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Andrej Sokolow/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP

(Andrej Sokolow/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)


Air network

Stratospheric balloons to provide phone service for Kenya

In 2011, using a simple weather balloon and some basic, off-the-shelf radio equipment, engineers at Alphabet’s research and development subsidiary, X, tried to show that balloons could provide internet and telecommunications coverage. By 2017 the technology of X’s Project Loon, as it was known, was mature enough to provide emergency internet service for hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico.

Last year Alphabet spun off Project Loon into its own division within the company, and this year Kenya’s telecommunications provider Telkom Kenya will use Alphabet’s Loon balloons to provide countrywide mobile phone service—a commercial first for Loon.

Kenya is an ideal candidate for this kind of technological challenge. Its 50 million citizens use nearly 43 million mobile phones, according to the CIA World Factbook. But outside of major cities such as Nairobi, no infrastructure exists for mobile telecommunications.

“High-altitude balloons are actually a very reasonable way to approach this problem,” Sal Candido, Loon’s head of engineering, told IEEE Spectrum. “They’re high, they cover a lot of ground, and there are no obstacles.”

According to Candido, the key technological challenge was keeping the balloons relatively stationary in the stratosphere for hundreds of days. Loon’s engineers solved this problem by developing a system to control automatically the balloon’s altitude, taking advantage of different wind directions at various altitudes. Loon’s engineers have become so good at navigating this system that the balloons to be used in the Kenyan system will be launched from Puerto Rico.

But even minor deviations in the balloons’ locations can affect coverage, so Loon developed a method for the balloons to transmit data between them using direct, high-bandwidth connections. As a result, the entire airborne system will only need ground stations in the cities, not the rural countryside.

Loon will spend the first six months of 2019 testing the system before handing it over to Telkom Kenya, according to IEEE Spectrum.


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The problem with ‘sharenting’

Report highlights risks of posting kids’ info to social media

Every day, thousands of parents proudly post pictures and updates on social media about their kids and their kids’ activities. That information, which might include names, birthdays, or school locations, is increasingly ending up in the hands of big tech companies and identity thieves, according to a U.K. government report released in November.

Published by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England and titled “Who Knows What About Me?” the report documents how social media companies are collecting more information on children than ever before. The authors found that a child’s digital history begins long before he’s old enough to get his own smartphone or computer.

The report said that by the time a child turns 13, his parents will have posted an average of 1,300 photos and videos of him to social media. It noted children between the ages of 11 and 16 post on social media 26 times a day. By the time they reach adulthood, they will likely have posted 70,000 times.

Such an extensive amount of personal data on children can expose them to the possibility of identity theft, according to security experts at Barclays. Three key pieces of information used in identity theft—name, birthdate, and home address—are “often given directly by parents, or can be deduced from photos or updates on social media accounts,” the report said. It cited criminal reports in which children’s data were stored until they turned 18, “at which point fraudulent loans and credit card applications were made.” The report said that Barclays “has forecast that by 2030 ‘sharenting’ will account for two-thirds of identity fraud facing young people over 18.”

The authors also documented how the proliferation of internet-connected devices contributes to the “datafication” of children.

“This is not just about parents and children sharing information on social media, even though that is part of the issue,” the report stated. “It is also increasingly about smart toys, speakers and other connected devices which are being brought into more and more homes. … And it is about information that is given away when children use essential public services such as schools and [doctors’ offices].”

Among their recommendations, the authors said tech companies should state their terms and conditions in more easily understood language and be more transparent about any trackers installed in apps, toys, and other products that could be capturing info about children. For children and parents, the report’s top recommendation: Stop and think before posting. Even tagging a child at home during a birthday celebration gives away his or her date of birth and home address.

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Guillermo Hernandez Martinez/The Springfield News-Leader/AP and iStock

(Guillermo Hernandez Martinez/The Springfield News-Leader/AP and iStock)


Emergency connections

New 911 technology provides first responders with automatic info

Americans make more than 240 million calls to the 911 emergency phone number each year. Yet, despite the ubiquity of cellular networks and the internet, many emergency response centers still rely on callers to provide location and other diagnostic information over the phone before dispatchers can determine how to respond.

Tech startup RapidSOS is attempting to solve this problem by integrating emergency services with connected devices such as smartphones, wearables, and onboard vehicle-connected emergency systems. Using the RapidSOS system, such devices can provide immediate information about a user’s location and emergency situation, even if the user cannot speak.

“Most emergency communication today uses infrastructure established between the 1960s and the 1980s, and it means that if you need 911 but can’t have a conversation you are in trouble. 911 doesn’t even know your name when you call,” Michael Martin, CEO and co-founder of RapidSOS, said in a TechCrunch interview. “But there is all this rich information today, and so our job is to help make that available when you really need it.”

The company partners with vehicle manufacturers and device- and app-makers such as Apple and Google to provide emergency workers with user location information, along with user-supplied data such as medical history or emergency contacts: When a person initiates an emergency call using a connected device or app—or when a connected vehicle detects a crash—RapidSOS’ software sends the info directly to the 911 system. The service is free for users of mobile devices.

Nationwide, more than 1,500 emergency 911 centers are already using RapidSOS applications, the company says.

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