Chris Young

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Facebook controls you

Social networking site Facebook has been in and out of the news over the past year, mostly over privacy issues that sparked the ire of users. The site has repeatedly changed privacy settings, provided user data to third party vendors through the use of “apps” and often failed to notify users of changes. Every time a controversy flares up, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg makes the relevant changes and apologizes to users for poor communication, or for “innovating too fast.” Trust us, they say, we only have your best interests in mind. What a lot of Facebook users don’t know, however, is that they may not. In fact, Facebook owns everything posted to the site. Just setting up an account signs over the legal rights to all of your photos, status updates, interests and “likes.” Forever. Conceivably, Facebook is legally free to do with this data whatever it wants. Perhaps you haven’t thought much about the implications of such a drastic mass surrender of privacy rights. But you can be sure that Zuckerberg has.
-Steve Spires

Cia software, flawed?

A lawsuit filed last December by software developer Intelligent Information Systems (IISi) could strip the CIA of its infamous predator drone software, the technological backbone of the U.S. precision bombing campaign in Pakistan. After IISi refused to submit to an expedited production schedule mandated by the CIA, former partner Netezza allegedly stole the software. However, more shocking than the allegation that drone software was stolen is the allegation that it simply does not work. IISi has repeatedly claimed that its software is flawed, causing misses of up to 40 feet. In the words of IISi chief technology officer Richard Zimmerman, “My reaction was one of stun, amazement that they want to kill people with my software that doesn’t work.” While it remains to be seen whether the CIA will be forced to explore software alternatives, it’s troubling that drone missiles could be routinely missing their targets by up to 40 feet (think the length of a house) while using stolen software. –
Peter Harrison

Earth’s lost cousin

In September 2010, the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii announced the discovery of the first “Goldilocks” planet. For a planet to be considered “just right” to allow for the possibility of life, it must have some very particular characteristics. First, it has to be the appropriate distance from its parent star to allow for liquid water on its surface. It also has to have an atmosphere large enough to contain life, but small enough to avoid overheating due to a runaway greenhouse effect. The Goldilocks planet is named Gilese 581 g, after its parent star, 20 light years (120 trillion miles) away from Earth. To confirm that Gilese 581 g is a true Goldilocks planet, scientists will now need some knowledge of its density and its atmosphere. But its mere existence is encouragement for those in pursuit of extra-terrestrial life and for other similar Goldilocks planets in our Milky Way, which is more than 100,000 light years across and contains at least 200 billion stars.
-Seth Shamon

A loss for human rights

The case of
Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum has been met with regret by many international human rights lawyers. The New York-based Second Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling declared that laws allowing for prosecution of international law on U.S. soil are not applicable to violations by corporations abroad because liability is limited to natural persons — not corporations. It is ironic considering that corporations have been granted all the rights and privileges of an individual under U.S. law since 1886. Now, as the dissenting judge in the 2-1 ruling noted, “one who earns profits by commercial exploitation […] can successfully shield those profits from victims’ claims for compensation simply by taking the precaution of conducting the heinous operation in corporate form.” The ruling in this case ended the Nigerian plaintiffs’ attempts to bring Shell Oil to justice for its alleged involvement in the rape, murder and torture of Nigerians opposed to the company’s oil exploration. It also, however, has implications for companies’ actions, like Unocal’s use of forced labor in Burma, Firestone’s use of child labor in Liberia and Coca Cola’s use of paramilitaries in assassinating union leaders in Colombia. The ruling is likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court. -Mike Lally