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Motherboard by Tracey Lindeman, Kate Lunau, Emanue.. - 1d ago
A team of engineers in Montreal is building what they call the world’s first all-electric snowmobile, the TS2—a machine that can go from zero to 60 mph in three seconds and travels 100 kilometers (62 miles) on a single charge.
It comes at a time when snowmobile bans and strict regulations in national parks and forests in North America and Europe have either been enforced, or are under consideration. Motivated by environmental concerns, ski hills and recreational riders are also looking to ditch their loud, stinky machines for quieter, greener rides.
The young company behind the TS2, Taiga Motors, said it has built six machines as prototypes for testing and demoing, and is planning to get 20 production candidates out to beta-testing partners next winter. It opened pre-ordering up earlier this month with the aim of delivering most of the orders in time for winter of 2019–2020. The company has already collected a few hundred preorders, according to Bruneau, with hopes to get to 1,000 by the end of the summer. The retail price is $15,000—about the cost of a high-end gasoline snowmobile.
The electric TS2. Image: Taiga Motors
This competitive pricing was intentional, as a way to win customers who aren’t necessarily environmentally minded, co-founder Sam Bruneau told me on the phone. “We really believe in converting as many as possible from gasoline to electric.”
The good news for Taiga is that there are already a lot of people attuned to environmentalism—and electric vehicles, by extension—in the snowmobiling community. “A lot of people are turned off by the polluting nature of it,” Bruneau said.
Snowmobiles are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and noise pollution in some of the world's most beautiful, pristine natural reserves. That fact has led Yellowstone National Park, several other national parks, and a number of European countries to tightly regulate their usage over the years. In fact, the US National Park Service previously banned snowmobiles entirely in the early 2000s from Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks because of environmental and wildlife concerns—until snowmobile companies promptly sued the NPS and won a conditional reversal.
Bruneau and Taiga co-founders Gabriel Bernatchez and Paul Achard—all of whom are in their mid-20s—were blissfully unaware of the heated debate surrounding snowmobiling, and the business opportunity therein, while studying engineering at McGill University in Montreal. The three young men were on a team that won student engineering competitions for building electric race cars and later, an electric snowmobile.
They hadn’t been planning to go into the snowmobile business after graduating, but then the calls started coming in: Ski resorts wanted electric snowmobiles like the one they’d built to replace their traditional two- and four-stroke gasoline machines.
Snowmobiling has a reputation for being noisy and polluting. Image: Shutterstock
“We did more research and saw, woah, there really is a big demand for an electric snowmobile… The fleet market is pretty big. The recreational market is even bigger,” said Bruneau. That was in late 2015; almost three years and $2 million later, the company is currently touring its prototype at some of the most iconic ski hills in North America, including Squaw Valley at Lake Tahoe, Revelstoke and Whistler in British Columbia, and up in the hills and backcountry of Colorado.
It’s an impressive machine. It looks a lot like a regular snowmobile—two skis, a track, similar behavior—but it has no transmission, which is an asset, said Bruneau. Conventional snowmobiles’ continuously variable transmissions have a lot of downsides, from delayed engagement to jammed tracks.
“The electric motor changes a lot of things,” said Bruneau. “You can get really fast acceleration. You have really precise throttle control. It can do regenerative braking—you can recuperate a bunch of the energy that you’re using. If they want a faster torque response, or to set a certain top speed or maximum power, they can tune all that as well. That’s very new for a snowmobile user.”
It’s a connected vehicle too, equipped with sensors that can determine and automatically adjust for hill incline, weather conditions, and other environmental factors.
Bruneau said these features work in all kinds of conditions—even the most steep and uneven terrain—meaning the rider only has one input to manually control: the accelerator.
So far people seem to like the TS2. Staff at the Mont-Tremblant ski hill near Montreal tested it out last week. They playfully teased Taiga staff about the machine, questioning whether it could perform as well—or better—than the conventional two-stroke, Bruneau recounted. “They came back with big smiles on their faces and said, ‘We could get used to this.’”
Motherboard by Sophie Kleeman, Emanuel Maiberg - 2d ago
We’ll never know what, exactly, people a century ago thought 2018 was going to look like. Portable telephones? Sure. The downfall of American democracy? Who knows! It seems safe to assume, however, that they never thought it would involve an Australian man who goes by Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow, a defenseless transportation card, and a cyborg hand.
On Friday, Mr. Meow-Meow—apparently his legal name—was ordered to pay AUD 220 in fines and AUD 1,000 in legal fees, the ABC reported. According to authorities, he ran afoul of Sydney’s public transportation rules because he tried to travel without the transportation card used to pay for trains and buses, and failed to produce said card when asked.
Although he pled guilty to both charges, he tried to argue his case: In April 2017, he apparently had a chip used in Sydney’s Opal card implanted in his hand by a “piercing expert,” ostensibly enabling him to tap in without a card. He claimed he had used this hand when he was stopped for a ticket inspection in August 2017.
"There was an intention to comply at least with the payment component of a train fare," his lawyer said in court, according to BuzzFeed. He said he had enough money on the chip to tap in.
Inspectors were not convinced. "Whatever was in the defendant’s hand, it certainly wasn’t a card," the prosecutor said.
His lawyer argued that because contactless payment already exists—credit cards and phones can be used to tap through—human hands should also count. Alas, the judge wasn’t having it, and ruled that the current law stands, despite what might happen in the future.
Unfortunately for cyborg wannabes everywhere, his chip was allegedly cancelled in February. “This is only a bloody story because they cancelled my card," Mr. Meow-Meow told the Sydney Morning Herald at the time . "How often do you see the words 'innovation' and 'public transport' in the same sentence in Sydney?" A valid question, actually.
This isn’t the first time he’s made news, either. In 2016, he ran for public office on the Science Party ticket, campaigning on a pro-technology platform. (His lawyer says he’s a “self-identified bio-hacker” and “describes himself occasionally as a cyborg,” so this should come as no surprise.)
While he’s likely let down by the ruling, we’ve got to hand it to him: He’s got a better story than most alleged fare evaders.
Raiders of the Lost Ark perfected a formula for swashbuckling archaeological adventure that video games like Unchartedand the Tomb Raider video games successfully replicated. A roguish hero races an evil organization to collect a supernatural treasure. In the third act, the myths and legends turn out to be real and the adventurers have to deal with zombies, yetis, aliens, cultists, or immortal villagers.
Tomb Raider, the new movie starring Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft and in theaters now, messed with the formula. Like the rebooted game that inspired it, this new version of Croft and her story is less campy and more realistic than both the ridiculous Angelina Jolie movies and the original games. The new movie is more believable but far less fun. It ditches the supernatural element that helps make swashbucklers work and becomes a generic action movie.
