digital home

When anonymous web data isn’t anymore

One of my favorite NY Times technology stories (other than, ahem, my own articles) is one that ran more than ten years ago. It was about a supposedly anonymous AOL user that was picked from a huge database of search queries by researchers. They were able to correlate her searches and tracked down Thelma, a 62-year old widow living in Georgia. The database was originally posted online by AOL as an academic research tool, but after the Times story broke it was removed. The data “underscore how much people unintentionally reveal about themselves when they use search engines,” said the Times story.

In the intervening years since that story, tracking technology has gotten better and Internet privacy has all but effectively disappeared. At the DEFCON trade show a few weeks ago in Vegas, researchers presented a paper on how easy it can be to track down folks based on their digital breadcrumbs. The researchers set up a phony marketing consulting firm and requested anonymous clickstream data to analyze. They were able to actually tie real users to the data through a series of well-known tricks, described in this report in Naked Security. They found that if they could correlate personal information across ten different domains, they could figure out who was the common user visiting those sites, as shown in this diagram published in the article.

The culprits are browser plug-ins and embedded scripts on web pages, which I have written about before here. “Five percent of the data in the clickstream they purchased was generated up by just ten different popular web plugins,” according to the DEFCON researchers.

So is this just some artifact of gung-ho security researchers, or does this have any real-world implications? Sadly, it is very much a reality. Last week Disney was served legal papers about secretly collecting kid’s usage data of their mobile apps, saying that the apps (which don’t ask parents permission for the kids to use, which is illegal) can track the kids across multiple games. All in the interest of serving up targeted ads. The full list of 43 apps that have this tracking data can be found here, including the one shown at right.

So what can you do? First, review your plug-ins, delete the ones that you really don’t need. In my article linked above, I try out Privacy Badger and have continued to use it. It can be entertaining or terrifying, depending on your POV. You could regularly delete your cookies and always run private browsing sessions, although you do give up some usability for doing so.

Privacy just isn’t what it used to be. And it is a lot of hard work to become more private these days, for sure.

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Securing the smart home, a guide to my reviews series

I began a series of reviews for Network World on securing the smart home. These three articles were published earlier this year:

Since then, I have written additional stories, but before I introduce those I want to take a step back and review the decision process that I would recommend in terms of what gear you should buy and at what point during your smarter home networking automation journey. And let’s also take a moment and review the decisions that you have made so far on hubs and wireless access points and how these decisions can influence what you buy next.

While there is no typical decision process for this gear, here are a series of five questions that you should have begun thinking about:

  1. Do you already own a smart thermostat? If not, make sure you pick the one that will work with your hub device. Nest doesn’t work with Apple’s HomeKit, for example. I will talk about my experience with Nest in a future installment. Also, you might also want to make sure that you can upgrade your older thermostat with something more intelligent, in terms of wiring and network access.
  2. Are you in the market for a new TV? If you are, consider what your main motivation is for buying one and which ecosystem (Apple, Google or Amazon) you want to join and use as your main entertainment provider. It used to be that buying a TV was a major purchase, but today’s flat screens are relatively inexpensive. Most new TVs come with wireless radios and built-in software to connect with Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming providers too.
  3. Are most of your cellphones Android or iOS? While many of the smart home products work with apps on both kinds of phones, that doesn’t necessarily mean that features are at parity between the two phone families. In some cases, vendors will prefer one over the other in terms of their app release schedule and that could be an issue depending on which side you are on. If you are serious about considering Apple HomeKit products, obviously you will need at least one Apple phone for managing its basic features. While Apple’s ecosystem supports the largest collection of smart home devices, overall, many of the smart home products will work on either Google Home or Amazon Alexa as well.
  4. Do you have sufficient wireless and wired infrastructure to support where you want to place all your devices? As I mentioned in my last installment, one of the major reasons for using a better wireless infrastructure like the Linksys Velop is because of its wider radio coverage area. Make sure you understand what your spouse is willing to tolerate in terms of wiring and AP placement too while you are assembling your new network requirements and scouting out potential AP locations around your home. As part of this decision, you might also need to upgrade your ISP bandwidth plan if you are going to be consuming more Internet services such as video and audio streaming.
  5. Do you have enough wired ports on your network switch? With all the devices that you plan on using, you probably are going to run out of wired ports. And while you might think that most smart home products are connected wirelessly, many require some kind of wired gateway device (the Philips Hue is an example here) that will consume a wired Ethernet port.

