Monthly Archives: December 2014

What Would a ‘Serial’-Like Murder Investigation Look Like Today?

The ​first season of the ultra-popular podcast Serial is over, but lots of questions remain, in no small part due to the lack of evidence tying then-high school student Adnan Syed to the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.

Huge swaths of Sarah Koenig’s longform storytelling (and reporting) experiment are dedicated to frustratingly minute details of what cell phone tower a certain call pinged, what certain high school students were doing at a certain time on a certain day, and whether or not someone had voicemail.

One of the most interesting things about Serial, to the Motherboard crew, was the fact that, yes, these high school students had cell phones, and they had email, but they used that technology in an entirely different way than we do today. Adnan checked his email, every once in a while, at the library, for goodness sakes.

So, we decided to explore what sorts of digital evidence a murder with similar circumstances would have today. Would Hae’s time of death been narrowed down thanks to her last Instagram post? Would Adnan’s Facebook have helped him remember what he was doing that day? And what’s the deal with cell phone tower tracking, anyway?

A Conversation With Laura Poitras, Director of ‘Citizenfour’

In her filmmaking, the director Laura Poitras—my guest on this edition of Radio Motherboard—likes to document reality as it happens, those moments of uncertainty that often don’t appear on film.

“There’s something about how we look at the past which has a kind of finality and closure to it, where life doesn’t usually happen that way,” she told me.

When she started receiving emails in early 2013 from an anonymous source, she could feel one of those moments suddenly enfolding around her.

“I had a sense, okay, this was going to find its way into a film or some other art project, but it was clear I was being pulled into a journey that felt a lot like, you know, a drama in terms of what he was communicating to me and the risks it was clear that were being taken.”

Poitras, who would turn this moment into the opening of her new documentary Citizenfour, knew something about risk management. In 2006, she began to be stopped and searched at international borders, and soon discovered she had been placed on a US government watch list, possibly related to filming she had done in Iraq for her documentary, My Country, My Country.

When she relocated to Berlin in order to protect the privacy of her work and her sources, she couldn’t have known then just how extensive the surveillance system was, and how great the risks would be. But in the Spring of 2013, after inviting Glenn Greenwald to help her report, she began speaking to lawyers in the US about further protections. She warned friends that they too may become the subject of government surveillance.

And then in June of 2013, with a new, shocking cache of files to pour over, she and Greenwald boarded a 12-hour flight to Hong Kong to finally meet her anonymous source.

Fortunately, the setting for these revelations make up the central scenes of Citizenfour: the Hong Kong hotel room where Edward Snowden, her source, would step out of anonymity, and where the biggest news story of 2013 would take shape. They are some of the most arresting, uncertain moments I’ve ever seen on film.

When  I spoke to Poitras last month, my mind jumped immediately to those moments. They capture a central, entangled set of themes that drive Citizenfour: not only the tenseness of Snowden’s decision, but also the work of the journalists trying to make sense of it, and the work of Poitras herself, who managed to keep her camera rolling for almost the entire time. She was not merely an observer but, given her intimacy with Snowden and the surveillance that had already targeted her, a central player.

“It was sort of like being in freefall,” she said.

Listen to our conversation,  find a theater playing the film, and read my profile of Poitras, Lucy Teitler’s  review of the film and other recent documentaries about leaks, and  our archive of stories on surveillance

And let us know what you think of our new podcast! Email us at, or leave a comment below.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About ‘Interstellar’

Interstellar may not be a great film—then again, it might be—but it does cut to the heart of quite a few of the themes we regularly hit on here at Motherboard: Space colonization, ecological collapse, near and far future dystopias, theoretical physics, the enduring power of love. Maybe not so much that last one, but you get the picture.

In fact, when a bunch of we Motherboarders started talking about it, we couldn’t stop.

Some of us absolutely loved it, others thought it was trash, and some of us wondered if whether it was any good or not was even important. In any case, a spirited discussion about its many facets broke out, one we thought should probably be recorded—you’d be hard pressed to find a better topic to launch a Motherboard podcast with.

So, yesterday, our senior editor and sci-fi aficionado Brian Merchant, futures editor and globe-trotting YACHTer Claire Evans, supervising producer and resident movie buff Chris O’Coin, and staff writer and science hawk Jason Koebler sat down and recorded Motherboard’s very first podcast to discuss all things Interstellar: What it says about our culture (and our sense of impending doom), whether the scenarios it explores are actually realistic and grounded in scientific thinking, and, of course, whether it’s worth seeing.

In other words, join us! We’re going to be doing these Motherboard podcasts (the staff vetoed Brian’s push to call them Mothercasts) more regularly here on out, so let us know what you think in the comments, on Facebook, etc, you know the drill: Let’s talk about the future.


Why Do People Think It’s Funny When Megacorporations Get Hacked?

The news was tailor made to dominate the media: Sony had been hacked, deeply, by a group calling themselves ‘Guardians of Peace’, possibly a squad of North Koreans. Social security numbers, bank records, unreleased movies, company wages, and embarrassing Power Points all spilled out of what was quickly labeled ​the biggest corporate hack in history.

So this week on Radio Motherboard, we talked about it. A lot. We dish on the ins and outs of the hack, the ethics of digital thievery, and why we delight when behemoth companies like Sony get hit but get outraged when individuals get compromised, and why we feel entitled to just about anything that’s stored online.

We also talk about Star Wars, Spotify, and the future of online culture, for good measure. Enjoy.