Apps, Trackers & Quantum Technologies
Published in News Scientist Magazine
In this article I'm looking at personal devices for tracking, such as mobile hand-held or wearable trackers and mobile phones with their various currently available safety apps.
I'm also going to look at what tracking technologies are currently being used, how they work, their limitations and what the future has to offer.
It's important to understand how things work, only then can you take an informed view on "are they going to work for you" so this article lays out the facts so you can responsibly use technology for safety in an informed and understanding way.
Your Mobile Phone’s Technologies
If you’re using a current generation I-phone or Android your smart phone uses a combination of GSM and GPS which can both be used for finding your phone, and hence, finding you. Here’s how it works:
GSM = Global System for Mobile communications
This is a network based technology.
It is a digital mobile telephone system and represents over 80% of the world’s digital telephone usage.
It works by using TDMA technology
TDMA = Time Division Multiple Access
Each cell phone uses a small proportion of the base station it is nearest to, to get it’s signal out. TDMA allows this to happen for multiple cells by dividing operations into time slots. Your phone will connect and function through the base station it is nearest to, if you are on the move you will map to the next base station to which the signal is strongest and as you move away from the previous one your signal is released and that space and time is freed up for another cell to use.
In terms of using GSM to locate a device, tracking via GSM is done by the triangulation of the nearest 3 base stations with the strongest signal.
In urban environments where there are multiple bases available, a location can be pinpointed, providing the networks are not jammed from overuse or suffering problems. In rural environments where the bases may be few and far between, it is harder to close in on an exact location.
For times when triangulation of nearby bases isn’t available to us, we can also use our phone’s GPS technology. This is how google maps works, integrating both.
GPS = Global Positioning System
This is a space satellite based technology
GPS works by radio signals which the satellites broadcast being received by your device / phone.
Wherever you are on the planet at least 4 satellites are, in theory, visible at any time. I say in theory because this doesn’t work underwater, underground or in heavily built up areas. However, the idea is that each satellite transmits information and its position and time at regular intervals. That information travels at the speed of light and can be picked up by your GPS receiver. The receiver then calculates how far the satellite is from you, and be doing this with a minimum or 3 satellites, it can triangulate the location of your device via readings in latitude, longitude and altitude.
The problems with GPS occur when we are in heavily built up areas, underwater or underground. When inside buildings with no ability to receive signals directly, your phone can switch to wifi and work through the nearest router. For underwater and underground we need a different technology. Keep reading.
You can see from understanding how each of these technologies work where their limitations may lie when you come to use your phone for personal tracking, which is the fundamental point of most of the latest safety apps the tech community are producing.
It’s worth during one week, whilst you are moving around your normal weekly day to day routine of homelife, work and local travel, to pay attention to times when each of these technologies (GSM and GPS) may not be working on your device.
I had two incidents last week whilst carrying out this exercise, where one or both of my technologies didn’t work for me. Beyond the obvious ones of traveling on tube networks etc, I was in the City at lunchtime near Liverpool Street during a time of the day when all the workers spill out onto the streets for lunchbreak and mobile phone usage and I couldn’t get onto a signal to make a phonecall for approximately 4 minutes. I have a latest generation 4G i06.
I had another scenario a day earlier in a cab during rush-hour in another part of London during which I couldn’t acquire satellite information to obtain functionality on google maps for 12 minutes during the journey.
From a defence and safety point that’s an absolute disaster and renders the device useless for my intended purposes for it. 12 minutes of no coverage if I need GPS in a high risk scenario equates to needing GPS during the scenario to be counted out as an option. I would have to strategise the situation without it.
If that’s the case, then how reliable are the latest generation of tech safety apps flooding the app market and should we be taking them seriously?
Tech Safety Apps
In defence, safety and security, we tend to do what we can to reduce the factors over which we have no control. That is the starting point. When you start to rely upon third party software which needs uploaded to your mobile phone and pre-programmed, before we even switch them on we are already dealing with factors over which we have no control, or limited control and quite a few of them at that:
GSM network availability
GPS receiver capability
Personal ability to utilise the app
Efficient and effective pre-programming of app – has it been done properly?
Personal ability to function the phone with fine motor movements during times of physiological distress due to fear or high levels of stress
This is the bottom line for the tech community when it comes to safety apps. Regardless of how good the idea is, and there are some good ones out there, from a defence and safety point of view we need to be careful and critical and push the thinking and developing further.
Multi Faceted Approach
When attending to matters of vanity and wellness the public are happy to take a multi faceted approach of going to the gym, eating well, applying effort and self discipline, focusing on what is good for you, abstaining from or being careful about what is not good for you.
