School Monitoring and Kids – Spotlight #316

Good Monday morning. It’s November 4th. Tomorrow is Election Day in the U.S. Please vote. Turnout in some cities can be as low as 6% for local elections and doesn’t get much more than the mid-teens no matter how the data is analyzed.

There will be no Spotlight next week as we take off for Veteran’s Day. Thank you to everyone who served and everyone who supported them.  Their service helped guarantee your right to vote so go do it.

Today’s Spotlight takes about 5 minutes to read. Want to chat about something you see here? Here’s our contact form.

1. News To Know Now

1. Twitter banned political and social advocacy ads effective November 22. The final policy is due November 15. Social advocacy ads include any addressing of abortion, civil rights, climate change, guns, healthcare, immigration, national security, social security, taxes, and trade. That’s addressing them on either side, and the chances are excellent that something you adamantly support or oppose is included.

2.  Amazon began offering free grocery delivery within two hours for Prime members. The company missed earnings this quarter after spending more on logistics than Wall Street anticipated. Despite that, Amazon Prime annual subscription revenue exceeds ten billion dollars, and as always, don’t mind missing quarterly targets. Groceries and one day delivery of goods is only the beginning. Expect that Amazon will look to play a role in home delivery of all types.

3. Lebanon’s prime minister resigned this week after widespread protests. One of his government’s most unpopular proposals was the equivalent a 20 cent tax consumers would pay each day on messaging app WhatsApp, owned by Facebook. The free app offers free telephone-like connectivity and observers report that the government tax on a free commercial service enraged people in a tea-in-the-harbor manner.

2.  School Monitoring and Kids

Schools track kids from the time they enroll and into college. Many schools use systems that cost tens of thousands of dollars annually and claim to help prevent bullying, self-harm, suicides, and more. Opponents claim that the systems often violate privacy laws, are used for marketing purposes, and have methodologies that create false positives. 

Children, even as old as seventeen, who need to use a bathroom in some schools during class are required to enter a request into an online app at their desk, reports the Washington Post. That seems benign until you learn that the system tracks the time they are gone and alerts a school administrator to check on students exceeding a time limit. 

Many apps go beyond tracking students’ test scores and schoolwork. Class Dojo, aimed at K-8 classrooms, allows teachers to reward or dock students with points based on obedience, preparation, or behavioral issues. That seems like an automated version of checklists teachers have long used, but some parents worry that aggregating this level of micro-issues about their children truly represents the dreaded “permanent record”. 

The level of monitoring increases when students are assigned school email accounts or devices. Companies with names like Bark, Gaggle, School Sentinel, and Securly set up software monitoring tools that analyze website usage, email text, chats and messaging, and anything else associated with a school device or account.

The monitoring seems benign on the surface and every company tells of stopping at least hundreds of suicide attempts, bullying incidents, and other problems. Bark, which began offering schools free services after the Parkland school shooting in 2018, claims to have stopped sixteen other school shootings and “twenty thousand serious incidents.”

False positives related to keywords being triggered for school assignments are only one example of problems related to this level of monitoring.  Buzzfeed published a trove of documents related to Gaggle, including hundreds of pages of their training documents. Many of the documents flagged by Gaggle appear creative or expository. Items flagged for demonstrating a risk of suicide or self-harm often had titles like “poem portfolio,” “Possible Poems ???” “Narrative Essay,” and “Narrative/Common App College Entry Essay.”

Some parents are also concerned about the Gaggle safety dashboard that ranks students with the most infractions related to email, web surfing, or other flagged issues. You’re not alone if you think that this sounds like the social credit system being built by the Chinese government. The system neatly graphs, charts, and lists the aggregate scores of students within a school or district.

Buzzfeed published a trove of Gaggle’s documents.

High schoolers remain tracked by all of these systems, but then also contend with college admissions tracking.  You’re also correct if you guessed that SAT owner, College Board, is a big player in this predictive analytics field. Combining test scores, student interests (the infamous “send my info to my school choices”), and the school’s tracking of individual high school students creates a system similar to athletics recruiting.

