SmartThings home automation kit
Samsung, according to TechCrunch, is in talks to buy home automation company SmartThings for $200 million. As of my deadline, the deal hadn't been confirmed, but if it goes through, it would put the giant Korean electronics company in direct competition with Apple and Google.
But even if this deal doesn't pan out, you can be sure that Samsung -- along with just about every other consumer electronics company -- will be entering this market.
Although technically the term "home automation" could apply to any labor-saving device, including dishwashers and washing machines, in today's world it means remote control and monitoring of home appliances, lights, doors, security and entertainment systems.
For example, SmartThings sells a $99 hub that connects devices to the Internet so that they can be controlled from your smartphone via a cloud-based service. They also sell a $49 Multi Sensor that can detect the temperature and when "things" (such as doors, drawers or even objects) are opened, closed, moved or change angles. You could place the sensor near your front door to know if it's been opened, which not only helps detect an intruder, but also can let a working parent know that their kid is home from school. The software can even be used to send you an alert if the child hasn't come home by a certain time. You could also use it to monitor if windows have been opened or if someone left the garage door open.
Because these devices are wireless, they're relatively easy to install and, unlike home monitoring services, there are no monthly fees to pay.
The company's website has an amusing video showing how a customer uses his voice to turn on the coffee pot. You can also program the doors to lock as soon as you leave the house or turn on the air conditioner from work so the house is cool when you get home.
There is almost no end to what you can automate using technologies not just from SmartThings, but also from Belkin, Wink (sold at Home Depot) and other companies. Nest, which was purchased by Google* this year for $3.2 billion, currently, makes a "smart" thermostat and smoke and carbon dioxide detector that you can control with your voice or your smartphone. The company hasn't announced other products but, based on Nest CEO Tony Fadell's presentation at the Re/code conference last month, it's pretty clear that they have ambitious plans.
Still, whether the technology is from Google or any other company, connecting our homes to the so-called "Internet of things" does raise some interesting privacy and security issues.
Apple, too, is jumping into home automation. Its iPhone, iPad and even its iPod touch media player have long been used as controllers for other companies' home automation products. Just about every company in this space has an iOS app along with an Android app to control its products. But at its Worldwide Developers Conference conference last month, Apple announced Home Kit, which is a set of tools to help developers create home automation apps for Apple devices. The technology allows for developers to create apps that share customer data with apps from other developers, assuming it's OK with the customer.
That means any Home Kit app can interact with any other compatible Home Kit device in your home. So your coffee pot and your dishwasher could carry on a conversation, even if they are controlled by devices from different companies. That begs the question of what they would talk about (Maybe the coffee maker would tell the dishwasher that it's time to wash your coffee cup).
While smartphone integration is relatively new to the home automation landscape, there is nothing new about devices that can be remotely controlled from within or even from outside the house. Twenty years ago, I was using X10 devices to control lamps, fans and other devices throughout my home. It wasn't a wireless technology exactly, but sent data through the house's electrical wires to any plugged-in device, so there was no need to string additional wires
I am excited about the developments in home automation and look forward to installing some relatively simple but useful things, like a garage door monitor and electronic house locks that let you lock and unlock the door from a phone or program a code to let workers into the house during a specific period of time.
But there are still some tasks that will require old-fashioned manual labor for the foreseeable future. We have machines to wash and dry our dishes and clothes but, until robots get a lot better, it still takes a human to clear the table, put away the dishes and fold clean laundry.
This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News
*Disclosure: Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety organisation that receives financial support from Google.
It's hard to get through a week without hearing about a new product designed to protect children online or on mobile devices. Some of these products block content, others give parents some control over who their kids can communicate with but most offer some sort of monitoring, giving parents a glimpse into what their kids are doing on their mobile and other connected devices. Increasingly, these products are being marketed as a way of detecting and preventing bullying.
It's not uncommon for these products to be developed or at least inspired by parents who have had an experience with their kid being bullied or exposed to inappropriate material. The parent may have been outraged by the incident with a sincere desire to help other parents avoid the same issues.
My advice to anyone thinking about creating such a product is to first take stock of the many other products and services in this already saturated field and second take note that even those products -- collectively -- have relatively low penetration rates.
