Computing

Apple and Facebook sent representatives today to Washington, DC, where senators pushed them to create lawful back doors to encrypted data....

A decades-old debate: Government officials have long argued that encryption makes criminal investigations too hard. Companies, they say, should build in special access that law enforcement could use with a court’s permission. Technologists say creating these back doors would weaken digital security for everyone.

But the heat is on: “My advice to you is to get on with it," Senator Lindsey Graham told the Silicon Valley giants at today’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “Because this time next year, if we haven’t found a way that you can live with, we will impose our will on you.” Apple and Facebook representatives at the hearing came under fire from senators in both parties, while Manhattan district attorney Cy Vance, one of the biggest advocates of back doors, was treated as a star witness. 

The risks: Apple and Facebook told the committee that back doors would introduce massive privacy and security threats and would drive users to devices from overseas. “We’ve been unable to identify any way to create a back door that would work only for the good guys,” said Erik Neuenschwander, Apple’s user privacy manager.

Facebook defiant: Just before the hearing, Facebook told Attorney General William Barr that it would not give law enforcement access to encrypted messages in Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, which have billions of users.

Just try imposing that will, though: It's an easy and powerful soundbite for Graham, but actually passing a law on back doors will be a battle with no sure winner. Several lawmakers hinted that Congress won’t accomplish much on this front within the next year.

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Space

The European Space Agency has announced a new mission in 2025 to test out technology to remove orbital debris. Called ClearSpace-1, it will be the first mission tasked with removing an actual piece of...

What is it? The new mission is the brainchild of the Swiss startup ClearSpace, which has designed a space trash collector that uses four robotic legs to capture the debris. It can then drag it down into a deorbiting maneuver so it can safely burn up in the atmosphere. 

For the 2025 mission, ClearSpace-1 will target a 265-pound chunk of debris called VESPA, which formed part of a ESA mission in 2013. ClearSpace-1 will shoot up to 310 miles in altitude to test out all its systems before making a rendezvous with VESPA and attempting the test. If all goes well, both would burn up in the atmosphere.

A crowded field: Orbital debris is a real worry, and the sheer lack of rules and regulations for managing space traffic is making the situation worse. 

The growing crisis means more groups are entering the fray to provide potential solutions. While ClearSpace will be the first mission that removes actual space junk, it’s not alone in testing out new technologies for this purpose. A UK mission called RemoveDEBRIS demonstrated a net-like capture technology on a cubesat last year. The same team wants to test out a space harpoon for the same purpose.

Japanese company Astroscale is seeking to test its own capture-and-dispose technology on a practice object sometime next year. Other groups have been batting around designs involving junk-destroying lasers and junk-eating rocket engines

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