Borrowing heavily from the 2013 video game reboot, the new film follows Croft as she investigates rumors of an ancient curse on the island of Yamatai in the South Pacific. When she gets to the island, she discovers villainous Mathias Vogel—played by the delightful Walton Goggins— leading the shadowy Trinity conspiracy to uncover the island’s secrets. The island is the resting place of the legendary Himiko—a powerful queen who legend says kills with a touch.
Tomb Raider is fine. Vikander is good as Croft. She’s embodies her restless and reckless spirit but ditches her naive, do-gooder vibe from the game. The plot remains mostly the same as the game until the end, with a few tweaks that make it work better on the big screen. In the film, Croft goes to Yamatai chasing after her missing father while in the game she’s stranded there with a research group. Between Goggins’ Vogel, Vikander's Croft, and the competent direction, Tomb Raider might have even been good. But it couldn’t stick the landing.
Spoilers ahead from some elements of the movie’s third act.
Unlike the game it's based on, when Croft gets around to raiding a tomb in the movie’s last half hour, she discovers that Himiko was a kindly queen who was carrying a horrible disease. Trinity and Vogel want her body so they can weaponize for reasons that aren’t clear. Instead of fighting giant samurai and cultists, Croft spends the third act of the film trying not to touch a dead body. It’s boring.
Reducing Himiko to a literal corpse removes the game’s principal antagonist and messes with the Indiana Jones formula. Nobody opens an Ark or drinks from the wrong cup, though a few people catch a horrifying disease from a corpse.
What’s sad here is that the movie almost makes up for losing the supernatural element by replacing it with some terrifying science fiction. The disease in Himiko’s body doesn’t just dessicate bodies, but turns them into zombies. Unfortunately, we only see this happen once and what could have been a thrilling escape from the diseased never happens. The characters easily kill the few bad guys who get infected and move on with the plodding plot.
Without magic, Indy is just an archaeologist punching Nazis, Nathan Drake is just a rogue fighting faceless mercenaries, and Croft is just a bad ass platforming her way through scattered tombs. With it, these characters become something weird and memorable. Without magic, Tomb Raider is just another PG-13 action flick in a sea of similar movies with nothing to distinguish it beyond its ties to a popular video.
Motherboard by Claire Phillips, Brian Merchant - 2d ago
Longevity and death are no longer mutually exclusive. A new Y Combinator startup won a sizable government grant for their brain-uploading enterprise, guaranteed “100% fatal.” Who would sign up to live forever, if it meant they had to die first? Years of life remaining are the last great commodity, priceless and non-transferable, and if we are to give them up, then we better do so for a very, very good reason. — The Eds.
In a zeptosecond GenEthics’ Quantum Edition will break the following story:
The first successful pilot “cap and trade” was performed today by famed geneticists and tech supercouple T. Lorenzo and G. Lochbaum, aka Lorloch. At thirty-five years old, their child, Quotient Lorenzo-Lochbaum has agreed to forfeit her remaining years on Earth—a life expectancy of 190 years—to grant Lorloch the necessary immortality credits to endure beyond the maximum allowable age. While Lorloch’s exact age-extension has yet to be determined, it’s rumored to be in the neighborhood of 250 years. The cap and trade will take place with minimal waste. Once Quotient’s consciousness-uploading to the SingularNet is complete, a whole body donation will be made to OneLegacy.
Quantum Edition has received a leaked copy of the strangely foreboding yet poignant last rites of Quotient Lorenzo-Lochbaum. We reproduce it here, in its entirety:
Quotient, before you uploaded your consciousness, you had asked me a final question. “Mom,” you inquired, “if you had your life to live over, is there anything you would do differently?”
However insouciant your question, I have resolved to provide you with a reasonable answer. These are your last rites, after all, and I must do what I can to honor your escape of samsra for the subsequent achievement of nirvana.
So, in answer of your final question: No, Quotient, I have no regrets.
If I had to do it all over, I would do everything much the same way. Nothing would change. I would marry your father again at eighteen, three years post university; I would perform research around the world at multiple biotech labs. Secure in my prodigious talents and light years ahead of the others, I would have no qualms about helping the competition. Just as before, I would again give birth at fifty-five, a process aided by my post-graduate innovation, the egg-extending Invitro10, which allowed me to breed in the romantic, and burdensome, death-dealing way of our beloved ancestors, garnering the great appreciation and endless gratitude of Don, your father, my better half and partner-in-genomic-crime.
If I had my life to do over, I would again prod you to live up to your potential, pledging to award you a majority stake in your very own blue chip tech company if you would just take your course work more seriously and shine in that family way from time to time.
Ever since you taught yourself to read in vitro, Don and I knew that you were destined for greatness. Your I.Q. of 161, two points above Einstein and Hawking, was proof positive. The Lorenzo-Lochbaums had produced progeny of great potential. And in the most natural sense, too: GE was not a factor. Your arrival was pure fluke, the best kind of chance experiment.
But you seemed to lack the family need to dazzle and outperform. At five, you incited jealousy in our lab technicians with your facile knowledge of Godel’s incompleteness theorems, but you were leery. Instead of demanding you demonstrate your commutative algebra skills at our weekly meetings, we downplayed your genius: she’s just learning to count, you had us say, adhering to your plaintive Zen family therapy requests. Likewise we were conscious not to spark bitter rivalries between you and your cousins, talking down your exceptional cognitive skills on family retreats to our Sedona, Arizona Endtimes bunker. Quotient knows nothing of The Improbability Principle, and more embarrassing, Our girl has yet to patent a single genomic discovery. She is soooo behind! From our lounging pad in the Big Room, we watched in complete horror as you scored abysmally low on your favorite InVivo game, while your less capable cousins laughed, clobbering you with primeval strategies of “duck left” and “duck right.” At home, you were the most dominant, decorated player in the country, yet in the company of family you botched the easiest of tasks, enacting a dizzying rate of in-game body failure. What choice did we have but to dismantle the InVivo console when the family idly slept? What concerned parent wouldn’t do the same?
Had you applied yourself, there would have been no limit to your accomplishments. A Heineken Prize by the age of 18. A Mathematical Olympiad gold medalist six, seven times over before the first signs of puberty. I even feared your meteoric ascent might rival my own: A Harvard alum by age 15, biotech innovator, holder of twenty exclusive genetic patents before 25, and the first to win the prestigious Senescence Award years before you were a glint in your father’s eye. Disconcertingly I had yet to win that 20th century relic, the Nobel, but had my eye on it all the same. Your gift of longevity would take me there.
