Student surveillance and online proctoring

To combat cheating during online exams, many schools have utilized services that try to detect unusual behavior through webcam video. As with most automated surveillance systems, there are some issues. For The Washington Post, Drew Harwell looks into the social implications of student surveillance:

Fear of setting off the systems’ alarms has led students to contort themselves in unsettling ways. Students with dark skin have shined bright lights at their face, worrying the systems wouldn’t recognize them. Other students have resorted to throwing up in trash cans.

Some law students who took New York’s first online bar exam last month, a 90-minute test proctored by the company ExamSoft, said they had urinated in their chairs because they weren’t allowed to leave their computers, according to a survey by two New York state lawmakers pushing to change the rules for licensing new attorneys during the pandemic.


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New Lab Matters: A game-changer in the fight against antibiotic resistance

New Lab Matters (cover): A game-changer in the fight against antibiotic resistance

Given the global rise of drug-resistant pathogens over the past few decades, some physicians and scientists warn of a possible antibiotic apocalypse—a scary, post-antibiotic era. But a $160 million CDC effort now aims to keep antibiotic resistance rare. And as our feature article shows, the “game-changing” keystone of this effort is the Antibiotic Resistance Laboratory Network.

Here are just a few of this issue’s highlights:

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The post New Lab Matters: A game-changer in the fight against antibiotic resistance appeared first on APHL Lab Blog.

Unproven aggression detectors, more surveillance

In some public places, such as schools and hospitals, microphones installed with software listen for noise that sounds like aggression. The systems alert the authorities. It sounds useful, but in practice, the detection algorithms might not be ready yet. For ProPublica, Jack Gillum and Jeff Kao did some testing:

Yet ProPublica’s analysis, as well as the experiences of some U.S. schools and hospitals that have used Sound Intelligence’s aggression detector, suggest that it can be less than reliable. At the heart of the device is what the company calls a machine learning algorithm. Our research found that it tends to equate aggression with rough, strained noises in a relatively high pitch, like D’Anna’s coughing. A 1994 YouTube clip of abrasive-sounding comedian Gilbert Gottfried (“Is it hot in here or am I crazy?”) set off the detector, which analyzes sound but doesn’t take words or meaning into account. Although a Louroe spokesman said the detector doesn’t intrude on student privacy because it only captures sound patterns deemed aggressive, its microphones allow administrators to record, replay and store those snippets of conversation indefinitely.


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When surveillance turns into stalking

Many surveillance apps cater to parents who want to keep tabs on their children who have mobile phones. Many of these apps are used for less parental purposes. Jennifer Valentino-DeVries for The New York Times reports:

More than 200 apps and services offer would-be stalkers a variety of capabilities, from basic location tracking to harvesting texts and even secretly recording video, according to a new academic study. More than two dozen services were promoted as surveillance tools for spying on romantic partners, according to the researchers and reporting by The New York Times. Most of the spying services required access to victims’ phones or knowledge of their passwords — both common in domestic relationships.

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Amazon Rekognition for government surveillance

Amazon’s Rekognition is a video analysis system that promises to identify individuals in real-time. Amazon wants to sell the systems to governments for surveillance.

From the ACLU:

Amazon is marketing Rekognition for government surveillance. According to its marketing materials, it views deployment by law enforcement agencies as a “common use case” for this technology. Among other features, the company’s materials describe “person tracking” as an “easy and accurate” way to investigate and monitor people. Amazon says Rekognition can be used to identify “people of interest,” raising the possibility that those labeled suspicious by governments — such as undocumented immigrants or Black activists — will be seen as fair game for Rekognition surveillance. It also says Rekognition can monitor “all faces in group photos, crowded events, and public places such as airports,” at a time when Americans are joining public protests at unprecedented levels.

Given the millions of Alexa-enabled devices in people’s homes and customer purchase histories available on-demand, this feels like a bad idea. Also, creepy. Probably because of the ‘k’ in Rekognition.

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Sickle Cell Disease: Data Saves Lives

Woman receiving care at the new sickle cell clinic in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Outpatient Center in Los Angeles, California.

