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Exclusive: LAPD partnered with tech firm that enables secretive online spying | US policing

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The Los Angeles police department pursued a contract with a controversial technology company that could enable police to use fake social media accounts to surveil civilians and claimed its algorithms can identify people who may commit crimes in the future.

A cache of internal LAPD documents obtained through public records requests by the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-profit organization, and shared with the Guardian, reveal that LAPD in 2019 trialed social media surveillance software from the analytics company Voyager Labs.

Like many companies in this industry, Voyager Labs’ software allows law enforcement to collect and analyze large troves of social media data to investigate crimes or monitor potential threats.

But documents reveal the company takes this surveillance a step further. In its sales pitch to LAPD about a potential long-term contract, Voyager said its software could collect data on a suspect’s online network and surveil the accounts of thousands of the suspect’s “friends”. It said its artificial intelligence could discern people’s motives and beliefs and identify social media users who are most “engaged in their hearts” about their ideologies. And it suggested its tools could allow agencies to conduct undercover monitoring using fake social media profiles.

police officers outside headquarters
LAPD trialed Voyager’s software in 2019. Photograph: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Rex/Shutterstock

The LAPD’s trial with Voyager ended in November 2019. The records show the department continued to access some of the technology after the pilot period, and that the LAPD and Voyager spent more than a year trying to finalize a formal contract. The documents show that the LAPD has had ongoing conversations this year about a continued partnership, but a police spokesperson told the Guardian on Monday that the department was not currently using Voyager.

The LAPD declined to respond to detailed and repeated inquiries on its trial with Voyager and its conversations about a potential long-term contract, as well as questions about its use of social media surveillance software.

The department has said in the past that social media can be critical for investigations and for “situational awareness” in monitoring major events for potential public safety issues. The city has seen large demonstrations in recent years, as well as clashes between activists over issues such as vaccination requirements.

But experts who reviewed the documents for the Guardian say they raise concerns about the LAPD’s pursuit of ethically questionable software. The department’s surveillance technology could be violating civilians’ free speech and privacy rights, the experts say, while facilitating racial profiling.

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The full scope of the LAPD’s surveillance tech is unclear, though records suggest that the department has in recent years purchased or considered buying software from at least 10 companies that monitor social media. The department is often a trailblazer among US police departments in adopting new technologies, with a large police budget and private foundation funding that allows it to trial programs later adopted by other departments.

The concerns come after the Guardian recently revealed that the LAPD has been directing officers to broadly collect social media information of civilians they stop and question, including people who are not cited or arrested, and amid growing scrutiny of the department’s surveillance and “predictive policing” practices.

‘Bigotry embedded in code’

Voyager – registered as Bionic 8 Analytics – gave the LAPD some of its products on a trial basis in the summer and fall of 2019, the records show.

The documents don’t make clear what suite of tools the LAPD had access to during the trial or whether the department used some of the company’s more controversial features. But a report the company produced for the LAPD during this period says the department used the company’s software to investigate more than 500 social media profiles and to analyze thousands of messages. The redacted report said the LAPD had used the software for “real-time tactical intelligence”; “protective intelligence” for “VIPs” in local government and in the LAPD; and cases related to gangs, homicides and hate groups. An unnamed the LAPD investigator was quoted in the report as saying Voyager helped the department “identify a few new targets”.

screenshot shows large blue ball of dots labeled 'NYC connections' along with boxes containing location information
A screen shot from Voyager proposals and pitches that the company shared with LAPD. Photograph: LAPD records via the Brennan Center

In internal messages about the pilot in 2019, the LAPD said Voyager was especially helpful in analyzing social media data obtained through warrants and in investigating online networks of “street gangs”.

Communications between Voyager and the LAPD after the trial ended and when the company was trying to sell the department on its products reveal more about the firm’s purported capabilities, claims experts said were bold and troubling.

In the spring of 2020, while pitching a contract, Voyager provided the LAPD with case studies illustrating how the software had been used.

In one example, the company said its software had been used to investigate a Muslim Brotherhood activist in New York City who allegedly made a video encouraging people to intentionally spread Covid to Egyptian government officials in March 2020.

A Voyager representative told the LAPD the investigation was conducted for “federal and local agencies” but did not name the clients or specify whether the threat had turned out to be legitimate. But Voyager said its software was able to collect and analyze thousands of the activist’s social media posts and had scooped up data on 4,000 of his “friends”.

