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FCC fines Swarm Technologies $900K over unauthorized satellite launch – TechCrunch

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Back in March came the surprising news that a satellite communications company still more or less in stealth mode had launched several tiny craft into orbit — against the explicit instructions of the FCC. The company, Swarm Technologies, now faces a $900,000 penalty from the agency, as well as extra oversight of its continuing operations.

Swarm’s SpaceBEEs are the beginning of a planned constellation of small satellites with which the company intends to provide low-cost global connectivity.

Unfortunately, the units are so small — about a quarter the size of a standard cubesat, which is already quite tiny — that the FCC felt they would be too difficult to track, and did not approve the launch.

SpaceBEEs are small, as you can see. Credit: Swarm Technologies

Swarm, perhaps thinking it better to ask forgiveness than file the paperwork for permission, launched anyway in January aboard India’s PSLV-C40, which carried more than a dozen other passengers to space as well. (I asked Swarm and the launch provider, Spaceflight, at the time for comment but never heard back.)

The FCC obviously didn’t like this, and began an investigation shortly afterwards. According to an FCC press release:

The investigation found that Swarm had launched the four BEEs using an unaffiliated launch company in India and had unlawfully transmitted signals between earth stations in Georgia and the satellites for over a week. In addition, during the course of its investigation, the FCC discovered that Swarm had also performed unauthorized weather balloon-to-ground station tests and other unauthorized equipment tests prior to the small satellites launch. All these activities require FCC authorization and the company had not received such authorization before the activities occurred.

Not good! As penance, Swarm Technologies will have to pay the aforementioned $900,000, and now has to submit pre-launch reports to the FCC within five days of signing an agreement to launch, and at least 45 days before takeoff.

The company hasn’t been sitting on its hands this whole time. The unauthorized launch was a mistake to be sure, but it has continued its pursuit of a global constellation and launched three more SpaceBEEs into orbit just a few weeks ago aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9.

Swarm has worked to put the concerns about tracking to bed; in fact, the company claims its devices are more trackable than ordinary cubesats, with a larger radar cross section and extra reflectivity thanks to a Van Atta array (ask them). SpaceBEE-1 is about to pass over Italy as I write this — you can check its location live here.

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Facebook’s next hardware product will be “smart” Ray-Ban glasses

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Enlarge / Don’t get too excited about how well these Ray-Bans go with Gitta Banko’s outfit—we don’t know what Facebook’s new smart glasses will look like, only that they’re made in partnership with the brand and its parent company.

In an earnings conference call on Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told investors that the company’s next hardware launch will be “smart glasses” made in partnership with classic sunglasses vendor Ray-Ban.

Zuckerberg segued into the Ray-Ban announcement following a lengthy discussion of Facebook’s plans for Oculus Quest, its all-in-one virtual reality (VR) platform. Zuckerberg says that social media is the real “killer app” for VR, backing that up with data from Oculus Quest: “The most popular apps on Quest are social, which fits our original thesis [that] virtual reality will be a social platform.”

Zuckerberg intends the as yet unnamed smart glasses to be a stepping stone, not an end goal. He remained cagey about their actual purpose, saying only that the glasses “have their iconic form factor, and [let] you do some pretty neat things,” with no concrete details about what those “neat things” might be.

We do know that the glasses aren’t expected to have integrated display, thanks to reporting from The Verge on their initial announcement in September 2020. Without display capabilities, the Ray-Ban/Facebook glasses seem likely to fall in the same category as Amazon’s Echo Frames or Lucyd Lyte—a mostly normal-looking pair of sunglasses with integrated Bluetooth pairing and directional speakers that we reviewed in March.

Zuckerberg describes the smart glasses as a stepping stone toward not only virtual or augmented reality as we know it, but something he calls the metaverse. “So what is the metaverse? It’s a virtual environment [like] an embodied Internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at. And we believe that this is going to be the successor to the mobile Internet.”

