N. Korean defectors show locations of mass graves using Google Earth

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Much of what happens in North Korea remains hidden from the outside world. But commercial satellite imagery and Google Earth mapping software are helping a human-rights organization take inventory of the worst offenses of the North Korean regime and identify sites for future investigation of crimes against humanity.

A new report from the South Korea-based Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG)—a non-governmental organization that tracks human-rights abuses and crimes against humanity by the world’s most oppressive regimes—details how the organization’s researchers used Google Earth in interviews with defectors from North Korea to identify sites associated with mass killings by the North Korean regime. Google Earth imagery was used to help witnesses to killings and mass burials orient themselves and precisely point out the locations of those events.

Entitled “Mapping Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea: Mass Graves, Killing Sites and Documentary Evidence,” the report does not include the actual locations of what the researchers deemed to be sensitive sites out of concern that the North Korean regime would move evidence from those sites. But it does provide location data of other sites with potential documentary evidence of crimes, including police stations and other government facilities that may have records of atrocities.

The report is an early set of findings from the Mapping Project, an effort by TJWG to identify sites of abuses over the past two decades based on eyewitness testimony and satellite imagery. The project also wants to examine remote sensing technologies that could be used in the future to detect and analyze sites in North Korea containing human remains.

“Although it is beyond our current capabilities to investigate and analyze the sites due to lack of access,” the researchers noted, “this research is a crucial first step in the pursuit of accountability for human rights crimes. It is also designed to serve first responders [NGO workers, forensic scientists, journalists, and others] who may enter North Korea in the future.”

Efforts to bring charges against North Korea’s regime in the International Criminal Court have been held up by resistance in the United Nations from China and Russia. However, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea (UN COI) continues to bring attention to abuses by the North Korean regime, and it has called for measures to be taken to end human rights abuses and hold those responsible for the abuse accountable. And the UN COI continues to gather evidence in a repository for use in a future process. TJWG believes the Mapping Project could significantly aid the push to hold the North Korean regime accountable while aiding “future efforts to institute a process of transitional justice following a change in the political conditions in North Korea.” In other words, the project could aid in prosecution after a regime change.

While the Mapping Project is still in its early stages, TJWG released the report to “attract wider participation from both informants and technical practitioners with expertise and knowledge that will advance the project,” the researchers said.

Listing image by US Department of Defense

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Dozens Convicted Of Human Trafficking In Landmark Thai Trial

Lieutenant General Manas Kongpan, a suspected human trafficker, is escorted by officers as he arrives at the criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand in 2015.

Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

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Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

Lieutenant General Manas Kongpan, a suspected human trafficker, is escorted by officers as he arrives at the criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand in 2015.

Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

A Thai army general and local politicians are among the dozens of people found guilty at a Bangkok court Wednesday in one of Thailand’s largest-ever trials on human trafficking.

Thailand has come under international criticism for years over human trafficking in the country, and the rights group Fortify Rights called this trial an “unprecedented effort by Thai authorities to hold perpetrators of human trafficking accountable.”

“The conviction of a senior Army officer was an extremely rare event in junta-ruled Thailand,” according to Thai newspaper The Nation. Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpan was found guilty of trafficking and taking bribes, The Associated Press reported.

The case involved more than 100 defendants, and the judge spent all day reading a 500 page verdict to the court, The Nation reported. The full breakdown of convictions was not immediately available, and the sentences have not yet been announced.

“The trial began two years ago after the grisly discovery of dozens of shallow graves along the border — in what investigators say were jungle camps where traffickers held migrants hostage until their relatives paid to free them,” reporter Michael Sullivan in Thailand tells our Newscast unit. “Many of the dead were ethnic Rohingya, a long persecuted Muslim minority in neighboring Myanmar.”

Sullivan adds that police officers are also among the defendants.

“The court related testimony that not enough food and water was provided to the detained Rohingya, who faced death threats designed to prevent them from using their phones or fleeing the camp,” The Nation reported. “The court also said it had been told that victims were beaten up when they asked for more food and water.”

The identities of the dead have not been released, according to Reuters, and human rights campaigners say the trafficking networks are largely still in place.

