No, Google Is Not Free

One of the 800-pound gorillas at ISTE, of course, is Google. They are “gold” sponsors (meaning they kicked in more money than the silver and bronze level companies) and have a huge presence on the vendor floor, both in their own booths and in the booths of dozens (hundreds?) of other companies that connect to them in some way. Plus many, many sessions and posters deal with their various education-related products.

And one term commonly associated with all of this Googley goodness is free. Educators love free, and they don’t pay to use GSuite, Classroom, Expeditions, Maps, Earth, ChromeOS, Photos, storage, and, of course, Search.

Except these services really are not free.

Instead of sending Google money, education users and their students, like the rest of us, are contributing labor and data to the company. In Google’s own words:

The Google Privacy Policy describes fully how Google services generally use information, including for G Suite for Education users. To summarize, we use the information we collect from all of our services to provide, maintain, protect and improve them, to develop new ones, and to protect Google and our users. We also use this information to offer users tailored content, such as more relevant search results. We may combine personal information from one service with information, including personal information, from other Google services. [emphasis mine]

Another way to look at our relationship with Google comes from an essay in Slate about another free product that’s been in the news lately, Facebook.

There are at least two alternative ways of viewing our relationship to Facebook… The first is to view ourselves as customers of Facebook, paying with our time, attention, and data instead of with money. This implies greater responsibility on both sides.

The second is to view ourselves as part of Facebook’s labor force. Just as bees labor unwittingly on beekeepers’ behalf, our posts and status updates continually enrich Facebook.

Swap Google for Facebook in those statements. We help their marketing department by putting their name and products in front of students, often for many hours a day. We also provide the labor to help develop and test products that will make them a lot of money.

And do not assume students are protected by working in a “closed” Google Education environment. Unless your network never connects to the outside world, there are many ways for Google (and others) to connect your “anonymous” students to advertisers, now and in the future.

Anyway, even with all that, I’m not trying to convince you to quit using Google’s products, either personally or in the classroom. I use some of them myself (although not as much as I used to). I even present conference sessions and workshops encouraging teachers to use Google Earth and Google’s other geo-related resources for their instruction.

However, everyone needs to understand that the cost of “free” admission to Google (or any other services that don’t charge at the door) is your data. Data that is stored, analyzed, connected with other data, and occasionally sold, stolen, or otherwise distributed to third parties. With your permission, since you agreed to the terms of service you probably didn’t read when registering for that first Gmail address.

So, by all means, continue using Google and other free services. But, in the wise words of Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, let’s be careful out there.


If you’ve never seen the classic cop show Hill Street Blues, you’ve missed some good TV. At least for the first three or so seasons. I think it’s available on Hulu and maybe other streaming services.

My Flawed ISTE 2018 Journey Report

Smart badge cracked open

My personalized “ISTE 2018 journey” has arrived. This is the report generated from data gathered by the “smart badge technology” attached to our name badge holder. Data that ISTE said would provide us with a “more personalized learning experience”.

So, what insights and revelations does it reveal about my time in Chicago?

Frankly, not much. The report is simply an HTML email with links to program descriptions for the sessions I attended, plus links to “resources” provided by the presenters.

Except I didn’t attend half the sessions that ISTE’s tracker says I did. I’m very sure I was never in the room for “Amazing Must-Have Google Add-Ons, Tips & Tricks and Features You Never Knew” or “Mining Treasures in CSR: Timely, Curriculum-based. Free!”. No offense intended toward the presenters. Just not topics on my must-see list.

Some stops on my “journey” probably came from dropping into a room long enough to have a quick conversation with the presenter. For others, maybe I lingered too close to the room while tweeting or sending a text. And none of my time spent in the Bloggers’ Cafe or Posters area was recorded, even though ISTE placed their short, black receivers in those areas.