Those five questions should help get you started on your smart home journey. But before you purchase anything else, you might want to consider these security issues too.

  1. Do you understand the authentication requirements and limitations of each smart home app? One of the biggest limitations of the smart apps is how they set up their security and authentication. In many cases, the app can only use a single login ID and password. If you want multiple family members to use the app, you may have to share this information with them, which could be an issue. You might want to consider a document that lays out your family “rights management” — do you want your kids to be able to remotely control your thermostat or monitor your home security cameras? What about your spouse? This begs the next question:
  2. Who in the family is authorized to make changes to your smart infrastructure? By this I mean your network configuration and access to your computers, printers, and other IT gear. Again, in the past once this was set up it wasn’t often changed by anyone. But the smart home requires more subtle forms of access and this could be an issue, depending on the makeup of your family and who is the defacto family IT manager.
  3. You should plan for the situation when you (or another family member) loses their phone with all of your connected apps and authentication information. This is one of the major security weaknesses of the smart home: your apps hold the keys to the kingdom. Most of the apps automatically save your login info as a convenience, but that also means if you lose your phone, it can be a massive inconvenience. Some of these apps will only work when they are on your local network, but others can reach out across the Internet and do some damage if they fall into the wrong hands. Given how often your family members lose their phones (I know of one 20-something who loses her phone twice a year), this might be worthwhile. You might want to record the procedures for resetting your passwords on your various connected apps and other login information.
  4. What happens when one of your smart devices is compromised? The reports earlier this year about the compromised web server that comes with a Miele dishwasher are somewhat chilling, to say the least. How can you detect when a smart device is now part of a botnet or is running some malware? We will have some thoughts later in the series, but just wanted to raise the issue.

As you can see, making your home network smarter also means understanding the implications of your decisions and the interaction of products that now could create some serious family discussions, to say the least.

The remaining reviews in the series includes:

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The smart home series: Nest is building a smarter thermostat

If the Philips Hue smart light bulb is the first connected home product, probably the most desired home networking product is the smart thermostat. While Nest wasn’t the first in the field, it has become the market leader and was purchased by Google back in 2014. One of the reasons why I chose my test home in suburban St. Louis was because the homeowners already had one installed. I wanted to see how it would interact with the Google Home and Alexa Echo units and what other equipment it would integrate with.

Nest is like many smarthome products: there is the actual thermostat itself, an attractive low-slung cylinder that has a built-in 480×480 pixel touch screen and a rotating collar for its main menu controls. Then there is a smartphone app and a web service. The apps run on both Android and IoS devices. (iOS 8 or later, or Android 4.1 or later)

Nest can’t replace all analog thermostat installations, but there is this helpful page that will walk you through what you have now and how your existing thermostat is wired to figure it out. They also have an installation video and troubleshooting tips. My home owners are moderately handy and they had no issues getting it installed. In my informal poll of other Nest users, I didn’t hear any horror stories either.

Once you wire it up to your HVAC system, you have to download its app to your phone and get the software setup. That took about 15 minutes. You can control up to 20 different thermostats and in two different locations from one app and one account. Unlike other smart home products,

Nest allows this account to grant access to two users with two separate email addresses. You still may want to use a throwaway email address to share among your family, if they have authority to change your home temperature conditions. It connects to your home network via Wi-Fi and like other products, initial setup is via Bluetooth.

We set up the Nest with both Alexa and Google Home. Nest doesn’t directly work with Apple’s HomeKit although there is this workaround. We also set up Nest with the ADT Pulse alarm system app that was installed in our test home. More on these connected apps in a moment.

Nest calls its product a learning thermostat, and this is because it automatically figures out your usage patterns on a daily basis. For example, the new generation units will light up to greet you when you come home. You can wait a couple of weeks for it to learn your schedule, or set up a typical schedule like any programmable thermostat. But unlike an analog thermostat, it has a series of sensors, as you might imagine. Besides temperature, it also measures humidity, activity and ambient light. That means it can make smarter decisions about your occupancy and usage patterns. That is one of its chief selling points.

Nest has some built-in routines that help you save money on your heating and cooling bills, called Nest Sense. It has all sorts of automated routines here. One is called Eco Temperatures. Basically, you set up a temperature range that your home will operate at, and if no one is home that is the default mode of operation. Others are called Cool to Dry, Leaf, Airware, Home/Away Assist, and Time-to-temp.

