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Cyber tips to keep the humbugs out of the holiday season

Online shopping is easy, but be sure you keep online predators at bay.
Are your holiday gifts spying on your children? We can help.
December 17, 2015

ASU global security strategist offers insight to keep online intruders at bay, and away from your children

People buying holiday gifts enjoy the convenience of online shopping, which is projected to reach $83 billion in 2015, an 11 percent increase over last year. But even though online shopping can reduce the stress of going to crowded shops and malls, buying gifts through the Internet does create its own set of concerns — chiefly, the risk of fraud or third-party trackers that monitor our online habits. And with the rise of Wi-Fi-enabled devices it's worth being aware which gifts could transmit your children's personal data or whereabouts. 

Woman wearing a jacket

With that in mind, Jamie Winterton (pictured at left), director of strategic research initiatives with Arizona State University’s Global Security Initiative, offers some timely cyber security tips and strategies for the holiday shopping season and the new year.

Question: What are some easy ways to stay cyber safe while purchasing holiday gifts online?

Answer: There are lots of places to shop online, and every one of them wants you to set up an account. As burdensome as it is, creating a new password for each of those accounts will keep you safer. You can keep them safely organized with secure password management, like LastPass. I also recommend using a credit card instead of debit card for online purchases; this puts one extra safeguard between the online world and your personal bank account.

Q: How can we minimize spreading too much of our personal data online?

A: First, decide what “too much” means to you, and then assume that anything you put online could be publically accessible. Once you know what you do and don’t want to share, you can tailor your online behavior accordingly. It’s easier to think of it from a personal-comfort standpoint than an abstract list of rules that you have to follow. For example, if you like personalized advertising but don’t want people to know your home address, you can focus more on turning off location services when you don’t need them, and less on third-party tracking blockers.

Q: New toys, such as “Hello Barbie,” increasingly connect to the Internet, creating security issues that could expose children’s personal data, or even let hackers eavesdrop on communications between the toy and the cloud server. What can parents do to protect their children’s privacy after buying Internet-connected toys this holiday season?

A: First, consider whether or not the toy really needs to be connected to the Internet. Many toys have an online option, but what does that feature really contribute to your child’s experience? Think about just connecting the device once in a while for software updates, instead of having it hooked up 24/7. 

My other suggestion is to lie! These toys usually ask for a fairly detailed profile of the child. If you decide to connect toys or other ed-tech, consider: Does this item (and the company who produces it) truly need my child’s real name and age? Does it need the names of my child’s friends or pets, or details about my child’s hobbies? Kids' tech encourages so much personal data sharing, but we can’t be confident that this data will be kept secure. At my house, we talk about this as having a “secret identity” online, like a spy. The kids think it’s great.

Q: What are some easy tools shoppers can employ to block malvertisingMalvertising, from the term "malicious advertising," is the use of online advertising to spread malware that could infect your computer. and third-party trackers?

A: The amount of malware found on advertising networks (“malvertising”) has increased sharply over the past year. I use AdBlock Plus to stay safe from ads containing malicious scripts that can either hijack your computer or snoop around your machine. I also use the Ghostery browser extension, because I don’t like third-party trackers profiling my behavior. Those two options are easy to install and provide good protection without affecting my online experience.

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No brake: ASU team powers through to edge closer to race car

ASU's Formula SAE race car team is knocking out deadlines on road to Lincoln.
With classes over, ASU student engineers dedicate solid week to their race car.
As ever, fundraising is a concern for ASU's Formula SAE race car team.
December 17, 2015

With classes in the rear-view mirror, student engineers go full throttle and spend all their time in the workshop

Editor’s note: This is the latest installation in a yearlong series about ASU's Formula SAEFormula SAE is a student design competition organized by the International Society of Automotive Engineers (now known as SAE International). team. Find links to previous stories at the end of this article.

Final exams are over, and it’s a chilly damp Saturday morning on the almost-deserted Tempe campus of Arizona State University. The malls and lawns are empty and silent.

But in a machine shop in the Psychology North building where about 20 student engineers have gathered to resume work on a Formula-style race car, it’s anything but quiet.

Metal screams and exudes the tangy smell it does when it’s cut. Krispy Kreme boxes and McDonald’s bags litter tables. One table is covered in laptops, electronics and power cables.

The past few weeks have been dominated by final exams (“School comes first,” one student said), but now the dedicated students of the Formula Society of Automotive Engineers have a full week cleared to do nothing but work on the Sun Devil Motorsports 16.

Their goal is to get the car running by January so they can test it, improve it and train drivers in time for the national competition in June in Lincoln, Nebraska. Auto manufacturers — many of which won’t hire automotive engineers unless they participated in their campus FSAE chapters — have scouts at the competition.

Cars are judged down to the number of times a single bolt is tightened — and every detail and choice has to be carefully documented.

