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The most transformative security innovations of 2021

Year two of the pandemic brought a new flood of security concerns—domestically, internationally, and, of course, digitally. But companies and researchers stepped up their game. The US military demonstrated its most comprehensive anti-drone technology to date in the New Mexico desert; the Los Angeles Fire Department put the first robot firefighting vehicle in the US on the streets; and a router maker launched a partnership to bring top-shelf anti-virus tech to smart devices. It may not be enough to outright guarantee that you’ll sleep peacefully at night, but at least there’s less of a threat of being hacked through the Bluetooth on your alarm clock.

Cookies make the internet work a little more smoothly by remembering a user’s browsing habits, but when the data trackers follow individuals across different sites, a useful tool becomes a privacy liability. Firefox, the browser by Mozilla, introduced an optional feature called “Total Cookie Protection,” which in a meaningful way limits the trails of crumbs you leave behind online. Instead of storing all of an individual’s information together, this new approach makes each site keep its tracking in a separate “cookie jar” without pulling data from others. That means you can click “accept” with more abandon when you get pelted by the cookie disclaimers that are now the norm across the Web.

Small, expendable drones can spy on soldiers, or worse, attack them with explosives. Fighting these machines, many of which are built cheaply or with commercial parts, means looking for a cost-effective countermeasure that can disable multiple drones at once. With the Air Force’s THOR, the military has a new tool to fry an entire swarm. The system emits high-powered microwaves that hurt electronics, but not people or wildlife. Compact enough to fit on in a shipping container or a C-130 cargo plane, this electrically powered weapon can be set up in a few hours—ready to protect anyone nearby.

Firefighters rush into danger to extinguish dangerous blazes. But what if they didn’t always have to? Newly adopted by the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD), the Thermite RS3 is a robot ranging from 5 to 7 feet tall and 3,000 to 4,000 pounds (depending on the equipment it’s packing) that can help put out flames without risking the lives of firefighters. The remotely operated RS3 rolls on tank treads, sports thermal and optical cameras, and can blast 2,500 gallons of water a minute. In December 2020, the LAFD used its new prize to beat back a blaze from inside a building—after human firefighters had been called to safety outside.

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