Edward Snowden Develops Phone Case to Alert Users if Their Data is Being Compromised


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Three years ago, when Edward Snowden fled from the US and met with reporters in Hong Kong to reveal his reasons for leaving — he asked them to put their phones in the hotel room refrigerator. He asked them to do so in order to block the signals sent to and from the phones. Now, three years later, Snowden and Andrew ‘Bunnie’ Huang have used that same principle to design a phone case that warns users when their data is being monitored. Say hello to the Snowden phone case.

Snowden and Huang revealed their plans for the case via video link to an event at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The duo showed how the device connects to the phone’s radio transmitters and alerts the owner when a cellular, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection is being used to share or receive data.

 

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According to Snowden and Huang’s research, the idea to make such a case was inspired by protecting journalists.

Front-line journalists risk their lives to report from conflict regions. Casting a spotlight on atrocities, their updates can alter the tides of war and outcomes of elections. As a result, front-line journalists are high-value targets, and their enemies will spare no expense to silence them. In the past decade, hundreds of journalists have been captured, tortured and killed. These journalists have been reporting in conflict zones, such as Iraq and Syria, or in regions of political instability, such as the Philippines, Mexico, and Somalia.

Unfortunately, journalists can be betrayed by their own tools. Their smartphones, an essential tool for communicating with sources and the outside world–as well as for taking photos and authoring articles–are also the perfect tracking device. Legal barriers barring the access to unwitting phone transmissions are failing because of the precedent set by the US’s “third-party doctrine,” which holds that metadata on such signals enjoys no legal protection. As a result, governments and powerful political institutions are gaining access to comprehensive records of phone emissions unwittingly broadcast by device owners. This leaves journalists, activists, and rights workers in a position of vulnerability. Reporter Marie Colvin’s 2012 death is a tragic reminder of how real this vulnerability can be. A lawsuit against the Syrian government filed in 2016 alleges she was deliberately targeted and killed by Syrian government artillery fire. The lawsuit describes how her location was discovered in part through the use of intercept devices that monitored satellite-dish and cellphone communications.

“If you have a phone in your pocket that’s turned on, a long-lived record of your movements has been created,” Snowden said. “As a result of the way the cell network functions your device is constantly shouting into the air by means of radio signals a unique identity that validates you to the phone company. And this unique identity is not only saved by that phone company, but it can also be observed as it travels over the air by independent, even more dangerous third parties.”

1469037866496_concept-renderingThis device will act as a kill switch that would pull the phone’s power supply when it detected radio transmitting after the owner has attempted to turn it off. As Snowden points out, Airplane mode is often ineffective at preventing such communications interception.

Turning off radios by entering airplane mode is no defense; for example, on iPhones since iOS 8.2, GPS is active in airplane mode. Furthermore, airplane mode is a “soft switch”–the graphics on the screen have no essential correlation with the hardware state. Malware packages, peddled by hackers at a price accessible by private individuals, can activate radios without any indication from the user interface; trusting a phone that has been hacked to go into airplane mode is like trusting a drunk person to judge if they are sober enough to drive.

While the device is still far from ready for commercial distribution, Snowden and Huang note that they hope this case study will influence how individuals perceive their personal tracking devices they carry around in their pockets — also known as cell phones.

“Over the coming year, we hope to prototype and verify the introspection engine’s abilities,” they write. “As the project is run largely through volunteer efforts on a shoestring budget, it will proceed at a pace reflecting the practical limitations of donated time.”

Judging by how well the news of this device is being received, Snowden and Huang should start a crowdfunding effort. Also, judging by the ever-increasing size and scope of the police and surveillance state — this thing needs to be built yesterday.

Modafinil Is The First Confirmed Drug That Makes You smarter.


Though initially made for narcoleptics (people having trouble sleeping), many soon caught on that modafinil can enhance cognitive abilities. Right now, it’s a favorite among students who use it when preparing for exams with visible results, they claim. But modafinil isn’t the first such “smart drug” we’ve come across. It’s likely that you’ve seen some TV or internet ads marketing ‘smart pills’ that supposedly enhance cognitive abilities, but with mere anecdotal evidence backing it up. In contrast, modafinil really seems to be a legit smart drug, according to a systematic review of reports documenting the effects of the drug. The meta-analysis was made by a team at University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School.