Investigators and witnesses in this trial faced significant intimidation and threats, Fortify Rights said.

“This may be the end of an important and unprecedented trial, but it’s been a rocky road, and it’s not ‘case-closed’ for survivors of human trafficking here,” Amy Smith, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “Thailand has a long way to go to ensure justice for thousands who were exploited, tortured, and killed by human traffickers during the last several years.”

The BBC added that “a senior policeman who led an investigation into human trafficking in Thailand, Major General Paween Pongsirin, fled to Australia fearing his life was in danger from influential figures implicated in trafficking in his country.”

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Quantum Computing Is Coming for Your Data

The news that disturbed my digital life came two years ago in a snail mail letter strewn with phrases like “malicious cyber intrusion” and “identity theft.” A relative’s company had been part of a massive hack, the note said, leaving my information exposed. Before the letter came, I was a cyber security neophyte: I didn’t use a VPN and encrypted websites were just for banking. I often shopped online, depositing my credit card number over coffee shop wifi.

Meredith Rutland Bauer is a freelance journalist focusing on science, the environment, and technology.


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Since then, I’ve gotten better. My Android is filled with WhatsApp and Signal—which use end-to-end encryption—and my finance apps encrypt my data with both hardware and software. With things outside of my control, like my now-compromised social security number, I reassure myself that big organizations use encryption to house sensitive data, so my social must be unreadable to hackers.

But it turns out that all this encryption might not matter. Internet users like me have long relied on encryption for security and peace of mind, but cryptography experts are becoming aware of its faults—namely, that encryption can only protect against the tools we have now, and better, smarter tools are on the horizon. Quantum computers, which are fundamentally different from traditional computers because they leverage quantum mechanics to do calculations, could easily decrypt the advanced encryption we use widely. So even if encrypted data is safe from today’s hackers, it’s potentially vulnerable to hackers of the future.

Experts are concerned that cybercriminals might exploit this vulnerability with a scheme called harvest and decrypt. It’s a long-game attack where hackers scrape encrypted data and hold it, sometimes for decades, while they wait for quantum computers to become widespread enough for them to buy one. As soon as they have access to the device, they’ll use it to decrypt the stored data, which could contain anything from social security numbers to health information to a slew of nuclear missile codes.

And sure, nuclear missile codes will likely have changed over time—but according to John Schanck, a Ph.D student at the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing, plenty of information still needs to be secure. He imagines a 20-year-old’s health data getting leaked — a childhood illness or a teenage abortion suddenly becomes a target for blackmail. Social security numbers are sensitive for a person’s entire lifetime. Names of CIA spies need to be kept secret, along with lots of classified military information.

Schanck even suspects that the NSA is using the technique. When Edward Snowden leaked secret information in 2013, it came to light that the NSA’s protocols allowed for storing encrypted communication because “they can’t judge at the time of interception if it’s going to be useful for law enforcement,” Schanck says.

Quantum computers have been on cryptographers’ radars as a security threat for years. In trials, they can already shred through public key cryptography, a system that exchanges passwords between a sender and receiver to decrypt. RSA and elliptic curve cryptography—algorithms that are widely used for all types of data encryption online, including making that “s” in “https” possible—have been broken in tests using Shor’s algorithm. That algorithm is run on a quantum computer, says Mike Brown, CTO of ISARA, a Canada-based post-quantum cryptography company.

Luckily, the quantum computers that can accomplish these feats sell for millions of dollars, keeping them mostly in the hands of large companies, research labs, and government offices.
You can’t exactly buy a quantum computer at Best Buy. The only way to even get access to one, outside of a major tech company or research lab, is to buy time on IBM’s quantum computing cloud-based services or buy a quantum annealer from D-Wave to the tune of about $15 million.

But that doesn’t mean quantum computers won’t ever be a household item. “It is possible it takes another 20 or 30 years from today for someone to have a quantum computer and be able to decrypt messages in real time,” Schanck says. And getting your hands on encrypted data isn’t nearly as hard. Anyone with a wifi connection and some technical knowledge about the process can do it, as long as they’re able to be proximate to their target. It’s not just nation states who could get their hands on encrypted data: Someone could copy your data over the Starbucks wifi network.