The report also doesn’t indicate whether I stayed for the whole session, only listing the time it was scheduled for. I know I was in a couple of sessions scheduled at the same time but ISTE’s tracker only seems to have captured the first one.1

Another oddity in my report is the list of vendors I visited. According to ISTE, this section was not generated by picking up the Bluetooth signal from the tag, only when my badge was scanned by a vendor.

Except that I never allowed anyone to scan my badge.

I did visit the Google booth a couple of times, primarily to see friends and talk to some members of the Geo Education team. But no one scanned me. For the other nine companies listed, I would have a hard time even telling you what they do just from their name. Maybe they had a device for scanning people as they passed. Certainly would be easy to do.

Anyway, the bottom line is that “Your ISTE 2018 Journey” really doesn’t tell me much. It certainly doesn’t explain what happens to my conference data now that the report has been sent. Will it be deleted or does ISTE plan to use it in other ways? Will it be shared with others outside the organization?

And a few other questions running around my warped brain…

Does the organization plan to use this technology again next year? If so, I wonder if the number of attendees who choose not to wear this “smart technology” (which really isn’t that smart) will spike. Will they be more aware and concerned with being tracked around a large convention center?

Is this technology hackable? At least two people I know wrote posts about being able to “see” the badges around them using a free smartphone app. As far as I know, they were only able to read the name assigned (mine was eventBit_18797) but that’s a first step to digging deeper. And possible misuse.

Maybe we need a pre-conference session on playing with this technology next June. It would be fun to see what could be done with tracking devices during ISTE 2019.


The picture is of my smart badge cracked open. Is there some way to read that chip?

1. I’m one of those annoying people who believes in the rule of two feet. If the presenter isn’t meeting my needs, I will get up and leave. Sorry, but I expect the same action from anyone attending a sessions I’m doing.

Following Your Every Step

Here at the annual ISTE edtech extravaganza, the organization decided to do something different this year. They gave everyone a “smart badge”.

The little unit attached to every badge holder (that’s it above, with some identifying info redacted) broadcasts a Bluetooth signal that is picked up and recorded by the units they have placed throughout the convention center (at the right). The goal is to send everyone a “customized ‘ISTE 2018 Journey’ report shortly after the conference”. A reminder of the sessions you went to and the vendors you visited.

I’m not sure whether to be amused, concerned, or outraged. Or all three.

Ok, maybe this doesn’t rise to the level of outrage. It’s certainly amusing and there are some concerns that should be raised. The biggest one being about how this data (which is being collected for ISTE by a third party) will ultimately be stored, secured, and used.

The FAQ that was discretely linked in one pre-conference message tries to answer some of them, assuring us the tracking data will “not be shared with anyone else regardless of who paid for your registration”. So they won’t be telling your principal that you attended one session and skipped the rest of the conference to see the sights.

There’s been a little discussion of this tracking program since the conference started, but not nearly as much as I expected. Maybe most of ~20,000 attendees trust ISTE to do the right thing. Possibly they just don’t care. More likely, most haven’t really thought about it in the way strange people like me do.

But this is one more example of how electronic tracking of is starting to trickle into mainstream activities. Long after governments and corporations started collecting data on us without any concent whatsoever.

At least at ISTE, we have the option of tearing the unit off the badge and doing something creative with it.

The Problem Is Greater Than Facebook

Following up on the previous post, a few more random thoughts related to the current Facebook data security mess.

First, the problem with the collection and use of personal data extends far beyond Facebook. Google, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp1, SnapChat, and many other social media companies all offer services you don’t pay for.

All make money through selling you, their “members”, to advertisers. All have long, legally detailed terms of service, which you agreed to (even if you didn’t read it), that allow them to use your contributions and data in pretty much any way they want. Which brings up copyright issues that are a whole ‘nother rant.

But it’s not just social media collecting your data. Plenty of companies that charge for products and services – Apple, Samsung, Amazon, your phone and cable companies, your supermarket, gas station, and big box stores (remember your loyalty card?) – collect valuable data on your buying habits. And pretty much anything else they can find. Information they can use to make even more profits.

