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Facebook’s Encryption Makes it Harder to Detect Child Abuse

In 2018, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received more than 18 million reports to their CyberTipline, constituting 45 million images depicting child sexual abuse. Most of these children were under the age of 12, and some were as young as a few months old.

Since its inception in 1998, the CyberTipline has received a total of 55 million such reports. Those from 2018 alone constitute a nearly half of all reports over the past two decades.

These staggering numbers don’t cover the entirety of online services. Most of NCMEC’s reports are automatically generated by an image hashing technology I helped develop called PhotoDNA, which extracts a distinct signature from uploaded images and compares it against the signatures of known harmful or illegal content. Flagged content can then be instantaneously removed and reported.

But not every online service uses PhotoDNA. And child sexual abuse material shared via the dark web, personal correspondences, and services that use end-to-end encryption generally don’t get reported to NCMEC or anyone else. Frustratingly, Facebook, the world’s largest social network, is set to grow the digital realm where images of child sexual abuse can spread freely.

Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that his company is expanding the use of end-to-end encryption on its services, preventing Facebook or anyone else from seeing the contents of communications. Zuckerberg conceded that this comes at a cost. “Encryption is a powerful tool for privacy, but that includes the privacy of people doing bad things,” he said. “When billions of people use a service to connect, some of them are going to misuse it for truly terrible things like child exploitation, terrorism, and extortion.”

Broader adoption of end-to-end encryption would cripple the efficacy of programs like PhotoDNA, significantly increasing the risk and harm to children around the world. It would also make it much harder to counter other illegal and dangerous activities on Facebook’s services. This move also doesn’t provide users with as much privacy as Zuckerberg suggests. Even without the ability to read the contents of your messages, Facebook will still know with whom you are communicating, from where you are communicating, and a trove of information about your other online activities. This is a far cry from real privacy.

Knowing that tens of millions of examples of the most heartbreaking imagery pass through its services every year, why would Facebook undermine the ability to prevent itself from becoming a safe haven for child predators?

The not so cynical answer is that Facebook is leveraging the backlash from its recent privacy scandals to launch a strategy that provides plausible deniability against the equally loud accusations that the company is not doing enough to suppress child abuse material, terrorist propaganda, crime, or dangerous conspiracies. By encrypting the content moving through, Facebook gets a twofer: It can claim to be ignorant of the abuse, while also telling the public that it cares about privacy. But neither one is true.

Many in law enforcement have argued that shifting to end-to-end encryption would severely hamper law enforcement and national security. The US attorney general, his British and Australian counterparts, and the 28 European Union member states have all urged Zuckerberg to delay the implementation of end-to-end encryption until proper safeguards can be put in place.

Facebook’s move has reawakened the fraught debate over whether governments should have a way to pierce encryption. I argue that governments that operate under the rule of law should, with a warrant, be granted the same access to our electronic lives as they are our physical lives. Government overreach or abuse can be adjudicated by the courts, and Facebook can choose not to deploy its services in countries in which governments cannot be trusted.

We should continue to debate how to balance the incremental privacy afforded by end-to-end encryption and the cost to our safety. But even now, Facebook can protect our children at the same time as widening its use of encryption.

Recent advances in encryption and hashing mean that technologies like PhotoDNA can operate within a service with end-to-end encryption. Certain types of encryption algorithms, known as partially or fully homomorphic, can perform image hashing on encrypted data. This means that images in encrypted messages can be checked against known harmful material without Facebook or anyone else being able to decrypt the image. This analysis provides no information about an image’s contents, preserving privacy, unless it is a known image of child sexual abuse.

Prepping Bees for Mars, New Google Shortcuts, and More News

Scientists are raising interplanetary bees and Google is speeding up your keys, but first: a cartoon about obsessive Instagrammers.

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Today’s Headlines

Bees, please: Stop dying in your Martian simulator

The Mars simulator in Pila, Poland, is mainly for humans: It simulates what it’s like to live and work at a base on the moon or Mars. But now 90,000 bees live there. The reason is that scientists realize we will need pollinators if we are ever going to grow food in those space places, so they need to figure something out: Is it possible to keep the bees alive?

