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After Uvalde shooting, tech companies tout their solutions. But do they work? | Technology

Voice Of EU



After the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas , an all-too-familiar question emerged: how do we prevent such horror from happening again? A handful of companies have said they have tech solutions that could help.

They included the drone firm Axon , which promoted a remotely operated Taser device to be deployed in schools. EdTech companies, including Impero Software, said their student surveillance services could flag warning signs and help prevent the next attack.

The companies are part of a thriving school security industry, one that has grown to $3.1bn in 2021 from just $2.7m in 2017, according to market research firm Omdia. The Security Industry Association, which counts more than 400 companies targeting kindergarten and elementary schools among its members, has spent nearly $2m on lobbying since 2010, according to Gun safety legislation passed by Congress last week included more than $300m to bolster the Stop School Violence Act, a federal grant program created after the Parkland shooting to fund school security that was endorsed by the industry group.

But gun control advocates, teachers’ groups and tech watchdogs are skeptical increased spending on hi-tech security measures will help curb gun violence in American schools, and in some cases may even cause more harm to students.

“We are all weeping for the children lost in Uvalde, but some tech execs are chomping at the bit to make money off this tragedy,” said Rewan Al-Haddad, campaign director at tech watchdog SumOfUs, adding that some of the solutions “aren’t just unhelpful, they are actively harmful”.

Days after the Uvalde shooting, Arizona-based drone company Axon announced the development of a remotely operated Taser drone system “as part of a long-term plan to stop mass shootings”.

A computer-drawn image shows a yellow drone with a camera and the word ‘Taser’ on the side.
A Taser drone system, as shown in this computer-generated rendering, by Axon Enterprise was put on hold after it received backlash. Photograph: AP

The publicly traded company develops weapon products for military, law enforcement and civilians and has a market cap of $6.87bn. It claims its technology has saved 266,000 lives, but the announcement of its Taser drone created a maelstrom of backlash – leading nine people to resign from Axon’s advisory board and the company to pause the project indefinitely.

“In light of feedback, we are pausing work on this project and refocusing to further engage with key constituencies to fully explore the best path forward,” said Rick Smith, Axon’s founder and CEO, in an online statement.

The use of drones in police forces has been on the rise in recent years, with at least 1,172 police departments nationwide in possession of the unmanned aerial devices. College campus police have used drones in the past to monitor crowds at large events and assess traffic accidents – but the new Axon drone represents a potential new frontier for weaponized devices that advocates found concerning.

More common than drones on campus is surveillance technology. The number of public schools deploying video surveillance systems has risen from 20% in 1999 to 83% in 2017, according to survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Thousands of American school districts, have contracted with tech companies to track students’ activities on school-issued computers, including to monitor what students search for and what websites they visit.

Impero Software, a company that pitched its own technology directly in response to the Uvalde news, promises to monitor kindergarten through 12th grade students and flag warning signs such as searching for information on weapons

Impero and similar companies use artificial intelligence to monitor all content students type in official school email accounts, chats or documents 24 hours a day. A student who types “how to kill myself” into a search on a school computer could have police immediately called to their home, for example.

Yet despite the growing adoption of security tools in schools across the US, the number mass shootings at schools has remained relatively constant throughout the past 30 years and reached an unprecedented high at secondary schools in the past five years.

A study conducted by researchers at Washington University and Johns Hopkins found that surveillance responses to gun violence within kindergarten through 12th grade school systems “have not stopped the increasing frequency of their occurrence, but have instead increased racial and ethnic disparities in multiple forms of discipline”.

A white dome-shaped camera is mounted to the corner of a red brick building.
Schools have steadily adopted security tools, such as surveillance cameras, despite mass shootings remaining constant. Photograph: Shafkat Anowar/AP

“I am hearing more and more that schools are starting to look like prisons, and that makes young people feel more like suspects than students,” said Odis Johnson, a professor at Johns Hopkins who co-authored the study.

The presence of surveillance technology increases the capacity for schools to identify and discipline students for less serious offenses, Johnson explained, leading to more arrests of and legal action against children, particularly of students of color. Non-white students are also being surveilled in higher numbers: Johnson’s research showed Black students are four times more likely to attend a high- versus low-surveillance school.

“Educators have fought for safe and welcoming schools for decades, so of course we want commonsense security and safety measures. But that’s a far cry from efforts to turn schools into armed fortresses or make them operate like hi-tech prisons,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “That undermines the education of our kids who need safe places to play and just exist – that’s why we want fewer, not more, guns on campuses.”

