Pluralistic: 16 Feb 2022

Today's links

A mousetrap baited with a graduate's mortarboard, superimposed over the menacing red machine eye of HAL9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The extremely shady "educational integrity" industry (permalink)

The pandemic presented an opportunity to reconsider our seemingly immutable assumptions about life – for adults, anyway. We got the Great Resignation and "hybrid" work-from-home. Our kids got remote learning. Ugh.

Don't get me wrong: remote learning has its advantages, especially for kids coping with physical and mental health issues, kids with passionate out-of-school interests and kids escaping a discriminatory and bullying environment (this isn't as good as addressing discrimination and bullying, but…).

But the remote learning boom has emboldened the absolute worst in the ed-tech sector. It's not just that these companies are price-gouging our schools and normalizing surveillance for kids – they're reinforcing everything terrible about educational assessment, and (incredibly), making it even worse.

High-stakes test-taking is widely understood to have little pedagogical value. To the extent that it measures learning, it only does so for one chunk of learners, and all too often, it's just measuring test-taking ability. In other words, scoring high on a high-stakes test can mean that you're good at tests, or that you understand the material. Scoring low can mean that you're bad at tests, or that you don't understand the material. High-stakes tests advance a cohort of good-at-test kids and good-at-the subject kids, and flunk a cohort of bad-at-test kids (who may be great at the subject) as well as kids who haven't mastered the material.

It's not like there aren't alternatives. Pedagogists have a whole arsenal of continuous assessment and project-based tools for measuring their students' progress.

These have several advantages over high-stakes testing. For one thing, they work, even in remote learning contexts. High-stakes testing, on the other hand, is even worse when it's remote.

High-stakes testing starts from the presumption that students are their teachers' adversaries, and must be prevented from "cheating." That's hard enough to manage when the test is taken under controlled conditions, but it's absurd when the test is being taken in the student's own home.

For some adults, the pandemic was a chance to exercise agency: to quit their jobs, or demand better working conditions and more flexibility. Not so for kids. Just as remote learning was creating an opportunity to end the pedagogical nonsense of high-stakes testing, the "remote invigilation" industry deployed an army of grinning, bullshitting salesdroids to convince school systems to double down on remote testing.

Chief among these is Proctorio, a company whose sleaze cannot be overstated. Proctorio leads the "remote invigilation" industry, which forces students to install spyware on their computers to oversee their test-taking. This software uses "facial recognition" (which can't recognize Black faces unless students aim multiple task lights directly into their eyes) to monitor students. The facial recognition is used to punish students who look away while taking their tests (for example, looking up or to one side while thinking).

A remote invigilation session begins with a student being forced to show all parts of their room to a live human overseer. Students who live in cramped quarters – say, students who share a room with an "essential worker" who works night shifts – are forced to invade the privacy and interrupt the activities of their family members.

Students who live in broadband deserts – like the kids in California who were forced to take their tests in a Taco Bell parking lot where they could get free wifi – are punished for broadband companies' unwillingness to serve their communities.

The live operator doesn't always disappear after a kid exposes their room. Sometimes, live operators virtually stare over students' shoulders as they take their tests. Sometimes, these impatient, invisible overseers reach into test-takers' computers to jiggle their mouses, as a goad to get them to move on.

What if you have a disability and need to stand up, go to the toilet, or throw up from anxiety? Or (I'm not making this up!) experience labor pains? Tough. Proctorio and its competitors have no way to accommodate you, and so they flag you and flunk you.

A lot of these facts came to light thanks to whistleblowers like Ian Linkletter. When Linkletter was an ed-tech specialist tasked with evaluating Proctorio's products, he discovered a horrifying set of "features" that were not in the company's public disclosures. Linkletter tweeted about these, including links to the company's publicly accessible (but unlisted) Youtube videos. The company responded by suing him for copyright infringement and a host of other flimsy pretexts that were clearly aimed at silencing a critic:

Even thought Linkletter raised more than CAD85,000 and invoked British Columbia's anti-SLAPP law, he is still in court, a year and a half later:

Proctorio doesn't confine its bullying to adult educators. The company's CEO personally doxed a child who complained about his products on a Reddit forum:

Remember, Proctorio bills itself as being on the vanguard of the "educational integrity" movement. But "integrity" takes on a very different meaning when the goal is to secure the "integrity" of the test and not the integrity of the learning. In the former case, the student is an enemy to be outsmarted. In the latter, the student is a partner to be enlisted.

High-stakes testing profiteers like Proctorio justify deceptive, bullying tactics by painting learners as "cheats" – a species of presumptive criminal who needs to be pre-emptively incarcerated in its digital prisons.

This distortion of the learning process carries over into every sector of the "educational integrity" industry. Take Honorlock, a high-ticket ed-tech profiteer that "is revolutionizing the academic integrity of online assessment."

Honorlock is an also-ran competitor of Proctorio. In its effort to differentiate itself from the market-leading abuser, they have found new ways to victimize and deceive learners in the name of "integrity."

