Watch where you’re going! Pedestrian deaths reach 20-year high

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Recently, as my son and I were walking across the grocery store parking lot to get some groceries, we were nearly hit by a car whose driver seemed oblivious to our presence as she turned the corner. Luckily, we were paying attention and had time to get out of the way. As we continued into the store, a store employee who was collecting shopping carts and saw the incident shook his head sympathetically and said, “it happens all the time.” It’s actually the second time in a year we’ve been nearly mowed down in the grocery store parking lot.

It’s a dangerous time to be a pedestrian in the United States. The Governors Highway Safety Administration just released its annual study of pedestrian deaths, which examines the problem of people getting killed after being struck by vehicles. The grim statistic: nearly 6,000 pedestrians died in 2016, the highest in 20 years.

That’s a 25 percent increase from 2010, making pedestrians the largest portion of all traffic deaths recorded in the past 25 years. And the 2016 spike marks an 11 percent increase from 2015 (the previous record-holder). The GHSA, a nonprofit made up of state highway safety offices, notes that the numbers could be higher, owing to the under-reporting of incidents. All told, 34 states had increases, and Mississippi ranked 20th in the nation for deaths as a percentage of total population for the first six months of 2016 (that’s actually an improvement from the previous year, but the second-half 2016 statistics haven’t come in yet.)

So, what’s causing all this mayhem? The authors of the study note the rapid increase in the use of smartphones could help explain at least part of the phenomenon because these devices present a “significant source of distraction for both pedestrians and motorists.”

We’ve all seen them, and maybe you’ve been one of them: people whose attention is focused on their smartphone while walking carelessly. Videos abound of people falling headlong into fountains, disappearing into open manholes or tripping on the curb while checking their email, posting to Facebook or looking for that elusive “Pokemon Go” character. Others fail to pay attention to oncoming traffic while crossing the street, leading to their being struck and often killed.

Drivers, too, are distracted. It’s been well-established that phone use while driving can present a serious attention deficit for drivers, becoming more serious the faster they drive. Unsurprisingly, alcohol also plays a role here, as it does in auto crashes in general. Thirty-four percent of pedestrians and 15 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes were intoxicated at the time of the crash, noted the study.

And although vehicles are getting better about avoiding crashing into things through collision-avoidance technologies, and local cities and states are taking measures to make things safer, the numbers continue to rise. It could be, the study’s authors note, more people are walking for fitness and economic reasons at the same time the numbers of vehicles on the road has risen because of the improving economy.

“This latest data shows that the U.S. isn’t meeting the mark on keeping pedestrians safe on our roadways,” Jonathan Adkins, GHSA executive director, told PBS Newshour. “Every one of these lives represents a loved one not coming home tonight, which is absolutely unacceptable.”

The Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (pedbikeinfo.org) has some helpful tips to make your walk or run safer. Here are a few:

  • Wear brightly colored clothing and reflective tape at night. These can help increase your visibility to motorists.
  • Always walk on the sidewalk if one is available; if not, walk facing traffic so you can see approaching vehicles.
  • Don’t assume drivers will stop. Try to make eye contact with the driver and be prepared to move if he or she doesn’t appear to notice you.
  • Cross streets only at crosswalks, if possible.
  • Don’t wear earbuds or use your phone while walking.

And finally, if you’re a driver in the grocery store parking lot, please … slow down, put down your phone and pay attention. You might save a life.

Study: Teens losing sleep to mobile devices

Source: Study: Teens losing sleep to mobile devices

You may recall we recently reported that, while parents tended to worry about their children’s use of mobile devices, they were essentially blind to their own excessive usage of the devices. We parents often just don’t seem to have a very good handle on the issue of how our kids are using their phones and other devices.

The point has recently been made once again, as a new study in a British journal has illuminated a secret many teens are keeping. It seems the day’s texting, web surfing and gameplay are continuing well into the night for many, disrupting in the process much-needed sleep. Of course, it’s not entirely a new phenomenon: bookish teens have for decades covertly sneaked a copy of their favorite book under the covers and read with a flashlight while their parents blissfully slumbered down the hall, oblivious.

What’s new, of course, is that the little devices we carry with us constantly are powerful and even addictive. And such habits, while they may seem harmless, might actually have profound negative effects because they’re occurring at the very time teens need good sleep — and a lot of it.