The Uvalde shooting, Weingarten said, was a tragic example of the limits of such tools. The district had already been using a student social media monitoring tool called Social Sentinel since 2019 and alerted parents just minutes after the shooting through an emergency response app called Raptor Technologies. Robb elementary was, what’s known in the education sector, as a “hardened” school, where digital and physical security technology are deployed.

“While hardening will make security companies wealthy, it isn’t a panacea for the problem of school shootings,” she said. “We only need to look at Robb elementary in Uvalde, a hardened school, where officers waited more than an hour to engage the shooter.”

Impero Software did not respond to a request for comment.

For many school safety and gun control advocates, the debate around hi-tech security obscures the issue at the core of the school shooting scourge: access to guns is the primary risk factor for such tragedy.

“The only thing that keeps kids safe from mass shootings is making sure people do not have access to weapons of mass destruction that can kill entire classrooms of children in one clip,” said Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, a non-profit organization representing parents of children in schools.

“We cannot innovate our way out of this,” she added. “The saddest part about this is that it is not whether we know how to solve the problem, it’s whether we have the courage to do what is right by our children.”

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Meditation app Calm sacks one-fifth of staff | Meditation

Voice Of EU



The US-based meditation app Calm has laid off 20% of its workforce, becoming the latest US tech startup to announce job cuts.

The firm’s boss, David Ko, said the company, which has now axed about 90 people from its 400-person staff, was “not immune” to the economic climate. “In building out our strategic and financial plan, we revisited the investment thesis behind every project and it became clear that we need to make changes,” he said in a memo to staff.

“I can assure you that this was not an easy decision, but it is especially difficult for a company like ours whose mission is focused on workplace mental health and wellness.”

The Calm app, founded in 2012, offers guided meditation and bedtime stories for people of all ages. It received a surge of downloads triggered by the 2020 Covid lockdowns. By the end of that year, the software company said the app had been downloaded more than 100 million times globally and had amassed over 4 million paying subscribers.

Investors valued the firm, which said it had been profitable since 2016, at $2bn.

In the memo, Ko went on: “We did not come to this decision lightly, but are confident that these changes will help us prioritize the future, focus on growth and become a more efficient organization.”

More than 500 startups have laid off staff this year, according to, a website that tracks such announcements.

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Let there be ambient light sensing, without data theft • The Register

Voice Of EU



Six years after web security and privacy concerns surfaced about ambient light sensors in mobile phones and notebooks, browser boffins have finally implemented defenses.

The W3C, everyone’s favorite web standards body, began formulating an Ambient Light Events API specification back in 2012 to define how web browsers should handle data and events from ambient light sensors (ALS). Section 4 of the draft spec, “Security and privacy considerations,” was blank. It was a more carefree time.

Come 2015, the spec evolved to include acknowledgement of the possibility that ALS might allow data correlation and device fingerprinting, to the detriment of people’s privacy. And it suggested that browser makers might consider event rate limiting as a potential mitigation.

By 2016, it became clear that allowing web code to interact with device light sensors entailed privacy and security risks beyond fingerprinting. Dr Lukasz Olejnik, an independent privacy researcher and consultant, explored the possibilities in a 2016 blog post.

Olejnik cited a number of ways in which ambient light sensor readings might be abused, including data leakage, profiling, behavioral analysis, and various forms of cross-device communication.

He described a few proof-of-concept attacks, devised with the help of security researcher Artur Janc, in a 2017 post and delved into more detail in a 2020 paper [PDF].

“The attack we devised was a side-channel leak, conceptually very simple, taking advantage of the optical properties of human skin and its reflective properties,” Olejnik explained in his paper.

“Skin reflectance only accounts for the 4-7 percent emitted light but modern display screens emit light with significant luminance. We exploited these facts of nature to craft an attack that reasoned about the website content via information encoded in the light level and conveyed via the user skin, back to the browsing context tracking the light sensor readings.”

It was this technique that enabled the proof-of-concept attacks like stealing web history through inferences made from CSS changes and stealing cross origin resources, such as images or the contents of iframes.

Snail-like speed

Browser vendors responded in various ways. In May 2018, with the release of Firefox 60, Mozilla moved access to the W3C proximity and ambient light APIs behind flags, and applied further limitations in subsequent Firefox releases.

