Gaza Startups Catch Silicon Valley’s Eye; China Snubs Pokemon GO

Posted January 10th, 2017 at 1:28 pm (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

FILE - Palestinian entrepreneur Samar Hijjo, who developed the mobile application ''Baby Sitter' that is aimed at raising awareness of women during pregnancy and after giving birth, works at UCAS Technology Incubator office in Gaza City, Oct. 31, 2016.

FILE – Palestinian entrepreneur Samar Hijjo, who developed the mobile application ”Baby Sitter’ that is aimed at raising health awareness among pregnant women, works at UCAS Technology Incubator office in Gaza City, Oct. 31, 2016.

Gaza Is Attracting Attention of Silicon Valley

The Gaza Strip, more often closed to the world than not, has one of the highest unemployment rates and myriads of everyday problems, not the least of which is an unreliable power supply. But the strip is undergoing a bit of a tech evolution as young entrepreneurs – half of them women – fight for a better future. And with the help of NGOs and some Silicon Valley know-how, Gaza’s startups are building just about everything tech, from business to humor, but with a local flavor.

St. Jude Medical Releases Security Patches for Vulnerable Cardiac Devices

St. Jude Medical has patched several security vulnerabilities affecting the Merlin remote monitoring system, used with implantable pacemakers and defibrillators. The manufacturer – MedSec – previously denied its products had any security flaws, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sided with the hospital, saying devices that are radio-frequency enabled are vulnerable to hacking.

China Rejects Pokemon GO, Similar Games

Millions of Chinese gamers will miss out on Nintendo’s hit smartphone app, Pokemon GO and other augmented reality games. China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television cited national security and the “safety of people’s lives and property” among the risk factors relating to the game. There have been reports of injuries and even deaths in the case of Pokemon gamers not paying attention to their surroundings in various parts of the world.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Do Some Good, Explore, or Stay Safe With These Apps

Posted January 6th, 2017 at 11:10 am (UTC-4)
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A screenshot from Share The Meal app. (Share The Meal)

A screenshot from ShareTheMeal app. (ShareTheMeal)

2017 is here and this is as good a time as any to find ways to turn those New Year Resolutions into reality. There are a few apps that help with that and more. Some are free, though they will track you and your information. You’ll have to pay for some of the others if you want them. Techtonics sifted through some of the latest and came up with this bundle.

ShareTheMeal

This World Food Program’s nonprofit app lets users feed a hungry child with a single tap on your smartphone. Users can donate US $ 0.50 to feed a child for a day and track the activities of the program with their friends. The app has already shared more than 10 million meals.

There are other apps that offer a different approach to giving, if that was high on your New Year’s resolutions list. Exercise-minded individuals can use Charity Miles Walk&Run Tracker while running, biking and walking to donate to charity.  Brand name sponsors will donate to a charity of your choice for every mile you cover or earn you money that can be donated to your charity.

Donate a Photo for Charity is a free donation app from Johnson & Johnson. The company donates $1 to a charity of your choice for every photo that you donate. The picture can be about any subject, but it’s probably best not to donate personal pictures. And be sure to remove the geocoding metadata from the pictures if you prefer not to share your location.

MotherToBaby

The nonprofit Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS) launched MotherToBaby as it marks Birth Defects Prevention Month this January. The app provides evidence-based information about pregnancy and breastfeeding exposures.

A screenshot from the MotherToBaby app, which provides pregnant women with all sorts of information to keep them informed about potential risks to their babies. (OTIS)

A screenshot from the MotherToBaby app, which provides pregnant women with all sorts of information to keep them informed about potential risks to their babies. (OTIS)

In an emergency, the app can link users to information experts who can offer more customized support in real-time. Users of MotherToBaby also have the option to volunteer their pregnancy information to benefit research.

OTIS said in an email it believes the app will benefit English and Spanish-speaking countries in the developing world. But the group hopes to expand the app’s reach in the future.

Trusted Contacts

Google’s Trusted Contacts is a personal safety app that lets family and friends added as trusted contacts ask for the user’s location. While the request can be denied, the feature is helpful in emergencies or when the user is in an unsafe environment. The app lets trusted contacts check on the users’ phone activity to make sure they are safe.