Voyager also said its software was able to discern which social media users caught up in the search were “top connections” of the activist and that it could determine who was based in New York and who worked for a government agency. The company claimed the software could also discern which of the accounts showed an “affinity” for “violent, radical ideologies” based on “indirect connections” to “extremist accounts”, appearing to refer to friends of friends.

In another presentation, Voyager suggested its software could not only collect large amounts of social media data but that its “artificial intelligence” could discern people’s beliefs.

Voyager showed LAPD how its software could have been used to investigate an alleged terrorist attack, analyzing the case of Adam Alsahli – a man killed after he opened fire at the Corpus Christi naval base in May 2020. Pointing to the man’s social media activity, Voyager claimed its AI could ascertain people’s “affinity for Islamic fundamentalism or extremism”. The company cited the shooter’s “pictures with Islamic themes” and said his Instagram accounts showed “his pride in and identification with his Arab heritage”. The company said its AI was so effective that its results, produced in minutes, did not “require any intervention or assessments by an analyst or investigator”.

screenshot with heading "rapid risk assessment - connections to islamists or solidarity with islamist content'
Voyager showed the LAPD how its software could have been used to investigate an alleged terrorist attack. Photograph: LAPD records via the Brennan Center

In an October 2020 proposal document, Voyager also said its software could conduct a “sentiment analysis” to discern who was most emotionally invested and had the “passion needed to act on their beliefs”.

Voyager’s monitoring of broad online networks, and its claims about AI, raised red flags for experts.

“There’s a basic ‘guilt by association’ that Voyager seems to really endorse,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, a deputy director at the Brennan Center, about Voyager’s New York City case study. “This notion that you can be painted with the ideology of people that you’re not even directly connected to is really disturbing.”

The naval base shooting example was deeply troubling, said Meredith Broussard, a New York University data journalism professor and expert on AI, who reviewed the records for the Guardian. “Just because you have an affinity for Islam does not mean you’re a criminal or a terrorist. That is insulting and racist. It’s religious bigotry embedded in code.”

“This is hyperbolic AI marketing. The more they brag, the less I believe them,” said Cathy O’Neil, a data scientist and algorithmic auditor, arguing that the firm’s broad claims were not based in legitimate science and were unachievable: “They’re saying, ‘We can see if somebody has criminal intent.’ No, you can’t. Even people who commit crimes can’t always tell they have criminal intent.”

The consequences of this pseudoscience can be dire, she added: “Claims of accuracy don’t have to actually be true for the algorithm to be used as a weapon.”

Concerns about undercover spying

The documents show Voyager and LAPD officers also discussed some of the company’s most controversial proposals. In an October 2020 letter to the LAPD outlining details of a potential contract, Voyager claimed its social media monitoring was “traceless”, saying that the social media companies themselves would not be able to tell that LAPD was behind the surveillance.

In an earlier report to LAPD in 2019, Voyager said it was developing software to spy on WhatsApp groups using an “active persona mechanism”, or “avatar”, suggesting that police would create a fake account to collect information from a group.

In one September 2019 email to a Voyager sales representative, an LAPD technology official said the feature that allows police to “log in with fake accounts that are already friended with the target subject” was a “great function”, but added that the department was not heading in the direction of using that service.

It’s unclear if the LAPD ever used the fake account feature. In another September 2019 email, an LAPD official in the robbery and homicide division told Voyager that the “avatars” function was a “need-to-have” feature. And Voyager said in one document that some LAPD staffers piloting its services had requested the “active persona” feature for Facebook, Instagram and Telegram.

This feature could violate the policies of Facebook, which prohibits fake accounts and has previously deactivated users that it determined were police officers impersonating civilians. A Facebook spokesperson said members of law enforcement, like all users, were required to use their real names on their profiles.

screenshot describes company's 'active persona' feature
Voyager said it was developing software to spy on WhatsApp groups using an ‘active persona mechanism’. Photograph: LAPD records via the Brennan Center

“As stated in our terms of services, misrepresentations and impersonations are not allowed on our services and we take action when we find violating activity,” a Facebook spokesperson, Sally Aldous, said in a statement.

Using fake accounts to monitor activists online was equivalent to undercover spying, civil rights advocates said.