A new investigation by The Markup's Colin Lecher unravels a secret operation by Honorlock to entrap students with "honeypot" web-sites that purport to give the answers to test questions, but actually capture students' IP addresses and nark them out to their profs:

The scam was uncovered by Kurt Wilson, a CS major at the University of Central Florida, who became obsessed with learning more about how his tuition money was being spent. He found at least five deceptive Honorlock-linked websites that pretended to be answers sites.

Lecher quotes experts, like U Calgary's Sarah Eaton, who call this "entrapment" and point out the irony of a company that monitors "integrity" engaging in deception. Ceceilia Parnther likens it to profs putting the answer key on the corner of a test-taker's desk and penalizing them if they look at it.

Universities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for Honorlock services – money that could be spent developing and supporting assessment techniques that treat students as learners, not cheaters, and provide a better picture of each student's progress with the material.

But that would involve pedagogical integrity – the kind of integrity that puts learning, not ease of assessment, first. It would mean funding teachers, not VC-backed ed-tech profiteers seeking a return on their backers' investment. It requires that students be treated as partners, not adversaries.

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY 3.0, modified; Insight Pest, CC BY-SA 2.0, modified)

A desktop label printer whose front-buttons and output slot are depicted as a sick face with a frowning mouth and Xed eyes. It is emitting a barcode label with a skull and crossbones motif.

Oh great, there's DRM in printer PAPER now (permalink)

The printer industry has always surfed the leading edge of dystopian business practices, pioneering the most disgusting, deceptive tactics for ripping off customers by locking them into buying half-full ink cartridges at $12,000/gallon.

Printer companies have used copyright law to attack refillers, pushed out fake "security updates" to trick you into installing code to block third-party ink, cheated and lied to block "security chips" from being harvested from e-waste and used in new cartridges and more.

There is no depth so low that printer companies will not stoop to it. Forcing you to waste ink by printing "calibration sheets"? Sure. Suckering buyers with "lifetime" ink deals and then suddenly ending them? Why not?

But there's one depravity that no printer company has managed: putting DRM in paper. Oh, not for lack of will! But adding DRM to paper is hard, because paper is…well, it's paper. Pressed sheets of vegetable pulp. It's hard to put a cop-chip in a sheet of paper.

But what about a roll of paper?

See where this is going?

Dymo embossing tape label maker around 1967

If you're a well-organized person, you might have a Dymo label maker around the house. I grew up with Dymo's original embossing tape label makers and gleefully labeled everything important to me.

In the years since the company was founded, it's been agglomerated, snapped up by Newell Brands, owners of Rubbermaid, Mr Coffee, Yankee Candles, Elmer's, Sharpie, X-Acto and many others:

Divisions at these corporate hydras are under relentless pressure to wring more profits out of their workhorse products. Which is how Dymo came to invent – wait for it – DRM for paper.

Dymo's desktop label-makers enjoyed a boom during the lockdown, thanks to the shift to e-commerce and the demand for shipping labels. But those windfall profits weren't enough for the company. They just released two new models, the 550 and the 5XL, whose DRM prevents you from using third-party labels:

Third-party labels for desktop label-makers are ubiquitous. Different manufacturers produce them, differentiating on materials, size, and adhesive. Oh, and price, naturally. Dymo's own-brand labels are fine, but they cost more than comparable rival labels.

The new label rolls come with a booby-trap: a RFID-equipped microcontroller that authenticates with your label-maker to attest that you bought Dymo's premium-priced labels and not a competitors. The chip counts down the labels as you print them (so you can't transplant it to a generic label roll).

Dymo clearly understands that its customers don't want this. Dymo owners who buy non-Dymo labels aren't being tricked into it – they're seeking out alternatives. No surprise that Dymo's sales materials don't mention this new, unprecedented restriction.

In forums and online reviews, Dymo owners are fuming, rightly accusing the company of ripping them off. Some are speculating about how to reprogram the cop-chip in their labels, but anyone who provides a tool to do so risks felony prosecution under Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (penalty: 5 years and $500k for a first offense).

This is a good reason to reform or overturn the DMCA (as EFF is seeking to do with its lawsuit against the US government):

But in the meantime, this is a rare instance in which individuals can make a difference. Dymo has lots of competitors, whose comparable printers cost the same as the new DRM-burdened models. Even with the cost of throwing away your new Dymo and buying a Zebra or MFLabel replacement, you will still come out ahead once you factor in the savings from buying any labels you choose.

Dymo is floating a trial balloon here, checking to see whether printer owners will accept DRMed paper as well as ink (ironically, Dymo pitches the fact that its label printers are inkless as an advantage because you sidestep ink price-gouging!). We can pop that balloon before it attains altitude.

Tell your friends.

(Image: Hugh D'Andrade/EFF, CC BY 3.0)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Macrovision sends pretty lies to Steve Jobs

#10yrsago Meet the western technology companies who sell network snooping technology to torturing dictators

#5yrsago More anti-money laundering measures hit China as top three Bitcoin exchanges freeze withdrawals

#1yrago Ring helped LAPD spy on BLM protests

#1yrago Uber loses (another) $6.8b

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Slashdot (

Currently writing:

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Yesterday's progress: 573 words (63420 words total).

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. Yesterday's progress: 264 words (817 words total)

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FINAL DRAFT COMPLETE

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: The Internet Heist (Part II)
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

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Upcoming books:

  • Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

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