Operation Sprogwatch: Keeping tabs on the kids
No snoop for you, buddi?
It's every parent's dream - reliable and easy-accessed information on what your offspring are up to. Electronics systems such as Spyphone II 8210 actually allow you to dial into your child's mobile, and eavesdrop on their conversations. And now, there's the "buddi", which will track wherever the brats go, showing a GPS path every 30 seconds.
But is buddi anything more than just a paranoid parent tool? Sara Murray, inventor of the buddi system, tells the poignant story of how she lost her daughter in a hypermarket one day, and it's clear that she doesn't see it that way.
"I asked the security people for help finding my daughter," she recalls. "The guard knew exactly what to do: 'Go stand by the exit from the car park, and look into the back of every car which goes out,' he said. That put it into perspective."
The technology looks pretty standard; a GSM SIM card in a GPS receiver. Both GSM phone networks and GPS satellites can be used to give a position fix, and most modern smartphones have software which could do the job. Don't they?
Apparently, no. "For a start, the components in a normal phone or GPS device are not up to the job," says Murray. She spent "a couple of months" going through electronics catalogues from chip makers and designers in the Far East, "and there was nothing on the market we could have used. All the devices were too large, for a start. And they used only the cheapest components which meant they weren't sensitive enough, and would lose a GPS signal indoors."
What Murray wanted was a "panic button" which would allow the user to call for help in emergencies – and indeed, initial sales are flourishing with the customers being local authority users. They send people out into tough neighbourhoods, where pulling out a standard mobile and dialing 999 (or 911 or 112) is probably just another way of inviting phone theft. They need a one-push response which tells the support team exactly where they are, and tracks where they have been, instantly.
"With the buddi unit you just squeeze the sides, and the parent or the control team gets all the information," explains Murray.
The claim that this is the first integrated technology system of its type will raise eyebrows. Several smartphone devices are being promoted as suitable for "location based services" on the grounds that they crosslink GPS tracks with GSM mast signal triangulation, allowing advertisers to target potential customers.
The Holy Grail of these products is to have, for instance, the staff of the Financial Services Authority phone on your list, and ensure that your takeover plans are displayed on every public screen and "live" advert hoarding just before they come round the corner and see it.
Equally, security forces would love to be able to trace terrorist operatives with precision; and of course that means that legitimate dissidents are coming to fear that their movements may be tracked with equal precision. Privacy activists are, therefore, hostile.
The advantage of buddi is simple: it's voluntary, as well as precise. The buddi box is "the size of a matchbox" says the PR. You clip it onto your belt.
So, where does the "snooping" issue arise? The buddi team would say it doesn't. But it is true that you can "dial in" to the unit to query it, and get a GPS track of where it is, and where it has been. Some reviewers have taken a negative view on this, seeing it as overly protective.
The reason this isn't snooping is simple - when you poll it, the unit vibrates, telling the carrier that someone is concerned.
The difference is pretty clear, if you read the Spyphone blurb:
Simply enter the secret access menu and program any mobile/landline number. Now dial the phone from that stored secret number and you can listen into the immediate surrounding sounds and conversations. The phone shows NO indication you are listening in thus can be given to your children for example and used as an everyday mobile phone without arousing suspicion.
Also, it emphasises that there are "other inferior copies" of this which blank the screen when you dial in, warning the phone user that it is being monitored - Spyphone doesn't. Your only problem is getting the child to carry it, and it looks exactly like a normal Nokia.
The idea of using a normal phone to provide an equivalent service, says Murray, is impossible. "I'm no electronics expert, but after working on this project for five years, I know what we're doing, and I have a team of experts with me.
"So, for example, when we recently had a presentation from a group which was claiming to do something similar with a BlackBerry, and they told us 'We monitor the GPS unit every three seconds', we knew it was nonsense. The BlackBerry battery can't stand that sort of load."
The main technical innovations in the buddi unit are the antenna and the battery. The battery is substantially higher capacity than most phones – a 3.8V Lithium Ion battery with 600mAh capacity and power consumption of 15mA, giving a battery life of typically 40 hours, or 60 hours standby. "The main saving on power is the fact that there's no talk time," says Murray. This isn't a phone, and you can't flatten the battery chatting or texting or browsing.
'Signal almost everywhere'
What they found when they started the project was that the primary problem with mass market GPS devices was that the antenna simply wasn't sensitive enough. "We went to Fractus in Spain, and they designed our GSM antenna from the ground up, which is why we can be smaller. And they tuned the GPS antenna, making it sensitive enough to get a signal almost everywhere. But there was nothing equivalent on the market, as we quickly found... and you can see why – nobody in their right mind would have done it. Or maybe, anyone in their right mind would have given up."
Sara Murray didn't give up, because she sent her daughter on a skiing holiday. Sara herself is an outdoors person, participating in sailing, skiing and running at a high level. "I sent her off with nothing more than a piece of paper with my mobile number on it, tucked into her pocket somewhere, and I thought: 'There has to be something more useful I can do…' and it became a mission."
Apart from the maternal motivation, Murray is a remarkable innovator in any direction. She founded an online insurance website called inspop.com - it was bought by Admiral group when it got to a quarter of a million users, and rechristened www.Confused.com – and she has other notches on the stick for achievements such as Ninah Consulting.
She was a finalist in this year's BlackBerry Awards for Women in Technology. Whether this makes her a Modern Muse is yet to be decided, but the company is on track to sell 10,000 units in the UK this year, and is eyeing distribution in the US, Australia and South Africa for next year.
And unlike Kevin Warwick's subcutaneous NFC chip, this device actually works. ®