Decrypto

As ransomware attacks continue to escalate, there are now a few apps that help victims decrypt their files. If you find yourself looking at an encrypted message, Decrypto, the latest in a bunch of encryption and decryption apps that rolled out over the past year, can identify the cipher and decrypt the message. It also lets you encrypt your messages. Other app include Cypher Solver, and Cryptography, which includes in-app purchases.

Forest

Forest offers a unique solution to help people who can’t seem to part with their smartphones, whatever the circumstances.

The app asks users to plant a seed whenever they need to focus on their work . Eventually, the seed will grow into a tree. But it will wither and die if you cannot resist checking Facebook or Pokémon GO every so often. The app is designed to prevent users from using other apps during the planting session.

A screenshot from Forest explains how the app works, (Forest)

(Forest)

Forest also partners with Trees for the Future to plant real trees. They have projects in Cameroon, Kenya, Senegal, Uganda and Tanzania.

7 Minute Workout Challenge

If fitness was high on your 2017 to-do list, the 7 Minute Workout Challenge offers 12 exercises that can be done, well, in 7 minutes. The app tracks your progress and encourages you to persist, though it’s always good to check with your doctor first if you are concerned about any of the exercises.

Another option is Full Fitness Exercise Without Trainer, which was just updated. The app offers exercise routines and calorie-counting while helping users resolved to lose weight keep track of their goals. But if exercise isn’t for you, Calorie Counter & Diet Tracker can help you keep those calories in check.

Sidekix

Sidekix is an urban navigator, trip planner and map all in one. The iOS and Apple Watch app uses your smartphone’s location and GPS features for interest-based routing. That means it can find shopping, cultural or dining spots based on your personal interests. It suggests events, best routes, and directions to help you reach your destination. Sidekix is available in about 100 cities in the United States, Europe and Israel, and more will be added.

If you are privacy-oriented, you should read the developers’ policies before downloading any of the tracking apps.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

The IoT Home Invasion; Apple Pulls New York Times Apps in China

Posted January 5th, 2017 at 12:32 pm (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

David VanderWaal, VP of marketing for LG Electronics USA (L), listens to Mike George, VP Alexa, Echo and Appstore for Amazon, talking about their companies' partnership to bring Amazon's digital assistant Alexa to LG appliances, during the LG press conference at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Jan. 4, 2017. (Reuters)

David VanderWaal, VP of marketing for LG Electronics USA (L), listens to Mike George, VP Alexa, Echo and Appstore for Amazon, talking about their companies’ partnership to bring Amazon’s digital assistant Alexa to LG appliances, during the LG press conference at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Jan. 4, 2017. (Reuters)

Like It or Not, ‘Internet of Things’ Is Going to Invade Your Home

Let’s face it, there will come a time when you will not be able to avoid buying that smart fridge that orders your groceries or the digital assistant that listens to your every word at home or in your car. And as tech companies and manufacturers race to beat the competition to market with smarter gadgets, the lack of security and privacy where Internet of Things devices are concerned remains a huge problem. Writer Rob Price looks at some of the risks to privacy and the concept of ownership that come with digitizing just about everything.

Watson Replaces 34 Insurance Workers in Japan

IBM’s artificial intelligence system, Watson, will replace 34 claims white-collar workers at Japan’s Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance Company. Watson will read medical documents and determine the amount of payouts to customers, based on injuries, medical records and procedures. The company expects to save money and increase efficiency as a result of replacing the human workers.

Apple Pulls New York Times Apps in China After Government Request

Apple has acquiesced to Chinese authorities’ demands to remove the New York Times apps from its App store. New York Times‘ website has been blocked in China since 2012, but the newspaper’s English and Chinese apps still gave access to readers in the country. In addition to other leading newspapers blocked in China, Apple’s iBooks and iTunes Movies have also been blocked since April. A New York Times spokesman said the Chinese move “is part of their wider attempt to prevent readers in China from accessing independent news coverage.”

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Android Malware Goes After Wi-Fi Routers; More Ransomware in 2017

Posted January 4th, 2017 at 1:26 pm (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

FILE - An illustration shows a 3D printed Android logo in front of code. (Reuters)

FILE – An illustration shows a 3D printed Android logo in front of code. (Reuters)

Android-infecting Trojan Malware Uses Your Phone to Attack Your Router

Kaspersky Lab researchers have uncovered a new Android Trojan malware. Dubbed “Switcher Trojan,” the malware can attack its victims’ wireless routers and render connected devices vulnerable to fraud. The virus tricks users to redirect Wi-Fi traffic from the networks users are on to the hackers and attempts to penetrate the router’s admin interface.

