modernized payment program modeled after London’s. It will allow the city’s over 1.7 billion annual riders to waive a phone or card across a sensor, as opposed to swiping a flimsy card through a reader. 

The rollout of the system will begin in 2019. By 2023, the MTA plans to officially kill the MetroCard. 

The MTA awarded the contract to the company Cubic Transportation Systems, which was responsible for transitioning New York City from coins to MetroCards back in 1993. Now, riders will be able to ditch their cards and use phones, credit cards, and potentially other gadgets.

“They may use an Apple watch, a plastic credit card, and other future technologies as they come in,” Cubic Transportation Systems president Matt Cole told Mashable

Paying for the NYC subway will be like buying groceries in a store.

“Just in the same way you walk into Walgreens and pick up a bottle of water or a bag of nuts and use your ApplePay to pay for it — it’ll be the same experience on a subway or bus,” says Cole.

What’s more, Cubic recognizes that beyond 2023 people might be using new, unforeseen gadgets. To adapt to such technological evolution, Cubic will hand the MTA an “open architecture” software system, backed up to the cloud, that can be edited to allow new devices access.

“It’s quite well future-proofed,” says Cole. “Integrating them into the system is going to be fundamentally easier.”  

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For New Yorkers, this is a massive overhaul. MTA cards are flimsy and notorious for their unreliability at the worst times: When the cards don’t work, hustling commuters can get stuck behind people trying to swipe their stubborn cards through the turnstiles’ card reader.

In London, metro riders don’t need to bother with swiping, as they just tap or wave their phones or cards by a sensor.

“The benefit of the system in London is clear,” says Cole. “You can see the speed that people are moving through turnstiles. That convenience to the rider is huge.”  

But will New Yorkers be tapping or waving their phones by the turnstile sensor? Cole says the system requires no actual contact, “So it’s not really a tap.  Still, the phone needs to pass an inch or two from the sensor, and it has to be a “deliberate gesture,” explains Cole.

This massive transition to the London-style sensors will be incremental. If the MTA sticks to its schedule (insert joke here), the first phase will be implemented in 2019, allowing metro users to wave through 500 turnstiles and 600 buses, according to an MTA press release.

Cubic’s Cole is confident the overhaul will be on schedule.

“You’ll see the installation going on in 2019,” he says. “It won’t be long.” 

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