Apple vs. FBI, “5D” Quartz Storage, and the VSS Unity | Vol. 3 / No. 17

Virgin Spaceship Unity is unveiled in Mojave, California, Friday February 19th, 2016. | Photo: Virgin Galactic
Virgin Spaceship Unity is unveiled in Mojave, California, Friday February 19th, 2016. | Photo: Virgin Galactic

There’s a lot to get to this week, from Apple’s fight with the FBI over encryption to high-density “5D” data recording in solid quartz to Virgin Galactic’s brand new space plane, so let’s dive on in! Read on!


Apple vs. FBI

Not just for hippies anymore | Photo: Adam Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0
Not just for hippies anymore | Photo: Adam Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0

This week saw an unprecedented response to the latest salvo in the government’s ongoing battle to break strong encryption. In a widely-published letter to the FBI, Apple CEO Tim Cook informed them in no uncertain terms that he would not be bullied into having his company create a backdoor into an iPhone. The FBI are saying that, in order to “fight terrorism,” they need the electronics manufacturer to decrypt the phone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters. They need this because they shot the San Bernardino shooters, and because the shooters’ employers were dumb enough to reset the phone’s password by mistake when the FBI told them to. Cook argues — quite rightly, in my mind — that creating a backdoor into their product will render it permanently accessible to others, even to people we don’t want to give access to:

Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.

The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”

Within 24 hours, other tech companies had sided with Apple, including Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. The FBI have since doubled down on their demands, and Apple has again rebuffed them. This one’s going to the courts. All I can say is, when the list of people you’re pissing off includes Donald Trump, you have to be doing something right. You can read Tim Cook’s full letter over at the Verge.

Recording in Quartz

The Holy Bible on quartz | Photo: University of Southampton
The Holy Bible on quartz | Photo: University of Southampton

Scientists at the Optoelectronics Research Centre at the University of Southampton announced this week the ability to record data in quartz at previously unheard-of densities and with incredible longevity. The so-called “5D” storage — referring to the data’s three spatial dimensions in the crystal plus two more “dimensions,” its “slow axis orientation” and its “strength of retardance” —  is recorded by using femtosecond laser pulses to change the arrangement of molecules in the quartz at the nanoscale. They’re reporting a density of 360TB per disk (which appear to be about the size of a US dollar coin) and a temperature resilience of around 1000 degrees centigrade. At temperatures below 160 degrees, the data should last roughly about as long as the universe is currently old, or 13.8 billion years. Now, I suppose the real question is: do we have anything to say that won’t be embarrassing in a thousand years? Check out their press release and the abstract for their presentation for more.

VSS Unity

Virgin Galactic's latest: the VSS Unity | Photo: Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic’s latest: the VSS Unity | Photo: Virgin Galactic

On his daughter Eva Deia’s first birthday yesterday, Sir Richard Branson unveiled the next space plane in Virgin Galactic’s fleet, the VSS Unity. We haven’t heard much out of the space tourism company since June when the NTSB ruled that the cause of the crash of SpaceShipTwo was due to co-pilot error. Unity, named by Stephen Hawking himself, is the first in a fleet of SpaceShipTwo-class vehicles being built by The Spaceship Company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Virgin Galactic stationed in Mojave, California. It will be carried into the air by a White Knight Two-class launcher, and, like its predecessors, will then propel itself to the edge of space and back, for the measly sum of $250,000. Included in the bevy of speeches given at the event was a piece by Hawking in which he says he still hopes to fly on one of Branson’s ships — “If I am able to go – and if Richard will still take me, I would be very proud to fly on this spaceship.” We hope you get your wish. Wired has more on the story.


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Best of the Rest

And here’s your weekly linkspam, of all the things I couldn’t cover on my lonesome!

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