It had seemed to me that with your arrival, I would have had to work even harder in order to achieve my goals before you beat me to them. You had a head start after all. I grew up in a household headed by members of the grey economy (Airbnb superhosts, no less!) and was the first in a long line of undistinguished workers to go to college. On the other hand, your every moment was designed to be educational. I will never forget the sound of your rapturous gurgles, the pucker of your first smile, as you lay in your crib delightfully eyeing the periodic elements, the pnictogens, chaclogens, halogens and noble gases of your digi-mobi.
As practicing Buddhists we do not shun family members who exhibit undesirable traits. Your unwillingness to thrive was our dukkha, our pain, our anguish, our distress. Through the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path we would make right our wrongs and mediate this dukkha. Sila (virtue): right speech, right action, right livelihood; Samadhi (mental cultivation): right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration; Panna (wisdom): right view, right resolve.
Emotional prisoners of your uncalled-for modesty, we kept your deep dives into edge computing systems to ourselves. We trusted you when you insisted these malicious hacks were for Robin Hood purposes only. Should we have disowned you then? Is this the regret you speak of?
“How will I ever learn of the world’s ills locked away in this plutocractic scientific tower of yours? How will I challenge the status quo, cloistered in your Minowski space library, spoon-fed everything there is to know about the universe? That’s no life,” you lamented over multiple iChat and iRate accounts. The ringing in our ears was deafening.
You were going to set the wrongs of the world right, you told us over long pours of immuno-enzyme boosting Soju whenever we joined in The Boring Tunnel, Downtown. We so wanted to believe.
Finally the day came when you redeemed yourself with a failsafe program for hack-back attacks. We thought our troubles had ended. Our right speech: never swearing at you, no matter how breathtakingly bad your mistakes were, or how unduly vicious your vitriol. Our right efforts: harboring climate-change refugees on our fleet of four hundred and thirty nanotube yachts. And no less important, our right-resolve: refraining from interfering to allow you to learn from your own mistakes. These noble acts, we momentarily believed had paid off. You were finally on the path to familial greatness.
That’s when you took a turn for the worse. Why didn’t I see it coming? If I were not versed in hereditary genetics and an expert Genetic Engineer, I might blame your prenatal nanny Anna Sui for steering you wrong. How dare she expose your budding consciousness to the horrors of racism and post-colonialism, to the indecencies of material accumulation, neo-imperialism and endless war long before you had a healthy Anatta? I might say. Castigating myself: if only we had spent more time with you on Sundays, instead of hurtling further down the path to digital immortality, you might not have taken such a rebellious path.
But there was little we could do: The trouble was with your genes.
Headed for anti-hacking fame, you took an about turn at the age of twelve, signing on with the International SLOW Movement (ISM). After receiving your advanced degrees in Machine Learning and Art History (a PhD in art history, really?) you had the audacity to move to the “airidity line,” with the least arable land in the world in order to prove the obvious: that development had gone too far. Yes, we all know. How though would the reenacting of nomadic farming practices be helpful when the agreed-upon solution for climate change was geosequestration?
At first your logic had had an appreciable charm.
“In dollars my personal net worth is equal to that of one billion or more of the world’s poorest citizenry. I must take my inflated valuation to broadcast the impossible conditions faced by the rest of the world: those who at one time or another have been negatively impacted by colonialism, neo- and post- and early age imperialism.”
I did what I could to set you straight: “Climate change is far cheaper than traditional war and far less agonizing than an unheeded plague, it serves a perfectly reasonable neo-Malthusian function. These environmental genocides are inevitable. You are wasting valuable time trying to manage the discourse.”
After a time you registered the pure idiocy of the ISM’s attempt to turn back the clock some two thousand years and returned to the Disunion. You then proceeded to slack, ad infinitum.
We closed our eyes to your midnight flights to underground art shows, those sections in the outer radiation belts declared unfit for procreation.
You refused to live up to your promise while our scientific breakthroughs on the protein-folding problem of neurodegeneration and the safe regeneration of telomarase took the world by storm. You complained that aging was not something to eradicate.
“It is not a disease,” you carped.
“Of course it is,” we said. “Aging is by very definition a disease, a risk factor that must be eliminated. Impairment of tissues and organs are by FDA standards a disease, to wit, a medical problem that must be stopped.”
“I won’t have my telomeres adjusted,” you complained.
“Then are the perfect specimen for Cap and Trade.”
At which point I could not help but make you the following proposition: “Quotient, you have failed at nearly every one of your social activist goals. Your angry street protests have amounted to nothing. Your political memes are rarely followed. Even your ardent socialist-themed public sculptures have made little to no dent in the public opinion. Capitalism, and the cult of the top performer, is here to stay.
You could however turn your longevity into something of real promise.”
I had you here. Your blue eyes long since dimmed by years of stunning underachievement took on the dazzle of a promising youth. For a brief moment behind those lugubrious orbs of indulgent feeling flashed all of the world’s history.
It didn’t take much to convince you. What activist worth their salt could pass up such an opportunity? We will name the pharmaceutical company QLL in honor of your sacrifice. Sub Saharan Africans unable to afford costly cures for cancer and HIV will now enjoy a lifespan more approximate with your own. Our generics will be far cheaper than those produced by the Peoples Republic of Maoist-Taoists. By agreeing to become the first human participant in Cap and Trade, you have extended the life of billions.
The procedure was not as difficult as you might think. Once the Aging & Acquisition board approved our request, and we had settled upon a skeuomorphic likeness, we had little trouble with the Copy-and-Transfer. Uploading your mind was far less troublesome than your birth.
April 18, 2075. I will be turning a glorious life-extended forty-five. “I would like to thank you, Quotient, for this gift of seemingly everlasting life.”
As a matter of your last rites, I glance at your striking skeuomorphic image hovering over my bedside table. I don’t think you have ever been so affecting with your proud smile and lustrous hair, your deep, penetrating stare. The look in your eyes tells us your sacrifice has not been in vain.
Your father and I join in chanting a final last rite:
“I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha. Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived; what had to be done has been done, there is no coming back to any state of being. Like the Buddhist arahant who has walked the Noble Eightfold path you are now liberated from all bonds.”
Motherboard by Daniel Oberhaus, Jordan Pearson, Em.. - 2d ago
There are plenty of unique things about Plattsburgh, a small city in upstate New York, but its city council chamber is not one of them. The curved wooden desk for the council members and the mismatched chairs for the audience could have been located in any town in America. The only hint of regional flair at a public hearing on Thursday was a floor-to-ceiling poster of the famous 17th century French explorer Samuel de Champlain—armed with a sword and clad in in armor—peering over the council members’ shoulders.
