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The Download: China’s possible surveillance sanctions, and hacking locusts

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The Download: China’s possible surveillance sanctions, and hacking locusts


You may never have heard of Hikvision, but chances are you’ve already been captured by one of its millions of cameras. The Chinese company’s products can be found anywhere from police surveillance systems to baby monitors in more than 190 countries. Its ability to make decent-quality products at cheap prices (as well as its ties with the Chinese state) has helped make Hikvision the largest manufacturer of video surveillance equipment in the world.

But while Hikvision’s close links with the Chinese government have helped it grow, these links may now be its undoing. The firm has helped build China’s massive police surveillance system and tailored it to oppress the Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang. As a result, the US government has imposed several sanctions on it in the last three years. This year, the US Treasury is reportedly considering adding Hikvision to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) List, usually reserved for countries like North Korea or Iran.

Here’s everything you should know about Hikvision: a firm that used to fly under the radar but now faces becoming the most sanctioned tech company in the world. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

Scientists hacked a locust’s brain to sniff out cancer 

They’ve done what? Some animals, including dogs, have been taught to spot signs that humans are sick. They’re thought to be able to sense the chemicals that people emit through body odor or breath. The mix of chemicals can vary depending on a person’s metabolism, which is thought to change when we get sick. But dogs are expensive to train and look after and making a device that mimics a dog’s nose is still too difficult. So scientists decided to “hijack” an insect’s brain instead.

How did they do it? They exposed the brain of a living locust and inserted electrodes into the lobes that receive signals from the insects’ antennae, which they use to sense odors. The locusts’ brains reacted distinctly to odors emitted from human cells both with and without cancer in a lab—the first time a living insect brain has been tested as a tool to detect the disease. 

What next? The team behind the work hopes it could one day lead to an insect-based breath test that could be used in cancer screening, or inspire an artificial version that works in much the same way. Although that’s a long way off. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Energy-hungry data centers are quietly moving into cities

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The US Supreme Court just gutted the EPA’s power to regulate emissions

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The US Supreme Court just gutted the EPA’s power to regulate emissions


What was the ruling?

The decision states that the EPA’s actions in a 2015 rule, which included caps on emissions from power plants, overstepped the agency’s authority.

“Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible ‘solution to the crisis of the day,’” the decision reads. “But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme.”

Only Congress has the power to make “a decision of such magnitude and consequence,” it continues. 

This decision is likely to have “broad implications,” says Deborah Sivas, an environmental law professor at Stanford University. The court is not only constraining what the EPA can do on climate policy going forward, she adds; this opinion “seems to be a major blow for agency deference,” meaning that other agencies could face limitations in the future as well.

The ruling, which is the latest in a string of bombshell cases from the court, fell largely along ideological lines. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority opinion, and he was joined by his fellow conservatives: Justices Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas. Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

What is the decision all about?

The main question in the case was how much power the EPA should have to regulate carbon emissions and what it should be allowed to do to accomplish that job. That question was occcasioned by a 2015 EPA rule called the Clean Power Plan.

The Clean Power Plan targeted greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants, requiring each state to make a plan to cut emissions and submit it to the federal government.

Several states and private groups immediately challenged the Clean Power Plan when it was released, calling it an overreach on the part of the agency, and the Supreme Court put it on hold in 2016. After a repeal of the plan during Donald Trump’s presidency and some legal back-and-forth, a Washington, DC, district court ruled in January 2021 that the Clean Power Plan did fall within the EPA’s authority.

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How to track your period safely post-Roe

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How to track your period safely post-Roe


3. After you delete your app, ask the app provider to delete your data. Just because you removed the app from your phone does not mean the company has gotten rid of your records. In fact, California is the only state where they are legally required to delete your data. Still, many companies are willing to delete it upon request. Here’s a helpful guide from the Washington Post that walks you through how you can do this.

Here’s how to safely track your period without an app.