Google’s .New shortcuts are now for everyone

A year ago, Google introduced a function that allows you to type doc.new into your URL bar to start a new Google Doc. Now it’s expanding that to all kinds of things. Want to start a new Spotify playlist? That’s playlist.new. List a widget on eBay? Try sell.new. Shorten a link with bit.ly? Type in link.new. That’s just a sample of Google’s first dozen outside .new domains; more are coming soon.

Fast Fact: 150 to 200

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That’s how many transgender athletes are currently competing in NCAA sports. For the most part, you won’t hear much about these athletes. But as more and more transgender athletes take the podium, the controversy around fairness is heating up.

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GDPR Fines Haven’t Rocked the Data Privacy World—Yet 

When it launched, Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) became bigger than Beyoncé. Since then, some of the hype around the law has waned, but there’s still one thing that gets people excited: fines.

Under the law, data-protection regulators across Europe have boosted powers to punish companies and organizations who are found in breach of the GDPR. The most serious consequences can be fines of up to €20 million ($22.4 million) or 4 percent of a firm’s global turnover, whichever is greater. These are larger than the £500,000 ($650,000) penalties that could be issued by the UK’s regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office, under the old data-protection rules.

Before the GDPR was enforced there were outlandish predictions that businesses would be hit with huge fines for data-protection issues. Some estimates claimed GDPR fines would be 79 times higher than those under previous rules; others said banks would be hit with fines of up to €4.7 billion ($5.3 billion) in the coming years.

Unsurprisingly there hasn’t been a deluge of fines running into millions or billions of euros, but the EU’s 28 data-protection regulators are slowly beginning to flex their enforcement muscles—including against big tech companies.

After the first year of the GDPR, the European Data Protection Board reported (PDF) that nations had examined 206,326 cases under the law. Helen Dixon, the Irish data-protection regulator who has jurisdiction over US tech companies because of their European headquarters in Ireland, has investigations open into at least 17 multinational firms. These include Facebook and its subsidiaries WhatsApp and Instagram, plus Google and Twitter.

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Regulators have already moved against big tech companies and others who have failed to properly protect consumer data. Here’s what we know about the GDPR fines that have been issued around Europe so far and why they’ve been handed out.

Google’s Pre-Checked Boxes

On the day the GDPR came into force across Europe (May 25, 2018), the French data-protection regulator received a complaint about Google. Three days later another arrived at the door of the National Data Protection Commission (CNIL), and at the start of 2019, CNIL hit Google with a €50 million ($56 million) fine.

CNIL said the penalty was for a “lack of transparency, inadequate information and lack of valid consent regarding the ads personalization.” In a summary of its decision, CNIL broke the fine down into two areas: not providing enough information about how Google uses information provided to it from across 20 different services and not correctly gaining consent for processing user data.

The regulator’s full decision (PDF) says that when users set up a Google account, there was only one option of accepting all processing of personal data, not a breakdown of all the types of information that would be handled. It also added there were pre-checked boxes within Google’s options, which are not allowed under the GDPR.

CNIL said: “The infringements observed deprive the users of essential guarantees regarding processing operations that can reveal important parts of their private life since they are based on a huge amount of data, a wide variety of services and almost unlimited possible combinations.”

Bulgaria’s DSK Bank Leak

Bulgarian financial group DSK Bank was hit with a fine of 1 million levs ($570,000) by the country’s Commission for Personal Data Protection at the end of August 2019, after names, addresses, copies of ID cards, and bank account numbers of more than 30,000 people were disclosed accidentally.

Information about 23,000 loans was also disclosed, with the country’s data-protection regulator saying there were details on “an unlimited number of related third parties'” within the disclosure. Few details about how the data breach happened have been revealed, but a report from Reuters said the bank had previously been contacted by a “Bulgarian former convict” who had a database of customer data.

