Thursday, December 15, 2016

How Safe is your Data?

Published as a podcast at

Hello, it’s Friday again. 

It’s the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 16th December and I’m Anthony Day.

This week I bring you information about smart cities and cybercrime, (How safe is your data?) about Britain in a spat with the EU - no, nothing to do with Brexit - grass mills from Ecotricity, the sale of the National Grid to foreign stakeholders (well, part of it, anyway), new terrorists on the block, how the contribution of wind to reducing carbon emissions has been underestimated in England and how the growth of methane emissions is worrying climate scientists.

But first, there’s been a lot of feedback to last week’s item about electric, hydrogen and self-drive cars. Opinion was quite widely divided. Phil Durrant joined many others in pointing out that hydrogen is highly flammable and explosive with very low ignition energy. Someone even said that if there was a hydrogen leak in your garage a static spark from your pullover would be enough to set it off and the explosion would take out your house and the ones either side. Phil also said that mining for rare earth metals is a highly polluting process, and rare earth metals are essential for wind turbines and for high-performance electric motors in electric - and hydrogen - cars. Michael J says he still doesn’t get the idea of self-drive cars but others loved the idea and said they couldn’t wait. David Abbot came up with a number of points.

“A driverless car doesn’t even need a passenger. You can imagine manufacturers providing remote access via something like an app so that you can call your car if it is parked somewhere else or send your car to a family member.

If that’s true, what does it mean for long term airport parking? It would be cheaper to simply send the car home to park in the drive, and tell it to come and meet you at a predetermined time.

Also, what does it mean for city centre parking and congestion? It will be cheaper to simply tell the car to go round the block a few times until you are ready to use it again, but if all currently parked cars start circulating on the roads it will create a lot of congestion. Of course this problem goes away if people rent car time instead of owning cars, but I bet a lot of people don’t want to give up on the idea of ownership.”

Thanks for all your ideas. Please keep your feedback coming, to

Smart Cities 

I recently attended a presentation on Smart Cities organised by Women in Sustainable Construction and Property,,  supported by IEMA, the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment,, and hosted by aql,,  a communications company which seeks to enable smart cities by powering a connected society. 
Speaker Brian Ablett, one of the few Chartered Surveyors working on smart cities, explained how the concept could be seen 5,000 years ago. Sumerian cities of that time contained up to 50,000 people, and the successful management of such communities would have depended on the successful management of information and data. It would have needed writing. The sophistication of that society was evidenced by the highly accurate astronomical observations that were made. Evidence has shown that a similarly advanced society could have existed on Orkney at the same time.

Much more recently the British Empire managed data with its network of undersea cables connecting its furthest outposts. An early example of disruptive innovation as messages which had to be sent to Australia by sea and took 12 weeks could now be sent by cable in six hours.

Today, the digital revolution (excuse my cliché) represents a step change (another cliché) in how we handle data. Robotics and digitisation help us to respond specifically to need, investing resources where they are most required. Network Rail (if it continues to exist after last week’s announcements) plans to implement a data-led approach which will increase capacity by 40%. Defra, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is offering grants for installing satellite capability into farm tractors. Why? Because topsoil is one of our most precious and endangered resources. (Some say that we have a capacity for only another 60 harvests before it’s all gone, but that’s another story.) In the meantime, accurately tracking the position of the tractor and sampling the soil every metre or so means that each part of the field can receive exactly the amount of fertiliser or soil conditioner it needs to maximise yield and minimise waste. Brian talked about transponders in cows. Well, we already have chips in pets. A chip in a cow identifies the cow as it enters the milking parlour, monitors its milk yield and adjusts its diet accordingly. It can record how many calves it’s had and keep its complete medical history.

The Internet of Things is a popular concept though possibly not well understood. More and more things have an internet presence, from CCTV cameras to photocopiers to smart watches to smart meters to smart thermostats to connected cars and now even cows. Networking becomes ubiquitous, but Brian asks, “for whom?” There is no code of ethics on the internet. We need to urgently address the question, “who’s exploiting whom?”  

Incidentally, the ethics question has been highlighted this week by reports that far-right organisations are gaming Google’s algorithms to get front-page listing. Of course, everyone’s been doing search engine optimisation for years. However, if you type in “Did the Holocaust…” the top result is “Top10 reasons why the Holocaust didn’t happen” and there are several similar results on the front page. The world’s most popular, and arguably most influential, research tool is being manipulated to present misleading data with undue prominence.