Ransomware Set to Increase in 2017

Ransomware has become a very profitable business and will probably continue to escalate this year. Intelligence Analyst Alan Liska expects ransomware attacks to target public systems like grocery stores, banks, digital billboards, or organizations running old or insecure Windows operating systems. Ransomware has also been evolving quickly, allowing criminals to find new ways to hold their victims’ computers hostage until they pay the ransom.

Top 10 Tech Predictions for 2017

The traditional tech landscape is changing to make room for re-imagined touch-based devices and cloud-based services. Writer Bob O’Donnell expects the old definitions that separated computer peripherals and controllers to give way as users increasingly gain the ability to use one device to control a variety of gadgets. He also sees technologies like virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence making headway in non-tech fields.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

The Trouble With IoT; What to Expect From CES 2017

Posted January 3rd, 2017 at 12:19 pm (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

FILE - Intel's latest sensor-laden chip package, Curie, used to make Web- connected gizmos, is shown embedded on a circuit board attached to a football helmet that senses if a player suffers a concussion-inducing hit, March 1, 2016. (AP)

FILE – Intel’s sensor-laden chip package, Curie, used to make Web-connected gizmos, is shown embedded on a circuit board attached to a football helmet that senses if a player suffers a concussion-inducing hit. (AP)

Almost Three in Four Organizations Collect IoT Data

By all accounts, Internet of Things (IoT) devices are expected to continue to grow and thrive in 2017. And a new report from 451 Research projects a 33 percent increase in IoT spending this year. But along with that comes the finding that more companies are collecting data from IoT users, including healthcare and industrial information, even though privacy and lack of security remain a huge concern for this technology.

What to Expect at the Massive CES 2017 Tech Show

The International Consumer Electronics Show opens its doors in Las Vegas on January 5 and promises to host a dizzying array of new gadgets and technologies. In addition to televisions and mobile devices, expect more digital assistants, autonomous cars, virtual reality, drones and wearable devices.

2016: The Tech Year in Cartoons

Editorial cartoonist John Klossner looks at the lighter side of the 2016 technology scene – from 3-D printing to mobile money and autonomous cars, and a few things in-between.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

2016 Was Year of Ransomware, Exploding Devices, AI, Social Media Lies

Posted December 30th, 2016 at 11:20 am (UTC-4)
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(M. Sandeen for VOA)

(M. Sandeen for VOA)

Looking back at this past year’s tech scene, 2016 distinguished itself as the year of ransomware and fake news. It witnessed the ongoing battle over privacy and Samsung’s exploding phones, and saw the continued rise of artificial intelligence and the proliferation of drones. Here are some of the year’s leading stories:

The ransom year

While Yahoo revealed in 2016 that it had suffered the largest cybersecurity breach ever, compromising up to one billion users, 2016 was unquestionably the year of ransomware.

Starting off on the wrong foot, 2016 first saw Los Angeles Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center come under attack in February. Hackers hijacked the hospital’s data files and locked them down with an encryption virus, demanding $3.6 million in ransom to unencrypt them. Crippled by the attack, the hospital paid the ransom in Bitcoin, as demanded. But that was just the beginning. More hospitals and banks fell prey to ransomware attacks, some of which were blamed on China-based hackers.

By March, about 93 percent of phishing emails were loaded with encryption malware. The trend has also been rising on mobile smartphones and becoming the main threat on Android devices in several countries. In some cases, hackers who got paid still deleted the victims’ files. And the cost of cleaning up ransomware damage, estimated around one billion dollars in 2016, are also rising.

Faking the news

FILE - Flowers and notes left by well-wishers are displayed outside Comet Ping Pong, the pizza restaurant in Washington where an armed man arrived to investigate a fake news story, Dec. 9, 2016.

FILE – Flowers and notes left by well-wishers are displayed outside Comet Ping Pong, the pizza restaurant in Washington where an armed man arrived to investigate a fake news story, Dec. 9, 2016.

2016 was unquestionably the year that data-driven news, fabricated posts, and false opinion polls took to social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, and wreaked havoc leading up to the U.S. presidential election in November. A fake news story later prompted a man to fire a rifle in a Washington, D.C. restaurant as he “self-investigated” a conspiracy theory claiming the restaurant harbored sex slaves.

