December 25, 2015 9:00 am

From Microsoft’s comeback, to hackers targeting kids: Under-reported tech stories of 2015

Meet HoloLens: An augmented reality headset that allows wearers to interact with and see 3D digital holograms in their own environment.

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Technology took centre stage in 2015 as massive hacking scandals, viral hashtags and consumer products dominated headlines. But not every tech story received the coverage it deserved.

Take a little tech company known as Microsoft, for example. Sure, the tech giant garnered international attention when it launched its new flagship operating system, Windows 10, and a slew of other consumer products. Less talked about was the fact that Microsoft got its mojo back.

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More alarmingly, a data breach affecting more than 6 million children failed to attract the type of attention the Ashley Madison hack garnered.

Here is a look at some of most under-reported tech stories of 2015:

Over 300k Canadian kids were left vulnerable after a toy company was hacked

Less than a month ago, news of a massive data breach against electronic toy and education company VTech broke. More than 10 million customer accounts – including 6.3 million children’s user profiles – were affected.

The accounts of over 316,000 Canadian kids were compromised as a result of the hack.

The breach affected the company’s Learning Lodge app, which allows customers to download apps, games and educational content to VTech products. The database contained parents’ personal information, as well as kids’ profile information, including names, genders and dates of birth.

It’s also alleged hackers were able to obtain children’s profile pictures, as well as chat logs between kids and parents.

Simply put – enough information was leaked that affected children are now at risk of identity theft.

News of the VTech breach was covered by major publications, including Global News, The Associated Press, Mashable, CBC and many more, the topic quickly fell out of the news cycle. However, coverage of the hack paled in comparison to that of the Ashley Madison hacking scandal.

The Ashley Madison hack was arguably one of the biggest stories of the year – over 30 million account log-in and personal details were leaked as a result, making it the second worst data breach in the history of the Internet, according to “Have I been Pwned,” a website dedicated to detailing the Internet’s worst data breaches.

The VTech data breach now ranks fourth on that list.

More troubling is the amount of children affected by the incident.

READ MORE: Kids’ data is valuable too – children at risk of identity theft following VTech hack

Some suggested that the VTech hack was brushed off due to the idea that children’s data isn’t as vulnerable as adults. But many security experts have dispelled that theory, noting children’s data has just as much monetary value as adults.

“Look, we’re all bad at valuing our data. Saying kids’ data is worthless, won’t get hacked isn’t OK. Their identities have worth,” tweeted security expert Jessy Irwin.

“When it comes to our identities being leaked all over the place, it’s just another day on the web. Unless it’s our children’s identities, that’s a whole new level,” wrote another expert Troy Hunt.

VTech is currently being investigated by attorney generals in both Connecticut and Illinois and Hong Kong’s privacy commissioner Stephen Wong is undergoing a “compliance check” to see if VTech, based in Hong Kong, had followed data privacy rules.

Last week, British authorities arrested a 21-year-old man in connection with the hack.

How tech played an important role in the refugee crisis

The Syrian refugee crisis was undoubtedly one of the most important stories of 2015; one that bled into some of the most important Canadian news stories, including the federal election. But tech actually played a key role in the development of European refugee crisis.

“Without Google Maps we would be lost,” a Syrian refugee told the BBC in September. “Without digital technology we can’t reach there. It’s very hard – and it’s dangerous and risky.”

So-called “digital refugees” used a variety of free messaging tools – including Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Viber – to share directions and information about road blocks when travelling through European borders. Facebook was also used as a place to share information about “safe” people smugglers and accommodation, as well as tips on how to avoid the police, according to the Irish Times.

READ MORE: How refugees are using Google Maps, social media to cross borders

“They make contact and share information on Facebook and other social media. In each country they get contact numbers for people who – for a price – can help them continue their journey,” Zsuzsanna Zsohar, a volunteer working with refugees and migrants in Hungary, told the Irish Times.

The ongoing crisis even inspired a series of hackathon’s – dubbed “Techfugees” – which aimed to come up with solutions to help refugees. Some of the ideas that came out of the hackathon included an app to help refugees locate and reunite with their family and a tool to report war crimes.

One of the idea’s born out of the non-for-profit hackathon included Geecycle – a platform that allows users to recycle their old smartphone to refugees in need of the technology. Users are able to go to the Geecycle website and print out a postage label to send their old devices to the company.

The organization is currently working with a UK based social business called Impossible to process the phones, before handing them out to refugees on the Greek island of Samos.

Microsoft got its mojo back

2015 was a milestone year for Microsoft. Not only did the company launch the last major release of its flagship operating system, Windows 10, it made strides with many of its consumer products and impressed the industry with its virtual reality venture Hololens.

All of these achievements certainly made headlines, but there was an underlying trend that few failed to point out – Microsoft was suddenly relevant again.

“Microsoft definitely pulled off a comeback [this year]. They showed that they could innovate and they weren’t locked into any sort of dogma,” Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, told Global News.

“People are looking at them as relevant – that they got their mojo back.”

So what did Microsoft do right? First of all they didn’t follow the pack.

Take for example the company’s newest innovation – HoloLens, an augmented reality headset that allows users to interact with and see 3D digital holograms in their own environment. The headset took a very different take on virtual reality, one of the biggest tech trends in 2015, offering a much more lifelike experience for users. This garnered a lot of curiosity from the tech community.

READ MORE: Microsoft’s HoloLens headset is getting lots of buzz, but will it take off?

“There have been a number of failings in the wearable tech area – one of those being Google. But their strategy was not just a copycat. It was very different from the competition,” Moorhead added.

The launch of Windows 10 also marked the first unified operating system for consumers. This means its entire platform lineup – from wearable tech, to desktop computers, the Xbox and smartphones –all runs on the same operating system; something Moorhead believes will play to the company’s advantage in the coming years.

But the company also showed it has the backbone to stand-up to competitors that have eclipsed it over the years.

In October, Microsoft opened its flagship retail store on Fifth Ave. in New York – just down the street from Apple’s flagship store.

And, playing on the whole “Mac vs. PC” debate, the company even sent its retail employees to sing “Peace on Earth” outside of the Apple store for one of its holiday commercials.

So what will keep Microsoft’s momentum going in the New Year? More innovation in the Internet of Things, according to Moorhead.

“I think it’s important for Microsoft to share their hand in the Internet of Things. For instance, in the home it’s about home automation. What is their play? We haven’t really seen that yet, but I think that could push them forward,” he said.

© 2015 Shaw Media

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