I also urge any would-be parental control entrepreneurs to consider that one product can't possibly serve all families. Controls that block inappropriate content usually work well for young children but not for older ones. Products to monitor Internet or mobile use may be necessary for some kids, but not for most. Studies have shown that kids who get into some type of trouble online are usually risk-takers in other aspects of their lives as well. And if you think a monitoring program will stop cyberbullying, consider that the majority of bullying takes place in-person and not online, and even when it is online (or mobile) it is often a reflection of what's going on at school or wherever kids gather in the physical world. For more on bullying, see A Parents' Guide to Cyberbullying.
And, before you think you're going to earn a lot of money from your product, be aware that there are a number of excellent free parental control tools from Microsoft, Symantec and other companies.
I'm not aware of any accurate up-to-date data on the parental control marketplace but everyone I've spoken with in the know admits that it's pretty small. A 2011 study done by Hart Research for the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) found that just over half the parents (53 percent) said they have used controls to limit or monitor their child's online behavior with products ranging from PC filtering programs that limit what sites a child can visit to services that monitor children's activities on mobile devices. But "have used" is not the same as using. I'm one of many parents who used controls for a short period of time and then stopped after realizing that having occasional conversations with my kids was a more effective, and lasting, way to influence their behavior.
Even though the survey found that 47 percent of parents haven't used these tools, 87 percent of them were aware that such tools are available, and 93 percent had a set rule to limit or monitor their children's Internet usage. Parents know these products exist and most have other ways to help their kids stay safer online.
That same study found that 60 percent of parents who are not using controls say that controls aren't necessary because they have household rules that their kids follow.
And even for parents who do feel a need to use parental-control software or service, it's important to remember that they are never a substitute for common sense, engaged parenting and -- most important -- teaching kids to be respectful of others, self-protective and resilient. Eventually your kids will grow up and one of the purposes of childhood is to learn to protect yourself long after mommy and daddy and whatever tools they employ are off the job.
Click here for infographic of FOSI survey
This post first appeared on SafeKids.com
Last month the Aspen Institute Task Force on Learning and the Internet released an outstanding report whose title, "Learner at the Center of a Networked World," suggests a radical rethinking of how we approach education.
The report was the product of about 20 leaders with expertise in technology, public policy, education, safety and privacy including my co-director at ConnectSafely.org, Anne Collier. Jeb Bush and actress and activist Rosario Dawson served as honorary co-chairs.
I'll get to the report in a moment, but as I read it, I couldn't help to reflect back to my own experiences from a few decades ago, beginning when I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley.
In 1967 I had the privilege of being one of the student coordinators of Berkeley's Center for Participant Education, a student-initiated course program that was born out of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement. CPE, like other "free universities" and "alternative schools" that popped up around the world in the '60s and '70s, promoted student-centered learning by giving students the power to initiate and help direct their own learning, using resources from local faculty, the community and subject matter experts, including some without traditional academic credentials. By getting faculty sponsors, we were able to offer academic credit for non-traditional learning.
There was no Internet back then, but we did have museums, libraries and access to people from the community such as artists, musicians, bakers, bankers, park rangers, social activists, and people with and without all sorts of advanced degrees and impressive credentials, including some who were internationally recognized as leaders in their fields. And -- even without the Internet -- there were plenty of other resources, including newsletters, films, records, and of course, books and periodicals. We didn't have blogs, but we did have mimeograph machines and megaphones. But, mostly, we had an attitude that students were the center of their own learning and that any student had the right to help fashion a learning environment, based on his or her own needs and learning style.
In 1969, I moved to Washington, D.C., to run the Center for Educational Reform, a Ford Foundation project of the now-defunct National Student Association, that helped bring this concept to universities and secondary schools around the country. Another nonprofit, New Schools Exchange, published a newsletter that supported hundreds of student-centered "free schools," where even young children were able to help shape their own learning environment.
Tech opens doors
Fast forward to 2014. Technology has unleashed incredible resources for individualized learning, but -- somewhere between 1970 and today -- educational reform got hijacked and redirected by well-meaning policymakers whose strategy seems to be more aimed at preparing students to take standardized tests and less toward student and parent empowerment and the ability for young people to articulate and achieve their own dreams, goals and aspirations.
