How big is it really?

The BBC's new visualisation service is really just window dressing history with maps.

For a few weeks now the BBC has been test-driving a "prototype" approach to explaining historical events that it hopes might soon inform its History and News programming. The website, BBC Dimensions <http://howbigreally.com/> , is a Google Earth-based system which aims, so they say, "to bring home the human scale of events and places in history".

And bring things home it quite literally does. Simply tap in your postcode and famous events, landmarks, natural disasters - indeed more or less anything that can be mapped - can now be digitally repositioned outside your own front door. Or someone else's if you prefer.

Though still in its early stages, the technology has already been applied to topics ranging from 'Ancient Worlds' to 'Festivals.' So you can now whittle away a lunch break finding out how the Colossus of Rhodes would have matched up against the Statue of Liberty, or arranging for Rio's Samba Parade to run past the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

But apart from offering a few moments' informative distraction, is there anything of more lasting value to be gleaned from all of this?

Is it really worth knowing, for example, that Guantanamo Bay, if dropped upon SE1 in London would actually stretch all the way from Paddington to Cambridge Heath? Or that Guantanamo itself is about twice the size of the Tora Bora caves whence some of its detainees came? Or even - if we switch from the 'terrorism' theme, to the 'natural disasters' theme - that the East Pacific Garbage Patch is now bigger than Europe?

In some respects it is. It certainly helps give a sense of the scale of things. And drawing comparisons across time and space is a much-needed corrective to that curious paradox of modern life: that the more we know about the world the less time we have to appreciate the way it appears to others.

It can also be useful - humbling at least - to learn that the extent of flooding in Pakistan this year was such that it would have covered the entire United Kingdom, with water left to spare.

But where is the explanation behind these comparisons? Where is the context that will actually explain why some things - like floods, and famines - more often strike some people in some places rather than others? Without such context it is all too easy for us to assume that such events are merely 'natural' events, when often there are often all-too-human reasons behind them.

For all its stated intention of "making the news more geographically relevant," with BBC Dimensions the BBC appears to in fact be ignoring the lessons of geography almost entirely. Geography is not just about what you see. It is about what shapes the things you see. Absent these things and we are no more likely to appreciate the world as experienced by others than before. We are left, in fact, merely window dressing history with maps.

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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