Champlain is mostly remembered for his prodigious mapping of North America’s eastern seaboard, the founding of Quebec, and his monopolization of the fur trade in the region. He was a shrewd businessman, fierce imperialist, skilled negotiator, and fearless explorer. But what many people forget is that Champlain spent his final years as an administrator who struggled to sustain Quebec and the industries he had been instrumental in creating.
I couldn’t help but think of the relatively banal ending to Champlain’s storied career as I watched residents of Plattsburgh fill the city council chamber to capacity Thursday night. Stragglers stood outside the chamber doors and watched the proceedings from a live stream in City Hall’s foyer.
Such a large turnout for a city council meeting was highly unusual, but then again, so was the meeting’s agenda. Residents had gathered to discuss a new bill proposed by the city’s Mayor Colin Read on March 1 that would place an 18-month moratorium on new commercial Bitcoin mines in the city due to rising electricity costs.
Like Champlain, the residents of Plattsburgh had found themselves at the epicenter of an exciting new industry that may change the world as we know it. And like Champlain, they had to figure out a way to make that new industry sustainable.
Mining is the energy-intensive computational process that secures the Bitcoin blockchain and rewards miners with bitcoins. Although few of the attendees at the Plattsburgh hearing knew much about how Bitcoin works, they had already begun to experience some of its related negative consequences.
“I’ve been hearing a lot of complaints that electric bills have gone up by $100 or $200,” Read, who took office last year, told Motherboard in an interview a few hours before the meeting. “You can understand why people are upset.”
Mayor Read during the hearing. Image: Jason Koebler
After an hour of comments from residents, professors from the nearby university, and a local Bitcoin miner, the city council voted on Thursday to pass the moratorium. Plattsburgh is the first city in the United States to ban commercial cryptocurrency mining, albeit temporarily.
For decades, Plattsburgh residents have enjoyed access to what Read said was the “cheapest power in the world” as a result of a massive hydroelectric dam built on the St. Lawrence River in the late 50s. Each month, the city is guaranteed an allotment of power produced by the dam. If it goes over that allotment, the city has to buy electricity from other power plants at a premium.
Plattsburgh’s agreement secures it access to 104 megawatts (MW) of cheap power each month, more than enough to satisfy the energy demands of Plattsburgh’s roughly 20,000 residents. Even during the frigid winter months, when electricity demand is the highest, Plattsburgh residents normally pay only 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) to heat their homes and industrial users—including cryptocurrency miners—only pay about 2 cents. Contrary to Read’s claim, this is not quite the cheapest in the world, but it’s close: Last year, the Mexican government announced it had received a bid to create a wind power farm that would produce electricity at around 1.7 cents per kWh. To put this in perspective, the average cost per kWh in the US is a little over 10 cents.
The low cost of electricity has made Plattsburgh a cryptocurrency mining hot spot, and in January and February the city went over its cheap power quota due to a cold winter and, the city believes, cryptocurrency mining. One mining operation in town consumed roughly 10 percent of the city’s power during those months, according to Read. The overages costs were distributed among all residents and businesses in Plattsburgh—the vast majority of which have nothing to do with cryptocurrency mining at all, but their bills went up nonetheless.
Typically, cities welcome large investments from tech companies because of the promise of job creation and investment in the local economy. But the heavily automated nature of cryptocurrency mining means that a large operation can use a significant amount of a municipality’s power, generate little or nothing in tax revenue, and create a negligible number of jobs. Plattsburgh’s government is suffering through a budget crisis that, perhaps with a different set of policies, the influx of mining investment could help solve. But currently, cryptocurrency investors from around the world are using Plattsburgh’s cheap electricity to get rich, and are being subsidized by the city’s residents to do so.
Plattsburgh cryptocurrency miners lease the buildings they operate in, so even successful operations don’t lead to an increase in property values and thus, property taxes. And the city currently has no other mechanism to tax them, either: “There’s no city income tax and no sales tax because most of the investors live outside the region,” Read said.
“The restaurant across the street employs more people than the Bitcoin mines"
During an unrelated budget meeting a few minutes before Thursday’s cryptocurrency hearing, city council member Mike Kelly told residents that Plattsburgh has an unsustainable budget deficit. The local government had to cut $2 million in city services in recent years; Kelly said a further $1 million cut will be necessary in 2019.
“If we can’t tax our way out of this, and we can’t generate enough revenue to offset our increase in operations, then what do we have left? We have more cost cutting,” Kelly said. “That means jobs, that means payrolls, that means things that are very emotional and near and dear to people, but that’s where we stand now … perhaps the police force is too large. Perhaps the fire department could be right-sized to a level that we can afford.”
Image: Jason Koebler
A mining ban won't fix that budget deficit, but letting miners run wild in town won't either. With the ban, Plattsburgh’s local government doesn’t think it’s impeding technological progress. Instead, it says it’s paving the way for the small but growing contingent of cities and towns that have found themselves suddenly inundated with cryptocurrency mining companies because of their low electricity prices and without the regulations and agreements needed to deal with the gold rush.
“The restaurant across the street employs more people than the Bitcoin mines,” Read continued. “They’re not generating the 480 workers an industrial plant might employ using even less power, so that’s difficult for us.”
Bitcoin comes to Plattsburgh
Prior to Thursday’s hearing and vote, establishing a Bitcoin mine in Plattsburgh was no different than starting any other kind of business in the city. Operators would merely have to find a building that was zoned for industrial use, apply for a building permit, and ensure that the electric load could be met.
Utility policies in the city and state of New York prevent the city from refusing to hook a business up to the grid, putting limits on overall power use, or jacking up rates for specific customers. Because the city’s electric utility—the Municipal Lighting Department—is a nonprofit, it sells electricity at rates that are close to cost, so even heavy users are not generating money that can be used by other departments in the city.
Due to this abundance of cheap energy, as well as lumber and water, paper production has historically been one of Plattsburgh’s main industries. Georgia-Pacific continues to operate the city’s largest paper mill, just as it has for the last 50 years. Another paper mill—which primarily manufactured wallpaper—was located in a small industrial park on the city’s outskirts, but its former owner vacated the premises long ago. Today, the mill is occupied by a handful of businesses, but the buildings are, for the most part, empty.
I met Ryan Brienza, an 18-year-old graduate of nearby Beekmantown High School, at the old mill earlier this week. Our footsteps echoed off vaulted white ceilings as Brienza guided me through a maze of vacant rooms. As we ventured deeper into the mill, however, the subdued silence gradually gave way to the steady hum of machinery.
When he pushed open a door toward the back of the mill, I saw the source of the hum: A large blue wooden box. Brienza released the latches holding the doors of the box closed, and the hum turned into a roar.
