Friday Five: Giant 4G balloons take off over Kenya

Zone’s Ross Basham handpicks and shares the five best new stories on digital trends, experiences and technologies…

1. Giant 4G balloons bring web to remote Kenya

A network of giant internet-enabled balloons from Google’s sister company Loon is to provide internet access to remote areas of Kenya. It will provide 4G coverage so people can use the web and make voice and video calls. The project has been fast-tracked to improve communications during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Loon began as one of Google’s ‘moonshot projects’ in 2011 and teamed up with Telkom Kenya in 2018. The balloons are launched in the US and make their way to Kenya using wind currents. Initially the service will cover 19,000 sq miles, and eventually there will be 35 solar-powered balloons in constant motion above Kenya.

2. US government threatens to ban TikTok

Worrying news for US teens — secretary of state Mike Pompeo has said the US government is “looking at” banning Chinese social media apps such as TikTok. Pompeo told Fox News that viewers should only download the app if they want their “private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”

The US is TikTok’s third biggest market, after China and India (which has also said it will ban Chinese apps). TikTok, which is owned by China-based startup Bytedance, has been increasingly posed as a national security threat in the US, a concern it has tried to mitigate by setting up offices in the US and hiring an American CEO.

3. SpaceX could send NASA to Jupiter moon

A new congressional bill in the US has opened the door for Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket company to launch a NASA mission to the icy Jupiter moon Europa, which hides a subsurface ocean many scientists think could support alien life. The Space X rocket would carry the Europa Clipper (illustrated above) into deep space by 2027.

In the past Congress has tied money for the Europa mission to NASA’s own Space Launch System (SLS). But SLS has been behind schedule and over budget for years, and SpaceX has pulled streets ahead with its successful debut of the Falcon Heavy rocket and the ongoing progress of the bigger Starship.

4. Instagram rolls out pinned comment feature

Following a successful test in May, Instagram is rolling out its its pinned comments feature to everyone. The social media giant said the feature aims to help Instagrammers “better manage the conversations” being had in the comment section of their posts. The tool lets users pin up to three comments to the top of the thread.

The test in May was done alongside a group delete tool, letting users delete multiple negative comments or block multiple accounts at once, and a feature that lets users choose who can tag them in a post. The three features are a part of Instagram’s plan to combat harassment, abuse and misinformation.

5. “Elissa, fetch my electrotelegraphic mixer”

Researchers have identified dozens of words that accidentally trigger Amazon Echo smart speakers, adding to concerns that users’ private conversations could be being recorded without their knowledge. The researchers developed LeakyPick, a platform designed to identify hidden voice audio recordings and transmissions.

Some of the words which ranked 10/10 on LeakyPick for probability of activating Alexa are quite surprising: ‘electrotelegraphic’, ‘lechner’, ‘mixer’ and ‘walesa’, to name but a few. And if you’ve named your children Alissa or Elissa (or, of course, Alexa), it’s probably best to get yourself a Google Assistant instead.

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