It is always perplexing therefore that this approach is not common in regards to personal safety, which is infact the root point of wellbeing. Everyone is looking for a quick fix, someone else to save them or for a magic button to digitally magic the problem away.
There is no magic button. There are however technological opportunities to assist us with defence and safety as part of multi faceted approach, which as in fitness and wellbeing, also involves training, effort, awareness and self discipline. As you read through the rest of this article, start to consider any safety app or device being a part of a more mutli faceted holistic approach instead of the stand-alone solution.
Technology as Clothing
As a basic principle in defence we need to see technology, our devices we carry, as clothing, they can come off. By that I mean they can be either redundant to us or lost or taken from us. If that is the case we cannot solely rely on them for safety solutions.
If we accept this and amply equip ourselves with training to avoid issues and undertake learning on what to do when we have only ourselves to rely upon then we can incorporate technology into our personal equipping in a sensible and reaonsable manner.
Assuming we’re doing this right, then what are the best tech solutions on the market today?
Current Safety Apps
There is a multitude of safety apps sweeping the tech market. Here’s a list of the most popular and in a nutshell what they can do:
Circle of 6
Red Panic Button
Watch Over Me
Women Safety Secured
Follows you home via GPS, your contacts can see you on route.
Multi functional: sends emergency alerts, easy 911 call out, campus police call, sounds an alarm and sends photos
Let’s people follow you in real-time. Press the Shield button to send an SOS alert via text, email or Facebook
Follows you home via GPS. If you press the alarm your contacts get an exact location. Also records audio and video.
Circle of 6
Connects to 6 of your friends but doesn’t connect to police nor gives a map location
Red Panic Button
Press the panic button and it sends a google map location to your emergency contacts
Time period GPS tracking. Will send emergency text to your contacts if you don’t respond by set time period.
Watch Over Me
Similar to stay safe but only works for a 5 minute time frame!
Doesn’t use GPS but does alert your contacts if you don’t clock in on arrival. Works on inaction rather than action.
Zonal mapping of risk areas = best feature. Also sends alerts to your network.
Sends out locations to your contacts every 2 minutes, this is good.
Women Safety Secured
Preactivate the app. Good for domestic violence. The phone doesn’t need to be near you – it gets activate when it hears a loud screaming. Once triggered it sends messages to your contacts.
Single press sends loud buzzer and messages to your contacts with your exact location.
What to Look for in an App
GEOGRAPHIC LOCATION WITH REGULAR UPDATES:
The best safety apps are obviously the ones which send your exact location to your emergency contacts. Just bear in mind you need to make sure those contacts understand what would be required of them should they receive such an alert, and, do they keep their phones switched on and near them at times you may need them to respond to these alerts?
SINGLE TOUCH FUNCTIONALITY OR INACTION FUNCTIONALITY:
A good few of these apps involve quite complex usability during a risk scenario. It’s completely unrealistic to expect anyone untrained to be able to use their fingers for making phone calls or doing anything other than a single tap on the screen during periods of distress.
The physiological responses which take place during fear or high stress situations are such that as the heart rate increases, cognitive processing drops, adrenalin and cortisone are pumped into the system, the body starts to gasp for oxygen and fine motor movements, such as finger and hand dexterity starts to underfunction. If anyone has experienced this "flappy hands" syndrome as we often refer to it, they will know what I am talking about.
It’s because of this, proper self defence training incorporates age-old combat breathing techniques to counter these responses in the human system and why most useful reality and military self defence training systems rely on the use of gross motor movements, driven by hip and shoulder movement mechanisms instead of small digit tactics for the relatively untrained.
What to Be Aware of when using a Safety App
Time is of the essence in defence, security and safety and hanging around for someone else to reach you with a solution is normally not a luxury you can afford.
Location apps and trackers are good ideas, but be aware that in the industry we recommend them to clients as a last resort for using when all else has gone wrong. By the time someone tracks you, finds you and gets to you, your life will have likely been significantly alterred. The whole point of there being a safety and defence industry is to prevent people's lives from being altered and the tech industry need to understand that too.
PREVENTION, DISENGAGEMENT, REMOVAL:
In defence and security we always start with prevention, then disengagement, then removal.
The use of safety apps is not a prevention tactic, nor is it a disengagement strategy, these technologies are designed to help other people fish you out of an already bad situation at the removal stage; that’s the part you train not to get into.
Our advice is: don’t get into the bad situation in the first place. If you want to know how to ensure that, then you need to apply yourself as well as applying your technology.