Brienza's mining operation. Image: Daniel Oberhaus
Inside the box were about 100 Antminer S9s. Antminers are a special type of computer chip called an ASIC, and are manufactured by a Chinese company called Bitmain. They’re meant to do one thing: Mine Bitcoin.
“A lot of people don't really know about Bitcoin, they don't know what miners are,” Brienza said. “They just kind of see it as these people are here, they're making a lot of money, and making our power rates go up. They don't really see the big picture. They don't see what Plattsburgh has here. We're sitting on top of a gold mine if we can execute it right. A ton of investor money will flow in."
In February, Brienza and his business partner Tom Pillsworth leased a room at the mill to host their Bitcoin mine. They are anxious to take over adjacent spaces at the mill and said there are already another 100 ASICs en route to their facility that will arrive by the beginning of April. The room was full of the brown shipping boxes that the machines arrive in and spools of multicolored wire lay strewn across the floor. The blue box that houses the ASICs is the latest product from Triangle Electrical Systems—a Plattsburgh-based electrical contractor owned by Brienza’s mother, Linda—that is optimized for dissipating heat and dampening the noise of Bitcoin mining operations.
Pillsworth, who is a wine importer and runs a duty-free shop on the US-Canada border, has lived in Plattsburgh for eight years and has run a small-time Bitcoin mining operation from his home since 2016, but none of the Antminers in the paper mill are actually owned by him or Brienza.
"We're sitting on top of a gold mine if we can execute it right"
Instead, the mining units are sent to them from around the world by customers who don’t want to deal with the hassle of running a Bitcoin mining rig from their own home. They are managed as part of Brienza’s hosting company, Zafra LLC, which he started while still in high school. Brienza’s customers pay a fixed rate (in US dollars, not Bitcoin) and in exchange he covers the cost of power, cooling, and maintenance associated with hosting the ASIC miners. The ASIC owners, in turn, get to keep the Bitcoin generated by their miners.
Some of the rigs in the Zafra mine belong to David Bowman, who can be credited with attracting Bitcoin miners to Plattsburgh in the first place. In 2016, Bowman started Plattsburgh BTC, a small cloud mining operation that rented mining power to its clients. Since then Bowman’s enterprise has grown from a handful of Antminers running in his apartment to 10 of them stashed in Brienza’s box
Although Brienza and Pillsworth understand locals’ qualms about rising energy prices, when we spoke they suggested that the Plattsburgh residents are simply afraid of a new technology they don’t understand, and that a moratorium could ruin a valuable opportunity for growth in the city.
They acknowledged that some sort of compromise is necessary, and said they were willing to work with city officials. But a moratorium, they believe, benefits neither the city nor Bitcoin miners.
Brienza told me that all the Antminers in their Bitcoin mine require a total of about 1.5 megawatt-hours of power per month. This accounts for about 1 percent of Plattsburgh’s total monthly electricity allotment.
Ryan Brienza in front of his mine. Image: Daniel Oberhaus
Read said there were a handful of small-scale and hobby mines operating in Plattsburgh, but two main Bitcoin mines accounted for the bulk of electricity use. Brienza’s operation is one of the biggest in town, but it's a small-time operation compared to the frontrunner, a multimillion-dollar company called Coinmint that is officially registered in Puerto Rico. Coinmint operates out of the Skyway Shopping Center strip mall in Plattsburgh and, according to Read, used up the bulk of the 10 percent of the town's power attributed to cryptocurrency mining.
When I pulled up to Skyway, shoppers milled in and out of Aubuchon Hardware, Gioiosia’s Wine & Spirits, and Yando’s Big M Supermarket. But the large anchor building, which once housed Diamond Comic Distributors, looked largely abandoned, save for a Family Dollar store. Peering into the windows at the front of the building, I saw some loose pink wall insulation and a few cables on the concrete floor. But behind the white drywall on the opposite side of the window, the building isn't empty. From the parking lot, the telltale buzzing of ASICs could be easily heard coming from the back of the building.
Coinmint’s operation has no signage, but if you know what you’re looking for, it’s unmistakably a Bitcoin mine. Several gigantic industrial fans used to cool the mining units in the back of the building—the source of the buzz—were one clue. The other was the fact that all the doors to the facility were left wide open to further dissipate heat. Finally, a shipping container-sized blue box with electrical wiring and “high voltage” signs suggested that some serious power was being funneled into the building.
Coinmint's mine has no sign and is located in a large building that also houses a Family Dollar. Image: Daniel Oberhaus
I spoke to a Coinmint employee standing outside the site, but I wasn’t allowed inside. The employee said the company had received the blessing of Plattsburgh’s previous Mayor, James Calnon, to operate the facility. At Thursday’s meeting, when a resident asked Read whether there had been any negotiations between the city and the Bitcoin miners before they set up their mines in the city, Read said “I don’t think there were any negotiations. There were building permits issued.”
Kyle Colton, who runs media relations for Coinmint, was at the public hearing. When I asked Colton what direct benefits Coinmint provides to Plattsburgh, he said “one of the things that the New York Times article that just came out said was that the miners have just one or two employees and that’s not true at all.”
When I pressed Colton about how many full-time employees Coinmint employed in Plattsburgh, he couldn’t provide a number, but said that the company had paid “hundreds” of contractors throughout its time in the city, which were used for everything from construction to electrical wiring. The employee Motherboard spoke with at Coinmint’s Skyway location said he started as a contractor during the setup phase and been hired to maintain the mine. He said there are two or three full-time employees running the mine.
In January, a local CBS affiliate reported that Coinmint planned to invest $165 million into a corporation it created in Delaware last March called North Country Data Center Corp, which purchased a former smelting plant in Massena, a town about a two-hour drive from Plattsburgh. According to Watertown Daily Times, the company plans to turn the plant into a massive Bitcoin mining operation and data center, which it said will employ 150 people, use 15 MW of power, and “handle 15 percent of the world’s cryptocurrency business.” Bitmain, the largest mining company in the world, reportedly employs 600 people at its headquarters in Beijing.
As the residents of Plattsburgh made clear during the community meeting, their perception of the Bitcoin mines was that they only seemed to benefit the miners, many of whom aren’t even from Plattsburgh.
Brienza has lived nearby his entire life, but the Antminers he hosts belong to people from all over the US. In effect, people are remotely tapping into Plattsburgh’s cheap electricity to mine Bitcoin through Brienza’s hosting company, and the vast majority of the profits from mining are funneled elsewhere. Bowman, who was the first to take of the city’s cheap electricity to mine the cryptocurrency, is from Plattsburgh but spends most of his time in Grenada, the Caribbean island where he is studying to become a doctor.
