This article was originally published in The Economist on February 11th, 2011.
THE timing was dire. On January 25th American senators reintroduced a bill granting the president emergency powers to shut down parts of the nation’s internet as a defence against cyber-attack. Three days later Egypt’s embattled autocrats took their country offline.
The American bill’s backers never expected an easy victory. But outrage at the five-day shutdown of Egypt’s once-flourishing internet (used by 20m people there) and its mobile-phone network (used by 55m) has given opponents of the “kill switch” in America and elsewhere some powerful arguments. The people in charge of the internet in places such as Germany, Austria and Australia were among those who felt obliged to confirm that their governments would not seek similar powers. Read more
This article was first published in The Economist on Novermber 19th 2010
STICKY tape and an old van helped slow speeding traffic outside Kerry Donnelly’s house in Cardiff. When police moved a nearby mobile camera Mr Donnelly, a delivery driver, bought a second-hand police van on eBay. The crude silver-tape patch that mimics the camera window does not fool pedestrians but “works a treat” in making motorists brake, he says.
Such dummy devices have long enlivened roads and not only in Britain. Geoff Wilson, a driving instructor in New Zealand, has used a makeshift speed trap to deter dangerous driving outside his home. Courts there accepted his evidence. But others have been less enthusiastic. A couple who caught a speeding policeman in the American state of Georgia (and informed his superiors) got a warning that their home-made camera could fall foul of anti-stalking laws. In several cases in Britain, officials have told people erecting dummy cameras to take them down or face prosecution (arguing that the devices might make motorists brake too hard). Read more
This article was first published in The Economist on November 4th 2010
PRINTER cartridges and air freight may be new, but lethal missives are not. The Bandbox Plot of November 4th 1712, foiled by Jonathan Swift (author of “Gulliver’s Travels”), was an attempt to kill Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford and Lord Treasurer. A hatbox left at his door was configured to fire cocked pistols when the lid was lifted.
On January 19th 1764 a Danish diarist, Bolle Willum Luxdorph, described perhaps the first successful parcel bomb. A Colonel Poulsen received a box by post. “When he opens it, therein is to be found gunpowder and a firelock which sets fire unto it, so he became very injured.”
Politicians have long been targets of such attacks. One was aimed at Senator Thomas Hardwick and exploded (unsuccessfully) on April 29th 1919. It was the first of nearly 30 devices sent by anarchist groups to politicians, judges and businessmen, all intended to explode on May Day. A campaign in June involved eight larger bombs that killed several people, including one of the anarchists. Read more
This co-written article was first published in The Economist on October 21st 2010.
“WE WORSHIP an awesome God in the blue states,” declared Barack Obama in the speech that made him a star, “and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states.” Six years after his address to his party’s national convention in 2004, the idea of Mr Obama as a post-partisan figure, an effortless uniter of Democrats and Republicans, looks droll. Read more