“One minute I’d be fine, the next minute I’d be in pain. It would just come out of nowhere,” says Tywan Willis. “I would have pain in my lower back, my shoulders, and sometimes in my legs. I can’t describe it. I just know it’s a really bad pain that I get.”

Tywan has sickle cell disease (SCD), an inherited blood disease that can run in families and causes abnormal, sickle-shaped red blood cells. Pain is the most common complication of SCD, and the top reason people with SCD go to the emergency room or hospital.What is sickle cell disease? Healthy red blood cells are round and move through small blood vessels to carry oxygen to all parts of the body. With sickle cell disease (SCD), red blood cells become hard and sticky and look like a C-shaped farm tool called a “sickle.” These cells can block blood flow and keep oxygen from getting to the body’s tissues and organs.

Tywan is a regular patient at a new sickle cell clinic within the Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Outpatient Center in Los Angeles (LA). The Sickle Cell Data Collection (SCDC) program in California, which is funded through the CDC Foundation,* and has been collecting information to monitor the long-term trends in diagnosis, treatment, and access to health care for people with SCD since 2010, provided data that highlighted the strong need for comprehensive care for adults with SCD in LA County.  These data, together with the determination and hard work of many partners, lead to the establishment of the clinic in order to address those needs.

Identifying a Community Need

The SCDC program found that 1 in every 2 adults with SCD in California (about 1500 people) live in LA County. In October 2015, a team of SCD experts used these data to inform LA County’s Department of Health Services about the urgent needs of the SCD community. The data showed no places in the county where adults with SCD could receive quality, comprehensive, and coordinated care. The emergency department was the only option for the many patients who did not have access to doctors who understood the complexities of SCD.

Data on patients with SCD in LA County were mapped by ZIP code. The map showed that most patients with SCD in the county lived within five miles of the MLK Outpatient Center. This new information presented an opportunity to create a clinic that focused on the needs of people with SCD within a medically underserved area.

Providing Comprehensive Care

“The color coded map by ZIP code was the most powerful data. You could easily see at a glance that there was an intensity of adults with SCD living in the MLK geographic region,” said Ellen Rothman, Chief Medical Officer of the MLK Outpatient Center.
“The color coded map by ZIP code was the most powerful data. You could easily see at a glance that there was an intensity of adults with SCD living in the MLK geographic region,” said Ellen Rothman, Chief Medical Officer of the MLK Outpatient Center.

The SCD clinic at the MLK Outpatient Center opened in August 2016, only 10 months after sharing the data from the SCDC program with LA County health officials. The clinic provides comprehensive care to patients with SCD, whom often have other health problems in addition to those related to SCD.

During each visit, clinic patients see both a hematologist (a doctor who specializes in blood disorders) and a primary care provider. The hematologist focuses on SCD-specific needs, helping to reduce health issues and prevent early death. The primary care provider manages health problems unrelated to SCD, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. “We complement each other,” says Susan Claster, the clinic’s hematologist. “Having the primary care provider sitting with me, we cover 90% of what the patient needs and it’s very efficient.”

This combination of expertise effectively addresses the complex health needs of patients with SCD.

The clinic provides access to complementary health services, such as acupuncture, yoga, and exercise classes. Behavioral therapists are available to help with mental health issues related to SCD, such as anxiety and depression. In addition, Patient Navigators guide patients through the clinic process and make their experience as stress-free as possible.

“Since I’ve been going to this clinic, I’ve learned a lot of new things that I didn’t know about sickle cell. They have taught me what to do when I’m in pain and how to treat it. It really works. They’re really good with their patients,” says Tywan. “When I walk in the clinic, they say ‘Hi, Tywan!’ They love me,” he adds with a laugh.

In June 2017, the SCD clinic at the MLK Outpatient Center received the national 100 Brilliant Ideas at Work Award from the National Association of Counties for their new approach to closing the healthcare gap for adults with SCD in South LA.

