Weekend long read: GPS ‘crop circles’

In 2003 science fiction author William Gibson said ‘The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed’. I was reminded of that phrase reading ‘Ghost ships, crop circles, and soft gold: A GPS mystery in Shanghai’, my pick for this weekend’s long read from MIT’s Technology Review.

It recounts the discovery of a phenomenon around the port of Shanghai in which the GPS transponders of oceangoing ships have been spoofed, meaning that vessels appear to be in locations where they are not or ‘ghost ships’ appear to be present where in fact no ship exists:

Although the American ship’s GPS signals initially seemed to have just been jammed, both it and its neighbor had also been spoofed—their true position and speed replaced by false coordinates broadcast from the ground. This is serious, as 50% of all casualties at sea are linked to navigational mistakes that cause collisions or groundings.

Mark Harris, MIT Tech Review

AIS transponders on vessels were introduced in order to increase safety and transparency in shipping. But as tracking technology advances, the means of hacking the system has kept pace, for example to obscure the activities of illegal sand dredgers in the Yangtze estuary:Under the cover of darkness, AIS can be a useful tool for a sand thief. Ships that are not equipped or licensed for sea travel, for example, have been known to clone the AIS systems of seafaring boats to avoid detection.

Nor are sand thieves the only users of hacked AIS technology. In June this year, an oil tanker with a cloned AIS system rammed an MSA patrol boat in Shanghai while trying to evade capture.

MARK HARRIS

The spoofed GPS signals were appearing in a pattern that analysts began to call ‘crop circles’, that centred on the Huangpu river near Shanghai, and that affected not just ships but all GPS signals. Analysts are still unsure as to what is causing it. High-tech hacking to conceal illegal resource extraction or oil shipping? New forms of experimental weaponry?

The article leaves the conclusion open but one thing is clear: the age of big data will bring with it not just the potential for advances in medical research and social innovation (or surveillance) but also for unforeseen new kinds of crime and even warfare.

This article originally published at Unherd

The science of finger-wagging

Not long ago, a relative of mine asked to see me and my husband to discuss ‘a concern’. Somewhat bemused, we agreed; it transpired that what he wanted to raise with us was his worries about what he perceived to be our excessive consumption of alcohol while trying to conceive a child. In essence his message was that we should stop drinking or the result would be a child with behavioural problems and/or special needs.

His concern was, he told us, born of his ‘studies in biology’. He came armed with helpful print-outs of articles from the internet, one for me and one for my husband. He even had notes about ‘the science’.

Never mind the accuracy of his perception that either of us is a raving alcoholic (we’re not) or indeed the validity of the ‘science’ he wanted to share with us (debatable) or indeed the appropriateness of a not particularly close family member attempting an intervention in such a profoundly intimate area of our married life (extremely debatable). The point of relating this distasteful episode in our family life is to exemplify a general trend that has only become apparent to me since notions of parenthood appeared on my radar: namely the co-option of ‘science’ to deliver what are, essentially, moral precepts.

Two things collide here. The first is the general injunction in modern society to avoid being ‘judgemental’, for fear of the cruelties this will supposedly inflict on anyone experiencing moral censure. (Theodore Dalrymple writes beautifully on this subject here, arguing in essence that while the backlash against moral censure is in some ways a justified reaction against past cruelties, determined refusal to apply moral judgement to individuals can result in far worse cruelties especially when institutionalised in the mechanisms of the social state.)

The second is the ebbing away of any source of authority except science. Religions are increasingly perceived as sources less of moral authority than of bigotry; received opinion is ignorant until proven enlightened; we no longer listen to what our mothers told us about childrearing, preferring to rely on ‘guidelines’ issued by bodies such as the WHO. This is by no means confined to child-rearing but assumes particular force  when applied to the sensitive subjects of bringing new humans into the world and their subsequent nurture.

The result is a situation in which moral precepts (women should not drink, at all) piggyback on sensible advice (don’t neck a bottle of vodka a day while pregnant or it will harm your baby) and are delivered in a supposedly ‘non-judgemental’ way via ‘scientific’ studies of dubious validity. The advice they offer is that because it cannot be proven that any level of alcohol consumption in or around pregnancy is 100% safe, it should be avoided entirely. The fact that the same could be said of any number of substances is neither here nor there; the motivation for choosing to focus on alcohol is obscured and the finger-wagging can proceed.

Emily Oster’s delightfully nerdy book Expecting Better provides solid meta-analysis of many of these studies, offering anxious modern mothers a route through the anxious discourse of pseudoscientific finger-wagging. What it has less room for, though, is a critique of the culture within which science is thus weaponised. Frank Furedi notes on this subject that

If science is turned into a moralising project, its ability to develop human knowledge will be compromised. It will also distract people from developing a properly moral understanding of the problems that face humanity in the twenty-first century. Those who insist on treating science as a new form of revealed truth should remember Pascal’s words: ‘We know the truth, not only by reason, but also by the heart.’

It is no surprise that this is evident nowhere more than in discourses around childrearing: all societies feel, justifiably, that they have a vested interest in the processes whereby new members are created and socialised. No area straddles the public and private sphere more delicately. There can surely be few areas where taking a moral stance is more understandable, and the obfuscation of such stances behind pseudoscience is disingenuous at best, if not downright destructive both to meaningful science but also to our shared understanding of right and wrong.

With all this in mind I would have preferred my relative to come right out with the moral stance. I would have disabused him of his mistaken perception of my lifestyle and all would have been well. As it is, the cloaking of morality in science has left an uneasy sense of a misperception impossible to rectify because cloaked, an insulting criticism impossible to challenge because disavowed, and an unhappy rift in my family circle.