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Make me smarter The researchers looked at the studies documenting the cognitive enhancing effects of modafinil published between January 1990 and December 2014. In total, 24 such studies were identified which discussed modafinil cognitive benefits in areas like planning and decision making, flexibility, learning and memory, and creativity. Performance gains varied from task to task, but the longer, more complex the task was, the better the improvements. The most significant improvement was registered in decision-making and planning tasks, while the least significant dealt with working memory, or flexibility of thought. Most importantly, 70% of the studies reported little to no side effects. Some, however, found that participants showed insomnia, headache, stomach ache or nausea.

The researchers point out, however, that these reported side effects were observed in the placebo group as well. “This is the first overview of modafinil’s actions in non-sleep-deprived individuals since 2008, and so we were able to include a lot of recent data. Interestingly, we found that the type of test used to assess modafinil’s cognitive benefits has changed over the last few decades. In the past, people were using very basic tests of cognition, developed for neurologically-impaired individuals. In contrast, more recent studies have, in general, used more complex tests: when these are used, it appears that modafinil more reliably enhances cognition: in particular ‘higher’ brain functions that rely on contribution from multiple simple cognitive processes,” said Dr. Ruairidh McLennan Battleday, a University of Oxford researcher. The researchers seem confident to label modafinil as the world’s first ever confirmed cognitive enhancing drug. The findings raise some important questions.

For one, the studies mainly concern the short-term effects of modafinil. The word isn’t out yet on what might happen to a person were him to take the drug every day for years. Secondly, there’s an ethical consideration. Is it okay to take a cognitive enhancing drug in the absence of a cognitive disability? Some might see it like cheating. On a competitive level, modafinil could definitely be seen as cheating. The president of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology welcomed the findings, but was also careful to point out the ethical discussion. “Modafinil is the first real example of a smart drug which can genuinely help, for example, with exam preparation,” said Guy Goodwin.

“Previous ethical discussion of such agents has tended to assume extravagant effects before it was clear that there were any. If correct, the present update means the ethical debate is real: how should we classify, condone or condemn a drug that improves human performance in the absence of pre-existing cognitive impairment?” In the UK, modafinil is already quite popular among university students who couldn’t wait for an ‘official’ word. A survey by Oxford University student newspaper The Tab found one in four students took modafinil. A fifth of students at Imperial, Sheffield, Nottingham and Manchester also admitted using the drug. Just like some body builders and athletes use supplements to enhance their physical performance, some might decide to take cognitive enhancers for their brain. The brain – more specifically, intelligence and creativity – isn’t exactly like a biceps.

You can’t pop pills and expect turning into Einstein or Bradley Cooper from Limitless, which is full of fallacies by the way. Forget Limitless. The point I’m trying to make is you should see cognitive enhancers with a weary eye. Whether you want to overclock your brain or not is up to you, but really if you feel you’re not smart enough, try the traditional approach first. Flex that brain. Study, read, talk to people, write. And don’t forget to exercise.

Doctors Didn’t Know This Common Antibiotic Was Deadly


Levaquin is one of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S. Years of evidence show it’s also overprescribed and can cause serious side effects—even death.

Six plaintiffs filed an $800 million lawsuit (PDF) against former Federal Drug Administration chief Margaret Hamburg and health giant Johnson & Johnson, accusing them of hiding the dangers of the antibiotic Levaquin to increase profits.

There are many unconvincing claims in the lawsuit, but that the lethal effects of the drug were not adequately communicated to physicians is not one of them.

“The pain is almost unbearable in both legs and left shoulder,” a user named Diane wroteon Consumer Affairs in October. “I am now walking with a cane.” Ruptured tendons, which Diane was diagnosed with, are a rare but serious side effect of Levaquin, as are a host of other physical and mental issues.

“I can barely walk,” another named Linda wrote one month ago. “Can’t sit or lay without discomfort.”

Filed as a federal racketeering lawsuit, the complaint is as salacious as it is tenuous, claiming that while heading the FDA, Hamburg conspired to “cover up” side effects to boost the profits of Johnson & Johnson (the drug’s maker) and her husband (whose firm allegedly owned stock in the company).

