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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Worried About Cell Phone Radiation? There's an App for That.

Posted By on Wed, Sep 29, 2010 at 1:50 PM

click to enlarge WARNING! CODE RED!
This June, San Francisco became the first city in the United States to require retailers to post information about how much radiation cell phones emit. Now, an Israeli company is capitalizing on the as-yet-unjustified anxiety surrounding cell phone radiation and allowing phone users to monitor their radiation exposure at every moment of every day -- via a mobile phone app.

The research on the dangers of cell phone radiation is still inconclusive. But tawkon employs an algorithm to

take data from smart phones -- including the signal strength and where the

phone is on a user's body -- and alerts users whenever the radiation

reaches the "red level." This is actually an arbitrary cutoff, but if someone is talking on the phone,

it will prompt them to put on headphones.

Graphing radiation exposure on a  BlackBerry
  • Graphing radiation exposure on a BlackBerry

Tawkon does these things in part by using technology built into smart phones for completely different purposes, CEO Gil Friedlander said. For instance, smart phones can sense when a phone is held up to a user's head (so that your ear doesn't wreck havoc on the touchscreen), and tawkon feeds this positioning information into its radiation algorithm.

The point isn't to scare people away from cell phones, as a tawkon video gushes: "It's not about giving up the things we love, it's about knowledge." In an interview with SF Weekly,  Friedlander compared using a cell phone to driving. Despite car accidents,

"Most of us are not riding a donkey to our office. We're riding our

cars and putting our seat belts on."

The tawkon app produces snazzy

graphs that let users to track their exposure to radiation over the

course of a phone call, a day, or a week.  An icon on the phone screen

constantly updates the current level of radiation, from "green" to

"yellow" to "red." Friedlander said that user feedback has

indicated that this is an "addictive" feature, with people constantly

checking their level of radiation exposure before each call.


problem with this sophisticated data system is that the designation of

"green" versus "red" levels of radiation has no scientific basis at

all. Friedlander said the company consulted

with researchers, but since there's no clear evidence about how

much radiation is too much, they had to wing it.

They divided the

spectrum of radiation into three equal parts, and called the lowest

third "green" and the highest third "red." Users can adjust the

radiation threshold levels to send them warning signals at whatever

level they choose -- after all, their guess is as good as tawkon's. Is

"green" actually unsafe? Is "red" totally safe? Nobody knows.

click to enlarge Code Red on the Android
  • Code Red on the Android

of thousands" of people are using the tawkon's BlackBerry app,

Friedlander said, and the beta version of their free Android app

launched at TechCrunch Disrupt this week. The company is looking for

more investors, in hopes of scaling up its product as quickly as

possible. The Blackberry app costs $9.99, and the free Android app is ad-supported. 

Of course, Friedlander noted, it's still possible that

research will reveal that cell phone radiation is totally benign. But

he said there's nothing wrong with marketing tawkon in the meantime.

After all, health authorities in many countries recommend caution in

dealing with cell phone radiation, especially with children. For those

who are anxious -- perhaps even too anxious to own a cellphone -- tawkon is

building a publicly available map of worldwide cell phone radiation

levels, based on anonymous data from their individual Android users.


has barred tawkon from its app store, initially telling the company

that the app "would create confusion

with users." Friedlander interpreted this as meaning that Apple was

worried that customers would freak out about the hazards of their iPhone. He said "thousands" of iPhone users had emailed tawkon

about geting the app for their phones. Since the initial rebuff, tawkon

has had friendly interactions with Apple reps, but the app still isn't

in the store. (Apple has yet to respond to a request for comment.)

Meanwhile, Friedlander said, the BlackBerry version of tawkon is proving surprisingly

popular in the developing world, even though he had assumed countries

like China and India would have "other issues to deal with before

mobile phone radiation."

He's betting that science will eventually justify the need for his product. From his

reading of the available research, he said, "I think there's a smoking gun there


Follow us on Twitter at @loisbeckett,@TheSnitchSF, and @sfweekly

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