E&T news weekly #46 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday April 17 2015

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Paedophiles turning to bitcoin to trade sex abuse images

It seems depressingly inevitable, but no sooner is a virtually anonymous, untraceable payment system invented than people will find disturbing, illegal uses for that currency. Drugs came first with the Silk Road online narcotics smorgasbord and other similar marketplaces. Now, paedophiles are reportedly using bitcoin, the most common virtual currency, to trade child sex abuse images.

Successful hacks and cyber attacks commonly result of human error

In a story that will doubtless have every technical support operative in every IT department in every office building around the world nodding their head in a resigned fashion, it turns out that the vast majority of successful hacks and cyber-attacks are the result of the more gullible employees clicking on attachments in phishing e-mails. Apparently, as few as 10 spoof emails sent to a company can often be enough to gain access to at least one hapless employee’s PC and from there the hacker can work their way into the wider company network. Proof positive that you can have the fanciest, most high-tech security system in place, but there’s still no legislating for stupidity.

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology editor
Acoustic technology to combat California drought

California has been struggling with crippling drought, now in its fourth year. It’s a multifaceted issue, of course, but one of the culprits appears to be underground pipe leaks. An innovative approach is to find them early by means of acoustic detection: trying to spot the characteristic hissing sound of leaking pipes using special sensitive microphones attached to hydrants. Once a leak is discovered, it’s time to start digging to repair it. The technique is used in other countries too – but let’s hope it will help keep the Golden State from turning brown.

Laura Onita  Laura Onita, news reporter
UK’s total nuclear waste could fit in to one football pitch-sized site

All it takes is six 5km deep holes to bury all of the UK’s nuclear waste. Scientists came up with new ways for sealing radioactive waste into boreholes, which could be drilled, filled and sealed in less than five years. If field trials go well, we could soon be rid of our nuclear waste in no time, rather than wait for mined repositories to be built.

GPS sensors in smartphones could help predict earthquakes

It’s reassuring to know phones could help detect earthquakes before they happen, particularly for some of the world’s poorest regions where advanced early warning technology might not be available. A new study showed GPS sensors built into phones and other devices could detect ground movement caused by large earthquakes and alert people in advance of the onset of tremors.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Tech worker visas for immigrants hits record high in US

Immigration isn’t just a political hot potato in the UK. The US technology sector needs three times more skilled workers than it is allowed to import.

Alan Turing manuscript sells for $1m in New York auction

How much would you expect to pay for a notebook from a Cambridge stationers’ shop? It all depends who has written in it already and in this case it was Alan Turing.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Planes could be hacked through in-flight entertainment system

Yet another thing for nervous fliers to worry about as they board their plane. The person sitting next to you who looks like they’re trying to get the latest Transformers movie up on their fancy seat-back video display could actually be hacking into the aircraft’s flight control system, the US Government Accountability Office reckons. Cyber-security experts have told them that allowing control and entertainment to use the same wiring and routers makes them vulnerable to ‘potential malicious actors’ apparently, and no, they don’t mean the cast of that Transformers movie.

UK’s total nuclear waste could fit in to one football pitch-sized site

Good news that clever technology from a UK university that makes it easier and quicker to store nuclear waste is on the fast track in the US where it could be trialled next year. Obviously there’s much more to this than digging a hole and putting the waste in but it does seem worrying that a UK mined repository using existing technology isn’t due to take its first waste until 2075. Sceptics will be nervous about everything being concentrated in one site the size of a football pitch, which would presumably raise a host of security issues.

Aasha Bodhani  Aasha Bodhani, industry features editor
Planes could be hacked through in-flight entertainment system

As cyber-attacks become more frequent, it’s hardly surprising that most devices we now use have the potential to be hacked. Now, the US Government Accountability Office has revealed in-flight wireless entertainment systems can be hacked to access flight controls. The problem lies with the systems using the same wiring and routers as flight control, despite firewalls being set in place; the finding shows a cyber-security threat model is required.

Robotic chef hands unveiled which learn and mimic human actions

Robotic chefs could be coming to a restaurant near you! Well maybe not just yet, but Moley Robotics has developed a prototype autonomous cooking machine which uses two robotic arms to mimic human actions. It records the cooking process, such as chopping, cleaning and stirring, in 3D and maps individual motions which are turned into commands to control the arm movement.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Smartphone payments for Seattle’s homeless newspaper vendors

This is a great development, not just for the Real Change newspaper, but for the homeless people it employs. The project was set up to help the homeless and low-paid sell the Seattle newspaper who struggle in an increasingly cashless society. The app from Google is going to accept digital payments through customers’ smartphones by scanning a barcode. If this eventually helps the homeless off the streets into a more stable and healthy environment, then I’m all for it. The paper was founded in 1994 and helps 800 low-paid and homeless vendors in the Puget Sound area. All I can say is well done to Google volunteers, who are helping the homeless adapt to technological advances.

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