Team manager Troy Buhr is heading fundraising. “This year it hasn’t been as many big sponsors,” he said. Buhr’s strategy has been to focus on getting all 110 team members to reach out to individual sponsors.

Money has been trickling in by $100 donations. The team had about $5,000 in the bank, but they bought a Taylor differential for $2,500.

“That one was expensive,” said Buhr, a junior in mechanical engineering. “We’re getting by.”

Arik Jacobson, a sophomore majoring in automotive engineering and team manufacturing manager, is working on the chassis.

“The biggest issue we have is taking stuff from SOLIDWORKS (a computer-aided design program) and turning it into something tangible,” he said.

The chassis builders are working to incredibly tight tolerances — a 32nd of an inch. Chris Hughes, team treasurer and a senior in mechanical engineering, explained another difficult problem: places on the chassis where three tubes meet. The tubes have to be cut to fit, but less tube means a weaker joint.

“It’d be easier if they were spaced apart,” Hughes said.

The chassis is ready to be welded, which will take all week long. “I’m going to need two or three people to go nose to tail on it today,” Jacobson tells the group.

Chief engineer Wes Kudela has everyone in the shop assemble outside. Today’s biggest goal is getting the new engine control unit — the car’s brain, essentially — to mate to last year’s wiring harness. After going over the day’s plan for each team in the shop, he gives an "attaboy" to everyone who is giving up vacation time.

“I want to thank everyone who’s here working over break,” said Kudela, a senior in mechanical engineering. “I know it’s a break, so I really appreciate your dedication. Now let’s get going.”

Curtis Swift is the systems team lead. Systems covers the steering wheel, headrest, restraints, driver enclosure, seat, “pretty much anything the driver interacts with while driving,” Swift explained.

Swift’s team is mulling the choice between a carbon fiber seat or a bead seat. The latter is like taking a bean bag, emptying it, putting the beads in a trash bag with epoxy, vacuum sealing it, and forming it to the driver’s body.

“The carbon fiber would be good for looks, but the bead seat would be easy to manufacture,” said Swift, a senior in mechanical engineering. “We could do it in half a day. … We’re really just waiting on funding.”

Today he has brought in the SDM-16’s steering wheel, which he made for a class project. It’s a black rectangle with rounded corners and finger holes on the edges. It doesn’t look like the steering wheel on your car. (Nothing on this car looks like the parts on your car.)

“I made the holes big so big dudes can drive the car,” Swift said. He’s making the grips today out of some foam that’s lying around the shop and tennis-racket grip tape. The steering wheel is a thin sandwich of wood between two carbon-fiber plates. “It’s lighter and harder than steel,” he said.

“One of the big things in systems is ergonomics,” Swift said. “You want the driver feeling comfortable going around the track at 40 miles per hour.”

Students work on a steering wheel.

The race car's steering wheel is a
thin sandwich of wood between
two carbon-fiber plates. “I made
the (finger) holes big so big dudes
can drive the car,” said systems
team lead Curtis Swift.

Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

To that end the student engineers have built an ergonomics rig. It’s an adjustable wooden model of a car interior. It’s the brainchild of Brandon Butterfield, a senior earning a degree in mechanical engineering and the systems vice team leader. At the competition in Nebraska last year he asked another team why their car was so comfortable. They told him about their wooden erg rig.

“Our old car turned out to be a little uncomfortable,” Butterfield said. “We wanted to design the car around the driver, instead of the other way around.”

Colin Twist, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, is the brakes team lead. His team is responsible for the brakes, rotors, cylinders and brake lines. Today he’s testing the rotors in a computer program to make sure they’re strong enough and can handle heat loads.

“We’re here to come up with a rotor design all our own,” Twist said.

The SDM-16’s rotors are very thin and carved with holes to save weight. Since the car isn’t very heavy and won’t produce a lot of heat when stopping, they don’t have to be solid like the rotors on a mass-produced car. The holes were cut out with water jets in a Chandler shop.

“We’re moving right along, knocking deadlines out,” Twist said. With an entire week in the shop, “we’ll get a lot done,” he said.

All eight of the specialty teams on the car have been working so hard they haven’t had a good look at what the other teams have accomplished.

“I didn’t know they were so far along,” Twist said glancing at the chassis.

Next week the student engineers will take a real break, heading home to spend the holidays with their families.

A word of thanks from the team to their sponsors:

To support the ASU Formula SAE team, click here, then select the “write-in” circle in the “supporting” category and enter the following in the box: "ASU-Society of Automotive Engineers 30006731".

Previous stories in this series:

Oct. 14: Tempe Drift: How an underdog student engineering team is building a race car from the ground up.

Nov. 4: Racing time and money to build a fast car.

Dec. 10: Braking bad: Pressure is on for ASU student engineers building race car

Look for the next installment Jan. 21.