LAPD has policies for “online undercover activity” that establishes some restrictions for this tactic, including requiring special approval from a supervisor if police are using a fake account to communicate with someone, but there is less oversight if an account is created to examine “trends” or for “conducting research”.

John Hamasaki, a criminal defense lawyer and member of the San Francisco police commission, said some police departments were updating policies to restrict the use of fake accounts in an effort to protect free speech. In San Francisco, he said, police would be barred from using a company like Voyager for broad surveillance of online networks. The type of predictive policing software that Voyager advertises is also strictly prohibited in Oakland, according to the city’s privacy commission.

“The problem with these types of surveillance operations is they’re often not based on reasonable suspicion or probable cause,” he said. “Instead, it is casting a broad net.”

Levinson-Waldman of the Brennan Center said it was unclear how widespread this kind of surveillance was in police departments across the US. She noted that while law enforcement departments were increasingly relying on social media in investigations, there was often little transparency.

The LAPD and the New York police department have two of the largest police budgets in the country and have a long history of piloting cutting-edge technology that ends up being ineffective or harmful, said Broussard, the author of Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World.

Even when the LAPD or NYPD cease using certain products, the companies end up bringing their tech elsewhere, she said: “The companies still want to sell software, so they go after smaller police forces that have even less capacity to evaluate the efficacy of these snake-oil software systems.”

Recent reporting has shown how the LAPD has used surveillance technology similar to Voyager’s to monitor Black Lives Matter organizing, and the department also recently said it was pursuing this kind of technology for “information gathering” in a report about reforms since the George Floyd protests. The LAPD did not respond to questions from the Guardian about whether Voyager was used for monitoring protesters.

In a report in September of this year, the department said it was “currently using” Voyager software and seeking $450,000 to purchase additional Voyager technology. But an LAPD spokesperson said this week that the department was not using the company’s software at the moment. She did not respond to questions about when LAPD ceased using the services and if the department was still pursuing a partnership.

Voyager declined to comment on its work with the LAPD and did not answer specific questions about its services. A spokesperson, Lital Carter Rosenne, said its clients were responsible for building databases and running the software, adding: “As a company, we follow the laws of all the countries in which we do business. We also have confidence that those with whom we do business are law-abiding public and private organizations.”

LA activists said the revelations raised serious concerns about how the tech could be used against groups that protest against the LAPD. “I’m really astounded that not only is LAPD using these companies, but that there are these tactics which feel very much like digital infiltration,” said Dr Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter LA. “It demonstrates that our fears are true.”

Abdullah, who had not heard of Voyager Labs, said she was particularly disturbed to learn about potential monitoring of WhatsApp groups: “We know that our public posts are monitored. But when they’re engaging in additional digging into private posts, that is supposed to be a more secure way of communicating.”

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From pollutant to product: the companies making stuff from CO2 | Greenhouse gas emissions

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In a warehouse laboratory in Berkeley, California, Nicholas Flanders stands in front of a shiny metal box about the size of a washing machine. Inside is a stack of metal plates that resemble a club sandwich – only the filling is a black polymer membrane coated with proprietary metal catalyst. “We call the membrane the black leaf,” he says.

Flanders is the co-founder and CEO of Twelve, a startup founded in 2015, which received a $57m funding boost in July. It aims to take air – or, to be more precise, the carbon dioxide (CO2) in it – and transform it into something useful, as plants also do, eliminating damaging emissions in the process. Taking the unwanted gas wreaking havoc on our climate and using only water and renewable electricity, Twelve’s metal box houses a new kind of electrolyser that transforms the CO2 into synthesis gas (syngas), a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen that can be made into a range of familiar products usually made from fossil fuels. Oxygen is the only by-product. This August, the pilot scale equipment made the syngas that went into what Flanders claims is the world’s first carbon neutral, fossil-free jet fuel. “This is a new way of moving carbon through our economy without pulling it out of the ground,” he says.

Twelve is one of many companies beginning to make stuff out of CO2, captured either from industrial emissions or directly from the air. High-end goods such as vodka, diamonds and activewear, industrial materials such as concrete, plastic, foam and carbon fibre, and even food, are all beginning to be created using CO2. In addition to jet fuel, which is a partnership with the US air force, Twelve has been using its syngas to explore making parts of car interiors with Mercedes-Benz, laundry detergent ingredients with Tide and sunglasses lenses with Pangaia. Online marketplaces such as Expedition Air and SkyBaron are even springing up to sell consumer goods made with CO2 emissions.