The Nest phone app is cleanly organized and once you get done setting up these various routines, you probably won’t be spending much time with it. With my test homeowners, one said she is so ingrained in using the thermostat directly that when she walks by it in her hallway she thinks about changing the temperature then. The other said he used both the Nest app and the voice commands but still was getting used to using both of them. Part of the issue here is that unlike lighting that you change frequently during the day, you probably don’t think about your home temperature control very often.

Another selling point for Nest is that it has a large range of other products that integrate with it. That is what drove my test homeowners to buy it since it works with their ADT security system. One of my homeowners used the ADT/Nest control because she forgot her Nest app password. So it is nice to have all these different mechanisms to control it, to be sure.

Finally, Nest was easy to setup with both the Amazon Alexa and Google Home, taking less than five minutes to get each one configured. Using it was simple too, and both seemed to perform the same way in terms of controlling the thermostat. My male homeowner said he is starting to prefer the Amazon hub for home control, just because it has so many more connected apps. But he finds the Google hub provides him with more thorough answers to his questions.

Nest is now on their third generation product, which retails for $249. (I tested the second generation.) But don’t let that price scare you: your local electric or gas utility might have rebate offers. (In St. Louis, it was $125 from both companies combined). It comes in four colors.

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The smart home series: Philips Hue lighting system review

In today’s installment, I look at the Philips Hue lighting system. This has four main components: a network-attached bridge or controller, the smart bulbs themselves, web-based software and the smartphone software that is used to turn your lights on and off. We tested the product in the same suburban home location outside of St. Louis where we tested our earlier products, connecting Hue to both the Alexa Echo Dot and the Google Home hubs.

Hue comes with three different kinds of bulbs: white-only, white ambiance and multi-color, which includes white. The White Ambiance allows you to do more than just dim up and down at the one color temperature and gives you access to 50,000 shades of white light. I tested the multi-color. Both come with built with radios that communicate via the ZigBee LightLink protocols back to the bridge.

To me, a lamp is a necessary evil and something that doesn’t require a great deal of thought. This is because I am someone with zero sense of interior design. I tell you this upfront, which is one of the reasons I was testing these products at a home where both residents have a lot more design-savvy and understanding of lighting placement and mood creation.

If you are a design philistine like me, then you probably won’t get much out of this product and should just stick with ordinary lamps. But if you do take the plunge, make sure you are buying what Philips calls “gen 3” bulbs (which is what I tested). These bulbs have deeper green, cyan and blue for even better mood setting. Philips claims the bulbs can deliver 16 million different colors, but since I am colorblind I couldn’t verify this claim. Nevertheless, you have a wide color palette that you can play with on your smartphone and have a lot of fun finding that exact color to match your mood, your decor, what your spouse is wearing, or whatnot. All the bulbs are LEDs, so are very energy-efficient. They all fit into a standard base and (unlike the early CF bulbs) are small enough to fit in most ordinary lamp housings.

Why bother with smart bulbs? Several reasons. First, you can remotely turn them on and off, both instantly and on a specified schedule, to make your home more comfortable and secure. Second, you can set various moods by having them dim or brighten appropriately. And finally, you have bragging rights when you have your friends over for dinner or parties. By now many of you have already bought your own smart hub: this gives you the first practical application that can readily demonstrate its utility.

When I first got the Hue kit I thought it was mostly “nice to have” but not an essential use case. The more I and my test couple used them, the more we liked them and the more we came to rely on the ability to control them at will and to set different moods. I think this bears emphasis: Hue is creating something new and really giving you a new dimension on how you live and consume lighting in your home.

You don’t need a smart hub to operate your Hue lights, because you can control them via the smartphone app  (shown here) or you can also purchase a variety of hardware controllers that can fit inside a standard light switch receptacle or sit on your coffee table if you want a physical object. That is all well and good, but really that gear is just a glorified “Clapper” device that is about as exciting. But using the Alexa or Google Home hubs means you have voice commands for your lights. This means you don’t have to look for your phone and can just turn your lights on or off quickly as you enter a room.

Getting setup from scratch took about 15 minutes on either hub, using a very similar process. The biggest issue I faced was switching my lighting system from the Amazon to the Google hub, which a normal user wouldn’t necessarily do. If you are going to change hub vendors, you should do a factory reset to make things easier. The controller/bridge connects to your home network via Wi-Fi, and it also works with Apple Home Kit hubs too.

The most important part of the hub-related setup is naming your various rooms where the bulbs will be located. The workflow for doing this is different in Amazon Alexa versus the Google Home. With Alexa, it picks up this information from the Hue app. In Google, you have to create your room names on its app.