Tywan is just 1 of about 100,000 people in the United States who have SCD and many of them do not have access to adequate care. The SCD clinic at the MLK Outpatient Center is one example of how public health data and the combined actions of stakeholders can serve the needs of a community and improve the lives of people living with SCD.

The SCDC program is made possible by the CDC Foundation’s partnership with CDC’s Division of Blood Disorders, the California Rare Disease Surveillance Program, the Georgia Health Policy Center, the Association of University Centers on Disability, Pfizer Inc., Bioverativ, and Global Blood Therapeutics.

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Police surveillance in a digital world


Glenn Smith and Andrew Knapp for the Post and Courier investigate the current police practice of keeping digital record of people’s activities.

Law enforcement agencies have for decades used what’s known as field interview or contact cards to document everything from sketchy activity to random encounters with people on the street. But the digital age has greatly expanded the power and reach of this tool, allowing police to store indefinitely reams of data on those who draw their interest — long after any potential link to a crime has evaporated.

As you might expect, there are certainly advantages for law enforcement to have access to such a database when they try to solve crimes. But it gets weird when data is incorrectly recorded or perhaps recorded too much.

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US surveillance flight paths for the FBI and Homeland Security

FBI planes

Peter Aldhous and Charles Seife dug into flight path data, specifically looking for flights manned by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

The government’s airborne surveillance has received little public scrutiny — until now. BuzzFeed News has assembled an unprecedented picture of the operation’s scale and sweep by analyzing aircraft location data collected by the flight-tracking website Flightradar24 from mid-August to the end of December last year, identifying about 200 federal aircraft. Day after day, dozens of these planes circled above cities across the nation.

BuzzFeed’s searchable, animated map shows these circular paths, red for FBI and blue for DHS. There was no definite answer for what those planes are doing. Maybe routine surveillance or maybe lookouts for specific people or events. But still, so interesting.

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It is never just a cold

By Stephanie Chester, Manager, Influenza Program, APHL

“Oh, it’s just a cold,” seems to be a common phrase heard in office spaces and schools alike during the winter months. But is it just a cold? Are we belittling our coughs and sneezing by grouping them under one tiny umbrella term? While the common cold is, in fact, common it is by no means simple. Your sniffles are never just a cold.

So how common is the cold? The viruses behind the common cold impact all of us at an average of two to three illnesses per year for adults and six to eight illnesses per year for young kids. And despite there being a cold season, these viruses are not actually confined to the winter months. There are differing theories on why people seem to catch colds more frequently during the winter but most agree that the viruses transmit more readily when people are clustered together in schools and offices.  “Environmental conditions may be a factor in which cold viruses are circulating,” said Kirsten St. George, MAppSc, PhD, chief of viral diseases at The Wadsworth Center, the New York State Department of Health’s public health laboratory . “It is not well understood, but certain viruses seem more stable in specific temperature and humidity conditions.”

It's Never Just a Cold | www.APHLblog.orgThere are more than two hundred viruses behind the common cold, and there may be many more still that have not been identified. Rhinoviruses are the traditional cause of the common cold, but there are at least 100 rhinovirus serotypes (distinct variations of the virus). A close relative of rhinoviruses are the enteroviruses which you probably heard about with the fall 2014 enterovirus D68 outbreaks; in a normal year they typically cause mild respiratory illness. Other cold causing viruses include human parainfluenza viruses and human metapneumoviruses.

There is a veritable alphabet soup of virus names – but why does the specific virus matter to us if they all just cause a cold?

As you can probably imagine, the fact that there are hundreds of cold-causing viruses, each with several different strains and serotypes, creates many challenges for scientists, healthcare providers and public health practitioners. For starters, it makes it nearly impossible to predict which viruses will be dominant in a given season. “There may be a swell of dominance for one virus, but then it will fade and another will take its place,” explained Dr. St. George.