“We are at the very early end of a new carbon tech industry,” says Pat Sapinsley, of the Urban Future Lab at New York University, who oversees a new accelerator programme to help fledgling startups get a foothold. While the industry is still only emerging – most activity is only at bench or pilot scale – it is estimated by the Lab there are now about 350 startups hoping to deliver so-called carbon-to-value. Venture capital investment has sharply risen. This year, over $550m had flowed in by the end of September according to research and consulting firm Cleantech Group; that’s more than in the previous five years put together.

The sector could have the potential to reduce the world’s CO2 emissions by more than 10%, according to analysis by the University of Michigan’s Global CO2 Initiative, which aims to help the sector emerge (fuels and building materials such as concrete and aggregates are considered to hold the biggest CO2 mitigation – and market – potential). That contribution, advocates argue, firmly makes carbon utilisation part of the suite of technologies we are going to need to reach the net zero commitments governments and corporations have been making and which, it is becoming clear, can’t be met by renewable electricity alone. “I don’t see a path to net zero without these kinds of technologies,” says Richard Youngman, CEO of Cleantech Group.

Air Company vodka.
Air Company vodka.

Premium running shoe brand On – which went public this September – realised that if it was going to reach its aggressive net zero targets it would need to rethink its materials. Its vision is now that half of all its shoe bottom foam will be made not from petrochemicals but captured carbon. Last month, it announced plans to team up with US-based startup LanzaTech – an early pioneer of the sector, which uses a patented fermentation process to make ethanol out of waste carbon monoxide collected from factories which would otherwise be burnt to emit CO2 – and chemical manufacturer Borealis, which makes the foam by polymerising ethylene (to which ethanol can be converted). On is hoping to unveil its first pair of shoes made wholly from captured carbon sometime next year (it has separate arrangements to make the shoe uppers). That first pair will cost about $1m to make, says Caspar Coppetti, On’s co-founder and executive co-chairman. It’s a lab endeavour to prove viability – but, eventually, when it scales, he doesn’t expect the shoes to cost much more than a regular pair.

It’s not that CO2 isn’t already used industrially (think carbonated beverages). But those uses either put the gas unchanged back into the atmosphere or, in the case of enhanced oil recovery, where injected CO2 pushes out oil and then remains underground, still perpetuates the extraction of new fossil fuels. What’s different here is that waste CO2 is chemically transformed to make new products. Some, such as building materials, eliminate emissions by locking the carbon away permanently; others, such as jet fuel, prevent new emissions by recycling already emitted carbon. Often grouped with utilisation is CO2 sequestration, which promises to store large amounts of captured CO2 permanently underground, but the two are quite different, as advocates point out. “It’s almost a sin to throw away a valuable resource,” says Volker Sick, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan who directs the Global CO2 Initiative. “The beauty of carbon is you can make so many different things.”

New York-based startup Air Company, launched in 2017, is selling CO2-made vodka and perfume, and produced hand sanitiser during the pandemic. Like Twelve, it starts with CO2, water and renewable energy but combines them in its reactor to make alcohols such as ethanol. A litre of vodka removes a pound of CO2, and it may soon even use CO2 captured from the heating systems of Manhattan office buildings (in a collaboration with capture startup CarbonQuest).

A SkyBaron watch featuring a face made from carbon infused concrete
A SkyBaron watch featuring a face made from carbon infused concrete

But, like Twelve, Air Company has jet fuel in its sights – which can also be produced from ethanol. It is a crowded field – others pressing ahead with CO2-made jet fuel include LanzaJet, a spinoff from ethanol maker LanzaTech, and SynHelion, which uses solar energy to transform CO2 to syngas.

Typically, it is small amounts – think litres per hour – of jet fuel being made at this stage, says Ian Hayton, a materials and chemicals analyst at Cleantech Group. But countries are beginning to introduce quotas for sustainable aviation fuels, which could move things forwards. And the advantage of making it from CO2, rather than biomass or waste vegetable oils, is that it uses far less land.