Google Enlists Outside Help to Clean Up Android’s Malware Mess

Android has a bit of a malware problem. The open ecosystem’s flexibility also makes it relatively easy for tainted apps to circulate on third-party app stores or malicious websites. Worse still, malware-ridden apps sneak into the official Play Store with disappointing frequency. After grappling with the issue for a decade, Google is calling in some reinforcements.

Today Google is announcing a partnership with three antivirus firms—ESET, Lookout, and Zimperium—to create an App Defense Alliance. All three companies have done extensive Android malware research over the years, and have existing relationships with Google to report problems they find. But now they’ll use their scanning and threat detection tools to evaluate new Google Play submissions before the apps go live—with the goal of catching more malware before it hits the Play Store in the first place.

“On the malware side we haven’t really had a way to scale as much as we’ve wanted to scale,” says Dave Kleidermacher, Google’s vice president of Android security and privacy. “What the App Defense Alliance enables us to do is take the open ecosystem approach to the next level. We can share information not just ad hoc, but really integrate engines together at a digital level, so that we can have real-time response, expand the review of these apps, and apply that to making users more protected.”

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It’s not often that you hear someone at Google—a company of seemingly limitless size and scope—talk about trouble operating a program at the necessary scale.

Each antivirus vendor in the alliance offers a different approach to scanning app files called binaries for red flags. The companies are looking for anything from trojans, adware, and ransomware to banking malware or even phishing campaigns. ESET’s engine uses a cloud-based repository of known malicious binaries along with pattern analysis and other signals to assess apps. Lookout has a trove of 80 million binaries and app telemetry that it uses to extrapolate potential malicious activity. And Zimperium uses a machine learning engine to build a profile of potentially bad behavior. As a commercial product, Zimperium’s scanner works on the device itself for analysis and remediation rather than relying on the cloud. For Google, the company will essentially give a rapid yes or no on whether apps need to be individually examined for malware.

As Tony Anscombe, ESET’s industry partnerships ambassador puts it, “Being part of a project like this with the Android team allows us to actually start protecting at the source. It’s much better than trying to clean up afterwards.”

Setting up those systems to scan new Google Play submissions wasn’t conceptually difficult—everything runs through a purpose-built application programming interface. The challenge was adapting the scanners to make sure they could handle the firehose of apps that will flow through for analysis—likely many thousands per day. ESET already integrates with Google’s malware-removing Chrome Cleanup tool, and has partnered with Alphabet-owned cybersecurity company Chronicle. But all of the App Defense Alliance member companies said the process to create the necessary infrastructure was extensive, and the early seeds of the alliance started more than two years ago.

“Google narrowed down the vendors that they wanted to engage with and everyone did a pretty elaborate proof of concept to see if there’s any added benefit, and if we find more bad stuff together than either of us is able to independently,” says Lookout CEO Jim Dolce. “We were sharing data over a period of a month—millions of binaries effectively. And the results were very positive.”

It remains to be seen whether the alliance will actually catch significantly more malicious apps before they hit Google Play than the company was flagging on its own. Independent researchers have found that many Android antivirus services aren’t particularly effective at catching malware. And all of the alliance members emphasize that increasing Google Play’s defense will only drive malware authors to get even more creative and aggressive about distributing tainted apps through other means. (Don’t forget that these companies all have malware scanners they want to sell you.) But Google’s Kleidermacher emphasizes that the company is confident that the alliance will make a real difference in protecting Android users.

‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ Didn’t Need an Exploding Airplane

The latest Terminator movie, Dark Fate, struggles to give satisfying emotional arcs to its large cast of characters. Writer Sara Lynn Michener says it doesn’t help that a large chunk of the movie is wasted on a bombastic action sequence set aboard an exploding cargo plane.

“I think there’s this idea with, especially, male directors where they get really excited about trying to top what’s been done before, but do it even bigger and better and more Michael Bay-ish,” Michener says in Episode 386 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And I’m like, really? Are we really doing that in 2019? It’s very upsetting.”

Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley agrees that the cargo plane sequence was silly, and stands in sharp contrast to the sense of realism captured in the franchise’s best installments, The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

“To my mind, the power of those movies comes from the juxtaposition of these creepy robots from the future set against this completely believable everyday reality,” he says. “And when you make it evil robots from the future in sort of a superhero milieu, it just doesn’t work. There’s no contrast anymore.”

Over-the-top action scenes aren’t just eye-rolling, they’re also expensive. Screenwriter Rafael Jordan warns that needlessly bloated budgets are placing unrealistic expectations on sci-fi movies. “The last three [Terminator] installments all made around $400 million, and based on first weekend grosses this is right in line with that,” he says. “There have been a whole series of films—the recent Star Trek films, Alita, Tron: Legacy—that make $400 million and are deemed failures, and this is just going to be another one of those. Hollywood has to figure out a way to make $400 million a viable amount of money again.”

Dark Fate represents Hollywood’s third attempt to continue the story of Terminator 2, after the 2003 film Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and the 2008 TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Science fiction author Anthony Ha says that the scaled-down TV version arguably surpasses its big budget rivals in terms of storytelling.

“Obviously a lot of IP is moving to TV,” he says. “So if [Terminator] were to come back—and I’m not necessarily convinced it will—I think it might come back as a TV show.”

Listen to the complete interview with Sara Lynn Michener, Rafael Jordan, and Anthony Ha in Episode 386 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

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Sara Lynn Michener on James Cameron:

“James Cameron has this really charming idea of feminism, and his only real issue with that is that he hasn’t really updated it since the ’90s. I mean, when I saw Alita: Battle Angel, it felt like a wonderful movie that came out in 1995—other than the effects. … But he has this strong female obsession thing, and I think that unfortunately there’s sort of this strong female thing where it ends up being this commercialized ‘Megan Fox happens to know how to repair motorcycles’ thing, and it’s always this super-sexualized idea of a strong woman, and James Cameron’s women were not really that. And so that resonated with me very strongly. I loved The Abyss, I loved Aliens, I loved the Terminator movies. So it was a very formative part of my upbringing.”

Rafael Jordan on screenwriting:

“In general what happens is you wait and wait to get a job, and then the minute you’re hired it’s an extreme rush. There’s never enough time, and that’s the unfortunate thing, because the minute they call you they’re like, ‘Hey, so we’re finally greenlit, and we need the script immediately to secure the bond and the financing, so can you give it to us in a week?’ And you’re like, ‘What? No. I mean, I can give you something in a week, but are you going to guarantee I’ve got time to fix it and make it right?’ And sometimes you get that time, sometimes you don’t. … But trust me, these writers are pulling their hair out, and sometimes they’re sequestering themselves in hotel rooms for six to eight weeks if they get that luxury. But they’re definitely trying to make it better, it’s just such an uphill battle for quality, always.”

Anthony Ha on the Rev-9:

“My sense is that none of the sequels—including Dark Fate—has found a way to top the T-1000. I feel like that was pretty close to the Platonic ideal of a Terminator villain. But this is an interesting variation, and the visuals I think are very striking, and it definitely makes for some interesting action scenes, because you’ve essentially got two different Terminators with one brain going after [people]. I wish they’d done a little bit more to explore the powers of the Rev-9. … Like if [the two forms] had complementary powers, so the soft version is really good at insinuating himself into different situations, but the skeleton is there for brute strength. Something that makes it seem more distinctive.”

David Barr Kirtley on Arnold Schwarzenegger:

“The movie kind of lost me when they meet Arnold Schwarzenegger. I love Arnold Schwarzenegger, he’s great, but I already saw him as the good Terminator in three other movies. It’s been done, I hate the corny humor, and I felt like once he enters the story, it becomes much too focused on him rather than developing the relationships between the other characters. … When I saw the trailers, that Arnold Schwarzenegger was going to be in this, I assumed it was going to be a cameo—that they go to the cabin, and they meet Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he tells them whatever he tells them, and then they move on. I didn’t think he was going to join the cast. And I think probably anything positive about his inclusion in this movie probably could have been incorporated into a cameo.”