For the most part, the Hue bulbs worked fine with either Alexa or Google Home. But sometimes Alexa would make a mistake, thinking a particular bulb was on when it was off, or vice-versa. And sometimes Alexa would turn on a bulb in the wrong room. We couldn’t reproduce these errors. It isn’t clear who is at fault here: because sometimes the app shows a bulb is on when it is off. For the majority of time though, things work as intended.

If you are just going to control your lights locally — meaning while you are in your home — then you don’t have to worry about the web server piece of the product. This is needed for two purposes: first for controlling your lights when you are away from home, and second to integrate with any Nest products and other home automation web services. For either purpose you will need to create an account on meethue.com and then use that login on your smartphone app. As with other smart home products, only one account (meaning one email address) per home is allowed. If you want multiple family members to have lighting controls, you might want to create a special email address that everyone can access. Philips is looking into having multiple accounts with different access rights at some point in the future.

Once you get going with the standard bulbs, Philips makes a bunch of different other bulb sizes that can you expand your horizons and play interior decorator. I didn’t test any of these. You can purchase a rechargeable portable light source called Go and lights that come with a variety of their own decorative bases. Given that Philips has been making electric lights for more than a century, this is not unexpected that there will be others joining its Hue product line in the near future.

Hue comes in various product configurations, the basic white-only starter kit with two bulbs and the controller is $70. It is available online and in a variety of electronics and lighting stores too.

 

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Network World review: Smart home hubs from Google and Amazon

The first decision you need to make in your smart home journey is selecting the right ecosystem. By ecosystem, I mean the voice-activated smart hub that is used to deliver audio content from the Internet (such as news, weather, and answers to other queries) as well as the main interface with a variety of other smart home devices, such as lighting, thermostats and TVs. In this review I look at two of the three main hubs from Google (the white-topped taller unit on the right) and Amazon (the smaller black unit on the left) and how they stack up.

You can read my review in Network World here.

This is the second in a series of articles on how to successfully and securely deploy smart home technology. The first one can be found here.

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Network World review: securing the smart home

Today I begin a series of reviews in Network World around smarter home products. Last year we saw the weaponized smart device as the Mirai botnet compromised webcams and other Internet-connected things. Then earlier this year we had Vizio admit to monitoring its connected TVs and more recently there was this remote TV exploit and even dishwashers aren’t safe from hackers.

Suddenly, the smart home isn’t smart enough, or maybe it is too smart for its own good. We need to take better care of securing our homes from digital intruders. The folks at Network World asked me to spend some time trying out various products and using a typical IT manager’s eye towards making sure they are setup securely.

Those of you that have read my work know that I am very interested in home networking: I wrote a book on the topic back in 2001 called The Home Networking Survival Guide and have tried out numerous home networking products over the years. My brief for the publication is broadly defined and I will look at all sorts of technologies that the modern home would benefit from, including security cameras, remote-controlled sensors, lighting and thermostats, and more.

Smart home technology has certainly evolved since I wrote my book. Back then, wireless was just getting started and most homeowners ran Ethernet through their walls. We didn’t have Arduino and Pi computers, and many whole house audio systems cost tens of thousands of dollars. TVs weren’t smart, and many people were still using dial-up and AOL to access the Internet.

Back in the early 2000’s, I visited John Patrick’s home in Connecticut. As a former IBMer, he designed his house like an IBM mainframe, with centralized control and distributed systems for water, entertainment, propane gas, Internet and other service delivery. He was definitely ahead of the time in many areas.

When I wrote about the Patrick house, I said that for many people, defining the requirements for a smart home isn’t always easy, because people don’t really know what they want. “You get better at defining your needs when you see what the high-tech toys really do. But some of it is because the high-tech doesn’t really work out of the box.” That is still true today.

My goal with writing these reviews is to make sure that your TV or thermostat doesn’t end up being compromised and being part of some Russian botnet down the road. Each article will examine one aspect of the secure connected home so you can build out your network with some confidence, or at least know what the issues are and what choices you will need to make in supporting your family’s IT portfolio of smart Things.

Since I live in a small apartment, I asked some friends who live in the suburbs if they would be interested in being the site of my test house. They have an 1800 sq. ft. three bedroom house on one level with a finished basement, and are already on their second smart TV purchase. One of them is an avid gamer and has numerous gaming consoles. Over the past several months (and continuing throughout the remainder of this year), we have tried out several products. In my first article posted today, we cover some of the basic issues involved and set the scene.