Canadian company CarbonCure, founded in 2012, is one of the pioneers on the building materials side. Backed by investors such as Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Bill Gates’s investment firm, its technology involves injecting CO2 into concrete as it is being mixed. The injected CO2 reacts with the wet concrete and rapidly becomes permanently stored as a mineral, the same one as in limestone. Between 5% and 30% of the concrete is derived from CO2, says co-founder and CEO Robert Niven. CarbonCure’s business model is to license its technology to concrete manufacturers themselves. CarbonCure retrofits their systems, transforming them into carbon tech companies (the CO2 is supplied by waste emission sources in their region). It gives them a green sales advantage, but really what the concrete producers like is the economic benefit, says Niven. It means less cement is needed to make the concrete – most are able to reduce their cement content by about 5% – and the addition of the CO2 also strengthens the final material.

It is hard to imagine that food in the form of protein could be mass produced from CO2, but that is exactly what another subset of carbon tech companies are working on. Some, such as Solar Foods in Finland, and Air Protein in California – which uses the tagline “meat made from air” – intend their products for human consumption, while others, such as UK- and Netherlands-based Deep Branch, are focusing on animal feed ingredients. With inputs typically of CO2, water and renewable electricity along with ammonia and nutrients, their proteins are produced in bioreactors from naturally occurring microbes. The microbes grow and multiply and are then dried out to produce a protein powder with all the essential amino acids. “It is somewhere between dried meat, dried soy and dried carrot,” says Pasi Vainikka, Solar Foods co-founder and CEO, of its product Solein. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound very appetising, but, says Vainikka, the taste comes in the final product and Solein is versatile. It could replace pea and soy protein isolate in processed foods or even be used as a feed for the cultivated meat industry. Treated with heat and pressure, it can be eaten like a tasty slab of steak or tofu. Two kilograms of CO2 makes a kilogram of the product and it has been submitted to food regulators in Europe and the UK for novel food approval.

Proton single-cell protein made by Deep Branch from recycled CO2.
Proton single-cell protein made by Deep Branch from recycled CO2. Photograph: Deep Branch Bio

Yet the field also faces many challenges to come to fruition. First, if the technology is really going to serve the climate, it has to be scaled up for mass production quickly and offer price-competitive products. “There’s no point unless we can deliver on scale,” says Allison Dring, CEO of German startup Made of Air, which is focusing on plastics replacements. Many of the companies have plans for their first commercial facilities – Twelve, for example, which has designed its equipment to be modular so it can easily be added to to increase capacity, a bit like a solar farm, hopes to have its first shipping container-sized plant by next year and predicts significant commercial volume by 2023. But scaling up is capital intensive and takes time.

One specific roadblock is finding customers. The startups need bigger companies to pair up with to buy their CO2-made raw materials, but it can be hard for them to break into established supply chains. A big focus of the startup accelerator programme run out of the Urban Futures Lab, called the C2V Initiative, is on making inter-industry connections but, really, more early movers like On are needed. CarbonCure is proud of the fact that 450 concrete plants have been retrofitted with its technology – accounting for virtually all the carbon utilisation project deployments to date, says Niven – but it is only a tiny fraction of the more than 100,000 concrete plants there are worldwide. “Right now, what we need is partners,” he says.

Another bottleneck to scale may be providing the large and low-cost quantities of CO2 needed. While technologies are certainly established to capture CO2 from industrial sources, it is only done on a minuscule scale at present, experts note. Direct air capture is less technologically developed and more expensive. And infrastructure will be needed to move the CO2 if, for example, it is being captured in a different place from where it is being used.

Massive government intervention and support are required for rapid growth, say advocates – be that by setting a carbon price, through procurement policies in government contracts that require CO2-based alternatives, or by infrastructure investment. “This needs to be exponential growth… and we need policies to support it,” says Peter Styring, an expert in carbon capture and utilisation at the University of Sheffield, who directs its Centre for Carbon Dioxide Utilisation. And while recent US efforts are welcomed – the US infrastructure bill, for example, includes over $8bn for direct air capture and CO2 transportation and storage – “there is space for governments to be braver,” says Cleantech’s Youngman.

More detailed guidelines for carbon accounting might also be needed to aid consumer acceptance. Life cycle analyses for the products need to take the whole of the supply chain into account, but companies can set the boundaries in a way that excludes some processes. “We studied concrete production and, in some cases, it actually was worse than just making regular concrete,” says Sick. Both he and Styring are working on improving how companies might perform their assessments as part of an international effort.