Quantum computers will open a whole new world of scientific advancement. But the “dark side” of that tool is quantum computers’ ability to take an impossible problem and make it “trivial,” Brown says. Defending against quantum computers will require techniques that don’t exist yet. Securing data will require quantum algorithms, or a system of public and private keys that erase themselves over time. This means that hackers would scrape data that would become useless in the future—because the keys necessary to access that information would have already self-destructed.

Still, some experts believe that multi-decade encryption is overkill. While information is being stored, waiting to be decrypted, the information contained within it will become obsolete. “There are actually very few long-term secrets in our society,” says computer security expert and cryptographer Bruce Schneier. “We don’t have 30-year secrets. There are no military secrets from the 1970s that are secret today.” Others suggest that quantum computers are a far-off dream. No one is sure when they will become common fixtures in homes and businesses, let alone tools for blackhat hackers—so why panic? Especially considering the patience required for a perpetrator to pull off a decades-long con.

Maybe that’s comforting to some. While my social security number is probably being bought and sold somewhere on the dark web, I’m crossing my fingers that my encrypted hospital records and ID cards aren’t also being scraped.

I don’t know want to find out how my data could be leveraged against me in the age of the quantum internet—but something tells me that the culprits will have their eyes on a self-driving spacecraft, rather than a fancy car. For all I know, those hackers are probably infants right now, swiping mashed peas on their first iPhones.

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New ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ site manages the rules so you can just play

Dungeons & Dragons, the quintessential pen-and-paper game, is more popular than ever, thanks to Twitch channels like Geek and Sundry and podcasts like The Adventure Zone. But it’s one thing to listen or watch a presentation crafted by seasoned gamers and another to actually run your own adventure. Players may get frustrated by the hundreds of pages of rules and quit before they’ve even had their first goblin encounter. Wizards of the Coast and social gaming firm Curse aim to fix this with the launch of D&D Beyond, a website and app intended to take care of all the fine print and number crunching, leaving dungeon masters and players free to focus on crafting a good story.

While Curse specializes in video game add-ons and communities, D&D Beyond is a different kind of project — a digital companion for a tabletop game. At launch it will mostly consist of a compendium of the rules and world information from D&D‘s fifth edition, broken down into sections like "spells" and "monsters" that can be either browsed in a list or searched, with plenty of filters to narrow down the exact information required.

The current Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide may give you all the information you need to play an adventure, but anyone who’s ever used the books can attest to how hard it is to find anything in them. Many players end up turning to outside wikis and forums to get the information they want instead. Wizards of the Coast has tried over the years to provide some limited online help: Dungeons & Dragons has had digital content since its second edition, and the tools provided for the fourth edition did rather well with players. One thing all of these sites had in common is that they’ve always been meant as a supplement to the game — you still needed to buy the books to play.

The eventual goal is for D&D Beyond to completely replace the physical books. That doesn’t mean paper devotees are out of luck — the guides will stay in print as long as there’s demand. But players who prefer to keep everything on their computer or phone will have an official way to do that. While seasoned players will appreciate things like easier-to-access game minutia, it’s newbie adventurers who will benefit the most.

For example, character creation has been boiled down to a step-by-step process on the Beyond site that walks you through choosing a race, class and so forth. I used the builder to make an elven ranger and was impressed with how easy it is: After each selection it’ll give you drop-downs for things like expertises and languages, with the weapons and armor you can use clearly marked. When I copied my gnome bard from the game I currently play with friends, it actually showed me a few skill roll bonuses I had missed when I leveled up my character by hand.

The sheer complexity of Dungeons & Dragons is what’s made it so hard to build effective digital tools for it, but Project Lead Adam Bradford notes that it’s not the depth that makes it so hard to digitize but the breadth. The game is an open world, ultimately only limited by the imagination of its players. The rules are written as a guide, not a rigid framework for adventurers to operate in. To support freedom of ideas the site allows plenty of manual input, ranging from things as mundane as dice rolls to full-blown homebrew content that can be uploaded to the site’s database. There’s an entire section dedicated to sharing user-generated content where gamers can upvote the best submissions and add anything they find to their "collection."

