Innovation & Technology Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:



US and UK accused of hacking Sim card firm to steal codes
February 20, 2015

US and British intelligence agencies illegally hacked into a major manufacturer of Sim cards to steal codes and facilitate eavesdropping on mobiles, according to the US news website The Intercept. The company allegedly targeted - Gemalto - says it is taking the allegations 'very seriously'. It operates in 85 countries and has more than 40 manufacturing facilities.

The Intercept says that 'the great Sim heist' gave US and British surveillance agencies the potential to secretly monitor a large portion of the world's cellular communications, including both voice and data. It says that among the clients of the Netherlands-based company are AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint and around 450 wireless network providers around the world.

The Intercept claims that the hack organised by Britain's GCHQ and the NSA took place in 2010. The stolen encryption allowed the agencies to decode data that passes between mobile phones and cell towers. They were able to un-garble calls, texts or emails intercepted out of the air. Gemalto makes Sim cards for mobile phones and furnishes service providers with encryption codes to keep the data on each phone private.

By first cyber-stalking employees at Gemalto and then penetrating their emails, the spy agencies were able to steal thousands of encryption keys at source. This would allow them to eavesdrop easily on phone calls and texts without seeking permission from telecoms companies or foreign governments, and without leaving a trace, according to the Intercept, which cites as its source documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Full story: BBC News Back to top


Glassed-in DNA makes the ultimate time capsule
February 15, 2015

If you must preserve messages for people in the far future to read, Blu-ray discs and USB sticks are no good. For real long-term storage, you want a DNA time capsule.

Just 1 gram of DNA is theoretically capable of holding 455 exabytes - enough for all the data held by Google, Facebook and every other major tech company, with room to spare. It's also incredibly durable: DNA has been extracted and sequenced from 700,000-year-old horse bones. But conditions have to be right for it to last.

Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich are working on ways to increase DNA's longevity, with the aim of storing data for thousands or millions of years. They began by looking at the way information is encoded on a DNA strand. The simplest method treats the DNA bases A and C as a '0' and G and T as a '1'. Of course, any damage to the DNA leaves holes in the data, so the team used an error-correcting technique called a Reed-Solomon code. This includes redundant blocks that can be used to reconstruct garbled bits of data.

They also tried to mimic the way fossils keep a DNA sequence intact. Excluding all water from the environment was key, so they encapsulated the DNA in microscopic spheres of glass.

To test how long this storage system might last, they encoded two venerable documents, totalling 83 kilobytes. DNA versions of these texts were kept at 60, 65 and 70 °C for a week to simulate ageing. They remained readable without any errors. The results suggest that data in DNA form could last 2000 years if kept at a temperature of around 10 °C. The Global Seed Vault in the Arctic could preserve it for over 2 million years at a chilly -18 °C, offering truly long-term storage.

Full story: New Scientist / Angewandte Chemie Back to top


Portable lamp kills antibiotic-resistant bacteria
February 17, 2015

A 24-year-old Brazilian student has created a portable medical lamp that kills antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The inventor, Caio Guimaraes, studied electrical engineering at Brazil's Federal University of Pernambuco. His device consists of a lamp, which emits light at a blue wavelength that has been shown to kill bacteria, and biodegradable microneedles. These penetrate the skin's outer layer, or epithelium, and act as mini optical fibres that conduct light towards infections below the skin.

The lamp has been tested on bacteria such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Klebsiella pneumoniae and Acinetobacter baumannii, which cause skin, lung and stomach infections and have a high resistance to various antibiotics. The device has won awards from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.

Full story: SciDev Back to top


Spider silk dethroned as nature's toughest fibre
February 17, 2015

Spider silk is famous for its amazing toughness, and until recently a tensile strength of 1.3 gigapascals (GPa) was enough to earn it the title of strongest natural material. However, researchers report that the record books need to be updated to properly recognise the incredible strength of the limpet teeth.