A ring by Aether Diamonds, whose stones are not mined, but made from excess carbon dioxide.
A ring by Aether Diamonds, whose stones are not mined, but made from excess carbon dioxide. Photograph: aetherdiamonds.com

And just how controversial carbon utilisation will be remains an open question. Not everyone is gung-ho. Innovation has a role to play in curbing climate change, says Mike Childs, head of policy at the environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth, but such “wonder technologies” are “unproven” to work at the massive scale envisaged and are therefore a “huge gamble” with both people’s lives and the planet. “We know that driving down emissions at source is the best and cheapest way to limit global heating,” he says, adding that the technology also risks providing political and business leaders with justification to keep burning fossil fuels.

The transition away from fossil fuels is a must, say the advocates of CO2 utilisation. But if we want modern life to go on as normal without sacrifices, we’ll need to find new ways of continuing to produce the goods fossil fuels have given us. This industry, they argue, will not only help mitigate climate change but provide the carbon-based products we will always need. “There’s a lot of ‘climate don’ts’,” says Flanders. “[But] you can actually continue to use products that you like, just made in a better way.”

This article was amended on 5 December 2021. Syngas is short for synthesis gas, not synthetic gas as stated in an earlier version.

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The death knell of the FPS franchise? • The Register

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The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. Since the last edition on New World, we hit level cap and the “endgame”. Around this time, item duping exploits became rife and every attempt Amazon Games made to fix it just broke something else. The post-level 60 “watermark” system for gear drops is also infuriating and tedious, but not something we were able to address in the column. So bear these things in mind if you were ever tempted. On that note, it’s time to look at another newly released shit show – Battlefield 2042.

I wanted to love Battlefield 2042, I really did. After the bum note of the first-person shooter (FPS) franchise’s return to Second World War theatres with Battlefield V (2018), I stupidly assumed the next entry from EA-owned Swedish developer DICE would be a return to form. I was wrong.

The multiplayer military FPS market is dominated by two forces: Activision’s Call of Duty (COD) series and EA’s Battlefield. Fans of each franchise are loyal to the point of zealotry with little crossover between player bases. Here’s where I stand: COD jumped the shark with Modern Warfare 2 in 2009. It’s flip-flopped from WW2 to present-day combat and back again, tried sci-fi, and even the Battle Royale trend with the free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone (2020), which has been thoroughly ruined by hackers and developer inaction.

Whatever the title, COD is gaming’s most toxic community. If it’s not racial slurs being screamed down poor-quality mics by tweenagers, it’s threats of sexual violence against not just your mother but your entire family and their ancestors.

Hourglass is set in a sandblasted Doha, Qatar

Hourglass is set in a sandblasted Doha, Qatar

Battlefield, on the other hand, is for grownups. While COD’s multiplayer scene mostly favours modestly sized team deathmatch, Battlefield is epic in scope with 64-player objective-based gameplay, soldier classes (scout, assault, medic, support), enormous maps, air and land vehicles, destructible environments, “levelution” (actions players can take to drastically change the terrain), and somewhat realistic projectile ballistics (as opposed to COD’s hitscan programming). It is also home to the insanely powerful Frostbite engine.

Like Call of Duty, Battlefield started out as a Second World War game, establishing the rivalry we have today. But it too has bounced around different settings to varying success, with the modern-era Battlefield 3 and 4 (2011, 2013) held as the defining games of the series. It even took a major risk with Battlefield 1 (2016) focusing on the First World War. It paid off – and, as things stand, Battlefield 1 is probably the last great entry in the franchise.

Pressing T on PC allows you to change attachments

Pressing T on PC allows you to change attachments

On 19 November, Battlefield 2042 came out, again going back to the future after the mediocre WW2 title Battlefield V. The reveal trailer is a gratuitous appeal to fans of 3/4, focusing on what came to be known as “Battlefield moments” by fans – instances of absurdity enabled by game mechanics, like a player ejecting from a jetfighter mid-flight to twist in the air and take out a pursuing jet with a rocket launcher. This was something famously achieved by the player Stun_gravy back in Battlefield 3. It also introduces extreme weather events, which appear to be 2042’s alternative to levelution. It’s wicked – fun to watch, visually stunning, and deftly designed to get the hype pumping.

Youtube Video

If only it played like that.

The reality is Battlefield 2042 has predictably arrived in an unfinished state, marred by bugs, a paucity of content, and baffling design decisions that threaten to alienate the core fanbase. If we look at what makes Battlefield Battlefield, much of that has been irredeemably screwed with.

