Hiding in plain sight

The Easter holiday rush is receding into distant memory. The only thing airport security personnel have to worry about is what happens when everyone starts arriving for the Olympics. That, and the helpful physicists who have worked out how to smuggle a gun through a metal detector.

It all started as a bit of harmless blue-sky thinking. In the late 1960s, a Russian physicist pointed out the fun you could have if you invented a material that bends light in the opposite direction to normal. You could use it as an invisibility cloak, he said: just as water diverts round a rock in a stream by going first to one side, then back to the other, light bent in two different directions as it passed an object would give a viewer the impression that the light had travelled in a straight line and that the object simply wasn’t there.

Oh, how everybody laughed. Then, in 2000, someone turned this ridiculous fantasy into reality. John Pendry of Imperial College London showed how to create “left-handed materials” that would bend microwave radiation the wrong way. The practicalities were a little cumbersome and it didn’t work with visible light. But still, it was surprising, impressive and fun, in a nerdy kind of way.

Over the past decade, the technology has matured. At first, left-handed materials were constructed from intricate arrays of copper rings and could only hide tiny objects from a microwave detector. Now, we have invisibility “carpets” made from cheap and widely available crystals of the mineral calcite. They are able to hide objects the size of your thumb – and they work in visible light.

That technology is not yet going to smuggle a gun through airport security, though. Even if the X-ray machine doesn’t make the outline obvious, the magnetic field from the steel triggers an alarm. But a paper recently published in the journal Science can get you round that obstacle.

As it turns out, you can cloak a metal’s magnetic field for less than £1,000. First, wrap your gun in a layer of superconducting tape. Magnetic fields cannot pass through a layer of superconductor, so the scanner wouldn’t see the gun’s field. The scanner would see the superconductor’s field, though. However, this can be countered by adding a layer of flexible magnetic strip, rather like that found on the back of a fridge magnet. The researchers showed that this combination of readily available materials does a reasonable job of cloaking a magnetic field.

Touching the void

OK, it’s still not quite a credible threat. The superconductor has to be kept at liquid-nitrogen temperatures and a cloud of nitrogen vapour coming out of your hand luggage might raise a few eyebrows. A simple thermal detector would certainly put paid to any gun-smuggling plans.

But the physicists aren’t beaten yet. While some have been content to bend light as it travels through space, Martin McCall of Imperial College London has played around with bending light as it travels though time.

The technique involves slowing down and speeding up light inside an optical fibre – something that physicists have learned to do with astonishing skill in the past few years. McCall now has a blueprint for a device that doesn’t just make things invisible; it makes it look like they never even happened. It only works on technologies with an optical fibre feed, such as a CCTV camera. Nevertheless, in principle, we now know how to create the illusion of a void in both space and time – a void that could plausibly be exploited to evade surveillance technologies. Of course, it’s ridiculous. But where these troublesome physicists are involved, nothing remains ridiculous for long.

Michael Brooks’s “Free Radicals: the Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£12.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master

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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.