In her Journal of Youth Studies article, Cardiff University Researcher Sally Power studied about 900 young people between 12 and 15. Subjects were asked whether they got up during the night to check their mobile devices. As many as one in five reported getting up regularly to check their email, text or social media accounts, and kids who admitted to nighttime usage were three times more likely to report feeling sleepy or excessively tired the next day.

“Our research shows that a small but significant number of children and young people say that they often go to school feeling tired — and these are the same young people who also have the lowest levels of well-being,” Power noted.

And there were gender differences as well: Power’s study found that, among younger subjects, more than a quarter of girls reported waking up to check their devices, while only about 15 percent of boys checked in during the night.

While the problem may seem like just a sleepy kid at breakfast, it may go deeper. The National Sleep Foundation reports teens need at least eight to 10 hours of quality sleep per night. Not getting enough sleep can cause a variety of problems, such as obesity, daytime sleepiness, lessened attention span and poor grades. Some researchers have connected the light from many devices with decreased levels of melatonin, a chemical emitted by the brain that helps regulate your sleep-wake cycles. And some types of light — such as the  bluish tints coming from device screens — are believed to be especially potent at suppressing melatonin.

Although Power stopped short at declaring the problem an “epidemic” or advocating a “prescribed” sleep period, she noted the research seems to confirm other research that found “significant and serious implications of the night-time use of social media for levels of tiredness and well-being.”

For parents interested in addressing this issue, the website Teensafe.com has some tips. Among them:

  • Consider a “Family Smartphone Contract.” Talk with your kids about your concerns over nighttime phone use and get them to sign a contract that they’ll abide by it. (This depends, of course, on trust.)
  • Control your Wi-Fi. Although it’s not a perfect solution (some phone features can work using the phone’s data plan), your home network controls might allow you to set specific time limits for general use, or even restrict sites — such as social media sites — at specified times.

It also might be a good idea to set a good example. Asking our teens to curb their phone usage has little impact if we set a double standard. Limiting our own usage at night not only can help us keep the moral high ground but also help us; we could all benefit from a better night’s sleep.

Do what we say, not what we do?

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via Do what we say, not what we do? on clarion-ledger.com

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Most of us parents like to think we’re setting a pretty good example for our kids. We try to make sure they make the right decisions in every facet of life. I can still remember my parents reminding me to eat right, sit back from the TV, don’t read in the dark, and giving me a thousand other pieces of advice.

Most of the time, we convince ourselves we’re doing a pretty good job of modeling good behavior for our kids, but a new study has suggested many of us are just not setting a very good example when it comes to consuming media on screened devices.

In a first-of-its-kind study released this week, parenting organization Common Sense Media found that, on average, parents spend more than nine hours a day with screen media (smartphones, TVs, computers, tablets, smartwatches and other devices). Most of that use is personal (not work-related). Interestingly, while the vast majority of parents believe we’re setting a good example for our kids when it comes to devices, we’re concerned about their use of technology. And about a third of us are concerned our kids’ use of these devices is keeping our children from getting enough sleep.

“These findings are fascinating because parents are using media for entertainment just as much as their kids, yet they express concerns about their kids’ media use while also believing that they are good role models for their kids,” said James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense. “Media can add a lot of value to relationships, education, and development, and parents clearly see the benefits, but if they are concerned about too much media in their kids’ lives, it might be time to reassess their own behavior so that they can truly set the example they want for their kids.”

The study, titled the Common Sense Census: Plugged-In Parents of Tweens and Teens, pointed out that many parents are so worried about their kids’ use of media that more than two-thirds believe monitoring their media use is more important than respecting their privacy. It also had some interesting findings about how parents from different races, income levels and educational backgrounds differ in their use of screen time, and the level to which they’re worried about their kids’ device use.

The findings should be a wake-up call for all of us; there’s little doubt that all of this screen use must be having some effect on our children. And while we are justifiably concerned about the potential negative effects of all of these media interactions, it appears many of us just aren’t applying the same logic to ourselves. And — of course — actions speak much, much louder than words.

“Children are great mimics, which is why it is so important that parents introduce real boundaries and balance early on,” Steyer said. “Media will always be a part of life, and every family is different, but in general, we recommend that parents set rules and clear plans so that kids understand what is appropriate.”

