Letters to the Editor: Hackers, Asteroids, Deep Sea Mining, and Pee

Motherboard readers respond to this week's stories.

Dec 4 2015, 11:07pm

Image: bertknot/Flickr

Welcome to the final month of the year. My name is Nicholas Deleon, and I'm the editor of Short Circuit, Motherboard's budding consumer tech section. I'm also now moonlighting as an adult entertainment industry analyst, but that's a topic for another day.

We began this week with continued fallout from the VTech hack, which Motherboard cybersecurity reporter (and fellow FC Barcelona fan) Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai broke last week. Turns out the hack was a lot worse than initially thought, with VTech admitting that 6.3 million children's accounts were hacked and not 200,000 as initially believed. It's a real mess, so be sure to catch up if you haven't already.

Motherboard didn't only cover VTech-related news this week, of course, with UK Editor Victoria Turk looking into the laws surrounding asteroid mining, specifically what the international community thinks of a recent US law that opened up commercial asteroid mining for US citizens. (Spoiler: They're not impressed.) Motherboard also received wonderful feedback on Senior Editor Brian Merchant's recent story on the race to mine the sea floor for precious metals. If you haven't already, my suggestion is to set aside some time this weekend read it with a nice cup of coffee.

Up first this week is a note from Motherboard Editor-in-Chief Derek Mead on how Motherboard assigns gender pronouns to anonymous sources, brought about by comments made in reference to Lorenzo's first story on the VTech hack.

Cheers, and thanks for continuing to read Motherboard.


RE: One of the Largest Hacks Yet Exposes Data on Hundreds of Thousands of Kids

Last Friday we published a story that cited an anonymous hacker as a source. In an attempt to further obscure the identity of the source, we said that we had "assigned" the pronoun "he" to the source. This statement, which was added during the course of editing, does not fit our editorial guidelines: In cases where anonymous sources may be identified by their gender, we have previously referred to the source in nonspecific terms—"he or she," "the source," and so on.

More importantly, the move was fairly viewed as sexist. As some readers pointed out, ascribing the male gender to a hacker whose gender is unknown would perpetuate a stereotype of technologists as male. This was not our intent. We at Motherboard have no interest in "assigning" a gender to anyone. We made a mistake, and sincerely apologize for it.

We appreciate the criticism because it also raises a valuable question about how we refer to and work with sources whom we only know digitally. Working with anonymous sources is one of the more complex quandaries journalists have to navigate. As the SPJ puts it, "If the only way to publish a story that is of importance to the audience is to use anonymous sources, the reporter owes it to the readers to identify the source as clearly as possible without pointing a figure at the person who has been granted anonymity."

When working with a source who wishes to remain anonymous, we normally discuss how we'll refer to the source prior to publication. For the sake of clarity, which is crucial when using anonymous sourcing, we have previously avoided using "they" as a singular pronoun, as it can be unnecessarily confusing, especially when dealing with individual members of collectives that share a single handle or identity, or when dealing with multiple, separate anonymous sources in one story.

However, it's apparent that there are instances when using "they" is the clearest option available. For example, while we can and do verify that an email account representing a hacking group is indeed connected to that group, it can be impossible to confirm if it is run by one individual, multiple individuals, or all members of the group. Furthermore, if a source or subject has not identified their gender, using "he or she" constitutes an assumption our our part. In these cases, it is clear that "they" is more precise because, by being more neutral, using "they" avoids inadvertently stating an unknown as fact.

Going forward, we will continue to discuss how we refer to our anonymous sources ("an official with knowledge of the situation," "a researcher who has read the report") with those sources before publication, including pronouns. In instances where the source does not wish to have their gender revealed, or when we simply do not know, we will refer to the source as "they" when the use of a pronoun is absolutely necessary.

– Derek Mead, Motherboard Editor-in-Chief

RE: The US Says Asteroid Mining Is Legal for Americans. What About Everyone Else?

Here's my interpretation, from briefly reading the 'Outer space treaty'. While, the language used is overly ambiguous, it appears to me that the intent was for it to only apply to objects in low earth orbit, including the moon, or other objects in close proximity to earth, and mostly to protect the world from a Nuclear Ordinance fueled Doomsday.

So, as long as you can launch an object, that's properly labeled, and perhaps attach it to an asteroid, and then land, (therefore it also becomes a meteorite), without causing a massive explosion or WMD-event, with the object intact, articles 1, 3, and 8, may support legal ownership rights. However, article 6, states that Corporations (non-governmental parties), require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate state. Which sounds a lot like, if your corporation does things, you have to have authorization and supervision from the country in which the corporation is based.