The man behind the conspiracy is Larry Klayman, a right-wing activist whom the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a “pathologically litigious attorney.” His argument hasn’t made it far on the Internet and likely won’t in court—because, as the attorneys for Johnson & Johnson argue: “This is a product liability suit wrapped in a conspiracy theory.”

Hamburg’s attorneys called Klayman’s lawsuit “patently false,” “defective,” and lacking in factual evidence. “We are confident the court will dismiss his claims in their entirety,” they said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “For nearly six years, Dr. Hamburg served alongside her FDA colleagues to help protect the health and safety of the American public. Mr. Klayman’s accusations concerning that work are reckless and offensive.”

The concept that the FDA chief conspired to get rich by gaming the system will be a tough one to prove and, as of now, Klayman’s complaint lacks the evidence to do so. The already weak claim is further discredited by the fact that Klayman routinely finds creative ways to attack President Obama and the Clintons, the latter of which he has sued 18 times.

But while the suit may not have merit, it revives a critical conversation about the drug in question. Hamburg’s intentions aside, the fact remains: Warnings surrounding the popular antibiotic Levaquin have been dangerously insufficient. The drug, capable of causing debilitating tendinitis, permanent nerve damage, and even psychosis, is meant to be reserved for severe life-threatening infections.

 

Instead, it’s a part of a family of antibiotics that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is the fourth-most prescribed nationwide, given to 33 million Americans in 2013 alone (PDF). With a panel of experts urging the FDA to add further warnings, the question of how this happened seems secondary to a more urgent one: Why hasn’t it been fixed?

Levaquin (or levofloxacin) first entered the market in 1996 as the newest version of an old class of drugs known as fluoroquinolones. Synthetic broad-spectrum antibiotics, they attack bacterial DNA directly in a way that allows them to treat the severest infections, such as hospital-acquired pneumonia and anthrax inhalation. For this reason, the drug is incredibly valuable to the medical world.

But the strength with which Levaquin operates is a double-edged sword, leading to a host of side effects that patients allege have been underplayed. Most commonly, these include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, and insomnia. Less often, but well documented, are seizures, tendinitis, nerve damage, aortic aneurysms, cardiac arrhythmia, psychosis, vision loss, and renal failure.

When used for severe infections, the life-saving benefits of the drug far outweigh the risks. When used for uncomplicated urinary tract infections, a condition for which Levaquin is often prescribed, they do not. According to the 200,000 patients who have suffered serious side effects after being prescribed it for mild infections, that message is still not clear to some doctors.

Without awareness, patients are prescribed the drug for mild infections, putting them at risk of permanent physical and psychological damage. The six plaintiffs in Klayman’s case are a small sampling of a larger problem that, according to the science world, experts have known about for decades.

Levaquin began causing problems soon after hitting the market, but reports on the negative effects were scant. Ten years after it was approved, the nonprofit consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen released data showing that between November 1997 and December 2005 there were nearly 800 cases of tendon disorders from use of fluoroquinolones—61 percent of them from Levaquin.

In 2006, Public Citizen Research Group’s director, Dr. Sidney Wolfe, petitioned the FDA to add a black box warning to the label. “The numbers are startling,” Wolfe said in 2006. “Tendon ruptures associated with these drugs continue to occur at a disturbing rate but could be prevented if doctors and patients were more aware of early warning signals.”

In July of 2008, the FDA agreed to add a black box warning about the risk of tendinitis, but did not agree to send a letter to doctors highlighting the risks. The black box did little to curb prescriptions and by 2010 Levaquin was the best-selling antibiotic in America.

Patient complaints began pouring in online as academia attempted to piece together the issues. In 2008, scientists at the National Center for Biotechnology Information studied the case of a healthy 42-year-old woman who suffered from an “acute-onset delirium” with “psychotic features.” Her symptoms dissipated when Levaquin was stopped, leading them to conclude that the drug caused the reaction.

