A new Life of Tech


Conference studies security threats posed by consumer drones

Experts at Countering Drones event assess the risks to airports and prisons posed by growth of high-powered, affordable models

Consumer drone in flight
The growth of consumer drones is ‘a real threat to public safety’, the Prison Officers Association says. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Security officials, police and legal experts from around the world are gathered in London for a global conference on tackling the threats posed to prisons, airports, nuclear facilities and other infrastructure by consumer drones.

The Countering Drones conference, which organisers describe as the first of its kind, reflects concerns that increasingly high-powered and affordable models of drones are posing new and wide-ranging security challenges for police and other protection forces.

Nearly 80% of people surveyed by Defence IQ, the conference organisers, said they believed a major security incident involving drones in civilian airspace was strongly likely or almost certain to happen in the next five years.

In some areas, such as at airports and in prisons, drones are already causing widespread disruption, but the conference also highlights areas such as at sporting events and seaports, where threats posed by unmanned aircraft are still emerging.

The conference is sponsored by defence companies Thales and Rheinmetall with tickets starting at £599 a head. A programme advertises sessions by officials from the US, UK, France, Israel, Switzerland and Germany, among others, and offers intriguing hints as to the solutions being considered – one session by a Canadian researcher is titled “Can we just shoot them down?”

Reports of near-misses between drones and commercial aircraft have risen sharply: four serious incidents were reported in July alone, with unmanned aircraft spotted as close as five metres from passenger jets taking off or landing.

It is often unclear whether close calls are due to naive drone pilots or potentially malicious actors, said Steve Landells, safety officer at the British Airline Pilots Association.

“Whether that person’s deliberately flying a drone around an airport to stop all traffic to disrupt things or because they just want some pretty pictures, the end result from an aviation point of view is roughly the same,” he said, warning that their presence dangerously distracts pilots during takeoff and landing phases.

“As a pilot you’re coming into land, you’ve got 200 tonnes of metal and human beings behind you and you’re trying to put an aircraft down on an area the size of a couple of tennis courts at 150mph. The last thing you really need to be doing is having a sudden shock … that’s the danger the drones pose,” Landells said.

Lawyers at the conference were scheduled to discuss whether airports and civil aviation authorities are at risk of being sued if a drone strike leads to an air accident, while officials from Los Angeles, Berlin and Budapest airports will discuss the potential prevention measures they could take.

There has also been a steep increase in the past three years of reports of small drones being used to smuggle drugs and other contraband equipment into prisons. The commissioner of Canada’s correctional service, Don Head, is in London to discuss the “menace” posed by drones to prisons at the conference.

“This is a problem that’s growing on a daily basis and it’s a problem that needs to be eradicated,” said Glyn Travis, spokesman for the Prison Officers Association, adding that it posed “a real threat to security and public safety”.

Travis said: “We have asked the Ministry of Justice and National Offender Management Service what they are doing to try and combat this, and we are still waiting for a solution that will prevent the use of drones in prison and stop the use of them to smuggle equipment in. It’s a real problem. We haven’t seen anything that’s being done to stop it.”

This week the justice secretary, Liz Truss, was mocked for suggesting that the barking of guard dogs was deterring drones at Pentonville prison.

The conference programme also hints at less frequently reported threats: one session examines how to protect civil nuclear sites against drone attack and surveillance, while a US official is scheduled to deliver a briefing on how drones are being used to spy on seaports, as well as for smuggling.

Another session examines threats to sporting events, including consideration of whether in future stadia will need to be designed with advanced anti-drone “detect and destroy” technologies.

The rapid growth of consumer drones had taken officials by surprise and had left the authorities scrambling to catch up with basic measures such as ensuring drones are registered, said Landells. “I don’t think anyone anticipated the massive growth … that they’d be selling tens of thousands of drones every year,” he said.


Is there any way to stop ‘adult’ spam emails?

Man looking at Yahoo homepage

For some time now, I have been receiving from five to 20 unwanted “adult” emails per day. I followed Yahoo’s advice on how to block these emails, but I still am receiving them. I contacted Yahoo again, but within the blink of an eye, I received a standard response email stating that my case was closed. I have also emailed the CEO of Yahoo UK, and I am angry with the complete indifference that Yahoo has shown.

How can I stop these emails? I was thinking of sending them back to the sender, but I’m wondering if it will have any impact. Ruth

Adult emails are spam – and you can’t stop spam. Anybody who has your home or office address can send you letters and anybody who has your email address can send you spam. You don’t get much junk mail because it costs a lot to send. You will get lots of junk email because it costs nothing to send.

Email service providers such as Yahoo, Google and Microsoft filter out billions of spam emails per day. Only a few get through, and five to 20 per day is not an unusual number.

However, the ones that get through should arrive in your spam folder. If you are seeing obvious adult spam emails in your inbox then either the filtering is turned off – which isn’t easy to do in Yahoo Mail – or the filters are failing.

Unfortunately, spam filtering is a tricky business. If the filters are loose, you will see a few spam emails in your inbox. If the filters are too fierce, then legitimate emails will end up in your spam box.