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Bridging the digital divide: not everyone has the same needs

Today, the issue of digital equity is receiving more attention than ever. For good reason; Internet access is no longer a luxury, it is a daily necessity in how we live, work and play. Still, we are far from the most connected nation on earth (as shown above from TransferWise), and a quarter of our homes aren’t yet on broadband networks.

One issue is that the digital divide isn’t a simple binary split between “haves” and “have nots.” There are many shades of grey in between. Not everyone uses the Internet and connected technologies the same way, with the same skill set, or even with the same context. Before we can solve this divide, we have to understand these subtleties.

I met Michael Liimattta at an event last week and he got me started thinking about this in more detail. He is the co-founder of Connecting for Good, a Kansas City nonprofit focusing on digital inclusion. I have taken his remarks from this blog post and added my own thoughts as well.

In our efforts to level the digital playing field for low income families, we must avoid the assumption that all of them relate to technology, computers and the Internet in the same way. To be effective in digital inclusion efforts, we must recognize that there are at least four different subsets within this population, each with its own and different needs.

  1. The early adopters: Several national studies indicate that low income families with school children have a higher rate of broadband adoption; approximately half of them can access the Internet at home. The cities where we find the highest adoption rates are those where discounted Internet plans have been offered for a number of years and where there is extensive outreach in the public schools. However, these plans are not available everywhere. There are also cost issues: some families have to purchase expensive smartphone data plans to connect their computers, and many families have outdated PCs or don’t have the necessary tech support or lack sufficient bandwidth. These early adopter families also have another issue: understanding the dangers of the Internet in terms of accessing inappropriate content and meeting child predators.  
  2. The uninformed: We do not want to forget that there are still low income families that know they need to be online and can afford a discounted Internet plan but simply don’t know what plans are available. ISPs like Comcast, Cox and Google Fiber have staff members dedicated to this type of outreach in cities where they offer discounted Internet services. But they will need more local help to increase awareness.
  3. The financially challenged: The truth is, there are families that recognize the need to be connected but truly cannot afford to do so. With the FCC’s modernization of the Lifeline program, a $9.25 per month subsidy for broadband services should be available to eligible low income families, if only more ISPs adopted it. There are other programs from local housing authorities and private philanthropy that can also help to defray these costs.
  4. The unconvinced and intimidated: Lastly, there are low income families that are able to afford a discounted Internet connection but are simply not convinced that they need one or are too intimidated by technology. Ultimately, convincing the adult heads of household is the trick. They must value access enough to dedicate seriously limited financial resources toward paying for an Internet subscription. When it comes to broadband adoption efforts, this can be the most challenging group of all, representing a significant portion of households living on the wrong side of the digital divide. This group also includes people who don’t know the difference between accessing the Web via a phone or the larger screens of tablets and PCs.

Digital inclusions efforts need both dedicated leadership and “boots on the ground” to be executed successfully. Too many efforts focus on providing computers and connectivity but fail to factor in the social dynamic of broadband adoption. To be effective, crossing this divide will take hours and hours of time spent in training and technical support if we are to bring the Internet to the rest of America’s poorest families.

Here is one small step forward: Next week, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance will hold a webinar to introduce digital inclusion practitioners and advocates on the state of digital inclusion at the local community level. You might want to tune in.

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SecurityIntelligence.com: Tracking the Digital Transition in the White House

As President Donald Trump arrives at the White House to start his term, he faces a very different collection of technology than when former President Barack Obama entered eight years ago. Back then, government PCs sported floppy drives and no president ever personally used Twitter or other form of social media. But the task of making the digital transition isn’t easy, and I describe some of the electronic methods that are being used to preserve the Obama legacy. You can read my post on IBM’s SecurityIntelligence.com blog here.

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Hacking 911 systems: an update

It isn’t often that there is a very short trajectory from an academic research paper to reality, but when it comes to hacking the 911 emergency phone network this is indeed the case. The paper was written earlier this year and first given to the Department of Homeland Security before being published online this fall.

The researchers from Ben Gurion University in Israel describe how an attacker could knock a 911 service offline by launching a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack using a collection of just 6000 smartphones. While that is a lot of phones to gather in one place, it is a relatively small number when this is compared to computer-based attacks. And you don’t really need to gather them together physically: you can infect these phones with some malware and control them all remotely.

Like other DDoS attacks, phones (rather than computers) make repeated calls to 911, thereby blocking the system from getting legit emergency calls. It is a chilling concept, because unlike other DDoS attacks, the hackers aren’t just bringing down a website with large bursts of traffic: they could prevent someone from getting life-saving assistance.

