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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Unruly schoolbus gets Wi-Fi, calms down

Clearly, what goes around comes around. I used to do homework on the schoolbus (we won't go into how long ago), and now – since so much homework involves the Internet, apparently – students can now do homework on schoolbuses. IF they're Wi-Fi-enabled, of course. And the Internet's presence, interestingly, on the bus seems to be having a calming effect – see "Wi-Fi Turns Rowdy Bus Into Rolling Study Hall" in the New York Times. "Behavioral problems [offline ones, anyway] have virtually disappeared," it adds, since a school in Vail, Ariz., "mounted a mobile Internet router to bus No. 92's sheet-metal frame." Now they're going to have to train bus drivers in digital citizenship instruction too!

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Foursquare & other geolocation apps: For young adults, not kids

More and more, I'm seeing tweets about people becoming mayors of coffee shops in my Twitter stream. They're playing Foursquare on their phones, which pushes their "checkins" or location disclosures out to their Twitter followers. Foursquare is part cellphone social-mapping game, part Yelp (another way to find food, drink, or friends using your phone's geolocation technology). "A large number of foursquare users send their checkins to Twitter and/or Facebook, and therefore make their location available to an audience much larger than just their foursquare friends," says Foursquare. It's not for everybody. Someone over at eModeration in the UK (a company that helps keep kids safe in virtual worlds) thinks it's kind of dumb. It's really not for children. But there's a safer way to play it, if they insist. If yours do, ask them not to use their real photo; you don't want them identified by their photo in shops or restaurants where they "check in." They can just post a face shot of their avatar or dog or favorite cartoon character in their profile. One of the appeals for kids (young and old) is that, like kids' virtual worlds that sell real-world plush toys, Foursquare has real-world objects that serve as awards or "nerd merit badges" representing "the virtual achievements you get for checking in to places using Foursquare," Mashable reports. In other words, you get points for showing up at your favorite Starbucks, points which can add up to becoming its "mayor."

This morning I testified at a US House of Representatives joint-subcommittee hearing on "The Collection and Use of Location Information for Commercial Purposes" – the privacy and safety implications of just this sort of technology. There definitely seemed to be a consensus in the hearing room that consumer privacy law needs to be updated and that, to be effective over the long term, the updating shouldn't focus on any single technology. I completely agree with that because the people who used to have control over how cellphone users' location information is used – the mobile carriers – no longer always do. More and more, control is spread out across the spectrum: carrier, operating system provider (e.g., Apple, Google, Microsoft), app developer, and consumer (because, with apps like Foursquare, we're disclosing our own location). It's all becoming a mashup - which is why parents need to know that all these apps on iPhones and iPod Touches allow kids to share their location.

So – if your child's phone is on a family plan behind your password with, say, AT&T or Verizon Wireless, and if you don't use the parental control that blocks app downloads (something to consider if they're not telling you what they download) – it's a good idea periodically to check what apps your kids have on their phones and ask them what these apps do. If they share your child's location with anyone besides you, you'll want to have a conversation about who's on their contact list. Make sure it's only friends they know in "real life." Certainly all this goes, too, for iPod Touches, which are not on family cellphone plans. As for Google Buzz, which is both phone- and computer-based, see my post on that; parents will want to help their kids see the value of making their conversations "private," or just among friends, which points to a negotiation: All participants in the conversation need to agree that it's just for them and adjust privacy features accordingly.

[BTW, Foursquare isn't the only location-based cellphone app. Others are Brightkite and Whrrl (see this blog post); Gowalla, which isn't a social game (see this blog post); and the cellphone service loopt, which is becoming more app-like (see]

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Did school spy on student? FBI investigating