So if we can’t predict it, why don’t we just prevent it? Why is there not a vaccine for the common cold much like there is for influenza? Again, the sheer volume of viruses and their ability to change and evolve over time is a huge hindrance to this process. To create an effective flu vaccine, said Dr. St. George, researchers must change the vaccine composition annually, or nearly annually, to keep pace with the variants of the virus in circulation. In contrast, she said, “With the cold, there are a myriad of types within a single group, dozens of types circulating all of the time.” This diversity would make the creation of a vaccine very expensive and difficult. It is more likely that researchers will focus on ways to stimulate the immune system to respond more productively to infection and on medications to relieve symptoms.

One area where science is making progress is in the diagnostics and surveillance of the common cold and other respiratory viruses with the advent of new molecular tests. “A lot of these viruses were difficult to identify with classical virology laboratory methods such as culture,” said Dr. St. George. “They just don’t always grow well – or at all – in culture. With new technology, especially the commercially available molecular kits, they are readily detectable.” This advance may not save us from the coughing and congestion, but it provides researchers, physicians and public health practitioners with improved data about what is circulating and causing severe illness. And that information has a multitude of benefits!

For starters, data from these tests may ultimately help researchers and physicians learn if certain demographics or risk factors increase a person’s chance of more severe illness. This may allow for prevention and mitigation strategies, or may lead to a physician being more aggressive with treatment and supportive therapy. Though, as Dr. St. George explained, serious reactions are not limited to those higher risk populations such as those with underlying health conditions. “We have seen very severe manifestations in otherwise healthy people who ended up in intensive care.” Even still, understanding if it is the virus or the host that predisposes a person to more severe illness is incredibly helpful.

Additionally, school officials may decide to cancel classes (or not) if they know the current outbreak of sniffles and coughs is caused by a more troublesome virus. Hospitals can use this data to cluster and isolate patients when needed so respiratory outbreaks don’t spread throughout the entire facility.

While understanding the different viruses that cause the common cold is valuable to public health, we also keep a close eye on how cold treatment may be contributing to a larger health concern: antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics are overprescribed for many things including the common cold. Cold viruses do not respond to antibiotics because they are viruses; antibiotics are only effective for bacterial infections. “Often the thought process is that when you get sick, you should go to the doctor, get some antibiotics and get better,” said Lisa McHugh, MPH, influenza surveillance coordinator and supervisor for the regional epidemiology program at the New Jersey Department of Health. “There is not a clear understanding [among the public] of the difference between bacteriology and virology, and what the standard treatments are for each.” She went on to emphasize that it is critical for the public to understand the difference and that antibiotics are not be the remedy for every ailment. Dr. St. George agreed. “Clinical judgment is important. People need to trust their doctors. They are pretty good at telling when your illness is viral. We are in a time where we need to look carefully at antibiotic use and keep them in reserve.”

Next time you hear someone say, “Oh, it’s just a cold,” you can let them know they may actually be sick from one of hundreds of viruses. Regardless of which one (or several) has struck your family this year, remember to cover your coughs and sneezes with your elbow, wash your hands and stay home when necessary to prevent sharing your virus with others. While scientists work to broaden their understanding of this complex group of viruses, we can help make the common cold a little less common.

Reset the Net

We here at The Finch & Pea are supporters of freedom, privacy, and the open exchange of ideas. We do our best to respect your privacy and the rights of those who produce creative content.

To those ends, we have, from the beginning published under Creative Commons licenses and have joined in advocacy to oppose government mass surveillance. Today, we are joining a multitude in the Reset the Net campaign to take steps to provide a secure Internet, because our governments will not act to respect our basic freedoms. As security expert Bruce Schneier has noted, organizations like the NSA have chosen to work to make the Internet less secure for all of us, in order to make it easier for them to attack those they perceive as threats.

As a hosted site, we cannot directly affect the addition of security features as recommended by the Reset the Net campaign. Fortunately, we don’t need to. Automattic, the parent company of has announced that it will be implementing the Reset the Net recommendations by implementing SSL on all its subdomains. They have also created an easy to implement Internet Defense League widget you can put on your own site to help spread the word.

We would also encourage you to click the banner at the bottom of the page or the Reset the Net logo to get information about taking back your privacy and helping to make the Internet secure.

Filed under: Items of Interest Tagged: Internet, NSA, security, surveillance