It will be interesting to see whether Europe’s new data security laws, which take affect in May, will impact the behavior of Facebook and the others. One major goal of the legislation is to give users more control over their data, including the ability to have some of it deleted. Facebook and other data-driven companies, on the other hand, are dependent on users willingly giving over their information and not caring what happens next. 

Over here in the US, despite calls for investigation and pending lawsuits, our current laws probably don’t cover this situation. It’s also very unclear what new regulations on Facebook and other social media companies would look like, considering the long tradition of free speech rights in this country. Plus, if actual data breaches of the past are any indication, there isn’t a lot of political will to do anything related to consumer protection.

I’ve seen many calls on Twitter and elsewhere to delete your Facebook accounts. That’ll show them. Except it probably won’t since the people who actually follow through is a very, very small fraction of their overall membership. Plus, Facebook will still have your data and has the infrastructure in place to continue following you around the web.

On top of everything else, Facebook makes it very difficult to actually delete an account. Bill Fitzgerald, my go-to guy for understanding data security and privacy issues, has some recommendations for people who want to try. If you’d rather continue using Facebook, check out Wired’s guide to the complicated world of their privacy and security settings.

Finally, when Mark Zuckerberg’s name comes up in the news, does anyone else picture Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network? Considering Zuck’s shall we say “relaxed” attitude towards the privacy of his customers, I’m beginning to think the portrayal of him in that film wasn’t all that far from real life. Maybe he needs to hire Eisenberg to front him and get Aaron Sorkin to write the script. Certainly would be more entertaining.


Cartoon is by the wonderful Randall Munroe, posted at his site xkcd and used under a Creative Commons license. Check out his book What If? in which he answers absurd hypothetical questions with real science.

1. Instagram and WhatsApp are both owned by Facebook.

The Surveillance Classroom

During the 2016 holiday season, Amazon’s Alexa devices were huge sellers. Google was second in the category with Home. Apple just started shipping their Siri-enabled Homepod and they will probably sell a bunch of them.

So now tens of millions of homes have always-listening internet-connected microphones listening to every sound, and more are coming. This despite the many cautions from privacy experts about allowing large corporations to have access to a new continuous stream of auditory data. 

But who cares if the artificially intelligent software powering these devices is buggy? Does it matter that Amazon, Google, and Apple are vague about how they are using that information and who has access to it? Let’s bring these boxes into the classroom!

Michael Horn, co-author of Disrupting Class, the hot education-change book from a decade ago, says Alexa and her friends is “the next technology that could disrupt the classroom”.

It’s not entirely clear why Horn believes a “voice-activated” classroom would improve student learning. Other than that the superintendent he has interviewed is concerned that kids “will come in and will be used to voice-activated environments and technology-based learning programs”.

That’s nothing new. For a few decades (at least) we have been throwing technology into the classroom based on the premise that kids have the stuff at home. That approach hasn’t been especially successful, and Alexa is not likely to change that.

But these days, a major reason for using many, if not most, new classroom technologies is collecting and analyzing data.

These devices could also send teachers real-time data to help them know where and how they should intervene with individual students. Eastwood imagines that over time these technologies would also know the different students based on their reading levels, numeracy, background knowledge, and other areas, such that it could provide access to the appropriate OER content to support that specific child in continuing her learning.

Maybe I’m wrong but I think it’s better to have a teacher or other adult listening to kids.

Anyway, Horn presents a lot of questions about the use of Alexa and her peers in the classroom but his last one is probably the most salient: “What is the best use of big data and artificial intelligence in education?” Before ending, he also very briefly touches on the security of that data – “And there are bound to be privacy concerns.”. As I said, briefly.

But the bottom line to all this is whether we want Amazon, Google, or Apple surveillance devices collecting data on everything that happens in the classroom. Horn seems to think the technology could be disruptive. It sounds creepy and rather invasive to me.


The image is from an article about a contest Amazon is running for developers, with cash prizes for the best Alexa apps that are “educational, fun, engaging or all of the above for kids under the age of 13”.