Breakaway takes place in the Antarctic

Breakaway takes place in the Antarctic

The experience hinged on large-scale, class-based warfare. The scout/recon was the sniper, feeding intel to the team on enemy movements and taking them out at range. The medic healed soldiers in sticky situations while support could lay down suppressing fire and resupply other players. Assault had the fire rate and explosives to press forwards and capture objectives. It was simple and effective. But DICE thought: No, let’s scrap that and have actual characters, called “Specialists” in game, each of which have certain abilities exclusively available to them, kind of like in the “hero shooters” Overwatch or Valorant.

View from the jetfighter cockpit

View from the jetfighter cockpit

On top of that, you can equip each of the 10 Specialists in whatever class style you like, creating flexible hybrids but ultimately watering down team play and forcing every match to be full of clones. At the end of a game, the top-performing player characters will spout corny, cocky little quips. Why? Never mind that we just sat through half an hour of ultraviolence, now you have to joke about it? It’s crass, irritating, and totally unnecessary.

The character Sundance has a wingsuit for traversing great distances at speed

The character Sundance has a wingsuit for traversing great distances at speed

Then there’s the map design. OK, the flagship modes of Conquest and Breakthrough have been cranked up to 128 players, the maps have never been so vast. Fantastic. But you have to do it with some nuance. It feels like 2042’s maps are only huge because they are mostly empty space – and this has dire consequences for gameplay, particularly if you are stuck with or happen to enjoy an infantry role.

A capture point on the Renewal map is a lab full of butterflies

A capture point on the Renewal map is a lab full of butterflies

Although the seven new maps in the base game are impressive on the surface, without much cover and objectives being up to 600 metres away from each other, the gameplay loop for those on the ground becomes run > run > run > shoot > miss > die > repeat. All the while, vehicle players are making hay, and there is a huge balancing issue here. At launch, hovercrafts were a nuisance with their high-calibre mounted machine guns, extreme durability, and the sheer numbers in which they were allowed to spawn. Likewise, helicopters and tanks have an all-you-can-eat buffet of infantry to dine on just laid out in front of them.

The Hourglass map is reminiscent of BF4 – with more empty space

The Hourglass map is reminiscent of BF4 – with more empty space

Yes, infantry have countermeasures but they often seem weak or need some degree of team cooperation to pull off. For example, one player hacks a helicopter so it can’t flare while another uses the window to fire off a guided missile. But here we get to the missing features present in earlier titles – there’s currently no in-game voice chat so player squads can better organise themselves.

Incoming tornado viewed from a tank on Discarded

Incoming tornado viewed from a tank on Discarded

There’s no real class system, no server browser, no smaller-scale game modes (something 2042 could really benefit from), no persistent lobbies so players from the prior game can play together again, fewer in-game assignments, no proper scoreboard, no spectator mode, no firing range, limited destruction and levelution… honestly the list goes on. Again the question is: why?

Choppers ... I don't know how people fly these things and get kills

Choppers … I don’t know how people fly these things and get kills

The selection of guns that can be unlocked is dwarfed by previous entries and progression isn’t interesting – simply get kills for new attachments, reach this level to get this gun etc. Gunplay was also rubbish at launch, with random bullet spread making everything but snipers seem wildly inaccurate even if your crosshairs were glued to the target. It got to the point that submachine guns, typically short-range weapons, were more viable choices than assault rifles because of their higher fire rate. As of last week, a patch was rolled out to improve on some of these early complaints, and the game does feel better – though there is still a huge amount of work to be done.

Soaring over the Manifest map

Soaring over the Manifest map

While an Nvidia GTX 970 could run Battlefield 4 on ultra settings, it looks like the days of pristine optimisation are behind us. Don’t expect to have much fun with 2042 if you don’t have an extremely powerful and contemporary rig, and even console players are reporting lacklustre performance. DICE has confirmed that it is working on this, though a “fix” could be months down the line. On an RTX 3070 and Ryzen 9 3900X, I have had to turn many graphical settings to their lowest to get a tolerable 50-80 frames per second at 1080p, with severe lag and frame drops sucking the life out of the experience.