The residents of Plattsburgh fear that if no action is taken to limit the influx of out-of-town Bitcoin miners, it would result in a gold rush led by international Bitcoin mining operations looking to cash in on cheap electricity.
These fears are not unfounded. As detailed in recent articles by Politico and Buzzfeed, cryptocurrency miners have descended in droves on small towns in Washington state and Wyoming, too. The same could easily happen in Plattsburgh without proactive action. Brienza and Pillsworth said their hosting is sold out and they have a long list of clients from Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and around the world ready to vastly expand their hosting operation with more miners.
Mayor Read said the city could be quickly overwhelmed.
"We could use 100 megawatts in two months’ time if we opened up the floodgates,” Read said. “And then there would be no cheap power left for our residents. Some of the proposals we’ve been seeing, they want to take 20 or 30 megawatt bites of power, and we don’t have that."
Brienza's mine. Image: Daniel Oberhaus
Other companies in town say cryptocurrency mining threatens them, too. Mold-Rite Plastics, which employs nearly 500 people, uses 2.9 megawatts of power each month, according to CFO Tom Recny, who spoke at Thursday’s hearing.
“Our bill went up $22,000 as a result of the increase,” he said. After the hearing, Recny said that if the company’s electric bill continued to increase, it would have to consider layoffs. “It’s important to get a fix and handle on this in light of the impact it’s had on citizens and the city’s businesses.”
After hearing from residents and Bitcoin stakeholders, the Plattsburgh city council unanimously voted to pass the bill putting a moratorium on new Bitcoin mines. Current mining operations—namely those run by Brienza and Coinmint—will be allowed to continue operating, but the Bitcoin miners in the wings will have to wait up to 18 months before they can open a mine in the city.
In the meantime, Plattsburgh officials have tasked themselves with figuring out how to effectively regulate Bitcoin mining in the city. Thursday’s hearing was substantive and largely optimistic. All city council members, and many of the residents who spoke, believe that Plattsburgh has been given an opportunity to be at the forefront of a potentially world-changing technology, but said that without at least a temporary reprieve from new investment, the city will be overrun. The council vowed to meet with Bitcoin miners and explore changing city policy and petition the state to make new policies that will allow for more equitable use of the city’s power resources.
City officials will also have to draft codes for the safe operation of Bitcoin mines in the city because the buildings leased by miners weren’t designed to accommodate such energy- and heat-intensive activities. And then, there’s the question of how to guarantee that residents will get to keep their cheap power.
One possible solution is to simply have Bitcoin mines absorb the extra energy costs if the city exceeds its 104 megawatt power budget. Another is to charge Bitcoin mines a higher rate than other commercial enterprises for the power they use. Perhaps surprisingly, Pillsworth was not against the latter idea; in fact, he seemed almost enthusiastic.
“It would never cost the Plattsburgh citizens any more money to let more miners come in here because the miners are willing to pay for those overages when it's super cold,” Pillsworth told Motherboard. “The miners are more than willing to pay.”
This, however, is not something the city can decide on its own. Read said the city must seek approval from the New York Public Service Commission for any changes made to electric rates in Plattsburgh. Shortly before the council went to vote on the ban, the NY Public Service Commission chair John Rhodes said the Commission would allow for higher electric rates for cryptocurrency miners as Read had proposed, though it’s not immediately clear how that decision can be implemented in Plattsburgh. Read wasn't sure if Plattsburgh would be allowed to charge crytpocurrency mines more than the residential power rate, which would still make the city one of the cheapest places to mine in the world.
“We always welcome and encourage companies to build and grow their businesses in New York,” Rhodes said in a statement. “However, we must ensure business customers pay an appropriate price for the electricity they use. This is especially true in small communities..
A swarm of users on hyper-popular blogging platform Tumblr are uploading, sharing, and trading so-called creepshots: close-up, revealing images of women, typically taken in public and seemingly without their consent. The problem on Tumblr is rampant, with creepshot-focused Tumblr blogs appearing in just a cursory search. Other sites, including Reddit, have cracked down on creepshots, but Tumblr’s community is thriving.
“No one is safe,” the tagline on one creepshot Tumblr found by Motherboard reads.
Simply typing ‘creepshot’ or related terms into Tumblr’s built-in search function returns a steady stream of tagged posts, and Google queries easily reveal links to relevant Tumblr blogs. Motherboard found just under 70 Tumblr blogs focused on sharing creepshots, most with a bevy of content. In some cases, the Tumblrs also host ‘upskirt’ photos or videos, where a camera is deliberately, and stealthily, positioned to look up an unsuspecting person’s skirt. Some of the subjects of these images, as well as many of the clothed creepshots, appear to be young, possibly teenagers.
“This is only the tip of the iceberg, there are probably hundreds of these accounts filming in high schools, college campuses, in malls, and on the streets. And Tumblr seems to not care at all about the problem,” an anonymous tipster, who first alerted Motherboard to the issue, wrote in an email.
One of the most popular creepshot Tumblrs has some 11,000 followers, and one of its posts has over 53,000 interactions linked to it, including reblogs, where the video or picture then appears on the user’s own Tumblr, spreading the content further.
Caption: A redacted screenshot of one particularly popular Tumblr creepshot post. Credit: Tumblr
Some of the Tumblrs are localized. One uploads and solicits submissions of creepshots taken only at Disney World, while another focuses on the state of Ohio; others are for photos from Mexico and Ireland. While a number of the blogs curate content from across the web and other creepshot Tumblrs, some explicitly state that their images are taken by the blog creator themselves. Others request that viewers submit their own videos.
One Tumblr provides a detailed guide on how potential stalkers can get better quality photos, with sections on iPhones, Android devices, and DSLR cameras. A Google search of phrases in the guide suggest it is not available elsewhere online.
“What is a good camera to use? I’m a college student and would like to submit videos, but my GoPro doesn’t get the job done,” one Tumblr user writes on their blog.
Other creepshot sharers offer to sell their large video collections—one user advertises a cache of around 20GB, for “a donation of your choice. No lowballers please,” to be paid via PayPal. A second user asks for $50 for three years worth of clips.
Some accounts do offer to delete photos if contacted by someone who has “cause for removal,” but it is unclear how responsive each particular blog might be.
Only a handful of Tumblr blogs Motherboard found were flagged as “sensitive,” in which users have to turn off “Safe Mode” to view the blog’s content. And Motherboard found remnants of only two creepshot accounts that have been deleted, although it wasn’t immediately clear if the owner of the account had closed it themselves, or if Tumblr had done so.