After warning that building his vision will require significant investment not only from Facebook itself but from its entire ecosystem of partners, he doubled down on its eventual importance, saying, “In addition to being the next chapter of the Internet, the metaverse is also going to be the next chapter for us as a company.”

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Facebook set a new ad revenue record, despite Apple’s iOS privacy change

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Faebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

For months, Apple and Facebook waged a PR war (with threats of a legal one) over App Tracking Transparency, a change in recent versions of the iPhone’s iOS software that will often limit how advertising-focused apps and companies can monetize iPhone users.

Facebook’s original public predictions about App Tracking Transparency’s effect were apocalyptic. But even though App Tracking Transparency took effect during Facebook’s most recent quarter (Q2 of 2021) the company still posted huge ad revenue growth.

Facebook’s revenue, which is largely driven by the kinds of advertising that Apple’s iOS change undermines, grew 56 percent year-over-year in Q2, beating investor expectations. The company had 1.9 billion daily active users and 2.9 billion monthly active users. It earned $10.12 of revenue per user, on average.

This was the first earnings report Facebook has delivered on a quarter that should show any effects of App Tracking Transparency on the company’s bottom line. Fifty-six percent YOY growth certainly doesn’t look apocalyptic, but CFO David Wehner told investors to expect a less rosy story in the next quarter:

We continue to expect increased ad targeting headwinds in 2021 from regulatory and platform changes, notably the recent iOS updates, which we expect to have a greater impact in the third quarter compared to the second quarter.

Data on user opt-in rates for tracking has varied quite a bit. Some firms put the figure at just 4 percent, but others place opt-in rates as high as around 30 percent. And it likely depends on the app in question. In any case, users who opt in are definitely not the majority; most users are declining to be tracked when prompted. And each user who does is worth a lot less money to Facebook, which makes much of its money leveraging each user’s data to charge advertisers money to microtarget them and other users with similar attributes.

While Facebook’s initial messaging around App Tracking Transparency was combative and dire, Zuckerberg began changing his tune recently. He began to argue that the change could even be good for Facebook in some ways.

As for today, Zuckerberg is dedicating much of his time to describing his vision for the “metaverse,” which he has identified as the new direction for the company. He has described this vision as a mixed reality layer on our lives whereby people can interact with and socialize with one another virtually in new ways, crossing geographic barriers as if they were simply walking from room to room.

But Apple executives have also outlined a somewhat similar longterm vision, albeit with a very different approach in mind. By forcing Facebook to play by different ad-targeting rules, Apple has strengthened its position against the social media company in any coming battle over a future mixed reality computing landscape.

But at least for this quarter, Facebook doesn’t look like it is suffering too badly from the wound.

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Google Play gets mandatory app privacy labels in April 2022

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In iOS 14, Apple added a “privacy” section to the app store, requiring app developers to list the data they collect and how they use it. Google—which was one of the biggest targets of Apple’s privacy nutrition labels and delayed app updates for months to avoid complying with the policy—is now aping the feature for Google Play.

Google posted a demo of what the Google Play “Data privacy & security” section will look like, and it contains everything you’d expect if you’ve looked at the App Store lately. There’s information on what data apps collect, whether or not the apps share the data with third parties, and how the data is stored. Developers can also explain what the data is used for and if data collection is required to use the app. The section also lists whether or not the collected data is encrypted, if the user can delete the data, and if the app follows Google’s “Families” policy (meaning all the usual COPPA stuff).

Google Play’s privacy section will be mandatory for all developers in April 2022, and starting in October, Google says developers can start populating information in the Google Play Console “for review.” Google also says that in April, all apps will need to supply a privacy policy, even if they don’t collect any data. Apps that don’t have an “approved” privacy section by April may have their app updates rejected or their app removed.

Google says, “Developers are responsible for providing accurate and complete information in their safety section.”

All of this information is basically just running on the honor system, and on iOS, developers have already been caught faking their privacy labels.

Listing image by Google Play

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