So, imagine my delight that a group of 21st century experts assembled by the Aspen Institute took us back to the future with recommendations for a "new culture of learning" where "learners must move from the passive absorption of content to a new sense of agency that enables them to find a path that makes sense for their individual interests and learning styles." These are great ideas, reminiscent of what pundits like John Holt, Ivan Illich, Herb Kohl and Jonathan Kozol wrote back in the '60s.
What is different of course is that with modern technology there are no more excuses for education to remain in the dark ages. As the Aspen report ably documents, the proliferation of broadband and mobile devices is already "helping students chart their own unique pathways of learning subjects as well as adjusting the pace of their learning."
I fully support the task force's recommendations, which include redesigning "learning environments to empower learners to learn any time, any place, and at any pace, both in school and beyond," as well as building "an infrastructure that will connect all students in all of the places they learn." The task force also called for open standards and "protocols that simplify and promote interoperability of learning resources" and -- my favorite recommendation -- that schools adopt "policies to incorporate digital, media and social-emotional literacies as basic skills for living and learning in the digital age."
I also applaud the Aspen task force for taking on laws like the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which, though intended to empower parents to protect their children's privacy, has the effect of preventing children under 13 from participating in popular social media services along with what the report called the "unintended consequence of encouraging children to make use of sites that do not attempt to enforce COPPA's restrictions and that may be less conscientious about protecting young users."
The task force also calls for "deeper research on the efficacy" and possible negative side effects of privacy and safety laws such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) and various state laws.
I'm not anti-regulation and I certainly agree that government has a role to play in protecting the privacy of both children and adults, but I agree with the task force that we need to examine the unintended consequences of even the most well-meaning legislation.
Learner at the Center of a Networked World splash page. Full report (PDF)
A task force report & a student bill of rights: Task Force member and ConnectSafely co-director Anne Collier's commentary about the report and the work of modern-day student activists
Make personalized learning a realty says ed tech task force: Observations and commentary by Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) CEO Stephen Balkam
This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News
Free new booklet, A Parents' Guide to Mobile Phones
After spending a lot of time writing and editing our new free booklet, A Parents' Guide to Mobile Phones, my ConnectSafely.org colleagues and I came to the realization that parents do have a lot to learn -- from their own kids.
Sure, our guide has all sorts of tips and suggestions, but our most important point is that parents should talk with their kids about their mobile use. Note I said "with," not "to." An open, two-way conversation with your kids about their mobile use is a lot more effective than a lecture. Besides, you might discover they know more about safety, privacy and security than you think. Maybe more than you do.
ConnectSafely produced the guide in partnership with CTIA, with support from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless.
Studies from Pew Research Center and as well as ethnographic research from danah boyd and others have found that kids are far from clueless when it comes to privacy and safety issues. That's not to say that your kids don't have anything to learn -- we all do -- but that you shouldn't assume that they're using their technology in a reckless fashion, even if you've seen some press reports making that claim.
Advice for parents
As far as our guide is concerned, we advise parents on things that matter including the best age to get a child their first cell phone, how to make sure your child's privacy is protected and how you can help assure your child uses apps that are safe and appropriate. We also talk about how to use the phone's settings to maxiumize privacy and security and advise parents to be sure their kids are using a pass code of some type to make sure that others can't use their phone. In addition to protecting their data, keeping others from accessing their phone reduces the risk of someone using it to harass or bully others and get your kid into trouble.
The guide warns parents about the possible misuse of geolocation -- the feature that allows apps to pinpoint the phone's (and therefore the user's) location. While these features can enhance safety and give parents the ability to track their kids, they can also be misused. As we say in the guide, "With the exception of E911, it's possible to turn off geolocation, either for the entire phone or just for specific apps." Parents and kids "can review the apps on their phones to see which apps share location. If you're uncomfortable with any of them, you can try to turn off the app's location feature or just delete the app."
There are parental control tools from carriers, phone makers and app developers that parents can use to monitor or even limit what they're kids can do on their phones and while such tools can be helpful in some cases, they're not for every kid. If you do use monitoring or filtering tools, talk with your kids about why you're using them and consider weaning them away from those tools as they show that they are responsible mobile users. Kids don't stay kids forever and our goal as parents is to teach them the critical thinking skills that will last a lifetime in whatever situations they encounter. As my ConnectSafely co-director Anne Collier pointed out, "safety, privacy and security depend less and less on external safeguards (such as parental control tools, which can give parents a false sense of security) and more and more on the 'filtering software' in their heads and hearts."