More Great WIRED Stories

The EPA’s Anti-Science ‘Transparency’ Rule Has a Long History

Sometimes a bad piece of legislation doesn’t die, it just returns in another form—call it a zombie bill. In this case, the zombie is a bill that morphed into a proposed rule that would upend how the federal government uses science in its decisionmaking. It would allow the US Environmental Protection Agency to pick and choose what science it uses to write legislation on air, water, and toxic pollution that affects human health and the environment.

Republicans tried to pass this type of legislation from 2014 to 2017, with titles such as the Secret Science Reform Act, followed the next year by the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act. The idea, which on the surface seems like a good one, was to force the EPA to use only research that is publicly accessible, reproducible, and independently verified.

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Critics, including much of the US scientific community, complained it would throw out nearly all epidemiological studies in which patients give consent to use their medical information but not their names, to protect their privacy. That would mean limiting studies on the effects of air pollution on lung disease or toxic chemicals’ effects on Parkinson’s disease and cancer, for example. Scientists also argued that some data, by its nature, can never be reproduced. That would include, for example, the collected particles spewed out by erupting volcanoes, or oil-stained creatures from the Deepwater Horizon spill, or tissue samples taken from soldiers exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Despite years of hearings and committee votes, these bills never passed the Senate. The Democrats took over control of the House in 2018, and so current EPA administrator and former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler isn’t going to Congress a third time. Instead, the so-called science transparency legislation has been resurrected in the form of an EPA regulation that doesn’t need congressional approval.

The proposal stirred controversy in 2018, when the Union of Concerned Scientists obtained emails revealing that EPA scientists were excluded from giving input on the rule, which would also allow the EPA administrator to exempt any studies from the transparency requirements on a case-by-case basis.

“This is not being driven by scientists at the agency, it’s being driven by political staff who have spent their careers trying to reduce the authority that the EPA has,” says Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy. Halpern noted the proposal has been championed by chemical and tobacco industry groups that have for years sought to reduce the EPA’s regulatory powers.

The Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science rule would require that scientists disclose all of their raw data, including confidential medical records, before the agency could consider an academic study’s conclusions, according to a draft copy obtained this week by The New York Times.

At a hearing of the House Science Committee on Wednesday entitled Strengthening Science or Strengthening Silence?, EPA science adviser Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta was put in the difficult position of defending a regulation she either wasn’t able to discuss or didn’t seem to know about. Although Orme-Zavaleta has spent 38 years at the agency and is its top scientist, she isn’t reviewing the new rule and couldn’t answer many questions from the congressional panel.

Although the rule only applies to future regulations and is not retroactive, Orme-Zavaleta didn’t know if it could be used to overturn existing health standards when they come up for periodic review every few years. She also didn’t know how the EPA administrator would grant exemptions to the requirement that data from studies used to justify EPA rules have to be made public. “That’s currently being discussed and debated,” Orme-Zavaleta said in response to a question from US representative Bill Foster, a Chicago-area Democrat and former nuclear physicist.

The Real ID Is Nearly Here, and You Can’t Fly Home Without It

Thanksgiving travel is the stuff of suffering: the crowding, the stress, the weather-induced delays, and, at least for some, dinner with the whole family. But come next year, your trip home, or anywhere else on a commercial airplane, may well demand something even worse: a trip to the DMV.

As of October 1, 2020, the TSA will stop accepting the old-timey driver’s license you’ve likely got in your wallet as valid identification. So will other federal facilities, from courthouses to nuclear power plants. They will instead demand to see your Real ID, which will look just like your old one, with the addition of a star in the upper-right corner. This documentation is mandated by the Real ID Act of 2005, one of many post–September 11, 2001, moves by the federal government to buttress the national security apparatus. Critics, though, say the Real ID is an attack on civil liberties and a potential weapon for discrimination.