At first sight I didn’t see the relevance of cyber-crime to smart cities but when an entity is dependent on the management of data the security of that data against loss, theft, corruption or misuse is crucial. 

Stuart Hyde of the Cyber-security Information Sharing Partnership (CiSP) and Helen Gibson of the Centre of Excellence in Terrorism, Resilience, Intelligence and Organised Crime Research (CENTRIC) filled in the detail.

Apparently one in three users don’t bother with a password on their phone, and you probably already know that the most popular computer password is ‘password’, closely followed by 12345678. Globally last year 348m identities were exposed and 594m people were affected by cybercrime. There are a million web attacks each day and ransomware has grown by 35%. Ransomware? That’s when you suddenly get a message that all the files on your system, including any on media attached to USB ports, have been encrypted. You are then invited to pay for a password to unlock them. Apparently several NHS Trusts have been attacked in this way. You have to wonder about people, don’t you?

We have already seen that the Internet of Things is rapidly moving towards the Internet of Everything. Only last week you may have read about the new Amazon grocery store. You go in and as you take things off the shelves the system recognises what they are and as you leave the store payment is taken automatically via the phone in your pocket. No human intervention, no double handling of goods at the checkout. There is no checkout. Not one you can see, anyway. I also heard about rugby players with wearable tech. The sensors in their kit record how fast they’ve run, how far they’ve run and how hard they’ve collided with other players. Could be great for personal liability lawyers!

Stuart told us that we are rapidly approaching a level of six smart devices per person. Anything, he said, that could be connected to the internet could be hacked. Every connected item creates a vulnerability. Denial of Service attacks cause targeted websites to collapse by overwhelming them with data or requests. Many computers, perhaps even yours, have a programme running in the background which users know nothing about. It’s usually installed when the user clicks on a link in a spam email, though they don’t realise that it’s happened. The app is controlled remotely and instructs the computer to contact a target site over and over again. Multiply this by the thousands of infected machines and the volume of data is soon more than the target can cope with. Every item on the Internet of Things sends data back to its host. These devices - including photocopiers, CCTV cameras, presumably even connected cows - can be hacked and commanded to send data to the target site as well, reinforcing the attack. Such devices may have passwords, but all too often they are left at the factory default.

Other weaknesses rely on the human element. So much data is shared on social media that makes it easy for identity to be stolen or for people to build friendships for dishonest purposes. Befriend - engage - gain confidence - request - request fulfilled - person disappears, usually with a large chunk of your money. In other cases people are led to defraud their organisations and threatened with exposure unless they do it again and again to pay off what’s effectively blackmail.

The cost of internet fraud has been estimated at $388bn. Of course the biggest hits are taken by the corporates and there are many rumours that the banks and other organisations never admit the full extent of their losses because they cannot afford the damage to their reputations or to lose the confidence of consumers. Only this week Yahoo admitted that it had been hacked back in 2013. Stuart told us that not enough organisations are testing and running exercises to close loopholes and limit damage if cyber attacks occur. He quoted TalkTalk, the phone company, which was fined £400,000 in October for losing 156,000 customer records to hackers. They were clearly not ready to respond to the attack, and their PR and attempts to restore customer confidence were remarkably weak. Do you remember the interviews on the news? TalkTalk’s profits were cut in half, although CEO Dido Harding’s total income rose to £2.8 million in 2015, up from just over £1 million the year before. There must be some logic there somewhere.

Fortunately we’re not alone. Stuart told us about the National Cyber Security Centre, with its aim to defend, deter and develop ever stronger defences. It runs the Cyber-security Information Sharing Partnership (CiSP). “CiSP is a joint industry and government initiative set up to exchange cyber threat information in real time, in a secure, confidential and dynamic environment, increasing situational awareness and reducing the impact on UK business.” Any organisation can join CiSP, which provides: 
engagement with industry and government counterparts in a secure environment
early warning of cyber threats
ability to learn from experiences, mistakes, successes of other users and seek advice
an improved ability to protect their company network
access to free network monitoring reports tailored to your organisations’ requirements

There’s also a wealth of information, for both personal and corporate users, at

Clean Air

And now, some more about clean air. Sky News 
reports that the UK is at odds with the EU, and this is because like six other member states the UK has not taken action against VW for falsifying the results of emissions tests on its cars.

