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Covid saliva test, green opportunities, car data fail and more: best of the week's news

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E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Mass saliva testing proposed as a way to take cities out of lockdown

The coronavirus pandemic has created enormous logistical challenges, especially for health-service professionals. The sheer number of cases requiring immediate hospital treatment was already forbidding enough without then also having to consider how to roll out and execute preventative measures. How can a country effectively test all of its people? How do we keep track of everyone's movements, without resorting to the kind of deep surveillance that simply wouldn't be acceptable to most people?

In the UK, the NHS has done an incredible job of handling the crisis, in spite of the government's indifference and ineptitude, but there's still so much more to be done. People may well be bored of lockdown and restrictions now, but coronavirus isn't going away. This isn't a reality-TV series, where it's the hot topic for gossip on social media for a couple of months before everyone moves on and forgets all about it. Coronavirus is ongoing, whether we like it or not. Fortunately (if anything about Covid-19 can be referred to as fortunate), quick checks such as the saliva tests suggested in this article can speed up the process of determining who has been infected. Participating in such tests could be something we all have to get used to, if we want to return to some semblance of the free and unrestricted movement we all took for granted only three months ago.

Speed up climate action with post-pandemic green recovery, advisers say

Natural habitats could absorb a third of the UK’s carbon emissions

One unexpected outcome of the pandemic has been politicians, government advisers, pressure groups and campaigners around the world all calling for a seismic shift in our approach to rebuilding national economies, urging governments to seize this unique opportunity to reset policies and attitudes and move forward, out of lockdown, towards the 'new normal', with a dedicated focus on environmentally positive actions. Coronavirus has turned the world upside-down and such huge change invites an equally huge response. If a global pandemic – which has left hundreds of thousands of people dead, so far – isn't the time to cast off the old ways and genuinely, permanently, pivot and embrace a new approach to life on Earth, what exactly will it ever take to change hearts and minds? This was nature's warning shot across our bows. We should heed the warning. We're an adaptable species: it's time to adapt.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Motorists ‘leaving sensitive data on their old cars’

I’m sure there are plenty of people whose first action when they take ownership of a new car isn’t to check where the spare tyre is (if there even is one), or how to do the basics like top-up the washer fluid bottle, but to pair their phone up with the vehicle.

Fair enough. That’s never been a priority for me yet, despite having phones and cars that could in theory talk to each other. There’s rarely a call urgent enough for me to need to take it while I’m driving, and I’m happy to rely on the radio for my in-vehicle entertainment. Then again, I don’t do a lot of journeys lasting more than 20 minutes and can imagine that if you’re putting in a lot of miles on business travel it would be dead useful for your dashboard to serve as an extension of your smartphone’s home screen. If it wasn’t, why would manufacturers make it a feature of their latest models that’s right up with fuel economy and emissions?

The problem revealed by this survey by Which?, though, is that few drivers are as keen about unpairing their phone when they sell a car on as they were to couple the two up in the first place. More than half said they’d made no attempt to unsync, while a third admitted to not having done anything to remove personal information stored by their car before passing it on.

In most cases that’s going to be more of an annoyance for a new owner who has to sort it out for themselves, and few will be bothered to make any malicious attempt to steal data while they’re doing that. Like most 21st-century IT, I’d be relieved to get it working in the first place having persuaded my new vehicle to forget about its previous life.

Which? makes the sensible point that modern cars should be treated as seriously as we do smartphones, tablets or laptops when it comes to keeping track of the personal information we share with them. We just don’t think of them in the same way, and as their functionality becomes increasingly sophisticated and networked, it’s something which has to change.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Trump administration claims Huawei ‘backed by Chinese military’

White House accusations that Huawei is supported by the Chinese military won’t help US companies in China. It’s worth remembering that Cupertino-based Apple shook hands, too, with the US Pentagon in 2013 to supply Apple devices including iPhones and iPads for use on its networks. It paved the way for Pentagon employees to use the gadgets at work.

With projects like its China Clean Energy Fund (co-investing in three massive wind farms across the country), Apple has a big stake in China – projects that could now be at risk should the Trump administration muck it up. Does the hostile listing of Chinese tech companies by the Trump administration give the Jinping government reason to denounce Apple and other companies in a similar situation? 

I think it could. It poses a risk Trump might not have fully thought through. Or in his mind, the White House is so poised for conflict that sensible strategic diplomacy has vanished into thin air. Should the Trump administration pursue sanctions against companies on its list, China will retaliate by targeting US organisations with a stake in China that work (or have worked in the past) with US military organisations.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Boston City Council votes to ban facial-recognition tech

At first glance, there seems to be no obvious connection between this story and multiple news agency reports from Russia about the belated Victory Day military parade in Moscow on 24 June. It was held in the Red Square on Putin’s orders and against all medical advice; with Covid-19 still raging in Moscow, and in Russia in general, any large public gatherings remain extremely dangerous.

The parade, largely perceived in the West (as well as by the growing opposition inside Russia itself) as another blatant gesture of sabre-rattling, a kind of a belligerent ‘feast during the plague’, demonstrated some brand-new samples of Russia’s military technology, including the surface-to-air S-350 Vityaz system to counter tactical ballistic and cruise missiles (already ‘tested’ in Syria), the TOS 2 Tosochka rocket launcher and SU-35 fighter jets (also ‘tried’ in Syria). As it has become the norm, first in the USSR and then in Russia, during the government-sanctioned demonstrations and parades, the latest cloud-seeding and cloud-dispersing technologies were used to make sure that nobody – God or nature included – could mar the “show of the country’s unity and strength” with rain or even a little drizzle.

The sky above Moscow was indeed entirely cloudless that day.

So, what’s the connection between a megalomaniacal display of military strength and banning of new facial-recognition tech by Boston City Council in the US? To me, the association is obvious: it doesn’t bode well for the future of humankind when a hostile totalitarian superpower (even a former one) relishes brandishing its latest technologies in the face of a world in the grip of a deadly pandemic, whereas the elected representatives of the opposing superpower in the, allegedly, free and democratic West, vote to ban one such technology, aimed primarily at catching criminals capable of undermining that very democracy from within.

My personal opinion with regards to the facial-recognition technology remains unchanged: if its use is limited exclusively to law-enforcement agencies, it should be welcome in any free society.

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