Even with so much of the game experience being moved online, Curse still envisions people sitting around a table to play Dungeons & Dragons, just with their laptops in front of them. Even if the entire game is run through Beyond, with future iterations of the site keeping track of combat turns, attacks and statuses, players will still need to talk to one another to describe what’s happening.

The company also sees the site as a way to make the game more accessible when you’re not playing. When you’re at work or in class you can look at your character, browse for new spells and read backstory anytime you want. By making those little things more accessible during downtime, the actual play sessions can be focused on story, socialization and performance.

The idea of Dungeons & Dragons as performance hasn’t always been a prominent part of the brand. Sure, you’re trying to amuse yourself and your friends, but no one was really playing for an audience outside gaming conventions. Now you can watch seasoned players run through campaigns like the Penny Arcade’s Acquisitions Inc. video series. Curse wants to help that phenomenon grow, especially after its sale to Twitch last year.

You need a Twitch account to sign up for D&D Beyond, because the company has big plans down the line for integrating D&D campaigns into the streaming site. The idea is that when you set up a stream it’ll be connected to the Beyond page for that particular campaign, displaying relevant infographics on the screen to give viewers a better idea of what’s going on. This will include interactive elements — each player will have her character name displayed, which can be moused over to look at that character sheet — and animations for things like spells or statuses. Games will look a lot more professional, and with most of the rules crunching going on behind the curtain, they will be a lot more entertaining to watch, with an increased emphasis on performance.

Features like interactive Twitch streams and the ability to run games completely through the site are big tasks, but Bradford says Curse is in it for the long haul. The first step is to get dungeon master tools up and running later this year, like combat and initiative tracking. There’s been a lot of demand for encounter building — that is, designing battles against monsters and other foes. Encounters form the core of Dungeons & Dragons gameplay, with a typical session usually structured around one or two big battles. Wizards of the Coast sells predesigned adventures, but some players prefer something more customized to their group, especially if they have the type of friends who tend to step outside the box.

Beyond will let dungeon masters tweak existing monsters and build entirely new ones: As an example Bradford mentioned a Challenge Rating 12 Mind Flayer that had been separated from its colony. It would be weaker, but how would a player modify its stats? Beyond can eliminate the guesswork, even taking into account small things like how carrying certain magical items might affect the creature.

Unfortunately, these tools won’t be ready when Beyond comes out in August. Everything introduced in the current beta is what players should expect at launch. That’s the compendium, character builder and spell book, which will be available free of charge to registered users. Nothing needed to play will be locked away behind a paywall. Instead, the premium tiers will have features that make the site more useful, like the ability to store unlimited characters or use homebrew content. The site will also offer a lot of onetime purchases, like guides and special character classes. Dungeon masters who opt into the most expensive Master Tier will be able to share this content with their players with a click. It certainly beats having to carry around a backpack full of source books to every session.

Of course, some people like carrying around heavy bags of books and arguing about attack bonuses. Nothing has to change for them. But for players who really care about collaborative storytelling and love performing, D&D Beyond could be the push they need to give tabletop role-playing a try. It makes Dungeons & Dragons less about the math and more about being someone else for a little while.

Lede image: Vincent Proce / Wizards of the Coast

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Exercise stick trains your muscles with light-based feedback

Of all the products ripe for technological gimmicks, training gizmos take the (low-fat, sugar-free) cake. That said, a new gadget called Axon does look pretty cool, if you’re willing to risk Kickstarter. It’s a stick that resembles a stout pool cue, with sensors and lights that measure the force you apply when pushing it against a wall, floor, ceiling, rock or tree. You can then train your body to match the lights, helping you improve muscle and back strength.

The Axon stick shows a digital readout of exactly how much force you’re applying, but the lights, which extend down the stick as you press, are easier to follow during a workout. When you start a rep, the lights turn yellow and gradually move down the stick toward the sensor. The idea is to then "’chase’ the yellow guidance light and turn it green by applying a target amount of force," the company behind it says. Once you hit the target force, the lights turn green.