The UK is bringing in "real world tests" for emissions next year because laboratory procedures fail to give an on-the-road measure of fuel economy and exhaust levels.

The Department for Transport said in April that none of the 37 top-selling diesel vehicles met legal limits when tested on the road.

It’s not clear why the government is not taking any action over this, especially as it has recently been directed by the courts to take action to improve air quality. Surely getting compensation for consumers from a foreign car manufacturer must be a vote-winner, if nothing else. Nevertheless, while tougher laws in the US have so far secured financial commitments from VW topping $15bn, the company has consistently refused to pay compensation to owners in the EU - 1.2 million of them in the UK alone.
It has promised fixes for all vehicles by late next year, but consumer groups argue that is pitiful when re-sell valuations and other factors are taken into account.

It also makes me wonder about the very narrow perspective that government advisors, or perhaps ministers, must have - and this is an international problem, not limited at all to the UK. For example, CFCs were found to be damaging the ozone layer so they were banned and replaced with HFCs. HFCs are now banned because it’s been recognised that while they don’t damage the ozone layer they are thousands of times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Why didn’t anybody spot that? Diesel cars were promoted, by governments as much as manufacturers, because they can produce less CO2 than petrol cars. But it was well known that they produce nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas, and PM10s, microscopic soot particles which cause lung damage. I can’t see any logic in these oversights.

Let’s step away from diesel into the world of clean energy. 


Ecotricity announces its intention to build a national network of Grassmills.

This is their special name for anaerobic digesters. The plan is to feed these units with grass grown on marginal land, land formerly used for livestock, or grown as part of a crop rotation. They produce methane which can be fed into the gas grid and used like any other natural gas. The residue from the digestion process is returned to the land as a soil conditioner. Ecotricity claim that by 2035 they could produce enough green gas to meet 66% of the nation’s domestic and commercial demand for gas.

Unsurprisingly, the organisation is not in favour of fracking. Among other sites, it has applied for permission to build Grassmills at Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood in Lancashire, sites where the government has approved fracking in spite of strong local opposition. It will be very interesting to see whether the locals support the Grassmills, or whether they are simply opposed to any sort of industrialisation near their homes.

Ecotricity has launched a petition to the Prime Minister, asking her to support green gas over fracking. If you want to add your voice go to or find the campaign for green gas on the Ecotricity website. 

The Methane Problem

It’s often difficult to remember that CO2, carbon dioxide, is not the only greenhouse gas. Methane, for example has 23 times the warming effect of CO2. In this month’s Environmental Research Letters, the authors report that unlike CO2, atmospheric methane concentrations are rising faster than at any time in the past two decades and, since 2014, are now approaching the most greenhouse-gas-intensive scenarios. The reasons for this renewed growth are still unclear, primarily because of uncertainties in the global methane budget. New analysis suggests that the recent rapid rise in global methane concentrations is predominantly biogenic-most likely from agriculture-with smaller contributions from fossil fuel use and possibly wetlands. Additional attention is urgently needed, they say, to quantify and reduce methane emissions. Methane mitigation offers rapid climate benefits and economic, health and agricultural co-benefits that are highly complementary to CO2 mitigation.

There’s a summary of the paper on the website with an excellent graphic from the Global Carbon Project of Future Earth. It shows how agriculture and waste are the largest man-made sources of methane emissions and account for 34% of total emissions. A very significant component of agricultural emissions is methane from burping cows and sheep, as mentioned in a previous episode. As I reported, Dutch scientists are working on a new type of grass to reduce flatulence and apparently linseed oil added to the diet has a good effect as well. The other major source of agricultural emissions is paddy fields. Given the vast numbers of people who like to eat rice and the others who enjoy consuming meat and dairy products, changing things looks like a challenge, but according to the graphic, methane emissions exceed methane absorption by less than 2%. Some people say that while methane has 23 times the effect of CO2 it’s not that bad because it only lasts in the atmosphere for about 10 years, whereas CO2 can persist for centuries. 

Yes, but we need to turn things round in a lot less than 10 years!  