The Real ID isn’t a new kind of card—apart from that star. What’s changing is how you get one. Where states have historically set their own rules for verifying the details on your ID, they now must all follow federal standards. That means going to the DMV in person for your first Real ID. And it means showing up with a specific set of documentation that contains your full legal name, date of birth, and social security number. You’ll also need two proofs of address, plus evidence of “lawful status,” meaning that you’re a legal resident of the United States.

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If you don’t get that done by the October 1 deadline, your current license won’t get you past the TSA. The security agents will accept other proofs of identity, though: You can show your passport, a permanent resident card, or an ID issued by a federally recognized tribe. And you can always flash your Merchant Mariner Credential.

The idea of standardizing the requirements for obtaining an ID came from the 9/11 Commission, which noted that some of the men who hijacked the planes had fraudulently obtained driver’s licenses. However sensible its starting point, the idea rankled civil-liberty and privacy-minded groups. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation decried the Real ID as a subversive way to create a national ID, because the original plan called for creating a database of licenses across the 50 states. The uses of those IDs could expand to enable broader tracking of individuals, they argued, the way social security numbers are now used for much more than their original purpose. That’s especially true because the law calls for the cards to be machine readable, so the barcode can impart your name, date of birth, address, height, eye color, and more to whoever’s holding the scanner.

The 2005 law was hardly debated before its passage, largely because it went before Congress attached to an $82 billion spending bill that included funds for the Iraq War and relief for the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people. But the opposition quickly mobilized. Seventeen states, concerned about privacy, the security of a national database of drivers, and the cost of rejiggering licensing operations and having every single driver come in for a new ID, refused to comply.

Those objections pushed Congress to authorize grants to states to defray costs. The Department of Homeland Security dropped some of the most offending elements of the plan, including that national database. It also repeatedly pushed back the deadline for enforcement, from 2008 to 2009 to 2011 to 2013 to October 2020. Gradually, the furor died down, and today all 50 states either offer the Real ID or are on track to do so, according to the DHS.

Meet the Elite Shot-Putter Chasing a World Record

If you’ve ever tried your hand at shot put, you know it’s tougher than it looks. The metal ball, called a shot, is deceptively heavy for its size. At 16 pounds, it’s the weight of a bowling ball crammed into a package about the size of a softball. To throw it effectively you have to heave it from between your neck and shoulders while rotating your entire body. A novice might get lucky and put one 30 feet. Elite shot putters, however, can launch it twice that distance with ease.

So what does it take to put a shot that far? Brute strength for one. Take Olympic record holder Ryan Crouser. He’s 6’7″, weighs 315 pounds, and could easily be mistaken for a powerlifter or an NFL lineman. In 2016 the Indianapolis Colts even invited him to try out. But Crouser prefers the individuality of the shot put. “If you throw a lifetime best, you can say that you are better today than you have ever been,” Crouser says. “There aren’t many things that let you make a definitive statement like that.”

In addition to his extraordinary strength, Crouser is surprisingly flexible and coordinated. He’s also mastered a complex rotational technique known as the spin, which can give athletes extra distance. Put all that together and you get one of the best shot-putters in the history of the sport. “Ryan’s just so in tune with his proprioception that he knows where his body is at all times,” says John Crosby, a sports technologist with the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

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At the Summer Olympics in Rio, in 2016, Crouser sent a shot flying an astonishing 22.52 meters, or just shy of 74 feet. That’s the longest put in an Olympic competition going all the way back to the first modern games in 1896. This year he launched one even farther, landing a personal best of 22.90 meters at the World Athletics Championships in Doha. That’s still shy of the world record, which stands at 23.12 meters, but Crouser says it’s only a matter of time before someone sends one flying even farther. “Twenty-four would be unbelievable to see, but it’s not beyond the realm of reason,” Crouser says. “All it really takes is just that one throw.”

To find out how someone might pull off a historic 24-meter throw, check out WIRED’s latest episode of Almost Impossible.


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What We Get Wrong About ‘People of Color’

So why is it that we refuse to actually say what we mean?