A few services offer better control., for example, lets you select the aggressiveness of the spam filter on a scale from 1 to 5. I haven’t seen this option on free email services such as Google’s Gmail, Microsoft’s Outlook and Yahoo Mail.

In my experience, Yahoo’s filtering is a little loose, while Gmail is so fierce that it produces a lot of false positives. Which you prefer is a matter of taste, but if you want aggressive spam filtering, you could switch to Gmail. The drawback is that you may have to look in your spam folder every day or two or you could miss some important emails.

Switching to an alternative free email service such as Gmail or Outlook has an obvious disadvantage: you will have to tell all your contacts to use a different email address. However, both Gmail and Outlook will collect all your old emails from Yahoo, so switching is not as difficult as it sounds.

The main drawback with Gmail is the miserly amount of free storage space. I am using 98% of Gmail’s 15GB but only 1.6% of Yahoo Mail’s free 1TB (ie 16GB). Outlook free storage just expands as you use it.

Spam filtering

All email filters need some training, and it takes a while to build up a profile. This will be based, to some extent, on the emails you mark as spam. You should therefore keep reporting all the adult emails that reach your inbox.

However, never open these emails to see what’s in them. Spam emails may contain invisible “web beacons” that tell the sender you have opened the email, so this is an active account. The result will be more spam. By contrast, the correct way to handle unwanted but legitimate emails – newsletters, marketing offers etc – is to open the email and click the “unsubscribe” or “change preferences” link. Don’t just put them in the spam folder.

You can also set up your own filters to block emails from particular senders or about specific topics. In Yahoo’s case, select an email in the inbox or spam folder then click on the down arrow next to the word “more”. The drop-down menu should – but does not always – include the option to “Filter emails like this … ” Selecting this option pops up a dialog box with entries such as From, Subject and Body. You could, for example, filter out all emails that include words such as Viagra, Cialis and porn in the body of the email.

Sadly, there’s no point in trying to block specific email senders. Spammers use millions of From addresses, which are ridiculously easy to fake.


In the age of the algorithm, the human gatekeeper is back

In the 1990s, Amazon used to rely on editors who wrote hundreds of book reviews every year. Now it relies on algorithms and automated recommendation systems.

Greg Linden may not be a household name, but he changed the way we interact with culture and transformed retail forever. An engineer at Amazon in the late 1990s, Linden worked on a curious problem: how to recommend books without human intervention. Until then Amazon relied on editors who wrote hundreds of reviews every year. It was a costly and time-consuming process.

Automating recommendations proved trickier than anyone expected. Linden cracked it. He hit on “personalisation”, which paradoxically meant looking not at an individual’s purchasing history, but only at correlations among products. Regardless of what you had bought in the past, Amazon realised that if product A was often bought alongside product B, it meant almost anyone buying product A would also want product B. Amazon tested the results to see which method sold more books. No surprises: the editors were soon looking for new jobs. Humans out; machines in. Some estimates suggest a third of Amazon sales arise from these recommendations. Ever since, the rise of algorithms has been relentless. Now books, articles, music, films, not to mention holidays and clothes, are all suggested by machines.

Last year 1m new books were published in English. Since at least the ancient Greeks, people have believed there is too much to read; now they may be right. That, of course, doesn’t even count all the self-published works, the reams of news or the Borgesian vastness of the internet. By any measure, we have an astounding surplus of reading matter.

The more we have, the more we rely on algorithms and automated recommendation systems. Hence the unstoppable march of algorithmic recommendations, machine learning, artificial intelligence and big data into the cultural sphere.

Yet this isn’t the end of the story. Search, for example, tells us what we want to know, but can’t help if we don’t already know what we want. Far from disappearing, human curation and sensibilities have a new value in the age of algorithms. Yes, the more we have the more we need automation. But we also increasingly want informed and idiosyncratic selections. Humans are back.

This is why, despite having the world’s most powerful book recommendation engine, Amazon bought Goodreads, a website based around personal book reviews. It is why sites such as thrive atop Amazon. Canopy knows many of Amazon’s best items are hidden in the mediocre morass. Canopy’s founders, all designers, trawl through thousands of entries a day to highlight exceptional products.

It’s why publishers keep producing new imprints, to allow for more diverse and personal lists, and why bookshops are once again flourishing, even though we can find any book we want online. We go to browse their tables. In Japan they talk about tsundoku, or the uneasy feeling of having too many books to read. They also have its solution: a bookshop in Tokyo’s Ginza that sells only one book at a time.

This rejuvenated interest in curation isn’t just happening in publishing. On Spotify you can listen to 30m songs, 20% of which have never been streamed once. To help manage this huge catalogue, Spotify spent a reported $100m (£77m) acquiring a company called the Echo Nest, which pioneered a technique known as audio-fingerprinting, which automatically categorises songs. At the same time, however, Spotify has massively expanded its range of playlist makers, musical experts who are rapidly becoming the new DJs.