Apple simply declined to implement the API in WebKit, along with a number of other capabilities. Both Apple and Mozilla currently oppose a proposal for a generic sensor API.

Google took what Olejnik described his paper as a “more nuanced” approach, limiting the precision of sensor data.

But those working on the W3C specification and on the browsers implementing the spec recognized that such privacy protections should be formalized, to increase the likelihood the API will be widely adopted and used.

So they voted to make the imprecision of ALS data normative (standard for browsers) and to require the camera access permission as part of the ALS spec.

Those changes finally landed in the ALS spec this week. As a result, Google and perhaps other browser makers may choose to make the ALS API available by default rather than hiding it behind a flag or ignoring it entirely. ®

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4 supports that can help employees outside of work

Voice Of EU



Everyone has different situations to deal with outside of the workplace. But that doesn’t mean the workplace can’t be a source of support.

Employers and governments alike are often striving to make workplaces better for everyone, whether it’s workplace wellbeing programmes or gender pay gap reporting.

However, life is about more than just the hours that are spent in work, and how an employer supports those other life challenges can be a major help.

Family-friendly benefits

Several companies have been launching new benefits and policies that help families and those trying to have children.

Job site Indeed announced a new ‘family forming’ benefit package earlier this year, which is designed to provide employees with family planning and fertility-related assistance.

The programme includes access to virtual care and a network of providers who can guide employees through their family-forming journey.

Vodafone Ireland introduced a new fertility and pregnancy policy in February 2022 that includes extended leave for pregnancy loss, fertility treatment and surrogacy.

And as of the beginning of 2022, Pinterest employees around the world started receiving a host of new parental benefits, including a minimum of 20 weeks’ parental leave, monetary assistance of up to $10,000 or local equivalent for adoptive parents, and four weeks of paid leave to employees who experience a loss through miscarriage at any point in a pregnancy.

Helping those experiencing domestic abuse

There are also ways to support employees going through a difficult time. Bank of Ireland introduced a domestic abuse leave policy earlier this year, which provides a range of supports to colleagues who may be experiencing domestic abuse.

Under the policy, the bank will provide both financial and non-financial support to colleagues, such as paid leave and flexibility with the work environment or schedule.

In emergency situations where an employee needs to immediately leave an abusive partner, the bank will help through paid emergency hotel accommodation or a salary advance.

In partnership with Women’s Aid, the company is also rolling out training to colleagues to help recognise the symptoms of abuse and provide guidance on how to take appropriate action.

Commenting on the policy, Women’s Aid CEO Sarah Benson said employers who implement policies and procedures for employees subjected to domestic abuse can help reduce the risk of survivors giving up work and increase “feelings of solidarity and support at a time when they may feel completely isolated and alone”.

A menopause policy

In 2021, Vodafone created a policy to support workers after a survey it commissioned revealed that nearly two-thirds of women who experienced menopause symptoms said it impacted them at work. A third of those who had symptoms also said they hid this at work. Half of those surveyed felt there is a stigma around talking about menopause, which is something Vodafone is seeking to combat through education for all staff.

Speaking to last year, Vodafone Ireland CEO Anne O’Leary said the company would roll out a training and awareness programme to all employees globally, including a toolkit to improve their understanding of menopause and provide guidance on how to support employees, colleagues and family members.

In Ireland, Vodafone employees are able to avail of leave for sickness and medical treatment, flexible working hours and additional care through the company’s employee assistance programme when going through the menopause.

Support hub for migrants

There are also initiatives to help people get their foot on the employment ladder.

Earlier this year, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, TD launched a new service with education and employment supports for refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants.

The Pathways to Progress platform is part of the Open Doors Initiative supporting marginalised groups to access further education, employment and entrepreneurship in Ireland.

As part of the initiative, member company Siro offered a paid 12-week internship programme for six people who are refugees. The internships include job preparation, interview skills and access to the company’s online learning portals.

Open Doors Initiative CEO Jeanne McDonagh said the chance to land a meaningful job or establish a new business is key to people’s integration into Ireland, no matter what route they took to get here.

“Some are refugees, some are living in direct provision, some will have their status newly regularised, and others will come directly for work,” she said. “Our new service aims to support all migrants in finding a decent job as they prepare to enter the Irish workforce, and to support employers as they seek to build an inclusive culture in their workplaces.”

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