Cyber security, alien radio, smart cushions: our editors’ picks of the week’s tech news
E&T staff pick their favourite news stories from the past week and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them.
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
This week, there were concerns over the ability of Russian authorities to hack institutions worldwide, including UK organisations such as political parties. Facebook said it would shut down surveillance tools that have been used by the US police to monitor users’ locations. The fallout continues from Wikileaks exposing methods used by the CIA to spy on people ranging from gadgets to televisions. And the UK National Cyber Security Centre and National Crime Agency warned about everyday gadgets’ vulnerability to ransomware. It all makes our special issue on cyber security particularly timely. We interview National Cyber Security Centre CTO Ian Levy, discuss the limits or otherwise of international cyber warfare and find out how authorities know who is behind the hacks – or at least work out what kind of hacker they are.
Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Drumroll please, I do believe I have discovered the most exciting news story of all time, bar none. This is the incredible news that scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have said that mysterious radio bursts encountered in space could be evidence of advanced alien technology. It is thought that the waves could be leakage from planet-sized transmitters powering interstellar probes in distant galaxies. Researchers have so far been unable to identify any possible natural source of the millisecond-long flashes of radio transmission, which are thought to have originated from distant galaxies millions of light years away. The results of a feasibility study into creating a radio transmitter strong enough to be detectable from such immense distance show that while such a feat is far beyond the realms of our current technology, is technically possible according to the laws of physics. Forget ‘Pick of the Week’ this story is my pick of the year so far. In fact, unless there’s some groundbreaking news in the search for extraterrestrial life still in store for 2017, I fail to see anything topping this. I’m sure there are a lot of naysayers out there who are sceptical of any assumptions that this could be down to alien existence, but so far there isn’t much more in the way of explanation. Think what you will, but I am going to take this as an excuse to be unreasonably excited. At any rate, you don’t really believe we are the only ones here, do you?
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
For an organisation that started life making maps for the army in the 18th century, the Ordnance Survey is involved in some remarkably modern activities. Did you know that 5G communications networks will be planned using OS data to avoid anything that might interfere with the wireless signals? Not just buildings and foliage, but even town-centre Christmas lights. Fascinating.
Offshore wind farms are springing up all round this small island, as Bill Bryson described it, but this one is different. It’s significant because the eight turbine masts will be floating, not buried in the seabed. If this technique works well in practice it will make it possible to site arrays in deeper waters further offshore, and will help Scotland develop a supply chain to serve the home and export markets.
Rebecca Northfield, acting features editor
If you’ve had a look at our review for the Humu Smart Cushion, then you’d know that we thought it was a pretty decent product. It gave us ‘good vibrations’, as it were. However, have a look at the choice of images for Flexound’s marketing campaign. Here we have a woman, clearly enjoying herself as she listens to her favourite tune, resting on the smart cushion as it vibrates in time to the beat of the music. Sorry to say this, but I am reminded of a marketing campaign from prophylactic manufacturer Durex, where they aired not-so-subtle adverts before the watershed on our TV screens. Slow-motion, close-up shots of women clearly having a good time with the brand’s latest vibrating products, with the same expression of pleasure that is akin to the young lady resting on her Humu vibrating pillow. Coinkidink? I think not.
Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Cyber criminals could hold innocent consumers to ransom over their data by exploiting security weaknesses in popular gadgets like smart phones, watches, televisions, and fitness trackers according to security chiefs. The rise of internet-connected devices gives attackers more opportunity to deploy their increasingly “aggressive” and “confrontational” tactics, says a joint report from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and the National Crime Agency (NCA). These scams have been around for some time, where your phone or other device gets hacked and locked by the hacker. To release your phone from its digital hostage situation you need to put in your bank details and pay a ransom. If this is becoming more sophisticated, it’s very worrying for many people. We share so much of our personal data on our phones these days that we don’t even know how important it is any more; we’re so used to it. To be fair, if someone wants to access my fitness information then good for them, because it’s less than useless to me! The worrying aspect of this technology is things such as pacemakers getting hacked (like in Homeland!) – with healthcare becoming more computerised than ever before, manufacturers are having to rethink their entire security software, including assistance.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
A “smart energy system” incorporating electric vehicles, solar panels and home battery storage is set to be trialled on the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall. The tiny island has no gas supply and so currently relies entirely on imported fuels and electricity to meet its needs. It makes perfect sense, then, for the residents to work together to power their island lives and this smart energy trial is a first step in that direction. Community co-operation and crowdsourced solutions have worked well for people living in remote areas attempting to access other important technologies – satellite internet for rural communities, for example. Proof that when people work together, high cost and infrastructure issues need not be the insurmountable barriers they are for the individual.
When professional people are forced to migrate for reasons of war or famine, what employment or further education joy might they have in the new lands where they eventually settle? Some refugees have impressive qualifications and experience, but they still struggle to find work. What help is on offer to them? One initiative is the Oxford Students Refugee Campaign, which will provide scholarships for students fleeing war and persecution with funding from current Oxford students. So far, more than half of the students at the University of Oxford have pledged to contribute £1 a month through their colleges. With 11,000 students participating, that’s the tidy sum of £240,000 already raised for the next two years.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Die-hard sports fans for whom the match is everything will be cynical about the idea of going to a football ground on a Saturday afternoon being marketed to them as a ‘spectator experience’. Why shell out for a ticket then spend half the time looking at the screen of your smartphone? I’d have counted myself among them, but the last few times I’ve taken the short walk down the road to support my local non-league team I have to admit that being able to keep up with what’s going on via social media has actually added to the experience. If you’re used to enjoying replays of match highlights on the big screen, which has become par for the course at big grounds, being able to pick them up from Twitter courtesy of an alert spectator who’s got their own phone’s camera trained on the match is a nice touch. In the past it was all too easy to glance away for a few seconds and find you’d missed a big talking point. Smart clubs are using platforms like Twitter and Facebook to engage with fans, as well as making it easy for them to get online while in the ground. Keep them in there and happy, I guess, and they’re more likely to spend money on food and drink.