As for another missing feature, there’s no single-player campaign – though there is the ability to play solo with and against bots. This feeds into the Escape From Tarkov-esque extract-’em-up mode Hazard Zone, which pits player squads against each other as well as AI. Notably, playing 2042 solo results in far better performance than online. I was able to pull passable frames with every setting on full whack – meaning that performance issues are firmly in DICE’s court. Let’s hope this is sorted out soon.

Perhaps Battlefield 2042’s saving grace is the Portal feature, which enables players to program their own game modes in browser via a low/no-code approach. It also includes a number of favourite maps, weapons, and vehicles from Battlefield 1942, Bad Company 2, and Battlefield 3 all recreated to 2042’s graphical standards. It certainly seems like DICE hopes players will fill in the gaps from the base game via Portal; why else would they release it in this state? It is also a desperate ploy to capitalise on nostalgia for games long out of support. However, what really happened was that players made AI bot farms where they could amass experience points without the skill needed to overcome real people. In response, DICE nerfed the amount of XP awarded in player-made modes.

Orbit is set at a rocket launch pad

Orbit is set at a rocket launch pad

The thing is, Battlefield usually has a litany of launch issues with each release. It was game-breaking bugs that made me drop V very early on, never to return, and even fan-favourite Battlefield 4 was a hot mess to start with. It ended up the series’ peak. In this era of live-service games, we can only hope that DICE is capable of making 2042 everything its marketing material promised, but it looks like the rewritten Battlefield experience is here to stay for the time being. ®

Bootnote

Rich played and will hopefully play Battlefield 2042 again on Twitch as ExcellentSword – once performance has been improved. Chuck him a follow for more video game impressions as they happen! Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from around 8:30-9pm UK time.

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EU official warns data rules may need to change – putting Irish DPC in the spotlight

Voice Of EU

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Enforcement of GDPR has attracted a lot of criticism since the regulations came into force in 2018, with a great of deal of that placed on Ireland’s DPC.

Ireland’s role in policing Big Tech on data protection is coming under scrutiny, as a senior European Commission official has warned that the bloc’s privacy rules may need to change if enforcement is not effective.

Politico reports that commission vice-president Věra Jourová said more power may need to be put in the hands of EU institutions when it comes to General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

“Either we will all collectively show that GDPR enforcement is effective or it will have to change and … any potential changes will go towards more centralisation,” she said at a conference this week in Brussels.

Under GDPR’s ‘one-stop shop’ mechanism, tech giants such as Facebook and Google are currently able to handle much of their GDPR responsibilities in one EU country. This means that many data protection investigations fall to regulators in countries where Big Tech companies have European headquarters – namely Ireland and Luxembourg.

Any changes would likely give more power to the EU executive or Europe’s network of privacy regulators, Jourová said.

DPC in the spotlight

Enforcement of GDPR has attracted a lot of criticism since the regulations came into force in 2018, with a great of deal of that placed on Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC).

The DPC acts as the EU’s lead data supervisor for several major US tech players that have European headquarters in Ireland, including Facebook, Google, TikTok and Twitter. In September, WhatsApp was issued the DPC’s largest ever fine for breaching GDPR.

But this has created a hefty workload for the regulator. At an Oireachtas hearing earlier this year, the DPC faced criticisms over how it has been handling GDPR complaints against Big Tech companies.

Dr Johnny Ryan, senior fellow at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, said Ireland had become a “bottleneck of GDPR investigation and enforcement”, and privacy campaigner Max Schrems claimed there was a “spiral of unresolved complaints” being created.

In response, Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon said much of the criticism was unfounded and that the complexity lies in “an enormous range of stakeholders” involved.

“The complexities of the decision-making involved in the ‘one-stop shop’, which multinationals may avail of under the GDPR, means that the pace of delivery is not solely within the domain of the DPC,” she added.

‘Time to revisit’ the DPC structure

But Dixon could be getting further support at the DPC. It was recently reported that the Department of Justice has asked officials to consider expanding the number of data protection commissioners from one to three.

Privacy advocates are encouraging the Government to do so. Digital Rights Ireland has recently written to Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, TD, saying it is “now time to revisit” how the DPC is structured.

In a letter first reported on by the Irish Examiner and later posted on Twitter, the group said the appointment of additional commissioners would be an “opportunity to develop the global role of the DPC”.

“A stronger DPC is needed to protect human rights and uphold Irish and EU law, and the appointment of new commissioners is an opportunity to develop this,” the letter concluded.

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