As set out at the beginning of this article there are many factors when using a digital device for safety which can go wrong or cannot be controlled and these need to be taken into consideration by both users and developers.
Another key factor worth considering is the carrying of your smart-phone is in itself a safety risk.
For street safety and prevention of wealth-attack in which people are approached or targeted for their mobile phones, which is in fact one of the highest % of street crimes in the UK, we advise not to walk down the street carrying or utlising your mobile phone. Most people's phones are circa £600, considered a desirable device, which conveniently glows in the dark.
If you are using your phone in an area where you already do not feel safe, there is a good chance you won’t be in possession of it for very long. Whatever you do, don't let the utilising of apps get you into more risk than you otherwise would be. This is where a one-hit contact to your phone, which could be in your pocket, or an inaction functionality would be best.
Trackers Vs Apps
For purposes of geographic locating we advise clients to purchase trackers.
Trackers give various benefits over mobile phone usage such as:
they are more discrete for carrying
they have longer battery life
they can be concealed in clothing
they can be tracked live at 5 second intervals in over 20 countries
can come in fully water tight and completely robust housing
they have a very good GSM antenna, giving them a better chance of getting a signal where the network is not strong
they are light and easy to carry
they don’t light up when in use like a smartphone does
Our current favourite is the Covert Asset Tracker.
The Covert Asset Tracker
The CAT is the world’s smallest GPS real-time tracker. The size of a matchbox it is lightweight, can be easily carried in your clothing and has an SOS button to press to alert 4 of your contacts. You can also be continually monitored via a web-based interface panel by your contacts.
If GPS is left dormant for too long it can be slow to give a 1st position signal, so for that reason this device will regularly get a fresh location for you, even when you are inactive.
The SOS button sends an exact address of where you are and updates your location every 5 seconds.
Added benefits of the CAT are:
Concealable in clothing: current models are offered hidden within leather trouser belts. At a meeting at Spymaster last week we discussed sewing them into bras for women.
They can be dropped, thrown, withstand impact: they are so strong a 40 ton lorry can drive over it
Completely submersible in water
It doesn’t need your mobile phone to be near you
The Silent Beacon Tracker
The Silent Beacon is a tracker developed from technology initially used for finding hardware.
It is a wearable tracker but it needs your smart phone to function through as router so we don’t recommend this version of tracker to our clients as it works much the same way apps do. We think if this tracker could be better developed to ditch its reliability on bluetooth it would be more successful as a unit.
The Future of Tracking
As we’ve seen in this article there is a swathe of responses from the tech market on how to find someone who’s gone missing. We’ve also looked at the pro’s and con’s of app technology, tracker technology and the GSM and GPS systems.
No one solution ticks all boxes. Those boxes for us would be:
Discrete wearable device
Contacts your contacts with exact location every 5 seconds
Does not rely on GPS or GSM systems to locate
We currently recommend the CAT but it too relies on GSM and GPS. However, it works better on both those systems than a smart phone does, but what if we are looking for a solution which doesn’t rely on satellites or base masts? Then, we believe, the answer will be in Quantum TNS = Quantum Time Navigation & Sensing technologies.
The British Military has been looking at quantum technologies to develop systems to navigate without using satellites. Why?
Well, satellites require to be launched into space, they are being used at close to capacity and they are vulnerable to attack. GPS also cannot locate underwater, underground or within highly built up urban environments, so there is a need to find a technology that can.
The quantum compass mimics the use of GPS without sending anything into space and it has capacities beyond the scope of GPS.
UK Scientists at the National Physics Laboratory state that a quantum compass may be in use by as early as 2019.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
It works by using lasers to cool down atoms within a vacuum to their lowest energy values. At this point the atoms become the coldest known bodies in the universe.
These super-cool atoms are slow moving and highly sensitive, so much so they are capable of detecting subatomic fluctuations in the earth’s electro magnetic field and gravitational pulls.
The idea of the quantum compass is to trap these super-cool atoms onto a small device like a chip or trip, which would sit within a tracker. Their movements, because of the atoms’ sensitivity to the forces of their environment, can be tracked from great distances and their locations pinpointed with exact precision.
The quantum compass would also be able to locate targets or assets under water and within environments GPS currently can’t reach and GSM is vulnerable in. This is one of the reasons the military are developing it to track submarines.
With a mix of super-cool atoms, carefully designed tracking housing and accurate electromagnetic and gravitational mapping, the quantum compass could be the tracker of the future which ticks all of our boxes.