Eventually, users suffering long-term consequences from Levaquin began taking legal action. In 2009, three separate plaintiffs from West Virginia who suffered from severe tendon injuries after taking the drug argued that the black box warning alone wasn’t enough. “Physicians will interpret the relative risk of a Levaquin-induced tendon injury inappropriately,” reads the complaint. “Defendants continue to market Levaquin as a first line therapy for the common bronchitis and sinusitis infections, and for which many other, safer antibiotics are available.”

In 2010, Johnson & Johnson settled its first major Levaquin lawsuit, shelling out $1.8 million in damages to a plaintiff who suffered a tendon rupture after taking the drug. By 2012, the company was facing upwards of 3,400 lawsuits from patients arguing that the warnings were not made clear enough to themselves or their doctors. In November of that year, the company settled 845 of them.

Those suffering from fluoroquinolones-related injuries began rallying together, nicknaming themselves “floxies,” and forming support groups across the Web. A Facebook page called Fluoroquinolone Antibiotic Toxicity boasts more than 7,300 members; another called My Quin Story (“Life After Levaquin”) has 3,179.

Their stories resemble those in the 72-page complaint that Klayman filed (PDF), in which six plaintiffs describe being injured by Levaquin. One of them, Terry Aston, told a local ABC affiliate that taking the drug to treat a non-serious infection ruined her life. “I’m tired all the time,” Aston said. “I have to really push to get anything done. I have pain every day, all day, throughout my body… I can’t lift things like I used to.”

Dozens of doctors have spoken out against misuse of fluoroquinolones over the years, most while still affirming that the drugs do have benefits. The University of South Carolina’s Dr. Charles Bennett, who runs the Southern Network on Adverse Reactions, has filed two Citizen Petitions to the FDA about Levaquin—the first, asking for warnings about peripheral neuropathy; the other, mitochondrial toxicity.

In the petition, Bennett noted that more than 80,000 complaints about the drug had been filed to the FDA between 1997 and 2011 and that—due to the FDA’s weak reporting system—there were likely tens of thousands more. “We are talking about going into the physician’s office, having a little sniffle, walking out with an antibiotic and shortly after having these kinds of problems,” Dr. Bennett told local news.

A pharmacological epidemiologist named Mahyar Etminan told The New York Times that “lazy doctors” prescribing them for minor infections were “trying to kill a fly with an automatic weapon.” In July, a team at ABC acquired FDA documents showing that the number of serious adverse reactions to Levaquin has soared to 200,000—including at least 3,000 deaths.

This past November, in one of the biggest hearings on the drug to date, 30 patients suffering serious side effects went before a panel of experts at the FDA.

Among them was Michael Christian Kaferly, an engineer with a young son whose body began deteriorating in 2008 while he was taking Levaquin to treat a minor cold. “I quickly went from an intelligent and healthy man who worked out almost daily to being bedridden, unable to understand the world around me and in horrific pain not of this earth,” Kaferly told the panel.

Seven years later, Kaferly—who was diagnosed with mitochondrial damage—said Levaquin had “hijacked” his life. “In 2008 there was no warning about mitochondrial damage,” he said. “If the FDA protected me and allowed me to make an informed decision, I absolutely would have chosen to keep the cough.”

Also on the panel was 45-year-old Rachel Brummert, who suffered nerve damage and 10 ruptured tendons after taking Levaquin for a sinus infection. “I am living proof that the risks in using a fluorquinolone to treat a routine infection far outweighs the benefits,” Brummert told the panel. The panel agreed with her, voting 21 to 0 that Levaquin is not appropriate for minor infections.

The group urged the FDA to take make this clear on the label, which it has not done.

While the FDA said it does not comment specifically on pending legal matters, it has released a statement saying that it “takes concerns raised about drugs very seriously.” Janssen Pharmaceuticals, the branch of Johnson & Johnson that makes the drug, told The Daily Beast that its “first priority is the well-being of the people” who take Levaquin.

Jennifer Norton, a spokesperson for Janssen, confirmed that the drug is still marketed as appropriate for uncomplicated urinary tract infections, a condition which she says it has “proven to be safe and effective” in treating.

Since its release, Levaquin has been prescribed over 300 million times. Norton says that despite the recommendations of the FDA panel, that the company believes the existing label “appropriately reflects the current understanding of the safety and efficacy of the fluoroquinolone class,” adding that Janssen is continuing to work with the FDA panel as part of an “ongoing collaboration to support the safe and appropriate use of fluoroquinolone antibiotics.”