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Tumblr’s Community Guidelines say users must not “post or solicit anything relating to minors that is sexually suggestive.” Although it is difficult to determine the age of their subjects, some of these videos and images may be violating Tumblr’s own rules. The guidelines also say “don't engage in targeted abuse or harassment,” but many of the clips show whoever is filming the video stalking women through public spaces. Some also record the subject’s face. Yet, the dozens of blogs remain, and can be easily found by anyone, including, presumably, Tumblr’s own moderators.
On Friday, a Tumblr spokesperson told Motherboard in an emailed statement, "There are constantly evolving forms of cyber exploitation that can infringe on our users' privacy and also act as a vector for public shaming, bullying, and other harassment. We do not condone these behaviors. As with any questionable content, we encourage our users to report it to us either via our dedicated abuse form or by flagging the post in-product. Our Trust & Safety team will investigate each and every claim and take action as appropriate." Tumblr is part of Oath, a company recently formed from Yahoo.
However, at the time of writing, it seems Tumblr has not removed any of the nearly seventy blogs Motherboard found.
Rather ironically, around the time Reddit banned creepshots, a blog on Tumblr called Predditors was dedicated to outsing those who upload non-consensual images of women. Tumblr banned that blog in 2012, then reinstated it.
“All original post are 100% new freshcreep shots I’ve taken,” a message on a creepshots Tumblr blog reads.
Science enthusiasts around the world are mourning the loss of Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist and beloved public figure, who passed away on Wednesday at the age of 76. Hawking spent his life exploring the universe’s deepest mysteries and advancing sophisticated frameworks to explain its most elusive phenomena, such as black holes, alternate universes, and the tenuous future of life on Earth and elsewhere.
The motor neurone disease ALS confined him to a wheelchair and necessitated that he communicate through an electronic speech aid, but Hawking’s own immense passion for the cosmos—along with his cheeky sense of humor—shone through in his many popular science books, public appearances, and mountains of academic research.
In the midst of heartfelt tributes from his friends, colleagues, and fans, the scientific community continues to build on Hawking’s prolific academic contributions, which cement his legacy as one of the most forward-thinking cosmologists in a field that has no lack of trippy cosmic visions.
One major question that Hawking identified, but did not live to see resolved, is the black hole information paradox. This heady problem dates back to Hawking’s 1974 prediction that black holes aren’t completely black—they “radiate,” losing small amounts of mass over time. This theoretical evaporation of black holes, known as Hawking radiation, may sound benign enough, but it challenges the laws of the universe as we know them.
At the crux of the paradox is a classic clash between quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Quantum mechanics is built on the assumption that the universe’s physical “information,” which means properties of elemental matter like mass, spin, or configuration, cannot be permanently destroyed. While physical forms might change—a piece of coal can be compressed into a diamond, for instance—information about cosmic junk is never deleted.
But the blackbody radiation that Hawking proposed would be theoretically scrubbed of this information, according to general relativity, so Hawking suggested that information entrapped in a black hole might be permanently erased. This theory erupted in a “black hole war” between Hawking and fellow physicist Leonard Susskind—as well as a famous bet between Hawking, Kip Thorne, and John Preskill. Hawking eventually conceded that information is probably not destroyed in a black hole, though the paradox itself has still not been resolved.
If that all sounds somewhat mindbending, try watching the below animated explainer which does a thorough job of visually illustrating these complicated concepts.
Hawking remained intrigued by this problem, and was publishing new research about it as recently as 2016. Likewise, other scientists have proposed a kaleidoscopic range of ideas and experiments to resolve or contextualize the paradox. One of the most discussed ideas, for instance, is that the information trapped by black holes might be reflected out in a mirrorlike process, and encoded in two-dimensional form onto the surface of event horizons.
Just last week, University of Rochester physicist Sreenath Kizhakkumpurath Manikandan presented a new view, developed with his advisor, physics professor Andrew N. Jordan, at a meeting of the American Physical Society. Over email, Manikandan and Jordan explained to me that it is not easy to study Hawking radiation in the cosmic wilds—that would require getting close to a black hole—so scientists must use analogous systems to simulate what might be occurring in these extreme environments.
“It is important to note that Hawking radiation from black holes has not been experimentally detected yet,” they told me, “but a similar mathematical approach to what Prof. Stephen Hawking took in his seminal paper can be applied to a variety of physical systems such as accelerating mirrors, and these analogies give us evidence that the kind of particle production does indeed occur the way Prof. Hawking has predicted.”
In their research, Manikandan and Jordan demonstrated that superconductors provide a useful analogy for understanding the information paradox. The key is Andreev reflection, an effect that has been identified in superconductors: When an electron jumps from a metal to a superconductor, it buddies up with another electron to form a team called a Cooper pair, but its absence from the metal substance is also recorded by a reflected hole that conserves the real electron’s information. This superconductor analogy sheds light on some of the black hole theories advanced by previous studies, notably one by Patrick Hayden and John Preskill, and another by Gary T. Horowitz and Juan Maldacena.
This research presents new possibilities concerning how information in black holes is stored. Manikandan and Jordan told me, for instance, that information could theoretically “traverse a wormhole (also known as an Einstein Rosen bridge) and exit to another universe.” The team hopes to follow this thread in the laboratory, using superconductors.
“We believe that the black hole/superconductor analogy we proposed allows us to test the quantum theoretical predictions made in the context of black holes using experiments that can be performed using superconductors, a possibility that has not yet been explored,” the researchers said, though they cautioned that black holes and superconductors are not perfectly analogous by any means, so studying them only paints part of the picture.
The University of Rochester team is far from the only group chasing new and innovative leads to solve the information paradox, which remains one of the most enduring dilemmas that Hawking pursued. In fact, the problem’s intractability partly explains why Hawking never received a Nobel Prize—that prestigious award is given to experimentally verified discoveries. Perhaps some day, we will find hard proof that demystifies this long-standing problem. For now, however, it’s enough to appreciate the brilliant and imaginative man who first proposed it.
“While pioneering what could only be described as one of the most challenging problems in theoretical physics of his time, [Hawking] also put in a conscious effort to communicate his ideas with others including the public, and inspired generations of students to pursue a career in physics,” Manikandan and Jordan told me.
“This would be a legacy Prof. Stephen Hawking will own,” they said, “and continue to inspire future generations as one [of] the most beautiful minds ever known to mankind.”
Motherboard by Becky Ferreira, Emanuel Maiberg - 2d ago
Mars: It’s like Earth, except half the size, extremely cold, exposed to high doses of radiation, and bereft of breathable air. Although it is a frontrunner to be a second home for humanity, there’s no question that aspiring Martian settlers should gird themselves for a rough homesteading experience.