Facebook and Twitter later joined forces to tackle fake news content.

For Facebook, where the problem was most evident, trouble started when the social media service replaced the human curators of its Trending Topics section with an automated module or algorithm. The change led to a series of questionable decisions that included banning a famous historic Vietnam picture while allowing a naked picture of an Irish teenager posted for revenge to stay online. That last episode led to a lawsuit in Ireland.

Facebook has been testing tools to help users flag fake news stories.

Casualty: Privacy

A man holds up his iPhone during a rally in support of data privacy outside the Apple store, Feb. 23, 2016, in San Francisco.

FILE – A man holds up his iPhone during a rally in support of data privacy outside the Apple store, Feb. 23, 2016, in San Francisco.

This past year, privacy was put to the test when the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) demanded Apple unlock an iPhone belonging to a mass shooter in the San Bernandino, California terror attack that killed 14 people.

Apple refused to unlock the iPhone or add backdoors to future devices to help the FBI gain access to encrypted data, saying that would set a dangerous precedent. The FBI argued at the time it only wanted access to that particular iPhone, although it turned out that was not the case. Ultimately, the FBI hired a third party to unlock the phone and refused to share with Apple how it was done. But the controversy will change online privacy forever and has already spurred a move to create more secure mobile devices and applications.

While defending his position, Apple CEO Tim Cook speculated that governments could very well force technology companies to develop software to spy on users in the future.

In India, which maintains the world’s largest biometric database, the parliament moved to make the database accessible to all government agencies in the interest of national security. The database was built originally to streamline payments and benefits and crack down on corruption, but the parliament’s move raised concerns over the privacy of up to a billion people.

AI rising

FILE - Swiss social psychologist Bertolt Mayer views 'Rex', a two-meter-tall artificial human, at the Science Museum in central London Feb. 5, 2013. (Reuters)

FILE – Swiss social psychologist Bertolt Mayer views ‘Rex’, a two-meter-tall artificial human, at the Science Museum in central London Feb. 5, 2013. (Reuters)

Making significant strides in 2016, Artificial intelligence (AI) systems gained deeper understanding of the nuances of human behavior.

But AI remains a work in progress with several companies trying to teach their programs to be more human. Some have been more successful than others, as Microsoft’s chatbot Tay illustrated when it was taught all kinds of racist speech on Twitter. And some experts argue that ultimately, machines cannot reason as humans do.and can never match the complexity of the human mind.

There are still areas where computers fare better than humans and others where they cannot. Some argue AI actually makes humans better people, perhaps by tackling online problems like racism and harassment that humans have not been able to curb, or address other challenges like lip reading,

Nevertheless, AI continued to spread to areas like internet search, social media, healthcare, disease-tracking, the fight against cancer, education, cybercrime and cybersecurity. But these rapid developments have raised concerns about the social and economic implications of artificial intelligence and its “existential risks.” To that end, several tech giants teamed up to pacify fears and draft an AI code of ethics as the technology penetrates every aspect of daily life.

Samsung exploding

A Samsung Note 7 handset is pictured next to its charred battery after catching fire during a test at the Applied Energy Hub battery laboratory in Singapore Oct. 5, 2016. (Reuters)

A Samsung Note 7 handset is pictured next to its charred battery after catching fire during a test at the Applied Energy Hub battery laboratory in Singapore Oct. 5, 2016. (Reuters)

To say that 2016 was not good for Samsung is the understatement of the year. The lithium-ion batteries in Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 smartphone – one of the year’s most sought-after devices – started exploding during charging. The South Korean company attempted to stabilize the battery, but the explosions persisted. Samsung stopped shipping the devices and replaced nearly 2.5 million devices that had been recalled worldwide.

But things just kept going downhill from there. Reports were coming in that some of the replaced devices were also defective. Samsung finally scrapped all production of the Galaxy Note 7. Shortly thereafter, the first lawsuit against the company was filed in the United States.

The fiasco left the company with a host of challenges to figure out why this happened and how to limit the environmental impact of dumping millions of discarded smartphones.