Art 11 essentially says, that no clandestine or covert activity within reason, is permitted. Therefore, so as long as the activities are publicly announced it's okay.

Here are some key parts of the 'Outerspace treaty' which may have to be later be legally defined.


from Art. I

"... . ...Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind..."

from Art. III

"...States Parties to the Treaty shall carry on activities in the exploration and use of outer space..."

Art. VI

"...The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty..."

from Art. VIII

..."...Ownership of objects launched into outer space, including objects landed or constructed on a celestial body, and of their component parts, is not affected by their presence in outer space or on a celestial body or by their return to the Earth. Such objects or component parts found beyond the limits of the State Party to the Treaty on whose registry they are carried shall be returned to that State Party, which shall, upon request, furnish identifying data prior to their return. ..."

—Anthony Marks via letters@motherboard.tv


Hi Anthony, thanks for reading.

As we're finding out from this recent episode, there are ambiguities in international space law. However, I think the language in the Outer Space Treaty is purposefully vague so as to cover the whole of outer space, and there's nothing in it that suggests to me it applies only to low Earth orbit or near to Earth.

Naturally, especially at the time it was written, the Moon (which is a lot further out than low Earth orbit) would seem a more urgent challenge to regulate, and so it's unsurprising that it is used so often in the Treaty as an example of a "celestial body." Generally, though, celestial objects could be defined as everything from planets to asteroids and stars, and the Treaty makes clear reference to "other celestial bodies" too.

Earth's orbit is mentioned in the Treaty (although never specifically low Earth orbit) in Article IV on nuclear weapons. However, the Treaty also specifies that parties undertake not to install weapons on celestial bodies or to "station such weapons in outer space in any other manner," which suggests its scope is broader.

I certainly don't think it's possible to limit the Treaty to low Earth orbit, and while avoiding potential nuclear disaster on Earth is one key part of it, there are others that are given equal weight, such as the importance for space exploration to benefit all countries.

You are right that commercial parties have to register launches with a state party of the Treaty, and that the state has responsibility for them.

Thanks for writing in; it'll be fascinating to see how national and international legislation responds to the developing field of commercial space activities.

Best wishes,



Motherboard Editor

RE: Online Shopping Hides Black Friday's Real Violence

Dear Jordan,

First off, love your writing. Badass vocabalurry.

Second off, your Black Friday article felt forced and intellectually masturbatory compared to your usual. I'm not a big fan of capitalism either but it's much easier to point out someone else's flaws than it is to help fix anything aka this note. Happy christmonth!

Rob Truxal, via an email to Jordan Pearson

RE: What Wiping Pee on My Face Did for My Acne

I read your article on trying to find acne treatments and the attempt at using urine. Seems a bit extreme though when I was a teen I tried milk of magnesia without much success. I don't know if you have actually seen a Dermatologist but this About.com article and video should be of interest. I used an antibiotic which worked well but one does not want to use this for years. Finally, a course of Accutane worked wonders though it does make your eyes burn a bit. One of my (now adult) kids was also given this and its important to treat fairly early to prevent build up of scars. I've seen too many young people (late teens) that haven't received any treatment which tells me that their parents are basically out to lunch.

Check out the site: http://acne.about.com/od/acnetreatments/a/isotretinoin.htm


—Whole Witt via letters@motherboard.tv

RE: The Next Gold Rush Will Be 5,000 Feet Under the Sea

Dear Mr Merchant,

After reading your article « The Next Gold Rush Will Be 5,000 Feet Under the Sea », I wanted to congratulate you. As a PhD researcher in law on the environmental regulatory aspects of deep sea mining, I have come across a broad number of articles of a journalistic nature. Lots of those pop up here and there, more and more frequently as this is becoming a trendy, fashionable topic. Unfortunately, a lot of these articles were simplistic, narrowed, incomplete or even sometimes wrong.

I would therefore like to congratulate you on this comprehensive piece which I took pleasure reading. You touched upon several perspectives and point of views, while explaining all of the basics that one needs to know to form one's own opinion. Economics, ecology, technology, social, company, scientist, locals, it's all there.

So, simply, thank you.

All the best,

Laura E. Lallier

Legal Adviser

PhD candidate - Ghent University, Be

eCOAST Marine Research

Esplanadestraat 1

B-8400 Oostende


Via an email to Brian Merchant