Gates Champions Clean Energy

Bill Gates is in the news this week, leading a consortium to develop clean energy. He’s joined by Jeff Bezos, George Soros, Richard Branson, Michael Bloomberg, Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan and a dozen or so other entrepreneurs and investors. Together they have set up  
Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a $1billion fund working with the University of California and others to develop new energy technologies. “Our goal,” says Gates, “is to build companies that will help deliver the next generation of reliable, affordable, and emissions-free energy to the world.”

The investment approach of the new venture is meant to be both broad and scientific and it will last for 20 years, helping start-ups in the earliest stages of development as well as companies already at the commercialisation stage, across energy sectors including electricity generation and storage, transportation, industrial system use, agriculture, and energy system efficiency. This could be seen to be a bold move, given the strong climate-sceptic noises coming out of the Trump transition team. Still, if it didn’t make sense, and above all business sense, these entrepreneurs would not be involved. My only question is, will $1billion be enough?

More at (Yes, it’s one of those new domains.)

Wind Power

They’re getting the wind up about renewables at Edinburgh University. They are concerned that the contribution of wind power in terms of both energy and carbon savings has not been accurately reported. Over the  6 years from 2008 to 2014, energy generated from wind in the UK has saved some 36m tonnes of carbon emissions, which is equivalent to taking 2.3m cars off the road. Engineers from the University have suggested that government estimates have been underestimating the carbon savings of wind farms in Britain by more than 3m tonnes over the period. Using real output figures from the National Grid, the researchers believe that they have created a comprehensive picture of energy demand from various sources.

They suggested that the data should lead to greater investment into wind energy, to enable the Scottish and UK Governments to meet carbon emission reduction targets. Scotland has been leading the charge on this front, with wind farms managing to generate 100% of the country’s energy demand for two full days in September this year.

Currently, the UK is not even halfway towards achieving the target of 12% of energy needs for heat generation coming from renewable sources, while the proportion of renewable energy used in transport has fallen, from 4.9% to 4.2% over the past year.

Selling Off the Grid

Some people are not altogether happy that the UK’s infrastructure should be in private hands. They believe that critical services like electricity and gas, water, the railways and of course the National Health Service, should always be in public ownership. They will therefore be less than delighted to learn this week that a 61% stake - a controlling interest - of the UK Gas Distribution business of National Grid, has been sold to a consortium. A consortium led by Macquarie, the Australian investment bank and the China Investment Corporation.

Fracking as Terrorism

And finally, are you a terrorist? You are if you protest against fracking. Especially if you protest in Yorkshire, because this week City of York Council named campaigners on a list of "key risks to York" alongside Islamic terrorists and right-wing activists. The BBC reported: ‘According to to council documents: "The Counter Terrorism Local Profile for York and North Yorkshire highlights the key risks to York as evidence of activity relating to Syria, presence of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), Anti Israeli/pro Palestinian activity, Hunt saboteurs, animal rights, anti-fracking and extreme right wing activity.”’ 

However anti-fracking protesters "are not seen as a terrorist threat", according to North Yorkshire Police.

So that’s all right then. Or is it? In fact, according to the i newspaper, other councils, schools and a police force have listed anti-fracking campaigns in documents about the Prevent programme, which is part of the national counter-terrorism strategy.

Read more at:

The government’s Prevent Strategy states:

“…It is [therefore] vital that our counter-terrorism strategy contains a plan to prevent radicalisation and stop would-be terrorists from committing mass murder. Osama bin Laden may be dead, but the threat from Al Qa’ida inspired terrorism is not.” 

It sets out three objectives:

respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat we face from those who promote it; 
prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support; and 
  • work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation which we need to address. 

All in all, nothing whatever to do with fracking or for that matter with hunting. Sounds like an excuse for stifling free speech, and the government is already facing a legal challenge on that point. Fortunately the Home Office has issued a statement: “Prevent is about safeguarding people at risk of being drawn into terrorism – support for anti-fracking is not an indicator of vulnerability.”

That's it!

That’s it for the penultimate Sustainable Futures Report of 2016. Next time  there will be a review of the 38 episodes and 100,000 words that I’ve published this year.
Yes, this is Anthony Day and that was the Sustainable Futures Report, part of the Better World Podcast Collective and brought to you without advertising, sponsorship or any form of subsidy. Bear me in mind if you need a conference speaker, host for your awards ceremony or webinar facilitator. Yes, I’m Anthony Day and you can find me via

For now, until next week’s Sustainable Futures Report, have a good week, get all that Christmas shopping done, and goodbye.