One interesting finding from the study might help us rediscover a tradition with which many of us grew up — family dinner time. More than three of four parents who participated in the survey reported that electronic devices are prohibited during family meal times.

Common Sense is trying to encourage that trend with a multiyear national media campaign, #DeviceFreeDinner (#CenarSinCelular in Spanish), to encourage families to stop using their mobile devices at the dinner table. The organization reports that thousands of people have taken the challenge, which will be promoted during the holidays in advertising messages.

So, while we parents are rightfully concerned about all the screens that constantly seek to draw our children’s attention, it might be a good idea to look in the mirror and have an honest conversation with ourselves about the type of example we’re setting. The result could be actually getting to know the people sitting across from us at the dinner table.

Silencing cellphones for safety goal

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via Silencing cellphones for safety goal

At some point in the not-too-distant future, using a cellphone in a vehicle could be as unacceptable as lighting up a cigarette in a no-smoking zone is today. The alarming rise of texting-related deaths and injuries has fueled a national discussion about the dangers of using phones and other devices in vehicles. Device providers and manufacturers are facing increasing pressure from safety advocates and others, who warn the problem is only getting worse.

Government agencies and private companies and organizations have spent millions on campaigns to make people aware of the dangers and change their habits. But it many such messages are going unheeded.

According to the U.S. government website distraction.gov, 3,179 Americans died in 2014 due to a variety of distractions, but cellphone use led the list. Young drivers appear particularly susceptible to distracted driving, constituting four in 10 (38 percent) of drivers in fatal crashes who had been using their phones.

MOAK: Get off the phone and #justdrive

Of course, distraction takes many forms; who hasn’t seen people putting on makeup, shaving, reading newspapers or fiddling with the radio while behind the wheel? But of all the things that can distract us, perhaps none is so dangerous as using a mobile device.

The attention required to take your eyes off the road and focus on your device’s screen can be costly. An often-cited example says that looking at your screen for even four to five seconds at 55 mph can mean your car travels the length of a football field without anyone watching. That’s pretty scary when you consider that a lot can happen in that short time: a neighboring vehicle can swerve into your lane; you can swerve because you’re not paying attention; a pedestrian or animal can cross into your path; the driver of the car in front of you can slam on his brakes.

Even the act of talking on a phone can distract our attention. While you might think that getting drivers to stop texting is priority No. 1, many advocates are aiming for a bigger prize; they want to ban mobile device use in vehicles altogether, whether used by drivers or passengers. Some advocates note the mere presence of a phone in the vehicle is distracting enough to pull a driver’s attention away from the task of driving. Few people can truly ignore a ringing phone or a ping letting you know you’ve gotten a text message.

A Ridgeland-based company called VRM Telematics has brought to market what some might consider a radical solution: a device called Sentinel, a small black box that connects directly to the vehicle’s electrical system. You buy the device for $199, then pay $19.99 a month for the service.

The device hides inconspicuously under the dash but constantly monitoring for the presence of cellular signals in the car. If signals are detected, the Sentinel device will send a warning to the driver to turn off the phone, or switch it to airplane mode. If others in the car use their devices, they’ll set off the Sentinel as well.

The device also tracks the vehicle’s location and speed and can send a text message or email to a parent or guardian if it detects cellphones, if the driver is speeding, if the vehicle strays from a certain predetermined geographic radius or drives past a certain time of day. Parents can check the vehicle’s location at any time. It’s a lot of control but promises to give anxious parents a little reassurance about their teen’s driving behavior.

VRM Telematics offered to let me use a Sentinel device for a couple of weeks during the summer. The device was quickly and easily installed, and as I drove out of the parking lot, it immediately warned me with a loud beep and recorded message to put my phone on airplane mode. Over the next several days, I learned to immediately switch to airplane mode and to watch my speed unless I wanted to hear the grating alarm and voice. However, I began to understand the power of such a device to regulate behavior most of us have come to accept as normal.

I noticed on the Sentinel site that my friend Pepper Carter had earlier been asked to be part of a test group. Carter, the mother of teenage boys, was interested because she wanted to help her sons learn good driving habits from the start. She was so impressed that she went on to record a promotional video about the Sentinel program, telling about her son Spencer’s experiences.

“I was very open to the idea because Spencer was an emerging driver,” she said. “The results were great! The reporting that I got allowed us to have great conversations about driving behaviors (good and bad) before they became habits. It helped Spencer to not text and drive, keep his speed down and all in all practice safe driving skills that are now habits.”