Marine snails known as limpets (Patella vulgata) spend most of their lives scraping a set of small teeth along rocks in shallow ocean waters, looking for food. The constant grinding would be enough to quickly reduce most natural materials to nubs, but the limpets' teeth boast a tensile strength of between 3 and 6.5 GPa, researchers report.

The scientists discovered that the teeth are made of a mixture of goethite (an iron-containing crystal) nanofibres encased in a protein matrix. In spite of their amazing strength, the teeth don't quite best the strongest humanmade materials like graphene, but the new material's upper range puts it far ahead of Kevlar and on par with the highest quality carbon fibres.

Researchers speculate that the material's durability may have practical applications in dentistry.

Full story: Science / Journal of the Royal Society Interface Back to top


Paper-thin lenses could shrink cameras and holographic displays
February 19, 2015

A new nanostructured material makes it possible to replace bulky lenses and other optical devices with a thin sheet of material such as silicon. The advance could make it possible to shrink some professional-quality camera lenses to the thickness of a credit card. It might also enable lighter-weight, more compact full-colour holographic 3-D goggles.

The work was inspired a year ago when Google approached Federico Capasso from Harvard with a challenge. He'd recently demonstrated that he could build thin, nanostructured films that could manipulate light. The films worked well with only one colour, and Google wanted to know if he could make the technology work all the colours needed to produce full-colour displays.

One problem with most optical materials is that they bend light of different wavelengths at different angles, which makes it hard to produce clear images in a camera. It's possible to correct for the problem, but that involves adding extra lenses, which is why the high-end lenses professionals use are so bulky.

Capasso's team found ways to make all the wavelengths bend at the same angle. It's long been known that you can produce ultrafine patterns in a sheet of metal, or some other material, that will split light up into different colours the way a prism does. Capasso found that varying that pattern at the nanoscale in a precise way causes light of three different wavelengths to bend at the same angle. The end result is the ability to manipulate light using very thin materials.

Full story: Technology Review / Science Back to top


Contact lens binoculars are in sight
February 19, 2015

Binoculars are handy but they can also be bulky, heavy and a pain to carry around. But imagine if contact lenses could be made to magnify images and serve as tiny, wearable binoculars. Swiss and US researchers are working on just such an optical prosthetic, with funding from the US Defence Department.

The device is a very thin reflective telescope inside a rigid contact lens just 1.5.mm thick. When worn with a special pair of glasses, the effect is said to be like looking through a pair of low-magnification binoculars. The lenses let you switch between normal vision and a view that's magnified nearly three times with the wink of an eye. The glasses help the contacts distinguish between intentional winks and involuntary blinks.

The technology could be worn on healthy eyes. But it's really designed to help the visually impaired, especially those with age-related macular degeneration. If the system succeeds, it could offer a non-surgical option to help improve failing vision.

Full story: Scientific American Back to top


Hair dye could be used to track down criminals
February 17, 2015

'Your honour, we don't know if the suspect is the killer, but we do know they both used Revlon Frost & Glow hair dye.' It sounds absurd, but a well-known chemistry technique could help authorities identify criminals based on their artificial hair colour.

Usually, hairs left behind at a crime scene are associated with DNA testing, but such a procedure requires whole, intact hairs and is often time-consuming. Because of these constraints, forensic analyses sometimes simply compare the appearance of the hair under the microscope, but these comparisons are subjective in nature and frequently inconclusive.

However, new research might eventually provide police with a DNA-free method for objectively linking a hair to a crime. The technique uses surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) to precisely measure how light from a laser bounces off a hair. Vibrations within the molecules on the hair's surface change the energy of the reflected photons and are caught by a detector. If the sample has a dye on it (or blood, drugs, ink, explosives, etc.) the laser will reflect differently, and each dye creates a unique pattern.

The technique is so precise that scientists are able to identify distinct brands of dye and determine whether the dye was temporary or permanent-even when sampling a microscopic piece of hair. Furthermore, because SERS is fast and doesn't destroy the sample, if a chemical does link a hair to a crime scene, the sample could potentially still be analysed for DNA at a later point.

Full story: Science / Analytical Chemistry Back to top