A Philadelphia-area family has filed a lawsuit against their child's school district for spying on students using Webcams on a school-supplied laptops inside students' homes, and the FBI is investigating, the Washington Post reports. "The FBI will explore whether Lower Merion School District officials broke any federal wiretap or computer-intrusion laws." The district supplies laptops to all 2,300 students at its two high schools, the Post added. At CNET, ConnectSafely's Larry Magid blogged that the remote Webcam monitoring (which the district said is now disabled) was a security measure activated only by the district's security and technology department when a laptop had been reported missing or stolen. "The tracking-security feature was limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator's screen," Magid reported. The Post article says the district has acknowledged that Webcams had been activated "42 times in the past 14 months," and the activations had helped the school find 18 of the 42 missing computers. But the issue that led to the lawsuit so far doesn't seem to be theft-related. "According to the suit, Harriton vice principal Lindy Matsko told Blake on Nov. 11 that the school [one of the district's two high schools] thought he was 'engaged in improper behavior in his home.' She allegedly cited as evidence a photograph 'embedded' in his school-issued laptop," according to the Post. This is pretty chilling behavior on the part of school officials. "The case shows how even well-intentioned plans can go awry if officials fail to understand the technology and its potential consequences," the Post cites privacy experts as saying. Compromising images from inside a student's bedroom could fall into the hands of rogue school staff or otherwise be spread across the Internet, they said." For anyone worried about being watched remotely through their Webcam, here's some clarity in another piece by Larry Magid at CNET.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Google Buzz & kids' privacy

Because Buzz is brand-new and a hybrid of Gmail, micro-blogging, cellphone social mapping, and social networking, we're all at the early stages of figuring out its implications for kids – a lot of whom use Gmail. Yesterday Charlene Li, a mom and well-known social-media-industry analyst, blogged that she had discovered her 9-year-old daughter was using and really enjoying Buzz. Using it from her computer (people can also use Buzz on Apple iPhones and Google Android phones), the child had had one conversation on it with her friends. The problem was that the kids didn't know their conversation was public. Li wrote that "the easiest thing to do as a parent is to simply disable Buzz, meaning that the Google profile and all followers are deleted – permanently" (go to the bottom of your child's Gmail page and click "turn off Buzz," which will take you to where you can disable it). But because Li's daughter enjoyed Buzz so much, she seems open to "managing groups, privacy settings, etc." so her child can continue using the service. "We’ll give it a try," she writes, "but unless her friends also keep the conversation private, it will all be for naught." Ensuring that with all the other kids and their parents could be quite a project. Privacy is now a collective effort – by users too, not just providers (see "Collaborative reputation protection").

Last summer Google agreed, in response to a complaint by one of the FTC's "safe harbors" (organizations that help it enforce the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA), to require a birth date at registration to Gmail and, if a user indicates he or she is under 13, a session cookie to block the user from re-registering with an earlier birthdate. That's a start, but what this issue points to is the impact on children's privacy of combining social-media products within companies and connecting them across networks such as Facebook Connect. Perhaps the FTC's forthcoming review of COPPA rules and enforcement will address this emerging issue. But we feel the brilliant software engineers and project managers who develop these products need to wear their parent hats more, companies need to be thinking through children's privacy from the earliest developmental stages, and industry best practices need special sections or clauses addressing child privacy and safety. [See also "Google Buzz isn't exactly humming along" in the Wall Street Journal; "Does Google Buzz violate COPPA?" by Marquette University law Prof. Bruce Boyden (the jury's still out, he indicates); and my post at Buzz's launch, "Major buzz about Buzz, but not about its safety."]

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Haiti: Texting, social Web connecting survivors with help

Struggling earthquake survivors in Haiti can now text for help. "Countless volunteers" receiving the messages, the US State Department, the Pentagon, aid organizations, and Haiti's leading cellphone carrier make up an emergency contact network for Haitians seeking aid, the New York Times reports. The story leads with the experience of Coast Guard volunteer and Chicago tech firm owner Ryan Bank, who told the Times he's received more than 18,000 messages. Some volunteers monitor Facebook and Twitter postings for information indicating where supplies are needed. Messages through the network have "helped identify a tent city that the American military and relief workers were previously unaware of." To get the word out, the mobile carrier in Haiti sent "the distress code number – 4636 – to every cellphone on the Haitian network. Word of the program also went out on local Haitian radio stations." Text messaging was still possible even with damage done from fallen cell towers.

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