Besides marketing the Sentinel device, VRM has also become involved in efforts to get cellphone companies to change a basic feature of their phones: They want manufacturers to change “Airplane” mode to “Airplane/Drive” mode.

The company recently partnered with nonprofit consumer advocacy group We Save Lives to petition cellphone companies to make the change. We Save Lives is led by Candace Lightner, well-known for her previous founding of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Launched on Oct. 13, “Margay’s Petition” honors Margay Schee, a 13-year-old honors student who died in 2008 when a truck slammed into the back of her stopped school bus near Ocala, Florida. The driver reportedly told police he had been distracted by his cellphone.

Regardless of where we come down on the issue of using mobile devices while driving, it’s likely we’ll see more laws and regulations that will take away our right to make those choices. Until that happens, though, we still can choose. Making our cars “phone-free” zones, pulling over if we need to make a call or check messages, and training our kids to do the same can go a long way toward changing behaviors and saving lives.

For more about Sentinel, visit www.drivewithsentinel.com. To sign Margay’s Petition, visit http://wesavelives.org/campaigns/airplane-drive-mode/.

Sell or recycle old cellphones

via Sell or recycle old cellphones

Remember how great it felt to have that new cellphone in your hand for the first time? Even jaded users experience that rush that comes with taking your phone out of the package and playing around with its new features. The case is all shiny, the screen un-cracked and pristine, the memory lightning fast and uncluttered by (way-too-many) songs, apps and photos.

But, like the object of many a wispy summer romance, our affections wane over time. It doesn’t help that our phone carriers are always enticing us with the newest models, tantalizing us with their new-and-improved features so they can start the cycle anew. With every new iPhone release, crowds curl around the block, salivating with anticipation at being one of the first to own the “latest” model. Billions are spent annually on marketing to increase demand for new releases.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the average life of a cellphone this year is about 29 months. Interestingly, that number has been trending upward in the past two years, as many phone carriers have shifted their strategy from providing us with discounted prices on the latest new phones in exchange for us signing onerous contracts. Now, the trend is for providers to make us pay full price (albeit in installments), with the incentive being that we won’t have to sign up for a contract.

Logically, there is no really good reason to ditch a current phone as long as it keeps functioning, its batteries take a decent charge, you take it out of your pants pocket before washing (a lesson I learned the hard way) and you don’t care about having the latest features. Phones are actually pretty well-designed (notwithstanding the occasional new models that suddenly burst into flames, as with the Galaxy Note 7). With proper care, most phones can last well beyond the release of their successor models.

But if and when you do get ready to break up with your current phone, there are some good (and bad) ways to go. Just  last week, after thousands of complaints, the Federal Trade Commission busted a Georgia company that allegedly baited consumers with great prices to buy back their old devices, only to dash customers’ hopes with lower-than-promised prices, making it nearly impossible to get their phones back if they rejected the lower offer, and incentivizing their employees to minimize prices paid to consumers.

So, how do you avoid getting ripped off when trying to get a little cash for your old phone? While it might be tempting to just chuck an old device into the trash, that’s bad for the environment. Most electronics contain harmful chemicals that could leach into the soil. You could recycle it. If you don’t care about whether your old phone might be worth a buck or two, there are many places (such as Best Buy stores) that have receptacles for your old electronics. You could donate it to a charity (such as Verizon’s HopeLine, Cell Phones for Soldiers or many others).

But if you’re willing to spend a few minutes to see if that old phone (or tablet, or mp3 player) is worth a few bucks, you have many options. There is a big secondary market out there for used devices. Here are a few options to consider:

  • Trade it in for a new model with your carrier. Many cell service carriers will allow you to trade in your old device for credit against your account. But if you do, be sure about what you’re agreeing to; you might be signing up for a new contract in the process.
  • Sell it online through a service. Many services have popped up in recent years, such as Gazelle, which will quote you a price for your device, then will pay you (by PayPal, direct deposit or check) when you’ve sent them the device and they’ve checked it out.  If you choose this route, tread carefully; by sending the device, you lose all hope of getting it back if the company turns out to be disreputable. In many cases, these companies will even pay for devices that have minor damage.
  • Sell it online yourself. By going through auction sites like Ebay, you can negotiate directly with the seller. You might get better prices this way, but there’s more work involved, and buyers usually want a near-perfect device if they’re paying top dollar.
  • Trade it at a kiosk. At many retailers (such as Wal-Mart) are kiosks operated by a company called EcoATM. At these kiosks, you can get a quote for your device and actually get cash on the spot. The kiosk will examine your device (after you provide some valid ID and a fingerprint to verify your identity), and make you an offer if there’s a demand. If you accept, you’ll take home some green.
  • Trade it through a retailer. Many online (as well as bricks-and-mortar) retailers, such as Amazon, Best Buy and GameStop, have buyback programs that might be worth investigating.

For some excellent advice on this topic, including contact info for many of the options above, check out Jessica Dolcourt’s great article at CNET.com.

Some uh-ohs with Pokemon GO

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theweek.com

via Some uh-ohs with Pokemon GO, clarionledger.com

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“Oh, wonderful,” I muttered to myself as I perused story after story about Pokemon GO. “Another way to keep people glued to their phone screens while they walk into open manholes and traffic.” And sure enough, this new game has exploded across the globe, reviving the moribund Pokemon brand and helping introduce a new generation to the devilishly cute cartoon creatures. If you see knots of people who appear to be wandering aimlessly around your neighborhood, transfixed by their phone screens and oblivious to all else around them, it could be Pokemon GO.

In case you’ve been on Pluto the past week and haven’t checked your newsfeed, Pokemon GO is an “augmented reality” game played through an app, a sort of scavenger hunt in which people visit a specific (real-world) location to find and “collect” Pokemon characters. The app will activate your phone’s camera feature when a Pokemon is “nearby”, superimposing the cartoon creatures on the image of a park bench, a monument, a landscape, or (disturbingly) inside people’s homes.

(For the uninitiated, “Pokemon” is a shortened form of “pocket monsters” and first became known a couple of decades ago as kids played Pokemon games on their Game Boy handheld consoles, watched Pokemon cartoons, and — of course — traded Pokemon cards.)

While it is laudable that the game is getting couch potatoes off their feet and involved in social interaction, the game has also created a slew of problems and concerns, ranging from players being targeted by crooks (even right here in central Mississippi), to users disrespecting somber sites, like Arlington National Cemetery, the Holocaust Museum and the 911 Memorial. It has also alarmed many people because the app is collecting personal data from cellphone users, including users’ birthdays, email addresses and physical location.

Here are a few of the concerns that have been raised, and although many users are young adults, the game is especially magnetic for kids and teens. The ever-reliable Consumer Reports published an article by Tercius Bufete, who along with many others has highlighted things parents should be concerned about:

  • It’s only free to a point. While the app is free to download, users can make in-app purchases up to $99.99. Also, the app uses constant location tracking, which can drive up your data usage, and since distracted kids can easily drop their devices as they hunt, it could result in broken devices requiring costly repairs. Before using the game, check the settings to ensure in-app purchases are controlled.
  • Stranger danger. The game encourages players to work with other people, which could be concerning because your kids might be interacting with strangers. An in-game feature called “Lure Module,” which attracts Pokemon to a “PokeStop” for 30 minutes, could be used to lure people to a place where they could be attacked or abducted. It would be a good idea to ensure your kids travel in groups of people you know, and never go alone.
  • Personal data could be compromised. The product requires you to register, and although the app does include a parental notice that they can request restrictions on personal data, it will also collect data on the user’s specific location, and keeps messages sent between players.
  • Trespassing. When the geocaching craze hit a few years ago, property owners raised concerns about people stomping across their property looking for hidden caches of “treasure” using GPS devices. Similarly, there have already been many cases of Pokemon GO users entering personal property while hunting for Pokemon characters. Users could easily wander into a dangerous construction site, for example, or be mistaken for thieves.
  • Personal injury. When your attention is glued to your phone screen while walking, you might easily stumble on a curb or obstacle, or into a busy street. Studies have shown that texting can change the way you walk, leading to potential injury and even death. Over the past several years, people have been killed as they used their mobile devices while walking.