One of the members of the November panel was Dr. Tobias Gerhard, a researcher at Rutgers University and pharmacoepidemiologist who looks at the effects and safety of drugs in populations. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Gerhard said that he left the meeting in which 30 patients shared their plight convinced that safety warnings about the drugs have not been adequately communicated to them

“What became clear in the advisory committee hearing is that the patients weren’t aware of these risks,” says Gerhard. “It wasn’t a conscious decision and a risk they knowingly agreed to take.” Gerhard says that if quinolones were prescribed less frequently as first-line treatments for mild conditions, as they should be, the serious side effects would occur more rarely. “It’s difficult for doctors. Generally they feel that quinolones are safe—and for the vast majority of cases they are,” he says. “But if you give quinolones to enough people, you’ll see a significant number of serious adverse effects, even if they are rare.”

Michael Carome, the new director of Public Citizen’s Research Group, takes a less measured approach at Levaquin, calling it one of the most overused antibiotics in the country. “It’s overprescribed for uncomplicated things,” he said. “There are much safer antibiotics that people should use.”

Carome is not shy about implicating the pharmaceutical industry.

“Too often the reason the drugs are overprescribed is because of aggressive marketing by drug reps and other people who push the newest drugs to physicians,” he said. “That’s one contributing factor; the other is that physicians and other prescribers aren’t well informed.”

Despite the drug’s severe side effects, Carome isn’t advocating to get it off the market (which Public Citizen has succeeded in doing with 38 drugs). “For certain infections, such as a serious UTI where you’ve become septic, fluoroquinolones’ benefits outweigh these risks,” he says. Instead, like other activists, Carome wants the pharmaceutical industries to stop marketing the drug for minor infections—a concept that, given their billion-dollar budgets, will only happen if the FDA changes the label.

Whether Klayman’s lawsuit will go to court or not remains to be seen. If so, given the CDC’s new report calling one in three antibiotic prescriptions unnecessary, it’s likely to have company.

Vegetarians Are More Intelligent And Empathetic Than Meat-Eaters


Vegetarians are more likely to have high intelligence and empathy skills, a new study found.

Although vegetarianism and veganism are becoming more popular, particularly in health-conscious areas such as LA, there are still a lot of people who have doubts over plant-based diets. However, recent studies [1] by the National Child Development Study have actually shown that more intelligent individuals are more likely to become vegetarians than their lesser-intelligent meat-loving counterparts.

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The researchers used 11 different cognitive tests during their study and it was found that those who were vegetarian at age 42 had a significantly higher IQ than those who ate meat, with almost a 10-point difference in IQ results. This result isn’t just confirmed by one study, however, there have been other tests within this field that have proven the correlation between diet and intelligence.

Evolutionary Psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa [2] also looked into the relationship between Vegetarianism and high intelligence in her study which found that people who have high intelligence and empathy skills are more likely to change personal habits that affect the world around them, such as eating meat. Intelligent people are more likely to adapt to their surroundings and make conscious decisions on what they are going to eat, instead of the habits we’re conditioned to uphold from our ancestral environment.

The link between intelligence and plant-based diets doesn’t just work one way, however. Eating a well-balanced vegetarian diet can actually provide more protein than a meat-based diet and with these nutritional benefits, the body, and the brain is becoming stronger and more capable. So maintaining a plant-based diet can improve brain health, productivity, and intelligence.

Being conscious about what we eat isn’t just about consumption, cravings, and hunger, but about sustainability and with the expansion of meat production being the main cause of deforestation in the last two decades, it’s not likely that we will be able to sustain our current rates of meat consumption for much longer.

Maintaining a vegetarian diet doesn’t have to be a constant dietary requirement – sometimes you may just crave a burger. It’s about slowing down the consumption of meat and consciously making the change to preserve what we have left. To research and make a conscious decision about your diet can require intelligence and empathy so it’s easy to see where this research has come from.

So although science says vegetarians are more intelligent, that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t be more conscious about our meat-eating habits. You can do your own research and make conscious decisions about your diet. Whatever your dietary choices, make sure you’re happy with what you’re eating.