The #CIA leak, khat economics, #Assad’s Faustian bargain

Good morning, Quartz readers!

On Tuesday morning, the US awoke to a fresh cache of internal CIA documents posted on WikiLeaks. They detail the spy organization’s playbook for cracking digital communications. WikiLeaks claims to have large portions of the CIA’s hacking arsenal in a series called Vault 7 (though the first information dump didn’t contain any of the code used to actually crack modern smartphones and internet-connected devices).

These documents, if legitimate, show exactly how a spy agency uses a technologically-saturated culture to its own ends. As such they’re a neat foil to the National Security Agency (NSA) secrets unveiled by Edward Snowden in 2013. As NPR writes, “other leaks featured program overviews; these are developer notes.” Many of the CIA documents outlined “zero-day exploits”—undetected security loopholes—in software made by companies like Apple, Google, and Samsung.

Ironically, though, the Vault 7 dump also shows just how strong modern encryption and privacy measures are. While Snowden revealed that telcos handed over data about their customers to the NSA in bulk, there is no sign in the Vault 7 documents that the CIA can hack into encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp or Signal and use that to carry out mass surveillance. To see what’s on your phone, the agency must get access to the phone itself. Zeynep Tufekci, writing in the New York Times, said security researchers she interviewed saw “no big surprises or unexpected wizardry.”

There’s also one other big difference between now and 2013. Snowden’s NSA revelations sent shockwaves around the world. Despite WikiLeaks’ best efforts at theatrics—distributing an encrypted folder and tweeting the password “SplinterItIntoAThousandPiecesAndScatterItIntoTheWinds”—the Vault 7 leak has elicited little more than a shrug from the media and the public, even if the spooks are seriously worried. Maybe it’s because we already assume the government can listen to everything.—Dave Gershgorn


An optimist’s guide to an automated future. Machines are coming for our jobs—and we don’t stand a chance against them. That’s a common view of the future. For a sunnier one, Sarah Kessler turned to history for examples of when innovation initially scared us senseless while changing our lives for the better.

Waking up from the American dream. The US’s wealth, high standards of living, and world-class services make it one of the best countries to live in—for some. But on UN sustainability goals in areas like healthcare, education, and violence, it scores dismally, Annalisa Merelli finds. Merelli and Max de Haldevang also grade president Trump on the 28 goals he set for his first 100 days. Fifty days in, progress is mixed.

Could an AI learn to identify “thirst”? Maybe. The word is increasingly associated with being “desperate” or “very eager,” and social media “thirst traps” refer to “any statement or picture used to intentionally create attention.” That got Kira Bindrim thinking: Could a computer learn to identify an image or word as “thirsty” without any human input?

The women behind a beloved stimulant. The East African khat leaf is traded and chewed mainly by men, but it’s a global businessbecause of women, who were the first to recognize how lucrative a business it could be, writes Abdi Latif Dahir. But as a result, they are now bearing the brunt of the khat market’s controversies and risks.

The picture-perfect conversation. The art of the conversation is as much a part of Everett Raymond Kinstler’s toolkit as his well-worn paints and brushes, which have captured celebrities, socialites, and eight US presidents. Kinstler schooled Anne Quito on the verbal tactics he uses to charm people into stillness, a technique that has worked on almost all his subjects—except, that is, for Donald Trump.


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Dismantling the state. The New York Times tallies the more than 90 regulations that have been delayed, reversed, or suspended since Trump took office—part of what chief strategist Steve Bannon calls the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” The rollbacks, driven by corporate lobbyists, affect everything from gun permits and data security to consumer and environmental protections.

What writers do. For The Guardian, revered author and journalist George Saunders breaks down the mythical task of expressing oneself through writing into the “pain in the ass” process that it is, involving instinct, some mystery, and seemingly endless revisions. “The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist,” he writes, “always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?”

Bashar al-Assad’s Faustian bargain. The Syrian dictator’s army is winning against the rebels and Islamists after years of war. But as Fritz Schaap explains for Der Spiegel, he’s done it with the help of local warlords. They are now more powerful than he is, and are exacting their price for supporting him by looting and terrorizing the population.

What populists have in common. At the blog A Fistful of Euros, Alex Harrowell argues that what unites the populists who have upended politics worldwide isn’t an ideology but a “technology for winning elections.” Its features: rejecting the blandness of rules and technocracy; insisting that the government take sides; and empowering some citizens to demand special treatment at the expense of others.

The world’s craziest anti-climate-change experiment? The Atlantic’s Ross Andersen visits the Zimovs, a father-and-son scientist duo in Siberia. To stop the permafrost from thawing and releasing vast stores of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, they want to turn the Arctic back into grassland. And how to do that? Why, by bringing woolly mammoths back from extinction, so they can trample the trees that prevent the grassland from returning. How else?

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, mammoth DNA, and khat samples You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day, or download our apps for iPhone and Android.



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