The phrase itself has experienced an interesting trajectory, historically speaking. Early on, identifying nonwhites conveyed a more violent othering: You were simply colored or a colored person—a stain on the white purity America told itself it needed to uphold. (The term hasn’t totally disappeared; in 2015 Benedict Cumberbatch mindlessly referred to black actors as colored.) Eventually, that phrasing morphed into popular science mumbo jumbo: You were a minority, but soon even that term fell out of favor as minorities became a majority.

People of color originates in black discourse, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a professor of feminist theory and theoretical physics at the University of New Hampshire, tells me. It was first used to refer to lighter-skinned people of mixed race, someone who was perhaps “mulatto.” As it’s grown in popularity, its meaning has become more twisted, misshapen. Prescod-Weinstein says that this has resulted in a shift in how we understand it; we are now at a point where much of what is written about the phrase today doesn’t “excavate the historical importance and necessity of multiracial antiracist solidarity … particularly in the ’60s and ’70s when the term took on something close to its contemporary definition.”

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Although the current use of people of color doesn’t denote the same racial hierarchy of previous iterations, it still does a kind of violence to how we grasp power in this country. It reduces and constricts, it treats the many as one. “As we speak, however, the English language seems to lump the colors together and treats white—the noncolor—as a race and a word apart,” William Safire observed in one of his famous “On Language” columns for The New York Times. He wrote that in 1988.

In late October, the actress Gina Rodriguez posted a video on Instagram of herself rapping the lyrics to the Fugees’ song “Ready or Not,” in which she says the word “nigga.” She was immediately called out, and when she offered an apology, she did so to “communities of color.” “Say ‘people of color’ when you mean people of color and say ‘Black’ when you mean Black,” Prescod-Weinstein tweeted.

Michael Arceneaux, a cultural critic and the author of I Can’t Date Jesus, shares a similar viewpoint. He believes the harm is in how the phrase is weaponized against black people. “What does irritate me is when it is employed to essentially erase black people as if that term is interchangeable with black,” he said over email. “It’s not.”

For me, and for many others, Rodriguez’s fumbled apology highlighted the thoughtlessness that now occupies space around the phrase. For media personality Scottie Beam, the matter is clear-cut. “I am not People of Color,” she tweeted this month, which set off a wave of responses.

Once a tag of antiracist coalition building, today in its modern, wholesale application, the term has become a bruised signifier. People of color means well—honestly, truly—but doesn’t really do the work it’s supposed to do anymore. Ostensibly, it looks and sounds nice in a sort of “We Are the World” kind of way, but its overuse has rendered it hollow.

Aside from the Kelly incident, the examples I cited earlier were not especially harsh—in part, that’s the point I am trying to make. Even the well-meaning, the most progressive among us blindly tack the phrase onto cultures as varied as the rainbow. In doing so, we turn the plural into the singular, an action that betrays all the ways we have come to understand contemporary identity.

We live in a time of expanding cultures, genders (or nongenders), and sexual orientations. Why limit that? We can never escape who we are and where we come from; we will never be culture-free, but we can be culture-specific. More and more, we are becoming a society of in-between identities, of fluid selves, and I have come to believe that the phrase people of color—to recklessly lump nonwhites into a bland monochrome—does a disservice to that reality. Broad, all-inclusive sweeps are convenient and comfortable—and sometimes, for the sake of progress, we need them—but they can also do great damage.

Scott Adams Has Some Ideas for a Calmer Internet

After expressing support for Donald Trump in 2016, Dilbert creator Scott Adams estimates that he lost about 30 percent of his income and 75 percent of his friends. He says that that level of political polarization has created a climate of genuine fear.

“People will come up, and they’ll usually whisper—or they’ll lower their voice, because they don’t want to be heard—and they’ll say, ‘I really like what you’re doing on your Periscope, and the stuff you’re saying about Trump,’” Adams says in Episode 389 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “They’re actually afraid to say it out loud. They literally whisper it to me in public places.”