While Pokemon GO is probably like a meteor that will burn brightly for a while, then be replaced by the next shiny object, it’s likely that it’s a harbinger of things to come, as the “digital” world merges with the “real” world. For parents, the task will be to ensure our kids are as safe and informed as we can make them as they live in the new realities to come.

iPhone gateway to organ donation

Organ donor word cloud with abstract background

via iPhone gateway to organ donation, clarionledger.com

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Our phones have become virtually an extension of our bodies, so perhaps it’s not surprising that those devices are becoming equipped with tools to make those bodies work better. Already, smartphones (and a fast-evolving universe of associated devices) can monitor and track our health, make it easier for us to eat right and exercise, and potentially extend our lives.

But industry leader Apple has announced its plans to take health a step further by enabling iPhone users to sign up to become organ and tissue donors when they die. In a unique partnership unveiled  last week, Apple and Donate Life Americaannounced the upcoming iOS 10 update (scheduled for rollout in the fall) will include the option to register your wishes to donate your organs upon your death. Since there about 101 million iPhone users in the nation, that’s a lot of people who might not have considered making this life-saving decision.

Of course, anyone who has a Mississippi driver’s license is familiar with the decision to become an organ donor (indicated by a “heart” symbol). But this partnership promises to increase not only the number of people on the registry, but to raise awareness of the issue. In a news release, Apple noted that more than 120,000 Americans are waiting for life-saving organs, with many dying before organs become available. A new name is added to the waiting list every 10 minutes.

Here in Mississippi, the Mississippi Organ Recovery Agency maintains Mississippi’s organ registry in collaboration with Donate Life America. The registry was started in 2008 by the Mississippi Legislature. MORA President and CEO Kevin Stump told me he’s excited about the new technology and its promise to increase awareness of the need for organ and tissue donation.

“I hope this announcement will help us solve part of the puzzle to someday ending deaths of those on the waiting list for a lifesaving transplant,” he said. “We want to give people in Mississippi and across the nation the opportunity to sign up and help others get their names on the registry.”

The registry he’s referring to is a national list of organ donors, maintained by Donate Life America. Stump noted Mississippi’s list includes about 1,200 people waiting on a “life-saving” organ transplant, with many others in need of organs or tissue to enhance their quality of life. Stump noted the  Apple announcement had been in the works for about 18 months.

“On average, one person dies every hour in the United States waiting for an organ transplant because the demand for lifesaving transplants far exceeds the available supply of organs — and one donor can save as many as eight lives,” said David Fleming, president  and CEO of Donate Life America. “By working with Apple to bring the National Donate Life Registry to the Health app on iPhone, we’re making it easier for people to find out about organ, eye and tissue donation and quickly register. This is a huge step forward that will ultimately help save lives.”

The new feature will be included in the “Medical ID” feature of the Health app, built into the iPhone’s operating system. Apple notes that Medical ID will make emergency information — including organ donor status — easily accessible for first responders.

“Apple’s mission has always been to create products that transform people’s lives. With the updated Health app, we’re providing education and awareness about organ donation and making it easier than ever to register. It’s a simple process that takes just a few seconds and could help save up to eight lives,” said Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer. “Together with Donate Life America, we’re excited to deliver this new feature to iPhone users in the U.S. with iOS 10.”

Donor details

If you’d like to get your name on the list now, you don’t have to wait; visit www.itssupereasy.org. To find out more about MORA and organ donation, visit http://www.msora.org/.

Are apps tracking your kids?

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Stock Photo

via Moak: Are apps tracking your kids?, clarionledger.com

When we install a new app on our smartphones or other devices, most of us will quickly give our consent to the verification screen that pops up, which asks us to verify our privacy preferences. It might ask for permission to peruse your social media profile, provide location information, and even post to Facebook and other social media on your behalf. Because you’re in a hurry to get the app loaded, it’s easy to click “OK” and get on with our lives.

Few of us pay attention to this small (but important) question, but the apps we download could actually be providing a lot of information about us to companies who want to track our movements and preferences, monitor our activities and even gather information about us to sell to others.

Since many devices have “geo-location” capabilities, they can detect where your smartphone (and, by extension, you) are, with an impressively small degree of error. Some devices can even track your location in stores, figure out what merchandise you might be examining and predict your purchasing habits with amazing accuracy. Of course, if you’re OK with this, it’s not a problem. But for many people, it would be disturbing if they knew how much information was being shared without their knowledge or consent.