Meanwhile, the the AxonFit app gives you access to a library of exercises created by personal trainers (or your own custom workouts) that you can transmit to the Axon stick. "Axon then guides users through those workouts, provides accurate, real-time, visual feedback and sends data collected during workouts back to AxonFit app." As with most other fitness apps, you can then track your progress, compete with friends and share on social networks.

While a stick might seem a pretty silly workout tool, you can use one to do full-body, iso-kinetic-type training by pulling or pushing it. Since you’re not hefting free weights, "Axon is accessible to people at any fitness level, including both children and the elderly," its creators say. It’s reasonably light and small, so you can use and store it easily, even in a small apartment.

To make sure it was durable, light and stylish, the group hired Whipsaw, the company that helped create Nike’s Fuelband, to design it. The result is a nice-looking, 10 pound, five foot bamboo stick with a 5.5-inch circumference and chargeable battery (via the base) that lasts about three hours. The sensor uses durometer rubber that won’t scuff surfaces, and each stick can be paired with multiple accounts.

The Axon is available at an early bird price of $249, or $389 for a pair. So far, the company is about a quarter of the way to its $50,000 goal, with four weeks left in the campaign. The price isn’t cheap, but it’s no more than, say, a decent elliptical trainer or set of free weights. And if it ends up under your bed or the closet gathering dust like most training equipment, at least it won’t take up too much space. If you decide to make a pledge, remember that as with any Kickstarter product, there’s a chance it will never ship and that you’ll lose all your money.

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Amazon Spark is a product discovery social network that looks like Instagram

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Amazon encourages product discovery in many ways, including all those customized product lists on the site’s homepage that are based on your search history and wish lists. Now the company is taking a different approach with a new feature called Amazon Spark. Tucked into the “Programs and Features” section of the Amazon iOS app is the Spark social network, in which Prime members can post photos to an Instagram-like feed. Users can tag products available on Amazon so anyone browsing the photo feed can instantly find and buy those items.

The one catch to Spark is that you must be a Prime member to post images to the social network, but any Amazon user can browse the Spark feed. If you want to post to Spark, you first have to set up an account of sorts by choosing five or more things that interest you from a word cloud. These topics range from “books” to “strange finds” to “TV binge-watching” and your choices influence the types of photos you’ll see once you start using Spark. Once you confirm a username (by default it’s the name associated with your current Amazon account, but you can change it) the Spark feed populates with posts from other users.

Although Spark is built in to the Amazon iOS app, it looks strikingly like Instagram. Each post has the user’s circular profile photo at the top, some with “verified” check marks next to their names, a short caption atop the photo, and tags at the bottom. Photos of items for sale on Amazon will have a shopping bag icon at the bottom-right corner, along with the number of products tagged in the picture. you can tap on the photo to see which items are listed, and if you want to see the product’s description, you can tap the link that pops up at the bottom of the screen. You can comment and “smile”—Amazon’s version of “like”—on any of the photos in the feed as well.

Spark appears to be Amazon’s way of not only encouraging more young people to discover new products on the platform in a way that feels natural to them, but also boosting the social aspect of Amazon as a whole. But products will always be the main focus of any Amazon feature, and Spark certainly integrates “shoppable” tags more efficiently than Instagram. Amazon has the upper hand as it can link directly to products it sells and directly bring customers to that product page when they tap on the link.

Apparel, jewelry, and beauty brands only gained the ability to post shoppable images to Instagram earlier this year, and the process is more indirect. Similarly to Amazon, Instagram has a shopping bag icon on any images that have tagged products. Once tapped, bubbles with tagged product names and prices pop up over the image. You can then tap the bubble to go to an Instagram page with a larger image of the product (different from the original image posted to the retailer’s account) and a more detailed description. If you want to buy the product, you then have to tap the “Shop Now” link next to the price on that secondary page and you’ll be taken to the retailer’s website where you can shop.

Shoppable images aren’t as widespead on Instagram either—unless you follow a lot of retail brands, you likely won’t see a lot of images with the shopping bag icon. On Amazon Spark, everything is integrated back to Amazon’s shopping experience, creating a seamless way to browse photos and shop at the same time. Amazon Spark will likely never become as big as Instagram in terms of a social network, but it could be useful for folks who often want to buy things they see on social media and want an easier way to do so.

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