March 2014 issue

Date:27 February 2014 Tags:, , , , , , , , ,

Invasions of privacy: it’s time to fight back

We don’t want to scare you unnecessarily, but you need to know that a lot of digital information that you regard as strictly private is accessible to people who may not be very nice.

PM’s Davey Alba, who describes himself as a “proud technophile”, confesses that for all the attention he pays to technology, he has never worked particularly hard at protecting his data – until now. After interviewing security professionals, cryptographers, computer science researchers and other clever people, he decided it was definitely time to change his ways.

Interestingly, the top suggestion from all these experts was to move from proprietary to open-source software. He installed encryption software on his phone and laptop, abandoned Google in favour of a new search engine and downloaded an anonymising bundle called Tor to hide his identity – and that was just for starters.

This month’s cover story focuses on the erosion of privacy and explains how you can fight back, using technology, clever software and a generous dollop of common sense. How far would you go to protect your privacy? Do you believe it’s worth taking those extra steps, no matter how tedious, to protect information that no one else has the right to see? Send us your thoughts. Next up – a story about a strange quantum mechanical phenomenon inherent in many particles, including electrons, called spin. You may not be familiar with the term, but be assured that it’s about to become a lot more common as physicists and engineers explore its potential applications across a huge range of gadgets. Says writer Jon Cartwright: “Now it (spin) is poised to march into other parts of our digital gadgetry, bringing smaller, faster and more flexible calculating machines – and perhaps even one that can mimic that most powerful of all number crunchers, the human brain.”

In another thought-provoking article, we present “10 tech terms for 2014”. You may be familiar with muon tomography, bioprinting, organ-on-a-chip and in-memory computing, but what you probably don’t know is that in February 2011, the Internet officially ran out of IP addresses (and yes, we know that new devices were still able to connect). As Alex Hutchinson says, it’s time to shift from the creaky 32-bit IPv4 system developed in the 1970s to the hugely accommodating 128-bit IPV6 system. Would you believe 340 trillion trillion addresses?

Moving along, we visit the Sywell Aerodrome, about 120 km north of London, for a close encounter with magnificent men and their flying machines. This rural airstrip is the setting for one of the quirkiest aviation competitions on the calendar, the Icarus Cup. Restricted to human-powered aircraft, it produces some amazing designs – such as the frail-looking Betterfly. This ultralight (40 kg), pedal-powered aircraft was built and piloted by David Barford, a highly determined seat-of-the-pants engineer who didn’t hesitate to cannibalise the wheels from his daughter’s childhood bicycle to er… get it off the ground. Read “The improbable flying machines of Sywell” and marvel at human ingenuity.

Finally, we take a look at the rich and varied assortment of gadgets from the annual International CES event in Las Vegas, cultural centre of the United States (just kidding) and a mecca for anyone who cares about cool – and in some cases, seriously odd – consumer technology. Consider the Urb-e folding electric scooter (we’d really like one), the Blaze Laserlight (promising a real advance in cyclist safety) and – this one fits neatly into the “odd” category – the Parrot Jumping Sumo, described by its creators as half robot, half insect. Wi-Fi controlled via your smartphone or tablet, it rolls, turns and jumps with reckless abandon. Naturally, we like it.

– Alan Duggan (