But a recent case has illustrated that apps can be gathering much more than you think. A Singapore-based company called InMobi will pay nearly $1 million in civil penalties and implement a comprehensive privacy program to settle Federal Trade Commission charges it deceptively tracked the locations of consumers without their knowledge to serve them geo-targeted advertising.

“InMobi tracked the locations of hundreds of millions of consumers, including children, without their consent, in many cases totally ignoring consumers’ express privacy preferences,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “This settlement ensures that InMobi will honor consumers’ privacy choices in the future, and will be held accountable for keeping their privacy promises.”

Among the FTC’s allegations is that InMobi mispresented that its advertising software would only track consumers’ locations when they opted in and in a manner consistent with their device’s privacy settings. “According to the complaint,” noted the FTC, “InMobi was actually tracking consumers’ locations whether or not the apps using InMobi’s software asked for consumers’ permission to do so, and even when consumers had denied permission to access their location information.

The company, which has reportedly reached more than a billion devices worldwide through thousands of popular apps, has a huge global footprint. The FTC alleges inMobi “created a database built on information collected from consumers who allowed the company access to their geolocation information, combining that data with the wireless networks they were near to document the physical location of wireless networks themselves. InMobi then would use that database to infer the physical location of consumers based on the networks they were near, even when consumers had turned off location collection on their device.”

InMobi stands accused of violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act by collecting this information from apps that were clearly directed at children, “in spite of promising that it did not do so.” The complaint noted that InMobi’s software tracked location in thousands of child-directed apps with hundreds of millions of users without following the steps required by the act to get a parent or guardian’s consent to collect and use a child’s personal information.

Under the terms of the settlement, InMobi was originally assessed a $4 million civil penalty, which is suspended to $950,000 based on the company’s financial condition. In addition, the company will be required to delete all information it collected from children and will be prohibited from further violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

The company will also be prohibited from collecting consumers’ location information without their affirmative express consent for it to be collected, among other conditions, and must create an extensive privacy program, with monitoring and independent auditing every two years.

The FTC has some good tips at http://1.usa.gov/28PC3K5 to help you learn more about device tracking.

Amazon’s in-app payout pending

amazon

Reed Saxon, AP

via Moak: Amazon’s in-app payout pending, clarionledger.com

Back in 2014, I wrote about how the Federal Trade Commission had sued Amazon.com over allowing children to charge things on smartphone and tablet apps without their parents’ consent. The online commerce giant was at that time accused of not only allowing kids to rack up charges on their parents’ accounts, but profiting from it. The tech website CNET.com estimates 2015 in-app purchases (known as IAP) were expected to reach $5.6 billion across the industry.

Just last week, a federal court granted the  FTC’ request for summary judgment in the case, which mirrors similar cases against online giants Apple and Google. The judgment allows the parties in the case to proceed with determining just how much the company is going to have to hand over to regulators, as well as figuring out how much (if anything) consumers will be refunded.

In the Apple and Google cases, charges were settled some time ago and cost the companies about $50 million in refunds to consumers.

The original complaint alleges Amazon.com knew about the issue for years, and cited internal documents warning the situation could easily escalate out of control.

According to the FTC, many parents complained that their kids had been racking up charges in the “free” apps, without giving them enough information to learn how to prevent it. Amazon argued it gave sufficient notice that in-app charges could occur, and that parents could forestall charges if they wanted.

At issue is the practice of granting users of smartphone, tablet and computer apps the ability to get upgrades, or to purchase game incentives. For example, a user of an online role-playing game called “Ice Age Village” could buy virtual “coins” and “acorns” once their free supply had run out. The items could be charged to a linked account, and the owner of the account (usually a parent) would get the unwelcome bill later. Charges for some games can reach hundreds of dollars or more. (That’s in real money, not virtual cash).

Companies marketing these games understand how to lure customers, often offering “free” versions with limited expansion. But once you’ve played all the levels in the free (“freemium”) version, you’ve got to pay up if you want to continue. CNET noted one popular game called “My Little Pony” allowed users to initially  play for free, earning experience points and unlocking six “ponies” as they went. But CNET’s Michelle Starr, after playing the game, noted, if they wanted access to higher levels, they would have to pay up.

“It is, quite simply put, the most blatant demonstration of sheer greed that I’ve ever seen in a freemium title,” Starr reported. Gameloft and Hasbro knew the legions of ‘My Little Pony’ fans would flock to the title, and that they would want that last pony unlocked. They also, presumably, knew that children would gravitate toward the game as well.”