Adams blames the current climate on social media and a clickbait business model that rewards sensationalism over fact-based reporting. Since the technology is here to stay, he says we’re going to need new societal norms to help foster a calmer, more constructive political discourse.

“When society changes, every now and then you need a new rule of manners,” he says. “So for example, when cell phones were invented, you needed a new set of rules about where can you use them and can you do it in a restaurant, etc. And social media has gotten so hot, I thought maybe we need a few new rules.”

He lays out two such rules in his new book, Loserthink. His first proposal, which he calls the “48-hour rule,” states that everyone should be given a grace period of a couple of days to retract any controversial statement they’ve made, no questions asked. “We live in a better world if we accept people’s clarifications and we accept their apologies, no matter whether we think—internally—it’s insincere,” he says.

His other idea is the “20-year rule,” which states that everyone should be automatically forgiven for any mistakes they made more than two decades ago—with the exception of certain serious crimes. It used to be the case that people’s thoughtless remarks and embarrassing gaffes would naturally fade into obscurity, but social media has created a situation where it’s easy to endlessly dredge up a person’s worst moments.

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“We’re not the same people that we were 20 years ago,” Adams says. “We’ve learned a bunch, our context has changed. If you’re doing all the right stuff, you’re getting smarter and kinder and wiser as you’re getting older. So being blamed for something you did 20 years ago is effectively being blamed for something a stranger did, because you’re just not that person anymore.”

Listen to the complete interview with Scott Adams in Episode 389 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Scott Adams on Babylon 5:

“It was my favorite show at the time, and I said something good about it for an article I wrote in TV Guide, and their publicist contacted me and said, ‘How would you like to play a bit part in the show?’ Just sort of a thank you, and to bring more publicity to it. And I said, ‘Sure, can I bring my girlfriend at the time? Can she be in it too?’ And they said, ‘Sure, we’ll make her a Minbari.’ So I played a human character who was looking for my lost dog, and maybe I’m crazy and maybe I’m not, and my girlfriend at the time played a Minbari alien who was my assistant. … I don’t have any acting skill. I think my entire range of emotions that I can produce on my face are maybe three things, that’s about it. No nuance at all.”

Scott Adams on his novel God’s Debris:

God’s Debris is essentially a conversation between a deliveryman and a character that I invented who is the smartest person in the world, and so the smartest person in the world is describing to the deliveryman all the secrets of the universe, if you will. I’m a trained hypnotist, and I was always curious about writing a book where I would use the hypnosis skills embedded with the writing to give the reader a better experience. … And for some readers, and of course with hypnosis people don’t have the same reaction, the same experience—but for a number of readers, maybe a quarter of them, which would be really good, they have an experience that’s unlike reading a book. It’s a physical, mind-blowing kind of experience.”

Scott Adams on creating Dilbert:

“When they offered me a contract, I was talking to the editor, and I said, ‘You know, I’d be happy to get an actual artist to partner with me to do the drawing,’ and she said, ‘No, there’s no reason to do that, your drawing is fine.’ And I said, ‘Really? It’s fine?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, just the way it is. It’s fine.’ And that simple statement that I could do it made the quality of my art improve about 500 percent in two weeks, after being pretty much the way it was my whole life up to that point. But the simple fact that somebody who was credible—and exactly the right person in the world—would tell me that I was good enough, that actually made me good enough. It was a ridiculously quick transformation.”

Scott Adams on the media:

“When [media outlets] do these big feature pieces, and they send somebody to your house and they say, ‘Can you allocate the whole day? Can we hang around with you all day to get interesting context for the story?’ my experience has been—and this is just pattern recognition—that those are always hit pieces. … They’re not trying to find out what my opinion is, they’re gathering ammo, and that’s what all the ‘context’ stuff is. Because you could take anybody’s normal life, and by the way you word it it would make them sound like a freak. I mean, almost anything I do can be worded in a way that makes it sound like I’m the oddest person in the world, but if you heard me describe it, you’d say, ‘Oh OK. That’s nonstandard, but it makes perfect sense.’”


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