A Parents Guide to Mobile Phones is available in both English and Spanish.
Since it was founded 30 years ago, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has helped reunite thousands of missing kids with their families.
I have had the privilege of serving on NCMEC's board for nearly two decades and, since that time, we have seen a dramatic increase in the recovery rate thanks to NCMEC's dedicated staff along with alert members of the public who report sightings of missing kids. From 1984 through December 2012, NCMEC has assisted law enforcement with more than 195,300 missing-child cases resulting in the recovery of more than 183,100 children, according to the organization. The recovery rate for missing children has grown from 62 percent in 1990 to 97 percent today.
I became involved with NCMEC in 1993 during the search for Polly Klass, a 12-year-old girl who was abducted from her Northern California home, about 80 miles north of where I live. During the search I helped post Polly's picture online. When Time magazine wrote about the effort, I was overwhelmed by requests from parents of other missing kids, which led me to contact NCMEC's then CEO Ernie Allen who quickly realized the potential for using online tools to help find children. Even though we couldn't save Polly, online tools such as MissingKids.com are now used routinely to help in the recovery of missing children.
NCMEC is a non-profit organization, not a government agency, though it was authorized by Congress to serve as the national clearinghouse for information about missing and exploited children. Congress has also designated NCMEC to run the national, toll-free, 24-hour missing children's hotline and operate the CyberTipline for online reporting of the sexual victimization of children and inappropriate sexual content.
NCMEC is a unique public-private partnership which receives funding from both the Federal government and numerous private donors ranging from large companies individual donors from all walks of life -- including young children who conduct fund-raisers or donate their pennies to help other kids.
As you can see from the key facts below, only a tiny percentage of missing children cases involve "stereotypical' abductions but even children who are abducted by members of their own family can be in extreme danger and deserve to be protected and returned to their lawful parent or guardian.
And it's not just missing children. NCMEC helps prevent and prosecute cases of child exploitation, including sexual exploitation of children as young as infants. The organization also works to rescue underage victims of prostitution, helping them recover from the trauma of what is often forced or coerced and extremely traumatic exploitation by adults who profit through human trafficking.
NetSmartz Workshop's "Clicky" teaches young children about Internet safety and digital citizenship.
NCMEC also operates the NetSmartz Workshop, which provides high-production value materials to help educate young people about how to stay safe on and offline.
Here are some "key facts" from NCMEC's website.
The most recent, comprehensive national study for the number of missing children estimated in 1999: 
- Approximately 800,000 children younger than 18 were reported missing.
- More than 200,000 children were abducted by family members.
- More than 58,000 children were abducted by nonfamily members.
- An estimated 115 children were the victims of "stereotypical" kidnapping. These "stereotypical" kidnappings involved someone the child did not know or was an acquaintance. The child was held overnight, transported 50 miles or more, killed, ransomed or held with the intent to keep the child permanently.
- To find the number of children missing from a specific state or territory contact the state's Missing Child Clearinghouses.
- The first three hours are the most critical when trying to locate a missing child. The murder of an abducted child is rare, and an estimated 100 cases in which an abducted child is murdered occur in the U.S. each year. A 2006 study indicated that 76.2 percent of abducted children who are killed are dead within three hours of the abduction. 
- The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children® has assisted law enforcement in the recovery of more than 193,705 missing children since it was founded in 1984. Our recovery rate for missing children has grown from 62 percent in 1990 to 97 percent today.
- The AMBER Alert program was created in 1996 and is operated by the U.S. Department of Justice. As of April 2, 2014, 688 childrenhave been successfully recovered as a result of the program. 
- As of Dec. 2013, NCMEC's toll free, 24 hour call center has received more than 3,899,964 calls since it was created in 1984. Information about missing or exploited children can be reported to the call center by calling 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).
 Finkelhor D., Hammer H., Schultz D., Sedlak A. National Estimates of Missing Children: An Overview, U.S. Department of Justice, 2002.
 Brown K., Keppel R., McKenna R., Skeen M., Weis J. Case Management for Missing Children Homicides: Report II, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and U.S. Department of Justice, 2006.
AMBER Alert, U.S. Department of Justice.
This post first appeared on SafeKids.com