Cyberspace is full of horror stories about shocked parents who got the bill for their kids’ in-app purchases. One notorious example was detailed in December, when a British child allegedly racked up more than $5,800 playing an iPad game called “Jurassic World,” at one point charging $2,200 in a single hour.

“We are pleased the federal judge found Amazon liable for unfairly billing consumers for unauthorized in-app purchases by children,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “We look forward to making a case for full refunds to consumers as a result of Amazon’s actions.”

Parents aren’t powerless when it comes to controlling their kids’ online purchases, but it requires a little knowledge and an understanding. The site digitaltrends.com has some great advice. Keep in mind that the options for controlling in-app purchases may differ with the brand and type of device. For example, iPhones and other Apple products have different options than Android and other types of devices.

If you’re not sure whether your kids can charge in-app purchases on your device, it’s a good idea to find out now, before it becomes a problem. Here are some links to advice:

Get off the phone, and #justdrive

Capturevia Bill Moak: Get off the phone, and #justdrive, clarionledger.com

Perusing my Twitter feed recently, I came across a video about the dangers of distracted driving. Three teens are in a car, with two girls in the front seat laughing and having a good time as they drive down a road. A tassel hangs from the rearview mirror. The young driver appears to be watching the road — until she picks up her phone for a few seconds. The camera cuts to the view from the side, showing the car blowing past a stop sign. A large truck suddenly looms in the window.

The next, nightmarish seconds alternate between slow and fast motion, punctuated with flying glass and bodies, the sickening screech of ripping metal, popping of airbags and screams as the car flips several times. A message appears on the screen: “If you’re texting, you’re not driving.”

“If every teen driver saw this,” I thought to myself, “they might think twice about picking up that phone.” As the parents of one teen driver and another who’ll soon be behind the wheel, the message hits home for my wife and me. But despite years of efforts by various government and safety groups, the rates of distracted driving still appear to be rising; people just aren’t getting the message.

RELATED: Anti Texting and Driving Device for Teens

In 2014, according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration news release, 3,179 people died and an additional 431,000 were injured in collisions involving distracted drivers in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Distracted driving has been blamed for a spike in auto crashes and injuries in the past few years, reversing decades of declines in auto deaths resulting from improved safety features and safer habits.

So, one government agency has taken off the proverbial gloves, and is using social media to call out people who admit they look at their phones while driving. The NHTSA is using its Twitter account to publicly “shame” admitted texting drivers. It’s part of the agency’s efforts to fight distracted driving during April, designated as Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

“Behind every distracted driving death is a story of loss,” noted U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “In the blink of an eye, lives can be transformed forever. Scrolling through song lists on a cell phone, or texting while driving is not just irresponsible, it can have tragic consequences. We’re calling on drivers to put down their devices and help keep the roadways safe for all Americans.”

TONY JEFF: Technology and distracted driving

In response to the agency’s efforts on social media, a number of users have fired back, admitting — and even in some cases, defending — their own distracted driving.

“Texting and driving actually is pretty efficient,” claimed one tweet by a user named @Narnold98. In response. The NHTSA’s Twitter account (@NHTSAgov) replied, “If by ‘efficient’ you mean ‘super dangerous and dumb’, then yeah, it’s pretty efficient, @Narnold98. Please stay off the phone & #justdrive.”

Many Twitter and Snapchat users were downright hostile at what they saw as meddling in their personal affairs. “I text and drive so what?” noted @nurnurein. “So you’re putting yourself and others in danger, @nurnurein, and that’s something we can’t accept,” replied @NHTSAgov. Please put down the phone and #justdrive.”

Predictably, the move has brought criticism from some quarters, with some even accusing the NHTSA of “cyberbullying.“ Others, though, have called it “gutsy,” with Fortune declaring it “pretty definitively the best government use of social media of all time.”

And before we just assume that all texting drivers are teens or young adults, Twitter user @5thRoman outed his own grandmother. “Caught Grandma texting and driving!” to which the NHTSA replied, “Well … with age doesn’t always come wisdom, @5thRoman. Tell Grandma to stay off her phone and #justdrive.”

The website distraction.gov, which has numerous resources related to the topic, has a great three-point pledge you can take with your family. You can download it atdistraction.gov.