Samsung is still struggling to recover.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

CES, 2017 Tech Trends; Minecraft Extension Aims to Teach Chemistry

Posted December 29th, 2016 at 11:47 am (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

FILE - A worker drives by a sign at the Las Vegas Convention Center before the start of the International CES gadget show, Jan. 3, 2016, in Las Vegas. (AP)

FILE – A worker drives by a sign at the Las Vegas Convention Center before the start of the International Consumer Electronics Show, Jan. 3, 2016, in Las Vegas. (AP)

The 5 Tech Trends That Will Dominate CES and 2017

The Consumer Electronics Show is coming to Las Vegas on January 5, 2017. It promises to unveil thousands of new gadgets and products, some of which made headway in 2016 but will achieve a level of maturity in 2017. The world’s largest electronics trade show is expected to focus on cars, drones, artificial intelligence, mixed reality, and Internet of Things technologies. Writer Jennifer Booton expects a couple of new arenas such as high-tech sleep and baby products.

Inside Chile’s Magical Startup Scene

Santiago, Chile gets its wealth from copper and mineral mines, rather than technology. And while it is unlikely to spawn the next Silicon Valley any time soon, some of its engineers are hoping to change that through a technology incubator called “Idea Factory.” The project gives inventors space to work and connects students and young entrepreneurs with industry leaders.

Minecraft Expansion Successfully Tricks Students Into Learning

Popular block building game Minecraft has been used for education and urban planning for some time now. But a group of professors just found a new way to trick their students into learning chemistry and engineering concepts from the game. The professors created the “Polycraft World” expansion to Minecraft that requires students to create an educational, fun game based on accurate science. They found students learning additional science concepts as they created the items needed to play their games.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Singapore to Record Iris Scans; Fake News Story Raises Bangkok Alarm

Posted December 28th, 2016 at 11:28 am (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

FILE - Jim Kaplan, of Weston, Mass., has his iris scanned at Logan Airport in Boston. (AP)

FILE – Jim Kaplan, of Weston, Mass., has his iris scanned at Logan Airport in Boston. (AP)

Singapore to Record Iris Scans of Citizens

Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs said the country will begin collecting iris scans of citizens and permanent residents beginning January 1. A ministry statement said the goal is to improve efficiency for immigration procedures and registration and renewal of identity cards and passports. The iris images will be an additional identifier, along with photographs and fingerprints.

Facebook False Alarm Triggers Safety Check in Thailand

Facebook’s Safety Check feature, intended to let users in dangerous regions notify loved ones that they are safe, triggered a false alarm in Bangkok, Thailand following news of an explosion in the capital. There was no explosion, and the reference appears to have resulted from a fake news story and questionable sourcing. A few days ago, another fake story triggered a Twitter confrontation between nuclear states Israel and Pakistan. The story claimed Israel’s former defense minister threatened to launch a nuclear attack against Pakistan if it sends troops to Syria.

14 Eyebrow-raising Things Google Knows About You

Whether you know it or not, Google collects all sorts of information and images about its users. And according to writer JR Raphael, that compilation also includes stats that define user habits as they search the internet. “It really is enlightening,” he wrote, to “see your actions broken down so precisely.” Fortunately, Google’s two-factor authentication security system can help prevent this data from falling into the wrong hands.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Six-year-old Skirts Biometric Login; How Hackers Use Stolen Credit Data

Posted December 27th, 2016 at 11:48 am (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

FILE - A person uses a sensor for biometric identification on a smartphone in Berlin, Germany Oct. 16, 2015.

FILE – A person uses a sensor for biometric identification on a smartphone in Berlin, Germany Oct. 16, 2015.

Child Uses Sleeping Mom’s Fingerprints to Buy Pokémon Gifts

Biometrics are supposed to offer better security for your mobile devices. But no one probably expected that Bethany Howell’s six-year-old daughter, in Arkansas, would borrow her fingerprint while she slept to buy $250 of Pokémon Christmas gifts. The child, Ashlynd, later admitted she had made the purchases. The Federal Trade Commission (FCC) has previously accused Apple, Google and Amazon of making it easy for children to make online purchases.

Dear Tech Companies: Stop Shipping Unfinished Products

As New Year resolutions go, writer Sean Hollister wants tech companies to stop shipping beta or unfinished versions of their products in an effort to make it to market first. Noting 2016’s exploding batteries and drones falling from the sky, among other things, Hollister said companies unfairly expect consumers to buy buggy products, then help them fix them. But he also blamed consumers for lusting after the greatest gadgets, even though manufacturers are unable to deliver all the promised features.

