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Gerald Herbert/AP

(Gerald Herbert/AP)

Technology

Double jeopardy

Two threats pose serious risks to the American electric grid, but the United States could prepare 

The Trump administration recently announced U.S. intentions to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, alleging repeated violations of the treaty by Russia. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that new advanced weapons could be aimed at American targets if the United States withdraws from the treaty.

Military analysts are reassessing the threat of nuclear war, given concerns about China, North Korea, and Russia. The horrors of blast damage and radiation are well-known, but the Electromagnetic Defense Task Force of the U.S. Air Force released a detailed report last November on the threat to the electric grid. One nuclear explosion high in the atmosphere could cause an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that could disrupt or destroy America’s electrical grid and much of our electronic equipment.

The likelihood of this happening is small, but if it did, America might enter a new dark age without any of the services required by a modern industrial society. An EMP could also result from natural causes, as occurred in 1859.

That year Fred Royce was working for the American Telegraph Company. He saw brilliant auroras in the sky at his office near Washington, D.C. As Royce worked his telegraph, he received a severe electric shock. A witness saw a spark jump from his forehead to the equipment. Magnetic compasses gyrated wildly. Telegraph communications were severely disrupted.

Scientists now know the sun causes frequent disturbances on Earth, though most are brief and far less severe than what became known as the Carrington Event, named for a British astronomer. If such an event recurred in our electronic age, the results could be as catastrophic as a nuclear-caused EMP. The type of solar disturbance most likely to cause disruption on Earth is a coronal mass ejection (CME), an explosion of plasma and magnetism from the surface of the sun.

In March 1989 a geomagnetic storm caused by a CME resulted in the collapse of the Hydro-Québec power system. This event plunged Quebec into cold and darkness for nine hours, while technicians struggled to overcome the effects of the Earth’s violently fluctuating magnetic field. In 2012, space probes detected a massive CME that faced away from Earth. University of Colorado physics laboratory director Daniel Baker said in a 2013 paper, “If that CME had hit earth, the resulting geomagnetic storm would have been comparable to the Carrington Event.” Peter Riley, a physicist with Predictive Science Inc., estimated the probability of a Carrington-class storm at 12 percent in the next 10 years.

Another factor increasing geomagnetic disturbances comes from the Earth itself. Measurements from satellites of the European Space Agency show the strength of Earth’s magnetic field is steadily decreasing, perhaps as quickly as 5 percent per decade. This field protects the planet from the effects of solar storms. As it continues to weaken, it may allow solar storms to cause more damage.

Congress has been aware of these issues since at least 2000, when it established the EMP Commission. This commission provided extensive reports in 2004 and 2008 detailing the seriousness of the EMP threat to modern American society. The reports also gave practical and affordable guidance for improving the resiliency of the electric grid. Professor and EMP Commission member George Baker testified before Congress in 2015, stating that the cost of grid enhancements would be $3.30 per month per electric ratepayer.

If lawmakers, regulators, and industry leaders understand these issues, what makes progress on hardening the electric grid so elusive? Utilities say the U.S. government has responsibility in preventing a nuclear attack and should set regulatory requirements. The government has had compelling reports on the risks of the EMP threat for at least 10 years. Yet Congress fails to pass relevant bills and regulators remain largely silent.

—Stephen Patton is a technology-fluent graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course

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Technology

Secret signals

Internet-connected voice assistants prove vulnerable to hacking

Hackers always seem to find a way to exploit emerging technologies, whether by picking the digital locks on cars and hotel rooms or by cloning credit card numbers on a website. The explosion in popularity of artificially intelligent voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri presents a lucrative target for exploitation, and researchers are now discovering special vulnerabilities in voice-recognition technology.

Scientists at Ruhr University Bochum have demonstrated that hackers could hide voice commands in other audio, even something as innocuous as the sound of chirping birds, according to Fast Company. They could launch such attacks via a TV commercial or radio program, potentially allowing hackers to make purchases, steal identifying information, or even control an internet-connected security system.

The microphones in smart speakers can also detect frequencies outside the range of normal human hearing. In September, researchers at Zhejiang University in China encoded voice commands in low-frequency sounds only the voice assistant could “hear.” In what they called a “Dolphin Attack,” the researchers tricked Apple’s voice assistant, Siri, into initiating a FaceTime call and manipulating the navigation system on an Audi automobile.

“Right now, the dangers of voice-command hijacking seem mostly theoretical and isolated,” Rafael Lourenco, executive vice president at retail fraud prevention company ClearSale, wrote for tech website VentureBeat. “But the recent past has shown us that fraudsters adapt quickly to new technology.”

While technology companies work to fix vulnerabilities in their voice assistants, consumers can protect their internet-connected devices and data by following good safety practices: Lourenco recommends using strong passwords and two-factor authentication and setting up a PIN to protect voice assistant tasks that involve home security or personal, financial, and health data.

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Technology

Nondisposable proposal

Major brands launch experiment to reduce waste through reusable containers

Until well into the 20th century, most Americans had their milk delivered to their door in refillable glass bottles. The milkman also picked up the empties. Now a coalition of major consumer brands is testing a packaging and delivery platform that will use the “milkman model” for products as diverse as ice cream, deodorant, and laundry detergent.

The consortium of 25 companies—including such big names as Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, and PepsiCo —worked with recycling experts for more than a year to develop the platform, called Loop. Online-ordered products would arrive in a reusable tote that would also serve as a receptacle for empty containers. A delivery service would pick up the full tote and return it to a facility where the containers are cleaned, sterilized, and prepared for refilling.

Loop’s developers believe that, while recycling has its place, the waste problem is really a disposability problem.

“To us, the root cause of waste is not plastic, per se,” Tom Szaky, CEO and founder of TerraCycle, one of the project’s partners, told Fast Company. “It’s using things once, and that’s really what Loop tries to change as much as possible.”

In a pilot program to be launched this spring in New York and Paris, customers will be able to buy familiar brands such as Pantene shampoo and Tide detergent in packages designed for up to 100 uses. While the cost of the products will be about the same as those bought in single-use containers, the user will also have to pay a refundable deposit of between $1 and $10 per container, as well as some shipping charges.

Even though customers won’t have to clean the empty containers—a barrier to many who would otherwise recycle—critics of the initiative are skeptical whether the project will ever be profitable or will change consumer behavior. 

However, advocates say it’s significant that major brands are coming together to solve the plastic waste problem. Of the 10 companies Greenpeace lists as the world’s largest contributors to plastic waste, eight are part of the Loop consortium and the other two are in talks to join, according to Fast Company.

In addition to reducing plastic waste, an industrywide shift to reusable containers would ultimately reduce manufacturing and energy costs, proponents say. The key, they believe, is making the new paradigm attractive for consumers.

“You simply have to start somewhere to test it and see what the barriers are and who actually buys into the model,” Unilever’s research and development chief, David Blanchard, told The Wall Street Journal. “If there are sufficient people then you can scale it.”

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