Wrong Problem, Again

October 31, 2009

Yesterday’s Washington Post has a story about the leak of a confidential report from the House of Representatives Ethics Committee:

House ethics investigators have been scrutinizing the activities of more than 30 lawmakers and several aides in inquiries about issues including defense lobbying and corporate influence peddling, according to a confidential House ethics committee report prepared in July.

While the main focus of the story is the contents of the report, obtained by the Post, and the fodder for Washington gossip that it provides. I was interested to read that the report was disclosed because a committee staff member made it available on a peer-to-peer [P2P] file sharing network, apparently unintentionally:

The committee’s review of investigations became available on file-sharing networks because of a junior staff member’s use of the software while working from home.

There are, of course, the obligatory declarations that this was a violation of policy, that the matter is being investigated (doubtless Inspector Clouseau is on the case), and — amazingly — that no real security breach occurred:

The committee “is taking all appropriate steps to deal with this issue,” they said, noting that neither the committee nor the House’s information systems were breached in any way.

This is a most interesting concept.  It is akin to saying that burglars got into your house and stole everything that was not nailed down, but there was no breach of security since the front door lock was still intact.

Back in early August, I wrote about a significant leakage of sensitive government information onto P2P networks.   At the time, it was reported that Rep Edolphus Towns (D-NY) was planning to introduce legislation prohibiting the installation of P2P software on government networks.  As I said then, this misses the point:

In some cases, it appears that the software was installed without authorization by some of the network users.  Why are these systems and networks configured to allow ordinary users to install software?  This is just lunacy.

As I’ve observed in several other contexts here, it is not reasonable to set up a security regime that depends on ordinary users being competent systems and security administrators.   They are not, and there is no prospect that they will gain that skill — nor should that be expected.   If a system is going to be used to process sensitive information, it needs to be designed to be secure from the start.  The software installed should be limited to what is required to do the job, and any additions or changes should be vetted before they are made.   Allowing users to install anything that strikes their fancy, or allowing them to export sensitive data to external, uncontrolled environments, is insanity, not to mention incompetence.


Rechargeable Zinc-Air Batteries

October 31, 2009

Electricity has a lot of attractions as a power source.  It can be generated in a wide variety of ways, including “green” methods like hydropower, solar power, and wind.  One of the sticking points with electric power, though, has always been how to store it.  The storage technology has come a long way, both with improved batteries and other devices, like ultra-capacitors.  Yet anyone who routinely lugs around a laptop computer, cellphone, and other electronic gadgets knows that lighter, smaller energy storage devices would be welcome.

Back in June, I wrote a note about new developments in lithium-air battery technology, in which I mentioned the use of disposable zinc-air batteries for devices like hearing aids.  Now Technology Review is reporting that a Swiss company, ReVolt Technology, is developing rechargeable zinc-air batteries.  Its first products will be small “button” batteries, similar in size and capacity to the disposable zinc-air batteries now on the market, but it has bigger plans:

A Swiss company says it has developed rechargeable zinc-air batteries that can store three times the energy of lithium-ion batteries, by volume, while costing only half as much. ReVolt, of Staefa, Switzerland, plans to sell small “button cell” batteries for hearing aids starting next year and to incorporate its technology into ever larger batteries, introducing cell-phone and electric bicycle batteries in the next few years.

As with lithium-air batteries, the advantage of using air as one of the reactants is that it need not be stored within the battery itself, since it can be readily obtained from the environment (at least for terrestrial applications).  This leads to higher energy density: more power per unit of weight.  Compared to lithium-based batteries, zinc-air chemistry is attractive because there is much less risk of overheating and fire.  The problem to date has always been that it was not possible to get more than a few charge / discharge cycles from a zinc-air battery, because of degradation of the electrodes.

The company  claims that, by using a modified catalyst together with gelling and binding agents, it has produced prototype cells that last more than 100 charge / discharge cycles, and hopes to increase that to 300-500 cycles, which might make these zinc-air cells very competitive for cell phones, for example.  The company is also working on a new battery design for use in electric vehicles, but it will be a few years before these are ready for real-world trials.

 

 


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