1. Use a spreadsheet. It’s relatively easy to re-create the functions of a period tracker in a spreadsheet by listing out the dates of your past periods and figuring out the average length of time from the first day of one to the first day of the next. You can turn to one of the many templates already available online, like the period tracker created by Aufrichtig and the Menstrual Cycle Calendar and Period Tracker created by Laura Cutler. If you enjoy the science-y aspect of period apps, templates offer the ability to send yourself reminders about upcoming periods, record symptoms, and track blood flow.

2. Use a digital calendar. If spreadsheets make you dizzy and your entire life is on a digital calendar already, try making your period a recurring event, suggests Emory University student Alexa Mohsenzadeh, who made a TikTok video demonstrating the process

Mohsenzadeh says that she doesn’t miss apps. “I can tailor this to my needs and add notes about how I’m feeling and see if it’s correlated to my period,” she says. “You just have to input it once.” 

3. Go analog and use a notebook or paper planner. We’re a technology publication, but the fact is that the safest way to keep your menstrual data from being accessible to others is to take it offline. You can invest in a paper planner or just use a notebook to keep track of your period and how you’re feeling. 

If that sounds like too much work, and you’re looking for a simple, no-nonsense template, try the free, printable Menstrual Cycle Diary available from the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research.

4. If your state is unlikely to ban abortion, you might still be able to safely use a period-tracking app. The crucial thing will be to choose one that has clear privacy settings and has publicly promised not to share user data with authorities. Quintin says Clue is a good option because it’s beholden to EU privacy laws and has gone on the record with its promise not to share information with authorities. 

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Composable enterprise spurs innovation

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Composable enterprise spurs innovation


Overall, 74% of companies accelerated plans to move to the cloud by more than a year, jettisoning legacy technologies and operating models to embrace data and applications, according to business analysis firm ZK Research.

A key part of that transformation relied on using applications, usually in the cloud, that integrated apps and data with low-code functionality to create more efficient workflows, more quickly than ever. Low-code is a software development approach for building processes and functionality with little or no code, which allows non-software developers to create applications.

Companies that structure daily workflows around these so-called “composable applications”—often called composable enterprises—have a much tighter relationship between technology and business units and can quickly assemble new applications and services at a fraction of the historical cost.

Composable applications provide a way to build on or add to applications in an easy way—think of building blocks: the work has already been done and additional functionality can be added to the foundational ability.

That flexibility is necessary for the variability of the current workplace and economy, says Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst at ZK Research. “We’re moving to an era where in any given moment, you could have everyone in the office, no one in the office, or every reasonable combination in between,” Kerravala says. “You could have all your shoppers online, only a few, or—depending on your industry—no shoppers online and every possible combination between. The pandemic has created these dramatic shifts in the way we learn, the way we live, and the way we work, based on forces that are outside of anyone’s control.”

When it comes to cloud infrastructure, companies have often pursued half measures—adopting it in such a way as to reinforce old business models, creating private clouds that mimic their on-premises infrastructure. But composability gives enterprises the ability to adapt to changes in operations and in their markets by creating new applications to support needed workflows without hiring additional or outside software developers to implement the changes.

Composable cloud services further liberate companies from relying on running their own software instances solely to customize the code to their needs. Composable applications bring together cloud, customization, integration, and workflow management, allowing companies to be flexible and innovate quickly.

When businesses suffered pandemic disruptions to critical business functions—such as call centers, IT support, and medical administration—composable applications allowed firms to adapt and continue. In one case, a company needed to extend its call-center system, which was hosted in a controlled environment, to allow access to employees through web browsers running on an Amazon virtual machine, says David Lee, vice president of products at RingCentral, an enterprise communications platform that has focused on composability. “They had to make these changes work overnight at employees’ homes, and that was a great challenge for a lot of organizations,” Lee says. “Companies well-adapted to potential change actually made these transitions very easy by composing new applications and workflows.”

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