For those who want a taste of Martian frontierism without leaving their comfy Earth-based couches, there’s Surviving Mars, a city-building strategy game released on Thursday by Haemimont Games and Paradox Interactive.
The goal is to build a thriving Martian colony, straight out of the daydreams of Mars-eyed visionaries like Elon Musk. You get a bunch of initial resources to construct your Marstown, from the basic robot-built infrastructure of drone hubs, wind turbines, and power cables, to flashy facilities made available once your city comes of age—Spacebars, lakes, and playgrounds. You also start out with a budget of around 30 billion, if you decide your colony will be an international effort, but you can represent a specific country, company, or even a weird group called the “Church of the New Ark,” which seems to be some type of space fertility cult.
Once you’ve selected a spot to land the first cargo supply rocket, it’s up to you to create a habitat with life support and sustainable resource extraction worthy of your colonists and their scientific aspirations.
There’s the rub. Though it’s nice to be flush with cash for interplanetary exploits, it’s challenging to actually do the work of laying out power cables, setting up materials supply routes, delegating work to robotic rovers and drones, and installing operational solar and wind power grids. Dust storms and radiation exposure wears down buildings, so you need multiple power fail-safes to keep the colony secure in the event that important hardware gets damaged.
You also have to deal with random meteorites that hurtle down from the sky, with no substantial atmosphere to stop them. Those impacts, if they hit critical infrastructure, can throw your fledgling community into disarray.
That’s probably why Surviving Mars bills itself as a game of discovery “with minimal casualties.”
The fact that some of your colonists will succumb to unnatural deaths is presented as a given from the start, and those who survive have a fairly low quality of life, confined as they are within isolated little bubbles that lay exposed on a desolate wasteland.
This hardened, practical treatment of the red planet is infuriating at times—especially because I have a talent for accidentally building death traps—but it is also the best part about Surviving Mars.
Thousands of people yearn to leave the first footprints on Martian soil, and it would be unimaginably exciting were our species to pull off this feat. But if the Moon is a harsh mistress, then Mars is a diabolical jerk. For all its glorification in science fiction, it would be such a colossal pain in the ass to live there, and the game does not shy away from that.
As a result, Surviving Mars made me acutely aware that I do not have “the right stuff” to survive on Mars. The red planet is a lot fun to virtually explore and settle, but if and when the first real colonists leave for Mars, I’m staying on Earth—the greatest planet of all time.
After four months of being in limbo on the issue, publisher EA has finally announced that it will remove paid loot boxes from Star Wars Battlefront II. In an official blog post, the publisher announced it would completely revise the progression system for the multiplayer shooter that caused so much controversy during its release in November.
At launch, the game had a $60 price tag and gated off portions of its content behind an obtuse system of credits and loot crates players could purchase for real world money. Before the game came out, fans were complaining on Reddit and EA tried to calm them down and posted a comment that was the most downvoted in Reddit history.
Developer DICE lowered the amount of credits needed to purchase characters such as Darth Vader and EA froze in-game microtransactions entirely, but the damage was already done and Star Wars Battlefront II's loot box scheme gained so much attention, both lawmakers and the mainstream media took notice.
After it kicked up all this controversy, EA went silent and mostly just updated Star Wars Battlefront II for balance. This morning it announced it would overhaul the games progression system on March 21 and kill paid loot boxes entirely. It will still have both loot boxes and microtransactions, but both will be for cosmetic items only. Players will only be able to earn items that change how they play by playing the game.
Last week, Motherboard reported that the FBI had arrested the CEO of Phantom Secure, a company allegedly providing custom, security-focused BlackBerry phones to the Sinaloa drug cartel, among other criminal groups. But the feds aren’t only going after Phantom’s owner: on Thursday, the Department of Justice announced an indictment against other apparent Phantom staff too, and confirmed what one source told Motherboard before it became public knowledge—that authorities have seized Phantom’s domains used for routing messages.
The Justice Department’s announcement names Kim Augustus Rodd from Phuket, Thailand; Younes Nasri from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates; and Michael Gamboa and Christopher Poquiz both from Los Angeles as alleged co-conspirators of Vincent Ramos, Phantom’s Canada-based CEO. All five are charged with racketeering conspiracy offenses and conspiracy to aid and abet the distribution of narcotics, both of which carry a maximum of life in prison.
Notably, although authorities have arrested Ramos, the four remaining defendants are not in custody, and are currently fugitives, according to the Justice Department press release.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement, “The indictment of Vincent Ramos and his associates is a milestone against transnational crime.”
“Phantom Secure allegedly provided a service designed to allow criminals the world over to evade law enforcement to traffic drugs and commit acts of violent crime without detection. Ramos and his company made millions off this criminal activity, and our takedown sends a serious message to those who exploit encryption to go dark on law enforcement,” he added.
Like other companies in the secure phone space, Phantom’s devices have the camera and microphone removed, as well as GPS-functionality and normal messaging functions, according to court records. Instead, Phantom devices send messages encrypted with Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), and route their communications through the company’s overseas servers. On its website, Phantom also offers customized Android devices; recently, firms have increasingly moved to Android as a platform. According to the announcement, Phantom made some $80 million in annual revenue since 2008.
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Importantly, Phantom’s case rests on whether the company deliberately and explicitly set out to facilitate criminal activity with its products. Some companies in this space do claim to provide services to legitimate customers. However, in one conversation with undercover investigators in Las Vegas in February 2017, Ramos allegedly said “We made it—we made it specifically for this [drug trafficking] too,” according to the criminal complaint.
Even if prosecutors can prove that Ramos and other Phantom staff did knowingly and deliberately work with drug trafficking groups, the case is still a significant milestone: as the announcement says, this is the first time the US government has targeted a company for providing technological tools that allow users to evade law enforcement. Dutch authorities have busted two otherencrypted phone companies, Ennetcom and PGPSure, in recent years.
The Justice Department announcement adds that authorities have seized “more than 150 domains and licenses which were being used by transnational criminal organizations to send and receive encrypted messages.”
Indeed, a source familiar with the industry told Motherboard last week, before the Justice Department’s public announcement on Thursday, that “the feds now control [Phantom Secure] domain names and probably the servers also.” Motherboard granted the source anonymity to talk about sensitive industry developments. The source said that the domain names for Phantom’s infrastructure changed ownership last Friday.
Earlier this week, the lawyer listed on Ramos’ court docket declined Motherboard’s request for comment—the lawyer only represented the Phantom CEO in one hearing, meaning Ramos is likely to have another lawyer step in.
At the time of writing, Phantom’s main website is still online. After Motherboard reported on one Phantom reseller on Monday, the reseller seemingly closed their Instagram account. Previously, it included phrases such as “snitches get stitches.”
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