College admission officers access student prospect lists that rank high schoolers on a one hundred point scale based in part on all of those things plus household income, ethnic background, and other information available from data brokers like the College Board. The Washington Post found dozens of colleges using these systems, but only three of the schools disclose the full extent of their tracking.

Their right to privacy as well as special privacy regulations covering children’s use of the Internet will undoubtedly form part of any new federal privacy legislation.

An exhaustive analysis of school monitoring systems isn’t possible in a newsletter, but we know that many parents will want additional information. That’s why we’re happy to send anyone who asks a list of more than one dozen sources used for this article as well as links to the hundreds of pages that BuzzFeed published. Simply reply to the email and tell us your email address.  You don’t even have to be a subscriber.

3.  Google Search Updates

Sue and I were recently talking about Twitter. “Anything interesting going on there?” I asked her.

“I’m watching [this person] and [others] rip Google on Twitter,” she replied with maybe a trace of enjoyment in her words.

That makes sense because Google and marketers have a predator and prey relationship that often bubbles over into ripping Google as it were.  To quote Rand Fishkin of SparkToro, “…a large majority of professional marketers disbelieve most of Google’s public statements.”  He bases that on a survey of nearly 1,600 of them, including me.

At issue is Google’s obvious quandary: they can’t disclose exactly how their search engine works because then it would be manipulated, which is their term.  That’s why I believe that Google deliberately obfuscates guidance, but I also remain focused on what behaviors they reward.

Page speed is one of those behaviors. Last week, Googlers Martin Splitt and John Mueller told a YouTube audience that page speed is theoretically calculated and then compared to the site’s actual speed based on user visits. But Martin made some waves when he said that speed was sorted into either “really good” or “really bad” or unsorted. 

I don’t believe that the smart Googlers were allowed to contemplate a data grouping called really good.  But when we work on your site, we’re going to tell you that the page speed must be great. And when you ask for the number, we’re going to grumble something about Google.

4. Debugged: Marijuana in 19th Century Drugstore

The image online featuring some old-timey looking folks in front of a dusty building labeled “Drug Store” with a marijuana leaf logo was made by a graphic artist in 2009.

Snopes has the details and a copy of the picture.

5. Also in the Spotlight

Google missed its earnings forecast. So did Amazon. Facebook blew past theirs because for all of the user complaints you see on Facebook about Facebook, the site added more users. Meanwhile, Google and Amazon continue to struggle by on their cash hoards of tens of billions of dollars.

More than half of 11-year-old children own a smartphone, says nonprofit we love Common Sense Media. There’s no word on whether they’re accessing their school email on those phones to trigger school monitoring, but I’ll go out on a limb and say you betcha.

6. Great Data: The Internet’s Birth Certificate

There’s plenty of great data still to be digitized. But before that was possible, the nice folks at UCLA and Stanford logged on paper when they first made a connection “host to host” and birthed the Internet.

Gizmodo has baby Internet’s birth certificate from October 29, 1969 (hmmm, a Scorpio).

7. Protip: The Enchanting .New Domain

I start every Google document I create by visiting the URL or They’re part of Google’s effort to save time and the are now other destinations including Stripe, Spotify and eBay. 

See where they’re going and if your org can get one.

8. Bizarre Bazaar (strange stuff for sale online)

Your uranium ore order may include any of or any number of “radioactive elements such as uranium, thorium and potassium and any of their decay products such as radium and radon.”

On the plus side, your uranium ore sample is only $39.95 at Amazon.

Click to see. The product Q&A is hilarious.

9. ICYMI – Top links from the past 30 days

Open Puppies – only gifs and gifs of puppies

The Beautiful Hidden Logic of Cities – fantastic map visuals

The Dark Web Offering Disinformation as a Service – on ZDNet

10. Coffee Break:  The Last McDonalds in Iceland

McDonalds closed its last restaurant in Iceland on October 31, 2009. Hjörtur Smárason bought a burger and fries and didn’t eat them. Instead he kept them in a bag for three years. Then he put them on display at Snotra House and attached a webcam to live stream them.

The packaging looks old, but there’s no decomposition or mold. 

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