In the paper, the researchers simulated a cellular network modeled after the 911 network in North Carolina and then showed how attackers could exploit it.

Now 911 attacks aren’t new: indeed, the DHS issued this alert three years ago and mentioned that more than 600 such attacks have been observed over the years. What is new is how easily the attacks could be launched, with just a few thousand phones and some malware to make it all work. Also, these previous attacks were launched against the administrative phone numbers of the alternate 911 call center, not to the actual 911 emergency lines themselves. If you are interested in how the 911 center operates, I posted a piece many years ago about this here.

There are other stories about hospitals and other businesses that have had their phone systems flooded with calls, blocking any business calls from being connected. And where there is fire, there is at least one security vendor to put it out or protect an enterprise network from being exploited by telephone-based DDoS attacks.

The problem is in the design of the 911 call centers. These centers have no built-in way of blacklisting or blocking callers: they want to be able to answer any call from anyone who has an emergency. Therefore, in the face of a large attack, they would have no choice but to answer each and every call. But let’s say we could implement such a service: that would prevent an unintentional owner of an infected and blacklisted phone from making a legitimate emergency call.

Well, that was the theory behind the paper. It didn’t take long before someone actually did it “in the wild,” as they say when an actual attack has been observed. Last month a teen was arrested for allegedly doing such an attack and is facing three felony counts. The teen, Meetkumar Hiteshbhai Desai, discovered an iOS vulnerability that was used for launching the attack and flooding a call center in Arizona. Now his phone supposedly was the only one used and it made just 100 calls in a matter of minutes. But that was enough to get the cops on his case.

It is distressing to be sure. But whether these attacks are done by script kiddies or by professional criminals, certainly the opportunity is there and very real indeed.

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This campaign isn’t like high school

This week I had a chance to talk to some high school kids in the area. They are part of a business class that is designed to teach kids how to start their own businesses called Spark. The class is taught in a storefront in a local shopping mall, deliberately to give the students a more non-school milleu. I came to talk about using Twitter and other social media tools. I had given this presentation before to previous classes for the past several years, so I wasn’t really focused on the events of the presidential campaign and how current they would be in this context. And I found our discussions quite interesting, but not in the way you might think.

I was actually surprised to the mature responses from the kids. Many of the students thought that some of things being said on social media and on TV about the campaigns were certainly entertaining, but they thought the candidates weren’t acting appropriately. I made the comment that many of the students seemed more mature in their reactions compared to what the candidates Tweeted and posted, and there were nods all around the room.

dick2Xanthe Meyer, the Spark teacher, was also surprised by their responses. “Maybe the kids are more interested in the presidential election this year, because it is racier. But I am also shocked that both candidates’ PR teams allow these kinds and levels of responses. I think this election will be in many studies as an example of what NOT to do,” said Meyer. “I wonder what would have happened if we had social media during the Watergate scandal?”

The class is pretty tech savvy: the kids use Twitter, Slack, Instagram and LinkedIn to communicate with each other and with their teachers, and are encouraged to do so. “It is expected that we use social media more,” said their teacher. I was surprised that many of the kids weren’t really facile with Twitter, and I guess that was one of the reasons why I was there, to help them understand how to use it more effectively.

Meyer has been teaching for decades, and recalls what happened during class when 9/11 happened. “We watched the event live during class on TV. Later, our principal was getting phone calls from parents complaining about my decision. And this was from parents of 17 and 18 year olds. That was crazy. These kids could be drafted!”

I mentioned that during the last couple of debates, parents were posting thoughts about not letting younger kids watch the debates. “In our community, parents do shelter their kids from the news. We are definitely living in a different world politically, and I think this campaign amounts to one big negative political ad that is running continuously. It is like a long version of a TMZ episode that is embarrassing to our nation. Not sure if I know what the true issues are anymore.”

One issue for this and other teachers: using social media is a tricky situation. Last year, a local special ed teacher was suspended for several days after her profanity-laced tweets got her into trouble with the school district. And there are numerous other examples of other teachers who have gotten in trouble over their tweets, which seem tame now compared to what the candidates say about each other lately. Teaching is a tough enough job already – my mother was a special ed teacher for decades – but having to navigate these waters now has to be done with care.

Still, I thought it instructive with all the “locker room talk” and “boys being boys” – at least when it came to this high school class – the kids took the higher road. Maybe there is something we can learn from this to improve our supposedly “adult” discourse.

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