Sunday, 21 March 2021

"It could be radioactive or poisonous"

From, on the immediate aftermath of the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003:

Hemphill City Manager Don Iles arrived at the fire station as a radio report came in from a Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) officer on US 96 near Bronson. “There’s a big metal object in the middle of the highway. It gouged the road. I’m looking at it, but I don’t know what to make of it.”

The dispatcher asked if it had any identifying marks or numbers. The DPS trooper said, “Yeah, but it’s only partial.” He read back the numbers to the dispatcher, who then told him to wait. The trooper said he would stay at the scene by the object and keep vehicles from running over it.

A few minutes later, the dispatcher came back on and said, “I’ve just been in touch with NASA. Please do not pick up or touch any of the material, because it could be radioactive or poisonous.”

NASA later admitted that it was highly unlikely that any of the debris was radioactive or poisonous, it's just that they didn't want people keeping chunks of it as souvenirs or sticking them on eBay. NASA wanted to be able to collect the debris themselves in 'pristine' condition to help them reconstruct what went wrong. Fair enough, you might think.
From the BBC:

Police have warned students in the UK against using a website that they say lets users "illegally access" millions of scientific research papers. The City of London police's Intellectual Property Crime Unit says using the Sci-Hub website could "pose a threat" to students' personal data. The police are concerned that users of the "Russia-based website" could have information taken and misused online.

The Sci-Hub website says it "removes all barriers" to science. It offers open access to more than 85 million scientific papers and claims that copyright laws should be abolished and that such material should be "knowledge to all".

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this are, it seems to me that the police are trying NASA's tactic. They could have reminded people that downloading from such sites is a breach of copyright, which is a civil offence that can be treated as a criminal offence in extreme cases. But nobody takes this seriously nowadays as they know the chances of somebody being take to court for downloading something from the internet is to all and intents and purposes zero, so the police went for the "don't touch! This is radioactive and poisonous!" strategy.

Forewarned is forearmed. It's quite possible that the site *is* a phishing operation, in which case the sensible thing to do is to download from it using a public computer or via a VPN or something, which has the added bonus of making the copyright breach even harder to trace. Which neatly solves both problems from the students' point of view.