What Identity Thieves Do With Stolen Credit Cards

Cyber identity thieves are getting away with all kinds of personal information these days, not just credit card accounts. But once they get their hands on credit card data, they either use it to siphon money or sell the information to other hackers. Here’s what happens when your credit card information is stolen.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

How NORAD Has Been Tracking Santa for 61 Years

Posted December 23rd, 2016 at 11:30 am (UTC-4)
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Every Christmas, for the past 61 years, NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, looks to the skies, tracking Santa as he distributes gifts and good cheer to children everywhere. Techtonics talked with NORAD volunteers last Christmas to learn how this is done. Here’s an updated rerun of the story.

Volunteers at NORAD's Operations Center take calls from people interested in tracking Santa during his 2014 Christmas travels. (NORAD Public Affairs)

Volunteers at NORAD’s Live Operations Center take calls from people interested in tracking Santa during his 2014 Christmas travels. (NORAD Public Affairs)

Millions of people are tracking Santa’s travels around the globe this Christmas, thanks to NORAD Tracks Santa, a non-profit program that provides updates on his whereabouts with a bit of imagination, some tech wizardry, and a lot of heart.

It all starts in early April, when NORAD – the North American Aerospace Defense Command – assembles its volunteers and partners to start charting Santa’s journey.

“We start out pulling together sort of where we would think that Santa traveling at the speed of starlight would … have to go to actually make it around the world to reach the billions and billions of kids,” said NORAD’s Chief of Integrated Communications, Michael Kucharek.

NORAD Tracks Santa 2015

  • 22 million unique website visits
  • 1,500 volunteers manning Live Operations Center for 23 hours received 140,883 calls
  • 2,841 emails answered
  • Countdown clock, games, Santa Tracking downloaded over 4 million times on mobile

Moving from the most eastern part of the globe westward, the tracking team picks various places on the map that Santa will visit before his journey ends in Honolulu, Hawaii. They determine how often they want Santa tracked on December 24 and add his arrival and departure times to the map.

“We plotted in the times and then we lined up those times and locations,” said Kucharek. “So we do the front-end work and then we push that to Microsoft who renders that so that it is automatic to people on [December] 24, so that they see as Santa goes along how that’s actually done.”

Microsoft, NORAD’s prime partner, uses the data to render the tracking map. Santa and his sleigh, led by the famous Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer, are then placed in their proper location on the map.

As many as 70 other partners provide assistance on everything from the 2-D and 3-D website and SantaCams, to mobile apps and social media.

NORAD and its partners meet on a regular basis through the end of November and intensify their collaboration to determine how to take the project to the next level.

“They are the people that actually make all this technology tick and tock and making sure that Santa is represented on the globe according to his location, using what we plot out, starting very early on,” said Kucharek.

All the data – locations, arrival and departure times – are then fed to NORAD’s ground-based radars.

For 60 years, NORAD fighter jets have intercepted Santa many times. When the jets intercept Santa, they tip their wings to say, "Hello Santa! – NORAD is tracking you again this year!" (NORAD Public Affairs)

For 61 years, NORAD fighter jets have intercepted Santa many times. When the jets intercept Santa, they tip their wings to say, “Hello Santa! – NORAD is tracking you again this year!” (NORAD Public Affairs)

Once Santa leaves the North Pole, the radars are then able to identify the shape of his sleigh, its harnesses and reindeer.

“All those are things that a ground-based radar can see,” said Kucharek. “And then obviously we got Rudolph’s nose that provides an infrared signature that certain military satellites are able to pick up … But also those satellites on a day-to-day basis are used for a real world mission of spotting launches that may occur anywhere around the globe.”

When all the maps, trackers, cameras and countdown clocks are in place, NORAD Tracks Santa goes live on December 1, following a tradition started in 1958 by Colonel Harry Shoup, when a little girl misdialed NORAD’s number asking to speak with Santa.

NORAD still holds true to that tradition as way of “paying the goodwill forward” and putting smiles on people’s faces, as Kucharek put it.

“You’ve got second and third generations … of people that are now tracking Santa,” he said. “They get together during the December 24 evening and throughout the day just checking to see where Santa is. They do it as a family. It’s become a holiday tradition for a lot of people.”

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.